Project Goals

Despite its ubiquity and centrality to human affairs, religion remains, from an academic perspective, one of the least studied and most poorly understood aspects of human behavior. The grant project is founded on the conviction that effectively answering the question of what religion is, and why it plays such a ubiquitous role in human existence, requires going beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.

CERC’s research activities will revolve around one central question: Are religious beliefs and behaviors linked to within-group solidarity and cooperation? This central question will be broken down into a set of related sub-questions, ranging in scope from cognitive processes at the individual level to broader group dynamics and cultural and historical processes. These questions will be interrogated by two overlapping teams—(1) Historical and (2) Ethnographic-Experimental—spread across CERC, and under the overall direction of the PI. Each team will address the sub-questions using the data and tools particular to their own specializations, and design their studies in such a way that our central hypothesis can be tested against competing, alternative theoretical models that have recently been advanced to explain the evolution of religion.

Historical Team members will perform analyses of textual traditions in the original languages, covering a broad range of human religious experience from ancient Chinese and Near Eastern religions to contemporary Islam, indigenous religions and spiritualist movements in 20th century Britain, including both traditional qualitative work and novel quantitative techniques that can be employed to analyze large-scale, digital archives—either previously existing or created by our grant—in order to discern broad trends and discover novel patterns. Experimental-Ethnographic Team members will coordinate on systematic, comparative studies employing interview-based, observational, and experimental techniques (including fMRI), targeting community samples and fieldsites in Vancouver, Shanghai, Denmark, New York, the UK, Fiji, mainland China, Taiwan, India, Brazil, Southern Europe, Vanuatu, Israel, New Zealand and Mauritius.

This research-driven research consortium will be accompanied by the formation of a new, permanent Program for the Study of Religion at UBC, an undergraduate and graduate training and research program with an unprecedented interdisciplinary character.

This grant not only helps to establish Canada as a global leader in a crucial field of inquiry, but also create a powerful synergy combining world-class research, postdoc and graduate student training, undergraduate education and public outreach. Our goal is to fundamentally alter the international landscape of the field of religious studies in a manner that simultaneously strengthens and highlights Canadian research expertise and student training, and have important implications for contemporary Canadian and global society. Most generally, CERC aims to serve as a model for innovative partnerships that bridge scientific and humanistic training and research, thereby helping to encourage similar interdisciplinary collaborations in the future.