The Secularity Paradox 

Tackling the Scientific Study of Religion. 

By Joshua Conrad Jackson

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In India, 100 million Hindus gather every three years and plunge into the frigid waters of the Ganges and other rivers to celebrate Kumbh Mela, a cleansing ritual. Not far away, at the Grishneshwar Temple in the Indian state of Maharashtra, babies are tossed from a 50-foot tower and caught on sheets below as part of a 700 year-old religious ceremony believed to make children healthier and more intelligent. And in the rural Spanish village of San Pedro Manrique, 3,000 spectators will gather in an amphitheater to watch religious devotees cross a 65-foot stretch of burning coals in a summer solstice ceremony.

These ceremonies – and countless others – manifest the magnitude and idiosyncrasy of religious belief, which is arguably the most enduring cultural phenomenon in human existence. Religion has been traced to the earliest Homo sapiens, and continues today, with over half of the world’s population reporting belief in God.

Given religion’s tremendous influence in intellectual history, it has long been a popular topic for scientific study. Much of this work, though, has been adversarial. Since the early days of archeology and evolutionary biology, secular scholars have published scathing refutations of biblical claims, and debated the existence of religious phenomena.

In the last 20 years, however, scientists have slowly begun to appreciate a Cognitive Science of Religion, which studies the history and function of religion, rather than its legitimacy. Because regardless of religion’s historical accuracy, the human faculty for faith is fascinating. And the popularity and variety of contemporary religious rituals and belief systems demonstrates that religiosity remains a prevailing psychological force across cultures. I identify with this Cognitive Science of Religion, and when I began my own research, I was not drawn to questions of whether people should believe in God, but rather how and why people believe.

A continued theme of my research concerns religion’s perseverance in industrialized cultures such as the United States and New Zealand (where I have run most of my studies). Many intellectuals predicted a 20th century decline of faith in these cultures, something that Max Weber famously called a “disenchantment of the world,” yet belief continues to remain high, and even those who explicitly deny divinity show indicators of belief. For instance, in one study, atheists refused to sell their souls in a contract with an experimenter, even when the contract was explicitly framed as meaningless, and in another, atheists and agnostics showed a tendency to explain major life events in terms of higher meaning and purpose.

Empirically exploring this perseverance of religious belief is challenging, because people’s self-stated attitudes about religion are often shaped by their relationships, their lifestyle, and other cultural factors. So to measure belief more effectively, my collaborators and I try to assess people’s unfiltered impressions of religious phenomena.

In one method, for example, subjects are asked to rate, as quickly as possible, whether supernatural agents (e.g., “God,” “Angel”) are real or not real, while in another, participants are asked to rapidly classify supernatural words (as well as words like “bogus” and “factual”) under categories named “real” and “imaginary.”

These measure were developed by two of my collaborators – Jonathan Jong at Oxford University, and Jamin Halberstadt at University of Otago – to indirectly measure religious belief through participants’ uncontrolled and unconscious attitudes. For both measures, quicker response times when classifying supernatural words as “real” (and slower times to classify them as “not real” or “imaginary”) compose a measure of subconscious religious belief.

Interestingly, in studies that use these measures, both believers and non-believers show greater religious belief after writing a short paragraph on their own death, compared to subjects asked to write about a death-unrelated topic. These results speak to the relationship between religion – which offers literal immortality through the afterlife – and our awareness of death. They also suggest that religion may help relieve anxiety around mortality.

But religion’s appeal manifests even when people aren’t thinking about death. In a measure that I developed with Michele Gelfand at the University of Maryland, subjects categorized words as “positive” or “negative”. However, just before they classified each word, subjects were momentarily presented with a picture of a person in a church, at a family dinner, or at a party.

All of the words in our task were unambiguous in their content (“excellent,” “horrible,” etc), but participants still varied in how quickly they classified each word. We found that both believers and non-believers were quicker to classify positive words, and slower to classify negative words, immediately after seeing the church image, compared to subjects who saw the family dinner or party images. This pattern suggests that religious belief in other people is subconsciously connoted as positive, regardless of an individual’s own faith.

These results are surprising to most people. Especially in science, which has been framed as an antagonist of religion, colleagues will often assume that I am biased, trying to defend faith in an increasingly secular society. But I would argue that that religion and science do not need to stand at odds, and that science can engage with religion without antagonizing it.

Over the last two years, I have collaborated with intense atheists and devout believers (including one close collaborator who is actually ordained). But we are all scientists too, dedicated to objectivity as we ask empirical questions that do not undermine our respective worldviews. In this sense, religious diversity tends to facilitate our work, rather than hinder it. And when we stop questioning whether 100 million people should be gathering in an expression of faith, we can begin to appreciate the social force that brought them together.

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Joshua Conrad Jackson is a psychology researcher at the University of Maryland. He received his B.A. from McGill University in 2013, and held a research position at University of Otago in New Zealand before joining Maryland in 2014. Josh studies the emergence and evolution of cultural norms, religious cognition, and the dynamics of natural social grouping. He can be reached at

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