Project

Modeling Religion Project

Goal: http://mindandculture.org/projects/modeling-social-systems/modeling-religion-project/
The Modeling Relgion Project (MRP), a subproject under the umbrella of the Center for Mind and Culture's Simulation Religion Project, is an ambitious attempt to connect the sciences of modeling and simulation (M&S) with the scientific study of religion (SSR). With generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the three years from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2018 promise an exciting intensification of a new kind of research in the academic study of religion. The first goal of MRP is to produce a simulation development platform that will allow SSR scholars and students to create complex simulations with no programming. The second goal is to produce a series of simulations of the role of religion in key transformations of human civilization, such as the Agricultural Transition (c. 8000 BCE), the Axial age (c. 800-200 BCE), and modernity (c. 1600-2100). The third goal is to explain the importance of M&S to the world of the academic study of religion. This will involve web blogs, outreach efforts, and even a documentary film.

Methods: Anthropology, Cognitive Science, Religious Studies, Big Data, Structural Equation Modeling, Modeling, Cognitive Science of Religion, System Dynamics Modeling, Agent Based Modeling, Network Analysis, Agent-Based Simulation, Agent-Based Systems, Text Analytics, pedestrian modeling

Date: 1 July 2015 - 1 July 2018

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Project log

Connor Wood
added a research item
Religious communities exhibit many features of complex adaptive systems (CASs). They are open systems whose global features nonlinearly emerge from the interactions of their components, are complexly internally structured, and must adaptively respond to continual perturbations in their environments. This chapter presents a system dynamics model (SDM) of a generic religious organization represented as a CAS. The simulated community extracts energy from an ecological resource base and expends energy on distinct, mutually exclusive goals: reproduction, energy-seeking, and ritual. Although energy that is spent on ritual cannot be spent on utilitarian objectives, ritual performance increases the perceived legitimacy of the religious system, thereby motivating higher levels of cooperation. Low levels of perceived legitimacy can trigger a switch to a charismatic version of authority. In experiments, we found that many simulated communities maximized their populations by outstripping their resource base shortly before collapsing, in a classic example of boom-and-bust ecological overshoot. However, certain communities showed greater longevity if the Charisma parameter was maximized. We interpret our results to suggest that increasing social flexibility in response to crises of legitimacy may contribute to the resilience of certain types of social, including religious, systems.
Justin E. Lane
added 2 research items
When embarking on a new model, a programmer working with scholars in the humanities is often tasked with helping a likely non-programmer(s) with critical decisions concerning how to set about modeling the theory at hand. I argue that, in these early stages of development, the goals of the researcher and epistemological considerations are of paramount importance to the development of valid computational models. In order to start this discussion with a real-world example, this chapter outlines a mistake, made by myself, in a critical stage early on in the modelling process. Specifically, using early discussions with the theorist, I suggested modeling the theory as an agent-based model. After some critical reflection after substantial development, I came to the conclusion that the theory is better modelled as a system dynamics model. In the chapter, I reflect on what drove me to make the original mistake, what caused me to realize the error, and what the result of correcting the error was. I share this mistake in this chapter for two reasons: (1) so that others in similar situations might not fall into the same trappings and (2) to open up a dialogue concerning epistemology of the social sciences and humanities insofar as it relates to modelling and simulation. My general conclusion is that the thinking received by the social scientist and humanities scholar should be fully flushed out at early stages of model development, as their strength is attention to theoretical nuance. This is of utmost importance to model development, which if unaddressed should still cause issues later during model validation and verification.
An interdisciplinary team of researchers in the fields of philosophy, religious studies, cognitive science, and computer science aimed to develop a computer model of ritual behaviour, based on McCauley and Lawson’s theory of ritual competence. That endeavour revealed some questions about the internal consistency and significance of the theory that had not previously been noticed or addressed. It also demonstrated how modeling and simulation can serve as valuable pedagogical and heuristic tools for better specifying theories that deal with complex social phenomena.
Justin E. Lane
added 2 research items
Debates over the causes and consequences of the "Axial Age"- A nd its relevance for understanding and explaining "modernity"-continue to rage within and across a wide variety of academic disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, archaeology, history, social theory, and cognitive science. We present a computational model that synthesizes three leading theories about the emergence of axial civilizations. Although these theories are often treated as competitors (especially by their proponents), our computational model shows how their most important conceptual insights and empirically based causal claims can be integrated within a single computational architecture. The plausibility of the latter is supported by the results of our simulation experiments, which were able to simulate the emergence and growth of an axial civilization. The model shows how the relevant theories can be rendered consistent, while challenging the claims of any one to comprehensiveness.
The use of modeling and simulation (M&S) methodologies is growing rapidly across the psychological and social sciences. After a brief introduction to the relevance of computational methods for research on human cognition and culture, we describe the sense in which computer models and simulations can be understood, respectively, as "theories" and "predictions." Most readers of JoCC are interested in integrating micro- A nd macro-level theories and in pursuing empirical research that informs scientific predictions, and we argue that M&S provides a powerful new set of tools for pursuing these interests. We also point out the way in which M&S can help scholars of cognition and culture address four key desiderata for social scientific research related to the themes of clarity, falsifiability, dynamicity, and complexity. Finally, we provide an introduction to the other papers that comprise this special issue, which includes contributions on topics such as the role of M&S in interdisciplinary debates, shamanism, early Christian ritual practices, the emergence of the Axial age, and the social scientific appropriation of algorithms from massively multiplayer online games.
Connor Wood
added an update
The Journal of Cognition and Culture has published a special issue (Vo. 18, Issue 5, Nov. 2018) exclusively focused on the use of computer modeling and simulation for the human sciences. Several Modeling Religion Project papers are included in this collection: https://brill.com/abstract/journals/jocc/18/5/jocc.18.issue-5.xml
 
Connor Wood
added a research item
Religious practices centered on controlled trance states, such as Siberian shamanism or North African zar, are ubiquitous, yet their characteristics vary. In particular, crosscultural research finds that female-dominated spirit possession cults are common in stratified societies, whereas male-dominated shamanism predominates in structurally flatter cultures. Here, we present an agent-based model that explores factors, including social stratification and psychological dissociation, that may partially account for this pattern. We posit that, in more stratified societies, female agents suffer from higher levels of psychosocial trauma, whereas male agents are more vulnerable in flatter societies. In societies with fewer levels of formal hierarchy, males come into informal social competition more regularly than in stratified contexts. This instability leads to a cultural feedback effect in which dissociative experiences deriving from chronic psychosocial stress become canalized into a male religious trance role. The model reproduces these patterns under plausible parameter configurations.
Justin E. Lane
added a research item
We propose a generative agent-based model of the emergence and escalation of xenophobic anxiety in which individuals from two different religious groups encounter various hazards within an artificial society. The architecture of the model is informed by several empirically validated theories about the role of religion in intergroup conflict. Our results identify some of the conditions and mechanisms that engender the intensification of anxiety within and between religious groups. We define mutually escalating xenophobic anxiety as the increase of the average level of anxiety of the agents in both groups over time. Trace validation techniques show that the most common conditions under which longer periods of mutually escalating xenophobic anxiety occur are those in which the difference in the size of the groups is not too large and the agents experience social and contagion hazards at a level of intensity that meets or exceeds their thresholds for those hazards. Under these conditions agents will encounter out-group members more regularly, and perceive them as threats, generating mutually escalating xenophobic anxiety. The model’s capacity to grow the macro-level emergence of this phenomenon from micro-level agent behaviors and interactions provides the foundation for future work in this domain.
F. LeRon Shults
added a research item
This article offers an affirmative construal of atheism: the attempt to make sense of the world with naturalist explanations and to act sensibly in society following secularist principles (i.e., without relying on supernatural agents or complying with supernatural authorities). After briefly describing the conceptual framework behind this positive conception of a non-religious worldview, we outline the construction and present the findings of two computational models that simulate some of the cognitive and coalitional mechanisms that engender and nurture religious and non-religious worldviews. These models allow us to explore the causal dynamics within complex adaptive systems involving (dis)belief in supernatural agents and (dis)affiliation from religious institutions.
Justin E. Lane
added an update
F. LeRon Shults
added a research item
Where do gods come from - and what is the cost of bearing them? In Practicing Safe Sects, F. LeRon Shults argues for the importance of having "the talk" about the causes and consequences of participating in religious sects. To survive and thrive as a social species, we humans are likely to continue needing sects (as well as sex) for quite some time. But can we learn how to practice safe sects? Can we live together in healthy and productive social networks without reproducing the superstitious beliefs and segregative behaviors that are engendered and nurtured by shared ritual engagement with imagined supernatural agents? In this provocative and timely book, Shults provides scientific and philosophical resources for answering these questions. http://www.brill.com/products/book/practicing-safe-sects
Justin E. Lane
added a research item
Empirical findings from psychology and social science suggest that both individual and contextual factors play a role in shaping the levels of religiosity and violence in any given population. But what is the causal relationship between religion and violence? A wide variety of disciplines are contributing to a rapidly growing body of literature that bears on this question. What is still lacking, however, is the integration of such findings within a comprehensive model. We begin to tackle this task by constructing an agent-based computational model whose architecture is informed by several empirically validated theories about the role of religion in intergroup conflict. Our results identify some of the conditions and mechanisms that engender mutually escalating religious violence. We conduct trace validation to show that these conditions and mechanisms correspond to the findings of relevant theories. Face validation indicates the model is able to simulate the emergence of conflicts that fit real world data. The model's capacity to generate the macro-level emergence of mutually escalating religious violence from micro-level agent behaviors and interactions provides the foundation for evaluating its capacity for predicting such violence.
Connor Wood
added an update
This cross-cultural analysis of gender differences in shamanism and possession and trance techniques (forthcoming as a commentary in Behavioral and Brain Sciences) furnishes important data for an in-preparation model that simulates the influences that flat vs. hierarchical social structures can have on gender and trance practices.
 
Connor Wood
added a research item
Singh deploys cultural evolution to explain recurrent features of shamanistic trance forms but fails to substantively address important distinctions between these forms. Possession trance (versus trance without possession) is disproportionately female dominated and found in complex societies. The effects of cultural conditions on shamanism thus extend beyond its presence or absence and are vital for modeling its professionalization and spread.
Justin E. Lane
added an update
A podcast interview with a wide range of questions, personal and professional, and a wide range of answers, professional and not :-P
 
Justin E. Lane
added an update
 
Justin E. Lane
added an update
New video out for our work on religion and violence.
 
Justin E. Lane
added 2 research items
This article outlines the development – and reports on the experimental findings – of two computational models designed to simulate the dynamic systems and behavioural patterns identified and clarified by research on terror management theory. The causal architectures of these models are informed by empirical research on the effects of mortality salience on “religiosity” (and vice versa). They are also informed by research on the way in which perception of personal and environmental hazards activate evolved cognitive and coalitional precautionary systems that can intensify anxiety-alleviating behaviours such as imaginative engagement with supernatural agents postulated within a religious coalition. The capacity of the models to produce emergent patterns and behaviours that are similar to the results of other empirical studies supports the plausibility of their causal architectures. After tracing some of the literature that supports the causal dynamics of our models, we present the two models, describe the experiments, and report the results. We conclude by discussing the importance of the findings, the limitations of the models, and directions for future research.
Given events such as 11 September, the 2013 Boston Bombing, and the 2015 Paris attacks it is becoming increasingly apparent that religious extremism has great potential to negatively impact our daily lives. Predicting religious extremism could – in principle – allow us to respond to, mediate, or eliminate threats more efficiently. It is argued here that predicting religious extremism is possible but religious systems are complex dynamic systems and should be addressed as such. To address religious systems in a way that could provide useful predictions, one should use multi-agent artificial intelligence models that are validated using empirical studies of human cognition to define rules for the agents and historical and contemporary data sources (ex. “big-data” and historical databases) to calibrate and parameterize simulations. Ultimately, I conclude that near-term prediction is possible if one incorporates social and biological environments as well as inter- and intra-agent cognitive mechanisms, but long term predictions would be unreliable. Key to this approach is the admission that cognitive mechanisms play crucial roles in the generation and transmission of culture as well as the recognition that social and biological environments provide input to these mechanisms but neither social or biological environmental input is sufficient by itself.
Justin E. Lane
added an update
New Article out on the prediction of religious extremism.
 
Justin E. Lane
added an update
New publication with Shults, et al. out in Religion Brain & Behavior.
 
Justin E. Lane
added a research item
Recent efforts by the Pew Research Forum and other organizations provide us with a “birds-eye-view” of how the world’s religious landscape has shifted. However, in the process of analyzing this data, we fall short of utilizing causal expiations in our predictions. The efforts of many scholars in the bio-cultural and cognitive science of religion have discovered a number of cognitive mechanisms that appear to drive aspects of religiosity that are common to all human populations such as affiliation and conversion. This presentation argues that incorporating psychological proclivities can help construct better models for the prediction of religious demographics. The modeling religion project (MRP) has begun creating advanced computer models that rely upon these psychological proclivities in order to study and predict aspects of religion. These include—but are not limited to—secularization, conversion, and reaction to threatening environments (such as natural disasters or social instability). In the limited time provided, I will discuss how psychological constraints can serve to constrain or revise our approach to predicting religious demographic shifts by concentrating on how secularization and conversation affect religious demographics. By exploring these two fundamental aspects of human religiosity with tools drawn from the bio-cultural science of religion, we can develop more accurate models of demographic shifts from the data we currently have. I will present results from two computer models: one which shows how individuals come to adopt new religious identities, resulting in conversions, schisms, and endogenous theological adaptations; and one which shows that secularization processes may happen faster than previously expected, but may be temporary. We argue that incorporating causal models, rooted in the bio-cultural sciences, into studies of religious demographics will provide better conclusions than those models currently in use.
Justin E. Lane
added an update
Giving a lecture to Boston University today on the Modeling Religion Project and some associated research that uses AI, computer modeling, and "big-data" studies to explain religion and create more precise theories.
 
Justin E. Lane
added an update
A number of MRP team members just finished a week long trip to Norway to present research to an audience including religious leaders and government representatives in Kristiansand, Norway concerning how social simulations can help inform public policy.
 
Justin E. Lane
added a project goal
The Modeling Relgion Project (MRP), a subproject under the umbrella of the Center for Mind and Culture's Simulation Religion Project, is an ambitious attempt to connect the sciences of modeling and simulation (M&S) with the scientific study of religion (SSR). With generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the three years from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2018 promise an exciting intensification of a new kind of research in the academic study of religion. The first goal of MRP is to produce a simulation development platform that will allow SSR scholars and students to create complex simulations with no programming. The second goal is to produce a series of simulations of the role of religion in key transformations of human civilization, such as the Agricultural Transition (c. 8000 BCE), the Axial age (c. 800-200 BCE), and modernity (c. 1600-2100). The third goal is to explain the importance of M&S to the world of the academic study of religion. This will involve web blogs, outreach efforts, and even a documentary film.