• Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Rich Barlow

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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There are 7 comments on What Computer Modeling Can Tell Us about Religion

  1. The research seems to make a horrifyingly unscientific and irrational assumption, specifically that there is a single set of social dynamics around “religion” and that these dynamics are not affected by the behavioral codes and mindsets of the specific religions. Why do Wood and Wildman treat religious “radicalization” as if it were a universal process independent of the specific religion? Are they afraid to confront the possibility that different religions have different effects on the behaviors of their adherents?

  2. We are living in a world filled with exciting opportunities. One of these is utilization of computer technology to understand impact of religion on human behavior and psyche. I am very excited about what Connors, W. Wildman, and his team would eventually come up with. As a BU alum, I wish you guys best of luck in your unique adventure into the complex world of religion.

  3. In reply to Andrew’s comment, we’re very aware of the complexity of religion and we don’t claim that cultural dynamics don’t matter. My PhD is in religious studies, where the problem of defining religion – and avoiding simplistic definitions of religion – is a central concern for the field. What the tools of modeling allow us to do is to explore those aspects of “religion” that are generalizable across contexts. We’re not claiming that those aspects exhaustively define religion.

    And no, I think we’re perfectly aware that different religions and different doctrines can and do influence adherents differently. But these differences can be studied using social scientific and computational tools. For instance, the Jewish faith emphasizes ritual much more than Protestant Christianity does. One researcher, a psychologist, found that Protestants feel more guilty about their thoughts than Jews do, because in Judaism it’s actions that count, not thoughts or beliefs. A Jewish believer who has a passing thought about doing something sinful would probably not feel too bad about it, as long as she didn’t act on that thought. But a Protestant would be more likely to feel guilty about having simply thought about it.

    The key is that these differences in moral cognition are correlated with cultural attitudes toward ritual. Some religions heavily emphasize ritual and behavior – e.g., Judaism, Confucianism, Catholicism – while others emphasize inner states and belief. In turn, anthropologists have found that a culture’s general attitude toward ritual has a lot to do with its economic modes and its level of collectivism. Specifically, societies in which economic activity requires a lot of intensive collaboration tend to have heavily ritualized religions, while societies that encourage individualism (like capitalist North Atlantic societies) tend to have less-ritualized, more inner-focused religions. (For readers who know Max Weber, this is essentially Weber modernized, with some Mary Douglas and cultural psychology thrown in.)

    Upshot: there are generalizable differences between cultures that allow us to model the dynamics that give rise to those differences. Those are the things we can model. We can’t model particular historical events or other contingent circumstances, and we don’t deny that those things have a major influence on outcomes in the real world. This is why models are only models. They’re useful for understanding general principles and causal dynamics, but they’re not a substitute for close reading, historical scholarship, or ethnography. Modeling is a complement to those approaches, not a replacement for them.

    1. This is an important topic that needs new language to understand our language-limited interactive discourse on feelings, euphoria, morality, spirituality as well as a thoughtful study of brain activity, genetics and our human experience related to these.

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