About

That guy at the bottom of this page is me, Chris Kavanagh, I am in the final year of a DPhil a postgraduate researcher at the University of Oxford but live in Sapporo, Japan. In Japan I am hosted (very kindly) by Prof. Masaki Yuki & his lab, where I conduct a combination of lab-based experimental studies and field based research focusing on extreme ritual practices and their psychological effects.

I previously studied at the School of Oriental & African Studied (SOAS) in London, getting a BA and an MA in Study of Religions/Social Anthropology (and a daily dose of liberal politics), and then moved to Oxford to join the ‘dark side’ completing an MSc and later gaining a doctorate in Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology. I am primarily involved with research that falls within the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) and currently my research focuses on exploring the psychology and social impact of rituals- see the current project I’m involved with here. I’m also a humanist, atheist, rationalist, and all round pain in the ass.

With this blog I’m hoping to address the interesting and the odd in research on anthropology and religion from a rational and critical perspective and hopefully have some fun in the process.

Hope you enjoy reading and I look forward to any comments!

P.S. I am originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland so don’t be surprised by the accent if you ever meet me in person.

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26 comments

  1. I was blog surfing and I came across your blog. I find my self curious about what you’re belief is in regard to god. You state that you are atheist so I understand you do not believe in god but you have a keen interest in religion so I assume you have a theory as to what god is/isn’t.

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  2. Hello hasan,

    About my view on God & religion: I am an atheist because I haven’t found any convincing evidence for the existence of any God or Gods and find naturalistic explanations to be much more likely. I have not however ruled out the possibility of the existence of God/Gods totally, I just find all the traditional religious portrayals I am familiar with to be uncompelling and problematic.

    As for my theory on what God/Gods are and are not. That’s difficult to say due to the above position. If pressed though I would say that I suspect any God that existed would be a being so unlike anything we can imagine or comprehend that we would be unable to understand it. I also think that the typical religious portrayal of God/s are primarily a result of our species tendency to project human qualities and behaviours into our surrounding environment. I don’t think if any God/s existed they would be concerned with what partners we chose for instance nor do I think that the earth would be the pinnacle of their creation.

    There is a lot of good research on the cognitive basis of religious belief and possible evolutionary explanations and I tend to find such explanations to be compelling (some more than others!). At the same time I also see religious traditions and religious belief as playing a whole variety of functions and influence in general society and in individuals lives so I recognise that it is an area of social and personal life that deserves to be explored regardless of whether any God/s exists.

    Whew… a bit long, anyway hope that clarifies my position a bit.

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  3. Most theories I’ve heard from atheists tend to put religion and science in opposition. It is my belief that science is proof of God and there by science is in harmony with religion.

    Let’s say you wonder to the middle of the desert and you reach a place you are very sure, you are the first human to put foot in. And then you see a great palace built with marble walls and golden gates; built with the complex engineering of the Taj Mahal. Would you say this palace must have been sculptured by winds and storms or would you say that a masterful architect must have built it (human that is).

    If God created us then it is not odd that God built something in us that would lead us back to him. So it is not really surprising that we are psychologically built to seek God. Some use it to seek guidance and sadly, some use to mislead others.

    Although most religions reject the theory of evolution, evolution does not deny God’s existence. The meteor that is claimed to have carried first form of life to earth could very well have been placed there by God. To say that it didn’t is really a matter of faith not one of science.

    The complexity of the universe and the harmony of it are proof that there is a God. Believe me, the more I read and the more I learn about science the more I believe in God.

    I think I managed to make it even longer, please bear with my limited English :). And thanks for taking the time to respond to me.

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  4. I agree that many atheists overstate the need for science and religion to be in opposition. However, I also think religious believers have a tendency to downplay the conflicts that frequently do crop up between science and religion especially amongst fundamentalist groups. The truth, I think, lies somewhere in the middle.

    As for the wonder of the universe being evidence for God, I’m afraid I remain unconvinced- though I can agree that the universe is wonderful and awe inspiring.

    I can understand your position and I have no issue at all with moderate religious believers such as yourself who respect scientific discoveries and maintain their faith. Different strokes for different folks.

    Thanks for the discussion and your English seems very good to me.

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  5. Science and religion aren’t in conflict, in as much as they operate in completely different ways. Religion cannot tell us anything about the world around us. That’s not to say religion doesn’t have value. Religious rituals create group cohesion. Religious beliefs affect behaviour. This is true whether or not god exists!

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  6. The issue of conflict usually arises because certain religious individuals do claim that their religion tells us about the world. Intelligent design/Creationism is one example of this but there are others especially when we look beyond the confines of the developed world.

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  7. The problem is that for religion to be effective, adherents have to believe that it reflects some kind of reality. In order to rationalise their behaviour, they have to believe that there is an entity (or entities) that exists and also has effects in the real world. It’s a dichotomy at heart of religions!

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  8. Hey Chris…. I was wondering… you say you are going to study Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford come October, will that be with Dr Harvey Whitehouse? I ask because I had the priviledge to meet him in 2001 when they accepted me to do an MA in Social Anthropology at Queens (QUB) really nice guy although his office seemed more like a Papau New Guinea souvenir shop….. anyway I didn’t had the chance to pursue that degree cause I couldn’t get the funding…. moved to England instead and attended Sheffield….

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  9. Daniel> Yeah I believe he’s the director of the institute. Most of the folks there seem like really nice people. Oh and you nearly went to Queens? That’s in my hometown! Small world eh?

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  10. Top of the mornign to you then…. I did go to Queens, the previous two years before that to do an MTh…. but I fancied a change of academic career and loved Queens so applied to do the MA in Social Anthropology… but as I said wasnt able to get the funding…. at Sheffield I did an MA in Sociology instead…. which is related… in parts… anyway good luck with that mate…

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  11. Hi Chris, saw your post about bjj muay thai on martialartsworld.com. Sorry to message you here but I didn’t want to go through the whole registration process to reply. I trained at OMAA under “master alemao” for about a month. He had a falling out with OMAA management and is now teaching MT and MMA at the Blackbird Leas Leisure Centre. I’m very much a beginner but I feel that “master alemao” is an excellent instructor and all round nice guy, which is why I still train with him. His website is http://www.oxmac.co.uk/ . It’s not the prettiest website but its got the time table. Its a lot cheaper than OMAA at 55quid per month and there’s no contract to sign. But there’s no ring. Most of us are beginners. Anyway drop by if you get a chance.
    Simon

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  12. some would suggest you attend a bible school or seminary to gain a more complete knowledge of christianity, the common arguments and misrepresentations made by believers, and certainly to give the professors a run for their money/knowledge. you could also further your familiarity with hebrew and greek and find out for yourself what specific passages of the bible meant and mean.

    i went to bible school as a semi-convinced believer but was challenged by atheists, humanists, agnostics, and believers alike. when i learned the bible backwards and forward i was able to see things i wouldn’t have otherwise been able to have seen. i learned a lot, both good and bad, about the church.

    then again, maybe scratch the whole idea… because there is a lot more to God than bible professors teach. :::shrugs:::

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  13. Hi Chris,

    I’m starting the same MSc at Oxford in a couple of months. May I ask what topic you did your end-of-term thesis on? And generally, what did you make of the course? I haven’t studied at Oxford before, don’t know anyone who has done or is doing the course, and I don’t have a background in anthropology (or psychology), so I have my work cut out for me!

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  14. Hi Chris, how goes the research? I started this request several hours ago, but was seriously side-tracked after searching “extreme ritual practices in Japan” from your first paragraph above – Hadaka Matsuri? Kanamara Matsuri?!? Not to mention Sokushinbutsu?!?!? I’m looking forward to some interesting reading.

    To the point, however, as I assume you’re a busy fellow. Some months ago you mentioned letting you know if I wanted access to any papers. If I may impose and you have access to it, I’d like to read:

    ‘Suicide as escape from self’, Baumeister 1990
    http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/97/1/90/

    Thanks regardless – Mark

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  15. Research is something of a dysphoric experience in itself at the minute. Too much to do and too little time to do it! Naked festivals are certainly interesting although they are on the opposite side of the spectrum from most of the stuff I am working on and self-mummification is also a fascinating practice, although thankfully very rare!

    I have the paper you want drop me an email: christopher.kavanagh@anthro.ox.ac.uk and I’ll forward you a copy 😉

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  16. Chris, I was reading your comments in

    https://god-knows-what.com/2014/10/08/new-evidence-for-life-after-death/

    and im impressed that you are thoughtfully countering NDE proponents when the vast majority of skeptic just dismiss evidence without thought and result to insults.

    I’m personally agnostic on NDEs, hence why im looking at argument/evidence from both sides. However you mentioned

    “The same kind of origin story you provide is encountered with practically every anti-science position including climate change denial and 911 truthers.”

    Are you implying 9/11 was not a conspiracy? I don’t mean to offend you but if you are, you just lost an insane amount credibility with me, and makes me think you buy into mainstream beliefs and thinking without question.

    9/11 is WITHOUT A DOUBT a conspiracy, they needed a reason to invade middle east to maintain the “petrol dollar” (Iraq was threatening to not use US dollar to trade oil). The video evidence and eye witness on the day are simply irrefutable. I don’t want to sound arrogant and close minded, but anyone saying 9/11 is a terriost attack, or denying central banks are privately owned and control our governments, or denying a new world order is being created by central bank owners, is simply brainwashed by mainstream media and refuse to acknowledge non mainstream theories under any amount of evidence. Makes me feel many skeptics just buy into mainstream thinking without question. I would like know your view on this. Thanks.

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  17. I just finished reading your debate with Hjortron, you are presenting rather reasonable arguments unlike the other skeptics. One main problem i find in these debates is that both sides regurgitate this same shit over and over again, and never properly considers the strong evidence of the other side. I will still agnostic on this issue, eventually evidence from one side will decide whether materialists or spiritualist wins.

    However, with your rebuttals on 9/11, no offence but you’re just another pawn in the brainwashed world. I can prove 9/11 is a conspiracy with 2 video of George Bush. Not to mention other evidence like reporters saying the 2nd tower has already collapsed when its in clear view behind the reporter. You mentioned “inconsistencies”, can you name one inconsistency with conspiracy theories? The real passenger plane was shot down in a non populated area, with photographic evidence of the plane’s number.

    I wonder why after the crash the federal reserve suddenly dropped interest rate to 1%, causing massive housing boom and letting the bankers cash in while mainstreet is left to rot. How come the bankers saw the crash of 2007 and cashed in? Of course you’ll just claim “coincidence”.

    This is the main problem with skeptical views, just claiming coincidence and using unreasonable “there are other low probability logical possibilities”, and assuming the materialist position a prior then arguing from that point. All attempts to address veridical perception happening in another room uses the same old “he constructed a false memory from talking to nurse, from talking to other people”, when some accounts specifically state no one talked to the patient about all that.

    Whereas the main problem with proponent is their failure to address NDEs with clearly hallucinatory features (albeit rare, but still exist, some see living relatives and one had Jesus driving a bus LOL), why memory loss occurs, why brain damage changes personality. The failure of hidden target test so far can be explained as the targets not being obvious at all, and there haven’t been many hidden target tests. Nevertheless the complete lack of hidden target verification is a huge blow to proponents. Hopefully AWARE 2 will have more to say either confirming or disproving OBEs.

    I hope you at least reconsider your staunch position on 9/11. I really feel disappointed an actually open minded skeptic is taking the mainstream view on 9/11.

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  18. Chad, thanks for your comments.

    You imply in your responses that I uncritically accepted the ‘mainstream’ position on 9/11. That isn’t correct. I initially found videos like ‘Loose Change’ to be compelling and to at least suggest that *something* was going on. However, the more I looked into the subject critically, the more I came to recognise that their narrative promoted by 9/11 ‘truthers’ was riddled with inconsistencies and relied heavily on emotional manipulation, conspiracy mongering, and the demonisation of opponents. These are familiar tactics to anyone who spends time interacting with creationists or global warming denialists.

    9/11 was a conspiracy, it was a conspiracy of Islamist extremists and they succeeded. The response of Bush’ administration to 9/11 and what they used the event to justify in terms of international and domestic politics, doesn’t alter this fundamental fact. The 9/11 conspiracy community displays all the standard signs of denialism (insular self-citation, reliance on a selection of fringe experts, anomaly hunting, internal inconsistency and so on) and the confidence with which you state various false claims as facts are indicative of this. There are a myriad of inconsistencies in the conspiracy theories, including that several of them are describing mutually incompatible scenarios. I don’t have any desire to debate the issue, it’s been done to death and it is clear from your comments that your opinion is set, but I would recommend looking (properly) into the Popular Mechanics report.

    As per the NDE research, I think you underestimate how fallible memories are. There is a tonne of research on this and yet it is a factor that is consistently ignored by NDE proponents. People stating something did or didn’t happen is not strong evidence that their memory is accurate.

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  19. Yea we shouldn’t debate 9/11, you seem like a left wing liberal whereas I’m a Trump supporter and have a huge grudge against bankers and authority, it’ll get too heated to debate things related to politics. But you should research on how central banks work, how bankers enslave us all, more people need to wake up to this.

    Something I’m puzzling about is why I never see skeptics claiming fraud. In a lot of cases without trustworthy independent 3rd party verification, fraud is a much more likely explanation than all the skeptical arguments I’ve seen. E.g. Eben Alexander, guy REFUSES to declassify his hospital records, only talks about his NDE 3 month later, and made a killing with his 2 books. I have a theory:

    He’s neurosurgeon so obviously heard a lot about NDEs. When he recovers and realized the reaper granted him mercy, he knew he could exploit this and cash in with books. After all, he’s neurosurgeon so his words has a lot more credibility to the general public than some random bible thumper. So he took 3 month to research NDEs, and came up with a very reasonable sounding NDE of his own with all the core features, so people won’t suspect him of fraud.

    This lack of claiming fraud and using very weak arguments in some cases, makes me feel many skeptics have an unhealthy obsession with debunking NDEs that they fail to see more reasonable explanations like fraud, or misinterpretation/mishearing by a middle party conveying the NDE. At times I just feel both sides are crazy obsessed with attacking the other side they aren’t even being objective. Clearly there’s something very weird going on, even skeptics have to agree there’s a really strange change with our brain chemistry during near death situations, and further study may offer crucial knowledge to neuroscience.

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  20. Yup I am an unapologetic liberal. I don’t agree with demonising conservatives but I don’t think Trump is a genuine conservative: he’s a narcissistic, vapid, anti-intellectual celebrity who uses populist rhetoric- so he deserves all the criticism he receives. His supporters are a more mixed bag.

    That said, if you have a huge grudge against bankers (and corporations?) I think you have made a miscalculation if you view Trump to be some sort of reformer. He is a millionaire businessman and reality TV star, more financially conflicted than any US president in living memory, and his sympathies/interests (as reflected in his cabinet picks) are much more firmly in line with businesses and elites than with workers, regardless of his populist rhetoric.

    As per fraud, there are cases of that and skeptics have been involved with uncovering fraud (e.g. Peter Popoff) however jumping straight to fraud and insincere motivations ignores the fact that it is very common for people to sincerely believe in nonsense/poor quality evidence/bad arguments. You don’t need to invoke conspiracies or poor faith to explain why people find anecdotes and anomalies compelling or engage in motivated reasoning. Moreover, the quality of evidence remains the same regardless of the motivations of the persons promoting NDEs, 911 conspiracies, or whatever else. There are cases of conflicts of interest, such as when Andrew Wakefield published his paper on autism and combined vaccines while having a financial interest in a company selling separate vaccines, and these should be investigated and reported. But it shouldn’t be the go too assumption that everyone who disagrees with you is a fraudulent shill, many times people are genuine and sincere but just wrong or relying on bad evidence and arguments.

    As far as ‘strange changes’ in brain chemistry, I’m not sure I agree. We do need to do further research on consciousness/neural processes but I don’t think focusing on perceptions during events of acute physiological stress and reduced blood flow are going to be that insightful. You are positing that there is something mysterious occurring near death but what specifically are you referring to? What changes in brain chemistry are unexpected by current neuroscience models? From my perspective it is not the changes in brain chemistry that makes the topic a point of fascination, it is the post-event subjective accounts and those are a different kettle of fish. That people would find moments where they nearly died meaningful and important really isn’t that shocking to me. It would be much more shocking if people treated it as a mundane event, their body showed no significant change as they experienced acute cardiological distress and widespread popular concepts concerning the afterlife had no impact.

    Finally, what you are advocating as an alternative to ‘attacking the other side’ is actually just attacking the side from a different angle by declaring them to be frauds and insincere. I don’t believe that is a good tactic nor likely to be true.

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