Author: Chris Kavanagh

Recommended Blogs on Research on Religion

There are tonnes of blogs and websites out there that deal with religion both from a positive and a critical perspective and during my studies I’ve read A LOT of them. I suspect most readers of this blog are likely already aware of popular anti-theist blogs, such as those ran by PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, which occasionally present themselves as providing a ‘scientific’ response to religion. However, I would have severe hesitations about recommending either of these blogs (or any similar sites) to anyone, atheist or otherwise, who wanted to develop an informed opinion about current scientific research into religion. Fortunately, there are a number of good sites out there and in this post I want to highlight three sites that I would strongly recommend and a fourth that is worth checking out:


1. Science on Religion (Connor Wood)

This is one of the most readable blogs out there addressing science & religion. It is also regularly updated and provides both stand alone articles and more nuanced coverage of research that is often breathlessly reported elsewhere. Connor is a very good writer and even when disagreeing with his points I often find myself admiring the way he has constructed his arguments. By and large, the articles here also tend to aim for a ecumenical and conciliatory tone in regards the relationship between science and religion, which reflects Connor’s own clearly stated ideological position. This approach makes for refreshing reading, especially after experiencing one too many hostile anti-theist articles, but it also does lead to it’s own issue that negative features of religious traditions are occasionally downplayed or ignored while positive attributes are emphasised. As such, I would also advise that readers consult the comments section under Connor’s articles which often contains lively debates and contrasting opinions to those found in the target article. One commentator in particle, who goes by the title of Gemli, often responds with an anti-theist take on Connor’s posts and while his comments rely primarily on personal sentiment rather than detailed research, they still provide an interesting contrast to the more positive message of the main articles.


2. Genealogy of Religion (Cris Campbell)

I stumbled upon the Genealogy of Religion blog about a year ago and have been an avid consumer of its articles since then. The tone for longer articles is a bit more academic than Science on Religion but it also features short commentary pieces in which the author, Cris, provides some personal reflections on interesting articles or books he is reading. While these are often entertaining, they also reveal the impressive range and depth of knowledge that the author commands over the research literature, particularly in regards to the ethnographic literature of hunter gatherers. I have discovered numerous useful (and obscure) references through Cris’ posts and have also come to better recognise the significant, often underappreciated, variation in hunter gatherer societies. Despite being a researcher who endorses scientific approaches to studying ‘religion’, Cris also expresses quite severe skepticism about the conceptual coherence of the term ‘religion’ in the premodern world, as well as being critical of some of the broader claims and associated methodologies employed by evolutionary psychologists. His skepticism extends a little too far for me at times, but as with Science on Religion, the arguments are always well presented and Cris is always willing to engage with criticism or counter arguments in the comments section. He also has some challenging views about the unitary nature of hunter gatherers animist worldviews which I’ve found at times to create a slight sense of an exceptionalism, if not romanticism, surrounding portrayals of non-agricultural societies. However, Cris is too much of a rationalist to over indulge in this and he is also always willing to spell out the evidential basis for any claims he presents. In short, come for the hunter gatherers but stay for the frequent thoughtful reviews and in-depth serial articles.


3. Epiphenom (Tom Rees)

Recently relocated from the Field of Science to Patheos, Epiphenom is a long running blog with a straightforward premise- present and comment on new research papers on religion- that is executed with admirable precision by Tom Rees. Tom not only tends to cover new research remarkably quickly but his accounts have often identified and discussed several key issues with a study in the amount of space it would take me to write my introduction. The concise nature of the articles means that they can be consumed quickly, while the copious and thorough referencing and links to other relevant studies encourage those that are interested to look more deeply. I’ve also found the comments on statistical methods here to often be remarkably insightful, which is probably due to Tom’s day job as a medical writer and his experience in biotech. As with the other blogs mentioned above, the comment section is remarkably free of trolls and often features thoughtful, well thought out responses.

Sam Harris

4. Sam Harris’ Blog

Sam Harris is a well known New Atheist and author of popular anti-religion books. He is also generally polemical and displays a lack of interest into research when it is not seeking to expose the negative influence of religion on society. His place on this list may thus seem a little incongruous but hear me out. For a start, I think Harris is much better informed about the topic of religion than folks like Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, that may be a low bar to overcome but I think it enables Harris to better engage with his critics. And here is the crux for why I advocate readers to follow Harris’ blog, namely it introduces debates and perspectives that are both relevant and controversial and which more academic discussions often do their best to ignore. I don’t always agree with Harris but I do find his work and his replies to critics to be engaging. Moreover, while there certainly is a clear anti-religion agenda to his blog, I happen to think that at times such an approach is not only justified but necessary- we need people who are willing and not afraid to criticise the abuses of religion worldwide and Harris certainly fits this bill. His interest in ‘spirituality’ and meditation also mark him out from the other New Atheists, and while I am not persuaded by a lot of his claims in this area, I do think it gives him a better understanding of his religious counterparts than someone like Dawkins.

Cooperative Crocodiles & Skeptical Bias


After writing recently about the flawed research of Sam Parnia on Near Death Experiences I was accused by a few NDE advocates in the comments section of employing unduly high standards of evidence in my analysis of the studies shortcomings. My critical stance, they argued, was due to a deep ideological bias against the very possibility that there could be life after death or a non-material aspect of human consciousness. Personally, I would characterise myself as deeply ideologically biased in favour of both hypotheses, as I would be very happy if we were able to find evidence that there is life after death and, similarly, who wouldn’t want things like telepathy and out of body mental projection to be possible? As such, the issue for me is not that these kind of findings are undesirable but rather, precisely because they are very desirable, we need to be very cautious that confirmation bias is not seeping into our analyses.

In my experience advocates for psi and other paranormal tend not to appreciate just how necessary a strong critical environment is to the production of good science. A nice illustration of what I mean, is found in a relatively popular trend within academic journals to publish a single long form ‘target article’ which is then followed by a series of short commentary articles from relevant scholars, before the original authors have a chance to conclude with a response to the comments. The point here is that such commentaries typically run the gamut from being congratulatory to being overtly hostile to the theories presented in the target article. I’ve found that this format works well and produces some of the most productive articles for the reader, as it is possible to identify the wider field’s likely response through the microcosm of the commentary pieces. Unfortunately, this kind of engagement seems to be rare in psi and NDE research, with the proponents instead establishing their own journals, which become self citing cliques hostile to any critics- regarded as uninformed interlopers, as opposed to peers with different interpretations of the evidence.

Despite such unfortunate trends, the charge that even self professed skeptics can display notable selective biases in the application of their skepticism is warranted. Indeed, the fact that such a phenomena exists is also acknowledged by skeptics, who have a term for when people are failing to apply their critical perspective to a certain cherished topic; possessing a ‘sacred cow’. For instance, a widespread sacred cow, that I also possessed, is the popular Western perception of Buddhism as an atheistic and scientific philosophical system. I became disabused of such notions, swiftly and painfully, through my decision to study about Buddhist cultures and history during my undergraduate degree but the idealistic portrayal remains all pervasive and crops up everywhere from Academic articles to Russell Brand’s rants (and occasionally, my facebook feed). Although I had that particular cow prematurely slaughtered, it is almost certain that there is a whole invisible herd inhabiting my thought processes and views, just waiting for the right motivation (such as encountering evidence that vitamin pills are of practically no use) to make themselves heard. (more…)

Japanese Firewalking Festivals


Japan has a well deserved international reputation for having some of the most lively, bizarre and dangerous festivals in the world.  Most of these are organised by various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and typically involve receiving blessings which can be channelled into all kinds of practical, or devotional, benefits. However, despite the ubiquitous nature of Japanese festivals, and their general high attendance levels, Japan consistently ranks amongst one of the lowest countries in the world for overt religious belief, coming last in this 2012 survey by Gallup. This seeming paradox can be resolved in a number of ways; one solution is to argue that Japanese festivals aren’t really religious just ‘cultural’ but this seems to be somewhat contradicted by the high level of involvement of religious authorities, the array of religious images and motifs and the fact that most events take place at, or near, temples and shrines. Another alternative is to emphasise that religion in Japan is much more concerned with practice than personal belief and hence, while most people may be personally non-religious they are practically religious, as and when is culturally appropriate. This explanation is more compelling to me but I would add to it that, while Japanese people en masse show a lack of engagement with official religion, there is certainly no shortage of ‘folk’ beliefs in supernatural forces (such as ghosts or spirits) or pseudoscience (i.e. blood type is widely believed to determine personality) in Japan.

Regardless of the motivations underlying people’s participation in festivals, what is indisputable is that a large amount of Japanese people chose to participate in the events every year and thus, as a researcher working on the social and psychological effects of collective ritual participation, Japan provides a rich environment (indeed, that is a large part of why I now live in Sapporo). From amongst those that attend festivals, a much smaller amount also chose to participate in extreme ritual events, such as cold water immersion (misogi 禊) and firewalking (hiwatari 火渡り), and these are the events on which I am currently conducting research. Motivation for participation in such events can be framed as due to some form of religious devotion but obligation and tradition have been more frequently invoked, at least by the participants I’ve spoken to. However, seeking any single explanation for participation is inevitably a doomed endeavour, as motivations are always multifaceted and many operate below the levels of conscious awareness. As such, it’s often valuable to look not just at what people report but also what they do. This is why my current research attempts to collect both behavioural and self reported data. I won’t go into details in this post about the specific measures I use but there are some recent studies which provide useful illustrations of how behavioural measures can be productively employed in this area.


New Evidence for Life After Death?


About four years ago I wrote a post about the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) project being lead by Dr. Sam Parnia. The AWARE project is summarised on its official website as being about “using the latest technologies to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest… [and] testing the validity of out of body experiences and claims of being able to see and hear during cardiac arrest through the use of randomly generated hidden images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above”. I previously expressed a number of concerns about the research, with the chief complaints being: 1) the methodology for placing ‘hidden’ images was poorly controlled (i.e. some images were visible to staff, giving patients a rather less esoteric means of learning about their content) and 2) the lead researcher, Dr. Parnia, was already promoting and offering dubious (quantum) interpretations about the meaning of the positive results, before the data was collected!

The study has finally been published, and despite breathless headlines such as the Telegraph’s “First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study” or the Independent’s “Largest-ever study provides evidence that ‘out of body’ and ‘near-death’ experiences may actually be real”, the findings are actually remarkably unimpressive. For a start, the main finding, which is not mentioned in the abstract and quickly dismissed in one sentence in the discussion section, is that none of the 140 patients interviewed were able to identify a single hidden image. The paper tries to downplay this by pointing out that 78% of cardiac events occurred in areas without the special ‘shelves’ that held the images, this percentage however appears to be based on the full sample of 2,060 cardiac events rather than the 140 cases included in the study. It may be that the percentage is similar for these specific cases but the paper doesn’t tell us that and regardless, since the researchers seem to feel this makes the measure all but useless, you have to wonder why such a serious methodological issue was not identified as a problem in the piloting stage. Indeed, if we go back to this report from the BBC in 2009, we find a rather different take from Dr. Parnia on the importance of this null finding:

“If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity. It is unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded. And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.


Pain + Other People = Bonds

Pain People


A recent article in Psychological Science by Brock Bastian, Jolanda Jetten & Fiona Ferris (2014) on the basis of some simple but innovative experiments proposes that pain is not always negative and, when experienced collectively, it can act as an effective ‘social glue’ that serves to promote cooperation within a group. This is by no means a new idea, and could even be considered common knowledge by those who play contact sports, but it is also a hypothesis, which, despite its popularity, has received surprisingly little direct attention from researchers. Specifically, while there is a well developed body of literature from psychology and medicine on the effects that experiencing pain (or the threat of pain) has on a wide array of behaviours and attitudes, there remains a notable absence of studies exploring the effects of pain ‘shared’ collectively with a given group. This is a topic which is close to my own heart, not only because I have experienced substantial collective pain in the past through experiences during martial arts training, but more recently because the effects of collective painful or unpleasant (i.e. dysphoric) ritual activities are the main topic of my present PhD(/DPhil) research.


The Beauty of Propaganda

Great Wave Naval Battle

Naval Battle in the Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895: Reminiscent of Hokusai’s famous woodblock of the Great Wave (神奈川沖浪裏)

War is horrific, but for most of history, unless you were a direct participant or a victim, you would not be fully aware of this fact, as those in power were able to control the presentation of conflicts and, thus, censor the images and stories that were presented to the public about the war. Such monopolistic control remains firmly in place in many states but it has always been partial, as demonstrated by the popularity of the war poets of WWI and the Vietnam war veterans who become public protestors after their return. More recently however, the true horror of war has become even more accessible due to 1) the growing ubiquity of camera phones across the world and 2) online media distribution. Two recent illustrations of such trends are the tragic images of dead and injured children that spread across the world during the conflict in Gaza and the gruesome beheadings shown in ISIS’ terrorist propaganda. Such images are admittedly presented in heavily edited versions in traditional media but their full unedited horror is now easily accessible to anyone with internet access and the required motivation.

A photographic image of Japanese soldiers from the 1894 Sino-Japanese war

A photographic image of Japanese soldiers from the 1894 Sino-Japanese war

A new web exhibition of Japanese and Chinese propaganda prints depicting the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, jointly created by the British Library and the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records (JACAR) in Tokyo, illustrates just how far the presentation of conflicts has been transformed over the past 100 years. The images in the online exhibition are stunning and reflect how the events of the war were depicted and recorded by people at the time (although mainly those commissioned by the relevant authorities). The presence of prints from both the Japanese and Chinese sides also enable us to see clearly just how interchangeable heroic and villainous motifs are and how readily they are applied. Although photographic technology existed at the time of the conflict and there were photographs produced (see one example above), it was prints that were the main news media of the time. The prints were primarily produced using traditional woodblock technology and this lends them something of a historical/classical atmosphere when viewed today. Yet despite their undeniable beauty it is always important to remember the real horror and suffering that lurks behind such stylised representations.

Below I’ve selected some of the images that I found most striking but I would recommend that people take the time to view the full collection and read through the exhibition site for themselves. It is also perhaps worth mentioning that the majority of the images are from the Japanese side so there is an unavoidable imbalance in the images below and the exhibition itself.

(Click the images for larger versions)


Is there Religion in Japan? (Round 2)

The current debate prompts existential angst for Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess of the sun.

The ‘religion’ in Japan debate prompts existential angst for Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess.

A number of years ago I wrote a blog post about a lively debate between Timothy Fitzgerald and Ian Reader concerning whether it was appropriate to speak of ‘religion’ in Japan and whether the concept had any coherent significance prior to the arrival of the Western colonial powers and their ideological baggage. From my perspective a clear winner emerged from these exchanges (*spoiler* it did- see my previous post for details) but I’ve just become aware that, while working on my PhD, I seem to have missed a more competitive second round that has been taking place over the past few years, due in large part to the work of Jason Ānanda Josephson.