Reposted from the article I wrote for Aeon (published 11th May 2016).
Image of partially buried moai statues on Easter Island by Carl Lipo (CC BY 2.0)
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is an island in the Pacific famous for the massive humanoid statues peppered along its coasts. These moai are commonly called stone heads, but actually most possess bodies, and the largest constructed stands at over 30 feet and weighs 82 tons. Ever since these monoliths were encountered by European explorers in the 18th century, the history of the island has been a topic of fascination and debate. Most captivating is the mystery of how almost 900 moai were carved and transported, mostly between 1250 CE and 1500 CE, only to be toppled and abandoned by the 18th century.
The history remains contentious and its scholarship is currently hosting a fierce debate between two rival camps. The first account, popularised by Jared Diamond in his bestselling book Collapse (2005), presents the island’s history as a cautionary tale of the destructive potential of humans to overexploit natural resources. A contradictory account has been advocated over the past decade by a group of scholars, led by the anthropologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt, who contend that the ‘collapse’ Diamond describes is largely a European myth. Instead, continuity is the hallmark of settlement on Rapa Nui.
Misogi (禊) can loosely be translated as ritual purification by cold water and is a practice most strongly associated with Shintoism. It is also performed by practitioners of Shugendō, a syncretic ascetic sect with a long history in Japan, and by martial arts groups, such as Aikidō practitioners. The precise practices involved vary; at some locations the misogi is performed by immersion in streams/pools and at others by sitting or standing under waterfalls, sometimes the event involves collective practices by large groups (up to 200) and sometimes it is a solitary performance. But despite such diversity a clear unifying thread to all misogi practices is the endurance of cold water in order to purify oneself and by extension the surrounding community.
I’ve now participated in two misogi events: the first was held last year, in a small town called Kikonai in Hokkaidō in Northern Japan and the second was performed just last week, at Teppozu Inari Shrine in a suburb of central Tōkyō. Both events were spectacular and I was extremely fortunate to be invited to take part. However, these two events were also very different and I think they serve as a good illustration of how a single ‘type’ of ritual can be expressed differently, even when performed within the same country (Japan) and ostensibly within the same tradition (Shinto). In this first post, I’ll focus on my experience at the misogi in Kikonai last year, then in the next post I’ll make some comparisons with my experience at the recent event in Tōkyō and finally, I’ll relate both experiences to some important theories which I think help illuminate and explain some of the psychological aspects of these ritual performances.
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.
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.“
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.
A recent study by Corriveau et al. published in Cognitive Science purporting to examine the differences in abilities to distinguish fantasy from reality between children from religious and non-religious backgrounds received a surprising amount of media attention. It was, for example, featured recently on the BBC, the article covering the study on the Huffington Post has been shared over 23,000 times and the I fucking love science summary has over 81,000 shares. The narrative presented in the paper and the popular press summarises the research as revealing that children exposed to religion are deficient in their ability to distinguish between fantastical and realistic narratives (in comparison with children from secular, non-religious backgrounds). The findings are also argued to undermine the claims of researchers, like Justin Barrett and Jesse Bering, that we are “Born Believers” or possess a “Belief Instinct“, since the secular children do not display the same deficiency in reasoning. Unfortunately, these narratives are themselves largely a fantasy as the research fails to provide strong evidence for either of these claims. I detail the reasons why below.
– This post is a copy of an article I wrote for The Religious Studies Project
(although it has not been published yet) –
A few weeks ago, I attended the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion’s (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference. The theme this year was focused on addressing the state of the field, 25 years after the cognitive approach to religion (CSR) first appeared (at least in its modern incarnation). I contributed to these efforts by presenting a critical review of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) literature, and a short poster that detailed a recoding of a previous study on MCI items in Roman prodigies (Lisdorf, 2001) (for those who may be interested, the recoding reversed the original pattern reported). However, I’m not going to review my own talk (for obvious reasons), nor do I intend to offer a thorough account of the entire conference, instead I’d just like to point out some personal highlights and my impressions of the conference overall.