[Comment] is Free?

Be quiet, my friend. You can't tell my secrets.

As anyone who read this blog has probably noticed, it’s been pretty silent for the past six months. That is largely due to most of my energy being focused on writing up my PhD thesis, which is almost finished… but still not quite there. While it remains unsubmitted, I can’t internally justify taking the time to research and write articles for pleasure. Hence, the lack of new posts.

However, my blogging efforts were originally intended to serve as a supplement to my research activities so I’ve decided that, for the time being, I’m going to use the blog as a kind of mental escape from my thesis and write short commentaries on articles or news stories that I find interesting or have something to say about.

I hope that some people find these posts interesting but I’m providing some advance warning that they will likely touch on topics that will be a bit broader, and potentially more political, than is typical for this blog. They will all be labelled with the tag [COMMENT] in the title so should be easy to distinguish between the longer articles, which I do intend to get back to, after that fabled submission.

That’s all folks!



Misogi Cold Water Rituals (Pt 2)

In the previous post in this series, I described my personal experience of an extreme misogi water purification ritual performed in Kikonai in Northern Japan. In this post, I will continue that discussion and recount an altogether different experience I had more recently (about one month ago) at another misogi event, this time held at Teppozu Inari a Shinto shrine located in a suburb of central Tōkyō.

Kanchu Misogi

Misogi event at Teppozu Inari Shrine in Tōkyō. Image provided by Yoshio Wada


Planet Money’s MTurk episode

The NPR podcast Planet Money (of which I am a fan) just released an episode that looks at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk)- a website where people are paid small sums of money to complete online micro-tasks (like categorising photos or writing transcripts of recordings). The site is named after an 18th Century chess playing ‘robot’ that was actually controlled by a hidden person (see above). This is an elegant analogy for the modern MTurk platform where anonymous workers complete Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) like a well oiled machine. If you want a slightly more in-depth and accessible introduction then I’d heartily recommend listening to Planet Money‘s short episode (available here).

However, while the episode does provide a useful introduction, as a researcher who has run a variety of studies on MTurk, I also have some specific (/pedantic) reservations with what their portrayal. In some ways the Planet Money reporters went to a lot of effort to dig into the topic: interviewing one of the founders of MTurk and embedding a ‘secret message’ in an MTurk task so that they could speak to some actual workers. Yet  I still found listening to the episode frustrating, due to some surprising misrepresentations that implied a low level of fact checking. I realise what follows will likely be too ‘insider baseball’ for most people, but for those who have some interest in how research on MTurk works, below are some of the biggest inaccuracies/pet peeves I had with the episode. (more…)

Misogi Cold Water Rituals (Pt 1)

This article also appears over on http://genealogyreligion.net/ where I am very pleased to say I will now be a regular guest contributor. I’ll still be cross posting my articles here and will also post anything that falls outside the remit of the Genealogy of Religion blog. If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out some of the articles by Cris Campbell the creator of the Genealogy site, in fact I already recently recommended you to do so…

A misogi performance at Kanda Myōjin in Tokyo.

A misogi performance at Kanda Myōjin in Tokyo.

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.


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.