Multiple Researchers, Multiple Universities, Researchers, and Onsite Locations

The Issachar Fund

What if we looked more closely at how to use the tools of the social sciences to try and understand how people form the opinions they hold?

What if we sought to uncover the myriad beliefs, practices, and values people acquire over a lifetime, and how they use those understandings to make meaning out of life

What if—at long last—science and religion were understood not to be at odds with one another, but rather had the most human impact in tandem?

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The Issachar Fund
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Multiple Universities, Researchers, and Onsite Locations

With funding from the Templeton Religion Trust, in partnership with Issachar Fund, several distinguished researchers embarked on numerous research projects across three disciplines—Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology—to answer one main existential question: Why are we here?

Science and religion have been the two most prevalent meaning-making systems throughout history. And yet, while they continue to be, our world and its inhabitants continue to change at warp speed. How does this impact the way in which people today find meaning? Interact with one another? Make changes for future generations?

Multiple research projects were conducted in a collective effort to answer those questions.

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Anthropological research is being led by Dominic Johnson, DPhil, Ph.D., professor of international relations at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and Michael Price, Ph.D., senior lecturer in psychology at Brunel University, London. Under their leadership, eighteen subgrantee research projects were conducted from an evolutionary perspective.

One American evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University and is universally recognized for his study of altruism was a part of the study.

“How can goodness exist in a Darwinian world?” he posited. “Our species is a highly pro-social species. Cooperation is what we do exceptionally well on.”

Several of Dr. Sloan Wilson’s team of researchers focused on understanding the social contexts in which cooperative behaviors are reinforced more than selfish behaviors.

The science of “ProSocial” is focused on understanding and fostering social contexts in which individual and group interests are aligned, such that cooperative behaviors are reinforced more than selfish behaviors. These prosocial groups act more like a single organism, rather than a collection of individuals.

Can we collaborate better? Can we make things happen in a more meaningful, impactful way? And can we—as a human species designed to cooperate—ever reach congruent understanding about meaning-making systems and how they drive us to show up in the world?

Other researchers in this discipline include Professors Aiyana Willard and Micheal De Barra of Brunel University London. They and their teams conducted both field-site and historical research to discover how people use supernatural beliefs to understand illnesses and subsequent treatments.

Professors Willard and DeBarra agreed that as a species, we want to know causal reasons for why things happen – particularly important things. Their research led to findings which surprised them both.

Research in the discipline of Psychology is being directed by Cristine Legare, Ph.D., professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and Director of its Center for Applied Cognitive Science.

Dr. Legare’s research initiative is designed to delve deeply and broadly into better understanding how cultural influences shape the environment and content of the classroom, which in turn shapes attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of groups of people.

Throughout the world, formal schooling is commonly understood as a process for learning the content, knowledge, skills, and norms required for being a productive and successful adult in society. It’s no surprise then, that studies of the impact of education tend to focus on things such as demographic and economic outcomes.

“Education introduces new ideas. It challenges existing ideas and sometimes changes them. And many of these ideas are relevant to how we think about human nature, cultures, and the pressing problems that face our species and our world more generally. What children learn in schools about how the biological world works, how the physical world works, how humans interact and work in the world, and even about the origins of life and our place in the universe … encompasses the bedrock of understanding everything that people care about,” said Legare.

An international and interdisciplinary team is collaborating in this far-reaching initiative that spans fourteen diverse field sites ranging from urban Japan to Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania to small-scale societies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where formal education has only recently been introduced. Broad in scope, it includes gathering data from teachers, parents, and other adults in the communities, as well as current and former students.

Linda Abarbanell, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University, regularly visits Chiapas, Mexico to survey members of the Tselta Mayan community. As part of her research, she asks questions about how religious and scientific beliefs related to illness, natural disaster and other topics are influenced by education.

What the collective research shows is that there is no such thing as a “simple” belief. Complex cultural alliances and identities influence what and how we cognitively process information throughout our lives.

Another anchor project was conducted by subgrantee Vivian Afi Dzokoto, Ph.D., a cultural and clinical psychologist and Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Dzokoto’s research looks at a peri-urban school in Accra, Ghana, and a rural school in Salt Pond, Ghana to better understand the influence of parents and schools on beliefs related to science and religion.

In summary, Dr. Legare says, “This entire initiative is an opportunity to understand the sorts of things that predict greater coexistence of complex religious and scientific concepts, which from my perspective is critical to reducing conflict, promoting human wellbeing, and creating 21st century global citizens.”

How do people in various groups today really think about religion and science? Why do they think as they do? And how do these beliefs affect how they live in society?

These are topics that fascinate researchers Elaine Howard Ecklund, Ph.D., professor of sociology and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, and John H. Evans, Ph.D., professor of sociology and co-director of the Institute for Practical Ethics at the University of California, San Diego.

According to these experts, too little is known about how everyday people see the relationship between religion and science. We know very little about how group affiliations – community, family, friends, gender, race, ethnicity, profession, religion, and so forth – affect our views and the behaviors that result. This knowledge void, they contend, is an unfortunate oversight – a great unknown that sociology, as the scientific study of people in groups, is uniquely capable of investigating.

“Sociology is about explaining human behavior, not by anything within the person themselves, but by their relationships with other humans,” explains Evans. “Groups teach us beliefs. Groups enforce beliefs. And groups produce identities in which having particular beliefs become markers of identity within the group … a way to get by in society.”

As part of this project, Ecklund and Evan’s overarching initiative includes extensive research work conducted by several sub-grantees. One project conducted by Sociology Professors Chris Scheitle and Katie Corcoran, centered around Religion, Parareligion, and Science.

“There’s belief in ghosts, there’s belief in the power of crystals, there’s belief in parasitology – believing you can move things with your mind or are psychic. And these could also be sort of categorized in a similar way to religion. Yet, they’re often not studied in connection to attitudes or thoughts about science,” says Corcoran.

The findings of Scheitle and Corcoran’s study confirmed that more extensive considerations are warranted as humans try to make connections between religion and science.

Di Di, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Santa Clara University, conducted her subgrantee research within the technology space, specifically investigating how high-tech professionals in Silicon Valley and in Shenzhen – a region connecting mainland China with Honk Kong – China’s own “Silicon Valley,” perceive religion and ethics in their workplaces.

As science continues to advance and societies become more interconnected throughout the world, these researchers are convinced that it is more important than ever to dispel stereotypes and instead increase our evidence-based understanding of each other. This, in turn, can become a basis for meaningful action to confront contemporary challenges such as those related to the environment, to suffering, to the pandemic, and technologies that influence what it means to be human.

Anthropology Research Projects

Psychology Research Projects

Sociology Research Projects


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