Among those scientific conferences I had the pleasure to attend, "Explaining Religion" at Bristol University won (and will hold) a very special place. It had been very well-organized by Finn Spicer, Nathalia Gjersoe, Andrew Atkinson and Samantha Barlow, who not only provided for a beautiful yet concentrated space for lectures, debates and come-togethers, but also for a caring, open and humorous atmosphere among all those attending. Thus, the meeting of diverse scientists interested in the evolution of religiosity and religions managed to bring together hypotheses, fresh data and especially people enjoying to share thoughts and findings during captivating lectures and intensive debates right into the nights. Thanks to Bristol, BIRTHA and Finn, Thalia, Andrew & Sam!
The beautiful city of Bristol turned out to be just the right place for the conference, bringing together diverse traditions and modernities. Just as an example - this picture doesn't depict a Cathedral, but Bristol Train Station!
As our lectures and debates showed that the evolutionary by-product-hypotheses about religiosity and religions were on the retreat (even among cognitive psychologists), I stumbled upon a small well at Victora Garden that quite captured the emerging picture of belief in supernatural agents constituting an exaptation or adaptation in human evolution. It read: "The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life."
But then, the United Kingdom didn't indulge in shallow stagnation. Instead, newspapers like "The Times" featured another "god-of-the-gap"-debate, this time initiated by Stephen Hawking - just at the opening day of our conference.
And the debate raged on for three consecutive days, with leading clergy as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks answering and other scientists and writers contributing their views. What a country where debates about religion(s) and science(s) are rightfully making the headlines!
At the conference, the scheduled speakers managed to connect their respective perspectives and datas into a truly convergent exchange. Susan Blackmore (Plymouth) endorsed the popular metaphors of memetics and spoke in behalf of the dwindling minority of scientists who believed that religiosity and religions evolved as a natural by-product in a separate, cultural realm. As I had included her work in my (German) doctorate thesis some years ago, I enjoyed her talk and the ensuing debates. And although she voiced her distress at my demographic findings about the religious having more children while the seculars lacked offspring, she was impressive in her open way of accepting facts. I will take her "It's tough - but that's what science is about!" as one of the lasting sayings that made these days so special.
Her lecture was followed by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski (Lublin & blog), who not only advocated the frame of dual-inheritance theories integrating genetic and cultural perspectives, but also brought up arguments for defining religious and magical beliefs not in the terms of "supernatural" but "superempirical" entities. I can't wait for his upcoming book on the subject!
Paolo Mantovani (London) delighted the audience with an insightful and humorous debate whether Santa Claus would meet the cognitive criteria quite often cited by psychologists as constituting god-like supernatural agents. He not only showed that evolutionary studies proceed by the repeated testing of hypotheses, but that every perspective (such as the psychological one) needed to be connected with others (such as the sociological and biological) in order to attain meaningful coherence.
Bruce Hood (Bristol) and Deborah Kelemen (Boston) captivated the audience having just accomplished that: In presenting tested as well as brand-new experimental data, they offered new and refined insights in the ways children are construing realities and narratives. And as Jesse Bering (Belfast & blog) brought up new thoughts and findings concerning the way adult atheists and theists made (or found?) purpose in their lifes, you might imagine the constructive excitement emerging among those of us who are used to have very few colleagues in the field in their respective countries!
Ryan McKay (Oxford) and Ara Norenzayan (Vancouver) offered just the arc the debate needed now, showing in game theory and experimental practice how religious beliefs enhanced cooperative potentials among believers. Thus, the truly interdisciplinary exchanges and debates "raged on" intensively well into the late evenings and, finally, nights.
But then, in best British tradition, the conference was also open to ideas from graduates and private scholars. There were many interesting people and talks evolving around the topic. A poster presented by John Jacob Lyons sketching out a signalling-hypothesis concerning the earliest roots of religiosity rightfully catched interest of many participants.
Robert McCauley (Atlanta) and Thomas Lawson (Michigan) quite subsumed the conference with overlapping drafts of the emerging picture - whose similarities were even more striking as they didn't design them together. Actually, they were proving that the evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions are coalescing into an overall frame of gene-culture-coevolution (or just "biocultural evolution"), recognizing religiosity as an adaptive trait with proximate mechanisms working on the individual, social and - finally - biological level.
As I had conducted and presented nearly all of my work in German and among German-speaking colleagues for years, I was somewhat anxious about how it would fit into the international debate. And as you can imagine, I was very happy to see that it was absorbed with interest, open minds and encouragements to do more works and publications in English. If you want to see the slides of "The Reproductive Advantage of Religiosity. Religious Demography benefitting Evolutionary Fitness", just click on the graph to download.
Without a doubt, "Explaining Religion" in Bristol has connected perspectives and findings - bringing evolutionary studies on religiosity and religions to another level. I am grateful that I had the chance to participate in this experience!