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Computer Modeling Religion

Akira Hojo / unsplash

Religion has been part of the human experience for as long as anyone can figure out. Religious behavior, in general, has declined in many parts of the world, but it tends to bounce back when there is a tragedy of some sort. And recent computer models suggest that religious beliefs are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. What else could computers tell us about this deeply human phenomenon?

Wesley Wildman is Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Boston University . He’s Executive Director of the Center for Mind and Culture and he was Principal Investigator of the Modeling Religion Project which wrapped up earlier this summer.

“When we’re using computers, we’re trying to take seriously the fact that religion occurs in a complex adaptive social system. It’s a very tangled system with all kinds of causes,” Wildman said. “Putting all of those causal pieces together is what computers are so very good at.”

Basically, Wildman and his team use a computational model as an artificial or virtual system that provides a way to experiment with ideas and test hypothesis before they’re tried in the real world. Mostly, they model social systems.

“We might look at mutually escalating religious violence, or at the process of secularization; trying to understand how people stop being religious, or stop identifying as religious.”

According to Wildman, in cognitive science, experiments conducted on human beings make it clear that societies easily accept the idea of supernatural forces or religious explanations. And as a whole, people believe bigger cosmic stories that help locate their own lives in a larger story.

A fascinating point that Wildman pointed out is the power of disruptions, whether political or natural, like disasters. Struggles typically drive people to religion.

Wildman spoke about an “attitude and value” study New Zealand. People were interviewed before and after the Christchurch earthquake and found that church attendance increased dramatically after the earthquake. After a year, it went back to normal. 

So if religion can help during trying times, what about when religion discriminates and promotes intergroup violence?

“Religion is a double-edged sword. I have humanist and atheist friends who believe that the only way that people can survive is if religion is marginalized,” Wildman said.

Which begs the question, do we need religion?

“I think we do need religion, but not the kind of religion that focuses on in-group identity and is so easily twisted into racist agendas or other kinds of things that are so negative for a welcoming, healthy society.”  

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.