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The Belief Instinct

Religion is a pervasive cultural phenomenon. The desire to provide meaning and coherence to otherwise random and chaotic events in our lives seems an intrinsic human need.  Moreover, religious belief is an extremely powerful motivator of human behaviour. But where does this need to believe in a God or a supernatural power come from? What is the nature of religious beliefs, and the reasons why religions exist in the first place? These are universal questions related to psychology, biology, anthropology and history. In this lecture series renowned speakers from various academic backgrounds will address the origin of religion, how belief systems evolve and the future of religion.

The Psychology of Souls
Destiny and the Meaning of Life
Jesse Bering
Date: Tuesday 23 November 2010
Why is belief so hard to shake? Despite our best attempts to embrace rational thought and reject superstition, we often find ourselves appealing to unseen forces that guide our destiny, wondering who might be watching us as we go about our lives, and imagining what might come after death. But why do we search for a predestined life purpose, or do we desire to read divine messages into natural disasters and other random occurrences? These beliefs and desires can be traced to a single trait of human psychology, known as the ‘theory of mind’, which enables us to guess at the intentions and thoughts of others. Along this line, one could argue that the instinct to believe in God and other unknowable forces gave early humans an evolutionary advantage. Drawing on groundbreaking research in cognitive science Jesse Bering unravels the evolutionary and psychological underpinnings of why we believe. And, now these psychological illusions have outlasted their evolutionary purpose, Bering draws our attention to a whole new challenge: escaping them.

Jesse Bering is an internationally recognized evolutionary psychologist, director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at the Queen’s University, Belfast, and one of the principal investigators of the Explaining Religion Project. He writes the popular weekly column ‘Bering in Mind’, a featured blog for the Scientific American website.

Western Witches, Shamans and Pagans
Retelling Religious History
Kocku von Stuckrad
Date: Tuesday 30 November 2010
The emergence of new religious groups and practices in the twentieth century is intrinsically linked to academic theories and historiography. When we look at the large field of modern Western witchcraft, shamanism and Paganism, we can easily see this dynamic at work. During the first half of the twentieth century, scholars of religion, anthropologists and historians claimed that there has been an ongoing – though hidden – veneration of the Great Goddess from antiquity through to today. They also speculated about the shaman as a universal religious expert who is able to travel into other worlds and who can unite with transcendent powers. These theories were soon popularized, reaching a wide audience. Are many forms of contemporary ‘alternative’ religion a product of the academic study of religion?

Kocku von Stuckrad is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. He is interested in the dynamics of European history of religion in general, and in Western esotericism in particular. His latest book is Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities (2010).

The Quest for Purity
From Religion to Spirituality
Dick Houtman
Date: Tuesday 7 December 2010
What emerged as ‘New Age’ in the 1960s has meanwhile lost much of its former utopian character and has permeated the Western cultural mainstream. What remains of its origins is its marked anti-institutionalism and anti-traditionalism: its emphasis on a spiritual purity that can only be found beyond the established religious institutions and traditions. New Age spirituality thus sets itself decidedly apart from the latter and situates the sacred in the deeper layers of the self. It is however not the socially insignificant ‘privatized’ type of religion that social scientists have so often taken it to be. The shift towards New Age spirituality rather exemplifies more general processes of religious purification, which – despite all differences – also underlie Protestant Evangelicalism and Islamic Salafism. Does this quest for purity reshape religion in ways that it can resist the corrosive forces of modernity? Will religion persist in future societies or are we heading towards a secular future, as social-scientific theories often forecast?

Dick Houtman is Professor of Cultural Sociology at the Centre for Rotterdam Cultural Sociology (CROCUS) at Erasmus University. His principal research interest is cultural change in the West since the mid-twentieth century, with a focus on its political and religious implications. His latest book is Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital (2010; edited with Stef Aupers).


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