Anthropologists author book on new method for studying religion

Monday, September 22, 2008 | 3:22 p.m. CDT; updated 4:15 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — An MU anthropology professor is part of a research team looking at new ways of studying religion. The team's approach deals only with identifiable behavior and does not speculate on people's beliefs.

Craig T. Palmer, associate professor of anthropology at MU and Lyle B. Steadman, emeritus professor of human evolution and social change at Arizona State University, have written a book about their work, titled "The Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion."

Their approach to studying religion deals with identifiable behavior only, particularly verbal communication, and does not speculate about people's beliefs. "Religion is obviously an important behavior and it hasn't been adequately explained," Palmer said. "We decided to work on this book to really come up with a new answer to why people engage in religious behavior."

Steadman said that one of his goals in studying religion was to find out why it was universal. He said that the universality of religious behavior could be studied using the law of Darwin. Traditions, which include religious behavior, are like genes in that they are similarly inheritable, he explained. Since religious behavior occurs in all societies, it must have helped people to leave descendants in the past. If religious behavior did not help to leave descendants, it would have died out.

"In all societies, some people exhibit some religious behavior some of the time and so it must have dramatically helped leave descendants in the past," Steadman said.

In their research, Steadman and Palmer found that the most identifiable effect of religious behavior is the formation of cooperative kinship-like relationships. Most religions promote behavior between people who communicate acceptance of supernatural claims, which is similar to behavior found in families. They even use kinship terms such as father, mother, brother and sister. 

Steadman proposes that this effect is what helped people to leave descendants in the past. "Effects of that behavior are encouraging family-like behavior, for example people are caring for one another more, are willing to sacrifice and are less likely to kill each other and be violent towards one another — we argue that this is what religion has achieved in the past," Palmer said.

Both Steadman and Palmer agree that their method of studying religion is better than other methods because it is more objective. Other anthropological methods of studying religion focus on determining why people have supernatural beliefs and always assume that religious behavior is caused by these beliefs. The problem with studying religion based on people's beliefs is that supernatural claims cannot be proven or disproved. Humans cannot prove there is a God, that we have souls or that heaven exists, for example, but we cannot disprove it either. Those studying religion must also take into account that just because someone says they believe something, it doesn't mean they are telling the truth, Steadman said.

"We can say that talk is communicating...[it] isn't necessarily a result of what you believe. In any case, it is behavior aimed at influencing the behavior and brain of other individuals."

Steadman's and Palmer's method, because it studies verbal communication, is testable and can be falsified. Palmer said that because their method is testable, he hopes anthropologists will use it. He believes the research method will increase knowledge of religious behavior.

Palmer and Steadman do not take a position on whether religion is good or bad in their book. The position they do take, Palmer said, is that religious behavior has consequences. One of those consequences is that it creates cooperative kinship-like relationships.

"Most people would consider this a good consequence," Palmer said. However, these cooperative relationships are very powerful and, Palmer said, power can achieve both good and bad things.

"The powerful can do lots of wonderful things but they can also use all that cooperation to do things we don't consider good, like holy wars," he said.

Palmer clearly stated that the book does not argue that people do or do not believe in supernatural beings or that God or other higher powers do or do not exist. "We are only arguing that, as scientists, we do not know how to objectively tell what religious beliefs a person does or does not hold," Palmer said.

"Our position is that God may or may not exist...[and], as scientists, we do not know how to objectively tell whether or not God exists. We're not trying to encourage people to be religious or not religious — we're just trying to explain this very important part of human behavior."

Steadman first became interested in studying religion in the 1970s when he was working as an anthropologist in the highlands of New Guinea. An elderly woman was labeled a "pisai," which would be the American culture's equivalent of a witch. People in the village claimed that she could fly through the air and that she was eating out people's insides. She was killed, even though the people on the island could not present any hard evidence to support their claims. This was a religious act because of the talk of the supernatural, said Palmer.

"I realized while I was in New Guinea that I had no idea what people believed and they don't know what each other believes — no one knows that anyone believes — they just talk that way," Steadman said.

He compared what was happening in New Guinea with the witch killings in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The similarities between the two incidents are discussed in the book. "Even though they are completely different societies, I tried to find out what was similar and tried to find out why people kill people and justify it on the basis of supernatural claims — claims for which they are not interested in any evidence," he said.

Palmer became involved in the project in 1981, when he went to graduate school and studied under Steadman. He has done most of his fieldwork in Newfoundland, Canada.

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