Course: The Science of Religion
Length: 6 weeks
Instructors: Edward Slingerland, Azim Shariff
What is religion? Are we wired to believe? Does science have the answers?…Drawing on new scientific advances, this religion course examines foundational questions about the nature of religious belief and practice.
Topics to be covered will include traditional and contemporary theories of religion, with a special emphasis on cultural evolutionary models.
I’ve always felt one of the factors religion had going for it was its ubiquity in human history and, for that matter, prehistory. This course helped me understand why that might be the case – and a lot of other things besides.
Because I’d already taken the Chinese Thought moocs with Dr. Slingerland, I expected this to include a lot of cognitive and psychological science; I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered a technique of breaking down religion into cognitive units, of tracing religion through history and language, and of studying religious texts, new and old, through the digital humanities technique I’ve previously seen described as corpus linguistics. I even got the verdict on remote prayer (spoiler alert: contrary to that episode of The West Wing, it’s not scientifically verifiable). The material only grazed the surface of most of these questions, but there’s only so much you can do in six weeks and they went for breadth rather than depth. I found it fascinating.
The course setup was standard mooc: a set of lectures, a couple of ungraded “knowledge checks” after each, and a weekly graded multiple-choice information retrieval quiz that comprised the final grade. Each instructor did a week or two as a unit, switching a couple of times during the course. Along with numerous guest experts they look at religion (all religion, from Brazilian simpatias to Polynesian sects to the ancient Chinese to those more common to most of us) from a variety of angles. Do we have some cognitive structure that makes religion as natural as language, and if so, is it intentional, or a side effect, so to speak, of another structure with a more practical evolutionary value? What cognitive elements do religions have in common? What are the psychological benefits to religion? How does religion affect communities? Can we study religious development by examining religious texts of the past? Can we design models to predict religious development? What about atheism, how does that fit in? What is most likely to happen to religion in the future?
Each week featured several optional extended interviews with the guest experts, as well as publicly-available videos featuring Baba Brinkman and Jordan Peterson relating to the topics at hand. A final improv video discussing popular topics and hot debates from the message boards ended each week, and if you still hadn’t had enough, every lecture segment ended with a long list of references for further reading. And to my delight, as in the Chinese Thought course, a weekly “blooper reel” brought the funny. Neither of the instructors comes across as pedantic or stuffy – quite the contrary – but it’s still nice to know even seriously smart people screw up. Sometimes repeatedly. And they manage to maintain a sense of humor about it.
I encountered a couple of things I’d never seen before in a mooc. First, while some introductory material was available immediately, the course content could only be accessed after acknowledging the discussion forum rules. The rules were standard (no threatening, no ridiculing) and are included somewhere in every mooc, but the prominence was interesting, and probably a good idea given the subject matter. The forums were very active and interesting, well-covered by staff, and I didn’t notice any problems at all; I’ve seen hotter tempers in math moocs.
Another new (to me) twist, one which disappointed me, was the inclusion of a fairly common “live hangout” session – but only for Verified, that is, paying, students. More and more, edX courses are finding ways to tuck course material behind paywalls. It wasn’t lack of access to the material that bothered me – I rarely participate in hangouts, though I like to watch them, but here there was more than enough material to keep me very busy – as much as the harbinger of things to come. I have no idea what kind of incentives or restrictions are part of the package these days for course presenters, but I’m guessing it’s persuasive.
Bottom line: I found the course well worth the time invested, and made several connections to other areas of interest that invite further follow-up.