The Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion is the branch of the Center for Mind and Culture that conducts non-partisan research focused on the scientific study of religion, combining:
What is the bio-cultural study of religion? It is a way of shining a spotlight on the constructive intertwining of cultures, brains, and biology. It assumes that we will find no answer to the chicken-and-egg question that asks whether nature or nurture is primary in religion. Brains and cultures are involved in eons-long feedback cycles without end. Biology constrains culture but cannot dictate it. Culture profoundly influences behavior but does not get the last word. In fact, no one gets the last word – both biology and culture are continually talking. And through integrated research methodologies, we coax out the answers to the questions that matter.
IBCSR was founded by neuroscientist Patrick McNamara and philosopher of religion Wesley J. Wildman. After years of broadening their research, training, and outreach work, the Institute was repositioned as one of several branches of the Center for Mind and Culture in 2017. Co-Founding Director Patrick McNamara is expert in cutting-edge imaging techniques and methodologies. But one of the most fruitful research insights of his career came from reading philosophy. Urged on by Co-Founding Director Wesley Wildman and Director Robert C. Neville, Dr. McNamara delved into philosophical texts that brought up questions of value, or axiology – a subject usually avoided in the sciences. After all, science is supposed to be about objective facts, not subjective values. But in Dr. McNamara’s lab, questions of axiology gradually inspired a hard research agenda. Dopamine is crucially implicated in the neurological processes that assign value to stimuli, determining what’s important for the organism and what can be ignored. Dopamine-based reward and aversion signaling is centrally implemented in these processes. It may be that religion and other cultural processes work to influence reward signaling to affect our value priorities. The question of how the brain assigns value, or salience, to environmental stimuli led Dr. McNamara to explore the riddles of the dopamine system – a project that guides his research today, influencing his hypotheses about religion and the neurological bases of axiology. All because of some dabbling in the humanities.
At IBCSR, we assume that religion is informed by both biological and cultural factors. This means that any theory of religion that leaves out biology or culture will be partial at best, and downright misleading at worst. In emphasizing a bio-cultural approach to the study of religion, we are tackling a longstanding problem in the contemporary academy: many social scientists are suspicious of biological reductionism, while biologists and neuroscientists are often dismissive of culture. We think both these positions are too one-sided, and so we call for détente in this decades-long battle between nature and nurture. We lead by example, which means we have to be aggressively and rigorously balanced. At IBCSR, we affirm that biology is real – humans are not blank slates. But we also highlight that culture’s influence is enormous and pervasive, and that almost nothing in religion reduces to mere biology. In fact, in the real world, biology and culture mutually influence and are influenced by each other in an endless feedback cycle.
The bio-cultural approach is informed by a number of specific theoretical heuristics. Some current models of biology-culture interaction are informed by dual inheritance theory (DIT), niche construction theory, or gene-culture coevolution. Others focus on evolved social learning strategies driven by prestige or reputation, conformist bias, or ritual. Still others draw on game theory or cognitive scientific accounts of perceptual biases. IBCSR researchers draw from all these models and more. In all that we do, we assume that the symbol-making capacity of human beings cannot be understood via cultural or brain mechanisms alone. We need both to understand such behaviors as religious ritual or the use of religious symbols.
Membership and benefits
IBCSR is a membership organization. Become a member today by simply clicking here.
There are three membership categories:
Members of IBCSR also receive significant ancillary benefits.
IBCSR Research Review
IBCSR Research Review is a monthly publication that briefly annotates and furnishes online information about scientific research articles related to brain, behavior, culture, and religion published in leading journals. It also lists relevant books. Articles in press are listed without annotation. Annotations for articles aim to supply a preliminary understanding of the methods and results of a research study, or the argument of a paper. Annotations typically furnish more detail for articles in the scientific study of religion related to religion, brain, and behavior than for articles in the area of spirituality and health, in accordance with IBCSR research priorities.
IBCSR members have access to the entire history of IBCSR Research Review issues as well as a searchable database of publications in the scientific study of religion. The database is a one-stop solution to finding what has been published in the biocultural study of religion and in spirituality and health research, with no extraneous results to sift through on your way to locating the information you seek. The IBCSR Research Review Database contains all entries from all issues of the IBCSR Research Review as well as articles from previous years back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and is expanding all the time. IBCSR members enjoy other benefits, too. Join IBCSR today using the link on this page and on the IBCSR home page.
Click here to review a sample issue of IBCSR Research Review.
Click here to review past issues of IBCSR Research Review.
Religion, Brain & Behavior
The aim of Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) is to provide a vehicle for the advancement of current biological approaches to understanding religion at every level, from brain to behavior. RBB unites multiple disciplinary perspectives that share these interests. The journal seeks empirical and theoretical studies that reflect rigorous scientific standards and a sophisticated appreciation of the academic study of religion. RBB welcomes contributions from a wide array of biological and related disciplines, ranging from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to and religious studies. RBB publishes high quality research articles, target articles with about ten solicited commentaries and an author response, case studies, and occasional reviews. Issues are published quarterly.
The aim of Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) is to provide a vehicle for the advancement of biological research approaches to religion at every level, from brain to behavior. RBB unites multiple disciplinary perspectives that share these interests. The journal seeks empirical and theoretical studies that reflect rigorous scientific standards and a sophisticated appreciation of the academic study of religion. RBB welcomes contributions from a wide array of biological and related disciplines, including:
The biological study of religion has benefited from its interdisciplinary roots, but this diversity also poses its primary challenge. Research is currently published in too many journals in diverse fields making it nearly impossible for scholars to keep up with, and more importantly, to build upon each other’s work. Despite enormous interest and growth, the field will progress slowly without a journal devoted to publishing relevant groundbreaking research. The journal Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) will help to centralize current research in this area and thus form a greater sense of field identity and increase the efficiency of research.
Celebrating 10 years of Religion, Brain & Behavior
In April 2011, the first issue of Religion, Brain & Behavior was published by Taylor & Francis, adorned then as today with William Blake’s “Web of Religion”. The journal provides “a vehicle for the advancement of current biological approaches to understanding religion…