Modeling Religion Project

For centuries, scholars and scientists have posed the question: what are the most compelling features of religion? Is it complex theological systems? Rituals that increase social solidarity? Fear of the afterlife or the unknown? In response to these questions academics from philosophers to evolutionary biologists who study religion have developed numerous theories to help explain religious beliefs and behaviors. But how do these approaches relate to one another? How could their relative merits and flaws be tested systematically?


At CMAC, we tackle these questions by turning to an unconventional source: computer modeling and simulation. By building agent-based and system-dynamics models of psychological and social processes, we are creating comparable versions of theories that can be rigorously tested against real-world data and the historical record.

This undertaking requires a wide variety of experts, including scholars of religion from the humanities, cognitive psychologists, and complex system specialists, as well as modelers and programmers.  It has unfolded across three organizations (CMAC, the Virginia Modeling and Simulation Center, and the Center for Modeling Social Systems at the University of Agder in Norway), and brought together a large international and interdisciplinary team. Our work modeling religion has enabled our team to clarify and operationalize theories of religion, build realistic and complex AI systems and introduce the power and potential of simulation in the social sciences.


The MRP team has developed computer models to examine processes of group formation, religious leadership, extremism and violence, terror management, ritual patterns, and much more. These models have been published in a number of journals and led to several new projects, such as Modeling Religion in Norway. The MRP team has also presented in many different venues, notably leading panels on modeling religion for the past