Synthesizing Empirical Findings and Theory in the Scientific Study of Religion

The scientific study of religion (SSR) is generating research at a rapid pace. We’re learning more every day about the biological, cognitive, and cultural foundations of religion. This growth of knowledge is exciting, but it can be too much for any one researcher to handle! Yet in order to successfully build on and address existent research, scientists and scholars need to be able to assimilate findings and understand what new discoveries mean. The Synthesizing Empirical Findings and Theory in the Scientific Study of Religion (SEFT) Project aims to help researchers in exactly this task. At CMAC, an expert research associate, Connor Wood, will be collaborating with scientific leaders around the world to survey, report on, and interpret the most important publications in the field. This effort will combat redundancy and lack of integration, allowing for more a more progressive, incremental, and productive science of religion.


The goal of this project is to clarify core questions in the field of SSR and delineate the predictions and findings that define it. This addresses the “problem of memory” happening in the field, where new research doesn’t always build upon previous work. Funding from the John Templeton Foundation will give the SEFT team the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time – time not available to many researchers – combing through work from the past 20 years to produce thorough reviews. While it will examine theory papers from the field, it will also look beyond these theories to their roots in classic anthropology and religious studies. This will allow for a more integrative review of SSR.

By comparing findings, researchers will produce review papers and articles that chart what’s to come in the field. Synthesizing the work provides a foundation for other researchers to turn to when pursuing their own work. This rigorously integrative review process will carve out new space in the field, allowing researchers to make new hypotheses about important questions arising in SSR. These areas of interest include the features of religious rituals and the relationship between religion and the body, brain, and interpersonal relationships.

Key Personnel

Research Associate Connor Wood holds a PhD in religious studies (Boston University, 2016), and previously worked as a postdoctoral fellow at CMAC on the Modeling Religion Project(2016-2018). As the Primary Investigator for the SEFT project, Connor is

well-positioned to survey and bring together findings across the scientific study of religion. His work has appeared in journals such as Religion, Brain & Behavior, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and the Journal of Cognition and Culture, and he serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion. Connor’s interdisciplinary experience helps him speak to researchers in fields ranging from the cognitive sciences to the humanities.


This project will produce thematic, integrative reviews of the field. The SEFT team will produce a variety of papers to make their review accessible to others interested in the field. This includes 2 in-depth review papers explaining the synthesis of findings and theory in the field and proposing new hypotheses based on their findings. There will also be a colloquium hosted at CMAC where expert researchers from around the world will present papers and discuss the future of the scientific study of religion. These proceedings will be covered in a variety of media, including through the “Science On Religion” blog at the website Patheos.

The SEFT team aims to give other researchers and interested parties a comprehensive look at SSR that examines previous findings and new areas of research, and acts as a springboard for their work. Having a sweeping analysis of previous work draws attention to the significant progress already made in SSR, while also providing scholars a foundation for ongoing advancement.