Dr. Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, and author of a new book, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity is a self-described atheist, but also the leader of a $3-million, six-year project called “The Evolution of Religion and Morality.” This project brings together scholars from worldwide institutions to explore the cultural roots of religion, delving into questions about what religion is, how it is linked to morality, and why it plays such an important role in human existence.
Religio Magazine: What has the response of this project been? Have people been supportive or opposed?
Edward Slingerland: Most people have been very supportive, although there has been some resistance, primarily from two groups. Some humanities scholars object to studying a humanistic topic like religion from a scientific perspective, thinking that the only way to approach texts is through interpretation. Some religious people similarly are uncomfortable with the naturalistic starting point of our study, or our interest in applying evolutionary frameworks to the phenomena of religious belief and practice.
RM: It mentions that this is a project of “unprecedented scope.” What does that look like and how is this project different from anything else that has been researched or published previously?
ES: Well, we’re bringing together over 60 historians, religious studies scholars, philosophers, anthropologists, social psychologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, and mathematicians from multiple countries in North America, Asia and Europe, all intending to look at a small set of questions surrounding our central hypotheses. There have been a few interdisciplinary projects on religion before, with three to four collaborators, but both in terms of numbers and the involvement of humanities scholars, this is really unprecedented.
RM: What is a misunderstanding or misconception that you believe the public or academia has regarding the work you are hoping to accomplish in this project?
ES: Our central hypothesis is that “big god religions”—religions that have assembled a set of cultural practices and beliefs like omnipotent, omniscient, morally-concerned gods, supernatural surveillance and punishment and reward, costly displays of faith, ritual and other group practices, moral realism—were unusually successful in binding people together into cooperative groups, and these cooperative groups were then able to out-compete other, less cooperative groups. Some people see us as saying that “religion is good” or “religion makes people nice,” which is not quite the case. First of all, we are defining “success” for a cultural group in value-neutral terms: simple spread geographically and population-wise and persistence over time. Second, the flip side to increased in-group cooperation is typically out-group hostility, which is often not so nice.
RM: You mentioned in a Vancouver Sun blog entry, that you are a “scientific materialist.” Can you please explain that to our readers?
ES: I believe that our best current explanatory framework for the world is physicalism or materialism: the world is made of some kind of stuff that is subject to causal laws, and human-level phenomena (thought, free will, morality, etc.) emerge out of these causal processes, rather than descending from some supernatural realm or appearing out of nowhere.
RM: Can you please explain more about “wu-wei,” this amalgamation of Chinese philosophy and cognitive science?
ES: Wu-wei refers to a state of “effortless action,” where you are very active and successful in the world, but lose a sense of exerting effort and of being conscious of oneself as an agent. Although this idea developed very early in Chinese philosophy, it actually looks plausible, from a modern cognitive scientific perspective, that it describes a state of implicit skill or non-conscious action that we now know quite a lot about in cognitive neuro-scientific terms.
RM: At Religio magazine, our vision is to create a platform for believers of all religions to share their beliefs in order to encourage understanding and peace. Do you believe that peace among people of all religions and belief is possible and why?
ES: Our basic hypotheses that is, in human cultural evolutionary history, religions have been successful by tying people within the religion together very tightly, and increasing suspicion of, and hostility toward, out-groups. That said, we also think that there’s been an interesting phenomenon in modern industrialized societies where secular institutions have taken over a lot of work that religions once needed to do in terms of policing in-group behaviour and guiding interactions with other cultural groups. As my colleague Ara Norenzayan puts it, although big-god religions were probably necessary for large-scale societies to get off the ground, they are a ladder that we seem able to kick away once we’ve developed strong enough secular institutions. Once this happens, the pressure is off for religions to be inward-looking and divisive, and you can start getting more liberal religions that are open to ecumenicalism and peace between diverse groups. So I think the hope for inter-faith peace and cooperation is crucially bound to our ability to develop and maintain strong secular institutions.
RM: You are about to embark on a book tour for your first trade book, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. What is your vision for this book? How can understanding “wu wei” help our society today? Can you share some examples in your own life?
ES: We are heirs to a religious and philosophical tradition that has emphasized that success in life is the result of striving, trying, and effort. It’s becoming increasingly clear, though, that there are certain goals in life or desirable states that can’t be pursued directly or achieved through striving: happiness, attractiveness, creativity, etc. In pursuit of these goals, striving actually backfires, although we are too often not able to see this clearly. So taking ideas like wu-wei seriously allows us to get a better sense of the power of spontaneity and the challenges involved in being spontaneous, which in turn will hopefully allow us to see more quickly when pushing or forcing things is actually having a counterproductive effect.
For me, the most vivid and painful example of this had always been dating: when you’re single and trying to meet someone, the more you try the less successful you are. The only way to actually succeed in dating is to be relaxed and non goal-directed, which means that the only way to get a date is to not try to get a date—something that’s very hard to pull off when you do want a date. This paradox of trying not try pervades all sorts of aspects of our everyday life once we stop to think to think about, and the early Chinese thinkers I look at had lots of helpful and interesting techniques for getting around it.