Signs and Signals: Ecclesial Life and the Cognitive Science of Religion

Can religion be scientifically studied from a sociological perspective? Can it give believer and non-believer alike insights into the phenomenon of religious belief?

This excerpt is a chapter that Fr.Joel Daniels contributed to a book, Reasonable Radical?: Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, about the theology of Martyn Percy, an Anglican priest who serves as the dean of Christ Church in Oxford. (No, I haven’t read the book, just this chapter.)

Read Signs and Signals: Ecclesial Life and the Cognitive Science of Religion

About the author:
Joel Daniels is a priest at my Episcopal church and is a really nice guy. His CV is here

(This post concerns science and faith, so please don’t take it down,. And please don’t hijack this thread.)


I’ve been reading the chapter for a while now but I’m about to go to dinner. Maybe I’ll scan the ending and then work back. Naturally I agree that religion can be studied sociologically and all the other ways mentioned, and why shouldn’t they be? Interesting to read them talk about it the way I’ve been thinking about it as a culturally passed down phenomenon with survival value. Maybe others will chime in to give me some sense of direction here.

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Thanks for reading it.

@MarkD Any idea why I’m the only religious person here interested in this article?

I have been curious. I take it that while analyzing the benefits of religiosity sociologically is interesting for you, you don’t of course think those reasons nullify religious belief. Perhaps others aren’t so sure.

But if that’s it, then I don’t see why looking at psychological or social aspects of our evolution should be any more a no-no than looking at bodily genetic aspects.

But the real reason might be the lack of interest/respect for the soft sciences amongst those in the firmer disciplines.

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There are sciences for everything that is included in the world. Science today tests and sifts data and makes theories on the data. There is naturally an interest in studying religion and the content of religion from an impartial point of view and religions affects people as individuals and societies and global politics.

Are we worried about an analytical appoach to what our faith is and what it leads us to do? It may reveal the defects and self dilusions of some that cause ungodly chaos and evil. It may ask us why we believe what we believe. Is is bad to ask such questions?

It may also reveal some of the benefits of what good religious faith and belonging can bring to the individual, society and the world. We should fear nothing from honest critical analysis. we may however need to face up to some of the ugly aspects of religious faith and institutional church that it may uncover.


This article shouldn’t trouble anybody. The author is a practicing Christian who happens to have an interest in these things. For example he’s an assistant editor of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior

Knowing something about music, I can watch a movie and understand exactly how the soundtrack is enhancing and even manipulating my emotional reaction, but that doesn’t stop my enjoyment of the film. Besides, I don’t think anybody here is involved in the Vineyard religious movement, which is the focus of the study.

I have just scanned the article, and it is interesting. I think there is something to the costly signaling in just about all of our social interactions, but can see it more prominently in certain churches. In fact, I was thinking of my current church, and we have a more fluid, come and go population at times making it difficult to know if anyone is really a member or just shows up to visit now and again. That may lead to problems down the line also. Maybe Biologos needs to get an official tattoo pattern for members or something. Or maybe at least an official coffee cup, as a costly signal.

Oooooh, Ooooh! I know! When any Biologos members are visiting with each other they can just unobtrusively sketch this fish pattern in the sand.


Wow this is really interesting and in the few spots I was able to read so far, had a few uncomfortable spots. I know otherwise, but always tend to imagine that social dynamics in churches are fully “spiritual” interactions. Maybe those aren’t the best words, but it is extremely obvious such things are regularly occurring all the time that can be easily understood and framed (perhaps helpfully) in their psychological and social contexts. I will certainly have to read more when I’m not on my phone and can print the article out. I didn’t even see this post until just today, so there you go!

I declare that if anyone hijacks the thread and I don’t see it, just PM me and the hijacking shall disappear! :face_with_monocle:

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Thanks for reading.

Sorry … I’ll behave myself.

You have a really cool Priest! The insights he writes of or refers to (problem of freeloaders, and the corresponding answer of costly signalling theory) give a good sociological backbone to a lot of what is being discussed around here. He not only advocates for religious involvement in good sociology – he exercises that knowledge for his [Christ’s] church. Thanks for sharing that.

I like stories by priests–Father Dowling, Diary of a Country Priest, and Father Brown are terrific :).

I haven’t been able to read this because my computer is a work one and it doesn’t let me do a hyperlink like that, for some reason.

I’ll try some other place. Thanks.

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Interesting topic, hijacking. I wonder …



I was going to say I thought the Darwin fish symbol minus the Darwin and maybe a cross or Jesus inside, with a slogan “Biologos: Christianity with legs” would be a hit at next years conference. , but that might be considered highjacking, so I won’t.
Now have had a chance to re-read the article, and found it opened my eyes to the signaling and such we see around us, in church and without. And bumper stickers and coffee cups are part of that as badging. It probably explains why in part fundamentalism is successful, no matter which religion you find it.
Sociology and such is a big gap in my knowledge base, so it is good to have articles like this to help fill the void.

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Of course your suggestion is the more appropriate one. I was just having some fun and wasn’t putting the Darwin fish forward seriously, of course. Regarding hijacking, I suppose as long as our little rabbit trails off the main route don’t themselves become a “new main route”, we’re okay? It was the CST (Costly Signalling Theory) of the article that inspires all this after all. And so getting back to that…

Putting a bumper sticker on your car could, I suppose, be costly in some circumstances (your reputation takes a hit in some of your valued circles of friends.) But by and large, given our propensity to only value the same grouping with those who most likely sport the same kinds of bumper stickers, it is not only of “no cost” to us but might actually cost us to not display approved badges signaling our membership. In that case, badges become meaningless – or even worse than meaningless. And if a societal grouping is large enough to where membership accrues real benefit, I should think the “freeloading” problem would be exacerbated in the extreme. But what is “freeloading” any more in a context where all the group may want from its loyal members is to show up on election day to vote for (or not vote for) some particular candidate? It seems to me that groups that large depend more on being able to manipulate their members rather than actually secure any informed loyalties. So it could be a whole different dynamic at that level. At the church level, covered by the discussed article, this could be one effective way to distinguish between a church and a cult. Do they value their members as informed and thinking citizens in their own right? Or do they want numbers just to create more wealth and control for a centralized few?

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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