Researchers Try to Explain Religion by Using Computer Simulations

A philosophy and theology professor from Boston College believes that by using computer simulations he and his research team can help explain religion, which he refers to as a “complex behavior.”

Wesley Wildman’s research objectives are based on the belief that “The human approach to processing terrifying events involves an exquisitely complex system of deeply intuitive human responses to emotional, social and environmental threats and uncertainties.”

Built on that belief, Wildman was prompted in this direction after reading a study titled “Faith after an Earthquake,” conducted by New Zealand researchers Chris Sibley and Joseph Bulbulia.

In 2011, after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated Christchurch, church attendance saw a dramatic spike among New Zealanders. However, according to the research of Sibley and Bulbulia, church attendance returned to its previous level after time had passed. In fact, the previous trend of declining church attendance picked back up where it left off before the tragedy.

Recording his response, Wildman wrote:

As a scholar of religion, I found this striking because of the particular rigor of their research: The quake happened between installments of surveys in a long-term study about New Zealanders’ attitudes, values and religious beliefs. The results from 2009, before the quake, and in 2011, after it happened, let researchers observe the same individuals before and after the natural disaster. The findings showed that people living near the earthquake, whether religious or not before the event, became more religious in the wake of the tragedy, at least for a while.

Attempting to explore the motivations and patterns of religious expressions, Wildman and his team used a computer to design” an artificial world populated by a large number of computer-controlled characters, called ‘agents.’”

The agents are programmed to follow rules and tendencies identified in humans through psychological experiments, ethnographic observation and social analysis. These include rules such as “seek comfort and protection when I’m frightened.” Then we watched for what happens in the artificial society – like whether the agents’ religious participation rises in the wake of a terrifying disaster.

As we build these agents and the artificial societies they inhabit, we test them against well-known real-world examples, such as the data gathered on church attendance before and after the Christchurch earthquake. The better our agents mimic the behavior of real humans in those sorts of circumstances, the more closely aligned the model is with reality, and the more comfortable we are saying humans are likely to behave the way the agents did in new and unexplored situations.

Of course, humans are complex, as are religious expressions. Acknowledging that doesn’t necessarily justify reducing religion to a simulated computer program.

Humans are created to worship. Tragically, we worship ourselves instead of our Creator. During times of duress, people often turn to worshipping their Creator as a means to persuade God to provide better results. In other words, they’re still worshipping themselves.

Wildman’s study will be unable to adequately distill, much less explore, authentic worship of God. Instead, he’ll chart the patterns of the irreligious who believe that God is a magic genie.

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