Morality – The Role of Religion and Religious Communities

Morality – The Role of Religion and Religious Communities seminar will be held in University of Helsinki on 23-25 March 2011. Seminar organised by the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies & Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki & Socio-Cognitive Perspectives on Early Judaism and Early Christianity: A Nordic Network (NordForsk)

Coordinated by Petri Luomanen & Anne Birgitta Pessi & Ilkka Pyysiäinen.

Nota Bene! This seminar is open and free for everyone but for please register for catering purposes by 15th March to Kirsi Reyes ( Abstracts (tba).

Seminar programme


Recent studies in various fields such as evolutionary biology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience and social psychology have produced results that challenge more or less directly the role of religion as the source of morality and pro-social behaviour. For instance, Marc Hauser argues that humans possess an innate moral grammar which generates intuitive judgments on right and wrong. Hauser supports his thesis with cross-cultural evidence based on a large Internet survey with about 200.000 subjects. Likewise, Kristen Renwick Monroe concludes in her perspective theory of altruism that other elements than religiosity play a crucial role in motivating altruism and in distinguishing an `altruist´ from `non-altruist´, namely cognitive processes and understanding (e.g., how one views other human beings).

These results challenge some of the classical theological and philosophical claims and assumptions discussed and debated for the last two millennia. Thus, our forthcoming seminar will focus on the question: what, if any, really is the role of religion and religious communities in morality, pro-social behaviour, altruism? Under this core question two themes in particular can be detected; first one concerning specifically the level of individuals, the latter religious communities.

First, what is the role of religion in the moral behaviour of an individual? What is the real significance of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount — the sermon which even non-active Christians and sympathisers of Christianity may name as their altruistic ideal? Does it set up unique moral standards or only crystallize humans’ innate moral intuitions? Furthermore, what is the role of emotions, empathy and sympathy in moral judgment? The role of emotions in moral judgment is an issue which has recently been debated in moral psychology with, for example, Jonathan Haidt arguing that intuitive moral judgment is emotionally-based.

Second, what is the role of religious teachings and religious communities in pro-social behaviour? Does Judaism, Christianity, or religion in general involve doctrines, rituals, forms of life, or mental capacities that endow people with a special competence for moral behaviour? For instance, early Christian moral exhortation propagates the life “in Christ” as a prerequisite for moral behaviour. Does this life take forms that are qualitatively unique in their surrounding or does the language of being “in Christ” only add a metaphorical, theological dimension to ordinary morality? Furthermore, if there is an innate moral grammar, can moral decision making be trained at all (e.g., in congregations or schools)? For instance, can explicit beliefs intrude on intuitions in moral decision making?

The planned seminar seeks to cast light on these questions through interdisciplinary cooperation which brings together scholars from religious studies, theology, cognitive science, social psychology, sociology of religion, religious education, early Jewish and Christian studies, philosophy, systematic theology, and Biblical studies.

The starting point of the seminar is in the latest empirical research in the fields of cognitive science and social and moral psychology that set the stage for the discussion by questioning the central role of religion in morality. The seminar involves scholars from different fields engaging in a critical discussion.

Presenters will be invited and topics will be selected so that the seminar represents the various fields of science; we also aim at a publication based on the papers read in the seminar. The forthcoming publication will be aimed at an international audience.

The workshop and the planned publication is ground-breaking—at least in the Nordic context—in its intent to bring together research in several branches of theology, study of religion, psychology, and other fields. We aim at casting light on classical theological questions and themes by taking seriously the challenge presented by recent empirical research. As such, the seminar will not just enhance discussion within theological disciplines but also provide new starting points for a fruitful interaction with social and behavioural sciences.

The seminar will be organised 23.-25.3.2011 at the University of Helsinki, Finland. The seminar language is English.

Keynote speakers

Professor Nancy Ammerman, Boston University, Chair of Department of Sociology. Expertise: Sociology, sociology of religion, religious studies, congregational studies. Professor Ammerman has focused extensively on the role of congregations in pro-social behavior and welfare, and also on their role in cooperation networks with other social agents.

Professor Kristen Renwick Monroe, political psychologists/economist, University of California, Irvine; Director of UCI Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality, Political Science School of Social Sciences. Prof. Renvick’s research interests include several topics that are relevant for the worshop, such as altruism, holocaust, moral choices of ordinary people.

Ilkka Pyysiäinen, Cognitive scientist of religion, Department of the Study of Religions, University of Helsinki. Pyysiäinen has done research on the cognitive and emotional basis of religion and morality. He is the author of Supernatural Agents: Why we believe in souls, gods, and buddhas (OUP 2009) and numerous other books and papers. He is member of The International Cognition and Culture Institute.

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