Ara, I share your sentiments about the need for research on the psychological mechanisms and socio cultural processes underpinning karmic traditions. Identifying how, precisely, they work and how these processes interact with cultural contexts/doctrine will ultimately lead us closer to the task of explaining the shared, and unique, features of religion. I note that the Science of Immortality Project at UC Riverside explicitly called for this type of research (on karmic notions of rebirth), so I am guessing that there is none.Even though the focus is on folk concepts, I think that, as you suggest, the academic study of theological doctrine is crucial to understand. Equally important is the fact that there are hypotheses about the transformation of amoral rebirth eschatologies to moral ones that are largely "untested". For example, Obeyesekere's (2002) classic text "Imagining Karma" proposes an explanation of how and why rebirth systems changed but we are lacking a systematic analyses of the historical record. One of my projects (in progress) is to map the cross-cultural record to better understand in which types of societies these karmic notions exist, and how they relate to the broader socio-cultural context, and whether those relationships are "meaningful".What is also notably lacking is culturally sensitive research on how people respond to such concepts on the ground, as it were. While there is experimental research (albeit WEIRD) on the processes that underpin moral judgments/cooperation (I note with interest esp. the Baumard and Boyer 'Explaining Moral Religions' based on notions of proprotionality), we don't necessarily know that these processes govern "folk-karma" (in the proportionality with karma, I think they do). Thus, the need to understand the intuitive psychological biases that enable these systems to work should be based first and foremost on the cultural research.I conducted some ethnographic research with the Jains in India in an attempt to understand more about how they viewed karmic reward/punishment, but specifically in relation to the quality (i.e., good or bad life) or ontology (i.e., human, animal, plant) into which they were reborn based on their moral actions in this life. I share your theory about the importance of ritual actions, and especially the cues of supernatural agency which were everywhere (i.e., mahavira). I also agree that the idea of an impersonal system without supernatural cues, at the least, is not reflective of such religious systems in practice. Though we need to know the extent of the reliance and nature of these supernatural cues. Though there are similarities, it seems that pinpointing the differences in the systems - in ways that go beyond the supernatural agent theory, would be equally beneficial. For example, the details of the 'punishment' differ in Big Gods and karmic systems, it seems. For example, (thinking off-the-cuff here), one intriguing difference is that karmic punishment does not have (is not perceived to have) intermittent reinforcement. The final curtain call comes at the end of your life, not throughout, though it effects the quality of your next life. Whereas, at least the tentative research i've conducted on supernatural agents suggests that people perceive them as effecting one's current life - they can and do (relatively predictably) punish in multiple domains (e.g., biology - illness, psychology - mental torment) etc. as well as having ramification for the quality of one's life after death (I am assuming this also applies to high Gods). Thus, based on underlying schedules of "reinforcement", karma should (throwing out a suggestion here) rely more on support at the cultural level to maintain/spread the belief and thus, to induce behavioral modification (this could be in the form of CREDs/costly signalling etc via more rituals). I am also conducting research with past life groups in California (with Shaun Nichols) to understand more about the intuitive biases underpinning people's notions of past lives, including ideas about the moral consequences of actions in one life. These New Religious Movements may provide some insight to understand the dynamics of non-ethical ideas about rebirth, since they have no explicit moral system, and nor do they (on face value at least) rely upon a supernatural agent. But ultimately I think a culturally sensitive study of such processes is needed.
Norenzayan has made a valuable scholarly contribution to the study of supernatural agents, and ‘Big Gods’ in particular. Though the focus of the book is on the relationship between the growth of human societies and organized religions (more specifically, ‘Big Gods’), I couldn’t help but note the potential relevance of this work to the transformation and spread of ideas about rebirth – especially relevant considering that Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism are world religions. The usual objection to any work that considers supernatural agency as an explanation for the intuitive appeal/spread of ‘folk’ religion is that Buddhism doesn’t have “Gods”. I won’t flog this dead horse here. Rather, there are some parallels to the transformation and spread of rebirth that parallel Norenzayan’s theory about the cultural evolution of supernatural agent concepts. These similarities make me think that his work has broader explanatory power than beyond supernatural agents. It also makes me wonder whether, and to what extent, a supernatural agent/s (with powers of social surveillance) is necessary to induce the purported effects (prosociality and rapid cultural evolution) or rather, can any (religious) system/principle that co-opts a moralizing component (bad deeds punished, good deeds rewarded + surveillance) serve this function? I know that he thinks that secular institutions can, but can other religious systems? Is there also a similar evolutionary story to tell here? Specifically, there is a general scholarly consensus that doctrines about rebirth in small scale societies are “amoral”, but that Indic theories of rebirth transformed these basic ideas into a belief system that included a moral component (i.e., karma). Alas, belief systems that include this component (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism) are also found in large scale societies and they are widespread. Karma is driven by intuitions about a system/principle that includes assumptions about surveillance rather than a supernatural agent. Thus, although the cognitive science of religion has pointed to a myriad of intuitions about why, and how, ideas about supernatural agents spread rapidly, so long as we are grounded in any system of moral surveillance and corresponding consequences, can we kick the ladder of supernatural agents away and still explain the evolution of religion?
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