Cultural studies of religions encounter the problems of cross-cultural comparability and generalizability, which need to be resolved for further scientific progress in this field (Karandashev, 2021a; Karandashev et al., 2022; Fischer, 2022). Culture matters when we study behavioral and social phenomena in different populations and religious contexts. The lead article by Ronald Fischer (2022) in the recent issue of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior is very valuable in this respect. In that article, the author presents personal reflections of the study that their team reported on their exploratory journey. Here I summarize one of the two points on which his commentary “Cultural lessons missed and learnt about religion and culture” focuses. It is about “how important cultural context is for thinking about religion, morality, and evolution and researching them.”

The Best Way to Explore Religions in a Cross-Cultural Perspective

The research team intended to explore the universality and evolutionary salient dynamics. Therefore, they considered cultural dynamics all the way, including the specification of key variables, operationalization of variables, the measurement context, and the interpretation of the results. Researchers developed effective translation options (Harkness et al., 2003). They also made checklists for researchers to use (Hambleton & Zenisky, 2010; Harkness et al., 2003, 2010; Hernández et al., 2020).

There are two groups of methodological issues which Ronald Fischer (2022) addresses in his lead article:

The first set of questions concerns the issues of conceptual equivalency and cross-cultural universality of the concepts under study, the selection of key variables, their conceptual definitions, and the operationalization of those variables. These questions are summarized in this article.

The second set of questions concerns the issues of technical procedures of measurement, cultural contexts of measurement, measurement invariance across cultural samples, cultural biases in measurements, and culturally sensitive interpretation of results. These questions are summarized in another article.

Conceptual Problems in Cross-Cultural Studies of Religions and Their Solutions

The author (Fischer, 2022) illustrates some conceptual questions with concrete examples. They are mainly taken from Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, one of the field sites. The religious landscape project began with 20 community members being interviewed and asked to name five gods or spirits. The prominence of these gods or spirits in people’s lives was ranked. In an environment with a single deity or a list of widely known gods or spirits, it may be easy to answer these questions and discuss them with strangers. It was a different social situation in the case of that study due to cultural circumstances that:

  • these are the religious systems in which gods or spirits are individualized: each person has a guardian spirit,
  • religious information may not be given to non-initiates,
  • spirits may not be identified, or
  • the prominence of a god or spirit depends on the topic or occasion.

The Cultural Case of Candomblé Religion in Brazil

The religion of Candomblé is a fascinating case study because a person is a “filho/a de santo,” that is, the “son” or “daughter” of a particular “orixá” (ancestor figure). Hence, a person has a highly intimate bond with a potent ancestor spirit. Individuals who have not reached the same level of initiation should not be given specific information about what these orixás may or may not do. It’s important to know that there are different kinds of Candomblé, each with its own rules and taboos.

Given individualized relationships on the one hand and what a respondent may or may not be able or permitted to say with non-religious outsiders, researchers encounter a challenge. They may or may not obtain a consensus by interviewing 20 individuals. These people may hesitate, considering how acceptable it is to disclose one’s personal gods to an outsider. The question of insider vs. outsider knowledge is central to traditional indigenous research procedures such as pagtatanong-tanong in the Philippines (Pe-Pua, 1989) and in other cultural cases.

Researchers should take this personalized status as crucial in light of one of the key distinctions: “What is an omniscient or punitive god?” (Fischer, 2022, p. 214). Depending on which orixá and the relationship of the believer to that orixá, an orixá may be both or either. This distinction may not make sense to participants when viewed:

  • through a functional lens: “Does the concept or idea make “sense” within the local cultural context?”
  • through a structural equivalence lens: “What are appropriate empirical instantiations of the concept or idea?” (Fischer & Poortinga, 2018; Fontaine, 2005; van de Vijver & Leung, 1997).

The question remains whether these issues communicate this confusion to an outsider. Maybe yes, but maybe not.

Victor Karandashev

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