Our cultural comfort zones, when growing up, can be vastly different. We are often led to believe, to varying extents, that the culture we are raised in is the norm. When we encounter other cultures and ideologies, even within our own country, it can take what we thought we knew and flip it upside-down. And if we can adapt to life in these unfamiliar places, it can give us unique insights into how the two cultures split off in the first place.
As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sinai and Synapses Fellow Kendra Moore and fellow PhD student Kate Stockly discuss how the assumptions they grew up with were challenged when they turned their gaze outward.
Kendra M. H. Moore is a PhD student at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies. She primarily focuses her work on the psychology and neuroscience of religion. She graduated with a Bachelor of Behavioral Sciences from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and subsequently graduated with a Master of Theological Studies from Boston University. Her research centers on the role of the religious imagination and how our knowledge of this role might unveil the cognitive constructs that influence human behavior on an ethical and moral level. This research addresses how central and authoritative religious images (such as concepts of God and afterlife) construct or deconstruct human relationships, institutions, biases, rituals, and ideas of self. Kendra hopes her research can further our understanding of how to be responsible bearers of the concepts that inform our perspectives of the world. When she is not reading and writing, Kendra enjoys being outdoors, and in Boston this often means walking around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir or kayaking and paddleboarding on the Charles River.Read Transcript
Hi, I’m Kendra Holt Moore, and I’m a PhD Student in Religious Studies at Boston University. So, I grew up in a conservative family and culture, and attended mostly conservative creationist schools throughout my childhood and high school years. And at the time, I didn’t really think very much about that at all. I liked science. I just kind of took for granted, like everyone else, that I grew up with and around, that you had a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story, and that’s just the way that we understood the world.
And so I showed up at college and started taking my religious studies and theology classes. I started hearing things that sounded really unusual to me, things that I never in a million years thought that I would hear in church – like, “you can actually read the Genesis creation story figuratively, metaphorically” and “maybe the way that we see the world isn’t always the same as everyone else that looks at the world in different ways.”
And so I just started to ask more questions, and I felt free to ask those questions in ways that I never really felt free to ask questions growing up as a kid or as a high schooler.
After college I decided to go to graduate school, and I ended up getting a Masters in Theological Studies at Boston University. But when I was applying for grad school, I wanted to go somewhere outside of Texas, which is where I grew up, to just see for myself, like – what it was it that was so different about everyone else.
While I knew that I grew up in this really insular world, surrounded by people who were, for the most part, like-minded, that also was the same experience that a lot of my Northern friends were having – my Northern friends who grew up in Northern families with Northern friends, who believed more progressive things collectively, and maybe had never even had a conservative Christian friend, or never even knew a Republican.
And so, it was this really interesting moment of realizing that there is no such thing as one American culture – that there are multiple different modes of education and learning, and that the United States, is a big place, and people are very disconnected from one another, across state lines, especially across the Mason-Dixon line.
I realized that I wanted to be part of the community of people who are attempting to build bridges between these divides that we have all across the United States. And I think that part of how that happens is through education, part of how it happens is through religious congregations, but what everyone has to be willing to do is to grant some moral credit, or to grant some legitimacy, to the beliefs and ideas that the other has, just to the extent that we’re able to have a conversation. Because I realize that that just isn’t always possible, and it’s very scary, actually, to be able to admit to yourself that maybe you don’t know everything.
And so I think that that’s been one of the greatest lessons of my own educational journey, is to have the privilege to explore and to travel across the world and across different states in the U.S. I’ve just been able to see a lot of different cultural exchanges and experiences that have helped me to understand how difficult it is, actually, to communicate with one another, but how important it is for us to be able to embody peace, and live in really diverse communities. So that’s something that I continue to care about academically, but also personally and religiously, because of my own upbringing.
Kate Stockly is a PhD student in the Science, Philosophy, and Religion program. She holds a BA from Pacific Lutheran University in Religion and Psychology (separate majors) with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies and an MA from the University of Washington in Comparative Religion. Her research interests are driven by a desire to develop a well-rounded religious anthropology – to understand how and why humans are homo religiosus. With this goal in mind, she investigates the ways in which the cognitive, neurological, and sociological aspects of human nature culminate in dynamic interaction to contribute to religiosity and religious experience. As a case study, Kate has explored many aspects of American religion and is currently co-authoring a book on evangelical megachurches. Kate is also interested exploring the philosophical assumptions of contemporary neuroscience and biology and the theoretical and theological implications of including scientific methods and data in conversations about religion.Read Transcript
Hi. My name is Kate Stockly, and I’m a Ph D. Student in the Scientific Study of Religion at Boston University.
Growing up, my family attended a great little Lutheran church up in Anchorage, Alaska, and it was really there, long before I started college and long before moving to Boston to begin my Ph.D., and I began studying religion. I was always a pretty intense thinker, and I loved to ponder about the ways that different churches, and different religions – different people – really responded to this feeling, or awareness, of the divine’s immanence in the world, and transcendence of the world.
So during my confirmation classes, our pastor encouraged us to explore boldly – to doubt, to seek, to critique, to use all of the sources of knowledge and wisdom, including sciences, to understand and appreciate the sacred beauty in the midst of the human condition. There were moments, in fact – this was so fun for me that there were moments that I was jealous of the people who got to go to the Christian high school, because I imagined that it would be just like a confirmation class every day. I’m sure it wasn’t, but. Since my church was an open, relatively theologically progressive – while being liturgically traditional, it was an accepting community, so I wasn’t really under any impression that there was any real conflict between religion and science. In my mind, they were two sides of the same coin – we’re all trying to figure it out.
And I knew that there were some kind of fundamentalist televangelists on TV, but it probably wasn’t until college that I came to understand two important things: first, that the rejection of science on religious grounds was way more common than I thought, and second, that there were actually a few real and important points of tension between faith and science – between the stance of faith in things unseen, and especially attention to the potential of supernatural beings, and the stance of scientific inquiry and experimentation and materialism. So I still don’t believe that these things are necessarily always at odds, but I came to appreciate, really, the complexity of that tension a lot better.
So yeah, when I started college I began a religion major. Of course, I was excited to get another taste of that rich confirmation experience. I also did a psychology major, and I took every opportunity I had to put these two disciplines of religion and psychology into conversation. So it didn’t take me long to really realize that this interdisciplinary work was going to be my niche. My academic interests eventually moved away from the way that people negotiate faith and science, which really became more of a personal project for me, and instead moved toward using what we know about the world via scientific inquiry, and what we know about humans, to understand why, how, and in what ways, we humans are religious.
And the further along I got in my studies, the more scientific literature I dove into. I realized I needed to, to really understand the complexity of this problem. I read neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, endocrinology, philosophy of mind – I just think the puzzle and mystery of human bodies, minds, and spirits is mind-blowing. We are incredible creatures.
So even though studying religion with scientific theories and methods often requires us to narrow our scope and to reduce religion to kind of net- manageable variables, for me, the endgame is absolutely the opposite of reductionism. How we relate, how humans relate to that which is beyond ourselves, and that which kind of lies at the mysterious margins of our perception and our consciousness, those things really reduce reductionism. And this is why I think it’s really imperative that some religious scholars – religious studies scholars – not all of us, but some of us – who understand those nuances and complexities of religion, that we become literate in some science and understand and be involved with the scientists who are studying religion.
And I know this is hard. I have tried. But the scientific study of religion really requires true interdisciplinary work. It requires dialogue and openness across fields and academic languages. And I think that one of the reasons I’m attracted to this work is because this is how I was taught to think about religion in the first place, way back in confirmation class. And I really believe that these intersections, and these conversations, are really where a lot of the beauty and the hope and the promise lies in understanding the human condition, and learning how to better live with each other. In that sense, religion really touches every single part of our lives. It’s a topic that is of interest and relevance to almost every single academic discipline there is. And I, for one, just feel like it’s an incredible gift to be able to go to work each day and to contribute to this knowledge on a topic that is so important to me personally and to the world as a whole.