Religion is, at the very least, a highly complex social phenomenon. The theories we use to understand religion – and sociocultural systems more generally – are often so complex that even experts in the field may not be able to see all their consequences. Social simulations can help us understand and communicate the consequences of a theory, provided we can describe the theory with sufficient precision and comprehensiveness in order to run it on a computer. In this article we demonstrate the benefits of simulating the predictions of a well-known theory in the Cognitive Science of Religion, the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Many of these predictions have already been tested against contemporary and longitudinal evidence, using the methods of both qualitative case study and large-scale survey, and some of the mechanisms responsible for the patterns observed have been investigated by means of controlled experiments. Nevertheless, in simulating the patterns of religious transmission and transformation predicted by the modes theory we discovered numerous aspects that were underspecified, generating new hypotheses for investigation in future empirical research. This back-and-forth between simulation and theory testing has the potential to accelerate progress in the scientific study of religion.
Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: Case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182-201. https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.691033