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York U professor looks at the roots of religious altruism

Psychology professor Joni Sasaki wins a Templeton Foundation grant to study whether the urge to do good is in our genes.

Dr. Sasaki recently won a prestigious Templeton Foundation grant for her research – a first for a York University professor.
Dr. Sasaki recently won a prestigious Templeton Foundation grant for her research. Photo by Ian Patterson.

“Religion is weird,” says Joni Sasaki. She makes the pronouncement without the slightest trace of derision creeping into her voice. In fact, Dr. Sasaki, an assistant professor of psychology at York University, sounds downright fascinated. “People do interesting things when they’re religious.”

Her fascination with the biological and cognitive reasons behind religious altruism has landed Dr. Sasaki a prestigious John Templeton Foundation research grant of $330,842(US), making her just the second York University professor to receive Templeton Foundation funding (York humanities professor Bernard Lightman and colleagues at Coventry University in England received a $3.5 million grant from the Templeton Religion Trust in 2014 to study contemporary public debates surrounding evolution and religion).*

“I don’t think religion always leads to good things or always leads to bad things. I think it depends. It’s that ‘it depends’ part that I’m trying to tease apart,” Dr. Sasaki explains.

With her research staff at York’s Culture and Religion Lab, Dr. Sasaki will investigate the ways that biology, social environments and psychological processes come together to impact a person’s religiously motivated behaviours. From the Jesuits engaged in social and ecological justice campaigns to Mother Teresa’s self-sacrificing missions to the violent acts perpetrated by jihadists and crusaders, what makes believers do good things or bad things? She’s particularly interested in the effect of the “supernatural” on the decision-making process: Does the belief in an omnipresent deity who rewards or punishes lead to better behaviour from the devout?

The answer, Dr. Sasaki hopes, will lie in part in DNA. She plans to conduct a study that will involve genetically testing a cross-section of believers and non-believers. Results will be measured against an index of about five genes that impact dopamine activity and make people more or less sensitive to rewards and punishments. In the end, she’s aiming to find out how or if such sensitivity affects one’s decision-making process when religion is top of mind. (She notes that the studies involving the costly process of genotyping large sample sizes would not be possible without the Templeton money.)

Dr. Sasaki became interested in this topic while pursuing religious studies and psychology as an undergraduate student at Claremont McKenna College in California. “In religious studies classes I always thought about it from a psychological perspective and in psychology classes I would wonder how it was relevant to religion. There just weren’t a lot of answers at that time.”

The Templeton award, she notes, is a sign that times are changing. In mainstream psychology, religion “got pushed into this niche of more-specialized researchers or researchers at religiously affiliated institutions,” she says. “It’s only now permeating the mainstream.”

*This is a correction. Incorrect information appeared in the original version.

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  1. Ryan / March 17, 2015 at 04:13

    This is my sister!

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