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Voltaire, a great French philosopher, once said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.  It shows us that if God really does not exist, our need of God will persist. And indeed, in the middle of remarkable science advancement through which human become increasingly intelligent and gain more insight and understanding of the big wide world, human inexorably start questioning God and subsequently religion. Is religion still of significance and needed in this fast-growing world? Just as Voltaire, Harvey Whitehouse, a professor of Anthropology from Oxford University, states that both religion and God are still vitally needed in order to preserve morality, particularly in structurally-complex society.

In recent time, Harvey Whitehouse is a director of Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, fellow professor of Magdalen College of Oxford University, as well as one of the founders of the Resolution of Intractable Conflict Centre. Harvey Whitehouse is a prominent scientist who studies relationship between religion, society, cognitive, and behavior. He, too, was privileged to be main interviewee in Morgan Freeman’s prestigious documentary series, ‘the Story of God’. 

It was such a pleasurable and fruitful moment on 28 July 2019 when Harvey Whitehouse visited Indonesia and gave an excellent presentation in a seminar in Jakarta. The seminar was organized by Division for Applied Social Psychology Research (DASPR) in collaboration with Ikatan Psikologi Sosial (IPS) and Konsorsium Psikologi Ilmiah Nuantara (KPIN).

Driven by his curiosity and wonder to study the causes and consequences of social cohesion, Harvey Whitehouse reckons Indonesia as one of the best places to conduct research and gain deeper knowledge on the matter. That, for him, is due to the fact that Indonesia is so diverse in terms of culture that there are a great number of social groups capable of influencing social cohesion with different level of intensity and style, which is beyond compelling to be compared. Currently, Harvey Whitehouse is also carrying studies on Muslim minorities across the globe. Thus, given Indonesia is most populous Muslim country in the world, it could be a significant source in establishing comparative studies. Apart from that, the most recent development of the revival of conservative Islam in Indonesia is also considered greatly appealing to be explored. 

In spite of having visited Indonesia before, in addition to conducting a research in the region, Papua New Guinea, Harvey Whitehouse only began to be seriously keen on setting studies in Indonesia after collaborating with Dr. Phil. Idhamsyah Eka Putra and other Indonesian social scientists in early 2017. Idhamsyah Eka Putra is both a lecturer in Universitas Persada Indonesia and DASPR Director. His area of interest is relationship amongst groups, societal psychology, prejudice, and fanaticism in religion. He, too, is renowned as the only social scientist developing a new concept named meta-prejudice.

Considering that he and his research team have a lot of common ideas and research interests with Idamsyah Eka Putra and team, Harvey Whitehouse started to collaborate intensively with DASPR team. He was amazed with DASPR research achievements in his area of research interests. He, thus, believes that there is an enormous potential for further long-lasting cooperation in the future with DASPR.

The moderator role for the seminar was filled by Joevarian Hudiyana, a doctoral research student of Faculty of Psychology, Universitas Indonesia, and managing editor in Jurnal Psikologi Sosial (JPS). Harvey Whitehouse gave thorough explanation on religion, ritual, social complexity, as well as extremism, which is derived from his findings he obtained from his ethnography research in Papua New Guinea. His results have been tested in a global scale to ensure whether or not his concept is valid.

He explained that religion is a result of cultural configuration and information that are continuously reproduced. Based on religious transmission, Harvey Whitehouse develops his core theory called religious mode theory: imagistic and doctrinal. Regarding imagistic mode, there are numerous characteristics lingering it; less frequent enthusiastic ritual; ritual is considered as sign of the reflection about meaning and essential establishment of self; a medium to share experience capable of igniting social cohesion and intense relationship in the group;  inefficient diffusion; and priceless in the effort to achieve high-risk aim, for example intension for war. On the other hand, doctrinal mode is characterized with, high-frequent ritual and standardized doctrine, forming large anonym community, diffused cohesion based on categorical bond, as well as possessing capacity to produce weighty accumulative resource. 

Imagistic mode has an exceptional feature to form and glue society. The implementation of this mode could result in more emotional and deeper bonding within those participate in, whilst doctrinal mode, given it happens in more intense frequent manner, it turns to be habitual and easy to spread. Doctrinal mode, nevertheless, fails to touch emotional dimension, but it carries an important role to plant and form standardized practice in religion. Looking further, understanding of this mode could explain not merely religious phenomenon, but also, at wider scale, any other social phenomenon conundrums such as behavior of certain group of football supporters.

Harvey Whitehouse, too, gave a fascinating presentation regarding complex society. This concept explains that the more complex and developed a particular society, the more individuals in it demand what is called “moralizing Gods”. This complexity will lead people interact not only with those having similar characteristics with them, but also those potential to bring conflict. Hence, “moralizing Gods” are of utmost importance to blossom in a wider society. Moralizing Gods for Harvey Whitehouse is the “eye in the sky”, through which understanding about the existence of God who could see beyond anyone’s mind and the issue of rewards and punishments for every sin and deed appears on the surface. Believing in god make people think of what is right and what is wrong, or what is good and what is bad, as well as lead people to trust each other. Moralizing Gods are also present in more secular societies as a form to control people’s conduct.

What is impressive about mode of religion is that it is able to predict human psychology based on memory, identity, and social cohesion. In a more detailed explanation, Harvey Whitehouse transferred his knowledge on the theory of identity fusion, theory that explicates personal relationships amongst a group. Identity fusion fabricates fight-and-die-response motivation so that it could explain the motive why individuals are willing to sacrifice and fight for the sake of the group they belong, including committing extreme misconduct. Subsequently, it is clearly seen that imagistic mode plays more decisive role in constructing identity fusion. 

In order to achieve identity fusion, the role of experiences becomes undeniably crucial in constructing memory. This is explained comprehensively by Harvey Whitehouse’s colleague, Barbara Muzzulini, a post-doctoral researcher at Oxford University. She presented a concept called autobiography memory, one’s memory on important life events in the past. Autobiography memory takes root from personal memory, memory from others, and internalized public memory. In practice, it is easier for identity fusion to form through episodic memory, memory obtained from direct past experience of individual, which is highly subjective. 

The seminar afterwards shifted to discussion session via which attendance or participants holding keen interest on extremism behavior recently sky-rocketing in Indonesia could ask directly to Harvey Whitehouse and Barbara Muzzulini. DASPR research assistances, then, were given a momentous opportunity to present their research plan on degrading stigma surrounding wives of terrorist convicts. They received priceless suggestions from both Harvey Whitehouse and Barbara Muzzulini who appeared to be so interested in the research plan that they are willing to supervise the research so that it could be of professional-class caliber. The seminar ultimately culminated in a mingle session from which all involved in the seminar could socialize and build productive networking.  

In the end of the day, all participants possessed valuable constructive learning through a remarkable number of high-impact research produced by Harvey Whitehouse and colleagues. Harvey Whitehouse has opened our eyes that religion is not merely a manifestation of faith, but religion could also explain societal behavior. Religion and social cohesion in more complex society simply bring a new compelling dimension on our effort in exploring motivation behind our behavior.