Northwestern College professor awarded $234,000 grant from the Templeton Religion Trust

Dr. Laird EdmanDr. Laird Edman, research professor and professor emeritus of psychology at Northwestern College, will spend the next two years studying the impact of religious ritual in faith communities thanks to a $234,000 grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. 

“What if people of faith—in particular, church leaders—could leverage the way human minds work to better support faith development?” asks Edman. “What if understanding the power of ritual within faith contexts could be harnessed to better strengthen these communities while increasing their openness to others?”

Edman’s goal for his project team is to study which rituals achieve those results, test the team’s hypotheses, and then share their findings through articles, podcasts, blogs, presentations and a book. Their research will draw on the cognitive science of religion (CSR), an academic discipline that studies the mental capacities and processes that underlie recurrent patterns of religious thought and behavior.

Edman first became interested in CSR back in 2015, when he was among a select group of professors chosen to participate in a series of summer research seminars on scholarship and Christianity at Oxford University. He later was named the principal investigator on a CSR project conducted with the help of Dr. Myron Penner from Trinity Western University and funded by a $228,000 grant from the Templeton Religion Trust.

“What we have discovered about how the religious mind functions has an important practical side for people of faith,” Edman says. “It can help us to better understand the ways in which the human psyche is designed for worship, what psychological needs are fulfilled in worship, and what approaches to worship and discipleship will make the most profound, lasting impact.”

Dr. Justin Barrett, a key CSR scholar and president of Blueprint 1543, will serve as a consultant for the research phase of the project. With funds from the grant, Edman will write a chapter on ritual for a new book on meaning-making and faith. In February, he will give several lectures at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum on the same topic. And next fall, he will work with Dr. Joseph Bulbulia, professor of psychology at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and a leading CSR scholar, to test some of the ideas about rituals that the team has developed using several international databases of religion.

In addition to the cognitive science of religion, Edman specializes in emotional intelligence as well as the teaching and assessment of critical thinking. His research has been published in The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality; Religion, Brain and Behavior; Mental Health, Religion and Culture; and The Journal of Psychology and Christianity. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota, as well as master’s degrees in psychology and English from the University of Notre Dame.

Edman won the Northwestern Teaching Excellence Award in 2008 and 2017 and the college’s Faculty Excellence in Faith and Learning Award in 2023. Prior to joining NWC’s faculty in 2003, he taught at the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, Waldorf University and Luther College.

In 2022, he was appointed to the American Psychology Association’s Council of Representatives, which serves as the governing body of the world’s largest association of psychologists. He also serves on the executive committee for his division, which focuses upon the psychology of religion and spirituality.