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Juniata Religion Professor Seeks Method to Measure Response to Religious Imagery

(Posted October 3, 2010)

Donald Braxton, professor of religious studies

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- There are few places more religiously volatile than the city of Jerusalem in Israel and the West Bank in the Palestinian territories. If you're a researcher trying to discover a way to anticipate religious conflict, a walk through these two locales is a must-see part of your itinerary.

Donald Braxton, professor of religious studies at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., will be making a research pilgrimage to the Middle East from Oct. 14-23 as part of a long-term research project based on a computer instrument prototype designed to measure and map patterns of emotional arousal among religious factions in response to religious imagery and behavior.

Braxton, along with Caleb Gwinn, a Juniata senior from Tyrone, Pa. studying biology, will be mapping out optimal walking routes through Jerusalem and the West Bank to test a prototype instrument that melds a GPS unit with a Galvanic Skin Response recorder. Galvanic skin response is a long-used technology that measures levels of interest. It has been used extensively in advertising and television research to test approval ratings for ads and programming.

"I am interested in getting a direct measure on how representatives of religious groups react to hard-core symbols of religious identity -- crosses, minarets, mosques, synagogues ," explains Braxton, who has done extensive research on computer simulations centering on how religious belief develops. "If we can map out a route that features these type of symbols and identify (through galvanic skin response) the emotional hotspots, we can possibly anticipate the likelihood of religiously motivated violence in a particular landscape."

Braxton's research product is funded by a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

"If we can map out a route that features these type of symbols and identify (through galvanic skin response) the emotional hotspots, we can possibly anticipate the likelihood of religiously motivated violence in a particular landscape."
Donald Braxton, professor of religious studies

The instrument Braxton intended to use is a prototype developed by Greg Link, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at York College and a 2002 Juniata graduate, in collaboration with Braxton. The $5,000 prototype will not be taking the initial journey to Israel. Braxton and Gwinn will use a simple GPS unit to map out an optimal route for an anticipated three- to five-year study. The proposal is currently under consideration at the Air Force Lab.

Braxton has long been interested using computers to model how religious beliefs form. He has competed a computer model of religious evolution and has taught a course called Sacred Landscapes, in which he had students explore religions and religious beliefs in Second Life, an online computer simulation game.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.