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The Origins and Spread of Spiritual Beliefs

The Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London is offering 3 funded PhD studentships to study the origins and spread of spiritual beliefs. Human cultural capacities are uniquely expressed in spiritual belief, practice, and community. Our project applies cultural evolutionary theory (e.g., The Secret of Our Success, Henrich, 2017) to study how spiritual but not religious (SBNR) practitioners seek and build spiritual community, and how those communities shape the learning of new beliefs. Our project combines robust quantitative methods with context-rich observations and interviews, while engaging with participants and community groups to hear what our findings mean to them. We will test predictions derived from cultural evolutionary theory via a case study in the town of Glastonbury, England–a nexus of spirituality, home to diverse SBNR communities, and a destination for thousands of spiritual pilgrims annually.

Based in the College of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences and co-funded by the “Spirits and Sources” Templeton Foundation Research Grant, this studentship offers a full-time annual London rate stipend estimated at £20,662 plus Home/EU tuition fees, for a maximum of 36 months.

The Department of Life Sciences holds a Silver Athena SWAN Award and is committed to equality of opportunity and advancing women’s careers.

The start date will be 02 January 2024.


The PhD studentship will involve a mixed-methods approach, including fieldwork in the town of Glastonbury, England using interview and observational methods.


The successful candidate will be supervised by an expert interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Centre for Culture and Evolution, Brunel University, who will provide full training for the research:

  • Dr Michelle A Kline (Principle Investigator)
  • Dr Aiyana Willard (Co-Principle Investigator)
  • Dr Lora Adair (Co-Investigator)
  • Dr Matthew Gervais (Co-Investigator)

For informal discussions, please contact Dr Michelle A Kline ( ).


Candidates should have an undergraduate degree (first or upper second class) or equivalent qualification in psychology, anthropology, sociology, religious studies/theology or a related field. A Masters qualification in a relevant area would be desirable. Experience in qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods relating to social learning, religious/spiritual belief, or related cultural evolutionary research will be highly valued. Applicants who have not been awarded a degree by a University in the UK will be expected to demonstrate English language skills to IELTS 7.0 (minimum 6.5 in any section).

How to apply

If you wish to apply, please e-mail the following to by 23rd October 2023. Interviews will take place virtually in the week of 6th November 2023.

  • An up-to-date CV.
  • A single-page A4 single-spaced personal statement describing why you are a suitable candidate (i.e. outlining your qualifications and skills).
  • One example of your academic writing (e.g. an essay, a section from a dissertation).
  • Names and contact details for two academic referees.
  • A copy of your highest degree certificate and transcript.
  • A copy of your English language qualification, where applicable.

Short-listed applicants will be required to attend an interview. Shortlisted applicants will be instructed to submit a formal online application via Admissions.

For further information about how to apply, please contact the College of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences Postgraduate Research Office on

Meet the Supervisor(s)

Aiyana Willard - Aiyana Willard is a Lecturer (psychology) in the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London and a research associate at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford. Her research interests are in the cultural evolution of religion, karma, witchcraft and other supernatural beliefs. Academic career: Lecturer in Psychology, Brunel University London, 2018-current. Postdoctoral researcher, Oxford, 2017-2018 Postdoctoral researcher, University of Texas at Austin, 2015-2017 PhD in Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2015 MA in Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2011

Lora Adair - My research primarily focuses on topics within the domains of social and evolutionary psychology, particularly models of decision making about interpersonal relationship events. Specifically, my work applies feminist and evolutionary theory to investigate decisions relevant to sexuality as social reasoning. Investigated topics within my research include mate choice and attraction, intrasexual and intersexual conflict and competition, reactions to relationship threats and defection, sexism and sex/gender based discrimination, sexual exploitation and intimate partner violence, reproductive decision-making, and abortion. I joined the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London in the Fall of 2019. Before joining Brunel University London, I served as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Arkansas (Fall 2017-Spring 2019) and Lyon College (Fall 2015 - Spring 2017). 

Matthew Gervais - I'm an evolutionary and cultural psychologist with a background in anthropology. My research takes a multi-level approach to human sociality, seeking to understand the mutual constitution and co-evolution of human emotions, social relationships, and social structures. I use a range of descriptive and confirmatory methods, including long-term participant observation, semi-structured interviews, cultural domain analysis, economic games, and social psychological surveys. I maintain an active field site working with indigenous iTaukei communities in the Fiji Islands. I also collaborate on multi-site comparative studies investigating human psychological and behavioural variation.