August 30, 2018

A lot of science happens when scientists are alone. There are the late nights coding data in the lab, with only the clack of the keys for company. There are solo evening walks when, if you’re lucky, a new hypothesis jumps suddenly to mind. But make no mistake – science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All scientists need communities of fellow thinkers and experimentalists. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of taking part in just such a community, when… Read more

July 31, 2018

A curious thing has happened over the past few decades in American higher education. The humanities and social sciences – disciplines such as history, cultural anthropology, and sociology – have gone from having a slight liberal tilt to being almost uniformly left-of-center, with the vast majority of professors and researchers in those fields self-identifying as very liberal or even radical. This ideological uniformity has strained relations between the academic world and conservatives, and some thinkers – such as the members… Read more

June 28, 2018

We humans love rhythm. Music, dancing, clapping, singing – no matter what form it comes in, rhythmic unity is a staple of our social lives. Recently, psychologists and cognitive scientists have found that “synchrony” – as researchers call it – seems to be associated with prosocial behaviors and attitudes. If a group of people dance or even clap their hands in rhythm together, they’ll probably be more cooperative and nice to each other afterwards. Scientists who study religion think that… Read more

June 20, 2018

Imagine two scenes. In the first, a person chucks a book casually on a table, leaving it open to the page she was reading, before walking into another room. In the second, she raises the book conspicuously over her head. Then, still holding it high in both hands, she slowly turns around, walks in a measured gait toward a large table, and places the book carefully on a reading stand. What’s the difference between these two scenes? Well, the first… Read more

June 12, 2018

I want to talk about suicide. It’s topical. In the past week and a half, two big-time celebrities – the fashion designer Kate Spade and the globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain – took their own lives, sending shock waves through popular culture. But these deaths were only part of a much larger trend: the suicide rate in the United States has increased by 25% since 1999. It’s now the tenth-leading cause of death in the country (and among teenagers, it’s second… Read more

May 25, 2018

People whose cognitive style is analytical or reflective are less likely to be religious than people who think more holistically or intuitively. Why? A new paper argues that the real factor is individualism. Read more

May 17, 2018

A team of psychologists think that behavioral ecology can help us understand why Westerners think analytically and residents of East Asia think more holistically: like other animals, we adjust our behavior to match our surroundings. Read more

April 18, 2018

A few years back, I wrote a post here called “Spirit Possession: Everyone’s Doing It.” (I was working at the time on a couple of encyclopedia articles on spirit possession cults.*) Spirit possession and shamanism are seriously interesting topics of study, because they shed a lot of light on general questions about the nature and origin of religion. Recently, a PhD student at Harvard, Manvir Singh, published a target article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences on the evolution of shamanism,… Read more

March 15, 2018

I have a new article up at Orbiter Magazine about the relationship between religion and science. Like I’ve done elsewhere, I stress in this article that there are real tensions – cultural conflicts – between these two types of institution. I also go into the personal dimension of what it’s like to be a religious believer who works in the human sciences. In general, science is dedicated to finding causal explanations of natural phenomena – explanations that reduce, at least… Read more

February 28, 2018

  I didn’t start out as a scientist. As an undergraduate, I majored in English, of all things. On the side I studied German language and literature. My early academic days were filled with iambic meters, memorizing lines from Goethe, and struggling with Middle English. How did I drift into the cognitive and evolutionary sciences of religion? When I get asked this question at parties, my usual answer is to wait until my interrogator is briefly looking the other direction,… Read more

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