In which I am interviewed for a Vlog

Connor Wood

Religion for Breakfast

So recently I was interviewed by Andrew Henry, of the Religion for Breakfast vlog, on the topic of using computer simulations to study religion. In keeping with my tradition of promising to do follow-up posts on important topics and then not getting to it, I thought I’d post the two-part interview here, rather than writing the next article on the “big gods” hypothesis. (Sorry, Mark!) The big gods article is still coming, definitely sometime before the next presidential administration – which hopefully will not be our last one, although honestly, at this point, who knows[Read more…]

Why the world needs liberals

Liberalism yayHere at Science On Religion, I’ve often written sympathetically about religion and more conservative forms of culture. I have good reasons for this. For one thing, the internet is an extremely welcoming place for voices that oppose religion and tradition. I think it’s good to challenge this reflexive individualism. But at the same time, I’m wildly grateful to live in a liberal society that allows for debate and encourages skepticism toward tradition. Studying religion may have awakened my conservative sensibilities – but I’m a patriot of liberalism. And you should be, too. [Read more…]

How “big gods” make us play nice

Connor Wood

Scales of justice with money and a village house

Gods are everywhere. In all recorded societies, people believe in some form of spiritual beings, whether gods, spirits, ancestors, ghosts – or all of the above. But they aren’t all the same. For example, if you cheat, steal, or murder, the God of the Bible will definitely get cross with you. But in many traditions, gods and spirits don’t especially care whether you behave badly, as long as you respect them. Interestingly, these differences in gods’ moral interests may be related to the type and scale of their host cultures. A burgeoning line of research is investigating whether moral gods influence how societies evolve and how big they get. Three recent papers – one each from 2014, 2015, and this year – use unique, creative methods to test this hypothesis. [Read more…]

No space for God of the gaps

Connor Wood

God of the gaps not found

Ever heard of the “god of the gaps?” It’s the idea that God is the reason for things we can’t explain through science. For example, no one on Earth knows exactly how proteins – linear chains of amino acids – find the proper 3-D structure to fold themselves into after being transcribed from RNA. Many of the millions of possible shapes are equally stable and possible. Yet the chains always assemble themselves into just the right structure. Spooky. So…God. Right? Wrong – because someday a brilliant scientist will figure out the scientific explanation for protein folding. And when she does, your faith in God will delate like a beachball – unless it never depended on the god-of-the-gaps argument in the first place. [Read more…]

Why symbols matter for homo sapiens

Connor Wood

Flag and eyes

If you’re an American under thirty with a college education (or are getting one), there’s a decent chance that you’re a fan of Bernie Sanders. The gruff Vermonter has been galvanizing Democratic enthusiasm with his fiery promises to take on big banks, socialize healthcare, and make college education free. Sanders’ vision of America is much closer to the democratic socialism of Denmark than to traditional American individualism. This inspiring vision also evokes an age-old problem: how to motivate collective action. Sanders envisions significant contributions from every American going into a collective pot, which in turn provides universal services. Research has shown us, though, that in order for such immense collective investment to work, people need to feel emotional buy-in – not just to the practical benefits they’ll be getting, but to the collective itself as an ideal. Hence, the people who want the United States to unify and follow the democratic socialist vision should be the most patriotic of all. But they’re not – and that’s a problem. [Read more…]

Think the Muslim world needs to “reform?” Think again

Connor Wood

Muslim prayer

It’s 2016. In the coming year, we’re pretty much guaranteed to see religious violence in the news again. Over recent months, high-profile terrorism attacks have hit Paris, San Bernardino, and Istanbul, rattling residents of rich democracies and even threatening the post-World War II tradition of open European borders. As fears and anger over terror attacks have grown, one increasingly loud international chorus of commentators and critics has called for a Muslim “reform” movement. If we’re supposed to accept Islam as a religion of peace, the logic goes, then members of the 1.5-billion-strong Islamic faith need to revamp their teachings to match the modern world! On the surface, this call seems understandable. But psychology, anthropology, and history all warn that a genuine reform movement may be exactly what we don’t want. [Read more…]

No to Reason,™ yes to clear thinking

Connor Wood

Unlock your mind

A couple months ago, I wrote a post here arguing that pure rational thinking, freed from all tradition-bound constraints, is not going to save the world – or the climate. Specifically, I claimed that Reason™ – the rah-rah, yay-for-Science!, jingoistic rallying cry of the atheism-industrial complex – shouldn’t be the torch-bearer for our hopes about the future of humanity and the planet. I stand by everything I said in that post, but I got a lot of pushback from angry readers – especially folks who thought I was arguing in favor of irrationality, precisely when we need reasonable problem-solving like we never have before. The debate was sometimes heated, but also pretty fun. So I thought I’d stir the hornet’s nest again. Ya’ll, Reason™ is not gonna save the world.

[Read more…]

Hilbert problems in the study of religion

Connor Wood

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Good science sometimes takes a little hubris. Case in point: one humble group of 19th-century German philosophers thought that there were some questions science could probably never answer, such as what the nature of matter and energy is – but the mathematician David Hilbert (the guy in the hat, at right) vehemently disagreed. Hilbert’s aggressive pursuit of mathematical and scientific solutions to the biggest riddles eventually helped lay the foundations of quantum mechanics, so you could say that his optimism paid off. That’s probably why the editors of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) are channeling Hilbert’s scientific optimism in their current call for researchers to identify the world’s most important, unanswered empirical questions about the evolution, functions, and future of religion: the “Hilbert problems” of the scientific study of human religiosity.

[Read more…]

Simulating Religion

Connor Wood

Conceptual wireframe mesh man woman face

Religion is simple, right? Some people believe in gods and an afterlife and stuff, and others don’t. That’s all there is to it. Wrong – religion is super ridiculously complicated. There are thousands of different religions across the world, with a stupendously dizzying array of different beliefs, rituals, and stories. For example, many Hindus worship the supreme god Vishnu, who creates the world while sleeping on the cosmic ocean. But millions of fellow Hindus say that another god, Shiva, is actually the one who creates everything, by dancing the cosmic tandava dance.* Vaishnavites and Shaivites have different ways of praying, different holidays, and different mythologies. And that’s just within Hinduism! All the other religions are equally, absurdly different from each other. So how do we get a handle on this vast realm of difference and variation? Well, one of the best techniques for understanding really, really complicated things is through…computer simulations. Think I’m joking? The research project I’m about to start work on is a three-year effort to model theories of religion. [Read more…]

Reason™ is not going to save the world

Connor Wood

Cold rationalism

If you’re a decently educated, critically minded person, chances are you’re not a fan of any truth claims that can’t be supported by empirical inquiry. No ancient Hebrews rising from the dead – and no fairies, sprites, or midnight horse rides from Jerusalem to Paradise and back, either. You might even think that such supernatural beliefs are not only hard to justify, but actually harmful, because they so often make people resistant to science, prone to inward-looking or violent tribalism, and anti-intellectual. You’d prefer if everyone were a rationalist – believing things only when there’s proper evidence, and rejecting the idea that anything is sacred. Fair enough, I guess. There’s just one catch: it would be an utter catastrophe if this actually happened. [Read more…]


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