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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  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

Is religion headed for extinction? If we look at the rare conditions that sustain the world’s most secular countries, it looks like the answer is “no.” Read more

Religion does many things. It can form bonds between people, foment conflicts, and inspire people to sacrifice for higher causes. But one of the most important things that religions do is create meaning. Meaning in life is difficult to define, but people who report more meaning in their lives are psychologically healthier and less likely to suffer from mental illness than those who don’t. Consider the profound distress that many returning veterans face when returning to civilian society from a military… Read more

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