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...]

Newsflash: Elite universities are supposed to produce elites. That’s their job.

Connor Wood

Young graduate standing in front of university building

As I wrote last time, conservatives in the state government have been attacking the University of Wisconsin, where I went to college. Studying religion and ideology, I’ve come to appreciate many conservative and traditionalist perspectives. But this assault on the UW system raises a tough question: why is it that conservatives – including religious conservatives – often seem so bloody hostile toward higher education? Some might say that it’s because religious conservatives are Dark Ages throwbacks, but I think that some better answers might instead come from asking a more interesting and useful question: what is higher education for? What does higher education offer a rich, complex society like ours? [Read more...]

The culture wars come for public higher education

Connor Wood

Source: Eric E. Johnson, Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Everyone holds something sacred. Whether you’re a devout believer or a hard-nosed atheist, there are at least a few values and ideas that you consider inviolable. I often write about sacred values from a cool, academic distance – dissecting them in order to, say, better understand the culture wars. But what happens when a clash of sacred values gets personal? Well, I’ve just found out – the evangelical Christian governor of Wisconsin is about to enact a set of laws that will effectively gut my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Needless to say, this makes it a lot harder to stay cool and objective.

[Read more...]

Animals evolve. People evolve. Can groups evolve?

Connor Wood

The pond-skater

Welcome back! This is the third installation of my series on religion and group-level evolution. Last time, we left off with the raging debates between scientists who champion kin selection and those who swear by group selection. Group selection is the idea that cooperative behaviors – like caring for others’ offspring or loudly warning neighbors about predators – evolved by competition between groups. By contrast, kin selection, or inclusive fitness, insists that altruistic behaviors evolve strictly to benefit relatives. For example, when a mother babysits her sister’s child, she may seem generous and giving, but she’s actually being genetically selfish – peer through the illuminating lens of inclusive fitness theory, and you’ll find that she’s just caring for a little package of copies of her own genes.  [Read more...]

Religion and evolution, part deux

Connor Wood

Gray Cranes

After a pleasant sojourn with ISIS in my last post, it’s time to get back to the question of whether religion is an evolved adaptation. In my last post on the evolution of religion, I mentioned that there was a brewing conflict between group selection and inclusive fitness models in biology. Did I say conflict? I meant outright, total war. Far be it from me to over-dramatize a scientific quarrel, but this one doesn’t need to be over-dramatized; it’s already plenty dramatic. From massive letters of protest signed by hundreds of biologists to name-calling to bald accusations of irrelevance leveled against major intellectual figures, the group selection/inclusive fitness debates are the major scientific conflict of the young 21st century. Grab some popcorn, okay?

[Read more...]

Anthropology, not demagoguery, is the way to understand ISIS

Connor Wood

ISIS Man 600x314

Recently, I started a series of blog posts on the evolution of religion. Those posts will start back up next time, but this week I’m stopping the presses to share something more important: Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist who studies religious terrorism, recently addressed the UN Security Council on the subject of ISIS and Islamist violence, and the message he brought was one the world desperately needs to hear.

[Read more...]

Is religion evolutionarily adaptive?

Connor Wood

Light bulb evolution

If you’ve ever had roommates, you know the frustration of realizing that not everyone is contributing equally. If you’re the one who’s always emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the bathroom, pretty soon you start to feel taken advantage of – because you are being taken advantage of. This commonplace fount of roommate resentment is about as mundane as it gets, but it’s also a timeless example of the huge, thorny cooperative dilemmas that have faced human societies since time immemorial. How does a group get everyone to contribute to the common good? How do you discourage free riders? Many researchers think that religion plays a key role in solving these difficult problems, which implies that religion might be an adaptation for group living. But if so, does that necessarily mean religion is good? [Read more...]

Is belief in heaven good for you? No. Yes. Maybe.

Connor Wood

Devil and angel drawings

One of the oldest stories in the book is the eternal tension between the individual and society. From restraining impulses to maximizing personal happiness, what’s good for the collective isn’t necessarily what’s good for the individual – and vice-versa. In the past couple of years, psychologists studying religion have discovered a fascinating new expression of this age-old tension: belief in heaven is good for individuals, but bad for societies – while belief in hell has exactly the opposite effects. These studies are well-designed and their results are compelling. But they don’t offer any easy answers. [Read more...]

Comments aren’t for atheist evangelism

Connor Wood

Important news update: I’ve changed the comments policy at Science On Religion. As of today, I’m only accepting comments that make substantive points about the content of articles. Criticisms and disagreements will be heartily welcomed, but one-note screeds for particular ideological positions – especially, but not limited to, Internet atheism – won’t be. If I determine that someone’s mission on my comments board is to hammer on his or her own views without any intention of taking part in substantive discourse, that person will be booted. Some of you (whoever you are) may disagree strongly with this new stance, and you’re perfectly within your rights to feel that way. But it doesn’t change my policy.

[Read more...]

Why the religion-science dialogue needs secular religious studies

Connor Wood

Science and Faith

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a one-day conference on religion and science in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The conference brought together scientists, religious leaders, and academics to discuss religion and science in the context of some of today’s pressing issues – such as climate change. But the mood wasn’t anxious. Instead, participants relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company, fleshing out their stances on religion and science while hearing witty talks from experts. At one point, though, it dawned on me that I was possibly the only conference attendee whose expertise was in the study of religion itself. What could academic religious studies offer to the religion-and-science dialogue? [Read more...]


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