Cool new research in religion

scientific study of religionIf you ever want to get seriously frustrated, I suggest getting advanced graduate training in religious studies. Why’s it frustrating? Because everyone thinks they understand religion already. Seriously, biologists don’t sit down next to strangers on airplanes, let slip that they’re biologists, and then find themselves subjected to a 10-minute lecture on their seat mate’s poorly informed ideas about cellular signaling pathways. But the equivalent happens to people who study religion all the time. You say, “Oh, I study ritual and religion,” and the guy next to you goes silent for a second, then leans forward to tell you in somber tones that religion is nothing but a tool for the rich to control the masses.* Or else he’s an Evangelical who thinks that he’s not religious – no, he has a personal relationship with Jesus, and that’s not religion at all. So in a world of people who think that their opinions about religion are just as good as actual knowledge, it’s relieving to be reminded that some people actually study religion. Here’s a look at three recent studies that use data, not opinions. [Read more…]

Is a global community really possible?

Multicultural friends textingLast week, I wrote about Peter Beinart’s recent Atlantic article, in which he argued that a less-religious America might not actually mean the end of racism or tribalism. This time, I want to jump off from that topic to ask some bigger questions. Since the European Wars of Religion, educated people have often associated religion with tribalism and conflict. Conversely, secularism is thought to go along with global cosmopolitanism. So why is the global liberal order taking such a beating right now, after an unprecedented period of secularization across the West? And would it actually be possible to build a truly cosmopolitan, global community – one without tribalism? [Read more…]

Is a secular America a worse America?

Abandoned church

After centuries of being more religious than other Western societies, the United States in the 21st century is becoming more secular, with attendance and membership in most mainline churches plummeting. Many secularist writers have lauded this development, arguing that a less religious America will be a more open and tolerant – in short, more liberal – one. But in a fierce, tightly-argued online op-ed, Atlantic editor Peter Beinart raises the question of whether this decline in traditional religiosity might be, well, backfiring for liberal goals. Rather than paving the way for a tolerant, cosmopolitan utopia, free from religious bigotry and irrational commitments, the collapse of institutional religion may be causing Americans to fall back onto ethnic and other “tribal” affiliations – thus exacerbating our cultural polarization. Is he onto something here? [Read more…]

A computer model of atheism?

Connor Wood

Robot laptop

Since earning my PhD last year, I’ve been working as a postdoc on the Modeling Religion Project at the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston. We use computer simulations to refine and compare theories of religion, cognition, and culture, trying to understand, say, the causal relationships between ritual behavior and social and psychological outcomes. And people are starting to pay attention. Recently, the science magazine Nautilus published a feature-length article on our project. The author, Michael Fitzgerald, highlighted our team’s attempts to understand the role that religion has played in large-scale cultural transformations, like the switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled agriculture – or the rise of secularism in the modern West. [Read more…]

Want to study the science of religion? Start with this MOOC

Computer in libraryA science of religion would help us understand some baffling things. Why do otherwise normal people spend thousands of dollars to flock from halfway around the world to Mecca? What’s with all the fasting and ritual? Why do people people pray to invisible personalities? None of these questions is simple, but a growing community of researchers from diverse disciplines is buckling down to try to answer them – scientifically. From cognitive science to social psychology to evolutionary modeling, the tools of science are turning up insights into how homo religiosus – the religious human – evolved and spread across the planet. This spring, a massive online-only course (MOOC) through the University of British Columbia is offering an overview of this growing field, taught by two of its leading figures. If you’re curious about religion as a human phenomenon, this will be a good opportunity to start learning.  [Read more…]

Why colleges need (a few) more conservative professors

Connor Wood

Graduates

Last time, I wrote that American colleges and universities have an obligation to become more ideologically diverse by including more conservative perspectives. After all, college students, particularly at top-tier schools, are groomed for positions of power, and leaders who don’t understand half of the country won’t wield that power effectively. But the predominance of liberal morals in higher education has another effect. Steeped in a morality that emphasizes the prevention of harm above nearly everything else, many students learn to be reflexively skeptical of, and often hostile toward, power, hierarchy, and established social institutions – even though they themselves are often going to join and even become heads of those very institutions. Wouldn’t we be better off if our future leaders learned how to care for institutions, rather than pick them apart? [Read more…]

Is college too liberal?

LibraryA recent article in Boston Magazine claims that “liberal professors are ruining college.” The author, Chris Sweeney, reports that the ratio of liberal to conservative professors in New England colleges is a staggering 28 to 1. Thanks to this ideological lopsidedness, conservative students at left-leaning schools like Brandeis or Middlebury report feeling unable to express their views in class or disagree with their professors. At Science on Religion, I’ve often tackled questions of political ideology and culture. And as the Trump administration destructively continues to drive wedges between progressives and conservatives (almost as if it were on purpose!), Sweeney’s article raises a question that fits neatly into that arena. Does the overwhelming dominance of liberal perspectives on college campuses actually have negative effects, even in the Trump era? Yes – but those effects extend far beyond campus. And professors aren’t necessarily to blame. [Read more…]

Trump shows why Rationalia would fail

Connor Wood

Frayed Rope

A while ago, I wrote on this blog that “Reason™ is not going to save the world.” I argued that a society based on pure rational principles, without any sacred beliefs or convictions – a society like Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Rationalia – would be a spectacular failure. It couldn’t solve the big problems, like climate change and sky-high economic inequality, that threaten society with destabilization and chaos today. Readers protested – why wouldn’t a society based on rationality and reason be preferable to unreflective tradition or sacred convictions? Well, I’ve got a really compelling answer for you: the man who’s about to be sworn in as president of the United States. Donald Trump is a perfect example of what happens when “sacred” values go out the window. [Read more…]

Social media is toxic. Religious studies tells us why.

Connor Wood

Grumpy woman with thought clouds

You know what’s been in the news a lot lately? Twitter. The erstwhile social media haunt of the dorky Beltway set circa 2009 is now being used for propaganda, for international communication, and potentially for fomenting Thucydidean wars. That’s right: we’ve literally entered a time in history when the president-elect of the United States can cause a major international incident by blurting out a half-formed thought directly onto Twitter. But you know what? He’s not alone. The internet is a place where all of our thoughts go live, just about as soon as we’ve thought them (and sometimes before). As it turns out, this is a major problem. It’s destabilizing. And religious studies – of all things – can help us understand why. [Read more…]

Overworked? Try a little ritual

Connor Wood

Eastern Orthodox Candle

A couple of months ago, I hopped a Saturday afternoon flight to Vancouver for a conference. After arriving and checking in at my hotel, I had a few hours to kill, so I did what anyone would do: I dropped in on vespers services at a tiny Russian Orthodox church, tucked away in an anonymous residential neighborhood far from the downtown core. There, I walked through a simple wooden door and into a space resplendent with gold and candles, pungent with incense. As I stood there uncomfortably not knowing when to bow, an odd thing happened: I felt my muscles physically relax. This unexpected physiological response was a reminder of what ritual, in all its dumbfounding impracticality, means for human life. [Read more…]