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.

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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...]

Michael Shermer thinks he’s more moral than you

Connor Wood

Portrait of clueless man against red background

Remember how Europeans used to spend practically all their free time roaming around, conquering other people’s countries, and talking about superior how their culture was? Isn’t it great that those days are over? Oh, wait – they’re not. Michael Shermer, atheist extraordinaire and publisher of Skeptic magazine, has recently published a book arguing – literally – that Western societies are more moral than other cultures, because Westerners are better at abstract thinking. Shermer seems like a decent person (really). But history’s tragedies are made possible by decent people, and in his new book Shermer commits all the same sorts of moral fallacies that have powered cultural chauvinism since the days of Rome.  [Read more...]

Is willpower really a finite resource?

Connor Wood

Willpower

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a big groundswell in empirical research on religion. This is a good thing, because it means now we can actually point at data to answer questions about what role religion plays in culture, or whether religion is here to stay.* But just because empirical psychologists and cognitive scientists are publishing data-heavy papers on religion doesn’t mean everything they say is the gospel truth (pun intended). One recent paper shows that even our most cherished scientific conclusions can turn out to be red herrings, thanks to publication bias, cherry-picking results, and good old human error. [Read more...]

America’s public ritual gone terribly wrong

Connor Wood

Dark days for football

Last year around this time I wrote a piece, “Holden Caulfield and the Super Bowl,” in which I shook my finger at the smarmy geek-culture “Sportsball” meme. Sportsball, a word that conveys how very, very little speaker the proud speaker knows about sports, is a fine example of the conspicuous disdain of sports generally among certain educated types – those whose sense of personal identity derives solely from their being educated. For the rest of us, who have other, less desperately insecure sources of identity,* sports can be a welcome exercise in imagination and play. However, there’s truth to be found in more curmudgeonly descriptions of the Super Bowl as a “late-capitalist orgy of excess and jingoism.” Last night’s Super Bowl exhibited some of the worst aspects of ritual gone wrong. [Read more...]

Does Eben Alexander “prove heaven?” Sort of.

Connor Wood

Proof of Heaven

Bad news: we’re all going to die. The question is, what comes afterward? In the book Proof of Heaven, former neurosurgeon Eben Alexander uses his own profound near-death experience to claim we live on in a spiritual realm. Featured on Oprah and countless other television and radio shows, Alexander has become prince of a media fiefdom whose currency is life after death. His book, along with its sequel The Map of Heaven, is the subject of this month’s Patheos book club, and I’ve been asked to weigh in. So what’s the deal with Proof of Heaven? Is it what it claims to be? [Read more...]

How separate are science and religion, anyway?

Connor Wood

Earth in Space

Over Christmas, the author Eric Metaxas wrote a much-ballyhooed article for the Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that the improbability of life on Earth constitutes a scientific case for God. According to Metaxas, the odds against all the necessary parameters – right type of star, right size planet, deflected comets – are so astronomical (pun intended) that the very existence of life is a clear sign that God monkeyed with the physics. I think this is a less-than-convincing case. I also think it’s the kind of theology that gets religion in serious trouble. My friend Geoff Mitelman, a rabbi, agrees, arguing that “religion isn’t science.” But does this mean that religion doesn’t – or can’t – make any claims about the world, or that religious beliefs are never constrained by science? [Read more...]

The age of extreme opinions

Connor Wood

Auto Accident

It’s almost Christmas. As a present, accept several shiny new entries for your “questionable writing about science” folder. (Everyone has one of those, right?) Recently, a group of French researchers published an ingenious experiment that tested whether certain types of people would be more likely to obey instructions to harm others. As it turned out, people with two personality traits – agreeableness and conscientiousness – were more willing to obey violent orders. This interesting finding should give us all pause. Of course, this being the Internet, excitable science bloggers weren’t content to leave it at that. Instead, they spun it into yet another reason to celebrate the cyber age’s favorite hero: the hyper-individualistic, anti-authoritarian übermensch.

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