Call for fellows: Sinai and Synapses

Sinai and Synapses FellowshipA few years ago, out of the blue, a rabbi named Geoff Mitelman wrote me an email. He was starting a fellowship program in New York, and wanted to know whether I’d be interested in joining it. The fellowship, called “Sinai and Synapses,” was focused on religion and science and would bring scientists, scholars, and religious leaders together for lectures and conversations three times per year in midtown Manhattan. Travel and hotel would be covered in full! I said yes. Four years later, thanks to Sinai and Synapses, my circle of contacts has grown to include religion journalists, rabbis, NASA scientists, and psychological scientists, and Sinai and Synapses is taking applications for the 2017-2019 fellowship. If you’re a reader of this blog, you probably have some interest in how religion and science intersect. Applications are due July 31st. [Read more…]

Supernatural punishment and the evolution of cooperation

Angry God - Supernatural PunishmentFor the past year and a half or so, I’ve been working on a project that uses computer models to study religion. (You can read about this project here, here, here, and here.) Such a project might sound absurd – how could you use computer simulations to study something as intangible and subjective as religion? Well, it just so happens that my colleague on the project, Justin Lane, recently published a paper that offers a great answer to this question. Using a computer model of a classic economics game, he tested the predictions of an important recent theory in the scientific study of religion: the supernatural punishment hypothesis. [Read more…]

In the 21st Century, Should We Be Patriotic?

Half-staff patrioticLast year, a police officer shot and killed an African-American motorist, Philando Castile, during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota. A police dashcam video was released that showed Yanez panicking and opening fire only seconds after pulling Castile over, yet a jury acquitted the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, of manslaughter. This chain of events illustrates that, for black Americans, interacting with police officers can be literally dangerous. The United States really does have a systemic racism problem. This, though, is not the subject of this week’s post. Instead, the endemic racism in the U.S. leads me to ask a broader question: can we ask people to be patriots of or believe in countries that commit enormous injustices? Is it possible to still love our country when that country is patently violent toward the dispossessed?

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Rituals boost self-control

Temple prayer in Bali – complex ritual can improve self-controlMaybe you’ve heard of the “marshmallow experiment” for testing people’s self-control. In this classic psychology study, scientists offered young children a choice: either eat a single marshmallow immediately, or wait for a few minutes and get to eat two. Findings have shown a remarkable correlation between children’s ability to delay gratification and a plethora of positive outcomes later in life, from higher SAT scores to better physical health. But where does self-control come from in the first place? A new study published in the journal Child Development suggests that one answer may be “rituals.” Specifically, children who played a complex, ritualized game many times over a three-month span showed improved self-control afterwards – and, crucially, this effect was strongest for children who heard no practical justification for the game’s rules. [Read more…]

Religious beliefs are a kind of play

Songkran festival - Religious beliefs are playOne of the most important questions in the cognitive science of religion is, “Why do people believe in God or gods?” It seems to boggle the mind: how on earth can people seriously believe propositions that lack any concrete evidence? After all, we believe in chairs and dachshunds because those things obviously exist. We can see them, touch them, hear them. There’s no equivalent evidence for the resurrected Christ or an all-powerful God. But one philosopher of cognition, Neil Van Leeuwen, argues that this difference actually means that religious beliefs are different from normal beliefs. In fact, they’re a lot more like play. [Read more…]

Science and religion really are in conflict, people

Pondering science versus religionScience has gotten a bit…politicized lately. From predictably partisan beliefs about climate change to grandstanding about GMOs, our ideas about science increasingly seem like flag-waving for our political tribe as much as our ability to coolly evaluate data. This growing ideological cleavage was why I found myself strangely ambivalent toward the recent March for Science – despite the fact that, as a researcher, I’d be woefully impacted personally by cuts to science funding. To be specific, as Science™ has come more and more to be identified with cultural progressivism, the part of me that loves and derives a sense of meaning from the past – from the traditions and people that came before me – has come to feel less and less welcome in the halls of science. Lonely, even. [Read more…]

Cognitive biases don’t explain religion, after all

The cognitive science of religion shows why Czechs are less religiousIf you’re familiar with the cognitive science of religion, then you’ve probably heard the term “hyperactive agency detection device,” or HADD. The HADD is one of today’s most popular explanations for why people believe in God or gods. It proposes that the human brain is equipped with a hair-trigger mechanism that perceives personhood – that is, intentions and purposes – everywhere in the world. This mechanism is why you see faces in campfire flames or jump when you hear a twig crack in the woods. According to the HADD hypothesis, these perceptions are the reason for human beliefs in gods and spirits – and, hence, the cognitive foundation for religiosity itself. But religiosity is a often lot more than seeing faces in clouds or campfires. It’s also rituals, texts, moral codes, community, and funny hats. So, really, how much of religion boils down to cognitive biases for detecting agency? According to new research from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the answer might be “not much.” [Read more…]

In New Zealand, religion reduces prejudice – but media inflames it

Anti-Muslim prejudiceIn the minds of many, religion causes divisions, prejudice, and misunderstandings. Famous glasses-wearing person John Lennon once fondly envisioned a world that had no national boundaries and “no religion too.” Those two dreams – no faith and no borders – fit well together because religion and division so often go hand-in-hand. Right? Well, sometimes. Religion can demarcate differences between ethnic groups – think Palestinians and Israelis – and even leaves a genetic impact, preventing members of differing faiths from marrying and having offspring with each other. But recent research from New Zealand shows that, in some cases, religion can reduce prejudice, too. More religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of immigrants and Muslims, while nightly news watchers – who ought to be well-informed – are more prejudiced.

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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…]