Religion and creativity: A follow-up

Connor Wood

Last week, I posted a piece on this blog that quickly became…quite controversial. In it, I claimed that religious commitment was positively correlated with personal stability, but negatively correlated with creativity. My aim was to point out what had long seemed to me a personally frustrating dynamic, and to raise questions about how to reconcile or overcome it. Many readers appreciated my perspective, but plenty more thought I was off in left field. Some rejected my claim that religion is associated with stability and tight relationships. Others questioned my working definitions of creativity, religion, and science. But the most common rejoinder was, “What about all the creative religious people, and spectacular religious art, throughout history?”

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Why aren’t religious people as creative as unbelievers?

Connor Wood

Artistic

I grew up in a very creative, artistic family. My mother was a former fashion illustrator and model, while my stepfather was a handy musician who kept our house full of dulcimers, guitars, and wooden Irish drums. All the kids became musicians. In my adolescence, though, I grew frustrated by the fact that many other families seemed far less artistic and excited than us, but way more stable and collected. Why couldn’t we have both at the same time? Part of the answer, I think, has to do with religion. Being religious is correlated with personal happiness and satisfaction with relationships – but anti-correlated with openness to new experience and, by implication, creativity. Is it possible to somehow get the best of both worlds? [Read more...]

Ritual bypasses conscious cognition

Connor Wood

Muslim ritual

Pretend you’re an alien anthropologist come to Earth to study humans. What do you notice most about these strange, bipedal creatures? Their glittering cities? Their fondness for chocolate? Their use of daringly creative insults during traffic jams? Maybe, but let’s not forget one behavior that distinguishes humans almost more than anything else: ritual, and lots of it. No other animal participates in, invents, or performs rituals as complex and detailed as humans. But why? Our bemused alien anthropologist might benefit from new Danish research describing how ritual, using what’s called “cognitive resource depletion,” helps cultures pass knowledge and values down to new members.

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The neurology of spirit writing

Connor Wood

Closeup Of Girl Hand Writing

Mediums – people who say they can channel spirits or other supernatural beings to communicate with the living – often get a bad rap. They’re the subjects of debunking attempts, they’re accused of fraud, and most people think they’re just plain odd. But what if we deferred our judgments and tried to find out just what’s actually going on physically and neurologically in the act of channeling? A team of researchers in the US and Brazil did just that, finding that, whatever else is happening, mediums show some very unique patterns of brain activity. And even more interestingly, those patterns differ depending on the mediums’ amount of experience.

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Over generations, religion shapes genetics

Connor Wood

In the United States, religion is usually said to be a personal affair – one’s own private decision about how and what to believe. But this remarkably private and individualistic approach is somewhat odd when compared with the vast majority of cultures and religions throughout history. Far more often, religion has been a public affiliation, determining cultural identities, affecting marriage and family choices, and defining groups in relation to each other. A fascinating recent study published in PLOS Genetics shows just how inextricable religion often is from culture, finding that religious identity has decisively shaped the genetic landscape of the Levant – so decisively, in fact, that Lebanese Muslims are more closely related to fellow Muslims from Morocco or Yemen than they are to their Christian or Jewish compatriots.

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Why the Templeton Foundation Is a Darn Good Thing

This week, an article at Slate has been making the rounds in which Sean Carroll, a Caltech physicist, proclaims loudly that he will never accept research funding from the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is one of the largest non-governmental funders of scientific research in the world, and it distinguishes itself from other organizations through its interest in religion and its mandate to address the “big questions” like the meaning and purpose of life. Carroll and others believe that this religion-science collaboration stains of the purity of science, and I think this is great. It means there’s more Templeton research funding for me, my colleagues, and others who think that religion needs to be taken seriously.  [Read more...]

Exploring your religion

Thinking man

Connor Wood

Religion affects everything – and I mean everything – we do. From debates about global warming or evolution to disagreements about how to educate children, there’s no area of social living that isn’t deeply influenced by our religious commitments. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to untangle all the different ways that religious beliefs influence social, moral, and practical viewpoints, in part because these issues can be so polarizing. But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying! Our Boston University research team has developed a new set of surveys that will shed much-needed light on people’s religious, spiritual, and moral convictions – particularly along the all-important liberal-conservative dimension. We invite you to check them out at ExploringMyReligion.org.

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How the brain escapes the self

Connor Wood

Religious experiences get described in a lot of ways. People gushingly talk about a profound sense of oneness, about incredible bliss, joy, and ineffable meaning. One thing you almost never hear, however, is that a religious experience made someone more greedy and selfish. No one ever says, “Hey, you know what? I just experienced ultimate spiritual bliss, and boy, did it ever make me focus neurotically on my own struggles, financial problems, and dating insecurities!” Why this incompatibility between spirituality and self-absorption? A team of researchers from the University of Missouri thinks that the reason might be found in the brain, where reduced function in the region associated with self-awareness is correlated with greater spirituality.

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Religion, Ideology, and Environmentalism: A Tale of Morals

Connor Wood

We live on planet Earth, and she is allergic to us. Our car exhaust, airplane emissions, and coal-fired power plants are smothering her. Our waste is choking her oceans and streams. These and other looming ecological and environmental catastrophes are the most pressing issues of our time, the problems at which all our collected human genius must be aimed. Or are they? The scientific study of religion and ideology has prompted me, a lifelong liberal, to question many of my most basic assumptions. Among them is the belief that large systems – abstract connections at the level of the planet, the biosphere, the world economy – produce the problems that most demand our attention, genius, and energy.

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How WEIRD are you?

Connor Wood

WEIRD girl

Imagine that you’re writing an essay about the most important facets of your personality. Do you discuss your personal likes and dislikes, your talents and your ambitions? Or do you talk about your family, your relationships, the community that envelopes you? If you prefer the former, individualistic response, you’re probably a citizen of a WEIRD country – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. This means, of course, that you’re at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how most people worldwide think about family, community, and morality. And new research from Virginia and China shows that you’re also likely to be socially – and, most likely, religiously – liberal.

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