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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The great divide: Why activism needs tradition to work

Connor Wood

Anonymous mask

The past couple of weeks in the United States have been difficult ones. With two grand juries declining to indict white police officers for killing unarmed black men, traumatized protestors across the U.S. have been left wondering whether, as one New York Times article put it, American culture “might not ever value black lives.” It’s a stark and despairing question – but, as evidence piles on that racism is far from dead, it’s one worth asking. And it’s related to a broader question that’s loomed over this entire decade, from the Occupy movements to Ferguson: “Why doesn’t the establishment listen when protestors cry out that something is wrong?” Fully aware that I’m inviting a Nor’easter downpour of angry comments, I’d like to propose that one reason modern protest movements have trouble getting their message out is found in generativity: the impulse to carry down traditions and care for the next generation. Namely, activists – while they’re often spot-on about the need for social change – increasingly don’t have the generative impulse. And this makes them invisible to people who do.

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Want to understand religion? You’ve gotta have a body.

Connor Wood

AI

A few times a year, a group of scholars, scientists, and industry people gather in Manhattan as part of a Sinai and Synapses working group, and I’m privileged to be one of those folks. Last week, as part of a working group meeting, I and the other members of Sinai and Synapses were treated to a fascinating talk by an expert in religion and technology, Noreen Herzfeld. Herzfeld’s talk focused on bodies – on the difference between simulating cognition using abstract 0s or 1s and actually having fleshy, full-body experience of the world. I can’t think of a better angle from which to tackle questions of religion and science. [Read more...]

Theology: It matters.

Connor Wood

Debate

Last Thursday, I attended a fascinating panel discussion on “Writing about Religion in an Age of Polarization” at Boston College. During the talk, one panelist, New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer, offhandedly claimed that theology isn’t important. His reasoning? America is an experiment in theology not mattering – in getting along despite our private differences in faith. But what Oppenheimer didn’t reckon with is that everyone has a theology – a root idea of what they think the world is and why we’re here. These ideas profoundly influence the way we live our lives and the choices we make. This is why I’m pretty sure theology actually matters. And if we had intelligent, public theological discourse, it could make us more aware of our unspoken motivations and values – and less susceptible to the lousy theological reasoning (“God loves America, so we can wage holy war against our enemies!”) that permeates American public culture. [Read more...]

Religion surrounds us

Connor Wood

Church

I visited the Midwest for a wedding last weekend. With family, I spent one day driving around Lake Pepin – a drop-dead gorgeous wide spot in the Mississippi River between Wisconsin and Minnesota, ringed on all sides by stunning, 200-foot forested bluffs and limestone cliffs. For lunch, we stopped in a café in Lake City, Minnesota, where the service was friendly, the views pleasant, and the gift shop brimming with ornamental crosses, religious inspirational plaques, and illustrated children’s Bible story books. For a Boston resident like me, it was a reminder of how religion functions in the vast majority of settings and cultures around the world: instead of being a side note or addendum to real life, it is life. It permeates the physical and mental environment, setting up a powerful ecology of symbols and ambient reminders of a transcendent worldview. The effects are both sublime and sobering. [Read more...]

Sex, the cuddle chemical, and religion

Kate Stockly-Myerdirk

Mother and Baby

Last week, Connor wrote about sex differences here. I happen to research one specific instance of sex difference: the fact that women tend to be more religious than men. Social scientists have come up with all sorts of unsatisfying theories for why this could be. Is it because women are socialized to be more submissive, gentle, and expressive, which are (apparently) religious values? Is it because church life is an extension of home and family life, in which women (apparently) are more involved? Or perhaps it’s because “God” is a father figure, so men fear him, whereas women are attracted to him? Personally, I’m not convinced by any of these theories. But the question deserves real attention. [Read more...]

The Sam Harris backlash: is sex real?

Connor Wood

Male/female

I’m working on a non-blog-related research project this week, and don’t have time for researching a new blog-post-article-thing. So let me quickly make everybody angry by weighing in about the debate surrounding atheist spokesman Sam Harris’s supposed sexism. The question I think we should focus on is not whether Sam Harris is a horrible sexist person for suggesting that his brand of atheism might be intrinsically more attractive to men than to women. Instead, I want to raise the question of whether sex differences exist in an objective sense – that is, beyond the obvious distinctions between male and female “sexy bits.”* [Read more...]

Do we have free will when it comes to mental illness?

Connor Wood

Business decision

I got a tremendous outpouring of positive feedback for my essay last week on my own family’s struggles with depression. Thank you to everyone who read it and commented. Of course, no essay is perfect – many readers criticized the emphasis I put on choice, or free will, in that article. Depression isn’t a matter of choice, these critics argued. Nobody chooses to be depressed. Telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t help anything. These commenters’ challenges give voice to some of today’s most important questions: what is mental illness? What’s mental well-being? Do we have any agency in it? The answer to that last question is yes – we have agency if we exercise it. [Read more...]

Mental illness: it’s not just in our brains.

Connor Wood

Wild depression

160 years ago, runaway slaves in the American South were often diagnosed with “drapetomania” – a supposed mental illness that drove them to run away from their masters. Cures and preventative measures for drapetomania included whipping and cutting off big toes, making it impossible to run. It didn’t occur to the doctors that running away from slavery was perfectly natural. It was a lot more convenient to call it mental illness, because this took the “problem” away from the horror of slavery and placed it neatly within the individual brains of slaves. Now, with Robin Williams’s suicide last week, mental illness is again at forefront in public consciousness. But make no mistake: our ideas about mental illness still need reexamining. [Read more...]

Yes, fundamentalism is religion. And it starts wars.

Connor Wood

U.S. marine hiding from explosion

There’s a saying: no true Scotsman would ever drink Irish whiskey. Or move to London. Or put sugar on his porridge. But this saying’s not actually about Scottish people. It’s about our own willingness to play with our categories, stretching them to fit our prejudices. For example, if you claimed that “no religious believer would start a war,” current events – particularly the ISIS assault on Iraq, which has claimed thousands of lives and threatens to extinguish entire cultures – would prove you wrong. So you might backpedal: “Well, no true religious believer would start a war.” But this would be a fallacy. What’s going on in Iraq has everything to do with real religion. Fundamentalism is a real piece of the religious puzzle – and a surprisingly fragile one.

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