Why the world needs liberals

Liberalism yayHere at Science On Religion, I’ve often written sympathetically about religion and more conservative forms of culture. I have good reasons for this. For one thing, the internet is an extremely welcoming place for voices that oppose religion and tradition. I think it’s good to challenge this reflexive individualism. But at the same time, I’m wildly grateful to live in a liberal society that allows for debate and encourages skepticism toward tradition. Studying religion may have awakened my conservative sensibilities – but I’m a patriot of liberalism. And you should be, too. [Read more…]

No space for God of the gaps

Connor Wood

God of the gaps not found

Ever heard of the “god of the gaps?” It’s the idea that God is the reason for things we can’t explain through science. For example, no one on Earth knows exactly how proteins – linear chains of amino acids – find the proper 3-D structure to fold themselves into after being transcribed from RNA. Many of the millions of possible shapes are equally stable and possible. Yet the chains always assemble themselves into just the right structure. Spooky. So…God. Right? Wrong – because someday a brilliant scientist will figure out the scientific explanation for protein folding. And when she does, your faith in God will delate like a beachball – unless it never depended on the god-of-the-gaps argument in the first place. [Read more…]

Why symbols matter for homo sapiens

Connor Wood

Flag and eyes

If you’re an American under thirty with a college education (or are getting one), there’s a decent chance that you’re a fan of Bernie Sanders. The gruff Vermonter has been galvanizing Democratic enthusiasm with his fiery promises to take on big banks, socialize healthcare, and make college education free. Sanders’ vision of America is much closer to the democratic socialism of Denmark than to traditional American individualism. This inspiring vision also evokes an age-old problem: how to motivate collective action. Sanders envisions significant contributions from every American going into a collective pot, which in turn provides universal services. Research has shown us, though, that in order for such immense collective investment to work, people need to feel emotional buy-in – not just to the practical benefits they’ll be getting, but to the collective itself as an ideal. Hence, the people who want the United States to unify and follow the democratic socialist vision should be the most patriotic of all. But they’re not – and that’s a problem. [Read more…]

No to Reason,™ yes to clear thinking

Connor Wood

Unlock your mind

A couple months ago, I wrote a post here arguing that pure rational thinking, freed from all tradition-bound constraints, is not going to save the world – or the climate. Specifically, I claimed that Reason™ – the rah-rah, yay-for-Science!, jingoistic rallying cry of the atheism-industrial complex – shouldn’t be the torch-bearer for our hopes about the future of humanity and the planet. I stand by everything I said in that post, but I got a lot of pushback from angry readers – especially folks who thought I was arguing in favor of irrationality, precisely when we need reasonable problem-solving like we never have before. The debate was sometimes heated, but also pretty fun. So I thought I’d stir the hornet’s nest again. Ya’ll, Reason™ is not gonna save the world.

[Read more…]

Hilbert problems in the study of religion

Connor Wood

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Good science sometimes takes a little hubris. Case in point: one humble group of 19th-century German philosophers thought that there were some questions science could probably never answer, such as what the nature of matter and energy is – but the mathematician David Hilbert (the guy in the hat, at right) vehemently disagreed. Hilbert’s aggressive pursuit of mathematical and scientific solutions to the biggest riddles eventually helped lay the foundations of quantum mechanics, so you could say that his optimism paid off. That’s probably why the editors of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) are channeling Hilbert’s scientific optimism in their current call for researchers to identify the world’s most important, unanswered empirical questions about the evolution, functions, and future of religion: the “Hilbert problems” of the scientific study of human religiosity.

[Read more…]

Reason™ is not going to save the world

Connor Wood

Cold rationalism

If you’re a decently educated, critically minded person, chances are you’re not a fan of any truth claims that can’t be supported by empirical inquiry. No ancient Hebrews rising from the dead – and no fairies, sprites, or midnight horse rides from Jerusalem to Paradise and back, either. You might even think that such supernatural beliefs are not only hard to justify, but actually harmful, because they so often make people resistant to science, prone to inward-looking or violent tribalism, and anti-intellectual. You’d prefer if everyone were a rationalist – believing things only when there’s proper evidence, and rejecting the idea that anything is sacred. Fair enough, I guess. There’s just one catch: it would be an utter catastrophe if this actually happened. [Read more…]

Newsflash: Elite universities are supposed to produce elites. That’s their job.

Connor Wood

Young graduate standing in front of university building

As I wrote last time, conservatives in the state government have been attacking the University of Wisconsin, where I went to college. Studying religion and ideology, I’ve come to appreciate many conservative and traditionalist perspectives. But this assault on the UW system raises a tough question: why is it that conservatives – including religious conservatives – often seem so bloody hostile toward higher education? Some might say that it’s because religious conservatives are Dark Ages throwbacks, but I think that some better answers might instead come from asking a more interesting and useful question: what is higher education for? What does higher education offer a rich, complex society like ours? [Read more…]

The culture wars come for public higher education

Connor Wood

Source: Eric E. Johnson, Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Everyone holds something sacred. Whether you’re a devout believer or a hard-nosed atheist, there are at least a few values and ideas that you consider inviolable. I often write about sacred values from a cool, academic distance – dissecting them in order to, say, better understand the culture wars. But what happens when a clash of sacred values gets personal? Well, I’ve just found out – the evangelical Christian governor of Wisconsin is about to enact a set of laws that will effectively gut my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Needless to say, this makes it a lot harder to stay cool and objective.

[Read more…]

Anthropology, not demagoguery, is the way to understand ISIS

Connor Wood

ISIS Man 600x314

Recently, I started a series of blog posts on the evolution of religion. Those posts will start back up next time, but this week I’m stopping the presses to share something more important: Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist who studies religious terrorism, recently addressed the UN Security Council on the subject of ISIS and Islamist violence, and the message he brought was one the world desperately needs to hear.

[Read more…]

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…]


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