How do we make meaning of evolution? By admitting its uncomfortable truths.

DarwinHere on planet Earth, around 3.5 billion years ago, a profound miracle happened. Somehow, organic molecules began contorting themselves into self-replicating shapes. Over the ensuing eons, further miracles occurred: simple cells became complex, melding different lineages of DNA to forge the eukaryotes, of which you and I are both members. Water-dwelling animals morphed slowly into creatures with lungs, and the capacity to breathe air. Different species developed entwined, symbiotic relationships with each other – insects pollinating flowers, flowers feeding insects. But none of these miracles were miracles in the classic sense. Aside from that first eruption of living cells out of lifeless carbon, each of these developments proceeded out of Darwinian processes, under evolutionary law. The two-million-dollar question is: what does this mean for who we are? [Read more...]

Why do religions tell impossible tales? A testable hypothesis

Connor Wood

Woman opening world

Einstein was probably the most quotable scientist who ever coined a phrase. Even people who couldn’t tell special relativity from Scooby-Doo have heard the famous quote that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But does this sentiment apply universally, without limits? Is it really better to conjure up fantasy worlds than to know, concretely and factually, how to build wind turbines or computer mainframes? Well, sometimes it might be. I think that when we fall victim to excessively rigid, causally determined stories we’ve told ourselves about the world, a glimpse of fantasy might be just what we need to slip free of our ideas about what’s possible – allowing us to stumble on new solutions to problems. [Read more...]

Is science more “unnatural” than religion?

Connor Wood

Young female student

Robert McCauley, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Emory University, thinks that religion is natural, but science isn’t. Such a claim could easily inspire all manner of outrage and uproar from both offended believers and irked scientists alike. But what McCauley means, as he outlined in a recent book – titled, aptly, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not – is that religious beliefs arise from our basic, evolved cognitive predispositions and biases, while science is only possible when we struggle hard to overcome those biases. So is there any truth to his claim? Is religion just what human minds do when they’re being lazy? [Read more...]

Is religion anthropomorphism?

Connor Wood

Emperor Moth

The verdict is in: we are our brains, roughly speaking. That is, according to modern neuroscience and cognitive science, our personalities, dreams, and experiences are all products of intensely complex interactions of the neurons in our craniums. You can disagree or agree with this claim, but nearly all experts who study the brain and mind are convinced of it. When it comes to things spiritual, the cognitive science of religion (CSR) is a field that tries to understand religious beliefs from within this naturalistic framework. And recently, one of the founding thinkers in CSR outlined a central claim in the field: religion is essentially about anthropomorphism, or the tendency for our brains to see persons in the world around us.

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Supernatural agents influence our social strategies

Ian Cooley

We’ve all had the experience of being spooked at some point in our lives. Maybe you were home at night when suddenly the power went out. In the dark, you became aware of something across the room, but you assured yourself that it was nothing. A moment later, however, there was no denying that the drapes were definitely moving. Of course, it was just a drafty window, but your lungs felt like they had just finished a marathon. This experience may have been the result of your mind’s predisposal toward perceiving other conscious entities in your environment; a recent research article suggests that we’re naturally inclined to attribute supernatural beings who have information about our private social knowledge.

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Religious conservatism may be driven by the disgust response

Connor Wood

In today’s culture wars, religion plays a major role. And in the United States, it often seems to fall on the conservative side of the spectrum. For example, you hardly ever see rowdy hordes of secularists protesting against immigrants or gays, do you? Decades of research has confirmed that religion is correlated with mistrust of outsiders, sexual minorities, and other common targets of prejudice. But why? A new research paper has a fascinating, if unsettling, answer: conservative religiosity is partly an expression of our bodies’ need to protect against disease and germs – and throughout history, nothing has been a bigger source of new diseases than outsiders.

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Painful rituals: good for some, not for others

Connor Wood

Painful_ritual

From the somber Catholic high mass to the painful, often frightening initiation rites of many tribal cultures, every human society practices some form of ritual. But the rituals themselves differ radically – in ways that may be predictable across cultures. Namely, new research shows that complex cultures that depend on agriculture tend to have frequent, repeated rituals that are relatively sedate and calm. Smaller cultures with less agriculture, on the other hand, feature rituals that are less frequent but far more emotionally and physically arousing. Ultimately, these trends may give us a vital clue as to how human culture changes over time.

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Traditional religion: investing in families, genetically

Connor Wood

Dogon

To modern eyes, traditional religious practices can seem downright baffling, even barbarous. From circumcisions to menstrual huts, the rituals of many societies appear to be coercive, controlling, or senseless. But what if these strange practices actually fulfill functions in their societies? A group of researchers at the Universities of Michigan and Arizona examining the religious practices of the Dogon, an indigenous Malian tribe, have found that Dogon ritual practices help reduce adultery and out-of-wedlock births – a function that can head off bitter interpersonal conflicts and, in the long run, inspire parents to invest more in their children.

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Why do we think the soul persists after death?

Connor Wood

Persistence_of_the_soul

Quick: imagine what happens after you die. Will you still be able to think and feel? Will you experience pain, pleasure, or sensations, and will you still develop, change, and grow? Around the world, people seem to be hardwired to think about humans dualistically, or as composed of physical bodies and nonphysical minds or spirits. This means that ideas about the afterlife and the soul may come as naturally to us as breathing. But a pair of psychologists from California think that the situation is more complicated – we may be innately predisposed to differentiate not just between body and mind, but between mortal mind and immortal spirit.

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Atheism: a personality profile

Jonathan Morgan

religion_atheism

For half a decade, the cognitive science of religion has sought the evolutionary origins of religious belief. This burgeoning field has some deep and convincing explanations, but it may also stigmatize atheists as aberrations of evolution. Now, psychologists are countering this stigma by tracking the personality traits that naturally facilitate atheism. Their work gives us a personality profile that neutralizes atheism as one of many expected worldviews in any healthy, diverse community.

[Read more...]


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