Think the Muslim world needs to “reform?” Think again

Connor Wood

Muslim prayer

It’s 2016. In the coming year, we’re pretty much guaranteed to see religious violence in the news again. Over recent months, high-profile terrorism attacks have hit Paris, San Bernardino, and Istanbul, rattling residents of rich democracies and even threatening the post-World War II tradition of open European borders. As fears and anger over terror attacks have grown, one increasingly loud international chorus of commentators and critics has called for a Muslim “reform” movement. If we’re supposed to accept Islam as a religion of peace, the logic goes, then members of the 1.5-billion-strong Islamic faith need to revamp their teachings to match the modern world! On the surface, this call seems understandable. But psychology, anthropology, and history all warn that a genuine reform movement may be exactly what we don’t want. [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.

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Michael Shermer thinks he’s more moral than you

Connor Wood

Portrait of clueless man against red background

Remember how Europeans used to spend practically all their free time roaming around, conquering other people’s countries, and talking about superior how their culture was? Isn’t it great that those days are over? Oh, wait – they’re not. Michael Shermer, atheist extraordinaire and publisher of Skeptic magazine, has recently published a book arguing – literally – that Western societies are more moral than other cultures, because Westerners are better at abstract thinking. Shermer seems like a decent person (really). But history’s tragedies are made possible by decent people, and in his new book Shermer commits all the same sorts of moral fallacies that have powered cultural chauvinism since the days of Rome.  [Read more...]

Does Eben Alexander “prove heaven?” Sort of.

Connor Wood

Proof of Heaven

Bad news: we’re all going to die. The question is, what comes afterward? In the book Proof of Heaven, former neurosurgeon Eben Alexander uses his own profound near-death experience to claim we live on in a spiritual realm. Featured on Oprah and countless other television and radio shows, Alexander has become prince of a media fiefdom whose currency is life after death. His book, along with its sequel The Map of Heaven, is the subject of this month’s Patheos book club, and I’ve been asked to weigh in. So what’s the deal with Proof of Heaven? Is it what it claims to be? [Read more...]

A new theory for why Buddhist meditation makes us feel good

Connor Wood

Meditation

Booze. Cigarettes. Gambling. The human brain is vulnerable to all sorts of addictions. And thinking might be one of them. That’s right – in many Buddhist texts, the endless stream of rumination that runs through the mind of the average person isn’t merely a distracting habit, but a genuine addiction that befuddles the intellect and inhibits spiritual development. In a new article, a leading neuropsychologist makes the same claim – that we’re all addicted to daydreaming, and that the neurology of our addictions is the same as that of addiction to drugs. What’s more, certain forms of Buddhist meditation may release the brain’s chemical hold on itself, releasing us from our addictive daydreams. [Read more...]

Entheogens may expand possible brain interconnections

Connor Wood

Colorful brain

In the Book of Ezekiel, the eponymous prophet witnesses fantastic, even psychedelic visions: chariots in the sky, angels, the works. (Ezekiel 37 luridly recounts, for example, that the prophet sees a valley of bones that begin to reassemble themselves as he speaks.) But Ezekiel’s visions aren’t just odd. They’re profoundly meaningful, at least for the prophet. This combination of dreamlike oddness and paradoxical meaningfulness is one of the most pervasive qualities of religious – and entheogenic – experiences across traditions. Now, new neuroimaging research may help us understand one part of this picture: how psychedelic substances relax the normal patterns of connectivity in the brain, allowing for powerfully associative mental experiences.

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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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Informal Study Finds Bloggers Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction

Connor Wood

Confused computer guy

A study that made the rounds through the TwitFaceBlogosphere last week claimed that religious children can’t distinguish properly between fantasy and reality. The Huffington Post, the Friendly Atheist, RawStory, and the Democratic Underground each chimed in, all with headlines that were some version of “Children Exposed to Religion Have Difficulty Telling Truth from Fiction.” Of course, that’s not what the study actually shows. It shows that religious children believe religious stories. But more groan-inducing than the study authors’ conclusions is how quickly so many people jumped on the middle-school “laugh-at-religion” bandwagon, without stopping to, you know, think critically.

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