How “big gods” make us play nice

Connor Wood

Scales of justice with money and a village house

Gods are everywhere. In all recorded societies, people believe in some form of spiritual beings, whether gods, spirits, ancestors, ghosts – or all of the above. But they aren’t all the same. For example, if you cheat, steal, or murder, the God of the Bible will definitely get cross with you. But in many traditions, gods and spirits don’t especially care whether you behave badly, as long as you respect them. Interestingly, these differences in gods’ moral interests may be related to the type and scale of their host cultures. A burgeoning line of research is investigating whether moral gods influence how societies evolve and how big they get. Three recent papers – one each from 2014, 2015, and this year – use unique, creative methods to test this hypothesis. [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…]

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…]

Is religion good or bad for the world?

Connor Wood

Praying girl

What would the world be like with no religion? While this is a question we’ll probably never comprehensively answer, it is an interesting one. Does religion contribute, on balance, to human well-being or to oppression and misery? Most people already have their minds made up on this question, but generally for ideological reasons: religious believers tend (unsurprisingly) to argue that religion does a lot of good for the world, while the vast majority of folks critical of religion come from Marxist and anti-theistic perspectives. Fortunately, ideology isn’t all we have to go on. Two researchers summarized a vast body of quantitative literature for the most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, and found that claims for religion’s wholesale moral decrepitude are notably exaggerated. [Read more…]

Religion influences ethics more in low-religiosity countries

Connor Wood

Notre Dame

Are religious folks nicer than nonbelievers? Popular stereotypes would say “yes,” and one line of thinking in psychology concurs. This “religious prosociality hypothesis” claims that religions inspire adaptive, cooperative behavior in their adherents as a matter of course, and that one of religion’s main purposes is to encourage group-oriented morality. But many experts disagree, arguing that nonbelievers are just as moral as the faithful. Into this longstanding fray comes some fascinating new research showing that religion actually does encourage prosocial attitudes – but only in countries where people are free to choose whether or not to believe. [Read more…]

How religion will save the world

Connor Wood

The end of the world!

This past weekend, Western Christians celebrated Easter, the most important holiday of the liturgical year. Easter offers believers an opportunity to reflect on death, rebirth, and hope. This year it also came only two days before Earth Day (happy Earth Day!). Great, because some other news – mostly from the New York Times, admittedly never a wellspring of uplifting inspiration – reminds us that things aren’t all peachy for the Earth. With some experts placing the odds of total ecological collapse by midcentury at 50/50, it’s time to start mining our religious and spiritual traditions for all the hope and insight we can get. Among the most important of those insights is the concept of “sacred.” It may sound quaint, but history shows that without sacred values, human cultures just don’t work. [Read more…]

Where religion pervades, prejudice reigns

Connor Wood

Fightin' nun

If you thumb through the annals of history, it isn’t hard to stumble across examples of bloody conflicts fueled by religion: the Protestant-Catholic “Troubles” in Northern Ireland; the violent Buddhist/Hindu Sri Lankan Civil War; the 30 Years’ War between Continental Protestants and Catholics. Of course, some writers have recently challenged the association between religion and conflict, but the assumption that religion encourages intergroup warfare is a hard one for most of us to shake. Recent research from Arizona State University isn’t going to help us shake it, either – in an article published this year in Psychological Science, a team of researchers found that cultures with high levels of everyday religiosity are more violent and prejudiced against outgroups.

[Read more…]

Russell Brand is wrong about Western religions

Living tree

Connor Wood

Are you worried about the environment? I am. So is the British comedian Russell Brand, who’s been all over the internet, television, and magazines recently, proclaiming the need for the world’s people to revolt against an entrenched economic system that’s despoiling the planet and keeping billions in poverty. I share Brand’s abject horror at the ravenous destruction of the earth’s ecosystems (and I rather envy his wardrobe). But I think he’s off base when it comes to how to change our ways. Turning our backs on our religions and traditions, as Brand urges, isn’t going to fix our looming global problems. This is because traditions, as stultifying as they might seem, are humanity’s best tools for forging links between cultures, environments, and time.

[Read more…]

Trust issues? The answer might be rhythm

Connor Wood

Djembes

One mistaken assumption many Americans have about religion is that it’s a private affair – a certain set of beliefs that individuals either do or don’t hold in their hearts. But the reality is that throughout cultures and history, people have gathered to chant, sing, and worship in communities, from Korean Buddhist sanghas to little Protestant chapels in New England. While there are massive differences between traditions, members of nearly every religious community take part in some sort of synchrony, or shared, rhythmic action: think singing in time, or bowing simultaneously toward Mecca. And recent research from New Zealand shows that this moving or chanting in sync helps people act more generously  – especially if they’ve worked hard to stay in time with each other. [Read more…]

Civil Religion: It’s What America Needs

Connor Wood

US flag

Robert Bellah, the sociologist of religion who popularized the idea of an American “civil religion,” died over the summer at the age of 86. In an age of stultifying political dialogue and rabid partisanship, Bellah’s passing marks an era when the American myth has, for many, lost a tremendous amount of its luster – and believability. But two recent events – a moon rocket launch and a presidential speech on Syria – remind us that myths take participation in order to be made real. While cynicism may rule the day in Congress and across the internet, I think that a little openness to the civic myths of our culture – or whichever culture you inhabit – is something the world can’t do without. [Read more…]


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