Cool new research in religion

scientific study of religionIf you ever want to get seriously frustrated, I suggest getting advanced graduate training in religious studies. Why’s it frustrating? Because everyone thinks they understand religion already. Seriously, biologists don’t sit down next to strangers on airplanes, let slip that they’re biologists, and then find themselves subjected to a 10-minute lecture on their seat mate’s poorly informed ideas about cellular signaling pathways. But the equivalent happens to people who study religion all the time. You say, “Oh, I study ritual and religion,” and the guy next to you goes silent for a second, then leans forward to tell you in somber tones that religion is nothing but a tool for the rich to control the masses.* Or else he’s an Evangelical who thinks that he’s not religious – no, he has a personal relationship with Jesus, and that’s not religion at all. So in a world of people who think that their opinions about religion are just as good as actual knowledge, it’s relieving to be reminded that some people actually study religion. Here’s a look at three recent studies that use data, not opinions. [Read more…]

Religion builds self-control and excludes outsiders – simultaneously

Connor Wood

Two Muslim men praying

Religion sure seems to care a lot about self-control. From the Ten Commandments to Shariah law to rule-bound Zen monasticism, most religious communities impose tremendous restrictions on their members. (Not for them the wide-open ethos of “If it feels good, do it.”) Yet despite their dreary-seeming, duty-oriented value systems, religious adherents tend to be slightly happier and longer-lived than their nonreligious peers. What gives? In a new paper, I spend a lot of pages arguing that religious constraints on behavior and elevated personal well-being are actually inextricable from one another, because following all those rules builds self-control – one of the best predictors of life outcomes. The catch? The very practices that build self-control are the same tools religions use to discriminate against outsiders. [Read more…]

Is belief in heaven good for you? No. Yes. Maybe.

Connor Wood

Devil and angel drawings

One of the oldest stories in the book is the eternal tension between the individual and society. From restraining impulses to maximizing personal happiness, what’s good for the collective isn’t necessarily what’s good for the individual – and vice-versa. In the past couple of years, psychologists studying religion have discovered a fascinating new expression of this age-old tension: belief in heaven is good for individuals, but bad for societies – while belief in hell has exactly the opposite effects. These studies are well-designed and their results are compelling. But they don’t offer any easy answers. [Read more…]

Is willpower really a finite resource?

Connor Wood

Willpower

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a big groundswell in empirical research on religion. This is a good thing, because it means now we can actually point at data to answer questions about what role religion plays in culture, or whether religion is here to stay.* But just because empirical psychologists and cognitive scientists are publishing data-heavy papers on religion doesn’t mean everything they say is the gospel truth (pun intended). One recent paper shows that even our most cherished scientific conclusions can turn out to be red herrings, thanks to publication bias, cherry-picking results, and good old human error. [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…]

Want a meaningful life? Stay away from rich countries

Connor Wood

Crowd Of Businessmen On Their Way To Work

Money. Moolah. Cash. The almighty dollar. The world economy is set up to produce it, and our working lives are spent making it. It seems obvious that the more of it we have – whether individuals, families, or countries – the better. But a recent research study published in Psychological Science cautions that there might be reason to be wary of material plenty. Countries with higher gross domestic products have higher suicide rates and less self-reported meaning in life than their poorer counterparts. The study’s authors argue that religion plays a key role in explaining these unsettling connections. [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.

[Read more…]

Earn $63,628 worth of happiness: pray

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Betender Mann

People commonly say that “money can’t by happiness,” but such people do not bother economists. Economists like to quantify everything in terms of money, including happiness. And when they got wind of research that religion increases long-term happiness, they naturally asked, “By how much (in US dollars)?” More exactly, Timothy Tyler Brown (University of California, Berkeley) investigated the value of happiness prayer yields for the average individual per year in dollars, and found that the answer is $63,628.

[Read more…]

Forgiveness and health: It’s complicated

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Happy couple

Most religions preach forgiveness. Holding grudges, remembering wrongs, and not letting things go leads to poor spiritual health (according to such religions). While scientists cannot test claims about spiritual health, they can test physical health. Can forgiveness lead to improved health? Researcher Michael McFarland (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues posed this question, and found that forgiveness does positively correlate with health over time. [Read more…]

Does suffering drive us to religion? Yep.

Connor Wood

Sad woman and destroyed house

It’s a puzzling riddle: If God is in charge of everything, then why do people who undergo profound suffering often profess the greatest faith? Shouldn’t they retaliate at God by not believing in him?  The commonsense answer might be “yes,” but the facts seem to say otherwise. New research shows that New Zealanders who suffered from the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake actually became more religious afterwards than their fellow countrymen. What’s more, those who lost their faith after the quake suffered significant reductions in their self-reported well-being. [Read more…]