Believing Impossible Stuff Is Dangerous. Except When It’s Awesome.

Connor Wood

Happy kid playing with toy airplane

In my last article, I dissected the study that went around the Internet claiming that children who have been exposed to religion (like swine flu) can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction. Those findings were less than convincing, as I and others pointed out – because kids who had been to Christian Sunday school were virtually guaranteed to recognize the  “fictional” stories as versions of Bible narratives. So the research actually only showed that religious kids believe religious things – which, duh. Take a step back, though: the hand-wringing commentariat worried that the faithful might be dangers to society, due to their supposed disconnect from reality. But does believing impossible things, in principle, constitute such a terrible threat? Do we even want a world where people can accept only the facts?

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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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Awe increases religious belief

Connor Wood

Woman in awe at nature

It’s dawn. You’re hiking over a silent mountain ridge, gravel crunching beneath your feet. You crest the top, and you’re struck dumb by the first rays of sunlight streaming over the valley below – rich, forested, cut through by rivers. Above you, the morning’s clouds blaze violet and orange with the sunrise. If you’re like most people, the emotion you’d be feeling right about now is awe: a sense of overwhelming wonder at natural splendor, power, or vastness. From Thomas Aquinas to Ralph Waldo Emerson, many writers over the centuries have linked awe with religious experience. Researchers from California have now joined that list, uncovering some fascinating additional connections besides. [Read more...]

Being powerful makes you think analytically

Connor Wood

Social power

Writing a blog means having a public forum, a venue to inform and change people’s minds. And if there’s one thing I’d love to convince people of, it’s that today’s conflicts surrounding religion, culture, and science aren’t the product of failed reasoning and narrow-mindedness as much as of basic social dynamics. This is what I argued in my recent take on the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debates (which, by the way, caused money flood into Ken Ham’s coffers – another reason to ignore pop-culture drivel). It’s what informs my take on Christian fundamentalism. And a recent paper from the University of Wisconsin helps make my case. [Read more...]

Five ways religion can influence political beliefs

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Typically, when people think of “religion and politics,” they think of social issues such as abortion, contraceptives, and gay marriage. While that’s not a bad place to start, it does in fact start at the group level rather than focusing on individuals. Wanting instead to see how religion can affect political beliefs at the individual level, Ryan LaMothe (St. Meinrad School of Theology) found five ways in which this can happen.

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Rewriting the script: We change our religious memories

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Everyone knows that memories can fade with time. But not everyone realizes that in “refreshing” memories by remembering them, they risk distortion. This has implications for how people construct their identity. Focusing on religious identity, psychologists R. David Hayward (University of Michigan), Joanna Maselko (Duke University Medical Center), and Keith G. Meador (Vanderbilt University Medical Center) found that people would accurately remember their childhood religious behavior but would alter their childhood religious identity so that it matched their present religious identity.

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Does God accept the real you?

Punk priest

Nicholas C. DiDonato

In the West, the concept of God has a wide range of meanings, including a supernatural person-like agent, an impersonal force, pure actual being, beyond being, and many more. Thus, in applying psychology to one’s perception of God, psychologists typically limit themselves to the first conception. Still, the results can be fascinating. Psychologist Bart Soenens (Ghent University, Belgium) and colleagues applied the study of interpersonal relationships to religiosity and found that how one perceives one’s relationship with God affects whether one approaches religious claims symbolically or literally.

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Rise in elder Korean suicides: A reminder that religion matters

Connor Wood

South Korean flag

This week, the New York Times reported in a somber piece that the suicide rate among the elderly in South Korea – one of the world’s most astounding national economic success stories – has risen to catastrophic levels in recent years. The reason for this horrifying trend? The Times cites the collapse of the traditional Confucian family structures that, in ages past, virtually guaranteed that children would care for their elderly parents as an act of filial piety. This tragic story speaks volumes about the relationship between religion, economics, culture, and well-being – a relationship that, if we hope to overcome the challenges of the globalized 21st century, I believe we must learn to understand.

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Where does religious doubt come from? The forebrain

Doubt

Connor Wood

You wake up one morning to a phone call. On the other end, a friend’s voice excitedly tells you that he knows where to find a leprechaun’s pot of gold in a nearby park. Do you want to come help him dig for it? If you are a normal person, you will roll your eyes, hang up, and (hopefully) go back to sleep. But according to new research from the University of Iowa, if you have damage to a specific area of your neocortex related to doubt and skepticism, you might jump up and start looking around for your shovel. And guess what – if so, you’re also more likely to be a religious fundamentalist.

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Education’s effect on religion

Nicholas C. DiDonato

College

Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, academics assumed that as education increases, religion would decrease. Yet, in the late 19th century, the world witnessed the birth of fundamentalism, Biblical inerrancy, and papal infallibility. Despite the great increase in education beginning in the 18th century, religion has not only grown but has become more conservative. Interested in higher education’s real effect on religion, sociologist Jonathan Hill (Calvin College) found that it mildly increases skepticism toward super-empirical beliefs, decreases adherence to exclusivism, and increases preference for institutionalized religion.

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