No space for God of the gaps

Connor Wood

God of the gaps not found

Ever heard of the “god of the gaps?” It’s the idea that God is the reason for things we can’t explain through science. For example, no one on Earth knows exactly how proteins – linear chains of amino acids – find the proper 3-D structure to fold themselves into after being transcribed from RNA. Many of the millions of possible shapes are equally stable and possible. Yet the chains always assemble themselves into just the right structure. Spooky. So…God. Right? Wrong – because someday a brilliant scientist will figure out the scientific explanation for protein folding. And when she does, your faith in God will delate like a beachball – unless it never depended on the god-of-the-gaps argument in the first place. [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…]

Why the religion-science dialogue needs secular religious studies

Connor Wood

Science and Faith

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a one-day conference on religion and science in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The conference brought together scientists, religious leaders, and academics to discuss religion and science in the context of some of today’s pressing issues – such as climate change. But the mood wasn’t anxious. Instead, participants relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company, fleshing out their stances on religion and science while hearing witty talks from experts. At one point, though, it dawned on me that I was possibly the only conference attendee whose expertise was in the study of religion itself. What could academic religious studies offer to the religion-and-science dialogue? [Read more…]

How separate are science and religion, anyway?

Connor Wood

Earth in Space

Over Christmas, the author Eric Metaxas wrote a much-ballyhooed article for the Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that the improbability of life on Earth constitutes a scientific case for God. According to Metaxas, the odds against all the necessary parameters – right type of star, right size planet, deflected comets – are so astronomical (pun intended) that the very existence of life is a clear sign that God monkeyed with the physics. I think this is a less-than-convincing case. I also think it’s the kind of theology that gets religion in serious trouble. My friend Geoff Mitelman, a rabbi, agrees, arguing that “religion isn’t science.” But does this mean that religion doesn’t – or can’t – make any claims about the world, or that religious beliefs are never constrained by science? [Read more…]

The Wave of the Future: Experimental Religious Studies

Connor Wood

If you don’t know about, you should. Especially if you are a nerd. Edge is an online salon in which experts from all sorts of different fields get together (virtually, of course) and discuss important issues, from human evolution to the future of agriculture to bioethics. In a recent Edge column, influential religious studies scholar and cognitive scientist Edward Slingerland offered a fascinating look at how the academic study of religion can use experimental methods to sort out the good theories from the bad ones. If he’s right – and I’m betting my career that he is – we won’t have to rely anymore on “Just-So” stories and strongly held personal hunches when talking about religion. We can test whether our fondest ideas hold up against the harsh light of reality. [Read more…]

An historian’s call to understand and engage creationists

God and DarwinDan Ansted

On February 4th this year, Bill Nye, the science guy, debated Ken Ham, the president of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. After the debate there was an abundance of commentary – some of it good, but most of it a mere repetition of old useless arguments that creationism isn’t science (in my opinion true, but an uninteresting observation). What seems to be missing from the various commentaries is a genuine attempt to understand how creationism arose and what creationists believe. Thus, while the Ham v. Nye debate is the occasion for this essay, it’s not its subject. [Read more…]

Sinai and Synapses: A video about studying religion

Connor Wood

Together with my friend and colleague Tim Maness, I made a couple of videos last week on the relationship between science and religion. They went up yesterday at the website of Rabbi Geoff Mitelman’s Sinai and Synapses project as part of its “More Light, Less Heat” initiative, and again today at the Huffington Post. Check them out! My video focuses on the scientific study of religion – particularly its role in coordinating cooperative agreements within cultures. Tim’s video is more meta-analytic, focusing with a sharp eye on the questions of epistemology within and motivations for both religious and scientific worldviews.

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Ritual bypasses conscious cognition

Connor Wood

Muslim ritual

Pretend you’re an alien anthropologist come to Earth to study humans. What do you notice most about these strange, bipedal creatures? Their glittering cities? Their fondness for chocolate? Their use of daringly creative insults during traffic jams? Maybe, but let’s not forget one behavior that distinguishes humans almost more than anything else: ritual, and lots of it. No other animal participates in, invents, or performs rituals as complex and detailed as humans. But why? Our bemused alien anthropologist might benefit from new Danish research describing how ritual, using what’s called “cognitive resource depletion,” helps cultures pass knowledge and values down to new members.

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Over generations, religion shapes genetics

Connor Wood

In the United States, religion is usually said to be a personal affair – one’s own private decision about how and what to believe. But this remarkably private and individualistic approach is somewhat odd when compared with the vast majority of cultures and religions throughout history. Far more often, religion has been a public affiliation, determining cultural identities, affecting marriage and family choices, and defining groups in relation to each other. A fascinating recent study published in PLOS Genetics shows just how inextricable religion often is from culture, finding that religious identity has decisively shaped the genetic landscape of the Levant – so decisively, in fact, that Lebanese Muslims are more closely related to fellow Muslims from Morocco or Yemen than they are to their Christian or Jewish compatriots.

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Why the Templeton Foundation Is a Darn Good Thing

This week, an article at Slate has been making the rounds in which Sean Carroll, a Caltech physicist, proclaims loudly that he will never accept research funding from the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is one of the largest non-governmental funders of scientific research in the world, and it distinguishes itself from other organizations through its interest in religion and its mandate to address the “big questions” like the meaning and purpose of life. Carroll and others believe that this religion-science collaboration stains of the purity of science, and I think this is great. It means there’s more Templeton research funding for me, my colleagues, and others who think that religion needs to be taken seriously.  [Read more…]