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...]

How the brain escapes the self

Connor Wood

Religious experiences get described in a lot of ways. People gushingly talk about a profound sense of oneness, about incredible bliss, joy, and ineffable meaning. One thing you almost never hear, however, is that a religious experience made someone more greedy and selfish. No one ever says, “Hey, you know what? I just experienced ultimate spiritual bliss, and boy, did it ever make me focus neurotically on my own struggles, financial problems, and dating insecurities!” Why this incompatibility between spirituality and self-absorption? A team of researchers from the University of Missouri thinks that the reason might be found in the brain, where reduced function in the region associated with self-awareness is correlated with greater spirituality.

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Psychology and the religion-science conflict: Part 2

Pensive scientist

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Having learned more about how everyday people handle the so-called “religion-science” conflict, psychologist Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin) and philosopher of religion Aku Visala (University of Oxford) now aim to use their data to critique and inform the standard philosophical approaches to this issue. Philosophers typically, at minimum, categorize religion-science approaches in three ways: conflict, independence, and reconciliation. Legare and Visala find that so few people actually adhere to the first two that only reconciliation plausibly coheres with human cognition.

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Psychology and the religion-science conflict: Part 1

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Man of Science with Religions

Talk of the “religion and science conflict” sets a trap: one quickly winds up pontificating about abstract objects as if they were real without any grounding in reality. “Religion” becomes a monolithic abstract entity, whose adherents all behave in the same way, and ditto for “science.” In hopes of looking at the religion-science conflict empirically, psychologists Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin) and Aku Visala (University of Oxford) take a psychological approach, concluding that scientific explanations do not replace religious ones. In Part 2 of this post, they critique the standard religion-science discussion.

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An evidence-based rethinking of the religion-science conflict

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Study group

All too often, people assume that Christians don’t know or don’t want to know science because science conflicts with their beliefs: Christianity acts as a force for science illiteracy. However, research by sociologist John Evans (University of California, San Diego) suggests otherwise. His findings conclude that (1) Christians know just as much science as the non-religious; (2) conservative Christians favor their religious beliefs over science when the two “conflict” but, from their perspective, the two in fact are not in conflict; and (3) conservative Protestants oppose scientists’ influence in political issues when the scientists disagree with their moral values.

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Interview: Michael Ruse on Evolution, Creationism, and Religion

Daniel Ansted

Creationism vs Evolution

Michael Ruse is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and a worldwide expert on the relationship between religion and science. His work has focused especially on the convoluted relationship between the American public and Darwinian evolution; he famously testified in McLean vs. Arkansas in 1981 that creation science – a form of Christian creationism that claims to be scientifically valid – should not be allowed in public science classes, because it features virtually none of the characteristics of true science. Contributor Daniel Ansted studied under Ruse during his time at FSU, and recently asked his former mentor for an interview. Here is their (slightly abridged, and still fascinating) conversation.

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