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…]

Hilbert problems in the study of religion

Connor Wood

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Good science sometimes takes a little hubris. Case in point: one humble group of 19th-century German philosophers thought that there were some questions science could probably never answer, such as what the nature of matter and energy is – but the mathematician David Hilbert (the guy in the hat, at right) vehemently disagreed. Hilbert’s aggressive pursuit of mathematical and scientific solutions to the biggest riddles eventually helped lay the foundations of quantum mechanics, so you could say that his optimism paid off. That’s probably why the editors of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) are channeling Hilbert’s scientific optimism in their current call for researchers to identify the world’s most important, unanswered empirical questions about the evolution, functions, and future of religion: the “Hilbert problems” of the scientific study of human religiosity.

[Read more…]

Simulating Religion

Connor Wood

Conceptual wireframe mesh man woman face

Religion is simple, right? Some people believe in gods and an afterlife and stuff, and others don’t. That’s all there is to it. Wrong – religion is super ridiculously complicated. There are thousands of different religions across the world, with a stupendously dizzying array of different beliefs, rituals, and stories. For example, many Hindus worship the supreme god Vishnu, who creates the world while sleeping on the cosmic ocean. But millions of fellow Hindus say that another god, Shiva, is actually the one who creates everything, by dancing the cosmic tandava dance.* Vaishnavites and Shaivites have different ways of praying, different holidays, and different mythologies. And that’s just within Hinduism! All the other religions are equally, absurdly different from each other. So how do we get a handle on this vast realm of difference and variation? Well, one of the best techniques for understanding really, really complicated things is through…computer simulations. Think I’m joking? The research project I’m about to start work on is a three-year effort to model theories of religion. [Read more…]

Animals evolve. People evolve. Can groups evolve?

Connor Wood

The pond-skater

Welcome back! This is the third installation of my series on religion and group-level evolution. Last time, we left off with the raging debates between scientists who champion kin selection and those who swear by group selection. Group selection is the idea that cooperative behaviors – like caring for others’ offspring or loudly warning neighbors about predators – evolved by competition between groups. By contrast, kin selection, or inclusive fitness, insists that altruistic behaviors evolve strictly to benefit relatives. For example, when a mother babysits her sister’s child, she may seem generous and giving, but she’s actually being genetically selfish – peer through the illuminating lens of inclusive fitness theory, and you’ll find that she’s just caring for a little package of copies of her own genes.  [Read more…]

Religion and evolution, part deux

Connor Wood

Gray Cranes

After a pleasant sojourn with ISIS in my last post, it’s time to get back to the question of whether religion is an evolved adaptation. In my last post on the evolution of religion, I mentioned that there was a brewing conflict between group selection and inclusive fitness models in biology. Did I say conflict? I meant outright, total war. Far be it from me to over-dramatize a scientific quarrel, but this one doesn’t need to be over-dramatized; it’s already plenty dramatic. From massive letters of protest signed by hundreds of biologists to name-calling to bald accusations of irrelevance leveled against major intellectual figures, the group selection/inclusive fitness debates are the major scientific conflict of the young 21st century. Grab some popcorn, okay?

[Read more…]

Is religion evolutionarily adaptive?

Connor Wood

Light bulb evolution

If you’ve ever had roommates, you know the frustration of realizing that not everyone is contributing equally. If you’re the one who’s always emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the bathroom, pretty soon you start to feel taken advantage of – because you are being taken advantage of. This commonplace fount of roommate resentment is about as mundane as it gets, but it’s also a timeless example of the huge, thorny cooperative dilemmas that have faced human societies since time immemorial. How does a group get everyone to contribute to the common good? How do you discourage free riders? Many researchers think that religion plays a key role in solving these difficult problems, which implies that religion might be an adaptation for group living. But if so, does that necessarily mean religion is good? [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…]

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…]

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…]

A new theory for why Buddhist meditation makes us feel good

Connor Wood

Meditation

Booze. Cigarettes. Gambling. The human brain is vulnerable to all sorts of addictions. And thinking might be one of them. That’s right – in many Buddhist texts, the endless stream of rumination that runs through the mind of the average person isn’t merely a distracting habit, but a genuine addiction that befuddles the intellect and inhibits spiritual development. In a new article, a leading neuropsychologist makes the same claim – that we’re all addicted to daydreaming, and that the neurology of our addictions is the same as that of addiction to drugs. What’s more, certain forms of Buddhist meditation may release the brain’s chemical hold on itself, releasing us from our addictive daydreams. [Read more…]


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X