Is religion good or bad for the world?

Connor Wood

Praying girl

What would the world be like with no religion? While this is a question we’ll probably never comprehensively answer, it is an interesting one. Does religion contribute, on balance, to human well-being or to oppression and misery? Most people already have their minds made up on this question, but generally for ideological reasons: religious believers tend (unsurprisingly) to argue that religion does a lot of good for the world, while the vast majority of folks critical of religion come from Marxist and anti-theistic perspectives. Fortunately, ideology isn’t all we have to go on. Two researchers summarized a vast body of quantitative literature for the most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, and found that claims for religion’s wholesale moral decrepitude are notably exaggerated. [Read more...]

Theories of religion: The early years

Connor Wood

Stained glass Adam and Eve

After a nice two-week break, I’m returning to my series of primers on theories of religion. This week we’re looking at three early anthropologists who believed that cultures evolve from “primitive” to “civilized” stages, and that religion is a characteristic of the earlier stages. Science and rationality (trumpet sounds!), of course, characterized the later, more advanced stages of development. Excelsior! [Read more...]

Why do religions tell impossible tales? A testable hypothesis

Connor Wood

Woman opening world

Einstein was probably the most quotable scientist who ever coined a phrase. Even people who couldn’t tell special relativity from Scooby-Doo have heard the famous quote that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But does this sentiment apply universally, without limits? Is it really better to conjure up fantasy worlds than to know, concretely and factually, how to build wind turbines or computer mainframes? Well, sometimes it might be. I think that when we fall victim to excessively rigid, causally determined stories we’ve told ourselves about the world, a glimpse of fantasy might be just what we need to slip free of our ideas about what’s possible – allowing us to stumble on new solutions to problems. [Read more...]

Awesome theories of religion, Part 2

Connor Wood

Religion is confusing, right? Why do people do these weird things, like lighting candles next to statues of gods, praying to deities with names like “Krishna” and “Jesus” and “Buddha Amitabha,” and pursuing master’s degrees in theology? Everyone has an opinion. Some people think that religion arose to explain the frightening natural world, and now that we have science to explain things, religion is obsolete. Others think that religion is a cynical tool for elites to keep the masses down. Fortunately, we don’t have to just rely on speculations. There’s a massive, growing body of literature on religion, and learning about it can help us understand what religion is and where it came from. [Read more...]

4 neat theories of religion

Connor Wood

So I recently stumbled across this post from BrainPickings.org, about how to explain religion. It features four of those cute little minute-long animated educational videos that make you feel smart without your actually having to do anything. (You know the kind – they’re quirky, hip, catchy, and they make you feel pleasantly intelligent just by association with the person who made them.) The BrainPickings post purported to be a primer on major theories of religion. Cool, right? Except the original creators – instructors at UK’s Open University – chose to make videos about four thinkers who are almost never cited in the study of religion. Like, ever. So today’s post is the fist part of a fix: a short, easy-to-understand primer on some of the basic (actual) theories of religion.
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Religion influences ethics more in low-religiosity countries

Connor Wood

Notre Dame

Are religious folks nicer than nonbelievers? Popular stereotypes would say “yes,” and one line of thinking in psychology concurs. This “religious prosociality hypothesis” claims that religions inspire adaptive, cooperative behavior in their adherents as a matter of course, and that one of religion’s main purposes is to encourage group-oriented morality. But many experts disagree, arguing that nonbelievers are just as moral as the faithful. Into this longstanding fray comes some fascinating new research showing that religion actually does encourage prosocial attitudes – but only in countries where people are free to choose whether or not to believe. [Read more...]

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...]

Is science more “unnatural” than religion?

Connor Wood

Young female student

Robert McCauley, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Emory University, thinks that religion is natural, but science isn’t. Such a claim could easily inspire all manner of outrage and uproar from both offended believers and irked scientists alike. But what McCauley means, as he outlined in a recent book – titled, aptly, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not – is that religious beliefs arise from our basic, evolved cognitive predispositions and biases, while science is only possible when we struggle hard to overcome those biases. So is there any truth to his claim? Is religion just what human minds do when they’re being lazy? [Read more...]

Spirit possession: everyone’s doing it

Connor Wood

Shaman

I haven’t written a post here for more than a week. This is because I have been spending all my free time, and much of my non-free time, furiously writing two articles for an encyclopedia on spirit possession. Yes – you heard that right. Possession. By spirits. The two articles (which were technically due back on, um, January 1st) are about the zar possession cult in northeast Africa and shamanism in Korea, respectively. I wrote my master’s thesis on Korean shamanism, and have had an academic and personal interest in such things ever since. But where does something as wild and spooky as spirit possession fit into religion?

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My employer: The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion

Connor Wood

IBCSR

If you ever read op-eds on religion in major newspapers, or the comments below those op-eds, you know that religion is one of those rare topics about which everyone feels entitled to hold a (usually very strong) opinion, but not everyone feels an accompanying obligation to study in depth. There are a few others out there: economics, evolution. But by and large, because religion brings up people’s deepest concerns and has a reputation for depending on evidence-free faith, many folks assume that they can rely on individual opinion, gut feelings, and popular wisdom to talk about religion. I disagree. I think we can learn real, surprising, concrete things about religion, using both the rigorous methods of science and the robust interpretive tools of the humanities. This is exactly what my employer, the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, does. [Read more...]


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