Cognitive biases don’t explain religion, after all

The cognitive science of religion shows why Czechs are less religiousIf you’re familiar with the cognitive science of religion, then you’ve probably heard the term “hyperactive agency detection device,” or HADD. The HADD is one of today’s most popular explanations for why people believe in God or gods. It proposes that the human brain is equipped with a hair-trigger mechanism that perceives personhood – that is, intentions and purposes – everywhere in the world. This mechanism is why you see faces in campfire flames or jump when you hear a twig crack in the woods. According to the HADD hypothesis, these perceptions are the reason for human beliefs in gods and spirits – and, hence, the cognitive foundation for religiosity itself. But religiosity is a often lot more than seeing faces in clouds or campfires. It’s also rituals, texts, moral codes, community, and funny hats. So, really, how much of religion boils down to cognitive biases for detecting agency? According to new research from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the answer might be “not much.” [Read more…]

In New Zealand, religion reduces prejudice – but media inflames it

Anti-Muslim prejudiceIn the minds of many, religion causes divisions, prejudice, and misunderstandings. Famous glasses-wearing person John Lennon once fondly envisioned a world that had no national boundaries and “no religion too.” Those two dreams – no faith and no borders – fit well together because religion and division so often go hand-in-hand. Right? Well, sometimes. Religion can demarcate differences between ethnic groups – think Palestinians and Israelis – and even leaves a genetic impact, preventing members of differing faiths from marrying and having offspring with each other. But recent research from New Zealand shows that, in some cases, religion can reduce prejudice, too. More religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of immigrants and Muslims, while nightly news watchers – who ought to be well-informed – are more prejudiced.

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Cool new research in religion

scientific study of religionIf you ever want to get seriously frustrated, I suggest getting advanced graduate training in religious studies. Why’s it frustrating? Because everyone thinks they understand religion already. Seriously, biologists don’t sit down next to strangers on airplanes, let slip that they’re biologists, and then find themselves subjected to a 10-minute lecture on their seat mate’s poorly informed ideas about cellular signaling pathways. But the equivalent happens to people who study religion all the time. You say, “Oh, I study ritual and religion,” and the guy next to you goes silent for a second, then leans forward to tell you in somber tones that religion is nothing but a tool for the rich to control the masses.* Or else he’s an Evangelical who thinks that he’s not religious – no, he has a personal relationship with Jesus, and that’s not religion at all. So in a world of people who think that their opinions about religion are just as good as actual knowledge, it’s relieving to be reminded that some people actually study religion. Here’s a look at three recent studies that use data, not opinions. [Read more…]

A computer model of atheism?

Connor Wood

Robot laptop

Since earning my PhD last year, I’ve been working as a postdoc on the Modeling Religion Project at the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston. We use computer simulations to refine and compare theories of religion, cognition, and culture, trying to understand, say, the causal relationships between ritual behavior and social and psychological outcomes. And people are starting to pay attention. Recently, the science magazine Nautilus published a feature-length article on our project. The author, Michael Fitzgerald, highlighted our team’s attempts to understand the role that religion has played in large-scale cultural transformations, like the switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled agriculture – or the rise of secularism in the modern West. [Read more…]

Want to study the science of religion? Start with this MOOC

Computer in libraryA science of religion would help us understand some baffling things. Why do otherwise normal people spend thousands of dollars to flock from halfway around the world to Mecca? What’s with all the fasting and ritual? Why do people people pray to invisible personalities? None of these questions is simple, but a growing community of researchers from diverse disciplines is buckling down to try to answer them – scientifically. From cognitive science to social psychology to evolutionary modeling, the tools of science are turning up insights into how homo religiosus – the religious human – evolved and spread across the planet. This spring, a massive online-only course (MOOC) through the University of British Columbia is offering an overview of this growing field, taught by two of its leading figures. If you’re curious about religion as a human phenomenon, this will be a good opportunity to start learning.  [Read more…]

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.

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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?

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