Is a global community really possible?

Multicultural friends textingLast week, I wrote about Peter Beinart’s recent Atlantic article, in which he argued that a less-religious America might not actually mean the end of racism or tribalism. This time, I want to jump off from that topic to ask some bigger questions. Since the European Wars of Religion, educated people have often associated religion with tribalism and conflict. Conversely, secularism is thought to go along with global cosmopolitanism. So why is the global liberal order taking such a beating right now, after an unprecedented period of secularization across the West? And would it actually be possible to build a truly cosmopolitan, global community – one without tribalism? [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…]

Social media is toxic. Religious studies tells us why.

Connor Wood

Grumpy woman with thought clouds

You know what’s been in the news a lot lately? Twitter. The erstwhile social media haunt of the dorky Beltway set circa 2009 is now being used for propaganda, for international communication, and potentially for fomenting Thucydidean wars. That’s right: we’ve literally entered a time in history when the president-elect of the United States can cause a major international incident by blurting out a half-formed thought directly onto Twitter. But you know what? He’s not alone. The internet is a place where all of our thoughts go live, just about as soon as we’ve thought them (and sometimes before). As it turns out, this is a major problem. It’s destabilizing. And religious studies – of all things – can help us understand why. [Read more…]

Think the Muslim world needs to “reform?” Think again

Connor Wood

Muslim prayer

It’s 2016. In the coming year, we’re pretty much guaranteed to see religious violence in the news again. Over recent months, high-profile terrorism attacks have hit Paris, San Bernardino, and Istanbul, rattling residents of rich democracies and even threatening the post-World War II tradition of open European borders. As fears and anger over terror attacks have grown, one increasingly loud international chorus of commentators and critics has called for a Muslim “reform” movement. If we’re supposed to accept Islam as a religion of peace, the logic goes, then members of the 1.5-billion-strong Islamic faith need to revamp their teachings to match the modern world! On the surface, this call seems understandable. But psychology, anthropology, and history all warn that a genuine reform movement may be exactly what we don’t want. [Read more…]

The age of extreme opinions

Connor Wood

Auto Accident

It’s almost Christmas. As a present, accept several shiny new entries for your “questionable writing about science” folder. (Everyone has one of those, right?) Recently, a group of French researchers published an ingenious experiment that tested whether certain types of people would be more likely to obey instructions to harm others. As it turned out, people with two personality traits – agreeableness and conscientiousness – were more willing to obey violent orders. This interesting finding should give us all pause. Of course, this being the Internet, excitable science bloggers weren’t content to leave it at that. Instead, they spun it into yet another reason to celebrate the cyber age’s favorite hero: the hyper-individualistic, anti-authoritarian übermensch.

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Want to understand religion? You’ve gotta have a body.

Connor Wood

AI

A few times a year, a group of scholars, scientists, and industry people gather in Manhattan as part of a Sinai and Synapses working group, and I’m privileged to be one of those folks. Last week, as part of a working group meeting, I and the other members of Sinai and Synapses were treated to a fascinating talk by an expert in religion and technology, Noreen Herzfeld. Herzfeld’s talk focused on bodies – on the difference between simulating cognition using abstract 0s or 1s and actually having fleshy, full-body experience of the world. I can’t think of a better angle from which to tackle questions of religion and science. [Read more…]

Do we have free will when it comes to mental illness?

Connor Wood

Business decision

I got a tremendous outpouring of positive feedback for my essay last week on my own family’s struggles with depression. Thank you to everyone who read it and commented. Of course, no essay is perfect – many readers criticized the emphasis I put on choice, or free will, in that article. Depression isn’t a matter of choice, these critics argued. Nobody chooses to be depressed. Telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t help anything. These commenters’ challenges give voice to some of today’s most important questions: what is mental illness? What’s mental well-being? Do we have any agency in it? The answer to that last question is yes – we have agency if we exercise it. [Read more…]

Mental illness: it’s not just in our brains.

Connor Wood

Wild depression

160 years ago, runaway slaves in the American South were often diagnosed with “drapetomania” – a supposed mental illness that drove them to run away from their masters. Cures and preventative measures for drapetomania included whipping and cutting off big toes, making it impossible to run. It didn’t occur to the doctors that running away from slavery was perfectly natural. It was a lot more convenient to call it mental illness, because this took the “problem” away from the horror of slavery and placed it neatly within the individual brains of slaves. Now, with Robin Williams’s suicide last week, mental illness is again at forefront in public consciousness. But make no mistake: our ideas about mental illness still need reexamining. [Read more…]

Nerd culture, the new aristocracy

Connor Wood

Guy on bike

I love my bike. For the most part, biking is the only way I get around Boston – which is a postage stamp-sized city geographically (albeit a very densely packed postage stamp), and so is enticingly easy to traverse on two wheels. Recently, however, I got into a little altercation with a driver who didn’t like the idea of sharing the road. As much as I wanted to throttle my four-wheeled nemesis, part of me comprehended the depths of his indignation. This tension between cyclists and drivers isn’t just a passing annoyance of each day’s urban commute. It’s a window into some of the most basic, and most difficult, realities of 21st-century social living – and, like religion, it has a lot to do with social class. [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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