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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Big changes are coming to politics in America. Here’s why

Connor Wood

Tug of War

Because I lack a television at home and was unable to watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos premier on Fox this weekend,* I find myself in need of another subject for this week’s Science On Religion article. Here’s one: It is, unfortunately, an election year. Already, newspapers and columnists are greedily discussing the likelihoods for this November’s outcomes, with perhaps more energy devoted to the unpleasant possibilities than the pleasant ones (depending on how each publication or writer evaluates these things). As always, citizens across the country will rally around tribal identities and partisan allegiances, and our inboxes will positively flood with emails from people who Want Our Money. But in the coming years, I foresee some big shifts in the alliances that hold together our current political and intellectual cultures. Changes are coming. Let me help you get ready for them. [Read more...]

Religion, imagination, and secret worlds

Connor Wood

Make-believe

Here, try something: Take a minute to think about one of your best friends. How did you get to be close? I don’t just mean how you met – at a party, taking Freshman Comp together, serving on the same top-secret CIA mission to Burma – I mean how you got to be friends. If you’re like most people, the chances are good that your friendship blossomed by sharing not real things, but imaginary ones. Relationships, research in anthropology and ritual studies suggests, flower best when people take part in shared, alternate worlds of imagination – subjunctive worlds that are cordoned off from reality, where our minds can play.

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Why Are There Atheists?

Connor Wood

Why are there atheists? This isn’t just a rhetorical question – much scientific research into religious belief over the past couple of decades has concluded that religious belief is culturally universal, and arises from cognitive and cultural defaults that are persistent across societies. Many academics, especially in the humanities, might reject such universalizing claims, but the fact remains that religious beliefs and practices are found in all human societies, very nearly without exception. Clearly, there is something basically human about being religious. So does this mean that atheists are freaks? One psychologist says “Nope.” Instead, she gives evidence to show that atheism is a perfectly expectable outcome of basic – and natural – personality differences between individuals. [Read more...]

The “Religion vs. Creativity” Debate Rages On

Connor Wood

CreativityLast week, columnist and blogger Rod Dreher at the paleoconservative magazine The American Conservative got wind of my Patheos post claiming that religion and creativity are anti-correlated. His take on the idea, and the blog post that resulted, kicked off a very spirited debate among commenters. Many of the ideas were similar to the critiques my original article received: there have been plenty of religious artists throughout history; the creativity/religion dichotomy is a product of modern secular culture (Dreher’s position); the whole claim hangs on a mistaken definition of creativity. And of course, many readers agreed with the original thesis, expressing that they recognized their own struggles to meld creativity and meaning in their lives. I’d tried to respond to some of these critiques previously, in a follow-up post to the original, and Dreher kindly also devoted another post of his to my follow-up. (Update: Andrew Sullivan at The Dish also just weighed in.) The conversation was fascinating, and I encourage you to check it out. But are religion and culture really the enemies of creativity? [Read more...]

Why aren’t religious people as creative as unbelievers?

Connor Wood

Artistic

I grew up in a very creative, artistic family. My mother was a former fashion illustrator and model, while my stepfather was a handy musician who kept our house full of dulcimers, guitars, and wooden Irish drums. All the kids became musicians. In my adolescence, though, I grew frustrated by the fact that many other families seemed far less artistic and excited than us, but way more stable and collected. Why couldn’t we have both at the same time? Part of the answer, I think, has to do with religion. Being religious is correlated with personal happiness and satisfaction with relationships – but anti-correlated with openness to new experience and, by implication, creativity. Is it possible to somehow get the best of both worlds? [Read more...]

Rise in elder Korean suicides: A reminder that religion matters

Connor Wood

South Korean flag

This week, the New York Times reported in a somber piece that the suicide rate among the elderly in South Korea – one of the world’s most astounding national economic success stories – has risen to catastrophic levels in recent years. The reason for this horrifying trend? The Times cites the collapse of the traditional Confucian family structures that, in ages past, virtually guaranteed that children would care for their elderly parents as an act of filial piety. This tragic story speaks volumes about the relationship between religion, economics, culture, and well-being – a relationship that, if we hope to overcome the challenges of the globalized 21st century, I believe we must learn to understand.

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Does suffering drive us to religion? Yep.

Connor Wood

Sad woman and destroyed house

It’s a puzzling riddle: If God is in charge of everything, then why do people who undergo profound suffering often profess the greatest faith? Shouldn’t they retaliate at God by not believing in him?  The commonsense answer might be “yes,” but the facts seem to say otherwise. New research shows that New Zealanders who suffered from the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake actually became more religious afterwards than their fellow countrymen. What’s more, those who lost their faith after the quake suffered significant reductions in their self-reported well-being. [Read more...]


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