Seeing a purpose in nature reduces fear of death

Connor Wood

Teleology Road

Here’s a question: why is there an ozone layer in Earth’s atmosphere? If you answered “to keep UV rays from harming life,” you’re thinking teleologically. Teleology is the idea that there are goals or purposes in everything from the decomposition of soil to the big picture of cosmic destiny. Of course, science generally doesn’t see the world teleologically, because scientists have found that focusing on proximate, mechanical causes is more useful for discovering how things work. But a new study shows that teleological thinking, while not scientific, may serve another function – staving off the fear of death.

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Few scientists see science in conflict with religion

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Smug_scientist

All too often, religious believers and non-believers alike assume a conflict between religion and science. Popular writers and much of the media seem to enjoy pitting the two against each other, and they paint a picture of the faithful and scientists in a perennial war. The historical problems with this fabricated picture aside, it remains an empirical question whether scientists actually see science as inherently conflicting with religion. Sociologists Elaine Ecklund, Katherine Sorrell (both of Rice University), and Jerry Park (Baylor University) investigated this matter and found that only a minority of scientists see religion and science as inherently in conflict.

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Atheism: a personality profile

Jonathan Morgan

religion_atheism

For half a decade, the cognitive science of religion has sought the evolutionary origins of religious belief. This burgeoning field has some deep and convincing explanations, but it may also stigmatize atheists as aberrations of evolution. Now, psychologists are countering this stigma by tracking the personality traits that naturally facilitate atheism. Their work gives us a personality profile that neutralizes atheism as one of many expected worldviews in any healthy, diverse community.

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Spirituality may reduce desire to conspicuously consume

Connor Wood

Conspicuous_consumption

When you think of the word “spirituality,” what comes to mind? Luxury yachts, designer footwear, and shopping vacations in Europe, right? Nope – we didn’t think so. For most people, spirituality and religiousness seem to be deeply counterposed to materialistic desires and concerns. The Buddha renounced a life of royal luxury to seek enlightenment, for example, while Jesus urged his followers to give away all they owned. Now, research has found that merely asking people to think about spiritual experiences makes them less materialistic, regardless of their sense of meaning in life, levels of self-control, or even mood.

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Muslim prayer may increase alpha waves in the brain

Connor Wood

Prostration

The religious brain is hot stuff right now. Publications as diverse as Science and Newsweek seem to be gaga about how meditation affects the frontal cortex, how praying soothes the amygdala, or how religious belief affects the psyche. But there’s a catch to all this excitement: nearly all the research focuses on either Christian or Buddhist forms of religious practice. Where are the other religions? A team of researchers from Malaysia recently helped to answer this question by studying how Muslim prayer affects alpha waves in the brain, and their results show a profound connection between mind and body.

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Religious terrorism: an evolutionary explanation

Connor Wood

Terrorists

Interest in the scientific study of religion has surged over the past decade. While this development is positive in many ways, it comes largely for an unfortunate reason – global terrorism, exemplified most clearly by the September 11th attacks of ten years ago. Since many terrorist attacks since then have been committed by hardline Muslim believers, researchers have put extensive effort into elucidating the complex relationship between religion and violent acts. Now, a team of investigators is applying the principles of evolutionary psychology to help explain why the two are so often entwined.

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Disgusting religion

Connor Wood

Disgusting_religion

When you think of the word “religion,” what comes to mind? Candles flickering in darkened chapels, cheerful baptisms, or ancient texts in dead languages? Sure, those images are pretty good. But how about disgusting bodily fluids and revolting lovemaking practices? Some types of Tantra, a variety of Hinduism often associated with the goddess Kali, enjoin practitioners to participate in some of the the most disgusting acts imaginable. And new research suggests that there might be important biological reasons for these behaviors. Specifically, disgusting acts transgress people’s innate biological desire to avoid pathogens, thus forcing a religious confrontation with death. (Warning: this article isn’t for the easily nauseated!)

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God spot in the brain? More like God spots

Nicholas C. DiDonato

God_spots

Neurologists have long wondered whether a particular part of the brain can help explain a person’s experience of God. Stanley Koren and Michael Persinger, for example, famously developed the “God helmet,” a device that stimulated what they called “the God spot” and so induced its wearer to feel the presence of God. (Interestingly enough, the device had little effect on the popular atheist writer Richard Dawkins.) However, neuropsychologists Brick Johnstone and Bret Glass (both University of Missouri) challenge the plausibility of the “God spot,” arguing that spirituality involves many areas of the brain.

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The new spiritual soldier

Jonathan Morgan

Spiritual_soldier

When we picture boot camp, we think of yelling, push-ups, long marches, more yelling and… spiritual training? With the U.S. Army’s new Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, (CSF), spiritual fitness may become just as important as all those push-ups. The army wants motivated, resilient, and morally  grounded soldiers, so they’ve paid heed to the research linking spirituality with health. By teaming up with psychologist Kenneth Pargament at Bowling Green State University and the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, they’ve created a program to build strong spirits and strong bodies.

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Drugs and spirituality in Eastern Europe

Connor Wood

Imagine

In most religious congregations, consuming illegal drugs during the service would result in a less than enthusiastic response from the ecclesiastical leadership. Indeed, survey after survey has shown that religiosity and drug use are reliably negatively correlated – the more religious you are, the less likely you are to do drugs of any kind. But the story may not be so simple. Researchers in Eastern Europe are finding a potential counter-phenomenon: consumers of certain drugs, particularly marijuana and psychedelics, may be more inclined to mystical and spiritual experiences.

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