How do we make meaning of evolution? By admitting its uncomfortable truths.

DarwinHere on planet Earth, around 3.5 billion years ago, a profound miracle happened. Somehow, organic molecules began contorting themselves into self-replicating shapes. Over the ensuing eons, further miracles occurred: simple cells became complex, melding different lineages of DNA to forge the eukaryotes, of which you and I are both members. Water-dwelling animals morphed slowly into creatures with lungs, and the capacity to breathe air. Different species developed entwined, symbiotic relationships with each other – insects pollinating flowers, flowers feeding insects. But none of these miracles were miracles in the classic sense. Aside from that first eruption of living cells out of lifeless carbon, each of these developments proceeded out of Darwinian processes, under evolutionary law. The two-million-dollar question is: what does this mean for who we are? [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...]

What happens when inequality grows? Ecstatic religion flowers.

Connor Wood

Laying on of Hands

Source: US Government. This image has no copyright restrictions.

I have a new article up today at On Faith, on the intriguing possibility that, as the economic grows more and more steeply stratified, we might start seeing a flowering of ecstatic religious movements. Examples of ecstatic religions are Haitian Vodou, Christian Pentecostalism, or Brazilian Candomblé. Such religions feature intense physical participation, music, and – often – spirits or the Holy Spirit entering people’s bodies from the outside. My argument is based on decades-old research by social scientists such as Erika Bourguignon and I.M. Lewis, who have pointed out that ecstatic, music-driven religions and spirit possession movements are often found in rigidly hierarchical cultures, where many people are stuck permanently in the lower ranks of society – cultures such as the one the United States is becoming. [Read more...]

Internet comments: the poisoned well

Connor Wood

I didn’t really expect Gemli from the New York Times to have a change of heart last week after I called out his/her comments as examples of internet intolerance. Of course, I didn’t expect Gemli to even find or read my post, either, but he or she did – so that’s something! Predictably, no minds were changed in the discussion that ensued here at Patheos, and Gemli signed off without acknowledging that maybe it would be better not to refer to conservative congresspeople as cannibals. Sigh. Such is life.

[Read more...]

Cosmic tribalism, Internet ego, and the future of humanity

Connor Wood

Angry computer guy

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that everyone in our culture has suddenly decided that they are Right About Everything. From Internet comments to newspaper columns to casual conversations, there’s not enough room for subtle debate, questioning, or genuine conversation. I see this especially when it comes to religion, partly because religion is what I think about all the time – but also because most media outlets on the Web have reached a consensus that religious and conservative folks are troglodytes. This tribalism is making it hard to find any common ground across ideological lines…right when we need it most.  [Read more...]

How religion will save the world

Connor Wood

The end of the world!

This past weekend, Western Christians celebrated Easter, the most important holiday of the liturgical year. Easter offers believers an opportunity to reflect on death, rebirth, and hope. This year it also came only two days before Earth Day (happy Earth Day!). Great, because some other news – mostly from the New York Times, admittedly never a wellspring of uplifting inspiration – reminds us that things aren’t all peachy for the Earth. With some experts placing the odds of total ecological collapse by midcentury at 50/50, it’s time to start mining our religious and spiritual traditions for all the hope and insight we can get. Among the most important of those insights is the concept of “sacred.” It may sound quaint, but history shows that without sacred values, human cultures just don’t work. [Read more...]


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