Spirit possession: everyone’s doing it

Connor Wood

Shaman

I haven’t written a post here for more than a week. This is because I have been spending all my free time, and much of my non-free time, furiously writing two articles for an encyclopedia on spirit possession. Yes – you heard that right. Possession. By spirits. The two articles (which were technically due back on, um, January 1st) are about the zar possession cult in northeast Africa and shamanism in Korea, respectively. I wrote my master’s thesis on Korean shamanism, and have had an academic and personal interest in such things ever since. But where does something as wild and spooky as spirit possession fit into religion?

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My employer: The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion

Connor Wood

IBCSR

If you ever read op-eds on religion in major newspapers, or the comments below those op-eds, you know that religion is one of those rare topics about which everyone feels entitled to hold a (usually very strong) opinion, but not everyone feels an accompanying obligation to study in depth. There are a few others out there: economics, evolution. But by and large, because religion brings up people’s deepest concerns and has a reputation for depending on evidence-free faith, many folks assume that they can rely on individual opinion, gut feelings, and popular wisdom to talk about religion. I disagree. I think we can learn real, surprising, concrete things about religion, using both the rigorous methods of science and the robust interpretive tools of the humanities. This is exactly what my employer, the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, does. [Read more...]

Does atheism arise from wealth?

Connor Wood

Rich guy

A recent Alternet piece stirred up a storm by posing the question, “Is atheism an intellectual luxury for the wealthy?” The author, Chris Arnade, is a former Wall Street high roller who now works with the homeless in the Bronx. In his new job, he was surprised to find that the disadvantaged and destitute were far more devout than the educated folks he’d spent most of his life associating with. This realization inspired Arnade to wonder whether faith was something only the successful could afford to abandon. Ongoing research suggests that from a systemic perspective, there may be something to this – but not necessarily in the way Arnade describes.

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Farewell to Ian Barbour

Connor Wood

Myths models paradigmsThe last waning days of 2013 have left us with two urgently important news items for anyone who cares about religion and science. The first is a disturbing recent announcement from the Pew Research Center that, when it comes to accepting biological evolution, the gap between Democrats and Republicans has widened dramatically in recent years. The second is the recent death at age 90 of Ian Barbour – the physicist and religious studies scholar celebrated for having launched the modern religion-science dialog. With Barbour’s passing, a valuable voice of reason, accountability, and humility has left us in an era of increasing misunderstanding across religious and secular lines.

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Is religion anthropomorphism?

Connor Wood

Emperor Moth

The verdict is in: we are our brains, roughly speaking. That is, according to modern neuroscience and cognitive science, our personalities, dreams, and experiences are all products of intensely complex interactions of the neurons in our craniums. You can disagree or agree with this claim, but nearly all experts who study the brain and mind are convinced of it. When it comes to things spiritual, the cognitive science of religion (CSR) is a field that tries to understand religious beliefs from within this naturalistic framework. And recently, one of the founding thinkers in CSR outlined a central claim in the field: religion is essentially about anthropomorphism, or the tendency for our brains to see persons in the world around us.

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Inclusive fitness, models, and religious evolution

Connor Wood

One of the great things about studying religion is that it’s a huge evolutionary puzzle. If you’re the type who likes puzzles, you could sign up right now for a career in the evolutionary study of religion and probably never be bored again for the rest of your life. The riddles abound: Why have we (apparently) evolved the capacity for profound religious experiences? Is there an evolutionary function for spirits, gods, or religious rituals? Many researchers argue that religion is a functionless byproduct of other evolutionary developments, while others claim that religion is a useful adaptation that helps human groups survive. Funnily enough, one recent paper sheds light on this debate despite not mentioning religion at all. [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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We are all teachers. Or at least we should be.

Connor Wood

Teacher

We all have different talents. For example, you might be an expert at identifying birds, while your friend can’t tell a robin from a root vegetable. So what do you do? You sigh exasperatedly, grab your friend’s binoculars, and unleash a stream of invectives informing that hopeless, imbecilic good-for-nothing that her efforts at birding are embarrassing and, what’s more, that she’s a terrible person who’s probably working towards the collapse of civilization – right? No, of course not. But this petulant impatience with others who don’t see things our way is one of the defining hallmarks of contemporary discourse on the Big Issues. If we don’t cut it out, we’ll never solve any of those issues – and civilization itself, along with all our descendants, will suffer for it. [Read more...]

Religion makes you prejudiced. God doesn’t.

Discrimination

Connor Wood

Religion makes people prejudiced, right? I mean, think about all the religious wars throughout history, or the centuries of colonial racism in the name of religion. Well, yes. But the truth is – as always – a lot more complicated. Sure, researchers have found that religious adherence predicts prejudice, especially against gays and lesbians. But another body of literature has shown that some kinds of religious belief can make people more open to outsiders and minorities. So what gives – does religion make us prejudiced and parochial, or not? The answer, according to a pair of researchers from the University of Illinois, is…yes. While religion narrows our horizons, God may expand them. [Read more...]

What’s the Point of the Humanities? A Response to Pinker and Wieseltier

David Rohr

Literature

Two months ago, I read the Pinker-Wieseltier exchange in The New Republic, and for two months I’ve been perturbed.  It’s troubling enough to witness a conversation between public intellectuals devolve into a name-calling match.  It’s even more worrying if you think, as I do, that only mutual understanding between scientists and humanists can bridge the chasm that divides our intellectual life into two separate, often antagonistic cultures.  [Read more...]


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