How the brain escapes the self

Connor Wood

Religious experiences get described in a lot of ways. People gushingly talk about a profound sense of oneness, about incredible bliss, joy, and ineffable meaning. One thing you almost never hear, however, is that a religious experience made someone more greedy and selfish. No one ever says, “Hey, you know what? I just experienced ultimate spiritual bliss, and boy, did it ever make me focus neurotically on my own struggles, financial problems, and dating insecurities!” Why this incompatibility between spirituality and self-absorption? A team of researchers from the University of Missouri thinks that the reason might be found in the brain, where reduced function in the region associated with self-awareness is correlated with greater spirituality.

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Rewriting the script: We change our religious memories

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Everyone knows that memories can fade with time. But not everyone realizes that in “refreshing” memories by remembering them, they risk distortion. This has implications for how people construct their identity. Focusing on religious identity, psychologists R. David Hayward (University of Michigan), Joanna Maselko (Duke University Medical Center), and Keith G. Meador (Vanderbilt University Medical Center) found that people would accurately remember their childhood religious behavior but would alter their childhood religious identity so that it matched their present religious identity.

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Religion, Ideology, and Environmentalism: A Tale of Morals

Connor Wood

We live on planet Earth, and she is allergic to us. Our car exhaust, airplane emissions, and coal-fired power plants are smothering her. Our waste is choking her oceans and streams. These and other looming ecological and environmental catastrophes are the most pressing issues of our time, the problems at which all our collected human genius must be aimed. Or are they? The scientific study of religion and ideology has prompted me, a lifelong liberal, to question many of my most basic assumptions. Among them is the belief that large systems – abstract connections at the level of the planet, the biosphere, the world economy – produce the problems that most demand our attention, genius, and energy.

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Forgiveness and health: It’s complicated

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Happy couple

Most religions preach forgiveness. Holding grudges, remembering wrongs, and not letting things go leads to poor spiritual health (according to such religions). While scientists cannot test claims about spiritual health, they can test physical health. Can forgiveness lead to improved health? Researcher Michael McFarland (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues posed this question, and found that forgiveness does positively correlate with health over time. [Read more...]

How WEIRD are you?

Connor Wood

WEIRD girl

Imagine that you’re writing an essay about the most important facets of your personality. Do you discuss your personal likes and dislikes, your talents and your ambitions? Or do you talk about your family, your relationships, the community that envelopes you? If you prefer the former, individualistic response, you’re probably a citizen of a WEIRD country – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. This means, of course, that you’re at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how most people worldwide think about family, community, and morality. And new research from Virginia and China shows that you’re also likely to be socially – and, most likely, religiously – liberal.

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Psychology and the religion-science conflict: Part 2

Pensive scientist

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Having learned more about how everyday people handle the so-called “religion-science” conflict, psychologist Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin) and philosopher of religion Aku Visala (University of Oxford) now aim to use their data to critique and inform the standard philosophical approaches to this issue. Philosophers typically, at minimum, categorize religion-science approaches in three ways: conflict, independence, and reconciliation. Legare and Visala find that so few people actually adhere to the first two that only reconciliation plausibly coheres with human cognition.

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Psychology and the religion-science conflict: Part 1

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Man of Science with Religions

Talk of the “religion and science conflict” sets a trap: one quickly winds up pontificating about abstract objects as if they were real without any grounding in reality. “Religion” becomes a monolithic abstract entity, whose adherents all behave in the same way, and ditto for “science.” In hopes of looking at the religion-science conflict empirically, psychologists Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin) and Aku Visala (University of Oxford) take a psychological approach, concluding that scientific explanations do not replace religious ones. In Part 2 of this post, they critique the standard religion-science discussion.

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Video games: they have what atheists need

Connor Wood

Win!

Any regular consumer of Internet content may have developed some stereotypes about atheists. Atheists like Reddit.com. They enjoy cat videos (but then again, who doesn’t?). And they mistake fundamentalist Protestantism for all religion. But while these claims could easily be refuted by hanging out with actual atheists – for instance, many are quite religiously literate, and not all have Reddit accounts – a burgeoning academic field is trying to identify the genuine cognitive and personality differences between atheists and religious believers. In one recent paper, researchers found that atheists strongly preferred video games to board games, and argued that this difference was due to atheists’ reduced inclination for conjuring imaginative worlds.

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Does God accept the real you?

Punk priest

Nicholas C. DiDonato

In the West, the concept of God has a wide range of meanings, including a supernatural person-like agent, an impersonal force, pure actual being, beyond being, and many more. Thus, in applying psychology to one’s perception of God, psychologists typically limit themselves to the first conception. Still, the results can be fascinating. Psychologist Bart Soenens (Ghent University, Belgium) and colleagues applied the study of interpersonal relationships to religiosity and found that how one perceives one’s relationship with God affects whether one approaches religious claims symbolically or literally.

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An evidence-based rethinking of the religion-science conflict

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Study group

All too often, people assume that Christians don’t know or don’t want to know science because science conflicts with their beliefs: Christianity acts as a force for science illiteracy. However, research by sociologist John Evans (University of California, San Diego) suggests otherwise. His findings conclude that (1) Christians know just as much science as the non-religious; (2) conservative Christians favor their religious beliefs over science when the two “conflict” but, from their perspective, the two in fact are not in conflict; and (3) conservative Protestants oppose scientists’ influence in political issues when the scientists disagree with their moral values.

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