The Wave of the Future: Experimental Religious Studies

Connor Wood

If you don’t know about Edge.org, you should. Especially if you are a nerd. Edge is an online salon in which experts from all sorts of different fields get together (virtually, of course) and discuss important issues, from human evolution to the future of agriculture to bioethics. In a recent Edge column, influential religious studies scholar and cognitive scientist Edward Slingerland offered a fascinating look at how the academic study of religion can use experimental methods to sort out the good theories from the bad ones. If he’s right – and I’m betting my career that he is – we won’t have to rely anymore on “Just-So” stories and strongly held personal hunches when talking about religion. We can test whether our fondest ideas hold up against the harsh light of reality. [Read more...]

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...]

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...]

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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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...]

Ritual creates tribes…and tribalism

Connor Wood

Religious violence

In the bloody and confusing years following September 11th, 2001, a group of scientists and intellectuals led by biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett began loudly calling for less tolerance of religion. Secular-minded popular intellectuals have been criticizing religion since the Roman atheist Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura, but this was a new level of indignation. These writers, who were quickly dubbed the New Atheists, argued that religions’ nonsensical beliefs – immaterial beings, Heaven, answered prayer, and so forth – led far too easily to violence, intolerance, and bigotry. Therefore religious belief had to go! This may seem like a decent hypothesis, at least at first glance. But recently a trio of psychologists did some empirical work and came to a different conclusion: it’s not religious faith that drives violence and intolerance. It’s religious practice. [Read more...]

Why the Templeton Foundation Is a Darn Good Thing

This week, an article at Slate has been making the rounds in which Sean Carroll, a Caltech physicist, proclaims loudly that he will never accept research funding from the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is one of the largest non-governmental funders of scientific research in the world, and it distinguishes itself from other organizations through its interest in religion and its mandate to address the “big questions” like the meaning and purpose of life. Carroll and others believe that this religion-science collaboration stains of the purity of science, and I think this is great. It means there’s more Templeton research funding for me, my colleagues, and others who think that religion needs to be taken seriously.  [Read more...]

Interview: Michael Ruse on Evolution, Creationism, and Religion

Daniel Ansted

Creationism vs Evolution

Michael Ruse is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and a worldwide expert on the relationship between religion and science. His work has focused especially on the convoluted relationship between the American public and Darwinian evolution; he famously testified in McLean vs. Arkansas in 1981 that creation science – a form of Christian creationism that claims to be scientifically valid – should not be allowed in public science classes, because it features virtually none of the characteristics of true science. Contributor Daniel Ansted studied under Ruse during his time at FSU, and recently asked his former mentor for an interview. Here is their (slightly abridged, and still fascinating) conversation.

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Creation and science: An interview with Karl Giberson

Connor Wood

Recently on this blog, I reviewed physicist Karl Giberson’s new book, Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation StoryThe book, featured this month in the Patheos Book Club, is an exercise in creative storytelling, but with a purpose: Giberson hopes to recast the traditional Judeo-Christian creation narrative in the context of modern cosmological and evolutionary theories. The resulting entwining of science and faith tries to make a scientific account of the origins and trajectory of the universe more palatable to young, religiously involved readers – many of whom may be apprehensive of losing their faith as they learn more about science. I definitely support the aims of Giberson’s project, but we found some  areas of disagreement. Below is an interview I conducted with Giberson as a follow-up to my review of his book.

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Patheos Book Discussion: Seven Glorious Days

Seven Glorious Days

Connor Wood

This post is part of a reflection series on the new book Seven Glorious Days, by Karl W. Giberson, at the Patheos Book Club.

In a famous essay entitled “The Effectiveness of Symbols,” the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss quietly made a claim that ought to be central to every thinking person’s understanding of religion. The claim was this: religious experience – in this case, an encounter with a South American shaman – fundamentally forces the experiencer into a confrontation with the parts of life that don’t work. Suffering, absurdity, a bloody breach birth: without the help of the spirits, we turn our heads away from these little catastrophes, and the result is that they proliferate around us like weeds. It takes the gods to jerk our heads back towards the troubles at hand, to confront them directly.

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