A science of religion would help us understand some baffling things. Why do otherwise normal people spend thousands of dollars to flock from halfway around the world to Mecca? What’s with all the fasting and ritual? Why do people people pray to invisible personalities? None of these questions is simple, but a growing community of researchers from diverse disciplines is buckling down to try to answer them – scientifically. From cognitive science to social psychology to evolutionary modeling, the tools of science are turning up insights into how homo religiosus – the religious human – evolved and spread across the planet. This spring, a massive online-only course (MOOC) through the University of British Columbia is offering an overview of this growing field, taught by two of its leading figures. If you’re curious about religion as a human phenomenon, this will be a good opportunity to start learning. [Read more…]
Let’s face it: we have a science literacy problem in the United States. Significant percentages of our population don’t know what a genome is, what tectonic plates do, or what a double-blind study accomplishes. Worse, very large chunks of the population actively reject basic scientific claims about our evolutionary origins and our effects on the climate. So why do famous, influential, charismatic scientists – most recently, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in the New Republic – insist on selling science to the public by trashing religion? Has it never occurred to them that they might be actively hindering the goal of making science appeal to laypeople? [Read more…]
Nicholas C. DiDonato
On this blog, my esteemed colleague and friend Connor Wood recently wrote a defense of the Templeton Foundation that centered on a defense of the study of “religion” (a word I wished he would have defined). While I agree with 90% of what he argued, the remaining ten percent troubles me. More specifically, I strongly disagree with his statement that, “refusing to engage religion… is an apparently rational decision that betrays a woeful misunderstanding of the delicate, unconscious, and evolutionary processes that endowed us with religious cultures.… Religion was not designed by conscious agents, and rejecting its explicit beliefs scarcely touches its actual nature.”
Religion, many commentators have complained, is frustratingly multifaceted. It can give profound meaning to life but, at the same time, pit rival human groups against each other. It can inspire hope for a better life and hatred for outsiders simultaneously. So why the seeming dark and light side of religion? Specifically, why do religions create sharp, often hostile divisions between groups? One research team from the University of New Mexico has found evidence that may surprise you. Hint: it has to do with creepy-crawlies.
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.
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!)
You come home from a long day, tired and worn out. The boss chewed you out, so you’re also anxious and blue. You flop down in your recliner, reach for the remote – and feel the familiar, loving nuzzle of your faithful dog. It’s a heartwarming image, but does your dog’s concerned-sounding whining and extra attentiveness really mean he feels empathy for you? New research – and one local news story – hint that the answer may be yes, raising questions about the origins of empathy, altruism, and other traits often associated both with humanity and with religion.