How “big gods” make us play nice

Connor Wood

Scales of justice with money and a village house

Gods are everywhere. In all recorded societies, people believe in some form of spiritual beings, whether gods, spirits, ancestors, ghosts – or all of the above. But they aren’t all the same. For example, if you cheat, steal, or murder, the God of the Bible will definitely get cross with you. But in many traditions, gods and spirits don’t especially care whether you behave badly, as long as you respect them. Interestingly, these differences in gods’ moral interests may be related to the type and scale of their host cultures. A burgeoning line of research is investigating whether moral gods influence how societies evolve and how big they get. Three recent papers – one each from 2014, 2015, and this year – use unique, creative methods to test this hypothesis. [Read more…]

No space for God of the gaps

Connor Wood

God of the gaps not found

Ever heard of the “god of the gaps?” It’s the idea that God is the reason for things we can’t explain through science. For example, no one on Earth knows exactly how proteins – linear chains of amino acids – find the proper 3-D structure to fold themselves into after being transcribed from RNA. Many of the millions of possible shapes are equally stable and possible. Yet the chains always assemble themselves into just the right structure. Spooky. So…God. Right? Wrong – because someday a brilliant scientist will figure out the scientific explanation for protein folding. And when she does, your faith in God will delate like a beachball – unless it never depended on the god-of-the-gaps argument in the first place. [Read more…]

Is belief in heaven good for you? No. Yes. Maybe.

Connor Wood

Devil and angel drawings

One of the oldest stories in the book is the eternal tension between the individual and society. From restraining impulses to maximizing personal happiness, what’s good for the collective isn’t necessarily what’s good for the individual – and vice-versa. In the past couple of years, psychologists studying religion have discovered a fascinating new expression of this age-old tension: belief in heaven is good for individuals, but bad for societies – while belief in hell has exactly the opposite effects. These studies are well-designed and their results are compelling. But they don’t offer any easy answers. [Read more…]

Does Eben Alexander “prove heaven?” Sort of.

Connor Wood

Proof of Heaven

Bad news: we’re all going to die. The question is, what comes afterward? In the book Proof of Heaven, former neurosurgeon Eben Alexander uses his own profound near-death experience to claim we live on in a spiritual realm. Featured on Oprah and countless other television and radio shows, Alexander has become prince of a media fiefdom whose currency is life after death. His book, along with its sequel The Map of Heaven, is the subject of this month’s Patheos book club, and I’ve been asked to weigh in. So what’s the deal with Proof of Heaven? Is it what it claims to be? [Read more…]

How separate are science and religion, anyway?

Connor Wood

Earth in Space

Over Christmas, the author Eric Metaxas wrote a much-ballyhooed article for the Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that the improbability of life on Earth constitutes a scientific case for God. According to Metaxas, the odds against all the necessary parameters – right type of star, right size planet, deflected comets – are so astronomical (pun intended) that the very existence of life is a clear sign that God monkeyed with the physics. I think this is a less-than-convincing case. I also think it’s the kind of theology that gets religion in serious trouble. My friend Geoff Mitelman, a rabbi, agrees, arguing that “religion isn’t science.” But does this mean that religion doesn’t – or can’t – make any claims about the world, or that religious beliefs are never constrained by science? [Read more…]

Theology: It matters.

Connor Wood

Debate

Last Thursday, I attended a fascinating panel discussion on “Writing about Religion in an Age of Polarization” at Boston College. During the talk, one panelist, New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer, offhandedly claimed that theology isn’t important. His reasoning? America is an experiment in theology not mattering – in getting along despite our private differences in faith. But what Oppenheimer didn’t reckon with is that everyone has a theology – a root idea of what they think the world is and why we’re here. These ideas profoundly influence the way we live our lives and the choices we make. This is why I’m pretty sure theology actually matters. And if we had intelligent, public theological discourse, it could make us more aware of our unspoken motivations and values – and less susceptible to the lousy theological reasoning (“God loves America, so we can wage holy war against our enemies!”) that permeates American public culture. [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…]

Awe increases religious belief

Connor Wood

Woman in awe at nature

It’s dawn. You’re hiking over a silent mountain ridge, gravel crunching beneath your feet. You crest the top, and you’re struck dumb by the first rays of sunlight streaming over the valley below – rich, forested, cut through by rivers. Above you, the morning’s clouds blaze violet and orange with the sunrise. If you’re like most people, the emotion you’d be feeling right about now is awe: a sense of overwhelming wonder at natural splendor, power, or vastness. From Thomas Aquinas to Ralph Waldo Emerson, many writers over the centuries have linked awe with religious experience. Researchers from California have now joined that list, uncovering some fascinating additional connections besides. [Read more…]

An historian’s call to understand and engage creationists

God and DarwinDan Ansted

On February 4th this year, Bill Nye, the science guy, debated Ken Ham, the president of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. After the debate there was an abundance of commentary – some of it good, but most of it a mere repetition of old useless arguments that creationism isn’t science (in my opinion true, but an uninteresting observation). What seems to be missing from the various commentaries is a genuine attempt to understand how creationism arose and what creationists believe. Thus, while the Ham v. Nye debate is the occasion for this essay, it’s not its subject. [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…]


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