Why symbols matter for homo sapiens

Connor Wood

Flag and eyes

If you’re an American under thirty with a college education (or are getting one), there’s a decent chance that you’re a fan of Bernie Sanders. The gruff Vermonter has been galvanizing Democratic enthusiasm with his fiery promises to take on big banks, socialize healthcare, and make college education free. Sanders’ vision of America is much closer to the democratic socialism of Denmark than to traditional American individualism. This inspiring vision also evokes an age-old problem: how to motivate collective action. Sanders envisions significant contributions from every American going into a collective pot, which in turn provides universal services. Research has shown us, though, that in order for such immense collective investment to work, people need to feel emotional buy-in – not just to the practical benefits they’ll be getting, but to the collective itself as an ideal. Hence, the people who want the United States to unify and follow the democratic socialist vision should be the most patriotic of all. But they’re not – and that’s a problem. [Read more…]

The age of extreme opinions

Connor Wood

Auto Accident

It’s almost Christmas. As a present, accept several shiny new entries for your “questionable writing about science” folder. (Everyone has one of those, right?) Recently, a group of French researchers published an ingenious experiment that tested whether certain types of people would be more likely to obey instructions to harm others. As it turned out, people with two personality traits – agreeableness and conscientiousness – were more willing to obey violent orders. This interesting finding should give us all pause. Of course, this being the Internet, excitable science bloggers weren’t content to leave it at that. Instead, they spun it into yet another reason to celebrate the cyber age’s favorite hero: the hyper-individualistic, anti-authoritarian übermensch.

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Big changes are coming to politics in America. Here’s why

Connor Wood

Tug of War

Because I lack a television at home and was unable to watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos premier on Fox this weekend,* I find myself in need of another subject for this week’s Science On Religion article. Here’s one: It is, unfortunately, an election year. Already, newspapers and columnists are greedily discussing the likelihoods for this November’s outcomes, with perhaps more energy devoted to the unpleasant possibilities than the pleasant ones (depending on how each publication or writer evaluates these things). As always, citizens across the country will rally around tribal identities and partisan allegiances, and our inboxes will positively flood with emails from people who Want Our Money. But in the coming years, I foresee some big shifts in the alliances that hold together our current political and intellectual cultures. Changes are coming. Let me help you get ready for them. [Read more…]

Circumcision in religion: What does science say?

Connor Wood

Circumcision kit

Last Tuesday, June 26th, a German court in Cologne ruled that circumcisions could not be performed in its jurisdiction on children before they turn of age to consent to the operation. The ruling, which came in response to a four-year-old Muslim boy who experienced post-circumcision bleeding, inspired Jewish and Muslim groups across Germany to condemn the court’s decision, decrying what they see as unprecedented disregard for religious liberty. While both sides in this heated debate have respectable arguments, the scientific study of religion offers some perspectives that have led me to believe the court’s opinion was misguided. Specifically, body modification as a signal of group identity is a pervasive feature of religious cultures worldwide, and such signals can be vitally necessary for groups to survive, and thrive, in a hostile world.

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Religious beliefs shape perception of stimuli

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Calvinismus

A Calvinist and a Catholic walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll ya have?” The Calvinist, whose theology has inclined him to think individualistically, picks an obscure beer, while the Catholic just says, “I’ll have that too.” While that joke may fall flat, it does reflect leading research about how religious practice affects mental processing. A group of psychologists led by Bernhard Hommel of Leiden University has recently found that neo-Calvinists tend to process information more individualistically, while Catholics process more collectively.

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God spot in the brain? More like God spots

Nicholas C. DiDonato

God_spots

Neurologists have long wondered whether a particular part of the brain can help explain a person’s experience of God. Stanley Koren and Michael Persinger, for example, famously developed the “God helmet,” a device that stimulated what they called “the God spot” and so induced its wearer to feel the presence of God. (Interestingly enough, the device had little effect on the popular atheist writer Richard Dawkins.) However, neuropsychologists Brick Johnstone and Bret Glass (both University of Missouri) challenge the plausibility of the “God spot,” arguing that spirituality involves many areas of the brain.

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