In the 21st Century, Should We Be Patriotic?

Half-staff patrioticLast year, a police officer shot and killed an African-American motorist, Philando Castile, during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota. A police dashcam video was released that showed Yanez panicking and opening fire only seconds after pulling Castile over, yet a jury acquitted the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, of manslaughter. This chain of events illustrates that, for black Americans, interacting with police officers can be literally dangerous. The United States really does have a systemic racism problem. This, though, is not the subject of this week’s post. Instead, the endemic racism in the U.S. leads me to ask a broader question: can we ask people to be patriots of or believe in countries that commit enormous injustices? Is it possible to still love our country when that country is patently violent toward the dispossessed?

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Religious beliefs are a kind of play

Songkran festival - Religious beliefs are playOne of the most important questions in the cognitive science of religion is, “Why do people believe in God or gods?” It seems to boggle the mind: how on earth can people seriously believe propositions that lack any concrete evidence? After all, we believe in chairs and dachshunds because those things obviously exist. We can see them, touch them, hear them. There’s no equivalent evidence for the resurrected Christ or an all-powerful God. But one philosopher of cognition, Neil Van Leeuwen, argues that this difference actually means that religious beliefs are different from normal beliefs. In fact, they’re a lot more like play. [Read more…]

Want to study the science of religion? Start with this MOOC

Computer in libraryA 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…]

Why colleges need (a few) more conservative professors

Connor Wood

Graduates

Last time, I wrote that American colleges and universities have an obligation to become more ideologically diverse by including more conservative perspectives. After all, college students, particularly at top-tier schools, are groomed for positions of power, and leaders who don’t understand half of the country won’t wield that power effectively. But the predominance of liberal morals in higher education has another effect. Steeped in a morality that emphasizes the prevention of harm above nearly everything else, many students learn to be reflexively skeptical of, and often hostile toward, power, hierarchy, and established social institutions – even though they themselves are often going to join and even become heads of those very institutions. Wouldn’t we be better off if our future leaders learned how to care for institutions, rather than pick them apart? [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…]

Think the Muslim world needs to “reform?” Think again

Connor Wood

Muslim prayer

It’s 2016. In the coming year, we’re pretty much guaranteed to see religious violence in the news again. Over recent months, high-profile terrorism attacks have hit Paris, San Bernardino, and Istanbul, rattling residents of rich democracies and even threatening the post-World War II tradition of open European borders. As fears and anger over terror attacks have grown, one increasingly loud international chorus of commentators and critics has called for a Muslim “reform” movement. If we’re supposed to accept Islam as a religion of peace, the logic goes, then members of the 1.5-billion-strong Islamic faith need to revamp their teachings to match the modern world! On the surface, this call seems understandable. But psychology, anthropology, and history all warn that a genuine reform movement may be exactly what we don’t want. [Read more…]

Is willpower really a finite resource?

Connor Wood

Willpower

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a big groundswell in empirical research on religion. This is a good thing, because it means now we can actually point at data to answer questions about what role religion plays in culture, or whether religion is here to stay.* But just because empirical psychologists and cognitive scientists are publishing data-heavy papers on religion doesn’t mean everything they say is the gospel truth (pun intended). One recent paper shows that even our most cherished scientific conclusions can turn out to be red herrings, thanks to publication bias, cherry-picking results, and good old human error. [Read more…]

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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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…]