Science explains why America is going off the rails

Connor Wood

Hammer man

This blog, Science On Religion, is supposed to be about scientific approaches to understanding religion. But it’s been hard to focus on science recently, when my country – the United States – might be entering the first stages of longterm political disintegration. So I thought I’d write about American society and our current sociopolitical situation – which, of course, centrally includes religion. (In fact, I’d say it’s pretty much impossible to understand society without understanding religion.) Foreign readers, don’t feel left out: unfortunately, what happens in the United States in the coming years will definitely affect you.  [Read more…]

In which I am interviewed for a Vlog

Connor Wood

Religion for Breakfast

So recently I was interviewed by Andrew Henry, of the Religion for Breakfast vlog, on the topic of using computer simulations to study religion. In keeping with my tradition of promising to do follow-up posts on important topics and then not getting to it, I thought I’d post the two-part interview here, rather than writing the next article on the “big gods” hypothesis. (Sorry, Mark!) The big gods article is still coming, definitely sometime before the next presidential administration – which hopefully will not be our last one, although honestly, at this point, who knows[Read more…]

Why the world needs liberals

Liberalism yayHere at Science On Religion, I’ve often written sympathetically about religion and more conservative forms of culture. I have good reasons for this. For one thing, the internet is an extremely welcoming place for voices that oppose religion and tradition. I think it’s good to challenge this reflexive individualism. But at the same time, I’m wildly grateful to live in a liberal society that allows for debate and encourages skepticism toward tradition. Studying religion may have awakened my conservative sensibilities – but I’m a patriot of liberalism. And you should be, too. [Read more…]

Hilbert problems in the study of religion

Connor Wood

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

This man must KNOW. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Good science sometimes takes a little hubris. Case in point: one humble group of 19th-century German philosophers thought that there were some questions science could probably never answer, such as what the nature of matter and energy is – but the mathematician David Hilbert (the guy in the hat, at right) vehemently disagreed. Hilbert’s aggressive pursuit of mathematical and scientific solutions to the biggest riddles eventually helped lay the foundations of quantum mechanics, so you could say that his optimism paid off. That’s probably why the editors of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior (RBB) are channeling Hilbert’s scientific optimism in their current call for researchers to identify the world’s most important, unanswered empirical questions about the evolution, functions, and future of religion: the “Hilbert problems” of the scientific study of human religiosity.

[Read more…]

Simulating Religion

Connor Wood

Conceptual wireframe mesh man woman face

Religion is simple, right? Some people believe in gods and an afterlife and stuff, and others don’t. That’s all there is to it. Wrong – religion is super ridiculously complicated. There are thousands of different religions across the world, with a stupendously dizzying array of different beliefs, rituals, and stories. For example, many Hindus worship the supreme god Vishnu, who creates the world while sleeping on the cosmic ocean. But millions of fellow Hindus say that another god, Shiva, is actually the one who creates everything, by dancing the cosmic tandava dance.* Vaishnavites and Shaivites have different ways of praying, different holidays, and different mythologies. And that’s just within Hinduism! All the other religions are equally, absurdly different from each other. So how do we get a handle on this vast realm of difference and variation? Well, one of the best techniques for understanding really, really complicated things is through…computer simulations. Think I’m joking? The research project I’m about to start work on is a three-year effort to model theories of religion. [Read more…]

Reason™ is not going to save the world

Connor Wood

Cold rationalism

If you’re a decently educated, critically minded person, chances are you’re not a fan of any truth claims that can’t be supported by empirical inquiry. No ancient Hebrews rising from the dead – and no fairies, sprites, or midnight horse rides from Jerusalem to Paradise and back, either. You might even think that such supernatural beliefs are not only hard to justify, but actually harmful, because they so often make people resistant to science, prone to inward-looking or violent tribalism, and anti-intellectual. You’d prefer if everyone were a rationalist – believing things only when there’s proper evidence, and rejecting the idea that anything is sacred. Fair enough, I guess. There’s just one catch: it would be an utter catastrophe if this actually happened. [Read more…]

The culture wars come for public higher education

Connor Wood

Source: Eric E. Johnson, Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Everyone holds something sacred. Whether you’re a devout believer or a hard-nosed atheist, there are at least a few values and ideas that you consider inviolable. I often write about sacred values from a cool, academic distance – dissecting them in order to, say, better understand the culture wars. But what happens when a clash of sacred values gets personal? Well, I’ve just found out – the evangelical Christian governor of Wisconsin is about to enact a set of laws that will effectively gut my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Needless to say, this makes it a lot harder to stay cool and objective.

[Read more…]

Animals evolve. People evolve. Can groups evolve?

Connor Wood

The pond-skater

Welcome back! This is the third installation of my series on religion and group-level evolution. Last time, we left off with the raging debates between scientists who champion kin selection and those who swear by group selection. Group selection is the idea that cooperative behaviors – like caring for others’ offspring or loudly warning neighbors about predators – evolved by competition between groups. By contrast, kin selection, or inclusive fitness, insists that altruistic behaviors evolve strictly to benefit relatives. For example, when a mother babysits her sister’s child, she may seem generous and giving, but she’s actually being genetically selfish – peer through the illuminating lens of inclusive fitness theory, and you’ll find that she’s just caring for a little package of copies of her own genes.  [Read more…]

Religion and evolution, part deux

Connor Wood

Gray Cranes

After a pleasant sojourn with ISIS in my last post, it’s time to get back to the question of whether religion is an evolved adaptation. In my last post on the evolution of religion, I mentioned that there was a brewing conflict between group selection and inclusive fitness models in biology. Did I say conflict? I meant outright, total war. Far be it from me to over-dramatize a scientific quarrel, but this one doesn’t need to be over-dramatized; it’s already plenty dramatic. From massive letters of protest signed by hundreds of biologists to name-calling to bald accusations of irrelevance leveled against major intellectual figures, the group selection/inclusive fitness debates are the major scientific conflict of the young 21st century. Grab some popcorn, okay?

[Read more…]

Is religion evolutionarily adaptive?

Connor Wood

Light bulb evolution

If you’ve ever had roommates, you know the frustration of realizing that not everyone is contributing equally. If you’re the one who’s always emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the bathroom, pretty soon you start to feel taken advantage of – because you are being taken advantage of. This commonplace fount of roommate resentment is about as mundane as it gets, but it’s also a timeless example of the huge, thorny cooperative dilemmas that have faced human societies since time immemorial. How does a group get everyone to contribute to the common good? How do you discourage free riders? Many researchers think that religion plays a key role in solving these difficult problems, which implies that religion might be an adaptation for group living. But if so, does that necessarily mean religion is good? [Read more…]


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