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.

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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?

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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...]

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...]

Comments aren’t for atheist evangelism

Connor Wood

Important news update: I’ve changed the comments policy at Science On Religion. As of today, I’m only accepting comments that make substantive points about the content of articles. Criticisms and disagreements will be heartily welcomed, but one-note screeds for particular ideological positions – especially, but not limited to, Internet atheism – won’t be. If I determine that someone’s mission on my comments board is to hammer on his or her own views without any intention of taking part in substantive discourse, that person will be booted. Some of you (whoever you are) may disagree strongly with this new stance, and you’re perfectly within your rights to feel that way. But it doesn’t change my policy.

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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 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...]

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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