Why do religions tell impossible tales? A testable hypothesis

Connor Wood

Woman opening world

Einstein was probably the most quotable scientist who ever coined a phrase. Even people who couldn’t tell special relativity from Scooby-Doo have heard the famous quote that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But does this sentiment apply universally, without limits? Is it really better to conjure up fantasy worlds than to know, concretely and factually, how to build wind turbines or computer mainframes? Well, sometimes it might be. I think that when we fall victim to excessively rigid, causally determined stories we’ve told ourselves about the world, a glimpse of fantasy might be just what we need to slip free of our ideas about what’s possible – allowing us to stumble on new solutions to problems. [Read more...]

Awesome theories of religion, Part 2

Connor Wood

Religion is confusing, right? Why do people do these weird things, like lighting candles next to statues of gods, praying to deities with names like “Krishna” and “Jesus” and “Buddha Amitabha,” and pursuing master’s degrees in theology? Everyone has an opinion. Some people think that religion arose to explain the frightening natural world, and now that we have science to explain things, religion is obsolete. Others think that religion is a cynical tool for elites to keep the masses down. Fortunately, we don’t have to just rely on speculations. There’s a massive, growing body of literature on religion, and learning about it can help us understand what religion is and where it came from. [Read more...]

4 neat theories of religion

Connor Wood

So I recently stumbled across this post from BrainPickings.org, about how to explain religion. It features four of those cute little minute-long animated educational videos that make you feel smart without your actually having to do anything. (You know the kind – they’re quirky, hip, catchy, and they make you feel pleasantly intelligent just by association with the person who made them.) The BrainPickings post purported to be a primer on major theories of religion. Cool, right? Except the original creators – instructors at UK’s Open University – chose to make videos about four thinkers who are almost never cited in the study of religion. Like, ever. So today’s post is the fist part of a fix: a short, easy-to-understand primer on some of the basic (actual) theories of religion.
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Religion influences ethics more in low-religiosity countries

Connor Wood

Notre Dame

Are religious folks nicer than nonbelievers? Popular stereotypes would say “yes,” and one line of thinking in psychology concurs. This “religious prosociality hypothesis” claims that religions inspire adaptive, cooperative behavior in their adherents as a matter of course, and that one of religion’s main purposes is to encourage group-oriented morality. But many experts disagree, arguing that nonbelievers are just as moral as the faithful. Into this longstanding fray comes some fascinating new research showing that religion actually does encourage prosocial attitudes – but only in countries where people are free to choose whether or not to believe. [Read more...]

Internet comments: the poisoned well

Connor Wood

I didn’t really expect Gemli from the New York Times to have a change of heart last week after I called out his/her comments as examples of internet intolerance. Of course, I didn’t expect Gemli to even find or read my post, either, but he or she did – so that’s something! Predictably, no minds were changed in the discussion that ensued here at Patheos, and Gemli signed off without acknowledging that maybe it would be better not to refer to conservative congresspeople as cannibals. Sigh. Such is life.

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How religion will save the world

Connor Wood

The end of the world!

This past weekend, Western Christians celebrated Easter, the most important holiday of the liturgical year. Easter offers believers an opportunity to reflect on death, rebirth, and hope. This year it also came only two days before Earth Day (happy Earth Day!). Great, because some other news – mostly from the New York Times, admittedly never a wellspring of uplifting inspiration – reminds us that things aren’t all peachy for the Earth. With some experts placing the odds of total ecological collapse by midcentury at 50/50, it’s time to start mining our religious and spiritual traditions for all the hope and insight we can get. Among the most important of those insights is the concept of “sacred.” It may sound quaint, but history shows that without sacred values, human cultures just don’t work. [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...]

Where religion pervades, prejudice reigns

Connor Wood

Fightin' nun

If you thumb through the annals of history, it isn’t hard to stumble across examples of bloody conflicts fueled by religion: the Protestant-Catholic “Troubles” in Northern Ireland; the violent Buddhist/Hindu Sri Lankan Civil War; the 30 Years’ War between Continental Protestants and Catholics. Of course, some writers have recently challenged the association between religion and conflict, but the assumption that religion encourages intergroup warfare is a hard one for most of us to shake. Recent research from Arizona State University isn’t going to help us shake it, either – in an article published this year in Psychological Science, a team of researchers found that cultures with high levels of everyday religiosity are more violent and prejudiced against outgroups.

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Don’t understand religion? Experiment with it.

Connor Wood

Man worshipping

Here’s a question for you: is religion fundamentally about beliefs, or about something else? Most people in American culture, especially those likely to be reading articles and blog posts about religion online, are pretty convinced of the former claim. Read the comments section on any article about religion, and you’ll find a lot of fiery debate about evidence and belief, with the underlying assumption that religion comprises propositions we choose to believe about the world or not, propositions that may or may not be reasonable or backed up by evidence. You’ll find very little emphasis on behavior – on what people do. [Read more...]

Is science more “unnatural” than religion?

Connor Wood

Young female student

Robert McCauley, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Emory University, thinks that religion is natural, but science isn’t. Such a claim could easily inspire all manner of outrage and uproar from both offended believers and irked scientists alike. But what McCauley means, as he outlined in a recent book – titled, aptly, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not – is that religious beliefs arise from our basic, evolved cognitive predispositions and biases, while science is only possible when we struggle hard to overcome those biases. So is there any truth to his claim? Is religion just what human minds do when they’re being lazy? [Read more...]


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