Supernatural punishment and the evolution of cooperation

Angry God - Supernatural PunishmentFor the past year and a half or so, I’ve been working on a project that uses computer models to study religion. (You can read about this project here, here, here, and here.) Such a project might sound absurd – how could you use computer simulations to study something as intangible and subjective as religion? Well, it just so happens that my colleague on the project, Justin Lane, recently published a paper that offers a great answer to this question. Using a computer model of a classic economics game, he tested the predictions of an important recent theory in the scientific study of religion: the supernatural punishment hypothesis. [Read more…]

Cool new research in religion

scientific study of religionIf you ever want to get seriously frustrated, I suggest getting advanced graduate training in religious studies. Why’s it frustrating? Because everyone thinks they understand religion already. Seriously, biologists don’t sit down next to strangers on airplanes, let slip that they’re biologists, and then find themselves subjected to a 10-minute lecture on their seat mate’s poorly informed ideas about cellular signaling pathways. But the equivalent happens to people who study religion all the time. You say, “Oh, I study ritual and religion,” and the guy next to you goes silent for a second, then leans forward to tell you in somber tones that religion is nothing but a tool for the rich to control the masses.* Or else he’s an Evangelical who thinks that he’s not religious – no, he has a personal relationship with Jesus, and that’s not religion at all. So in a world of people who think that their opinions about religion are just as good as actual knowledge, it’s relieving to be reminded that some people actually study religion. Here’s a look at three recent studies that use data, not opinions. [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.

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Spirit possession: everyone’s doing it

Connor Wood

Shaman

I haven’t written a post here for more than a week. This is because I have been spending all my free time, and much of my non-free time, furiously writing two articles for an encyclopedia on spirit possession. Yes – you heard that right. Possession. By spirits. The two articles (which were technically due back on, um, January 1st) are about the zar possession cult in northeast Africa and shamanism in Korea, respectively. I wrote my master’s thesis on Korean shamanism, and have had an academic and personal interest in such things ever since. But where does something as wild and spooky as spirit possession fit into religion?

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My employer: The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion

Connor Wood

IBCSR

If you ever read op-eds on religion in major newspapers, or the comments below those op-eds, you know that religion is one of those rare topics about which everyone feels entitled to hold a (usually very strong) opinion, but not everyone feels an accompanying obligation to study in depth. There are a few others out there: economics, evolution. But by and large, because religion brings up people’s deepest concerns and has a reputation for depending on evidence-free faith, many folks assume that they can rely on individual opinion, gut feelings, and popular wisdom to talk about religion. I disagree. I think we can learn real, surprising, concrete things about religion, using both the rigorous methods of science and the robust interpretive tools of the humanities. This is exactly what my employer, the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, does. [Read more…]

Religion-science reporting: We need to do better

Connor Wood

Facepalm

I have a bone to pick. I study religion – a subject that arouses stronger and more willfully misinformed opinions than nearly any other. It’s almost impossible to find objective, forthright reporting or research on the subject of faith. The religious spin the facts to make belief seem righteous. The nonbelievers choose only the stories that most make religion seem silly or atavistic. And the bemused intellectuals, knowing practically nothing of substance about religion but perennially congratulating themselves for their enlightened perspectives, blunder dumbly around in the sea of half-facts and lurid claims, pushed and pulled by whatever news story of the week has gained the most attention. The buzz surrounding a recent study from the Bay Area demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about – and how much is actually at stake.

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Religious terrorism: an evolutionary explanation

Connor Wood

Terrorists

Interest in the scientific study of religion has surged over the past decade. While this development is positive in many ways, it comes largely for an unfortunate reason – global terrorism, exemplified most clearly by the September 11th attacks of ten years ago. Since many terrorist attacks since then have been committed by hardline Muslim believers, researchers have put extensive effort into elucidating the complex relationship between religion and violent acts. Now, a team of investigators is applying the principles of evolutionary psychology to help explain why the two are so often entwined.

[Read more…]