April 30, 2021

Academia can be a fiercely jealous environment — jealous, that is, of the boundaries between disciplines. Rather than “scientists,” you’ll find physicists and oceanographers, biologists and chemists, neuroscientists and psychologists, all tucked away in their own, sometimes feuding departments. But even these categories are too broad. There are social cognitive neuroscientists and neuroimaging methodologists, theoretical evolutionary biologists and cell biologists, cognitive psychologists and developmental psychologists. Each speciality within a given field has its own journals, its own conferences. Interdisciplinary contact… Read more

March 31, 2021

Religion and science used to be at each other’s throats, especially in the heady days of New Atheism. But now postmodernism might have swallowed them both. Read more

February 10, 2021

Now that I’m (mostly) outside the world of American higher education, I’ve been looking in at it from a slight remove, mulling on where it’s working and where I think it’s struggling. One area where our university system particularly shines is its ability to support what the philosopher Thomas Kuhn called normal science: the laborious, time-intensive process of devising experiments, collecting data, and slowly building out the implications of established theories or research programs. In a completely different sphere, I… Read more

January 12, 2021

On January 6th, 2021, a herd of conspiracy maniacs stormed the United States Capitol. A zealot with Norse pagan tattoos is now the face of Christianism. Read more

December 31, 2020

Even stronger than the feeling of regret is the giddy anticipation of what comes next, combined with the enormous relief of leaving a profession whose future looks increasingly cloudy, and where the truly curious are increasingly unwelcome. Read more

November 23, 2020

Back in October, I was privileged to give the keynote talk at a Toronto School of Theology conference on how ritual and play structure “Value and Valuing.” My argument? Animal ritualization and human ritual, which both share some crucial features with play, are indispensable tools for sending clear messages about complex or ambiguous social facts. Read more

November 9, 2020

It took four days after the 2020 U.S. presidential election for the country to identify a clear winner. The delay shouldn’t be terribly surprising, given the complications of a coronavirus pandemic, mail-in voting, the closeness of many of the key races, and the generally bizarro nature of the year 2020. (Remember the enormous Australian mega-wildfires back in January? Yeah, me neither.) But the most prestigious scientific publication in the world, Nature, seems completely shocked that Democrat Joe Biden didn’t crush… Read more

October 29, 2020

Back in September, I described a computer model my collaborator Rich Sosis and I built that simulates religious communities as complex adaptive systems. The model married complex-systems theory to human behavioral ecology, or the study of how human beings change their behavior according to different contexts and incentives — specifically, the evolutionary incentives of survival and reproduction. Applying this framework to human life leads to a striking conclusion: how loyal we are to our societies may hinge on whether those… Read more

September 29, 2020

A shouting match is often perversely compelling in the same way that a road accident is: it’s ugly, but it commands your attention. Very occasionally, however, a viciously heated conversation manages to achieve aching tedium at the same time. For an example of this paradox, ask some religious studies scholars what religion is. The ensuing debate will be a painstaking, often bitter exchange of views that ultimately boils down to the deflationary proposition that there is, in fact, no such… Read more

August 27, 2020

Some interesting battle lines have formed in the past few months.* We Americans had gotten used to thinking of ourselves as polarized between the Blue Tribe and the Red Tribe. But in recent years, decidedly illiberal factions have calved off from both these tribes, giving rise respectively to the identity-politics left and the populist right. In response, a growing chorus of old-school liberals have begun urgently defending the values and commitments of liberalism: free speech and debate, individual rights, procedural… Read more

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