November 29, 2018

I’m freshly back from Denver, where the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) took place this year. The AAR is the world’s largest academic body focused on the study of religion. It includes everything under its big tent – experts in ancient Daoist texts, Biblical historians, Sanskrit scholars, sociologists of religion, transhumanists, and even – yes – cognitive scientists of religion. Attending the AAR is a little bit like finding yourself in one of those edge-of-the-galaxy bazaars… Read more

November 14, 2018

If you’ve gotten into a political argument on Facebook recently, you might be excused for feeling somewhat-less-than-blindingly optimistic about the state of things these days. Whether you’re debating a conservative uncle or liberal colleague, a devout or unbelieving friend, it seems that the gaps between our divergent worldviews are becoming insurmountable. One hypothesis suggests that, as the Western world has become less religious, people have begun falling back on politics for identity and meaning. In other words, our political tribes… Read more

October 26, 2018

By trying to rid themselves of theology, religious studies scholars have paradoxically also banished science and scientific explanation rom their studies. Both theology and science, for whatever their other differences, claim to have access to universal, unconditioned truth. The humanities no longer do. Read more

September 29, 2018

Despite how it may seem, we humans are extraordinarily good at cooperation. We take care of each other’s kids. We help each other move. And, in large complex societies like our own, we (mostly) abide by the rules that make it possible for us to live together in relative peace. Sure, it may seem like developed, Western societies are being torn apart by factionalism and in-fighting, and in many ways they are – but recent political unrest only conceals what… Read more

September 21, 2018

There are a lot of fields of study in the modern university. You could major in biology or German literature. You could study philosophy, chemistry, or neuroscience, or delve into Slavic languages. But the scientific study of religion – that is, the study of religious beliefs and behaviors using the tools of the cognitive, evolutionary, and biological sciences – is a little different. It’s not a recognized field with its own departments and professors. You can’t really major in it…. Read more

August 30, 2018

A lot of science happens when scientists are alone. There are the late nights coding data in the lab, with only the clack of the keys for company. There are solo evening walks when, if you’re lucky, a new hypothesis jumps suddenly to mind. But make no mistake – science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All scientists need communities of fellow thinkers and experimentalists. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of taking part in just such a community, when… Read more

July 31, 2018

A curious thing has happened over the past few decades in American higher education. The humanities and social sciences – disciplines such as history, cultural anthropology, and sociology – have gone from having a slight liberal tilt to being almost uniformly left-of-center, with the vast majority of professors and researchers in those fields self-identifying as very liberal or even radical. This ideological uniformity has strained relations between the academic world and conservatives, and some thinkers – such as the members… Read more

June 28, 2018

We humans love rhythm. Music, dancing, clapping, singing – no matter what form it comes in, rhythmic unity is a staple of our social lives. Recently, psychologists and cognitive scientists have found that “synchrony” – as researchers call it – seems to be associated with prosocial behaviors and attitudes. If a group of people dance or even clap their hands in rhythm together, they’ll probably be more cooperative and nice to each other afterwards. Scientists who study religion think that… Read more

June 20, 2018

Imagine two scenes. In the first, a person chucks a book casually on a table, leaving it open to the page she was reading, before walking into another room. In the second, she raises the book conspicuously over her head. Then, still holding it high in both hands, she slowly turns around, walks in a measured gait toward a large table, and places the book carefully on a reading stand. What’s the difference between these two scenes? Well, the first… Read more

June 12, 2018

I want to talk about suicide. It’s topical. In the past week and a half, two big-time celebrities – the fashion designer Kate Spade and the globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain – took their own lives, sending shock waves through popular culture. But these deaths were only part of a much larger trend: the suicide rate in the United States has increased by 25% since 1999. It’s now the tenth-leading cause of death in the country (and among teenagers, it’s second… Read more

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