May 17, 2018

A team of psychologists think that behavioral ecology can help us understand why Westerners think analytically and residents of East Asia think more holistically: like other animals, we adjust our behavior to match our surroundings. Read more

April 18, 2018

A few years back, I wrote a post here called “Spirit Possession: Everyone’s Doing It.” (I was working at the time on a couple of encyclopedia articles on spirit possession cults.*) Spirit possession and shamanism are seriously interesting topics of study, because they shed a lot of light on general questions about the nature and origin of religion. Recently, a PhD student at Harvard, Manvir Singh, published a target article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences on the evolution of shamanism,… Read more

March 15, 2018

I have a new article up at Orbiter Magazine about the relationship between religion and science. Like I’ve done elsewhere, I stress in this article that there are real tensions – cultural conflicts – between these two types of institution. I also go into the personal dimension of what it’s like to be a religious believer who works in the human sciences. In general, science is dedicated to finding causal explanations of natural phenomena – explanations that reduce, at least… Read more

February 28, 2018

  I didn’t start out as a scientist. As an undergraduate, I majored in English, of all things. On the side I studied German language and literature. My early academic days were filled with iambic meters, memorizing lines from Goethe, and struggling with Middle English. How did I drift into the cognitive and evolutionary sciences of religion? When I get asked this question at parties, my usual answer is to wait until my interrogator is briefly looking the other direction,… Read more

January 25, 2018

Is religion headed for extinction? If we look at the rare conditions that sustain the world’s most secular countries, it looks like the answer is “no.” Read more

January 11, 2018

Religion does many things. It can form bonds between people, foment conflicts, and inspire people to sacrifice for higher causes. But one of the most important things that religions do is create meaning. Meaning in life is difficult to define, but people who report more meaning in their lives are psychologically healthier and less likely to suffer from mental illness than those who don’t. Consider the profound distress that many returning veterans face when returning to civilian society from a military… Read more

December 13, 2017

It’s almost 2018. We survived the past year, but it was a stormy one. Global politics are more unstable than at any time since the height of the Cold War, and maybe before that. Populist leaders are wresting power away from establishment parties in country after country. And within the United States, political rancor and malfeasance may be leading toward a serious crisis. But behind all these separate problems is one big problem: all around the world, our leaders and fundamental… Read more

November 22, 2017

Is religion a form of play? I asked this question in a recent article in Orbiter, a new online magazine that tackles the relationship between science and meaning. Taking an evolutionary biological perspective, the article argued that, despite often seeming very serious, religion actually has many features in common with animal play behavior. I also drew on the historian Johan Huizinga’s famous argument that human civilization itself is founded on play to show how religious practices and rituals have many points… Read more

October 31, 2017

One of the most common ideas about religion is that it’s somehow intrinsically connected with morality. Showcasing just how widespread this assumption is, a recent study found that people around the world tend to implicitly (or not-so-implicitly) believe that, compared with religious believers, nonbelievers are less moral and more prone to criminality. One of the study’s co-authors, anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas, summed up the study’s results last week in the web magazine The Conversation. There, he argued that in fact religion isn’t… Read more

October 17, 2017

Individualism is on the upswing all across the world, new research shows. How will this change affect the future of religion? Read more

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