Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

A look back at 2009

2009 was a big year for science and religion with evolution claiming the biggest headlines.CMHRimageThe 200th birthday of Charles Darwin caught the public’s attention in February and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species in November brought debates over evolution and religion into prominence worldwide. While issues around evolution and Darwin received most of the public attention, scientific research on the biocultural components of religion continued at a dizzying pace.

Among the major news stories in science and religion this past year the Texas Board of Education added language prompting students to evaluate the “sudden appearance” of species in the fossil record – opening the door to entertaining creationism or intelligent design theories in science classes. Also, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) decided to boycott Louisiana in response to that state’s 2008 Science Education Act which permits the use of “supplemental material” critical of evolution.

In May, the world was introduced to Darwinius maxillae or Ida as she’s popularly known, a 47 million year old fossil thought to be a transitional species between humans and earlier primates. By October however, Ida was shown to be most likely an evolutionary “dead end.” In September, another fossil made headlines. Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi for short, is approximately 4.4 million years old and pushes back the lineage of modern humans nearly another 1 million years before the “Lucy” the last candidate for earliest known ancestor.

In August, evangelical Christian and former head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, was appointed to direct the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), prompting strong reactions from religious and scientific quarters, both positive and negative. In December, Collins announced federal funding for 13 new human embryonic stem-cell lines to similar reactions.

Readers of IBCSR’s Research Review know that 2009 was a significant year in the scientific study of religion as well. For example, in February, cognitive neuroscientists with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) identified the anterior prefrontal cortex as the neural locus of prayer and thoughts about God. In December, IBCSR researchers announced a connection between religion and the function of right prefrontal dopaminergic networks. Other examples abound here at ibcsr.org of course.

So much for the year that was. What does the future hold?

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a majority of Americans (59%) expect the next decade to be better than the previous one. White evangelical Protestants however are significantly less optimistic about the future however with just over a third voicing optimism about the 2010s (38%) and over half saying that this decade will be worse than the last one (52%).

While it is unclear what to make of such reports, and the future is of course unknown, one thing seems clear. Things are looking up for 2010 in the biocultural study of religion and we are looking forward to continuing to play a role in promoting research, dialogue, debate, and public understanding.

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