Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Study finds sadomasochism evokes spiritual experiences

PaddleReligious devotees endure torturous scenarios for the warm embrace of human connection. Some kneel and stand repeatedly to please their priest and fellow congregants. Others fast and chant for days on end to fulfill their guru's program of enlightenment. At the extreme edge of the ritual spectrum, aspirants turn to self-flagellation, scarification, and even ultra-violent Philippine reenactments of the crucifixion, with real nails and the scars to prove it. It's along these gruesome lines that the spirituality of BDSM (bondage-domination/discipline-submission/sadomasochism) emerges. A new study suggests that ritualized masochistic practices may induce an altered state of consciousness.

Religion affects our behavior by shaping neural rewards

NeuronsRedIf I were to offer you $50 today or the chance to wait four months for $70, which would you take?  The way you answer that question reflects what psychologists call delay discounting.  That's just a fancy term to describe the way value changes over time – $70 is clearly more than $50, but when that $70 is four months away, it's not worth as much.  People vary pretty widely in their discounting rates, and there's lots of research sorting through the various factors that influence these preferences.*  As you might have guessed, religion is one of those factors. A new study from our team at Boston University helps explain some of the reasons why.

Thinking analytically, accepting evolution

Dinosaur FossilIt sometimes seems like evolution and religion have had a bad relationship almost from the start. In 1874, the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge asked, “What is Darwinism?” His answer: atheism. To this day, people on both sidesof the issue continue to think that believing in God means not accepting evolution, and vice versa. This antagonism has bled into the cognitive science of religion. There’s a growingbody of literature that’s saying – not always outright – that religion and science use different ways of thinking. Can people’s performance on an analytical thinking test predict if they’re creationists or if they accept evolution?

Psychologists write about “bullshit”

BullshitAnyone who's been to the West Coast or visited hippie towns like Covington, VT or Asheville, NC has undoubtedly heard some version of the New Age spiel. It generally involves “energy work,” “intuition,” and somewhere along the way, “quantum” something gets dropped into the mix—as in “quantum healing,” “quantum intention,” or “quantum intuitive energy work.” What does that even mean? And who buys this stuff? A recent study led by Gordon Pennycook seeks to answer the latter question, regardless of whether New Age clichés mean anything at all. According to the authors, the propensity to interpret garbled phrases as profound is a sign of “Bullshit Receptivity,” and it's correlated with low intelligence and high gullibility.

Is Hindu worship just helicopter parenting?

Puja LingamFreud famously hypothesized that the Judeo-Christian God is a psychological projection of nagging parental issues. Thomas B. Ellis of Appalachian State University in North Carolina continues this psychoanalytic tradition by explaining the origins and purpose of Hindu puja, or devotional worship, as compensation for emotionally distant parenting. The religious studies professor contends that puja soothes imbalanced adults starved for parental affection. This desire for emotional contact is transferred onto the stone idol. Affection-starved children also cling to their collectivist communities and become averse to contact with outsiders. Ellis's theory would seem damning of Indian culture if he didn't also argue that puja expresses social adaptations which aid survival in tropical regions fraught with contagious diseases. Such practices may look neurotic to outsiders, but they work.

Ominous moods may improve ritual performance

Black KnightTo the uninitiated, religious ritual seems like frivolous play-acting. Priests and acolytes follow obscure rules and manipulate symbolic objects, similar to team sports like soccer, or board games like Risk. This connection isn't meant to trivialize the intense subjective meaning of religious rites, but only to point out that both ritual and play are elaborate, seemingly superfluous pastimes that consume enormous amounts of otherwise productive energy. Of what use are either? Yvan Russell, Fernand Gobet, and Harvey Whitehouse hypothesize that the connection between ritual and games is quite significant. Skills acquired by performing rites and playing games should carry over into real world abilities. Their study suggests that the more disturbing a performer's mood is, the more effective that transference will be.

An ambitious theory of humility, compassion, and divine gratitude

Saying GraceReligiosity is correlated with many different psychological states and behaviors, such as empathy and generosity, or exclusivity and violence. However, the causal connections between belief, experience, and behavior are presently unclear. Psychologists Neal Krause and David Hayward recently completed a seven-year longitudinal study that seeks to tease apart the mental components of a religious life and establish causation. They follow a line of cognitive dominoes falling into each other: religious commitment tips into humility, into compassion, into support for others, into a sense of meaning. The last piece falls on gratitude to God. In the researchers' view, this gratitude is actually indirect thankfulness for the people in the churchgoer's life. Their theoretical scheme is an interesting attempt at integrating the abundant, but disparate research on the cognitive mechanisms underpinning religion.

Empty nests and empty pews: Church affiliation declines after high school

Child leaving churchStep into any church on Sunday morning and you'll most likely find a congregation split into two distinct groups: parents with their children and cotton-topped old timers. Who's missing here? The young adults. The reasons for this vacuum are still speculative, but the trend is clear, and it appears to ramp up after high school. A team of psychologists from UCLA just completed a four-year longitudinal study looking at the religious transitions from adolescence to young adulthood. Their data show a remarkable decline in formal religious affiliation as kids leave home and head off to college. Having spread their wings, teenagers usually fly away from the sanctuary.

Woe unto the weird: Majorities tend to be spiteful

Ants FightingBill Moyers once quipped, “Civilization is a thin veneer of agreeable behavior stretched across the passions of the human heart.” Among the most persistent of these dark passions is ingroup favoritism. Christian versus Muslim, black versus white, liberal versus conservative—anywhere one group outnumbers the other, we typically see the minority get snubbed, insulted, or physically attacked by the majority. Psychologist D.B. Krupp and mathematician Peter Taylor of Queen's University in Ontario recently published a theoretical model of how strife tends to develop between unequal groups. Their work supports the controversial claim that prejudicial violence is at least partially rooted in behavioral genetics. If correct, this provides one explanation for the persistence of ethnic conflict—not an excuse for intolerance.

What does science have to say about religion? A welcome to Joseph Allen

NebulaeReligiosity goes back to the first cave paintings and stone figurines, and has been with us ever since. Evidence suggests that Homo sapiens exploded out of Africa about 50,000 years ago, accompanied by gods and demons. The perseverance of these deities is impressive. Despite the heaven-shaking ascent of secularism, many people continue to petition divine agents, engage in costly rituals, and carefully separate the sacred from the profane. This mystery can be approached from numerous directions. As the newest writer to join Science on Religion, each week I will take a testable hypothesis as my starting point. The goal is to bring perspectives on religion into sharper focus.

When a fearmonger speaks, people listen

The End is NearThe end of the world is nigh!” For millennia that spiel has attracted people to gloom and doom prophets. After all, what could be more attention-grabbing than a perpetual threat on the horizon? Less ambitious religious leaders limit their dire warnings to witches, curses, and demons, but the multitudes are still gripped by panic, regardless of the presence or absence of actual danger. Could it be that when our amygdalas squirt fear all over the place, we naturally trust the doomsayer? Pascal Boyer and Nora Parren think so. Their recent research suggests that, all things being equal, people are likely to judge someone relaying threat-related information as more competent than the bearer of boring news.

Newsflash

New religion surveys online

Check out ExploringMyReligion.org, a website filled with fascinating, research-grounded surveys about religion, morality, and belief. Sign up to get incisive feedback about your religious motivations and inner life – and help researchers learn more about science, religion, and culture in the process.

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