Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Challenging the idea of “spiritual but not religious”

Spiritual guruMany people assume a sharp contrast between spirituality and religion. Spirituality involves strange experiences and feelings of ecstacy, whereas religion means boring sermons and social obligations. Hence, people often identify as spiritual but not religious. However, it remains an empirical question as to how distinct religion and spirituality actually are. Research by sociologist Nancy Ammerman (Boston University) indicates that, in fact, the line between spirituality and religion is quite blurry.

Religion discourages suicide

Depressed manReligions prohibit many actions, but this hardly means their followers abide by such prohibitions – hence the term “casual Catholic” for Catholics who use contraception. Most religions forbid suicide, but it remains an empirical question as to whether anyone actually takes this seriously. Research by criminologist Steven Stack (Wayne State University) and sociologist Augustine Kposowa (University of California—Riverside) indicates that, indeed, affiliation with religion correlates with a decreased acceptance of suicide.

A look at libertarian morality

Libertarian PorupineYou know your libertarian friend? The one who votes Republican but scoffs at “family values,” who posts Ron Paul quotes on Facebook and thinks taxes are a form of theft? Well, thanks to some new research, we now know more about him (or her). The results are both unsurprising and shocking. Obviously, libertarians prize personal liberty and freedom above just about everything, but they don’t value the tight, bonded relationships that people throughout history have depended on for survival. This means that libertarianism isn’t just a political stance – it’s a new way of looking at human social life.

Attachment to parents affects attachment to God

Child motherParents teach their children many things, not all of which are intentional. Children often pick up on many more words and behaviors than their parents would prefer. Now, what leads a child to pick up on his or her parents’ religious behaviors? Tackling this question, counselor Duane Reinert (Conception Seminary College) and psychologist Carla Edwards (Northwest Missouri State University) found that attachment to God correlates with attachment to one’s same-sex parent.

Thinking about physics suppresses our social minds

Physics dudeLast year, a scientific study out of UBC-Vancouver made a splash by claiming that analytical thinking decreased people’s belief in God. Of course, this wasn’t much of a surprise – both hard-nosed science advocates and dreamy religious writers have noted the incompatibility between religious and analytic thinking. But new research offers a neurological perspective on this religion-science divide. Specifically, a team of cognitive scientists has found that the neural systems that deal with purely physical phenomena inhibit those that focus on social information, and vice-versa. Since many studies have linked social cognition to religious belief, it seems that our science minds and our religious minds are like streets at a crossroads: if one direction is flowing, the other is shut off.

Religion’s effect on moral decisions

Good or EvilThe relationship between religion and morality continues to be hotly contested. In one corner, some have argued that religion poisons everything and distorts moral judgment. In the opposing corner, others have maintained that religion makes people more moral. Wanting to test the relationship between religion and morality empirically, Alan Walker, Jason DeBode (both Auburn University), and James Smither (La Salle University) found nuanced results sure to displease people in both corners.

Prayer encourages forgiveness

Forgiveness prayerAll too often when people think of prayer, they think of asking for a material product from a divine power. People pray for cars or houses or even just good old-fashioned cash. While asking the divine for worldly goods is interesting in and of itself, psychologist Nathaniel Lambert (Florida State University) and colleagues wondered about the effects of praying for the well-being of others, and found that praying for others leads to an increased willingness to forgive them.

Why do we moralize?

MoralizingWe humans are one of the most social species in the world. We live together in hives of millions and, as children, we fail to thrive unless we’re given adequate social support. But all this social integration comes at a cost – living in such close quarters and depending on each other for our well-being, we have to be alert for people who might try to cheat, harm, or take advantage of us. Researchers have theorized that moralizing, the tendency to harshly judge certain behaviors, is one strategy for guarding against exploitive peers. Recently, though, a Danish researcher has found that how much you moralize may depend on how many friends you have – and whether those friends are religious.

Ritual works by bypassing conscious cognition

Muslim ritualPretend you’re an alien anthropologist come to Earth to study humans. What do you notice most about these strange, bipedal creatures? Their glittering cities? Their fondness for chocolate? Their use of daringly creative insults during traffic jams? Maybe, but let’s not forget one behavior that distinguishes humans almost more than anything else: ritual, and lots of it. No other animal participates in, invents, or performs rituals as complex and detailed as humans. But why? Our bemused alien anthropologist might benefit from new Danish research describing how ritual, using what's called “cognitive resource depletion,” helps cultures pass knowledge and values down to new members.

Five ways religion can influence political beliefs

Church and state signTypically, when people think of “religion and politics,” they think of social issues such as abortion, contraceptives, and gay marriage. While that’s not a bad place to start, it does in fact start at the group level rather than focusing on individuals. Wanting instead to see how religion can affect political beliefs at the individual level, Ryan LaMothe (St. Meinrad School of Theology) found five ways in which this can happen.

The Boston Marathon bombings and the scientific study of religion

BostonMuch to the chagrin of the vast majority of Muslims around the world, the brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing were Muslim. Once again, a fringe group within Islam has cast a dark shadow on all of Islam. While one should not associate Islam with terrorism, neither should one completely dismiss the role religion played in motivating the bombers. Aiming to shed light on the issue of the religious motivations of the Boston bombers, anthropologist Scott Atran (John Jay college) notes the homegrown, decentralized nature of modern Islamic terrorism.

You are here: Home Research News Research Updates