Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

The neurology of spirit writing

Psychography 1Mediums – people who say they can channel spirits or other supernatural beings to communicate with the living – often get a bad rap. They’re the subjects of debunking attempts, they’re accused of fraud, and most people think they’re just plain odd. But what if we deferred our judgments and tried to find out just what’s actually going on physically and neurologically in the act of channeling? A team of researchers in the US and Brazil did just that, finding that, whatever else is happening, mediums show some very unique patterns of brain activity. And even more interestingly, those patterns differ depending on the mediums’ amount of experience.  

How religion shapes genetics

Near EastIn the United States, religion is usually said to be a personal affair – one’s own private decision about how and what to believe. But this remarkably private and individualistic approach is somewhat odd when compared with the vast majority of cultures and religions throughout history. Far more often, religion has been a public affiliation, determining cultural identities, affecting marriage and family choices, and defining groups in relation to each other. A fascinating recent study published in PLOS Genetics shows just how inextricable religion often is from culture, finding that religious identity has decisively shaped the genetic landscape of the Levant - so decisively, in fact, that Lebanese Muslims are more closely related to fellow Muslims from Morocco or Yemen than they are to their Christian or Jewish compatriots.   

Criminals use religion to justify their crimes

Religious criminalRedemption stories are the stuff of movie magic: a hardened criminal goes to jail, has a religious conversion, and then turns his life around and becomes a force for good. While this makes for compelling drama, it does not make for an accurate description of criminals’ actual appropriation of religion. Research by criminologists Volkan Topalli, Timothy Brezina, and Mindy Bernhardt (all Georgetown State University) suggests that “[t]hrough purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance” criminals take advantage of religious beliefs in order to justify their ongoing criminal behavior.

Earn $63,628 worth of happiness: pray

Prayer guyPeople commonly say that “money can’t by happiness,” but such people do not bother economists. Economists like to quantify everything in terms of money, including happiness. And when they got wind of research that religion increases long-term happiness, they naturally asked, “By how much (in US dollars)?” More exactly, Timothy Tyler Brown (University of California, Berkeley) investigated the value of happiness prayer yields for the average individual per year in dollars, and found that the answer is $63,628.

Parallel evolution: reexamining evolution’s “randomness”

Evolutions randomnessEvolution, when taken as the only narrative of how organisms came into existence, paints a rather bleak picture: purposeless forces randomly give rise to humans who could just as easily have not existed at all. This may disturb some religious people, whose religious narratives say that humans have a purpose. But new research suggests that evolution may not be as random as is typically thought: experiments in “parallel evolution” show that the same genetic structures evolve in the same circumstances.

Does religious belief make you a better person?

Religious dudeWhen evolutionary psychologists look at religion they tend to highlight the way it could strengthen communities to make them successful. The intuitions behind this theory also spur a large body of research linking religiosity to prosocial behavior. As Robert Putnam famously put it, religious people make better neighbors. They’re more generous, trustworthy, helpful, cooperative, and generally healthier…or so the theory goes. But a recent review of these studies suggest that we may be drawing too simple and hasty conclusions.

The persuasive power of the “new atheists”

AtheoiBest-selling authors such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have virtually become household names through their vehement attacks on belief in God. Though they have gotten their message out there, the question remains as to how effective their arguments have been. Curious about the persuasiveness of these two atheists, Neil Pembroke (University of Queenland, Australia) found that most found only the new atheists’ criticism of the Bible’s historical accuracy persuasive – the rest of their arguments had relatively little impact.

Health, forgiveness, and religion

Happy coupleMost religions preach forgiveness. Holding grudges, remembering wrongs, and not letting things go leads to poor spiritual health (according to such religions). While scientists cannot test claims about spiritual health, they can test physical health. Can forgiveness lead to improved health? Researcher Michael McFarland (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues posed this question, and found that forgiveness does positively correlate with health over time.

How the brain escapes the self

Flying brainReligious experiences get described in a lot of ways. People gushingly talk about a profound sense of oneness, about incredible bliss, joy, and ineffable meaning. One thing you almost never hear, however, is that a religious experience made someone more greedy and selfish. No one ever says, “Hey, you know what? I just experienced ultimate spiritual bliss, and boy, did it ever make me focus neurotically on my own struggles, financial problems, and dating insecurities!” Why this incompatibility between spirituality and self-absorption? A team of researchers from the University of Missouri thinks that the reason might be found in the brain, where reduced function in the region associated with self-awareness is correlated with greater spirituality.

Rewriting the script: We change our own religious memories

Kid prayingEveryone knows that memories can fade with time. But not everyone realizes that in “refreshing” memories by remembering them, they risk distortion. This has implications for how people construct their identity. Focusing on religious identity, psychologists R. David Hayward (University of Michigan), Joanna Maselko (Duke University Medical Center), and Keith G. Meador (Vanderbilt University Medical Center) found that people would accurately remember their childhood religious behavior but would alter their childhood religious identity so that it matched their present religious identity.

How WEIRD are you?

WEIRD girlImagine that you’re writing an essay about the most important facets of your personality. Do you discuss your personal likes and dislikes, your talents and your ambitions? Or do you talk about your family, your relationships, the community that envelopes you? If you prefer the former, individualistic response, you’re probably a citizen of a WEIRD country – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. This means, of course, that you’re at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how most people worldwide think about family, community, and morality. And new research from Virginia and China shows that you’re also likely to be socially – and, most likely, religiously – liberal.


New religion surveys online

Check out, 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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