Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Hindu and Buddhist meditation compared, neurologically

Monk with GlassesWhen people hear the word “meditation,” they often think of a bald monk sitting cross-legged lost in a deep train of thought. The exact content of this train of thought can vary significantly across religious traditions: some Buddhists focus on their breathing, body, and own thoughts, while some Hindus try to achieve a dissolving of the self in the universal God, or Brahman. Buddhist practices derive from Hindu ones, and this makes Italian scientists Barbara Tomasino, Alberto Chiesa, and Franco Fabbro wonder whether differences in goal actually result in differences in the brain, or whether Buddhist meditation looks identical to its Hindu counterpart.

Humility helps us cope with death, part 2

Work Hard Stay HumblePsychologist Pelin Kesebir (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) wanted to investigate the relationships, if any, between humility and the ability to cope with death, as well as the relationship between humility and morality. In part 1, the initial study found great success: when pressed to disengage morally because of the anxiety of death, humble people rose to the challenge and were less likely to disengage. In other words, death did not deter them from doing the right thing. So far, so good, but Kesebir has conducted four additional studies to explore humility.

Humility helps one cope with death, part 1

PietaMost religions value the virtue of humility. Some of them even elevate humility as the premiere virtue, the key to happiness and moral living. While also interested in humility’s relationship to morality, psychologist Pelin Kesebir (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) wondered whether humility could people deal with their own death. After conducting five studies, he found a correlation not only between humility and coping with death, but also between humility and morality.

The psychological profile of Jesuit applicants

Society of JesusJesuits make up an elite order of Catholic priests. Historically known for their keen intellects and wealth of knowledge, the Jesuits play a key role in the Catholic Church. This general observation of the “smartness” of Jesuit priests led psychologists Anthony Kuchan, Michael Wierzbicki, and Mary Anne Siderits (all from Marquette University) to wonder if Jesuits would fit a tighter, more formal psychological profile. By surveying applicants to the Jesuit Order, they found that Jesuit applicants indeed have above average intelligence and education, as well as an interest in teaching and religion.

How the brain reacts to religious symbols, part 2

Head buttonPart 1 of this article explained the neurological findings of a recent study that analyzed how the brain reacts to religious symbols. In a nutshell, the brain deactivates certain regions of itself when viewing negative religious symbols, and does so at a fairly primitive, pre-conscious level. Now in part 2, the researchers look for correlations between brain reactions and people’s conscious beliefs concerning religion and God.

Religion may have evolved to maximize inclusive fitness

Family sunsetReligion continues to be a topic of fierce debate among evolution researche. Some argue that religion evolved because it offers a real evolutionary advantage over religionless rival tribes (for example, by strengthening social bonds). Others retort that religion merely hijacks advantages that actually evolved for non-religious reasons. Taking sides in this debate, biologists Bernard Crespi (Simon Fraser University, Canada) and Kyle Summers (East Carolina University) argue that religion, and with it the idea of “God,” evolved to increase the fitness of in-groups and kin.

How the brain reacts to religious symbols, part 1

Religious icons white backgroundReligious symbols vary in all shapes and sizes: a cross, Star of David, crescent moon, the Buddhist wheel. For whatever reason, these particular symbols stood the test of time and people continue to find meaning in them. Rather than being content with “whatever reason,” neuroscientists Kyle D. Johnson (Jarvis Christian College) and colleagues wanted to find the neurological reason. In one of their key findings, they discovered that people subconsciously suppress their primary visual cortex when viewing negative religious symbols.

Belief in free will correlates with conservatism

Free willIn recent years, the “free will versus determinism” debate has gained great popularity among both philosophers and non-philosophers alike. People want to know, or at least want to hope, that they have control over their own actions rather than are machines. While empirical psychology cannot answer this question directly, Jasmine Carey and Delroy Paulhus (both University of British Columbia) found that it can answer what the psychological profile of people who believe one or the other looks like. They discovered that people who believe in free will tend to associate with conservatism.

Virtues: biologically or culturally based?

Nose guyWithin any given culture (say, the English-speaking West), virtue seems pretty obvious: be kind, compassionate, don’t be mean or selfish. While Westerners will readily affirm these virtues, denizens of other cultures may not. This raises the question of whether virtues come from a biological, evolutionary basis – in which case they should be more or less uniform across cultures – or whether they stem from culture. In a recent investigation psychologists Jan Pieter van Oudenhoven (University of Groningen, Netherlands) and colleagues claim to havefound that virtues are culturally based.

Neural basis for eudaimonic well-being discovered

Eudaimonic womanNeuroscience continues to advance in leaps and bounds. Whereas in the past discovering the neural basis for even primitive urges proved a struggle, now neuroscientists Gary Lewis (University of Stirling, United Kingdom) and others have found the neural basis for a high-level cognitive ability: eudaimonic well-being. Usually contrasted with the hedonic pleasure system that makes us feel good when we eat sugary foods or have sex, eudaimonic well-being includes virtuous activity, a sense of purpose in life, self-acceptance, and personal growth. Essentially, it encompasses high-order self-reflective mental functions.

Atheists judged immoral

Corrupt guyPrejudice against atheists is an odd phenomenon: atheists don't form a cohesive group in a positive sense the way ethnic or religious groups do. Affirming that God doesn't exist doesn't mean that atheists have all that much in common with each other, never mind a culture from which one could readily develop stereotypes. Fortunately, research by psychologist Will M. Gervais (University of Kentucky) may shed some light on this puzzle. He found that Americans intuitively judge atheists as immoral.

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