Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

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.

Conservative Protestants conflict with scientists over moral and social issues

Jesus and monkeyAs seen from sociologist John Evans’s (University of California, San Diego) previous research, Christians, including conservative ones, have as much scientific literacy as the non-religious. The real religion-science conflict, he argued, occurs over moral and social issues. Now Evans continues his argument: not only do conservative Protestants disagree with scientists over moral and social issues, but this conflict has increased over time.

The evolution of cooperation

Crew cooperationCooperation provides many evolutionary advantages: groups working together can simply do more and, thus, defeat competitors who work as individuals. In fact, cooperation helps to explain how frail, tiny humans reached the top of the food chain. Cooperation is great. So great, that one wonders why more other animals do not have it. If it provides such a large advantage, it should be more common. Out to solve the mystery of cooperation’s rarity, J. B. André (Institut de Biologie de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris) found that cooperation requires reciprocity, which in turn requires two abilities, neither of which can persist without the other.

The evolution of human interaction: selfish vs. selfless

Sharing kids awwwwwwEvolutionary theory suggests two major pathways through which human nature may have evolved. In the first and most commonly held view, humans selfishly follows “survival of the fittest” and “every man for himself.” Selfishness and the drive to survive anchors human nature. Alternatively, human nature may have evolved in a selfless direction fostering cooperation and community. To weigh these competing hypotheses, cognitive scientist Fabrice Clément (University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland) and colleagues tested young children to see whether they defaulted towards selfish or selfless interaction. As it turned out, selflessness prevailed.

The evolution of spite

Spiteful dudeNobody likes to be on the receiving end of spite. Yet, there is something uniquely satisfying about being spiteful. Due to this “pleasure” the spite yields, something in our evolutionary history has trained our brains for spite. Why, exactly, remains puzzling, and philosophers Rory Smead (Northeastern University) and Patrick Forber (Tufts University) wanted to get to the bottom of it. Using statistical analysis and mathematical models, they showed how spite can evolve in a given population.

Secular and religious therapy

On the couchA “religion and science” conflict may exist on a much more subtle and practical level than “creationism vs. evolution” or “old earth vs. young earth.” A conflict may arise over mental health. Secular psychologists use particular methods and assumptions to help people improve their mental health, while priests use significantly different methods and assumptions. Wanting to know which type of therapy Romanian youth prefer, Vlaicu Claudia (Valahia University, Romania) compared secular and religious therapy.

American civil religion

Brick flagWhen hearing the word “religion,” often one of the world religions comes to mind, such as Hinduism, Christianity, or Buddhism. Or perhaps one thinks of a more generic belief in something supernatural. Either way, one could easily miss what has become known as “civil religion.” Sociologist Rhys H. Willams (Loyola University Chicago) argues that while in word many Americans profess Christianity, in deed they at least also practice American civil religion.

Religious conservatives’ and liberals’ self-narratives

StorytellingIn American politics, conservatives and liberals differ quite clearly over issues of economics, social programs, and social policies. Research concerning religious (as opposed to political) liberals and conservatives has only just begun, but Dan P. McAdams (Northwestern University) and colleagues suggest a deep connection between political and religious conservativism and liberalism: conservatives and liberals fundamentally interpret life differently. Conservatives see life as a struggle to maintain self-discipline and to overcome obstacles, whereas liberals understand life as a journey of self-exploration and fulfillment.

Why moral religion?

Nice guy BibleAlthough Westerners commonly believe that religion has an inherently moral component to it, a brief look at history reveals the opposite: far from being common, moral religions are the exception, not the rule. Most religions have or had spirituality without morality. This leads to an interesting question: Why moral religions? In other words, why did moral religions evolve? Anthropologists Nicolas Baumard (Oxford and University of Pennsylvania) and Pascal Boyer (Washington University, St. Louis) answer that moral religions appeal to a proportionality-based morality, a type of morality ingrained by evolution.

Out-group cooperation

Teamwork handsPeople evolved to be tribal. Insiders are given the benefit of the doubt and are trusted, while outsiders are shunned, discriminated against, and ideally avoided altogether. At least, this is the picture modern evolutionary theory paints of human evolution. However, economists Xiaofei Sophia Pan (Harvard University) and Daniel Houser (George Mason University) challenge this monolithic picture. They argue that in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination only occur when a group has independent sufficiency; if a group needs cooperation to survive, it will not discriminate against out-groups.

Pointless debates in the scientific study of religion

Cartoon conflict resolutionThe scientific study of religion aims to study religion by using scientific methods and the tools of specific scientific fields (such as evolution, psychology, neurology, or sociology). How exactly this should be done has been a matter of hot debate. Which theories of evolution should be used? Or which methods of psychology? While this may seem like a fundamental question, Joseph Kramp (Drew University) argues that it is a pointless one: arguments over methodology reduce to the personalities of researchers and indicate the stagnation of the field.


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