Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

How religion promotes forgiveness

Sorry forgivenessMany will be encouraged to learn that religion correlates with forgiveness. After all, it’s always good when religious people practice what they preach. However, the question remains as to how exactly adhering to a religion makes one more likely to forgive. Answers range from simply reducing to social factors to blindly following a diety. Research by sociologist Daniel Escher (University of Notre Dame) sheds much light on this question: having a collaborative relationship with God, currently participating in a religion, and believing that God forgives all explain this correlation.

Religious people do not live longer

Happy old womanRegular people and scholars alike have commonly believed that participation in religious services grants certain health benefits absent in all other social events. Religion, so the belief goes, includes all of the benefits of regular socialization plus the added spiritual benefits that only religion can provide. However, against previous research, sociologists Eran Shor (McGill University) and David Roelfs (University of Louisville) argue that the health benefits of religion completely reduce to its social nature and have nothing to do with its spiritual or religious aspect.

Prayer alters cognitive processing

Prayer woman lightFor the believer, prayer provides a connection to God. For the nonbeliever, prayer wastes time that could be spent on learning a skill. Yet for the believer, prayer is a skill that requires practice. While science cannot determine whether persistent, practiced prayer achieves its goal (connecting with God), it can detect how prayer changes the believer’s brain. Anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann (Stanford University) and colleagues (from the University of Chicago) found that disciplined prayer increases the use and vividness of one’s mental imagery, increases one’s attention, and increases the chances of having unusual sensory or religious experiences.

Buddhist, Christian, and non-religious attitudes towards crime

Praying prisonerEven as Western societies continue to secularize and become independent of their religious roots, the influence of religion persists. Especially in terms of the West’s criminal justice system, vestiges of Christianity abound. And when one turns to the less secularized nations of the East, the influence of religion appears all the more obvious (for Westerners at least). Religion’s influence acknowledged, what difference does it actually make? Wing Hong Chui and colleagues (at the University of Hong Kong) compared the attitudes of Buddhists, Christians, and the non-religious towards crime, and found that Christians and the non-religious are more supportive of rehabilitating criminals than Buddhists.

Education’s effect on religion

Woman studyingReliable information can be hard to come by. Ask an atheist about education’s effect on religion, and the atheist, reflecting on personal experience, will likely say education hurts religious belief. Yet, ask a believer the same thing, and one will likely hear the opposite answer. Fortunately, science can intervene. Specifically, Yoav Ganzach (Tel Aviv University, Israel) and colleagues found that for those with a strong religious background, education boosts religious belief, but for those with a secular background education hurts it.

Education not the key to increasing evolution’s acceptance

Light bulb evolutionDespite strong concensus from the scientific community, the American public’s acceptance of evolution has not significantly changed in over 50 years. In that time, many new discoveries and popular books have furthered the case for evolution, yet an unignorable number of people remain unconvinced. Scientists often say that education will solve the problem. While education may have convinced them to accept evolution, sociologist Joseph Baker (East Tennessee State University) has statistical evidence that education will not solve the problem—Americans who disagree with evolution don't disagree with it because they're uneducated, but because of how they interpret the Bible.

Religion vs. spirituality in Germany and the US

German and American flagsThe concepts “spirituality” and “religion” have exceptionally vague meanings, yet purport to cover something universal. That is, these terms should be able to describe something found across cultures, but their definitions seem too imprecise to have any real significance. While seeing how people from across the world understand the terms “religion” and “spirituality” remains a grand task, researchers from the US and Germany have collaborated to see the differences between how Americans and Germans use these terms.

Believers in religion and the paranormal prone to facial illusions

Face in CloudsHumans have an unusual capacity for detecting faces where none exist. Looking at the clouds or a tree or even a rock can lead someone to imagine a face. Some Christians believe to have seen Jesus appear on a piece of toast and Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. While this is obviously not mainstream Christianity, it does make one wonder whether religious believers tend to see such things when nonreligious people would not. Investigating this matter, psychologist Tapani Riekki (University of Helsinki, Finland) and colleagues found that religious and paranormal believers are indeed more vulnerable to facial illusions.

Group identity and ideological passion

Terror tensionsEveryone needs a sense of belonging. Somewhere there must exist a group where one feels at home. For many, this group consists of a religious community, although countless other groups could be named. Regardless, groups matter because they contribute to a person’s own self-identity, and consequently people become attached to their groups. In fact, they become passionate about them! Psychologists Blanka Rip and colleagues (University of Quebec) wonder why people become passionate about their group in extremist ways. They found that people who identify with their group in a psychologically healthy way tend towards harmonious ideological passion whereas those who identify with their group in an unhealthy way tend towards obsessive ideological passion.

Science and religion conflict in the unconscious

Science key headThe conflict between science and religion seems ubiquitous. Just recently Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and Ken Ham debated the origins of life: Nye argued for evolution while Ham for intelligent design. While on the surface that matter seems to be one of evidence, philosophy, and reasoning, something subtler may be at work. Psychologists Jesse Preston (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago) recently found that religion and science conflict in people’s minds at an unconscious level.

Fixing Western psychology of religion

Psychology bookPsychologists of religion want to study religion using the highest standards of empirical science. They gather data, they crunch numbers, and they run fancy statistical analyses in order to draw statistically significant conclusions. But when it’s all said and done, is anything like religion still the object of study? Psychologists Brent Slife and Jeffrey Reber (both of Brigham Young University) doubt it. They argue that the reductionism in psychology of religion often leads to a mismatch between what is supposed to be studied and what is actually studied.


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