Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Humility mitigates trauma and religious doubt

Humility in the pewsWhile many researchers focus on the positive health benefits of religion, religion’s detrimental effects should not be ignored. For instance, religion can provide a source of stress relief, but it can also cause stress in its own way. Moments of religious doubt can indeed increase a religious person’s stress levels. Fortunately, research by Neal Krause and R. David Hayward (both of the University of Michigan) suggests that humility can offset not only religious doubt, but also personal trauma.

Loving your neighbors (When you're religious)

Cross-racial handsBy all appearances, being religious isn’t always about being especially kind.  Religious people can be really gosh-darn mean, and so religiousness is commonly associated with prejudicial attitudes as much or more than with attitudes of welcome and acceptance. But are people more likely to be prejudiced by being religious? This (very important!) question is troublesome for researchers nowadays; the available data isn’t entirely clear or consistent. But recent research by psychiatrist and behavioral scientist Megan Johnson Shen of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, along with Megan C. Haggard, Daniel C. Strassburger, and Wade C. Rowatt of Baylor University, offers invaluable insight into the confusing relationship between religiosity and prejudice.

The role of reason in moral reasoning

Instincts signOne would hope that when faced with a difficult moral decision, people would give that decision careful deliberation. Unfortunately, recent work by social intuitionists argues that most moral judgments are intuitive (that is, not based on reasoning but on gut feeling), and that consequently most moral reasonings are but mere rationalizations that are supposed to justify this gut feeling. Fortunately, not all hope is lost. Philosopher Richard Patterson (Emory University) and colleagues argue that while reason’s influence cannot be seen in the immediate context of a moral decision, it can exert long-term influence on moral judgment.

Religious beliefs mediate between contact with the dead and death anxiety

Dead levitatingTypically when people think of religion as a force that decreases their fear of death, they assume religion eases their death anxiety because it promises an afterlife. Death is okay because death isn’t death. However, the actual reason why religion decreases death anxiety may be much more complicated than that. Research by Neal Krause (University of Michigan) suggests that the real link between religion and reduced anxiety over dying is that having contact with the dead creates a sense of connection among all people, which in turn deepens one’s sense of a religiously meaningful life - which results in less death anxiety.

Science correlates with morality

Happy scientistsEveryone likes science. Science gives us cures for deadly diseases, better transportation, and, of course, toys. But while science clearly has immense practical value, it may also have moral value. That is, thinking about science may prime the brain to act in more morally responsible ways. Research by psychologists Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich suggests a correlation between belief in science and moral behavior.

The personality types of Christians and atheists

Pensive womanAsk any parent: some people are just born a certain way. From their first few months and especially in their teenage years, people’s personalities have a way of shining forth, sometimes in spite of all the parental training in the opposite direction. Personality types have powerful effect on how people perceive and behave in the world. This, theoretically, would include religious beliefs and behaviors. As it turns out, using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), evangelical Protestants tend to be judging, Anglicans are introverts, and Greek Orthodox and atheists share an "ISTJ" personality.

Religion associated with reduced alcohol usage in Hungarian youth

DrinkingAlcoholics Anonymous sometimes receives criticism for requiring its participants to rely on a “higher power.” Not all of its participants believe in one. Besides, what difference would that make anyway? Research by Bettina Piko (University of Szeged, Hungary) and colleagues suggests it may make a big difference after all. They found that religious belief correlates with less alcohol usage in boys, religious participation correlates with less alcohol usage in girls, and (oddly enough) New Age beliefs correlate with increased alcohol usage.

Daily spiritual experience may mitigate stress

StressNo one likes feeling daily stress (although some do enjoy giving others daily stress). At the same time, religions provide ways of putting daily stressors in a cosmic context that makes them seem much less significant. Why worry? New research suggests that spiritual activities may mitigate stress. More specifically, research by psychologists Brenda Whitehead and Cindy Bergeman (both of the University of Notre Dame) indicates that daily spiritual experience can buffer the effects of perceived stress and increase the impact of positive affect in older adults.

Animals may have religion

SwansThe word “religion” usually brings to mind complicated belief systems, rituals, and symbolic engagements with a higher reality—all of which seem well beyond the capabilities of animals less intellectually advanced than humans. However, “religion” may not be so complex. While animals don’t, for instance, write scriptures, they can perform other behaviors that indicate their religiosity. Philosopher Donovan Schaefer (Haverford College) looks at some of the evidence for animal religion – specifically, animal responses to death and awe.

Belief in God reduces altruistic punishment

Lady JusticePunishment is hard work. It expends time and resources, and, for most people at least, isn’t particularly pleasant to carry out. If only an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly just being could punish all wrong-doers, without mere mortals getting entangled in such a messy business! Research by psychologist Kristin Laurin (University of Waterloo) and colleagues suggests that this may be people’s thought process. That is, belief in God can lower people’s motiviation to engage in altruistic punishment and to support punishment by the government.

The evolution of social conservatism

STOPThe gap between liberals and conservatives may be wider than most people suspect. The differences between them consist not simply of disagreements over how to resolve certain political problems, but possibly also of biological make up. More specifically, research by John A. Terrizzi Jr. (West Virginia University) and colleagues suggests that biological mechanism that evolved to keep people away from disease-ridden things may encourage social conservatism.

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