Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

The evolution of egalitarianism

Equal FriendsSurvival of the fittest. Extinction of the weak. And yet, egalitarianism. Evolution, which seems driven by forces that only make the strong stronger, has selected for egalitarianism in humans. Why and how exactly it has done this remains a difficult puzzle. Evolutionary biologist Sergey Gavrilets (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) has constructed mathematical models that suggest that the reason why egalitarianism evolved is because of purely selfish tendencies.

The social power of prayer

Prayer excuseResearch has yet to show the medical efficacy of prayer. If prayer doesn't increase the chances of getting the thing prayed for, then it would seem to be of little use. However, prayer has more than a merely miracle-seeking function — it also has an important social function. Looking at the social function of prayer, sociologist Shane Sharp (Northern Illinois University) found that people use prayer to justify problematic or questionable actions.

How culture gives birth to gods

TheophanyAnybody with kids can tell you that childbirth is full of uncertainties. Should the nursery be painted light green or yellow? Will the delivery be covered by insurance? What’s the best method of parenting? And, most importantly…how did this happen!? Unfortunately, Science On Religion isn’t here to answer any of those concerns. If you’ve had similar questions regarding the birth of a god, however, you’re in luck. Much of the current work in the biocultural study of religion (BCSR: a multidisciplinary field covering such disciplines as neuroscience, evolutionary biology, moral psychology, political science, and others) focuses on just this event – that is, how supernatural entities are generated and maintained in a society.

Religion boosts self-control

WillpowerIn the never-ending quest of figuring out why religion evolved, many have proposed that religion enhances group fitness. If correct, then researchers should be able to point to exact benefits that religion provides. Research by psychologist Kevin Rounding and his colleagues at Queen’s University, Canada, does just that: it suggests that religion replenishes self-control, and, more specifically, increases evolutionarily favorable traits such as enduring discomfort, delaying gratification, exerting patience, and refraining from impulsive responses.

Smaller religious group means stronger religious identity

Group of girlsGetting “lost in the crowd” can provide a great amount of protection. Rather than being exposed, one can hide behind numbers. However, as this crowd grows, any one person will be less likely to personally identify with that crowd. The same applies to religion. Research by psychologists William Hoverd (University of Ottawa), Quentin Atkinson, and Chris Sibley (both University of Auckland) suggests that members of religious groups that make up 1.5% or less of the population have strong religious identifications, while those of group that make up over 6% of the population have weak religious identifications.

Can God's wrath really make us behave?

Punishing GodIf your childhood was anything like most people’s, then the boogeyman lurked behind every bump and creak in the night. Although this fear probably started as the product of an overactive imagination, it was almost definitely exaggerated by our most trusted associates. That is, otherwise well-meaning parents often intentionally draw upon such creatures to help them maintain peace in the household (just remember the dire fate awaiting anyone brazen enough to refuse those green beans). Many cognitive psychologists have posited a similar role for the supernatural entities associated with religion. However, a recent study questions the impact such entities actually have on a person’s behavior.

The rise of "new age" spirituality in secular society

New Age photoSweden is one of the most secular societies in the world (at least in terms of participation in church activities), yet, despite its strong secularism, New Age-style spiritualities continue to grow there at a rapid rate. Concerned with this new trend, religious studies scholar Anne-Christine Hornborg (Linköping University) has found five characteristics that these spiritualities have in common: (1) individual-centered rituals, (2) focus on realizing the “authentic self,” (3) self-appointed leaders, (4) an emotionally intense, radical transformation of the self, and (5) commercialization.

Chinese philosophy teaches us about learning processes

ConfuciusAccording to one Eastern philosopher, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” Um, what? If that reaction sounds familiar, you’re not alone. This perplexing quotation refers to the concept of wuwei (pronounced woo-way), often defined as “action without action” or “effortless action.” Understood in a Confucian context, however, wuwei can only be achieved after a lifetime of arduous training. But this raises the question: how is it that “effortless action” can take so much effort to learn? Recent research in the field of cognitive psychology sheds light on the issue, suggesting that this notion, though counterintuitive, may accurately describe the mental processes involved in learning.

Belief in hell leads to heaven

Good angel bad devilReligious belief supposedly has a positive influence on ethical behavior. Religious people should not steal, kill, lie, or cheat, and therefore countries with high levels of religiosity should have lower crime rates. As it turns out, research by psychologists Azim Shariff (University of Oregon) and Mijke Rhemtulla (University of Kansas) suggests that countries do experience lower crime rates when their people have a strong belief in hell – but when they have a strong belief in heaven, crime rates actually increase.

Religious setting, not belief, makes you good

Church signTales are told about the Buddha’s profound compassion and about Christ’s universal concern for the underprivileged in society. Amidst an abundance of other examples, these stories describe some of the ways that religion is thought to function as a positive influence in society. Theorists such as Freud, Durkheim, and Turner have also portrayed religion in similar terms, suggesting its capacity to provide some form of social stability. Empirical research on the subject indicates a more complicated story, however, with some beginning to question the relationship between religious belief and positive social behavior. Instead, they suggest another aspect of religion that might play an even bigger role.

Bowling for Nazism

NazismMore than 80 years on, the question of how the Nazis came into power continues to be an intriguing one. After all, in order to prevent something like that from happening in the future, one must learn from history. Unfortunately, it turns out that many qualities that would otherwise contribute positively to society can also work against it! More specifically, as researchers Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtlaender, and Hans-Joachim Voth argue, social capital – that is, participation in things like civic and church groups – greatly facilitated the rise of Nazism and the fall of democratic Germany.

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