December 19, 2014

Chia-wa Yeh:stanford-reportAltruism and Social Experiences
A pair of Stanford psychologists has conducted experiments that indicate altruism has environmental triggers, and is not something we are simply born with. (Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service)

What Makes Kids Generous?
University of Chicago developmental neuroscientists have found specific brain markers that predict generosity in children. Those neural markers appear to be linked to both social and moral evaluation processes. There are many sorts of prosocial behaviors. Although young children are natural helpers, their perspective on sharing resources tends to be selfish. Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, and Jason Cowell, a postdoctoral scholar in Decety’s Child NeuroSuite lab, wanted to find out how young children’s brains evaluate whether to share something with others out of generosity. (Jann Ingmire, UChicago News)

Are Christian Americans More Likely to Support Torture Than Those Who Are Nonreligious?
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that Americans, by a 59-31 percent margin, believe that CIA “treatment of suspected terrorists” in detention was justified. A plurality deemed that “treatment” to be “torture,” by a 49-38 percent margin. Remarkably, the gap between torture supporters and opponents widens between voters who are Christian and those who are not religious. (Sarah Posner, Religion Dispatches)

Religion at Work
Brent Lyons, assistant professor of management and organization studies at Simon Fraser University, in Canada, led a team of researchers who found that employees who discuss their religious beliefs at work are oftentimes happier. “Being able to openly express important aspects of one’s life at work can positively influence job satisfaction,” Lyons says. “However, sometimes individuals feel that their workplace is not open to expressing religion.” ( Max Ufberg, Pacific Standard)

The Latest on the Acid-Bath Stem Cell Papers
A Japanese team announced Friday in Tokyo that it has been unable to reproduce a new, astoundingly simple way of generating pluripotent stem cells, despite working directly with the lead author on the Nature papers reporting the breakthrough method. That researcher, Haruko Obokata, also today resigned from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, home of most of the team conducting the research. (Dennis Normile, ScienceInsider, Science)

Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities

“Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities” is a day-long national conference that will bring together leaders in science and religion—including Nobel Prize winning physicist William D. Phillips, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, DoSER director Jennifer Wiseman, and National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson—to foster dialogue between scientific and religious communities, and to plan a course for future conversation. The conference program is still developing, but includes dynamic speakers, enriching topical discussion tracks, lunch sponsored by AAAS, and a concluding reception. Registration is open! (AAAS)

December 18, 2014

stanford-report:Jedsada Kiatpornmongkol : ShutterstockThe “Cultural Kindling” of Spiritual Experience
Culture makes a significant difference in how people experience spirituality, according to new Stanford research. Christians might “kindle” or generate different kinds of spiritual experiences than Buddhists because their cultural understandings of these mental or bodily sensations are different, said Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropology professor and co-author of a new article in Current Anthropology. “We suggest that phenomenological experience is always the result of the interaction between expectation, cultural invitation, spiritual practice and bodily responsiveness,” she wrote. Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. (Clifton B. Parker, Stanford Report)

More on Mirror Neurons
In the early 1990s, a team of neuroscientists reported a new class of brain cells in the macaque monkey and the mirror neuron theory took off. It’s been used to explain many aspects of what it is to be human, including empathy, imitation, and even autism. Lynne Malcolm explores whether it’s a theory that has been oversold. (All In The Mind, RN, Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Hug It Out
Carnegie Mellon University researchers tested whether hugs act as a form of social support, protecting stressed people from getting sick. Their findings, as published in the journal Psychological Science, found that the physical act of hugging was associated with less stress-induced infections and less severe illness symptoms. Psychologist Sheldon Cohen and his team chose to study hugging as an example of social support because hugs are typically a marker of having a more intimate and close relationship with another person. (Rick Nauert, Psych Central)

Science and Judaism Workshop
What are the concerns and opportunities at the intersection of science and Judaism? This was the question at the heart of a workshop hosted by AAAS DoSER in New York City November 11. With assistance from Sinai and Synapses (an organization founded in 2013 to improve the tenor of science/religion dialogue), a diverse group of Jewish leaders and scientists gathered for a full day of conversation at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Part of the Perceptions Project, this workshop sought to seed ideas for future collaboration between scientists and Jewish communities rather than resolve tensions that a joint AAAS/Rice University survey showed rarely exist. (Christine A. Scheller, AAAS)

• Do You Accept Science, or Judaism? Yes. (Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, Sinai and Synapses)

December 17, 2014

NASA:JPL-Caltech:MSSSMethane on Mars
A year after reporting that NASA’s Curiosity rover had found no evidence of methane gas on Mars, all but dashing hopes that organisms might be living there now, scientists reversed themselves on Tuesday. Curiosity has now recorded a burst of methane that lasted at least two months. For now, scientists have just two possible explanations for the methane. One is that it is the waste product of certain living microbes. (Kenneth Chang, The New York Times)

Expressing Fear, Sympathy, and Solidarity During a Tragedy
Thanks to Twitter hashtags like #prayforpeshawar and #illridewithyou—a sign of anti-Islamaphobia—social media can help bring a sense of camaraderie and togetherness to people from around the world. But, it seems, when speaking about empathy, the personal touch is still best. A recent study in the European Physical Journal Data Science assessed emotional reactions on Twitter over another tragedy—the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing—and found a link between firsthand experience and compassion on social media. (Max Ufberg, Pacific Standard)

One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence
Scientists have begun what they say will be a century-long study of the effects of artificial intelligence on society, including on the economy, war, and crime, officials at Stanford University announced Monday. The project, hosted by the university, is unusual not just because of its duration but because it seeks to track the effects of these technologies as they reshape the roles played by human beings in a broad range of endeavors. (John Markoff, The New York Times)

Tim Kasser

Would the holidays be the same without some materialism in the mix? In today’s consumer society, what does it mean to be materialistic, and is that necessarily a bad thing? Psychologists have conducted research that has helped answer those questions and many more. Tim Kasser is a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, specializing in materialism and well-being. (American Psychological Association)

Explaining Evolution With Emoji

Bill Nye the Science Guy popped by Mashable’s “The Watercooler” to explain the origin of life. Using the awesome explanatory power of emoji, Bill gives a rundown of how evolution is possible in under two minutes. (Ana Swanson, Know More, Wonkblog, The Washington Post)

December 16, 2014

pew-research-centerMost Say Religious Holiday Displays on Public Property Are OK
A majority of Americans believe the historical accuracy of the biblical Christmas story and also look forward to gathering with friends and family for the holidays. (Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project)

Using Body Illusions and Virtual Reality to Reduce Implicit Racial Bias
The researchers found that if people got the chance to physically experience their own body with different skin colors (or ages and sexes), their unconscious biases against other racial groups could be diminished. This isn’t merely a question of changing mentality or perception. The experience of “living” in different skin triggers sensory signals in the brain that allow it to expand its understanding of what a body can look like. This can “cause people to change their attitudes about others,” wrote the study’s co-researcher, Mel Slater, a part-time professor of virtual environments at the University College London and research professor at the University of Barcelona. (Anna Almendrala and Macrina Cooper-White, The Huffington Post)

Wu Wei
When you’re nervous, how can you be yourself? How can you force yourself to relax? How can you try not to try? It makes no sense, but the paradox is essential to civilization, according to Edward Slingerland. He has developed, quite deliberately, a theory of spontaneity based on millenniums of Asian philosophy and decades of research by psychologists and neuroscientists. He calls it the paradox of wu wei, the Chinese term for “effortless action.” Pronounced “ooo-way,” it has similarities to the concept of flow, that state of effortless performance sought by athletes, but it applies to a lot more than sports. Wu wei is integral to romance, religion, politics, and commerce. (John Tierney, The New York Times)

Recognizing Non-Human Culture
Philippa Brakes: Something momentous happened in conservation circles last month in Ecuador. At the UN Convention on Migratory Species conference, a resolution was passed recognizing that some social mammals have culture. Sure, the idea of non-human culture has been around for years. But this is the first time that it has been formally recognized by an international treaty. And beyond acknowledging that it isn’t just humans that have socially learned traditions, this treaty opens up a new frontier for efforts to conserve social species. (New Scientist)

The Math and Science of Latkes
(at the Latke-Hamentash Debates)

Tania Lombrozo: The debates feature regalia-clad academics marshaling all the rigor of their disciplines in support of one holiday treat over another: latkes, the fried-potato American Hanukkah staple; or hamantaschen, a triangular-shaped pastry associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim. In years past, latkes and hamantaschen have been defended (or vilified) using appeals to topology, string theory, literary theory, history, and more. This year’s University of Chicago debate, held on Nov. 25, featured a chemist, a historian of religion, an economist, a physicist, a mathematician, and a professor of Slavic studies. (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

Join the Conversation


Twitter Search Feed: @scireltoday

Expert Opinion

From Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist and researcher who examines the relationship between religion and society:

In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade (because their Religion 1 poll in 1991 asked different questions in far fewer countries, it is not very longitudinally useful).

% Don’t believe in God % Theists overall % No doubt God exists
1998           2008 1998          2008 1998           2008
Great Britain 9.6              17.7 46.2           36 22.5            16.8
Austria 6.8              9.3 51.3           40.8 32.4            20.8
Netherlands 17.2            19.8 44.2           36.7 26.4            21.1
Australia 10.2            15.6 52.2           43.5 28.6            25.1
Norway 11.7            17.7 42.5           37 18.4            15
Ireland 2.4              4 77.3           67.5 49.8            45.1
New Zealand 7.9              12.5 52.9           46.4 30.9            28.2
Spain 8.6              9.7 64.7           59.5 45.8            39.2
Italy 4.1              5.3 73.5           69.5 48               42.9
Sweden 16.8            19.5 25.8           24.9 12.3            10.3
France 19.1            21.9 38.8           37.3 20.1            17.5
Denmark 14.7            18.4 34              33.4 13.6            13.4
United States 3.2              2.8 77.5           78.2 62.8            61.3
Switzerland 4.3              8.5 44.5           45.1 28.3            28.8
Germany west 12.1            10.5 41.3           48.1 23.4            27.2
Germany east 54               53 15.7           16.5 9.4              8
Japan 10.6            8.7 13.2           16.4 4                 4.4
Northern Ireland 3.7              6.8 74.4           67.4 50               45.2
Portugal 1.9              4 84.8           72.9 60               54.4
Czech Republic 20.3            37.3 30.4           23.9 17.1            23.9
Hungary 12.8            15.3 51.6           42.4 31.1            23.2
Latvia 9.2              18.3 38.9           36.9 22.9            21.7
Poland 2.4              3.3 81             76.4 70.5            62.9
Russia 19.7            6.1 40.2           58.2 23.8            33.9
Slovakia 11.1            10.4 56.7           59.8 40.8            41.6
Slovenia 14.2            13.6 39.4           40.7 22.9            24.2
Chile 1.5              1.7 91.4           90.5 81.4            82.3
Cyprus 1.6              1.9 84.8           70.2 65               59
Philippines 0.7              0.8 82.3           92.5 79               82.7

(Note: Bold lines indicate an increase in atheism. First World countries are ordered starting with largest decrease in overall theists and progressing downward.)

A complaint I have about the new ISSP survey is that it failed to requery on opinion on the Bible in a large number of countries, including the United States (!), leaving us unable to reaffirm the Gallup record of a strong long-term decline in American biblical literalism. Nor did it repeat the question on regular attendance at religious services, another serious loss of longitudinal sampling that will hopefully be corrected in 2018.

Because there are only two samples, at each end of the 10 years, the trends for a given country must be taken with a dose of demographic salt, especially when the difference is not statistically significant. Even what looks like a major shift in a particular nation may be a statistical fluke. If there were no general overall pattern apparent, there would be little change to report.
Read the rest of this entry »

Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

Sign Up for Our News Feed

Delivered by FeedBurner

Get Involved

Become a fan