Leonard Mlodinow on the S&R Relationship

leonard-mlodinow“I think that this dichotomy is something that is fairly recent. First of all, when the brain evolved to have the capacity to ask such questions, to understand abstractions, and to be curious, one of the first things we started doing was asking these spiritual questions. Humans used to live as nomads wandering around and leaving their sick behind to die and leaving the bodies behind, because they couldn’t carry them with,” Leonard Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist and author, tells Business Insider.

“And then the first human settlements in the Agricultural Revolution, where we domesticated plants and animals and started living in one place, was really driven by these spiritual questions and the desire to be near our departed loved ones. And that’s where we really started to ask questions about the world around us. In fact, chemistry came from embalming people trying to preserve the bodies, and so science grew out of those spiritual questions. The first scientists were doing science to try to get closer to God.”

June 1, 2015

Pope FrancisThe Catholic Church and Climate Change
From Galileo to genetics, the Roman Catholic Church has danced with science, sometimes in a high-tension tango but more often in a supportive waltz. Pope Francis is about to introduce a new twist: global warming. (Seth Borenstein, Associated Press)

Budgies Yawn Contagiously
“Contagious yawning by itself is not exactly empathy, but it hints at the tendency to mimic and synchronize with the bodies of others,” says Frans de Waal of Emory University in Georgia. “This process is probably the basis of mammalian empathy.” De Waal thinks this is a good starting point for examining empathy in other types of animal. “Until now, most empathy research has been on mammals,” he says. “Empathy may turn out to be a mechanism even more widespread than we think, which is all the more remarkable given that it was thought just one or two decades ago that empathy was uniquely human.” (Penny Sarchet, New Scientist)

The Oldest Known Murder
The study doesn’t just show evidence of a murder hundreds of thousands of years old; it also points toward early use of a primitive cemetery. (Sam Sanders, The Two-Way, NPR)

Why Do We Experience Awe?
Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner: Years ago, one of us, Professor Keltner, argued (along with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt) that awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. Through many activities that give us goose bumps—collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship—awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong. Now, recent research of ours, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, provides strong empirical support for this claim. (The New York Times)

John Horgan on Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne and Private Doubt, Public Dilemma by Keith Thomson. (The Wall Street Journal)

Jerry Coyne

Talking from the University of Chicago, where he is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, he explains why new scientific discoveries are undermining the claims of religion; why Stephen Jay Gould was wrong; and how U.S. law is not doing enough to protect children from being martyrs to their parents’ faith. (Simon Worrall, National Geographic)

May 14, 2015

America’s Changing Religious LandscapeAmerica’s Changing Religious Landscape
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. (Pew Research Center)

How Might Feeling Invisible Affect Our Moral Thinking?
Arvid Guterstam: I personally don’t think invisibility will affect our moral nature. But it’s an open question that we now can test by using this illusion, and I’m excited to see the results. (SABQ)

New Dimensions in Testimony Project
The project’s first subject was Pinchas Gutter, a Holocaust survivor, who was asked to tell his story, then was asked hundreds of follow-up questions. A computer cataloged and analyzed his responses, and when the story is complete, viewers can simply ask their own questions and a suitable answer will be selected and played back by the lifelike hologram. This allows not just for stories to be experienced as if the teller is physically there, complete with gestures and expressions, but also for those hearing it to further investigate in a natural way. (Devin Coldewey, TODAY)

April 28, 2015

James St John, CC BYEven Setting Evolution Aside, Basic Geology Disproves Creationism
David Montgomery: In the ongoing conflict between science and creationism, evolution is usually a main point of contention. The idea that all life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor is a major problem for creationists. As a geologist, though, I think that the rocks beneath our feet offer even better arguments against creationism. For the creationist model doesn’t square with what you can see for yourself. And this has been known since before Darwin wrote a word about evolution. (The Conversation)

Ethical Debate Over Editing the Genomes of Human Embryos
In the wake of the first ever report that scientists have edited the genomes of human embryos, experts cannot agree on whether the work was ethical. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

More on the Conflict Over Observatories at Mauna Kea
In Hawaii, a battle is going on over the future of a mountaintop. Native Hawaiians say it’s sacred ground, while astronomers say it’s the best place in the world to build a massive, 18-story telescope. This is not simply a story of religion versus science. Activists consider the construction of a giant telescope on the island of Hawaii to be a desecration of their sacred land. (Molly Solomon, Morning Edition, NPR)

New Reality Show Will Look at Generosity and Values
If somebody gave you $100,000, would you keep all the money for yourself, or share it with another needy family? That’s the setup for The Briefcase, a new reality show coming to CBS. And if you think that premise is tricky, wait until you hear the twist. “We’re testing the human spirit,” says executive producer Dave Broome (NBC’s The Biggest Loser). “These days, with paychecks shrinking, we wanted to tackle human values in a way in a big and loud way.” (James Hibberd, Entertainment Weekly)

Frederic Lenoir

Frederic Lenoir’s Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide was a best seller when it was released in France last fall, and this month, it’s been published here, in English, courtesy of Melville House. Lenoir, a magazine editor, France Culture radio host, and professor at the elite L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, spoke on the phone from Paris about American culture’s contentment problem, happiness science, and The Bachelor. (David Marchese, Science of Us, New York Magazine)

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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.
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Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

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