October 21, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationMotivated by Love or Hate?
Asked why some of their fellow citizens supported bombing in Gaza, Israelis reported they were 35 percent more motivated by love for fellow Israelis than hate, while they thought just about the reverse for Palestinians’ motivations for firing rockets into Israel. Palestinians, meanwhile, ascribed more hate than love to Israelis, though they thought fellow Palestinians were about equally motivated by love and hate. An additional survey of 498 Israelis found that the more they perceived differences in the two parties’ motivations, the less likely they were to support negotiations, vote for a peace deal, or believe that Palestinians would support such a deal. (Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard)

Are Factual and Religious Belief The Same?
Tania Lombrozo: Consider the following two statements of “belief”:
Devon believes that humans evolved from earlier primates over 100,000 years ago.
Devon believes that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago.
These claims are clearly at odds. Since they can’t both be true, Devon holds contradictory beliefs. Right? Maybe not. A new paper by philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen offers a third possibility: That factual belief isn’t the same as religious belief. Even though we use the same word, our attitudes towards their respective propositions—that humans evolved thousands and thousands of years ago, that humans were created quite recently—could differ considerably. (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

Seeking Stars, Finding Creationism
George Johnson: Congeries of stars have given way to congeries of galaxies, but astronomy—one of the grandest achievements of the human race—is still fending off charges of blasphemy. These days the opposition comes not from the Vatican, which operates its own observatory, but from a people with very different religious beliefs. (The New York Times)

The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct

Alun Anderson: I came away excited. I found that words aren’t so much things that can be limited by a dictionary definition but are encyclopedic, pointing to sets of concepts. There is the intriguing notion that language will always be less rich than our ideas and there will always be things we cannot quite express. And there is the growing evidence that words are rooted in concepts built out of our bodily experience of living in the world. (New Scientist)

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment

Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener: The good news is that a whole range of negativity—of beneficial negativity, mind you—has nothing to do with being a jerk. Negative emotions can also help you focus on the situation at hand. When you are about to drill a hole in the wall, chances are that you pay close attention to the measurements involved as well as to the position of your hand. The anxiety associated with the downside risk encourages you to drill in exactly the right spot. (Science of Us, New York Magazine)

October 20, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationDoes Everything Happen for a Reason?
Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom: Where does this belief come from? One theory is that it reflects religious teachings—we think that events have meaning because we believe in a God that plans for us, sends us messages, rewards the good and punishes the bad. But research from the Yale Mind and Development Lab, where we work, suggests that this can’t be the whole story. (The New York Times)

Voodoo Death
Scientists are just beginning to understand how cultural beliefs can lead to psychological stress, illness, and even death. American physiologist Walter Cannon was one of the first people to write about the potentially fatal consequences of these intense beliefs. In 1942, reports were streaming in from around the world about “voodoo” death: South American Tupinamba men, condemned by medicine men, died of fright. Hausa people in Niger withered away after being told they were bewitched. Aboriginal tribesmen in Australia, upon seeing an enemy pointing a hexed bone at them, went into convulsions and passed away. (Daphne Chen, Pacific Standard)

Mindful Commuters
As harried commuters filed aboard a Metro Red Line train at Cleveland Park—jockeying for seats, hoisting bulging tote bags—Denise Keyes gazed straight ahead, took deep breaths, and searched for inner peace. There were no lit candles, no incense, no chanting of “om.” But Keyes was meditating. Finding stillness on a subway during rush hour might sound impossible. But those who practice “mindful commuting” swear it brings tranquility to the daily misery of crowded trains, late buses, honking horns, and traffic jams. (Katherine Shaver, The Washington Post)

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande: This is a book about the modern experience of mortality—about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong. As I pass a decade in surgical practice and become middle aged myself, I find that neither I nor my patients find our current state tolerable. But I have also found it unclear what the answers should be, or even whether any adequate ones are possible. I have the writer’s and scientist’s faith, however, that by pulling back the veil and peering in close, a person can make sense of what is most confusing or strange or disturbing. (Science of Us, New York Magazine)

How Do Astronomers Find Exoplanets?

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has discovered nearly 3,000 possible exoplanets by tracking slight fluctuations in starlight to reveal their orbits. This is one of several methods employed in the hunt for the next habitable world. John Matson explains. (Scientific American)

Abraham’s Dice Conference

A note from Karl Giberson, Scholar-in-Residence in Science and Religion at Stonehill College and the organizer of the conference exploring chance and providence in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam:

Readers of Science & Religion Today may be interested in the upcoming science & religion conference at Stonehill College in Easton (Nov 16-20). The presentations are all free and open to the public, but optional conference registration includes airport pick-up, meals, shuttles to hotels, and other things. Interested parties are more than welcome to just drop by. If you would like to have meals with us, these can be arranged for a modest fee (just our cost of adding one more person), but we need to know in advance. (Email me at kgiberson@stonehill.edu)

The conference starts with a social time, dinner, and plenary talk by John Barrow on Sunday, Nov. 16. The complete program can be found here. A press release advertising the conference can be found here.

The Sunday night talk by Barrow is titled “Is the World Simple or Complicated? Chance, Uncertainty, and Unknowability in Modern Cosmology,” and raises provocative questions about how our situation in the universe—life on a stable, habitable planet around the right kind of star—is the result of both interacting physical laws and billions of years of happenstance. Barrow is a major British intellectual, chaired professor at Cambridge, and author of many provocative books and over 500 papers in cosmology. Sunday will also be our most extensive dinner on campus.

October 17, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationYoga Can Decrease PTSD Symptoms in Military Veterans
The new study is the first of its kind to provide scientific support for the benefits of yoga’s breathing techniques for PTSD patients in a randomized and controlled (though small) long-term study which monitored effects of yoga over the course of the year. The study focused on the effects of sudarshan kriya yoga, a practice of breathing-based meditation which has a balancing effect on the autonomic nervous system. (Flora Lisica, The Conversation)

Do Teams Have a Superstar Saturation Point?
They’re talking about sports teams, but their finding can be extrapolated to include any unit that needs to function as a well-integrated whole. Or, as the researchers explain it: “Just as a colony of high performance chickens competing for dominance suffers decrements in overall egg production and increases in bird mortality, teams with too much talent appear to divert attention away from coordination as team members peck at each other in their attempts to establish intragroup standing.” (Laura Entis, Entrepreneur.com)

Buddha Pears
Nowadays we can produce pears that look exactly like fat little buddhas, complete with folded arms, plump tummies, and meditative smiles. The secret is a plastic mold made by China’s Fruit Mould Company. (Rebecca Rupp, The Plate, National Geographic)

David Weintraub

Now that researchers have discovered more than 1,500 exoplanets beyond the solar system, the day when scientists detect signs of life on one of them may be near at hand. Given this new urgency, Vanderbilt University astronomer David Weintraub decided to find out what the world’s religions had to say on the question of aliens. In his new book, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?, Weintraub investigates the implications of life beyond Earth on more than two dozen faiths. Scientific American spoke to him about his findings, including whether Jesus saved the Klingons as well as humanity. (Clara Moskowitz, Scientific American)

Fight Church

Can you love your neighbor as you punch him in the face? That’s one question posed by Fight Church, a documentary that will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Monday during an event hosted by the Science, Religion, and Culture Program at Harvard Divinity School. The film, directed by Academy Award-winner Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, is about the confluence of Christianity and mixed martial arts. It follows several pastors in a quest to reconcile their faith with a sport that some consider barbaric. HDS reached out to Storkel, who will participate in a Q&A session after the screening, with some questions about the movie and the rise of martial arts ministries. (Michael Naughton, Harvard Gazette)

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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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