Tag Archives: religion

Are the brains of atheists different to those of religious people?

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Credit: Pixabay.

The cognitive study of religion has recently reached a new, unknown land: the minds of unbelievers. Do atheists think differently from religious people? Is there something special about how their brains work? To illustrate what they’ve found, I will focus on three key snapshots.

The first one, from 2003, is probably the most photogenic moment of “neuro-atheism”. Biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins travelled to the lab of Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger in the hope of having a religious experience. In this BBC Horizon film, God on the Brain, a retro science-fiction helmet was placed on Dawkins head. This “god helmet” generated weak magnetic fields, applied to the temporal lobes.

Persinger had previously shown that this kind of stimulation triggered a wide range of religious phenomena – from sensing the presence of someone invisible to prompting out-of-body experiences. With Dawkins, though, the experiment failed. As it turned out, Persinger explained, Dawkins’ temporal lobe sensitivity was “much, much lower” than is common in most people.

The idea that the temporal lobes may be the seat of religious experience has been around since the 1960s. But this was the first time that the hypothesis was extended to explain the lack of religious experience based on the lower sensitivity of a brain region. Despite the exciting possibility of testing this hypothesis with a larger sample of atheists, it remains to be done.

The second snapshot takes us to 2012. Three articles published by labs in the USA and Canada presented the first evidence linking an analytical, logical thinking style to unbelief. Psychologists have been theorising about different ways that brains process information for a long time: conscious versus unconscious, reflective versus experiential, analytical versus intuitive. These are linked to activity in certain brain areas, and can be triggered by stimuli including art. The researchers asked participants to contemplate Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker, and then assessed their analytical thinking and disbelief in god. They found that those who had viewed the sculpture performed better on the analytical thinking task and reported less belief in god than people who hadn’t seen the image.

In the same year, a Finnish lab published the results of a study where their scientists tried to provoke atheists into thinking supernaturally by presenting them with a series of short stories and asking if the punchline was a “sign of the universe” (interpreting something as a “sign” is more supernatural than interpreting something as, for example, a coincidence). They did this while scanning their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The more the participants suppressed supernatural thinking, the stronger the activation of the right inferior frontal gyrus was. We know this area is involved in cognitive inhibition, an ability to refrain from certain thoughts and behaviours.

Together, these studies suggest that atheists have a propensity to engage more in analytical or reflective thinking. If believing in gods is intuitive, then this intuition can be overridden by more careful thinking. This finding certainly raised the possibility that the minds of atheists are simply different from those of believers.

Replication crisis

So how robust are the findings? In 2015, a “replication crisis” hit the field of psychology. It turned out that the results of many classic studies couldn’t be achieved when running them again. The psychology of religion and atheism was no exception.

The experiment with Rodin’s Thinker was the first to be investigated. Three new studies were conducted with larger samples than the original — and they all failed to replicate the original results. With one sample, they found the very opposite: contemplating the Thinker increased religious belief.

One possible limitation with the original studies is that they had all been undertaken in the USA. Could culture act in such a decisive way that the analytical cognitive style associated with atheism in one country might be nonexistent elsewhere? The author of the original Rodin study attempted to answer this in a new study which included individuals from 13 countries. The results confirmed that a cognitive analytical style was only linked to atheism in three countries: Australia, Singapore and the USA.

In 2017, a double-blind study was carried out to test in a more robust way the link between unbelief and cognitive inhibition. Instead of using brain imaging to see which area lit up, they used a brain stimulation technique to directly stimulate the area responsible for cognitive inhibition: the right inferior frontal gyrus. Half of the participants, however were given a fake stimulus. The results showed that the brain stimulation worked: participants who had it achieved better in a cognitive inhibition task. However, this had no effect on decreasing supernatural belief.

The complexity of atheism

The third snapshot is this one: a man is standing against a background which looks like a church. He appears to be doing the sign of the cross with his right hand while his left hand rests on his heart. He is a priest – but not of any church that believes in gods: he presides over the Positivist Temple of Humanity, a church for atheists and agnostics created by August Comte in the 19th century. This priest is not doing the sign of cross but the Positivist blessing.

Together with photographer Aubrey Wade, I stumbled upon this active temple in the south of Brazil, while collecting data for a large ongoing project involving over 20 labs across the world: Understanding Unbelief.

Finding an active church of unbelievers dedicated to the love of humanity — its golden principle being “live for others” — ruptured how I thought of atheists and the boundary separating them from the religious. And this has implications for how we develop studies in this area. When doing experiments with believers we can use multiple stimuli, from religious images to music, to trigger a religious effect or cognition in the lab. But finding an equivalent for unbelievers has proved hard.

One brain imaging study conducted at Oxford University compared an image of the Virgin Mary with that of a regular woman, both painted in the same period. Researchers found that when Roman Catholics concentrated on the Virgin Mary while being subjected to electric shocks, this alleviated their perception of pain compared to looking at the other woman. This decrease in pain was associated with an engagement of the right ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex, a region known to drive pain inhibitory circuits.

No similar effect was found for the unbelievers, although they rated the secular image as more pleasant than the religious one. But what if the unbelievers being tested were members of the Positivist Temple and were instead shown an image of their goddess of humanity — would this have alleviated pain in a similar way to that experienced by the religious individuals?

The future cognitive science of atheism will have to think hard about how to move forward. It needs to develop models that account for cultural variations as well as consider the implications of atheists engaging with rituals that celebrate humanity.The Conversation

Miguel Farias, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion, came to be

Religion has fallen from grace in many parts of the world today. Secularism seems to be the name of the modern game.

Ganesh or Ganapati, the elephant-headed god, is one of the most important hindu dieties.
image credits Pijarn Jangsawang.

But religion undeniably had a huge effect on the path of history. People argued, fought, and died over which god or gods are the ‘right’ ones. Kings and priests bickered over what gives one the right to rule, and would generally try to grab power from the other. On a more communal or personal level, religion and spirituality shaped our customs and the way each culture and individual views the world around them.

Given its massive impact on history, religion is always an interesting topic of conversation. We’ve talked about the origins of religion in general. Today, let’s build on that general picture with a more in-depth look at the oldest religion we know of: Hinduism.

Origins

To the best of our knowledge, the story of Hinduism starts around 3500 years ago. One of the best shorthands for understanding this religion is that the word ‘hindu’ — which itself is an exonym, a name by which outsiders refer to something — is used to describe people or cultural elements that come from the Indian subcontinent. Its very name, then, means ‘the Indian’ faith.

It’s quite uncommon among today’s religions: it has no known founder. Its oldest roots probably formed as Indo-Aryan peoples migrated into the Indus Valley, thus mixing their language and culture with those of the indigenous Harappan people. On the other hand, it’s possible that this incursion was what ultimately collapsed the Harappan civilization.

File:Indus Valley Civilization, Mature Phase (2600-1900 BCE).png
Image via Wikimedia.

Whichever way that meeting went down, it does suggest that Hinduism is the cultural successor of the beliefs and customs of ancient Indus Valley peoples.

It is believed that Hinduism emerged in the area near modern-day Pakistan between 2300 BC and 1500 BC as a collage of philosophies, cultural elements, religious texts, rituals, and customs that had merged together. Many adherents to the faith, however, say it has always existed — in fact, one of the names they know their own faith by is “the eternal way”.

Today, Hinduism is the third-largest religion on the planet. Its most important texts are known as the Vedas and were composed between about 1500 BC and 500 BC. This span of time, which came to be known as the Vedic Period, mostly emphasized rituals including chanting and sacrifices. During the later Epic, Puranic, and Classic Periods (which collectively lasted until 500 AD), the worship of deities became a central part of the faith, along with the concept of dharma.

Early evolution

The Vedic period of Hinduism (1500-500 BC) mostly saw a fleshing out of the philosophies and ideas that were already part of the faith.

Archivo:Early Vedic Culture (1700-1100 BCE).png
Image via Wikimedia.

It was a time of much debate and growth inside the Hindu faith. The Vedic teachings coagulated inside the hearts and minds of pastoral, nomadic tribes while they started shifting towards agriculture — a period of dramatic social change.

Given these times of change it’s perhaps not surprising that Hinduism (note: it was still the Vedic faith) at this time was trying to move in two different directions. On the one hand, the numerous and elaborate sets of rituals that are still part of Hinduism to this day started to form. Other Hindus were moving the faith more into the abstract, pondering on the meaning and purpose of their rituals and internalizing them as ethical tenets. This latter group formed the groundwork of the Buddhist and Jainist faiths which branched out from the Vedic body.

Brahmanism emerged during this time — Brahmins are a priestly class (varna) in India’s caste system. This branch of Hinduism drew from both Vedic and post-Vedic texts, and placed emphasis on ritual and the dominant position of Brahmins. They would lose much of their power in the coming centuries due, in particular, to higher urbanization and outside influences (such as Alexander the Great’s Indian Campaign). Another factor that challenged the Vedic faith was a growing ascetic movement closely linked to the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism.

The Classical Period

black and orange hindu letter preview
‘Om’ or ‘Aum’, is a sacred sound in Hindu belief and their most important spiritual symbol. It signifies “the essence of the ultimate reality” and was first mentioned in the Upanishad texts, is often found at the beginning and end of every verse. It’s also used as an incantation.
Image via Peakpx.

The rituals and beliefs of Hinduism matured between 500 BC and 300 AD, as the Vedic and Brahmin systems continued to merge. During this time, the faith also spread within India, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia along with Buddhism.

Hinduism as we know it today took religious elements from those Indo-Aryan peoples of old and incorporated them within the Vedic-Brahmin systems. Elements from the Srmanic faiths (Buddhism and Jainism) also make their way into the modern form of Hinduism.

One of the key criteria for being a Hindu today is accepting the Vedic and Upanishad texts as the basis of the faith — similar to how Christianity is inseparable from the bible.

Many of Hinduism’s most influential texts were composed during this period, likely due to higher urbanization creating the socio-economic conditions to make them possible (such as higher availability of education and wealth to support religious activity).

Up until 650 AD, during the rule of the Gupta dynasty, India is considered to have experienced a ‘golden age’. The oldest stone Hindu temples were built during this time, alongside many monasteries and universities which supported both Vedic and non-Vedic studies. The earliest version of the Puran texts were written during this time, which heavily expanded on the mythos of Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi (major Hindu deities). The Puran texts fit into the older Vedic faith, but also added to it — and they were living texts, meaning they were revised and updated over time, changing the faith as they changed.

A Hindu temple in Victoria, Seychelles.
Image credits Pascal Ohlmann.

As the Gupta collapsed, so did their empire. Religion became a local affair, leading to the regionalization of faith. Srmanic faiths both declined but were also integrated into Hinduism and courtly life (royal courts were especially involved in Buddist ritual and sponsored religious texts).

Interactions with Islam

Islam had quite a powerful impact on the history of India. The religion first arrived on the backs of Arab traders in the early 7th century, but its true effect started being felt from the 10th to 12th century as various regions of India fell under Islamic rule. Buddhism especially declined during this time, and a new culture mixing Indian and Islamic elements emerged although many ulamas (“learned Islamic jurists”) worked against the in-mixing of these two.

The Taj Mahal, one of India’s most iconic landmarks, was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, one of the most powerful Islamic rulers in India’s history as a tomb for him and his favourite wife.
Image via Pixabay.

The Islamic kingdoms of India are the last element that shaped the Hindu religion in its current form. While the two faiths generally coexisted peacefully, some violent confrontations did occur. Non-Muslims were also enslaved (especially Hindus), although this practice became less common after it was abolished in 1562 by Akbar the Great. Kalinga was one of the last real Hindu strongholds in the area during this time, keeping their religion, philosophy, art, architecture, and customs alive.

But not all Muslim leaders were as tolerant as Akbar. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, several important Hindu temples were broken down and mosques built in their place. Various rulers at various times also allowed or supported the persecution of non-Muslims, including Hindus. Some converted to Islam either for socio-economic benefit or genuine belief; in some regions, as much as 90% of the population were Muslim, although in others it was as little as 10%.

The expansion of Islam in India was blocked by the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries, which also nurtured Hindu customs and administration in its lands. The Hindu Maratha Confederacy, India’s last great empire before the British came, rose to power in the 18th century and brought the country back firmly into Hinduism.

It was during this time that scholars began considering Hinduism as we know it. Before, the individual texts and traditions of each faith were seen as more separate. These ‘saddarsana‘ now form the foundation of the Hindu religion.

Today

saraswati, sarasvati, wisdom, goddess of wisdom, hinduism, temple, sunlight, harmony, hindu, morning light, holy
Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning, part of a trinity with two others.
Image via Wikimedia.

Hinduism saw a reemergence during British rule from the 18th century in the British Raj. The British Raj was the name of the colonial government imposed in India (‘raj’ is an Indian word for ‘rule’).

The British didn’t show much academic interest in the Raj, being more concerned with milking its enormous wealth of cotton, spices, and tea. Hinduism started to receive academic scrutiny only in the 19th century, which first exposed Europe and the West to the belief.

In many ways, Hinduism didn’t really ‘exist’ until Europeans started referring to the area’s rich religious heritage as a unified set of beliefs. Those traditions were there, but they weren’t seen as a single entity the way Christianity or Islam is. It was through the eyes of Westerners trying to explain this exotic Indian faith using the concepts and systems that defined their own religion that Hinduism took the mantle of a single, unified religion.

Today, it is the third-largest religion in the world with 1.2 billion adherents worldwide — although most of them are found in southeast Asia, for example in Nepal and India. Countries that were part of the British empire, such as Canada, the USA, or South Africa also typically have Hindu populations today.

Apart from that, it’s not very widespread. In Europe, the only countries with a sizable Hindu minority are Sweden and the Netherlands. In South America, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana are the only countries where Hinduism makes up an important minority.

However, one element of Hinduism does capture the hearts and minds of trendy, educated, wealthy people all over the world — yoga.


Condensing the history of a religion such as Hinduism in a single article is a very hard task; condensing its beliefs might just be impossible.

Hinduism is enormously rich in ritual, customs, and philosophical thought. It’s also a polytheistic religion with “33 million” gods. It doesn’t actually have that many, but they do have 33 types of deities. There’s no way we can cover all of that here and keep you guys and gals awake through it, but if you do have some free time on your hands (and, given the pandemic, you probably do) delving into the beliefs of Hinduism is a very gripping, exotic, sometimes surreal experience.

It is, after all, a religion thousands of years old.

Vengeful gods may be the product of complex societies

Credit: Pixabay.

Wrathful deities that punish unlawful mortals are present in virtually all religions. But how did they appear? According to a new study, vengeful gods surfaced after societies crossed a certain complexity threshold, typically appearing in civilizations with over a million people. Such beliefs may have naturally evolved in order to improve cooperation among strangers and non-tribal members.

The gods of many people

All modern religions have some sort of punishing all-powerful figure. In Greek mythos, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock for giving fire to mankind and generally being willful and defiant. In Scandinavian culture, Loki is imprisoned deep within the earth for angering the gods, bound with the entrails of one of his sons, with a great serpent over his face that drips venom into his eyes. And one needs to look no further than the Old Testament for ample illustrative examples of God unleashing his wrath unto no-gooders.

Scholars have proposed that religions began introducing wrathful supernatural deities as a means to enforce moral codes. The ultimate punishment for disobeying just moral conduct is an eternity of damnation, what we generally refer to as ‘hell’. Most ancient-dead and modern-prevailing religions have a concept of hell. The ancient Greek had Hades, Judaism has Sheol, Islam has Jahannam, Buddhism has Naraka, Zoroastrianism has the Chinvat Bridge, and Tibetan Buddhism has the Bardo.

The idea is that religion enforces a moral code whereby just gods reward moral behavior and unjust gods (or the same god in the case of Islam or Christianity) punish the wicked — the carrot and the stick.

Some researchers have advanced the idea that supernatural enforcement of morality was facilitated by social complexity, but until now the evidence has been inconclusive.

Researchers at Keio University in Japan analyzed data from the Seshat: Global History Databank, a huge atlas of global history from the end of Paleolithic up to the Industrial Revolution. The research team looked at the relationship between social complexity and moralizing gods in 414 societies from 30 regions around the globe over the past 10,000 years. To evaluate the complexity of a society, the researchers looked at 51 measures, including the size of a settlement and the existence of a formal legal code.

The authors of the new study found that supernatural forces that punish selfish or anti-social actions consistently surface when societies passed the one million-person level. This suggests that first there were big societies, and only later did such beliefs appear.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature

There are now as many Americans who claim no religion as evangelicals or Catholics

The number of Americans who identify with “no religion” is now for the first time just as large as Catholics and evangelicals, according to a recent survey of US citizens’ religious beliefs.

Credit: Pixabay.

Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, interviewed more than 2,000 people in person for the survey. He and colleagues found that 23.1% of Americans claim no religion, comprising a group that includes atheists, agnostics, the spiritual, and just about any other person that rejects organized religion. Meanwhile, 23% of the respondents identified as Catholic and 22.5% as evangelical. This means that all three major groups are somewhat tied, bearing in mind the survey’s margin of error.

The findings reflect a rising trend in “no-religiousness” among Americans, primarily driven by millennials. Since 1991, the number of Americans who claim no religion has risen by 266%. Within six years, this group will become the largest in the country, Burge told CNN. So, it seems like the USA is catching up with some European countries whose populations have long ago transitioned towards a ‘no religion’ majority. These so-called post-Christian societies include Estonia, Sweden, and the Netherlands where between 70% and 80% of young adults categorize themselves as non-religious.

Even among people who identify with a particular religion, a large percentage aren’t necessarily involved in religious practices. A different survey found that two-thirds of American Christian young adults stopped going to church at some point between the ages of 18 and 22.

What makes more and more people feel alienated by organized religion is a matter of debate. The internet certainly has a major role to play by spreading ideas and helping people find other like-minded individuals on all sort of online communities like Reddit.

However, these findings should also be taken with a grain of salt. A lot of these people who identify as “no religion” still act pretty religiously. What do I mean by that? A recent Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults found that one-third of Americans say they do not believe in the God of the Bible, but that they do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. The same survey also found that most of the respondents who identified with ‘no religion’ believed in angels and prayed.

Then there’s a 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans, which found that 13.2% of the participants called themselves atheist or agnostic. One-third of these, however, responded affirmatively to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?” And while some might say they have ‘no religion’, these same people might be engaged in New Age spiritual practices, which are early similar to organized religion in many respects. In other words, Americans are not necessarily prepared to relinquish their supernatural beliefs but rather find it increasingly difficult to relate to traditional forms of religion.

Christ statue.

Divine punishment didn’t goad us into building civilization — it was the other way around

New research is looking into the interplay between society and moralizing, ‘big gods’ — the latter seem to be a consequence, rather than a driver, of the former.

Christ statue.

Jesus upon hearing you tipped less than 20%.
Image credits Patrick Neufelder.

Prevailing theories today, the paper explains, hold that ‘big gods’ nurtured cooperation between large groups of genetically-distinct people, in effect underpinning societies as we know them today. These deities are defined as having a powerful moralizing effect over societies — being perceived as entities that punish ethical faux-pas — thereby acting as the common moral glue holding large groups together. However, the study we’re discussing today finds that this isn’t the case. Rather, the team suggests, it’s these complex societies that produced their complex gods, not the other way around.

Of gods and men

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, one of the paper’s co-authors.

The earliest bunches of people lived in close-knit family units. They would cooperate because doing so would help ensure that their bloodline — and thus, their genes — would survive. People would try their best to keep themselves and their families alive, even if that meant raiding other family-groups (with whom they shared no genes, thus making it a-OK). It’s a very straightforward, very intuitive approach to survival and cooperation.

Since then, things have changed. We work with and for people who have no blood ties to ourselves. We share residential buildings with people we sometimes never even meet. We help fund charities for causes half the world away. If we applied the ‘me and mine’ mentality of yore, it would make perfect sense to protect our kin-group even at the expense of others. But we don’t do that. Society would run amok, and we like society. The million-dollar question (or whatever currency it is that anthropologists use; knucklebones, maybe?) is why.

Agriculture, warfare, and religion have been proposed as the main driving forces behind our need to cooperate. Such pursuits hinge on a community’s ability to work together in large numbers. Tilling the fields requires many able hands, as do raids or defense; gods, in turn, provide the moral incentives (i.e. eternal punishment) needed to hold communities together when blood-ties don’t apply.

Lord Shiva.

Nobody wants to make the boss mad. Especially when the boss is the god of war and can thus really mess up eternity for you.
Image credits Bishnu Sarangi.

But, the team wasn’t convinced. Working with data from the Seshat Global History Databank, “the most current and comprehensive body of knowledge about human history in one place” according to their website, they pitted these theories against statistical rigor. The databank contains about 300,000 records on social complexity, religion, and other characteristics of 500 past societies over 10,000 years of human history, which the team used to analyze the relationship between religion and social complexity.

If ‘big gods’ spawned complex societies, then logic dictates that they appeared in these peoples’ collective imaginations before their societies increased in complexity — or, in other words, that the fear of divine retribution coaxed people into behaving in a socially-acceptable way. The team, however, reports that this wasn’t the case.

“To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this [big god] hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.”

“Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs.”

The complexity of a society can be estimated by social characteristics such as population, territory, the sophistication of its institutions and information systems, the team explains. Religious data used in the study included the presence of beliefs in supernatural enforcement of reciprocity, fairness, and loyalty, as well as the frequency and standardization of religious rituals.

Big gods may not have spearheaded communities, the team explains, but ritual and religion definitely had a large part to play. Standardized rituals tended to appear, on average, hundreds of years before the earliest evidence of moralizing gods, they report. Where such deities would have been the proverbial stick, these rituals acted like the carrot — they gave people a sense of belonging and group identity that allowed cooperation.

Gabillou Sorcier.

Picture of a half-animal half-human in a Paleolithic cave painting in Dordogne, France. Paleoanthropologists Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Michelson take the depiction of such hybrid figures as evidence for early shamanic practices during the Paleolithic.
Image and caption credits José-Manuel Benito / Wikipedia.

The Seshat database proved invaluable in this study. It has been founded by data and social scientist Peter Turchin, together with Harvey Whitehouse and Pieter François from the University of Oxford (also a co-author of this study) in 2011. It aimed to integrate the expertise from various fields into an open-access database specifically to allow researchers to tease out cause from effect in social and historical theories, they say. Through the work of dozens of researchers the world over — who compiled data on social complexity and religious beliefs and practices from polites (communities) from 9600 BCE up to today — Seshat grew into the first databank of standardized, quantitative historical knowledge in the world.

“Seshat is an unprecedented collaboration between anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and evolutionary scientists”, says Patrick Savage, corresponding author of the article. “It shows how big data can revolutionize the study of human history.”

“[It] allows researchers to analyze hundreds of variables relating to social complexity, religion, warfare, agriculture and other features of human culture and society that vary over time and space,” explains Pieter François. “Now that the database is ready for analysis, we are poised to test a long list of theories about human history.”

One of the biggest questions the team wants to tackle (of which the present paper is the first step) is why we came to work together in societies in excess of millions of people despite lacking any genetic incentive to do so.

The paper “Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history” has been published in the journal Nature.

Miracle.

Religious material promoting humanity as stewards make Christians care more about the environment

Christians show greater concern for climate change and environmental issues in general when presented with religious material (from credible sources) that advocate humanity’s role as stewards of nature, new research reports.

Miracle.

Image via Pixabay.

A big factor shaping how Christians view environmental issues is whether they view humanity as having stewardship or dominion over the Earth, report psychologists from the University of Illinois (UoI) and the University of Warwick (UoW). Reading material advocating for either of these two views can shift those attitudes, they add, with religious material promoting a stewardship interpretation increasing concern for the environment and climate change.

Cleanliness is next to godliness

“Stewardship and dominion ideas are common among Christians. We were interested in whether these ideas, as well as having them advocated by credible or trusted sources among Christians such as the Bible or Pope Francis, had an effect on Christians’ attitudes toward the environment,” said lead author Faith Shin, a psychology graduate at the UoI.

“Religion has a powerful influence on moral concerns. Climate change is arguably the biggest challenge facing the world, and most of the world’s population identify with a religion or belief in God. It makes sense that religious beliefs should also have powerful influence on moral attitudes toward the environment,” adds Jesse Preston, a professor of psychology at UoW and paper co-author.

The team surveyed 292 (Christian) participants on their stewardship and dominion beliefs as well as their attitude towards environmental issues such as climate change. Overall, they report, viewing humanity as stewards — i.e. that God commands us to take care of the Earth and all life on it — was associated with greater concern for environmental issues. Protecting nature was perceived as a moral imperative by those who believe humans are designated stewards. Dominion beliefs, meanwhile — that God gave humanity free rein to do as they please with the Earth — were associated with lesser concern for climate change, the team adds.

They then tested to see how trusted religious sources influence participants’ interpretation of humanity’s role on Earth. In the first experiment, 588 participants were given one of three articles to read: two using the Bible to support either a stewardship or dominion belief and a control article on an unrelated topic.

“We took real Bible passages that could be interpreted as supporting one view or the other, then wrote up mock articles for the participants to read. Right after they read the passages, they answered some measures about their moral concern for climate change and their belief in climate change,” Shin said.

In the second experiment, 498 participants read articles that cited Pope Francis as a source. One group received an article quoting from the pope’s 2015 encyclical on environmental stewardship and climate change measures, the second group read an article about his stance on birth control, and the third read an unrelated control article.

People who read material promoting stewardship in both experiments showed greater moral concern for the environment and climate change compared to the control group, the team reports. Reading material supporting dominion views did not reduce these concerns in the same way.

“There appears to be more power for religious messages to enhance moral concerns for climate change than decrease these concerns, which we think is a very hopeful result,” Preston said. “When trusted religious sources endorse stewardship messages consistent with religious values, it encourages concern for climate change as a moral and religious issue.”

Next, the team hopes to study how other religious beliefs or faith systems affect their adherents’ attitudes toward climate change and the environment.

The paper “Green as the gospel: The power of stewardship messages to improve climate change attitudes” has been published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

War makes people more religious, sparking a potentially vicious cycle

War and religion — name a more iconic duo.

Image credits: David Ilff / Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Over the centuries, countless wars have been fought over religion. From Ancient times and up until the very current day, religion has often been a spark for war. But does it go the other way around too? In other words, can war make people more religious? In a new study, an international team of researchers analyzed this possibility, finding a strong connection between the two.

“Why would war increase religiosity? Here, we consider two interrelated sets of hypotheses derived from cultural evolutionary theory. First, both theory and evidence suggest that external threats cause people to adhere more tightly to social norms, including their religious beliefs and practices,” researchers write. As for the second hypothesis, “religions may have culturally evolved to specifically exploit the psychological states created by uncertainty and existential threats as a means to more effectively disseminate themselves.”

There’s even another reason why war could induce increased religiousness: the belief in gods goes hand in hand with some idea of divine protection and afterlife, which can help individuals operate in existential uncertainty and extreme danger. But whether or not this was really the case remained unclear until now.

In order to get to the bottom of things, researchers analyzed survey data from 1,709 individuals in three post-conflict societies: Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Tajikistan. The unfortunate environment of these countries makes them suitable for this type of study, and the fact that they were in different geographical areas and come from different cultures also give an extra degree of robustness to the results.

The nature and intensity of the conflicts in these countries varied substantially. However, regardless of these factors, there did seem to be a connection between war and religiosity: across all three sites, those more exposed to war were more likely to be members of religious groups and attend rituals. Even years after the conflict had ceased, people who were more affected by the war were more likely to participate in religious groups — both Christian and Muslim. The results hold even when researchers compared only individuals from the same community, ethnic group, and religion.

In other words, it doesn’t look like there’s any external factor responsible for this. It’s still a correlation and not a causation, but it there are good reasons to believe that there is a cause-effect relationship at play.

This could have important consequences. If war makes people more religious, and if religion makes people more war-prone, we have the recipe for a devastating feedback loop — which could help to at least partially explain some of the current situations in modern-day war areas.

“In conclusion, our results suggest that the experience of war-related violence increases religious engagement and ritual participation. The potential existence of these relationships has important theoretical, political and social implications,” researchers conclude.

The study “War increases religiosity” by Henrich et al. has been published in Nature Behavior.

Credit: Pixabay.

“Conservative syndrome” might explain why religious people tend to be of lower intelligence

Many studies have reported a negative correlation between religiousness and intelligence. Now, a new study suggests that social conservatism may explain the link, acting like a glue between the two.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The link between religiosity and lower intelligence is, by now, well established. In 2013, a meta-analysis of 63 studies showed a significant negative association between the two. The authors of the study proposed three possible explanations:

  1. intelligent people are less likely to conform, and thus are more likely to resist religious dogma;
  2. they also tend to be more analytical (as opposed to intuitive), a style of thinking that previous research found to undermine religious beliefs;
  3. several functions of religiosity (self-regulation, secure attachment, compensatory control) are also conferred by intelligence, so intelligent people derive the benefits of religion without having to practice it.

Building on that, in an article for Psychology Today, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains that personality type also shouldn’t be ignored when discussing propensities for religion. He argues that Openness to Experience — a personality dimension that predicts an individual’s propensity to display higher levels of intellectual curiosity, aesthetic sensitivity, and be driven by counter-conformist and rebellious attitudes — is positively correlated with tolerance for ambiguity.

A review found that this type of openness is negatively correlated with religious belief. Since people with higher Openness don’t have a strong urge for closure and are more comfortable with uncertainty, they do not derive psychological benefits from religion — which ultimately strives to eliminate ambiguity and uncertainty. This is an alternative explanation for why religion appeals more to less intelligent individuals — they are generally less open to new things.

All of these explanations can be glued together by the findings of a recent study published this week in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. According to the study, “conservative syndrome” is associated with lower intelligence, with religiosity being just a part of it. So, more broadly, people who are more conservative in their beliefs are likely to be less intelligent, and people who are more conservative tend to be religious. In this context, “syndrome” does not refer to a medical condition or disease but rather it’s a term used to describe a number of traits and dispositions associated with conservatism.

In the study, 8,883 participants from 33 different countries had their fluid intelligence assessed with a standard test, in which, for instance, they had to find the missing numbers in a sequence. Confirming previous research, the authors found that people who scored lower on the test were more likely to be religious. At the same time. the team found that the link between the two was moderated by the endorsement of traditional values, the belief that power should be concentrated in higher levels of government, and conservative political belief.

“Social conservatives, including very religious people, tend to be more restricted in their views of the world,”lead author Lazar Stankov, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Sydney, told PsyPost. “Because of their lower IQ they are more close-minded and afraid of change. They also tend to be more nasty towards those who do not belong to their own group.”

This isn’t the last word, though. Stankov says that while conservative syndrome seems to be associated with lower intelligence, its effect may not be very significant.

“There exist meta-analytic studies that report negative correlations between cognitive abilities and both conservatism and religiosity, and I believe that the link is well documented in the literature,” Stankov said.

“I may add, however, that while negative correlations cannot be questioned, some recent work indicates that the strength of the relationship at least in Western countries is weaker than previously thought.”

Pakistan airline sacrificed a goat in its airport to get rid of bad luck

The year was 2016 and a tragedy occurred: 48 people on board a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) plane were killed when it crashed in the north of the country. Well, the airline had a very strange way to ensure that kind of problem doesn’t happen again: they sacrificed a goat. A black goat, to be more precise. Next to an aircraft which was about to leave for a domestic flight.

Image credits: Eluveitie

In Pakistan, as well as in other Muslim countries, sacrificing a black goat is supposed to ward off bad luck – but seriously, what year is it? Most people thought the image was a photoshop but when it turned out it was real, outrage was sparked.

In what was likely the first airline statement about a goat killing, PIA spokesperson Danyal Gillani said that the animal sacrifice wasn’t their idea. Airline employees did it spontaneously, and it wasn’t the management’s order.

“It was done by some local employees as a gesture of gratitude over the clearance of the first ATR [for flying].” Animal sacrifice is a part of Islamic tradition and can be found in other religions as well (see Leviticus 23:19).

Hopefully, this isn’t the only thing PIA did to ensure more accidents don’t happen – and hopefully, no more barbaric sacrifices will be needed.

Religious people are worse at math, biology, and physics than non-religious people

A new study which is bound to stir up some controversy found that both men and women who believe in God tend to be worse at math and have an overall worse understanding of biological and physical processes.

People who believe in gods, ghosts, or other paranormal things are sometimes derided for these beliefs, but that just seems petty. Surely you can believe in supernatural powers and still be a rational person, educated person, but this does say something about you. Now, researchers have found a correlation between said beliefs and a lower comprehension of the surrounding world.

Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen of the University of Helsinki, surveyed 258 individuals, asking them about their beliefs. Specifically, they focused on two things: is there a god, and are there paranormal phenomena. The results were intriguing.

“The more the participants believed in religious or other paranormal phenomena, the lower their intuitive physics skills, mechanical and mental rotation abilities, school grades in mathematics and physics, and knowledge about physical and biological phenomena were… and the more they regarded inanimate targets as mental phenomena,” the authors told The Independent.

Now, there are many points to be made here. Lindeman and Svedholm-Häkkinen based their views on surveys of 258 Finnish people, which is not only a small sample size but also arguably not relevant for other populations. So there are some statistical and relevance questions. Also, no causation was addressed, only a correlation. Still, it is an interesting point.

Obviously being religious or spiritual doesn’t mean that you’re less able to understand the world around you. Nearly half of all scientists are religious/spiritual, so there’s no reason to believe you can’t be really good at science and still keep your spirituality. Furthermore, not all religious or spiritual beliefs treat science equally. Buddhism especially has a very scientific-friendly approach in some aspects and the Dalai Lama has often supported scientific beliefs over traditional beliefs. Yet there’s no denying that the dogma of big religions often promotes non-scientific approaches. Somewhere along the road, a line has to be drawn, especially considering the numerous science vs religion conflicts we see in day to day life. Unfortunately though, that’s never going to be easy.

Journal Reference: Does Poor Understanding of Physical World Predict Religious and Paranormal Beliefs?

Religious people say they don’t watch pornography… but the data says otherwise

Pornography is still a taboo in most communities, especially in religious ones. Almost without exception, religious people will deem it as deviant and sinful behaviour, and even viewing it is simply unacceptable. But data shows that they’re almost certainly lying.

Image via Pixabay.

A study published June 2 in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention wanted to see how religious people deal with dirty movies. From a biological and social point of view, the occasional dirty movie is considered harmless; only excessive watching is believed to be harmful and dangerous. But from a religious standpoint, the situation is much stricter.

“Watching porn excessively to the point that it disrupts an individual’s daily life is generally considered problematic,” said study co-author Cara MacInnis of the University of Calgary. “But some highly religious individuals might view the most minimal of pornography use that is likely not problematic to represent an addiction.”

It’s extremely difficult to figure out whether a porn viewer is or not religious, but previous studies have indicated that people subscribe to pornography services or search for sexual content online in states where a greater percentage of residents describe themselves as religious. This might indicate that religious communities are bigger consumers of the industry, but it gets even more interesting.

In this new study, MacInnis and co-author Gordon Hodson, of Brock University in Ontario presented these studies to religious people, and these people simply refused to believe them. They rejected them as untrue, believing they were carried out by researchers with political interests.

“These participants responded negatively to these findings and were less willing to accept them as true,” MacInnis said. “This is consistent with a general tendency for people to reject research findings that are contrary to their personal opinions.”

It’s completely understandable that they would feel unhappy when presented these results. Most participants said they found the information to be upsetting, surprising, worrisome and threatening and most of them just rejected it.

The good thing about science is that it doesn’t really care about people’s opinions. Research is conducted objectively, without a care for what humans want or believe. The bad thing about science is that it’s only as good as the people who understand it. If people just reject scientific information because it differs with their own predefined beliefs, then that’s a big problem.

As for this particular case, it’s probably a case of misreporting. There is a possibility that the data is skewed by undetermined factors, but that seems unlikely at this point.

“It would not be surprising for religious individuals to deny or underreport viewing of sexual content, given that this violates their core values,” MacInnis said. Moreover, “psychoanalytic theories suggest that those advocating against a particular behavior are at some level drawn to that behavior.”

 

Study: Pakistan’s public school textbooks portray non-Muslim citizens as “religiously inferior, scheming and intolerant”

Religion should be harboring tolerance and promoting peace but unfortunately, things are often different in real life. A new report that analyzed 78 textbooks from all four provinces of Pakistan found that children in schools are encouraged to disregard non-Muslims.

Photo by Rizwan Ahmad Sagar.

Photo by Rizwan Ahmad Sagar.

Pakistan is one of the most populous countries in the world, with some 200 million inhabitants. It’s also one of the biggest Muslim countries, with 95-98% practicing the religion. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) wanted to see how inter-religious relationship are, and commissioned a study for this purpose.

“School textbooks represent the political perspectives and national ideologies of whole educational and government systems,” the study writes. “As such, school textbooks are one of the most important indicators of official and popular perspectives of the cultural and political communities they depict both in words and images.”

They found several types of problems. Some outright errors about other faiths were presented as facts in manuals, and that’s not even the most worrying thing. The most worrying thing is that quite a few textbooks promote distrust and intolerance. For example, this quote found on page 23 of the tenth grade Urdu textbook reads: “Because the Muslim religion, culture
and social system are different from non-Muslims, it is impossible to cooperate with Hindus.” That’s not only completely untrue and misleading, but it’s harboring negative feelings for Hindus. Another quote from the Sindh province seventh grade Urdu textbook mixes facts and conspiracies, portraying Hindus and Christians as partners to destroy Muslims:

“There were two enemies of Muslims, the Englishmen and Hindus. Both of these were against the formation of Pakistan. On one hand, the Englishmen renounced the division plan of Hindustan, while on the other hand, Hindus were planning to occupy the entire Hindustan and enslave Muslims. . . .”

All in all, the conclusions were extremely worrying. Englishmen and minority religions were often portrayed as enemies, people you can’t work with and which should be treated as inferiors. It basically creates a “us versus them” mentality. In a world with growing religious pressure and seemingly more and more friction, that’s exactly what we don’t want. We want the new generation to grow up with a healthy approach towards life.

“These perceptions predispose students early on that the non-Muslim population of Pakistan are outsiders and unpatriotic. These grossly generalized and stereotypical portrayals of religious minority communities signal that they are untrustworthy, religiously inferior, and ideologically scheming and intolerant,” the study concludes.

This should draw an alarm signal, as it seems logical to assume that Pakistan isn’t an isolated case, and many other religious countries promote this type of feelings. This needs to be looked in to, and hopefully fixed.

Read the full study here.

dalai lama

Religion and science: is there really a divide ?

Belief in a supernatural deity is associated with a suppression of analytical thinking in favor of empathic networks in the brain, a new study suggests. Conversely, analytical thinking –used to make sense of the physical world– is associated with disbelief in god. What’s interesting is that religious people were found to be more emphatic, meaning they identified more with the feelings and struggles of other people. As such, the perceived divide between science and religion may be rooted in brain wiring.

dalai lama

Image: Pixabay

“When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd,” said Tony Jack of Case Western Reserve University, who led the research. “But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight.”

The researchers devised a series of eight experiments, each involving 159 to 527 adults. This battery of tests included both self reporting and assessment on the researchers’ part of empathy, moral concern, analytical thinking, mentalizing or crystallized intelligence among others. For instance, participants were asked to rate how strongly they agree with statements like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me”. Critical reasoning was measured using tests that asked questions like “If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets”. Religious and spiritual beliefs were measured using a single item measure: “Do you believe in the existence of either God or a universal spirit?” This question was answered on a 7-point Likert scale (1= not at all; 7 = definitely yes).

Consistently, the more religious the person the more moral concern that person showed. In fact, empathic behavior was more strongly associated with religiosity than analytical thinking was with disbelief (perhaps because the two aren’t mutually exclusive as the science/religion debate might suggest at first glance). This correlation seems to be supported by previous studies which found a gender bias among religious belief. Women, who score better at empathy than men, tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. Maybe a reason of concern is that atheists showed less empathy.

It’s important to note that no cause-effect relationship was identified. Empathy and religion were associated only when the participants engaged in prayer, meditation or other spiritual practices. Church attendance or following a predefined dogmatic protocol alone did not predict empathic behavior.

Emotions and number crunching

The research builds upon a hypothesis that suggests the analytical and empathic networks in the brain are antithetical and in constant tension. Here I might add the findings of a previous study I reported for ZME Science, in which University of Kentucky researchers found that persons who rely more on intuition than analytical thinking are more likely to hold a creationist worldview in favor of the theory of evolution. Maybe there’s a connection between intuitive/empathic networks and analytical networks in the brain, though no evidence that I know of is published.

Another interesting study found a clear differences between the ‘skeptical’ and ‘believing’ brain after participants were asked to imagine a scenario while their brain activity was scanned. For example, imagine you just had a job interview. You walk down the street, and see a poster of a business suit. How would that make you feel? What does that poster mean? Those who were supernatural inclined said the poster evoked an omen — a sign that they would get a job! As for the skeptical persons, it didn’t mean anything in particular. One region of the brain (the right inferior frontal gyrus) “was activated more strongly in skeptics than in supernatural believers,” the researchers noted.

“Because of the tension between networks, pushing aside a naturalistic world view enables you to delve deeper into the social/emotional side,” Jack explained. “And that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. It appeals to an essentially nonmaterial way of understanding the world and our place in it.”

One possible outcome of the present study might disturb some: “at least part of the negative association between belief and analytic thinking (2 measures) can be explained by a negative correlation between moral concern and analytic thinking,” the researchers write in the study’s abstract published in the journal PLOS ONE. Previously, Jack’s lab found that when the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed. The reverse is also true; when we’re presented with a social problem, we use a different brain network than the one use to solve a physics problem, for instance. A CEO who is inclined to see his employees as ‘numbers’, for instance, won’t relate with their feelings and may be inclined to make immoral judgement if these satisfy an analytically valid goal.

Empathy, religion and atheism: what’s the relation?

This begs the question: Is religion making people more empathic or is atheism doing the opposite?

“While we can’t answer this definitively, it is interesting to note that empathy rates, as measured using the same principle measure we use, have fallen off dramatically in college students in the last few decades,” Jack told ZME Science.

College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago, Jack points out, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait, a 2010 study reports.

“We speculate this is due to increased emphasis on technology and less emphasis on religion.  It is notable that many messages present in religion are focused on empathy,” Jack added.

I would argue, however, that this is not the case. It’s about the “me” culture we’re living today — fast times, superficial connections and full blown consumerism. More than 9 in 10 Americans still say “yes” when asked the basic question “Do you believe in God?”, according to Gallup. This is down only slightly from the 1940s, when Gallup first asked this question. Belief in God drops below 90% among younger Americans, liberals, those living in the East, those with postgraduate educations, and political independents. As the study points out, just saying “you believe in (a) god” is not enough to earn you empathy points — you need to mean it: pray, meditate, think of doing good to your community, as well.

But it seems this is true for both sides of the coin. If you use an iPhone or some other advanced tech and are, say, an atheist, that doesn’t make you an analytical thinker — the same way going to church doesn’t necessarily make you religious.

“We are certainly not claiming it is impossible to be an ethical atheist. But it is clear that atheism is linked to reduced empathy. This is a modest correlation. There are certainly ethical atheists, and there are certainly unethical religious individuals,” Jack says.

The present evidence seems to suggest that truly religious folks are more empathic than largely analytical persons. This may be true, but there’s nothing to suggest that analytical thinkers are less ethical. A 2010 study found  those who did not have a religious background still appeared to have intuitive judgments of right and wrong in common with believers.

“For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one’s moral intuitions,” said Dr Marc Hauser, from Harvard University, one of the co-authors.

Another study, conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois, Chicago, the University of Cologne in Germany, and the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands reached the same conclusion: religion doesn’t make people more moral.

There’s something else I would also like to touch upon: the zeal for science. When a scientist makes a discovery, using all the analytical tools at his or her disposal — among which one’s greatest asset, the intellect — the experience of unraveling a mystery can be highly spiritual for some, without leading to supernatural thinking. Some of them toiled day and night not just to advanced their careers, but out of pure love for mankind: perhaps the noblest testimony to empathy.

Religious attendance in the US follows the same trend as everywhere else — downwards

Religiousness in the Unites States is on the decline, mirroring patterns seen across the western world a new study from UCL and Duke University finds.

Image credits Ang Kim/ publicdomainpictures.net

For many years now the United States seemed to go against the rest of the western world as far as religion is concerned. Many Americans remained dedicated to their faith and houses of worship — even as church attendance rates around the globe dropped.

A new study has now found a slow, steady drop in the number of Americans who regularly go to church, believe in God or claim religious affiliations. It also suggests that this decline is driven by inter-generational differences.

“None of these declines is happening fast, but the signs are now unmistakable,” said David Voas, a social scientist with UCL and co-author of the study.

“It has become clear that American religiosity has been declining for decades, and the decline is driven by the same dynamic — generational differences — that has driven religious decline across the developed world.”

The study analyzed data obtained from the General Social Survey which is conducted every two years. This information was compared to surveys of similar scope from Canada, New Zealand, the UK and Australia. Across the globe, people have slowly become less religious over time, but in the US the decline has been so incremental that researchers didn’t have enough data to know they’re looking at a trend, says Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, divinity and religion and co-author to the study.

Religiousness as a whole was surveyed, without drawing lines between religions or religious denominations. They found that while 94 percent of Americans born before 1935 claim a religious affiliation, that number drops to 71 percent for those born after 1975. Similarly,  68 percent of Americans aged 65 and older said they believed God exists, but just 45 percent of those aged 18-30, hold the same belief. As for church attendance, 41 percent of people 70 and older said they participate in services at least once a month, compared to just 18 percent of people 60 and younger.

“If you look at the trajectory, and the generational dynamic that is producing the trajectory, we may not be an exception after all,” Chaves added.

 

An excerpt from what looks like one of the oldest Koran copies over. The written is extremely well preserved and legible.

What may be the oldest Koran fragments were discovered in Birmingham, UK

A Koran manuscript etched on sheep or goat skin may be the oldest discover so far, according to a radiocarbon dating. The fragments, preserved in pristine condition and written in a surprisingly clear Hijazi script, were found in the University of Birmingham’s library. The dating shows the Koran copy is at least 1,370 years old, and was edited between 568 and 645 by a person who likely knew the prophet Muhammed himself. Though it’s not clear if it’s the oldest Koran fragment, it’s definitely out there among the earliest Islamic texts – a reason to rejoice for the large Islamic community in Birmingham.

An excerpt from what looks like one of the oldest Koran copies over. The written is extremely well preserved and legible.

An excerpt from what looks like one of the oldest Koran copies over. The written is extremely well preserved and legible.

The manuscript is part of the Mingana Collection of more than 3,000 Middle Eastern documents gathered in the 1920s by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul in modern-day Iraq. No particular attention was given to it until  a PhD researcher, Alba Fedeli, reviewed some of the documents in the collection and thought a radiocarbon dating was worth the try. Carbon-14 dating is a way of determining the age of certain archeological artifacts of a biological origin up to about 50,000 years old. It is used in dating things such as bone, cloth, wood and plant fibers that were created in the relatively recent past by human activities.

Not in their “wildest dreams” did the researchers expect the script to be that old.

“Finding out we had one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the whole world has been fantastically exciting,” said the university’s director of special collections, Susan Worrall.

“They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam,” said David Thomas, the university’s professor of Christianity and Islam.

“According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Koran, the scripture of Islam, between the years 610 and 632, the year of his death.”

“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with,” he says.

The revelation of the Quran was not an isolated event in time. It was a constant stream of verses descending to Muhammad throughout the 23 years of his prophethood in Makkah and Madinah. The Prophet appointed numerous Companions of his to serve as scribes, writing down the latest verses as soon as they were revealed. Mu’awiya ibn Abu Sufyan and Zaid bin Thabit were among the scribes who had this duty. For the most part, new verses would be written on scraps of bone, hide, or parchment, since paper had not yet been imported from China.

The Arabia of the 600s was mainly an oral society, however. Because very few people could read or write, a huge emphasis was placed on ability to memorize long poems, letters, and other messages. Muhammad’s companions learned and recorded the Quran by memorization, then disseminated it across the whole Arabian peninsula. Hundreds and thousands of people, many of them travelers to Madinah, memorized the holy Muslim text.

During the reigns of the first caliphs, however, a need to compile all the verses into a central book arose. Taking preemptive action, the caliphs who ruled the Muslim world after the death of the Prophet feared that if the number of people who had the Quran memorized dipped too low, the community would be in danger of losing the Quran forever. As a result, the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who ruled from 632 to 634, ordered a committee be organized, under the leadership of Zaid bin Thabit, to collect all the written pieces of Quran that were spread throughout the Muslim community. The plan was to collect them all into one central book that could be preserved in case the people who had the Quran memorized died out. The final version, collected in book form, was completed  in about 650.

Prof Thomas says  “the parts of the Koran that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad’s death”.

“These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Koran read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed.”

The local Muslim community in Birmingham is in delight, but news of these early Koran parchments has been well received all over the world.

“When I saw these pages I was very moved. There were tears of joy and emotion in my eyes. And I’m sure people from all over the UK will come to Birmingham to have a glimpse of these pages,” said Muhammad Afzal, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque.

 

In God we Trust: but other people don’t, really. Let’s look at religions

A few days ago I was hanging out with a friend drinking a few beers discussing important science-y stuff, and the subject of religion came up. As it tends to do during heated science debates.

Heated science debate.
Image via greatist

Neither one of us is very religious. We’re both what you’d call when-mom-calls-christians, in that we don’t actively engage in the religious world of our own volition. Sure, we know how a church looks like on the inside, but unless our parents are in town and we can’t avoid being there, we won’t come visit sober.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an article about why religion has outlived its use, why one take on spirituality is better than another, why science is right and faith is not or vice-versa. These are all very personal issues, and everyone has to choose for themselves whether to be a believer or not. And I respect both takes.

While I don’t make much time for organized religion in my life, I do find religion as an object of study fascinating. I like to see what makes people tick and to see the way our ancestors tried to make sense of a chaotic world, to explain phenomena that they couldn’t understand. I feel that religious belief and mythos are intimately tied to the way our subconscious mind works, and are ultimately profoundly human expressions. These are the topics we discussed. At the end of it all we said goodbye and went home, but the talk we had stuck with me.

Division of religions within the world’s population. The percentage is of total population. Atheism is included.
Image via geographics.cz

What drives us to create these intricate systems of tales, beliefs, and myths, who starts them and why do they propagate? Is it just the need to explain the unexplainable? Is there a deeper need for order nestled in our brain that makes us pin rain and drought, life and death on some higher, but purposeful, being?

I don’t know. But what I can show you is what we know about how religion appeared, spread, and what it thought us up until today.

Setting the stage

Humanity’s closest living relatives are common chimpanzees and bonobos.

These primates share a common ancestor with humans that lived between six and eight million years ago. It is for this reason that chimpanzees and bonobos are viewed as the best available surrogate for this common ancestor.

Author Barbara King argues that while non-human primates are not religious, they do exhibit some traits that would have been necessary for the evolution of religion. These traits include high intelligence, a capacity for symbolic communication, a sense of social norms, a realization of “self” and a concept of continuity.

Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, argues that many species grieve death and loss. Elephants, for example, demonstrate rituals around their deceased, including long periods of silence and mourning at the point of death and a process of returning to grave sites and caressing the remains.

Elephants in mourning
Image via channel.nationalgeographic.com

But religion, as we understand it, is about more than funerary practices. Anthropologists John Monoghan and Peter Just say:

“It seems apparent that one thing religion or belief helps us do is deal with problems of life that are significant, persistent, and intolerable. One important way in which religious beliefs accomplish this is by providing a set of ideas about how and why the world is put together that allows people to accommodate anxieties and deal with misfortune.”

So where does it start

The origin of religion is uncertain. Intentional burial, particularly with grave goods, may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice (the onset of burial itself being an indicator of behavioral modernity – practices that separate us from simple primates) since, as Philip Lieberman suggests, it may signify a “concern for the dead that transcends daily life”.

Though disputed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthals were the first to intentionally bury their dead, doing so in shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones. Examples of this practice include Shanidar in Iraq, Kebara Cave in Israel and Krapina in Croatia. Some scholars, however, argue that these bodies may have been disposed of for more practical reasons.

A number of archeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies — such as that of the Neanderthals — may also have practiced the earliest form of totemism or animal worship in addition to burial of the dead. It has been suggested, based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves, that a widespread Neanderthal bear-cult existed.

Animal cults in the following Upper Paleolithic period — such as the bear cult — may have had their origins in these hypothetical Middle Paleolithic animal cults. Animal worship during the Upper Paleolithic intertwined with hunting rites. Archeological evidence from art and bear remains reveals that the bear cult apparently involved a type of sacrificial bear ceremony in which a bear was shot with arrows and then was finished off by a shot in the lungs and ritualistically buried near a clay bear statue covered by a bear pelt, with the skull and the body of the bear buried separately.

Such practices have been traced back to prehistoric times by archeologists, and the earliest evidence we have of this comes from the Paleolithic. Simon E. Davies put together what the calls “The Evolutionary Tree of Religion”, a compilation of known religions and religious practices ordered by time:

The Religion Tree, by Simon E. Davies

Much like a family tree, his work orders beliefs according to influences, showing us who gave “birth” to whom. In essence, the tree shows interactions between different groups of people: religions are ideas, traditions, and moral guidelines that get passed on from generation to generation inside a closed group (tribe, city, etc) and are shared with neighbors and nomads in times of peace, conquerors and conquered alike in times of war.

As human populations settled down following the agricultural revolution, a sense of unity began to form. This would lead to the formation of ancient countries and empires. Religion in these times is indistinguishable from mythology, and concerns itself with the spiritual aspect of the human condition, gods and goddesses (or a single personal god or goddess), the creation of the world, a human being’s place in the world, life after death, and how to escape from suffering in this world or in the next.  And, in a nice twist on the Christian texts, every culture has created its own god in its own image and resemblance.

The world’s oldest religion still being practiced today is Hinduism (know to followers as ‘Sanatan Dharma’, Eternal Order) but, in what is considered ‘the west’, the first records of religious practice come from Egypt around 4000 BC. The Egyptian Creation Myth tells us that, at first, there was only Ocean. This ocean was breadth-less and depth-less and silent until, upon its surface, there rose a hill of earth known as the ben-ben, the primordial mound, which, it is thought, the pyramids symbolize. The great god Ra (the sun) stood upon the ben-ben and spoke, giving birth to the god Shu (of the air), the goddess Tefnut (of moisture), the god Geb (of the earth), and the goddess Nut (of the sky).

Egyptian gods Geb, Nut, and Shu.
Image via Wikipedia.

The exact details of the mythos aren’t relevant right now. What is remarkable is that we can see the start of a religious narrative of sorts: each god stands for his own domain (be it the sun or earth and so forth), they function much like a family (the sun was born first — he is the father, and earth and air came after — they are sons). This allowing collective human wisdom, wisdom that already intuited what science would come to tell us much later on about how things came to be, to be parallel to something that can be related to easily — family structure. This narrative was passed down orally and then through writing, both internally inside family, tribe, and country structures, and outside, to other tribes, peoples, and countries.

A remarkable character to illustrate this is Osiris. Ra had intended Nut as his bride but she fell in love with Geb. Angry with the two, Ra separated them by stretching Nut across the sky, high and away from Geb on the earth. Although the lovers were separated during the day, they came together at night and Nut bore three sons, Osiris, Set, and Horus, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris, as eldest, was announced as ‘Lord of all the Earth’ when he was born and was given his sister Isis as a wife. Set, consumed by jealousy, hated his brother and killed him to assume the throne.

Osiris, god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead.
Image via thunderbolts.info

This same pattern of creation of existence by a supernatural entity who speaks all into being, of how the world came to be as it is (the canopy of sky over the earth, for example), other supernatural beings emanating from the first and greatest one, a son — who is a powerful entity himself  — who is killed or dies for his people and comes back to life for the good of his people, and an afterlife similar to an earthly existence is repeated in religious texts from Phoenicia (2700 BC) to Sumer (2100 BC) to Palestine (1440 BC) to Greece (800 BC) and finally to Rome (c. 100 AD). The Phoenician tale of the great god Baal, who dies and returns to life to battle the chaos of the god Yamm, was already old in 2750 BCE. During this time, the city of Tyre was founded and the Greek story of the dying and reviving god Adonis (c. 600 BC) was derived from earlier Phoenician tales based on Tammuz — a story which was borrowed by the Sumerians (and later the Persians) in the famous Descent of Innana myth.

Baal, the Canaanite god and judge of the gods, the lord of wind and weather, the controller of rain, storm, thunder, and lightning, responsible for the annual renewal of vegetation.
Image via livius.org

This is a great example of the influences the Tree shows. Religions borrowed from the religions before them, and myths intertwined as people intermingled. Future religions will follow the same patterns, borrowing from the religions in the area where they appear, adding and changing myths.

The first of the organized religions we still see today to come to life is Hinduism. This awesome video by Business Insider shows how 5 of today’s major religions spread across the globe:

What we have today

The largest 5 religious systems today are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Let’s take a brief look at each one of them, with help from the guys over at religionfacts.com

Christianity

The cross

Christians believe in a single, loving God who has revealed himself and can be known in a personal way, in this life. A Christian’s focus is not on religious rituals or performing good works, but on enjoying a relationship with God and growing to know him better.

Faith in Jesus Christ himself, not just in his teachings, is how the Christian experiences joy and meaningful life. Christians do not identify Jesus as a prophet pointing to God or as a teacher of enlightenment. Rather, he’s viewed as God in human form. He performed miracles, forgave people of their sins, and said that anyone who believed in him would have eternal life. He made statements like, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Christians regard the Bible as God’s written message to humankind. In addition to being a historical record of Jesus’ life and miracles, the Bible reveals God’s personality, his love and truth, and how one can have a relationship with him.

Whatever circumstances a Christian is dealing with in their life, the Bible teaches that they can confidently turn to a wise and powerful God who genuinely loves them. They believe that God answers prayer and that life takes on meaning as they live to honor him.

Islam

Beliefs are important in Islam. Right beliefs about God, the universe, and humanity is of primary concern to Muslims. The Quran, the Holy book of Islam states, “Righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Scriptures and the Prophets”. Belief in these doctrines, as well as many others, are important to Muhammad’s followers, both past, and present.

The single most important belief in Islam, and arguably the central theme of the religion, is that there is only one God. The name of God is Allah, which is simply Arabic for “the (al) God (Ilah).”

For a Muslim, the object of life is to live in a way that is pleasing to Allah so that one may gain Paradise. It is believed that at puberty, an account of each person’s deeds is opened, and this will be used on the Day of Judgment to determine his eternal fate.

Like Christianity, Islam teaches the continued existence of the soul and a transformed physical existence after death. There will be a day of judgment and humanity will be divided between the eternal destinations of Paradise and Hell.

Judaism

 

The Star of David

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world. Their sacred text, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, teaches several doctrines — about God, the Messiah, human beings, and the universe — making beliefs very important to Jews. Judaism has no official creed, however.

Judaism shares some beliefs with other world religions, like monotheism with Christianity and Islam, but in other respects, there are sharp differences between the faiths. In Judaism, reality is a single, all-powerful God. It is this belief that made the Jews unique among other ancient Semitic peoples and that became the legacy Judaism has passed on to the entire Western world. God’s name in Hebrew is YHWH (Yahweh, or Jehovah), which simply — but quite powerfully, in my eyes — means “I am.”

Jewish sacred texts and literature have little to say about what happens after death, which may seem surprising to non-Jews since the sacred texts of Christianity and Islam, both of which have their foundations in Judaism, elaborate rather fully about the afterlife.

Judaism has no creed and beliefs of individual Jews can vary widely. However, the great 12th-century rabbi Maimonides put together “13 Articles of Faith” that he believed every Jew ought to adhere to, and this is often used as a summary of core Jewish beliefs.

Hinduism

The Aum

Hinduism embraces a diversity of beliefs, a fact that can be initially confusing to Westerners accustomed to creeds, confessions, and carefully-worded belief statements. One can believe a variety of things about God, the universe, and the path to liberation, and still be considered a Hindu. Perhaps the most well-known Hindu saying about religion, and one that best-encompasses its essence, is: “Truth is one; sages call it by different names.”

Still, there are some beliefs common to nearly all forms of Hinduism that can be identified, and these basic beliefs are generally regarded as boundaries outside of which lies either heresy or non-Hindu religion. These fundamental Hindu beliefs include: the authority of the Vedas (the oldest Indian sacred texts) and the Brahmans (priests); the existence of an enduring soul that transmigrates from one body to another at death (reincarnation); and the law of karma that determines one’s destiny both in this life and the next.

Hinduism is a decidedly theistic religion, but it can be difficult to determine whether it is a polytheistic, pantheistic, or even monotheistic religion. Of course, this is chiefly a western question: the Indian mind is much more inclined to regard divergent views as complementary rather than competing.

Buddhism

The Dharmacakra

Buddhists do not worship any gods or God. People outside of Buddhism often think that Buddhists worship the Buddha. However, the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) never claimed to be divine, but rather he is viewed by Buddhists as having attained what they are also striving to attain, which is spiritual enlightenment and, with it, freedom from the continuous cycle of life and death.

Most Buddhists believe a person has countless rebirths, which inevitably include suffering. A Buddhist seeks to end these rebirths. They believe it is a person’s cravings, aversion, and delusion that cause these rebirths. Therefore, the goal of a Buddhist is to purify one’s heart and to let go of all yearnings toward sensual desires and the attachment to oneself.

Buddhists follow a list of religious principles and very dedicated meditation. When a Buddhist meditates it is not the same as praying or focusing on a god, it is more self-discipline. Through practiced meditation, a person may reach Nirvana — “the blowing out” of the flame of desire.

Buddhism provides something that is true of most major religions: disciplines, values, and directives that a person may want to live by.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis to release Climate Change Encyclical urging action against climate change

Pope Francis, well on his way on becoming the most popular and moderate pope in recent history, is preparing to publish an encyclical on ecology and climate change, urging the world to stop turning their backs on nature. The document is expected to be released in time to be read before the next round of U.N. climate treaty talks in Paris at the end of the year. Of course, Pope Francis’ rather frequent commentaries concerning climate change, toppled by his much anticipated encyclical, has angered climate change skeptics. Critics have been quick to voice that the pope is using religion to front a radical environmental agenda.

Pope Francis

Image: The Telegraph

An encyclical was originally a circular letter sent to all the churches of a particular area in the ancient Roman Church. The letter is sent by the pope with the intent of being circulated among the bishops of the world, or a particular part of the world. The encyclicals (circulars) provide instructions that are usually intended for the clergy, the Catholic faithful or other “men of good will” outside the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis has long been an advocate of environmentalism and has asserted on more than one occasion that climate change is real.

“I don’t know if it (human activity) is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face,” he said last week.

The pope is no scientist, though, so don’t expect the encyclical to be consumed far too long with scientific analysis or the likes.

“It’s not an easy issue because on the protection of creation and the study of human ecology, you can speak with sure certainty up to a certain point then come the scientific hypotheses some of which are rather sure, others aren’t,” Francis said at a news conference last August. “In an encyclical like this that must be magisterial, it must only go forward on certainties, things that are sure.”

In fact, it’s rather sketchy what the document will contain. What we know so far is that it’s in its third draft and under review by the Vatican orthodoxy guardian, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, along with the Vatican Secretary of State’s office and the pope’s own theologian. According to Pope Francis, the document is expect to be released in June or July of this year.

He’s not the first pope to voice his concerns over global warming or to engage in environmental activism.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI who have also pointed that climate change is undergoing trough a crisis and measure need to be taken. During his speech from 1990, pope John Paul the 2nd state that catholics were obliged by the nature of their religion to protect the planet as it is God’s creation. As for Pope Benedict, he has remained in the memory of man as the “Green Pope” because of is frequent public interventions against deforestation and other world wide environmental troubles. Pope Benedict also installed solar panels at the Vatican. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, is also a prominent Christian figure who often voices environmental concerns.

Over the ocean, in America however the Pope’s strong environmental stand didn’t bear well with conservatives.  Steve Moore, stated for The Heritage that the pope’s policy is a total disaster, since his environment views but also the ones on the economy will just make things worse with people being poorer with less liberty. A blogger from the Catholic journal website, First Things, blamed Pope Francis for using religious propaganda in favor of the so-called “climate change theory”.

 

 

If a gay Mormon man marries a woman, divorce is likely, study finds

While this study may seem hilariously obvious at first, it was actually necessary. When Mormon religion meets homosexuality, the results are often so mind blowing and saddening that you just need studies like this to explain how things really are. In a society which believes that homosexuality is something treatable just like alcoholism, you need a study to tell people that if a gay man marries a woman, divorce is very likely.

Even though same sex marriages are legal in most US states and in many countries throughout the world, that’s not the case for Ohio. Most of the 6.1 million mormons living in the US (most of which are in Ohio) couldn’t even imagine same sex marriages. In fact, many preachers claim that if you’re a homosexual and you marry a woman, god will take away your “temptation”. Even though there are LGBT members in the mormon community, they are allowed to remain there only if they abstain from homosexual relations and obey the law of chastity.

Image via Salon.

While there are no official numbers, Gary Watts, former president of Family Fellowship, estimates that only 10 percent of homosexuals stay in the church. The thing is, most mormons still want to be a part of the church – even if they’re gay. So they’re willing to even try marrying someone from the different sex, even if that’s not their orientation. Now, a new study on 1,612 self-selected LGBT/same-sex attracted Mormons and former Mormons found that this clearly doesn’t work – if you are a homosexual man and you marry a woman, your homosexuality isn’t going to disappear like a charm.

John Dehlin, a doctoral student at Utah State University, and Bill Bradshaw, a retired Brigham Young University professor, with help from Renee Galliher, also of USU, solicited responses via various websites, thus creating the largest study ever conducted on homosexual mormons. Here are the study’s main findings:

  • Between 51 and 69 percent of mixed-orientation Mormon marriages end in divorce, well above the roughly 25 percent.
  • 80 percent of respondents have actively tried to change their sexual orientation
  • 53 percent rejected their religious identity
  • 42 percent were currently single, while 35 percent were in committed same-sex relationships, and 16 percent were married in a heterosexual relationship.

The study was conducted on people from 48 states (45 percent in Utah) and 22 countries; 75 percent were male, 22 percent female; 91 percent were white; 7 percent were excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 25 percent had resigned, 36 percent were inactive, 29 percent were active, and 3 percent had been disfellowshipped. Quite some striking numbers, and all of them really show one thing: homosexuality and being a mormon don’t really go well together. Most people try to reject either the former or the latter.

Not only did most marriages end in divorce, but many experienced what they call a triple blame: “first for being gay, then for having ruined the lives of their spouses and children by … marry[ing] in the service of trying to ‘overcome’ their homosexuality, and then finally for having failed in the marriage and ‘given up”, says Kendall Wilcox, who has collected more than 300 narratives from LGBT Mormons and their families.

The study also concluded that mormon gays were much more likely to become involved in “personal righteousness” efforts — prayer, fasting, church activity, temple worship etc, in an effort to “rid themselves of the gayness”. Sadly, some even tried the discredited “reparative theory”, which attempts to turn a gay man straight. The American Psychiatric Association has condemned such practices and has stated that  “Ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation.”

Still, the situation doesn’t seem like it will likely change in the near future. I truly hope that mormon religion will find a way to encompass homosexuality and not directly or indirectly destroy the lives of innocent men and women who can’t choose their sexual orientation. Depression and even suicide often accompany this situation.

 

 

 

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a "light at the end of the tunnel". Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Private foundation awards after-life research grant worth $5 million

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a "light at the end of the tunnel". Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Consciousness is considered the prime driver for superior intelligence, and was initially considered the definite barrier which separates man from beast, although other animals, like fellow primates, have been found to exhibit sings of consciousness in the past years. There’s one big question, however, that follows the epiphany of “I am”, and that is “what happens when I no longer am?”. Consciousness breeds spirituality, and eventually religion to comfort man and relieve him from constantly seeking an answer to this question, which might never be answered. Even to this day, after thousands of years and the writings of history’s greatest free thinkers, we know little more than our ancestors who first set out to explain their existence.

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Recently, the Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation — founded by the late Wall Street mutual funds pioneer to help explore spirituality – has awarded a grant worth $5 million, to be centered at UC Riverside, which will support the study of “immortality” and after-life. John Martin Fischer, a philosopher with UC Riverside most famous for his work on free will and determinism, is leading the project. According to the project’s website, the funding, will be split as follows – $1 million of that to host conferences on campus about the afterlife, to support post-doctoral students; while the rest of $4 million will be awarded to various researchers worldwide in the sciences, social sciences, philosophy and theology who will be studying the subject.

“The main questions there are whether it’s technologically plausible or feasible for us, either by biological enhancement such as those described by Ray Kurzweil, or by some combination of biological enhancement and uploading our minds onto computers in the future. I think another more interesting and important question is would we choose to be immortal in that sense, or does death and finitude give life meaning? So that’s kind of the philosophical side of the question of never dying.

But then there’s the religious notion of immortality, which involves an afterlife. So we’ll be looking at a full range of questions about Judeo, Christian and also Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religions’ conceptions of the afterlife to see if they’re theologically and philosophically consistent. We’ll look at near death experiences both in western cultures and throughout the world and really look at what they’re all about and ask the question — do they indicate something about an afterlife or are they kind of just illusions that we’re hardwired into?” said Fischer in an interview for Business Insider.

Of course, such a huge grant has already attacked a wave of criticism. Some of the project’s contestants claim that the foundation backing the Immortality Project is biased, and intends on blurring the line between science and theology.

“If the intent is to do “serious scientific work” then why include theologians? They aren’t a discipline with scientific methods at the base of their field and it’s pretty safe to say they’ll tend to come to this topic with some pretty huge preconceptions and biases, and arguably even conflicts of interest,” reads a comment on the Chronicle discussing the subject.

 

 

 

Religion about to go extinct in nine countries

Religion is nowadays an extremely touchy subject; if you ask religious people about non religious people there’s a good chance you will get a pretty nasty response, something involving a kind of hell and divine punishment, while if you ask the other group, probably some bad words will probably come up. If you ask me, everybody has the right to believe whatever the hell they want, as long as they don’t try it to impose to other people, but it seems religion is on a downhill slope these decades.

This was also the conclusion of a study that analyzed data from nine countries and found that religion is an ‘endangered species’ in all of them. The countries in case, Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland were studied using a mathematical model which attempts to understand and extrapolate the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The results were published at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US and they seem to indicate that religion will probably die alltogether in these countries, in a matter of time. The mathematical model behind it is extremely performant, albeit not innovative; it has also been used by one of the team members Daniel Abrams of Northwestern University, to understand the decline in lesser spoken language throghout the world.

“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona. “It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. “For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.”

Dr. Wiener continued:

“In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.”

In all of the countries, the results seemed to indicate that religion is heading towards extinction, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily true; the team are working on ways to improve their model, in order to get more accurate results.

“Obviously we don’t really believe this is the network structure of a modern society, where each person is influenced equally by all the other people in society,” he said.

However, it’s definitely obvious that the results are at least suggestive, and it would be interesting to see this kind of model applied to other countries as well.

“It’s interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going. Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out.”