Thoughts on New Research

A good friend of mine, Paul Kleinginna, reads voraciously on the subjects of science and religion. He recently sent a note summarizing some of the things he's been reading, and their implications for religion. It offers some interesting ideas to consider, and with his permission I am sharing it with you.

    Hi Mike,

    I saw an interesting bumper sticker this week on a Virginia car. I think it said something like "God Bless Everyone". Do you think that religion has much chance of becoming more universal (in the sense of concern for humanity as a whole) in the near future? It seems to me that religion is too often motivated by either self concern or group loyalty. Let me tell you about some interesting things I have been reading about in recent issues of the New Scientist. One is the recent DNA evidence that humans have continued to evolve (e.g., Bruce Lahn finding about 700 new genes, at least two of which are involved in brain chemistry) over the last 10,000 years. This is opposed to the traditional teaching of no significant biological changes in the last 50,000 or so years. Much of the research in this area is preliminary, but will likely cause heated discussions as it develops, since it touches on race issues.

    A second area I have been reading about is the debate over the role of religion (positive and negative) in human evolution. Specifically, has religion affected the survival of individuals, families or larger groups? The famous philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has a new book out about religion entitled "Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon". It suggests that while religion is comforting, aids group cohesion, and sometimes helps explain things otherwise unexplainable, it is also associated with too many negatives (e.g., wars, persecution, distortion of knowledge). Dennett suggests that it is a powerful self-perpetuating meme that should be resisted. He postulates a hair trigger innate mechanism called the "hyperactive agent detection device" that attributes agency to anything complicated that moves.

    Others, like Francisco Ayala (UC at Irvine), Robin Dunbar (U. of Liverpool), and myself would balance the discussion by emphasizing the survival advantages of religion to the individual or group. From a personal point of view religion may reduce existential anxiety about death, provide purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in life. Religion often makes individuals happier, healthier, and more attractive to others. Constructive religious cognition could also allow people to get on with other survival activities, instead of dwelling too much on fear and despair, or spending too much time trying to figure out extremely difficult existential questions on their own. From a group standpoint religion may strengthen cohesion (possibly aided by an endorphin-based group cohesion mechanism); strengthen group values; and lead to group charity (which often can be stronger than the sum of more individualized charity). I do believe that we must be careful that the psychological processes involved in religion are not exploited to cause significant harm to individuals or societies. Many hostile individuals or groups are often looking for "permission" from religion to harm others or as a way to convince others to join them in their effort.

What are your thoughts? Is religion likely to be a unifying force or a divisive one in the future? On balance, does it seem more constructive or destructive? Yes, this is one of those questions endlessly debated, but the timeless quality of the question also suggests its importance.


Announcements, and an Essay about Homosexuality

A new essay by Dr. Thomas Plante is now available for you to read. This essay, Homosexual Candidates, the Seminary and the Priesthood, examines how the Roman Catholic Church is addressing the issue of sexual orientation among its clergy. I highly recommend it to you. As with Plante's other work, tis essay offers much to think about.

Also new at www.psywww.com/psyrelig/ are two new announcements. The first is a faculty position in psychology and religion at the Institute for Psychological Sciences. (During the past few months we have had several positions available. Is this a trend?) The second announcement is a conference: Spirituality, Science and Health: What's Going On and Why?, held March 22, 2006 at Santa Clara University.