Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things? That’s the fall focus of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum. Each week, we’ll gather some of the most interesting articles on the topic from across the online world. We hope they make you think—and share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.
Some scientists think that belief in the high gods of moralizing religions, such as Islam and Christianity, helped people cooperate with each other and encouraged societies to grow. An innovative study of 96 societies in the Pacific now suggests that a culture might not need to believe in omniscient, moral gods in order to reap the benefits of religion in the form of political complexity. All they need is the threat of supernatural punishment, even if the deities in question don’t care about morality and act on personal whims, the new work concludes. (Lizzie Wade, Science)
What makes an armed man kill an unarmed civilian? What makes him join the killing of many hundreds—or hundreds of thousands—of civilians? University of Amsterdam Professor of Social Science Emeritus Abram de Swaan takes a hard look at the subject in his new book, The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder. History is appallingly dense with examples, from medieval warfare to Nazi Germany to Stalin’s purges to Rwanda in the 1990s. De Swaan talked with the Gazette. (Alvin Powell, Harvard Gazette)
Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen: Our new research, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examined a slippery way by which people get away from facts that contradict their beliefs. Of course, sometimes people just dispute the validity of specific facts. But we find that people sometimes go one step further and … they reframe an issue in untestable ways. This makes potential important facts and science ultimately irrelevant to the issue. (Scientific American)
Edward L. Rubin: The response to climate change affects people’s personal beliefs and lifestyles. It is not simply a political position, like controlling air pollution or saving the blue whale, but an issue that reaches deep inside our patterns of thought and behavior. (Salon)
The editors of four Catholic journals—America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor—collectively make a statement against the death penalty. (Editorial Board, OSV Newsweekly)
Connor Wood: Michael Shermer, atheist extraordinaire and publisher of Skeptic magazine, has recently published a book arguing—literally—that Western societies are more moral than other cultures, because Westerners are better at abstract thinking. Shermer seems like a decent person (really). But history’s tragedies are made possible by decent people, and in his new book Shermer commits all the same sorts of moral fallacies that have powered cultural chauvinism since the days of Rome. (Science on Religion, Patheos)