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Professor talks religion, cruelty, the evolution of empathy

At his lecture Monday night, John Teehan, an associate professor of religion at Hofstra University, asked students if groups of people can develop the same sense of solidarity around science that they do around religion.

His conclusion: “It hasn’t been proven yet.”

Teehan spoke as part of the weekly Binghamton University Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS) discussions.

In his lecture, Teehan explained that religion has been a way to unify people, as humans live in some of the largest, most complex societies in the animal kingdom.

“Religion can be a valuable social resource, as it gets harder to keep track of who you can trust,” Teehan said.

According to Teehan, our judgment about who is in the in-group, defined here by being in the same religious group, is equated with whom we deem trustworthy.

Teehan said that this study also showed that if the person in pain was perceived as a cheater, empathy levels would decrease, and pleasure levels in the brain increased.

Teehan has been researching the topic for eight years and said he plans to research more about what needs religion fulfills, and how this may change and grow in coming years. Science, however, is not religion’s competition.

The discussion continued for two hours, the first half used as lecture time, and the second as an opportunity for student and faculty member questions.

“I was very happy with the questions, they were well-informed,” Teehan said. “I feel positive about this.”

Rohit Pal, a junior majoring in integrative neuroscience, said he found one study discussed particularly interesting.

“I liked the neuroscience aspect in the study comparing Caucasians and Asians,” Pal said. “You got to see how their empathy levels differed for a person of their own race’s pain, and a person from the other.”

Joana Pjetri, a junior majoring in integrative neuroscience, said the event showed the scientific necessity of religion.

“We got to see how religion could be a set of values from a society that just needed rules for morality,” she said. “People made it up because we needed it, not for spirituality.”

About 100 students attended the discussion, which was co-sponsored by the Department of Judaic Studies, in addition to the faculty and staff members lining the first few rows of Academic A room G008.