Religion-science reporting: We need to do better

Connor Wood

Facepalm

I have a bone to pick. I study religion – a subject that arouses stronger and more willfully misinformed opinions than nearly any other. It’s almost impossible to find objective, forthright reporting or research on the subject of faith. The religious spin the facts to make belief seem righteous. The nonbelievers choose only the stories that most make religion seem silly or atavistic. And the bemused intellectuals, knowing practically nothing of substance about religion but perennially congratulating themselves for their enlightened perspectives, blunder dumbly around in the sea of half-facts and lurid claims, pushed and pulled by whatever news story of the week has gained the most attention. The buzz surrounding a recent study from the Bay Area demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about – and how much is actually at stake.

Say what you like about religion, study after study has shown that religious practitioners are more generous overall with their time and money. They tend to give more to charities – both the religious and nonreligious kinds – and to volunteer more time in their communities. They cheat less, and are more trusting of others. So, although the public image of religious institutions has been tarnished by horror stories like the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, in real life religious commitment actually can inspire prosocial behavior.

Of course, the price tag of religion can include unpalatable, outmoded, or unreasonable beliefs (limbo, anyone?), unwelcome or intrusive social pressures, and – the biggest bogeyman of religion – hostility toward members of other faiths. These and other thorny problems with religion drive many people, particularly those who are naturally high in curiosity, creativity, and need for novel stimulation, away from faith and into skeptical, secular worldviews. The fact that such creative and skeptical people are disproportionately drawn to industries such as journalism and science has led to a contemporary landscape in which written attacks on religion are often lauded as boldly courageous, and where writers can be rewarded for seeking fresh ways to poke holes in religion’s public image. (To be fair, religion often deserves these attacks. But this doesn’t change the fact that public displays of religious skepticism are currently trendy.)

Enter a recent study from the University of California-San Francisco and UC-Berkeley. Led by postdoctoral psychologist Laura R. Saslow, a team of researchers designed a series of tests to see what role compassion might play in prosocial, or generous and altruistic, behavior. Saslow was inspired to design the study when an atheist friend of hers admitted that he only sent money to the relief efforts for the 2010 Haiti earthquake after seeing a heartrending video clip of a woman being rescued from the debris. Realizing that her friend was influenced by feelings of compassion instead of a freestanding moral code, Saslow wondered whether nonreligious people might be more influenced by compassion than their nonreligious peers.

The experiments she and her colleagues carried out strongly suggest that the answer to that question is “yes.” In one study, information was taken from the 2004 General Social Survey to determine whether trait levels of compassion – how much compassion a person typically feels in his or her everyday life – was related to religiousness and prosocial behavior. Trait compassion was measured by survey items such as, “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” while prosociality was measured by the amount participants reported volunteering, giving to the homeless, and carrying out other altruistic acts.

As the researchers expected, higher levels of compassion predicted altruistic behaviors among the nonreligious, but less so among the religious: believers tended to have about the same levels of prosocial behavior regardless of how compassionate they felt toward others, while the irreligious were strongly influenced by their feelings of compassion.

In the second study, a group of participants was primed either with a video showing pitiful scenes of hungry children or a neutral video of two men talking. Later, participants were asked to play a generosity game in which they decided how much imaginary money to give to a partner. Repeating the pattern from study 1, seeing the sad video inspired the nonbelievers to radically increase their generosity, while believers were more or less equally generous regardless of which video they saw.

Finally, another group of volunteers filled out a survey to determine how generally compassionate they were feeling directly after arriving at the scientists’ lab. They then played several games designed to measure their willingness to share actual money with strangers. Again, the more compassionate nonbelievers were far more generous than nonbelievers who were not feeling compassionate, whereas compassion had little effect on how generous religious believers were willing to be.

So, just how big was the difference between the religious and nonreligious folks? The answer depended on how compassionate they were feeling. For instance, in study 2, religious people who had not been primed with the compassion video said they were willing to share about four dollars (out of $10) with a stranger. In contrast, the nonreligious participants who saw the neutral video said they’d be willing to share about 50 cents. When primed by a pathetic video to feel more compassionate, however, the less religious volunteers’ levels of generosity skyrocketed: these participants said they’d be willing to give away nearly five dollars. Meanwhile, religious volunteers who had been primed with the compassion video said they’d be willing to donate…about four dollars.

This pattern was repeated throughout the study: without the compassion priming, religious volunteers were more generous and prosocial than their nonreligious compatriots. When compassion was thrown into the mix, the nonbelievers’ levels of generosity suddenly spiked to slightly higher levels than those of the religious volunteers. The obvious implication is that, for U.S. religious believers, generosity and altruism are probably automatic matters of habit, while the irreligious may require specific emotional events to “turn on” their prosocial tendencies. The studies emphatically do not show that religious people are somehow less compassionate or generous than nonbelievers.

But, infuriatingly, that’s not what you’d think if you read the popular articles reporting on these studies. The ensuing research paper, which appeared in April in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, was widely cited around the Internet. And the citations mostly got it wrong. Wildly wrong. For instance, an article at the website The Week claimed that “(i)n all three experiments, the less religious participants were more inclined to show generosity to strangers.” And the headline for a report on the research in Business Insider gleefully asserted that “A New Study Changes Conventional Thinking About (sic) Very Religious People And (sic) Helping Strangers.”

But in perhaps the most egregious example, the website for Minnesota Public Radio – one of the most well-respected public news outlets in the U.S. today – bluntly stated: “The barely religious are more compassionate than the very religious.”

This is exactly what Saslow’s article did not show. In fact, in the less-compassionate conditions, religious people behaved exactly as countless studies beforehand had suggested they would: they were significantly more prosocial, generous, and trusting than nonreligious people. It was only when momentarily feeling compassionate that nonreligious people matched their religious peers’ levels of prosocial generosity. The religious participants were prosocial and relatively generous to begin with. This trait was mostly unaffected by transient emotions like compassion, suggesting that religious people were prosocial out of ingrained habit, not because they’d been momentarily knocked off balance by a sad video of hungry kids.

If this religious-habit strategy sounds artificial or insincere, think again. The influential American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote explicitly on this subject, arguing that one of the secrets to successful self-cultivation is to

make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can. …The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

Since good habits take time and work to cultivate, even one’s moral and ethical character is, according to James, dependent on developing good habits. In other words, an appropriate measure of a person’s moral standing isn’t just how she behaves when she happens to see a hungry kid. It’s which habits she’s taken the pains to cultivate in her life so that she’ll behave appropriately when she meets that hungry kid. If Saslow’s conclusions are accurate, my bet – both as an admirer of William James and a student of religion – is that it’s because religion functions like a system for inculcating these automatic habits.

In the original paper’s conclusions, its authors seem to hint in this direction, suggesting that “(t)he more religious…may ground their generosity less in emotion and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.” But notice the difference in tone here. James speaks of inculcating difficult but laudable habits. Saslow and colleagues write dismissively of rigid doctrines and utilitarian, conniving “reputational concerns.” So, unfortunately, it wasn’t only the lousy science reporting that took this story in the wrong direction. It was also a team of otherwise intelligent researchers whose understanding of religion isn’t very robust, and whose interpretations of religious behavior – perhaps unintentionally – tend towards the cynical.

But regardless of how much fun journalists might have “exposing” religion, the fact remains that religion actually does lead its followers to be, on average, more generous and trusting than nonbelievers. And from Saslow’s research it appears that these habits are less context-dependent than the prosocial behaviors of the nonreligious. I don’t speak for everyone, but I would rather trust in a person who consistently behaved generously in all situations than one who needed a video clip of starving kids to start acting decently.

What particularly irks me about this science-journalism snafu is that religion doesn’t need us to invent nasty things about it. Religious people really can be profoundly chauvinistic, bigoted, and scientifically illiterate. Throughout history, religion has inspired wars and terrorist attacks, and it has perpetuated noxious systems of gender, racial, and cultural oppression. It’s not as if it’s difficult to find genuine faults with religious institutions. So why willfully misinterpret a batch of otherwise interesting research to make religion look worse than it is? Who wins here?

I believe in the search for truth (although I think Carl Sagan got it right when he said that our approach to truth is asymptotic). And very little is more harmful to the search for truth than transient intellectual fashions. We should always trend towards mistrust of claims made during times when those claims have social cachet. Throughout American history, religion was seemingly permanently in fashion, and thus claims for religion’s social value (and especially the superiority of Christianity) were inherently suspect. Today, however, the tide has shifted, and it has become fashionable in certain educated circles to show off one’s skepticism of, mistrust of, and plain befuddlement by religion. And so we should adjust our own skepticism accordingly – we should trend toward mistrust of stories that show how flawed, or misguided, religion is. This is because, when it comes to studying and writing about religion, nearly everyone has an agenda. There is very little objectivity and even less real intellectual courage. Practically everyone who puts pen to paper is either trying to convince readers to jump wholesale onto the religious wagon or to remain standing, a bit smugly, on the arid roadside of disbelief. Very few are genuinely seeking to understand religion as a concrete, frustrating, inspiring, and fascinating human phenomenon.

This is why the scientific study of religion matters. Religion, whether we know it or not, is the underlying source code for culture. Practically all of our art, literature, and culture finds its roots in religious themes. The final thoughts of many people before they die are religious in nature. There really is something here, and we need to learn everything we can about it. Lousy science journalism, in thrall to the most shallow kinds of intellectual trends, hurts everyone when it misrepresents this most fundamental of human phenomena.

 

  • mp

    This is the most arrogant and offensive crap I’ve wasted my time with in a long time. It never ceases to amaze me how willing to contort reality religious nut-bags are to make their childish unfounded beliefs seem justifiable. Lets look at this asinine study that was presented. Maybe nonreligious people are less inclined to be generous because they realize that charity is not always deserved. If you do what the religious do and give no thought to thrift or tomorrow, then you sink yourself down with the downtrodden. The idea of anti-theistic thinking being a shallow intellectual trend is a pitiful attempt to make it seem like you have a leg left to stand on. You don’t. Religion’s truth claims are all equally untrue and idiotic and the real downfall of humanity. You’re better of without superstitious nonsense, just like Santa, the Easter bunny, Humpty-Dumpty, and gods of all sorts and styles. Let it go and grow up people. We’re not children and this isn’t the Dark Ages. The only obnoxious intellectual trend is the self-righteous religious apologists who try to back up claims that are indefensible.

  • http://irritually.org Per Smith

    I agree with pretty much all of your criticisms of the specific journalistic misrepresentations but rather than reiterate the ways, I’ll just cut to the chase — the parts I’m less enthusiastic about.

    1) You at least insinuate that much of the media exerts an anti-religious bias. For instance you write, “[t]oday, however, the tide has shifted, and it has become fashionable to show off one’s skepticism of, mistrust of, and plain befuddlement by religion.” When Mark Silk (1998) conducted a systematic study of the media’s attitude towards religion over a decade ago he found the opposite to be true, and mind you the accusation of a secularly leaning media was kicking around back then too. Of course things may have changed in the last ten years, but be careful because a handful of infuriating examples do not support the claim that something is “fashionable” no matter how infuriating those examples are. What do you make of the fact that having a religious identity is still normative in the United States? Religion is not just normative, but irreligion is treated with more suspicion by average Americans than other minority religious groups are. Do you really believe that most media outlets, as businesses operating in this context are producing an above average hostility towards religion?

    2) You also appear to be conflating the effects of religious belief and religious practice in ways that don’t jive with the research. You write that “study after study has shown that religious believers are more generous overall with their time and money.” It was my impression that all of the recent studies that separate belief and practice show practice, and not belief, correlating with these pro-social outcomes. This is what Putnam and Campbell’s recent book American Grace shows, for instance. In fact that is also the central finding of the second study you link to in this blog post. This is an important distinction because it allows us to narrow our scope down and further explore what it is about religious practice that causes pro-social outcomes. But the first step is to be clear about what we do know, and the conflation, which I see all the time in the media and in the academy, is far from helpful.

    3) The last issue I want to take umbrage with is more general but it is also possibly related to the last one. Is the conflation of belief and practice related to the apparently whole sale acceptance of the notion that religion, in all of its guises and constituent parts, must be sui generis? It is a mistake to assume that everything that we as scholars toss into the religion box belongs there and only there. In fact it’s a mistake to assume that everything we toss in there even belongs there at all. The distinction that is being teased out currently between the different effects of religious belief and religious practice should make that abundantly clear. But this sui generis business is also problematic for another reason. It lays the foundation for our own smug sense of superiority as religion scholars. You write that, “[v]ery few are genuinely seeking to understand religion as a concrete, frustrating, inspiring, and fascinating human phenomenon.” In other words very few people are doing what you (and I) do. But does that disqualify them from any purchase on knowledge about religion? I believe that your words imply that it does; that unless they accept the supposedly enlightened position of the scholar who understands religion as inherently “complex” they will never be initiated into the mysteries of the subject matter. While I do not mean to promote ignorance I think more self-reflexivity and humility is required here. This is especially the case when the notion of complexity is combined with idea of specialness. For instance you go so far as to say that religion is “the underlying source code for culture.” This is a very convenient thing for a religion scholar to believe, but can it be accepted on more than faith?

  • http://irritually.org Per Smith

    I meant to add this bibliography for reference.

    Putnam, Robert D, and David E Campbell. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. 1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Silk, Mark. 1998. Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America. University of Illinois Press.

  • connorwood

    Hi Per, thanks for your comments! I’ll just respond to each individually:

    1. I think trends and counter-trends can exist simultaneously. So while in one large corner of the media world, religion is still treated with (too much) respect, I don’t think that’s true in the world of science reporting, popular science, and high-quality popular or critical analysis. It’s true that it’s still normative to be religious among the American populace as a whole, but it’s very much NOT normative to be religious among the circles of elite knowledge producers, and in fact can be a social liability in those circles. So, to head off accusations that I’ve bought into the “secular elite” fearmongering that goes on at Fox News and elsewhere, I’ll admit forthrightly that I do in fact see a fairly large gulf in religious attitudes between the most publicly visible scientific knowledge producers and the average American. Research bears me out here; while a Pew Study in 2009 showed that around 50% of the members of the (rank-and-file) American Association for the Advancement of Science believed in God or a higher power, a 1998 study showed that in the very highest echelons of the American scientific community – the National Academy of Sciences – belief rates were in the single digits. Given that the American public as a whole usually polls at around 80%-90% believers, this does represent a fairly significant cultural gap.

    This doesn’t mean I’m whining about those atheistic scientists corrupting our children. Children are fantastic at corrupting themselves; they don’t need the help of scientists. I’m far more worried about this cultural gap deeply constraining and infantilizing public discussions on matters of meaning, depth issues, and faith. The utterly facile nature of a lot of religion journalism is, then, symptomatic NOT of a general media trend towards dismissiveness of religion, but of a broader trend within the knowledge producing classes of not seeing the worth of putting in the time and effort required to actually develop a sophisticated understanding of religion, and relying instead on caricatures, misrepresentations, and sophistry.

    2. This is an excellent point, and I’ve corrected it. Thanks for pointing it out! Sometimes my writing brain runs away with my logical brain. My writing brain is like my logical brain’s exciting older brother, who only comes home once in a while and always wants to party when he does. My logical brain is a bit in awe of my writing brain, and it can never say no. But the hangovers can be intense.

    3. I stand by my assertion that very few are trying to understand religion responsibly. I’m not smug about my own position, but I am a budding expert who has put thousands of hours into learning about something that most people don’t have time to learn about. I’m not blaming average people who need to work non-religion-related jobs for not understanding the nuances of religion. I am, however, blaming journalists, researchers, and scientists who are putatively studying and – more importantly – transmitting information about religion to the public. They ought to be doing better.

    As for the sui generis nature of religion, I am probably more comfortable with an essentialized concept of religion than you are. My basic position is rooted in a understanding that all concepts – not just difficult ones like “religion” – are inherently problematic, and any linguistic category breaks down after a certain level of analysis, but that concepts are still useful linguistic and typological tools. As an example, let me ask what we mean when we say “greater Boston.” Do we mean the city proper plus Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline? Or do we mean all the inner-ring suburbs, or the entire urbanized eastern half of Massachusetts, or do we include also southern New Hampshire and northern Rhode Island? Which sources do we go to in order to answer this question? Whose authority counts? How far out do the MBTA commuter rail lines go, and how far out do people commute to Boston from? The consequences for any given definition vary widely; according to some models greater Boston’s population is 1.5 million, whereas under other schemas it’s more like 4.5 million. There’s no answer that conclusively indicates the demarcations of the commuting belt or the unified economic and political influence of the central city of Boston. There are therefore no strict boundaries to the Boston metropolitan area. But “Greater Boston” is still a useful concept, and I’m still going to use it. Similarly, “religion” as a concept breaks down fairly easily. But I still use it, and it is worthwhile to do so. (Is this the criticism you were making? If I’m not directly answering your critique, let me know.)

    However, I do agree that a certain level of humility is always in order when dealing with religion. And I see a level of essentializing and “sui generis” ideas about religion in the scientific study of religion that even I’m not comfortable with. The problem is that a lot of researchers who study religion scientifically have absolutely no training in the humanities approaches to religion that problematize religious concepts, and so they run with these extraordinarily oversimplified conceptions of religion that center exclusively on belief in supernatural beings and participation in ritual, for example. And social scientists, like Dr. Saslow in this article (who I think is generally an excellent researcher), often don’t have much more sophistication in their ways of thinking about religion.

    Finally, the “source code for culture” argument is based partly on sociologist Grace Davie’s concept of vicarious religion, and partly on studies such as the ones you and I have both been pursuing that show the remarkable importance of ritual participation in many human cultures. Read an interesting address by Davies here.

    The research showing that ritual helps to bond human organisms through endocrine, neurochemical, and other processes strongly suggests to me that the active dynamics of the phenomena we tend to deem “religious” are of central importance to the functioning of all culture, not just liturgical performance. But I can’t put forth a fully fledged argument for this position here. I think you’re right to suggest that the “source code for culture” model is currently an unsubstantiated claim, but it’s definitely an informed hypothesis, and in a future post I intend to flesh out what I mean more fully.

    In conclusion, my own critiques are aimed at, hopefully, establishing a higher level of dialog about religion, and comments like yours really help in developing ideas about how to do that. Thanks.

  • connorwood

    MP, you concisely demonstrate nearly all the points I make in my first paragraph.

    Let me go on the record very clearly, here, as explicitly stating that I am not a defender of religion. Religion can be tyrannical and obnoxious. But I am sympathetic to religion. The tools religion provides, primarily through ritual action and participation in religious communities, can be extraordinarily effective at streamlining social relationships, helping maintain emotional balance, and encouraging prosocial norms.

    The idea that many anti-religious crusaders seem to have that religion is reducible to a set of binary logical propositions (God exists or not, Jesus was the Son of God or not, Mohammed was the Seal of the Prophets or not, etc.) is incorrect. Religion is not about abstract propositions. Religion is far more about action, ritual, performance, and modes of living. A more sophisticated understanding of what people mean by “religion” may help you to make more effective criticisms of it in the future.

    Incidentally, as a previous article of mine stated, religious people are actually in general more thrifty than irreligious ones. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/05/spirituality-may-reduce-desire-to-conspicuously-consume/#more-258

  • http://irritually.org Per Smith

    “I’m not blaming average people who need to work non-religion-related jobs for not understanding the nuances of religion. ”
    – OK but what did you mean in the original post when you wrote: “The religious spin the facts to make belief seem righteous. The nonbelievers choose only the stories that most make religion seem silly or atavistic. ” I realize that the focus of your ire was science journalism (and again I share your critiques of those examples), but it seems to me that with statements like that you’re also carving out a position of epistemological privilege that excludes all of those who are not religion scholars, journalists or not.

    “But ‘Greater Boston’ is still a useful concept, and I’m still going to use it. Similarly, ‘religion’ as a concept breaks down fairly easily. But I still use it, and it is worthwhile to do so.”
    – But what happens when you find out that something wasn’t in Greater Boston after all? Do you renegotiate that boundary? My critique in this case has to do with the fact that once something is placed in the religion box scholars too frequently want it to remain in there at all costs. This can hamper knowledge, when, for instance people conflate (as you are no longer doing) belief and practice because they are both in the religion box. Ritual, for instance, may or may not be in that box, and if the particular effects of ritual practice being measured can be replicated outside that box then how helpful is it to call the practice religious in the first place?

    “The problem is that a lot of researchers who study religion scientifically have absolutely no training in the humanities approaches to religion that problematize religious concepts…”
    – I agree that this would be a problem (and take your word on the reality of it), but with the caveat that I don’t think you should restrict the corrective to “humanities” approaches to religion. Some of the most salient critiques of religion as a category have come from the social sciences, especially anthropology. I think one of the big problems faced by the “science of religion,” is its Euro-American research location. Researchers end up making bold claims about the positive or negative effects of belief or practice based upon data that could be under the effects of a whole lot of confounding variables specific to contemporary Western societies. While gravity is not bound to change much between Nebraska and New Guinea religion very well might.

    “Finally, the ‘source code for culture’ argument is based partly on sociologist Grace Davie’s concept of vicarious religion, and partly on studies such as the ones you and I have both been pursuing that show the remarkable importance of ritual participation in many human cultures.”
    – It’s interesting that you mention vicarious religion because I’m not a fan :-). Read my response to someone else’s response to a podcast in which Davies discusses the concept to understand why – http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2012/03/09/amarnath-amarasingam-what-to-do-with-davie%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98vicarious-religion%E2%80%99/#comments I think ritual and religious belief have had a very fruitful relationship historically and cross-cultural, but ritual has also had a secular life outside of this relationship. Indeed even as ostensibly religious people engage the same ritual actions they may do so with very different religious dispositions. So while I would agree about the central and enduring role of ritual in human life, without having an argument to support myself, I do not agree that all of that which we call “religion” shares this role.

  • connorwood

    Per –

    I do, in fact, claim epistemological privilege. I’m a scholar, and a budding expert. That would be worth nothing if I could not claim that I knew more about something than most people. But that position of privilege is open to all who are willing to approach religion critically and openly, which is something I hope to facilitate by making the scientific study of religion more accessible to non-experts. Meanwhile, I will continue to fault those, both religious and non-religious, who persist in talking and writing about religion in shallow, intellectually uninformed, or sectarian ways. They ought to be availing themselves of better resources for understanding the subject matter, and they are responsible for the fact that they aren’t.

    What happens when you find out something isn’t in Greater Boston depends on what your criteria and motivations are. Are you trying to count the population of the area? Are you wondering what taxes you need to pay, for example for access to MBTA services? Are you just idly curious? The usefulness of concepts depends on the goals of the conversation partners. In general, the worry about labels is not a particularly big concern for me. My model of religion is biocultural in nature, and I’m comfortable with rooting “religious” phenomena in an evolutionary understanding of human nature that sees many seemingly secular phenomena as tacitly religious because they have purchase on evolutionary models of religion. This is also why I am comfortable with and a proponent of Davie’s vicarious religion model. It looks like we’re probably going to disagree on this, and that’s okay by me.

  • http://irritually.org Per Smith

    Most certainly OK. :-) Keep up the good work on this blog. You’re a writing (and thinking) machine.

  • Sagrav

    “I don’t speak for everyone, but I would rather trust in a person who consistently behaved generously in all situations than one who needed a video clip of starving kids to start acting decently.”

    You certainly don’t speak for everyone. The same person who acts generously because they think there is an invisible and judgmental super being watching them is the same kind of person who can be convinced to treat their fellow humans with great cruelty in an attempt to appease that same invisible being.

    If repetitive ritual and monotonous chanting makes some people give more money to charity, then fine. However, I will always feel that I have to watch my back in a world filled with people who tend to only do good when an invisible sky faerie tells them to.

  • connorwood

    Hi Sagrav, I believe you’ve misunderstood my argument. The prosocial actions of religious people are not due merely to worrying about what God will think. Instead, practitioners of religious ritual and life become habituated to certain actions through repeated behavior. This habituation can actually help people deal more effectively with emotionally challenging situations, freeing them to make appropriate behavioral decisions regardless of context.

    So: if you want to attack the views in this article, attack this argument instead. And if you want to attack religion, use your energy to learn about the genuine contradictions, inconsistencies, and oppressive ideas in religions. Call religions out on their actual problems instead of relying on the cartoonish conception of religion as being about imaginary sky friends that seems to be popular among skeptics currently.

  • Sagrav

    Belief in invisible beings without a shred of evidence is an actual problem. Skeptics continue to call the religious out on this point because the religious continually fail to provide a rational reason to believe in invisible beings. The belief in these beings is core to the worldview that leads to both the positive social actions you praise in your article and the contradictions, inconsistencies, and oppressive ideas that you mentioned in the comment above.

    Skeptics like myself refer to peoples’ gods as sky faeries, sky wizards, invisible friends, etc because we are frankly tired hearing masses of people shouting about the glory of their favored undetectable being. When a single, crazed vagrant shouts to passersby that he sees a massive beastie in the sky that controls our destiny, we feel sorry for him and wonder what could have left him in this awful state. When a large group of people express similar notions, we are expected to respect or even admire their beliefs. It is exhausting to live in a world where those same masses insist on injecting the belief system founded on these invisible beings into the culture and legal system that the rest of us must adhere to. After a lifetime of trying, most of us know we will never shake their belief in fantasy. We will also never escape them. Thus, we are left with a final outlet: mocking their silliness. We will continue to do so until even that outlet is stripped from us.

  • connorwood

    It’s a lot easier to mock something than it is to actually learn about it. Our companion website, ScienceOnReligion.org, has hundreds of articles examining research that attempts to make sense of religion and answer exactly the questions you raise (among many others). The resources are out there. If you’re so inspired, you can use them, and your criticisms of religion will benefit – becoming more relevant and more sophisticated – as a result.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I wanted to second per’s comments and add a little, mostly to help (maybe) by pointing out an area where you may want to be careful not to become the thing you reject.
    Just keep in mid there are different kinds of religious believers, and there are different kinds of sciences, and sweeping statements (without nuances or qualifiers) can come of a bit cynical (mostly the third and third to last paragraphs). You seem to think science and religious belief are at odds, in reality, that conflict exists more between certain type of beliefs and certain types of science. I know a lot of devout Catholics in the hard sciences (physics and chemistry) and those to systems have a lot in common (the quest for an ultimate fundamental truth). Similarly, Judaism and people who practice the health sciences tend to have a common trait of care-giving/importance of family. Sure some religions flat out reject science. And some sciences are dirrectly at odds with a common religion-based belief in the dignity and complexity of the human person. I think it’s good to make those distinctions in the contexts in which they occur. I can get “religious people are scientifically illiterate” and “smart creative people are more likely to be scientists thatn religious” (as if those are mutually exclusive) from any Joe Schmo on the street. I expected a little more here.

  • faith

    you stated that religious people tend to be more giving and compassionate compared to non-religious people – i am not sure that that is an accurate portrayal of numbers when you considered that the percent of people who claim to be christian or christian-affiliated far out number non-religious, or “other” religious, followers. since that much is true, we can also assert that if the majority of people are christian (in some fashion), then they also would hold a greater means with which to give. churches can give b/c a ton of people come and put money in their bowls. how many pagan churches are there where people can gather together and give? giving is a matter of personal character, not a matter of religion. people don’t need a god to tell them when others are suffering and in need – that is built in. but we live in times where people are addicted to their vices – they are real addictions – as real as heroine or meth – and greed is a monster which touches many in a multitude of ways. many american’s have far more than they need while others don’t even have the bare minimum. together, we are all charged to work together, regardless of our spiritual beliefs. this charge comes from almost every major religion in the world. major religion implies dominance which implies “most”. so i think it’s fair to say that we are failing as a species, not as segmented believers, to attain a healthy approach to life in general – one which cares for mankind and Earth as well… for let’s not forget that Earth is just as ill, due to humans lack of respect. as a species, we should be working together and not debating the small stuff – like who gives more and who doesn’t – that kind of talk only deepens the lines of division and hate. it doesn’t matter even if your point of view was to keep yourself neutral – nevertheless, it conjures strong emotions. lets focus on what we need to do with our actions, and not continue the non-productive approach to thinking and analyzing ourselves into destructive, hopeless circles


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