Civil Religion: It’s What America Needs

Connor Wood

US flag

Robert Bellah, the sociologist of religion who popularized the idea of an American “civil religion,” died over the summer at the age of 86. In an age of stultifying political dialogue and rabid partisanship, Bellah’s passing marks an era when the American myth has, for many, lost a tremendous amount of its luster – and believability. But two recent events – a moon rocket launch and a presidential speech on Syria – remind us that myths take participation in order to be made real. While cynicism may rule the day in Congress and across the internet, I think that a little openness to the civic myths of our culture – or whichever culture you inhabit – is something the world can’t do without. [Read more...]

Why conservatives hate Obamacare

Connor Wood

Ugh, politics. Congressional Republicans are determined to stop President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act from ever getting off the ground, and they’re willing to hold the entire government hostage to get their way. To many people (including sometimes myself), these Tea Party-style priorities seem incomprehensible – not to mention cruel and reactionary. Who on Earth wouldn’t want to give as many people as possible affordable health care? But one perspective, informed by role of religion in traditional cultures, can at least help explain some of the conservative resistance. This doesn’t excuse governmental loggerheads, but it might help some of us to stop talking past one another. [Read more...]

Ritual reduces life’s noise-to-signal ratio

Connor Wood

Digital processing

Ritual: it’s got a bit of bad rap. To many in the modern world, the very word “ritual” conjures images of rote and inscrutable actions, meaningless ceremonies, dusty and lifeless tradition. In fact, “lifeless,” “meaningless,” “dry” and “rote” probably cover about 80% of what most people think about ritual. And from my extensive research (that is, hanging out and talking with people), I’ve learned that a lot of today’s young adults grew up in traditions where the rituals did seem pretty dry and purposeless. But ritual has been around a lot longer than today’s religious institutions, and it doesn’t have to be pointless. One of my very favorite anthropologists, Roy Rappaport, articulated one good reason why: ritual boosts the signal-to-noise ratio in human societies.

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Ritual creates tribes…and tribalism

Connor Wood

Religious violence

In the bloody and confusing years following September 11th, 2001, a group of scientists and intellectuals led by biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett began loudly calling for less tolerance of religion. Secular-minded popular intellectuals have been criticizing religion since the Roman atheist Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura, but this was a new level of indignation. These writers, who were quickly dubbed the New Atheists, argued that religions’ nonsensical beliefs – immaterial beings, Heaven, answered prayer, and so forth – led far too easily to violence, intolerance, and bigotry. Therefore religious belief had to go! This may seem like a decent hypothesis, at least at first glance. But recently a trio of psychologists did some empirical work and came to a different conclusion: it’s not religious faith that drives violence and intolerance. It’s religious practice. [Read more...]

Calling an End to the Culture Wars

Connor Wood

Liberal and conservative

One of the most rewarding things about studying religion is that it’s given me a much clearer understanding of the culture wars. If religions are essentially collections of arbitrary demands and senseless supernatural claims, then there’s not much at stake when it comes to the great cultural divides in our modern culture. But if religions are not arbitrary – that is, if their components, such as rituals, mythologies, and symbols, actually play functional roles in organizing and orchestrating collective life – then traditionalists and conservatives have valid motivations to retain and defend their traditions. This is because humans are utterly dependent on one another for survival, and any tool or institution that facilitates collective living is thus worth keeping around. Progressives, academics, and secularists would to do well to pay attention to these motivations if they want to understand the seemingly irrational fervor with which traditionalists defend their faiths. [Read more...]

Steven Pinker: Stop bashing religion. You’re hurting science.

Connor Wood

Let’s face it: we have a science literacy problem in the United States. Significant percentages of our population don’t know what a genome is, what tectonic plates do, or what a double-blind study accomplishes. Worse, very large chunks of the population actively reject basic scientific claims about our evolutionary origins and our effects on the climate. So why do famous, influential, charismatic scientists – most recently, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in the New Republic – insist on selling science to the public by trashing religion? Has it never occurred to them that they might be actively hindering the goal of making science appeal to laypeople? [Read more...]

The “Religion vs. Creativity” Debate Rages On

Connor Wood

CreativityLast week, columnist and blogger Rod Dreher at the paleoconservative magazine The American Conservative got wind of my Patheos post claiming that religion and creativity are anti-correlated. His take on the idea, and the blog post that resulted, kicked off a very spirited debate among commenters. Many of the ideas were similar to the critiques my original article received: there have been plenty of religious artists throughout history; the creativity/religion dichotomy is a product of modern secular culture (Dreher’s position); the whole claim hangs on a mistaken definition of creativity. And of course, many readers agreed with the original thesis, expressing that they recognized their own struggles to meld creativity and meaning in their lives. I’d tried to respond to some of these critiques previously, in a follow-up post to the original, and Dreher kindly also devoted another post of his to my follow-up. (Update: Andrew Sullivan at The Dish also just weighed in.) The conversation was fascinating, and I encourage you to check it out. But are religion and culture really the enemies of creativity? [Read more...]

Social Capital (and Religion?) Helped the Spread of Nazism

Connor Wood

In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam popularized the concept of “social capital” – the community bonds that underlie civic life. Putnam famously claimed that organizations such as bowling leagues not only provide a pleasant social outlet, but also form the basic substructure for society itself. Community and social groups, from bowling leagues to churches, are therefore vital for the future of American civil life. But social capital has a dark side, too – one that progressives and cosmopolitans have long recognized. Tight social bonds can isolate groups from one another, solidify class and gender inequalities, and exclude “undesirables” from valuable social networks. And now, research in Germany has found perhaps the most chilling side effect of social capital yet: it helped the spread of Nazism.

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Why IS liberal Protestantism dying, anyway?

Connor Wood

Empty Church

Liberal Protestantism is dying. Rod Dreher says so in a recent column in The American Conservative, and the statistics back him up: for decades, liberal and mainline Protestantism has been on the decline in the US, with some denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) losing adherents so quickly that their future is in peril. Meanwhile, more conservative and evangelical denominations have generally held their own, or even experienced growth (see graph below). But liberal Protestantism in many ways exemplifies the best of what religion could be: it’s tolerant of differences, non-judgmental, open to scientific knowledge. Good stuff, right? So why is it that the open-minded liberal churches are dying out?  [Read more...]

Science and humility

Connor Wood

On this summer Saturday in Internetland, where everyone is an expert, here’s an image we could all benefit from:

Let's be humble

Source: Rob Brezsny, FreeWillAstrology.com

Everybody, myself included, loves to feel right. This extends to religious people, atheists, scientists, and pundits (especially pundits). One thing that worsens this addiction to being right is becoming an “expert” – for example, earning a PhD or gaining public recognition in a field. I’ve noticed this tendency in myself over the years in my doctoral program.

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