Religion builds self-control and excludes outsiders – simultaneously

Connor Wood

Two Muslim men praying

Religion sure seems to care a lot about self-control. From the Ten Commandments to Shariah law to rule-bound Zen monasticism, most religious communities impose tremendous restrictions on their members. (Not for them the wide-open ethos of “If it feels good, do it.”) Yet despite their dreary-seeming, duty-oriented value systems, religious adherents tend to be slightly happier and longer-lived than their nonreligious peers. What gives? In a new paper, I spend a lot of pages arguing that religious constraints on behavior and elevated personal well-being are actually inextricable from one another, because following all those rules builds self-control – one of the best predictors of life outcomes. The catch? The very practices that build self-control are the same tools religions use to discriminate against outsiders. [Read more…]

Simulating Religion

Connor Wood

Conceptual wireframe mesh man woman face

Religion is simple, right? Some people believe in gods and an afterlife and stuff, and others don’t. That’s all there is to it. Wrong – religion is super ridiculously complicated. There are thousands of different religions across the world, with a stupendously dizzying array of different beliefs, rituals, and stories. For example, many Hindus worship the supreme god Vishnu, who creates the world while sleeping on the cosmic ocean. But millions of fellow Hindus say that another god, Shiva, is actually the one who creates everything, by dancing the cosmic tandava dance.* Vaishnavites and Shaivites have different ways of praying, different holidays, and different mythologies. And that’s just within Hinduism! All the other religions are equally, absurdly different from each other. So how do we get a handle on this vast realm of difference and variation? Well, one of the best techniques for understanding really, really complicated things is through…computer simulations. Think I’m joking? The research project I’m about to start work on is a three-year effort to model theories of religion. [Read more…]

Religion and evolution, part deux

Connor Wood

Gray Cranes

After a pleasant sojourn with ISIS in my last post, it’s time to get back to the question of whether religion is an evolved adaptation. In my last post on the evolution of religion, I mentioned that there was a brewing conflict between group selection and inclusive fitness models in biology. Did I say conflict? I meant outright, total war. Far be it from me to over-dramatize a scientific quarrel, but this one doesn’t need to be over-dramatized; it’s already plenty dramatic. From massive letters of protest signed by hundreds of biologists to name-calling to bald accusations of irrelevance leveled against major intellectual figures, the group selection/inclusive fitness debates are the major scientific conflict of the young 21st century. Grab some popcorn, okay?

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Is religion evolutionarily adaptive?

Connor Wood

Light bulb evolution

If you’ve ever had roommates, you know the frustration of realizing that not everyone is contributing equally. If you’re the one who’s always emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the bathroom, pretty soon you start to feel taken advantage of – because you are being taken advantage of. This commonplace fount of roommate resentment is about as mundane as it gets, but it’s also a timeless example of the huge, thorny cooperative dilemmas that have faced human societies since time immemorial. How does a group get everyone to contribute to the common good? How do you discourage free riders? Many researchers think that religion plays a key role in solving these difficult problems, which implies that religion might be an adaptation for group living. But if so, does that necessarily mean religion is good? [Read more…]

Does atheism arise from wealth?

Connor Wood

Rich guy

A recent Alternet piece stirred up a storm by posing the question, “Is atheism an intellectual luxury for the wealthy?” The author, Chris Arnade, is a former Wall Street high roller who now works with the homeless in the Bronx. In his new job, he was surprised to find that the disadvantaged and destitute were far more devout than the educated folks he’d spent most of his life associating with. This realization inspired Arnade to wonder whether faith was something only the successful could afford to abandon. Ongoing research suggests that from a systemic perspective, there may be something to this – but not necessarily in the way Arnade describes.

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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…]

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…]

Religion: is it always tribal?

Prejudice sign

Connor Wood

It’s time to talk about a bogeyman of modern democracy: tribalism. Everyone knows that humans have given their allegiance to their own small groups – at the expense of larger groups and outsiders – since time immemorial. It’s also no secret that religion has played a central role in this process, by dividing Muslim from Christian, Protestant from Catholic, insider from outsider. The very soul of the modern Enlightenment is about overcoming this pernicious factionalism and forging one world in harmony. Unsurprisingly, then, advocates of post-tribal ethics from Jeremy Bentham to Kurt Vonnegut have been critics of religion. But the real story may be more complicated than such skeptics claim. Religions, it seems, offer tools both for creating tribes – and for expanding beyond them. [Read more…]

Circumcision in religion: What does science say?

Connor Wood

Circumcision kit

Last Tuesday, June 26th, a German court in Cologne ruled that circumcisions could not be performed in its jurisdiction on children before they turn of age to consent to the operation. The ruling, which came in response to a four-year-old Muslim boy who experienced post-circumcision bleeding, inspired Jewish and Muslim groups across Germany to condemn the court’s decision, decrying what they see as unprecedented disregard for religious liberty. While both sides in this heated debate have respectable arguments, the scientific study of religion offers some perspectives that have led me to believe the court’s opinion was misguided. Specifically, body modification as a signal of group identity is a pervasive feature of religious cultures worldwide, and such signals can be vitally necessary for groups to survive, and thrive, in a hostile world.

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Does religion make us moral?

Connor Wood

Stealing

The scriptures of the world’s great religious traditions are chock-full of moral teachings. Believers are encouraged to treat each other as neighbors, to be kind to strangers, and to help the poor. But religious people aren’t always more moral or righteous than nonbelievers – indeed, religions have inspired wars, inquisitions, and seemingly endless prejudice. So is religion morally good or bad? Yale psychologist Paul Bloom thinks the answer is both. And the moral effects of religion stem from what religious people do together…not necessarily what they believe.

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