The age of extreme opinions

Connor Wood

Auto Accident

It’s almost Christmas. As a present, accept several shiny new entries for your “questionable writing about science” folder. (Everyone has one of those, right?) Recently, a group of French researchers published an ingenious experiment that tested whether certain types of people would be more likely to obey instructions to harm others. As it turned out, people with two personality traits – agreeableness and conscientiousness – were more willing to obey violent orders. This interesting finding should give us all pause. Of course, this being the Internet, excitable science bloggers weren’t content to leave it at that. Instead, they spun it into yet another reason to celebrate the cyber age’s favorite hero: the hyper-individualistic, anti-authoritarian übermensch.

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The great divide: Why activism needs tradition to work

Connor Wood

Anonymous mask

The past couple of weeks in the United States have been difficult ones. With two grand juries declining to indict white police officers for killing unarmed black men, traumatized protestors across the U.S. have been left wondering whether, as one New York Times article put it, American culture “might not ever value black lives.” It’s a stark and despairing question – but, as evidence piles on that racism is far from dead, it’s one worth asking. And it’s related to a broader question that’s loomed over this entire decade, from the Occupy movements to Ferguson: “Why doesn’t the establishment listen when protestors cry out that something is wrong?” Fully aware that I’m inviting a Nor’easter downpour of angry comments, I’d like to propose that one reason modern protest movements have trouble getting their message out is found in generativity: the impulse to carry down traditions and care for the next generation. Namely, activists – while they’re often spot-on about the need for social change – increasingly don’t have the generative impulse. And this makes them invisible to people who do.

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Religion surrounds us

Connor Wood

Church

I visited the Midwest for a wedding last weekend. With family, I spent one day driving around Lake Pepin – a drop-dead gorgeous wide spot in the Mississippi River between Wisconsin and Minnesota, ringed on all sides by stunning, 200-foot forested bluffs and limestone cliffs. For lunch, we stopped in a café in Lake City, Minnesota, where the service was friendly, the views pleasant, and the gift shop brimming with ornamental crosses, religious inspirational plaques, and illustrated children’s Bible story books. For a Boston resident like me, it was a reminder of how religion functions in the vast majority of settings and cultures around the world: instead of being a side note or addendum to real life, it is life. It permeates the physical and mental environment, setting up a powerful ecology of symbols and ambient reminders of a transcendent worldview. The effects are both sublime and sobering. [Read more...]

Yes, fundamentalism is religion. And it starts wars.

Connor Wood

U.S. marine hiding from explosion

There’s a saying: no true Scotsman would ever drink Irish whiskey. Or move to London. Or put sugar on his porridge. But this saying’s not actually about Scottish people. It’s about our own willingness to play with our categories, stretching them to fit our prejudices. For example, if you claimed that “no religious believer would start a war,” current events – particularly the ISIS assault on Iraq, which has claimed thousands of lives and threatens to extinguish entire cultures – would prove you wrong. So you might backpedal: “Well, no true religious believer would start a war.” But this would be a fallacy. What’s going on in Iraq has everything to do with real religion. Fundamentalism is a real piece of the religious puzzle – and a surprisingly fragile one.

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Is religion good or bad for the world?

Connor Wood

Praying girl

What would the world be like with no religion? While this is a question we’ll probably never comprehensively answer, it is an interesting one. Does religion contribute, on balance, to human well-being or to oppression and misery? Most people already have their minds made up on this question, but generally for ideological reasons: religious believers tend (unsurprisingly) to argue that religion does a lot of good for the world, while the vast majority of folks critical of religion come from Marxist and anti-theistic perspectives. Fortunately, ideology isn’t all we have to go on. Two researchers summarized a vast body of quantitative literature for the most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, and found that claims for religion’s wholesale moral decrepitude are notably exaggerated. [Read more...]

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...]

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...]

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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Exploring your religion

Thinking man

Connor Wood

Religion affects everything – and I mean everything – we do. From debates about global warming or evolution to disagreements about how to educate children, there’s no area of social living that isn’t deeply influenced by our religious commitments. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to untangle all the different ways that religious beliefs influence social, moral, and practical viewpoints, in part because these issues can be so polarizing. But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying! Our Boston University research team has developed a new set of surveys that will shed much-needed light on people’s religious, spiritual, and moral convictions – particularly along the all-important liberal-conservative dimension. We invite you to check them out at ExploringMyReligion.org.

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