Want a meaningful life? Stay away from rich countries

Connor Wood

Crowd Of Businessmen On Their Way To Work

Money. Moolah. Cash. The almighty dollar. The world economy is set up to produce it, and our working lives are spent making it. It seems obvious that the more of it we have – whether individuals, families, or countries – the better. But a recent research study published in Psychological Science cautions that there might be reason to be wary of material plenty. Countries with higher gross domestic products have higher suicide rates and less self-reported meaning in life than their poorer counterparts. The study’s authors argue that religion plays a key role in explaining these unsettling connections. [Read more...]

Mental illness: it’s not just in our brains.

Connor Wood

Wild depression

160 years ago, runaway slaves in the American South were often diagnosed with “drapetomania” – a supposed mental illness that drove them to run away from their masters. Cures and preventative measures for drapetomania included whipping and cutting off big toes, making it impossible to run. It didn’t occur to the doctors that running away from slavery was perfectly natural. It was a lot more convenient to call it mental illness, because this took the “problem” away from the horror of slavery and placed it neatly within the individual brains of slaves. Now, with Robin Williams’s suicide last week, mental illness is again at forefront in public consciousness. But make no mistake: our ideas about mental illness still need reexamining. [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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Believing Impossible Stuff Is Dangerous. Except When It’s Awesome.

Connor Wood

Happy kid playing with toy airplane

In my last article, I dissected the study that went around the Internet claiming that children who have been exposed to religion (like swine flu) can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction. Those findings were less than convincing, as I and others pointed out – because kids who had been to Christian Sunday school were virtually guaranteed to recognize the  “fictional” stories as versions of Bible narratives. So the research actually only showed that religious kids believe religious things – which, duh. Take a step back, though: the hand-wringing commentariat worried that the faithful might be dangers to society, due to their supposed disconnect from reality. But does believing impossible things, in principle, constitute such a terrible threat? Do we even want a world where people can accept only the facts?

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Nerd culture, the new aristocracy

Connor Wood

Guy on bike

I love my bike. For the most part, biking is the only way I get around Boston – which is a postage stamp-sized city geographically (albeit a very densely packed postage stamp), and so is enticingly easy to traverse on two wheels. Recently, however, I got into a little altercation with a driver who didn’t like the idea of sharing the road. As much as I wanted to throttle my four-wheeled nemesis, part of me comprehended the depths of his indignation. This tension between cyclists and drivers isn’t just a passing annoyance of each day’s urban commute. It’s a window into some of the most basic, and most difficult, realities of 21st-century social living – and, like religion, it has a lot to do with social class. [Read more...]

Religion influences ethics more in low-religiosity countries

Connor Wood

Notre Dame

Are religious folks nicer than nonbelievers? Popular stereotypes would say “yes,” and one line of thinking in psychology concurs. This “religious prosociality hypothesis” claims that religions inspire adaptive, cooperative behavior in their adherents as a matter of course, and that one of religion’s main purposes is to encourage group-oriented morality. But many experts disagree, arguing that nonbelievers are just as moral as the faithful. Into this longstanding fray comes some fascinating new research showing that religion actually does encourage prosocial attitudes – but only in countries where people are free to choose whether or not to believe. [Read more...]

What happens when inequality grows? Ecstatic religion flowers.

Connor Wood

Laying on of Hands

Source: US Government. This image has no copyright restrictions.

I have a new article up today at On Faith, on the intriguing possibility that, as the economic grows more and more steeply stratified, we might start seeing a flowering of ecstatic religious movements. Examples of ecstatic religions are Haitian Vodou, Christian Pentecostalism, or Brazilian Candomblé. Such religions feature intense physical participation, music, and – often – spirits or the Holy Spirit entering people’s bodies from the outside. My argument is based on decades-old research by social scientists such as Erika Bourguignon and I.M. Lewis, who have pointed out that ecstatic, music-driven religions and spirit possession movements are often found in rigidly hierarchical cultures, where many people are stuck permanently in the lower ranks of society – cultures such as the one the United States is becoming. [Read more...]

Internet comments: the poisoned well

Connor Wood

I didn’t really expect Gemli from the New York Times to have a change of heart last week after I called out his/her comments as examples of internet intolerance. Of course, I didn’t expect Gemli to even find or read my post, either, but he or she did – so that’s something! Predictably, no minds were changed in the discussion that ensued here at Patheos, and Gemli signed off without acknowledging that maybe it would be better not to refer to conservative congresspeople as cannibals. Sigh. Such is life.

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Cosmic tribalism, Internet ego, and the future of humanity

Connor Wood

Angry computer guy

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that everyone in our culture has suddenly decided that they are Right About Everything. From Internet comments to newspaper columns to casual conversations, there’s not enough room for subtle debate, questioning, or genuine conversation. I see this especially when it comes to religion, partly because religion is what I think about all the time – but also because most media outlets on the Web have reached a consensus that religious and conservative folks are troglodytes. This tribalism is making it hard to find any common ground across ideological lines…right when we need it most.  [Read more...]

How religion will save the world

Connor Wood

The end of the world!

This past weekend, Western Christians celebrated Easter, the most important holiday of the liturgical year. Easter offers believers an opportunity to reflect on death, rebirth, and hope. This year it also came only two days before Earth Day (happy Earth Day!). Great, because some other news – mostly from the New York Times, admittedly never a wellspring of uplifting inspiration – reminds us that things aren’t all peachy for the Earth. With some experts placing the odds of total ecological collapse by midcentury at 50/50, it’s time to start mining our religious and spiritual traditions for all the hope and insight we can get. Among the most important of those insights is the concept of “sacred.” It may sound quaint, but history shows that without sacred values, human cultures just don’t work. [Read more...]


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