Where religion pervades, prejudice reigns

Connor Wood

Fightin' nun

If you thumb through the annals of history, it isn’t hard to stumble across examples of bloody conflicts fueled by religion: the Protestant-Catholic “Troubles” in Northern Ireland; the violent Buddhist/Hindu Sri Lankan Civil War; the 30 Years’ War between Continental Protestants and Catholics. Of course, some writers have recently challenged the association between religion and conflict, but the assumption that religion encourages intergroup warfare is a hard one for most of us to shake. Recent research from Arizona State University isn’t going to help us shake it, either – in an article published this year in Psychological Science, a team of researchers found that cultures with high levels of everyday religiosity are more violent and prejudiced against outgroups.

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Spirit possession: everyone’s doing it

Connor Wood

Shaman

I haven’t written a post here for more than a week. This is because I have been spending all my free time, and much of my non-free time, furiously writing two articles for an encyclopedia on spirit possession. Yes – you heard that right. Possession. By spirits. The two articles (which were technically due back on, um, January 1st) are about the zar possession cult in northeast Africa and shamanism in Korea, respectively. I wrote my master’s thesis on Korean shamanism, and have had an academic and personal interest in such things ever since. But where does something as wild and spooky as spirit possession fit into religion?

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Religion makes you prejudiced. God doesn’t.

Discrimination

Connor Wood

Religion makes people prejudiced, right? I mean, think about all the religious wars throughout history, or the centuries of colonial racism in the name of religion. Well, yes. But the truth is – as always – a lot more complicated. Sure, researchers have found that religious adherence predicts prejudice, especially against gays and lesbians. But another body of literature has shown that some kinds of religious belief can make people more open to outsiders and minorities. So what gives – does religion make us prejudiced and parochial, or not? The answer, according to a pair of researchers from the University of Illinois, is…yes. While religion narrows our horizons, God may expand them. [Read more...]

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...]

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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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...]

Religious conservatism may be driven by the disgust response

Connor Wood

In today’s culture wars, religion plays a major role. And in the United States, it often seems to fall on the conservative side of the spectrum. For example, you hardly ever see rowdy hordes of secularists protesting against immigrants or gays, do you? Decades of research has confirmed that religion is correlated with mistrust of outsiders, sexual minorities, and other common targets of prejudice. But why? A new research paper has a fascinating, if unsettling, answer: conservative religiosity is partly an expression of our bodies’ need to protect against disease and germs – and throughout history, nothing has been a bigger source of new diseases than outsiders.

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Does religion turn people into haters?

Connor Wood

Open mind

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, left a smoking crater in lower Manhattan, it’s been common knowledge that religion divides people. After all, the hijackers who steered jetliners into some of the world’s best-known buildings were hardline Islamists, motivated by a grim theological doctrine of holy war against the West. When taken against the backdrop of history, with its endless Crusades and holy wars, these horrific attacks cast religion as the root cause of human violence and strife. But is this hard-and-fast conclusion really true? A just-published paper suggests that, on the contrary, some religious people are actually less prejudiced against outsiders. [Read more...]

Religion: is it sexist?

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Sexism

For many in the West, religion seems to oppress women. Conservative Christians not uncommonly reject the idea of female clergy, educators, and leaders. While this may (all too) roughly characterize Christianity, the question remains as to whether other religions fare any better. Drawing upon world-wide data, covering most of the world’s religions, Stephanie Seguino (University of Vermont) indeed found a correlation between how one views the importance of religion (whichever religion that may be) and one’s attitudes about gender inequality.

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