Cool new research in religion

scientific study of religionIf you ever want to get seriously frustrated, I suggest getting advanced graduate training in religious studies. Why’s it frustrating? Because everyone thinks they understand religion already. Seriously, biologists don’t sit down next to strangers on airplanes, let slip that they’re biologists, and then find themselves subjected to a 10-minute lecture on their seat mate’s poorly informed ideas about cellular signaling pathways. But the equivalent happens to people who study religion all the time. You say, “Oh, I study ritual and religion,” and the guy next to you goes silent for a second, then leans forward to tell you in somber tones that religion is nothing but a tool for the rich to control the masses.* Or else he’s an Evangelical who thinks that he’s not religious – no, he has a personal relationship with Jesus, and that’s not religion at all. So in a world of people who think that their opinions about religion are just as good as actual knowledge, it’s relieving to be reminded that some people actually study religion. Here’s a look at three recent studies that use data, not opinions. [Read more…]

Is a global community really possible?

Multicultural friends textingLast week, I wrote about Peter Beinart’s recent Atlantic article, in which he argued that a less-religious America might not actually mean the end of racism or tribalism. This time, I want to jump off from that topic to ask some bigger questions. Since the European Wars of Religion, educated people have often associated religion with tribalism and conflict. Conversely, secularism is thought to go along with global cosmopolitanism. So why is the global liberal order taking such a beating right now, after an unprecedented period of secularization across the West? And would it actually be possible to build a truly cosmopolitan, global community – one without tribalism? [Read more…]

White American ethno-nationalism is on the rise. Why?

Connor Wood

Burning flag with prison bars

Step onto Steinway Street in Queens, New York, and instantly you’ll be immersed in the sights, languages, and restaurant aromas of some of the world’s most ethnically diverse urban neighborhoods. But while big American cities like New York are attracting more immigrants than ever – and thriving because of it – the United States at large is suffering from growing discord over race and culture. As critics have often alleged, the United States has often historically relegated members of non-white groups to second-class status. If we want this to change, we have to understand why it came to be in the first place. Sociology, history, and cultural psychology can help. [Read more…]

Science explains why America is going off the rails

Connor Wood

Hammer man

This blog, Science On Religion, is supposed to be about scientific approaches to understanding religion. But it’s been hard to focus on science recently, when my country – the United States – might be entering the first stages of longterm political disintegration. So I thought I’d write about American society and our current sociopolitical situation – which, of course, centrally includes religion. (In fact, I’d say it’s pretty much impossible to understand society without understanding religion.) Foreign readers, don’t feel left out: unfortunately, what happens in the United States in the coming years will definitely affect you.  [Read more…]

No to Reason,™ yes to clear thinking

Connor Wood

Unlock your mind

A couple months ago, I wrote a post here arguing that pure rational thinking, freed from all tradition-bound constraints, is not going to save the world – or the climate. Specifically, I claimed that Reason™ – the rah-rah, yay-for-Science!, jingoistic rallying cry of the atheism-industrial complex – shouldn’t be the torch-bearer for our hopes about the future of humanity and the planet. I stand by everything I said in that post, but I got a lot of pushback from angry readers – especially folks who thought I was arguing in favor of irrationality, precisely when we need reasonable problem-solving like we never have before. The debate was sometimes heated, but also pretty fun. So I thought I’d stir the hornet’s nest again. Ya’ll, Reason™ is not gonna save the world.

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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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