Is religion disappearing?

Jonathan Morgan

Modern_religion

This question fuels a persisting debate at the heart of the sociology of religion. Does modernization lead to secularization? Any answer to this question demands explanation. If modernization causes religiosity to fade, then why? If not, then how are we to understand the seemingly common trend of religious influence diminishing in the wake of modernization? Over the past decades the theory of secularization has fallen to the wayside, but two political scientists, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, are amassing a prodigious body of data that brings the debate back to life. With the World Values Survey, they suggest that religion fades not necessarily as a country develops economically, but as a country becomes more existentially secure.

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Education’s effect on religion

Nicholas C. DiDonato

College

Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, academics assumed that as education increases, religion would decrease. Yet, in the late 19th century, the world witnessed the birth of fundamentalism, Biblical inerrancy, and papal infallibility. Despite the great increase in education beginning in the 18th century, religion has not only grown but has become more conservative. Interested in higher education’s real effect on religion, sociologist Jonathan Hill (Calvin College) found that it mildly increases skepticism toward super-empirical beliefs, decreases adherence to exclusivism, and increases preference for institutionalized religion.

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Painful rituals: good for some, not for others

Connor Wood

Painful_ritual

From the somber Catholic high mass to the painful, often frightening initiation rites of many tribal cultures, every human society practices some form of ritual. But the rituals themselves differ radically – in ways that may be predictable across cultures. Namely, new research shows that complex cultures that depend on agriculture tend to have frequent, repeated rituals that are relatively sedate and calm. Smaller cultures with less agriculture, on the other hand, feature rituals that are less frequent but far more emotionally and physically arousing. Ultimately, these trends may give us a vital clue as to how human culture changes over time.

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Orthodox and progressives differ worldwide

Connor Wood

Hindu_woman

From religion blogs to blockbuster academic books, debates and conversations on religion are plentiful in today’s world. But if one digs deeply into the mass-media conversation about religion, something becomes apparent: people are just not understanding each other. Writers and thinkers constantly express bafflement at their ideological opponents’ outlandish views. Pundits seem to talk right past each other. A research paper from the late 1990s may give us a hint as to why – around the world, progressives and the orthodox use completely different language for talking about the right way to live.

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The evolution of atheism

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Atheist_symbol

Typically, when researchers study religion, they find that it brings various benefits to society: cohesion, cooperation, trust, etc. Religion evolved and persisted because of the gains religious cultures reaped. However, these findings implicitly seem to uplift religious people and make a puzzle out of atheists. If atheism (by implication) hurts the fabric of society, why did it evolve? What’s the evolutionary purpose of atheists? Political scientist Dominic Johnson (University of Edinburgh), rather than offering a definitive answer, instead suggests no less than ten possible hypotheses. [Read more...]

The religious may fare better when the going gets tough

Jonathan Morgan

Target

There’s no shortage of research on religion and health. Most of it suggests that the religious not only live longer, but are also likely to live better. Yet in spite of this abundance of research there’s still little to explain precisely why religion is related to health. Ferreting out the cause is a difficult task, but new research out of this field suggests that self-regulation may be an important piece of the reason.

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Traditional religion: investing in families, genetically

Connor Wood

Dogon

To modern eyes, traditional religious practices can seem downright baffling, even barbarous. From circumcisions to menstrual huts, the rituals of many societies appear to be coercive, controlling, or senseless. But what if these strange practices actually fulfill functions in their societies? A group of researchers at the Universities of Michigan and Arizona examining the religious practices of the Dogon, an indigenous Malian tribe, have found that Dogon ritual practices help reduce adultery and out-of-wedlock births – a function that can head off bitter interpersonal conflicts and, in the long run, inspire parents to invest more in their children.

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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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Religious beliefs shape perception of stimuli

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Calvinismus

A Calvinist and a Catholic walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll ya have?” The Calvinist, whose theology has inclined him to think individualistically, picks an obscure beer, while the Catholic just says, “I’ll have that too.” While that joke may fall flat, it does reflect leading research about how religious practice affects mental processing. A group of psychologists led by Bernhard Hommel of Leiden University has recently found that neo-Calvinists tend to process information more individualistically, while Catholics process more collectively.

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Religion-science reporting: We need to do better

Connor Wood

Facepalm

I have a bone to pick. I study religion – a subject that arouses stronger and more willfully misinformed opinions than nearly any other. It’s almost impossible to find objective, forthright reporting or research on the subject of faith. The religious spin the facts to make belief seem righteous. The nonbelievers choose only the stories that most make religion seem silly or atavistic. And the bemused intellectuals, knowing practically nothing of substance about religion but perennially congratulating themselves for their enlightened perspectives, blunder dumbly around in the sea of half-facts and lurid claims, pushed and pulled by whatever news story of the week has gained the most attention. The buzz surrounding a recent study from the Bay Area demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about – and how much is actually at stake.

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