Russell Brand is wrong about Western religions

Living tree

Connor Wood

Are you worried about the environment? I am. So is the British comedian Russell Brand, who’s been all over the internet, television, and magazines recently, proclaiming the need for the world’s people to revolt against an entrenched economic system that’s despoiling the planet and keeping billions in poverty. I share Brand’s abject horror at the ravenous destruction of the earth’s ecosystems (and I rather envy his wardrobe). But I think he’s off base when it comes to how to change our ways. Turning our backs on our religions and traditions, as Brand urges, isn’t going to fix our looming global problems. This is because traditions, as stultifying as they might seem, are humanity’s best tools for forging links between cultures, environments, and time.

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Trust issues? The answer might be rhythm

Connor Wood

Djembes

One mistaken assumption many Americans have about religion is that it’s a private affair – a certain set of beliefs that individuals either do or don’t hold in their hearts. But the reality is that throughout cultures and history, people have gathered to chant, sing, and worship in communities, from Korean Buddhist sanghas to little Protestant chapels in New England. While there are massive differences between traditions, members of nearly every religious community take part in some sort of synchrony, or shared, rhythmic action: think singing in time, or bowing simultaneously toward Mecca. And recent research from New Zealand shows that this moving or chanting in sync helps people act more generously  – especially if they’ve worked hard to stay in time with each other. [Read more...]

A friendly reminder: Science isn’t reality. Reality is reality.

Woman on bike looking at mountains

Connor Wood

Last week, I reported on a bit of research that suggested, in part, that many religious nonbelievers come to their atheistic worldviews after being convinced that science explains the world better than religion does. But despite its admittedly jaw-dropping explanatory power, science does, in fact, have its limitations. Science cannot explain or predict everything (sorry, E.O. Wilson). These limitations, however, don’t necessarily imply that atheists or agnostics should become theists. Instead, they imply that we should reside more fully in our own bodies – the subjects of the rich sensory impressions and first-person experiences that are ultimately the source of all knowledge. [Read more...]

Why Are There Atheists?

Connor Wood

Why are there atheists? This isn’t just a rhetorical question – much scientific research into religious belief over the past couple of decades has concluded that religious belief is culturally universal, and arises from cognitive and cultural defaults that are persistent across societies. Many academics, especially in the humanities, might reject such universalizing claims, but the fact remains that religious beliefs and practices are found in all human societies, very nearly without exception. Clearly, there is something basically human about being religious. So does this mean that atheists are freaks? One psychologist says “Nope.” Instead, she gives evidence to show that atheism is a perfectly expectable outcome of basic – and natural – personality differences between individuals. [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...]

Why conservatives hate Obamacare

Connor Wood

Ugh, politics. Congressional Republicans are determined to stop President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act from ever getting off the ground, and they’re willing to hold the entire government hostage to get their way. To many people (including sometimes myself), these Tea Party-style priorities seem incomprehensible – not to mention cruel and reactionary. Who on Earth wouldn’t want to give as many people as possible affordable health care? But one perspective, informed by role of religion in traditional cultures, can at least help explain some of the conservative resistance. This doesn’t excuse governmental loggerheads, but it might help some of us to stop talking past one another. [Read more...]

Ritual reduces life’s noise-to-signal ratio

Connor Wood

Digital processing

Ritual: it’s got a bit of bad rap. To many in the modern world, the very word “ritual” conjures images of rote and inscrutable actions, meaningless ceremonies, dusty and lifeless tradition. In fact, “lifeless,” “meaningless,” “dry” and “rote” probably cover about 80% of what most people think about ritual. And from my extensive research (that is, hanging out and talking with people), I’ve learned that a lot of today’s young adults grew up in traditions where the rituals did seem pretty dry and purposeless. But ritual has been around a lot longer than today’s religious institutions, and it doesn’t have to be pointless. One of my very favorite anthropologists, Roy Rappaport, articulated one good reason why: ritual boosts the signal-to-noise ratio in human societies.

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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...]

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...]

Steven Pinker: Stop bashing religion. You’re hurting science.

Connor Wood

Let’s face it: we have a science literacy problem in the United States. Significant percentages of our population don’t know what a genome is, what tectonic plates do, or what a double-blind study accomplishes. Worse, very large chunks of the population actively reject basic scientific claims about our evolutionary origins and our effects on the climate. So why do famous, influential, charismatic scientists – most recently, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in the New Republic – insist on selling science to the public by trashing religion? Has it never occurred to them that they might be actively hindering the goal of making science appeal to laypeople? [Read more...]