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.
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.