Is a secular America a worse America?

Abandoned church

After centuries of being more religious than other Western societies, the United States in the 21st century is becoming more secular, with attendance and membership in most mainline churches plummeting. Many secularist writers have lauded this development, arguing that a less religious America will be a more open and tolerant – in short, more liberal – one. But in a fierce, tightly-argued online op-ed, Atlantic editor Peter Beinart raises the question of whether this decline in traditional religiosity might be, well, backfiring for liberal goals. Rather than paving the way for a tolerant, cosmopolitan utopia, free from religious bigotry and irrational commitments, the collapse of institutional religion may be causing Americans to fall back onto ethnic and other “tribal” affiliations – thus exacerbating our cultural polarization. Is he onto something here? [Read more…]

Why colleges need (a few) more conservative professors

Connor Wood

Graduates

Last time, I wrote that American colleges and universities have an obligation to become more ideologically diverse by including more conservative perspectives. After all, college students, particularly at top-tier schools, are groomed for positions of power, and leaders who don’t understand half of the country won’t wield that power effectively. But the predominance of liberal morals in higher education has another effect. Steeped in a morality that emphasizes the prevention of harm above nearly everything else, many students learn to be reflexively skeptical of, and often hostile toward, power, hierarchy, and established social institutions – even though they themselves are often going to join and even become heads of those very institutions. Wouldn’t we be better off if our future leaders learned how to care for institutions, rather than pick them apart? [Read more…]

Is college too liberal?

LibraryA recent article in Boston Magazine claims that “liberal professors are ruining college.” The author, Chris Sweeney, reports that the ratio of liberal to conservative professors in New England colleges is a staggering 28 to 1. Thanks to this ideological lopsidedness, conservative students at left-leaning schools like Brandeis or Middlebury report feeling unable to express their views in class or disagree with their professors. At Science on Religion, I’ve often tackled questions of political ideology and culture. And as the Trump administration destructively continues to drive wedges between progressives and conservatives (almost as if it were on purpose!), Sweeney’s article raises a question that fits neatly into that arena. Does the overwhelming dominance of liberal perspectives on college campuses actually have negative effects, even in the Trump era? Yes – but those effects extend far beyond campus. And professors aren’t necessarily to blame. [Read more…]

Religion builds self-control and excludes outsiders – simultaneously

Connor Wood

Two Muslim men praying

Religion sure seems to care a lot about self-control. From the Ten Commandments to Shariah law to rule-bound Zen monasticism, most religious communities impose tremendous restrictions on their members. (Not for them the wide-open ethos of “If it feels good, do it.”) Yet despite their dreary-seeming, duty-oriented value systems, religious adherents tend to be slightly happier and longer-lived than their nonreligious peers. What gives? In a new paper, I spend a lot of pages arguing that religious constraints on behavior and elevated personal well-being are actually inextricable from one another, because following all those rules builds self-control – one of the best predictors of life outcomes. The catch? The very practices that build self-control are the same tools religions use to discriminate against outsiders. [Read more…]

The culture wars come for public higher education

Connor Wood

Source: Eric E. Johnson, Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Everyone holds something sacred. Whether you’re a devout believer or a hard-nosed atheist, there are at least a few values and ideas that you consider inviolable. I often write about sacred values from a cool, academic distance – dissecting them in order to, say, better understand the culture wars. But what happens when a clash of sacred values gets personal? Well, I’ve just found out – the evangelical Christian governor of Wisconsin is about to enact a set of laws that will effectively gut my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Needless to say, this makes it a lot harder to stay cool and objective.

[Read more…]

Internet comments: the poisoned well

Connor Wood

I didn’t really expect Gemli from the New York Times to have a change of heart last week after I called out his/her comments as examples of internet intolerance. Of course, I didn’t expect Gemli to even find or read my post, either, but he or she did – so that’s something! Predictably, no minds were changed in the discussion that ensued here at Patheos, and Gemli signed off without acknowledging that maybe it would be better not to refer to conservative congresspeople as cannibals. Sigh. Such is life.

[Read more…]

Big changes are coming to politics in America. Here’s why

Connor Wood

Tug of War

Because I lack a television at home and was unable to watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos premier on Fox this weekend,* I find myself in need of another subject for this week’s Science On Religion article. Here’s one: It is, unfortunately, an election year. Already, newspapers and columnists are greedily discussing the likelihoods for this November’s outcomes, with perhaps more energy devoted to the unpleasant possibilities than the pleasant ones (depending on how each publication or writer evaluates these things). As always, citizens across the country will rally around tribal identities and partisan allegiances, and our inboxes will positively flood with emails from people who Want Our Money. But in the coming years, I foresee some big shifts in the alliances that hold together our current political and intellectual cultures. Changes are coming. Let me help you get ready for them. [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…]

Why IS liberal Protestantism dying, anyway?

Connor Wood

Empty Church

Liberal Protestantism is dying. Rod Dreher says so in a recent column in The American Conservative, and the statistics back him up: for decades, liberal and mainline Protestantism has been on the decline in the US, with some denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) losing adherents so quickly that their future is in peril. Meanwhile, more conservative and evangelical denominations have generally held their own, or even experienced growth (see graph below). But liberal Protestantism in many ways exemplifies the best of what religion could be: it’s tolerant of differences, non-judgmental, open to scientific knowledge. Good stuff, right? So why is it that the open-minded liberal churches are dying out?  [Read more…]

Why aren’t religious people as creative as unbelievers?

Connor Wood

Artistic

I grew up in a very creative, artistic family. My mother was a former fashion illustrator and model, while my stepfather was a handy musician who kept our house full of dulcimers, guitars, and wooden Irish drums. All the kids became musicians. In my adolescence, though, I grew frustrated by the fact that many other families seemed far less artistic and excited than us, but way more stable and collected. Why couldn’t we have both at the same time? Part of the answer, I think, has to do with religion. Being religious is correlated with personal happiness and satisfaction with relationships – but anti-correlated with openness to new experience and, by implication, creativity. Is it possible to somehow get the best of both worlds? [Read more…]