In New Zealand, religion reduces prejudice – but media inflames it

Anti-Muslim prejudiceIn the minds of many, religion causes divisions, prejudice, and misunderstandings. Famous glasses-wearing person John Lennon once fondly envisioned a world that had no national boundaries and “no religion too.” Those two dreams – no faith and no borders – fit well together because religion and division so often go hand-in-hand. Right? Well, sometimes. Religion can demarcate differences between ethnic groups – think Palestinians and Israelis – and even leaves a genetic impact, preventing members of differing faiths from marrying and having offspring with each other. But recent research from New Zealand shows that, in some cases, religion can reduce prejudice, too. More religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of immigrants and Muslims, while nightly news watchers – who ought to be well-informed – are more prejudiced.

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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…]

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…]

A computer model of atheism?

Connor Wood

Robot laptop

Since earning my PhD last year, I’ve been working as a postdoc on the Modeling Religion Project at the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston. We use computer simulations to refine and compare theories of religion, cognition, and culture, trying to understand, say, the causal relationships between ritual behavior and social and psychological outcomes. And people are starting to pay attention. Recently, the science magazine Nautilus published a feature-length article on our project. The author, Michael Fitzgerald, highlighted our team’s attempts to understand the role that religion has played in large-scale cultural transformations, like the switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled agriculture – or the rise of secularism in the modern West. [Read more…]

Social media is toxic. Religious studies tells us why.

Connor Wood

Grumpy woman with thought clouds

You know what’s been in the news a lot lately? Twitter. The erstwhile social media haunt of the dorky Beltway set circa 2009 is now being used for propaganda, for international communication, and potentially for fomenting Thucydidean wars. That’s right: we’ve literally entered a time in history when the president-elect of the United States can cause a major international incident by blurting out a half-formed thought directly onto Twitter. But you know what? He’s not alone. The internet is a place where all of our thoughts go live, just about as soon as we’ve thought them (and sometimes before). As it turns out, this is a major problem. It’s destabilizing. And religious studies – of all things – can help us understand why. [Read more…]

Overworked? Try a little ritual

Connor Wood

Eastern Orthodox Candle

A couple of months ago, I hopped a Saturday afternoon flight to Vancouver for a conference. After arriving and checking in at my hotel, I had a few hours to kill, so I did what anyone would do: I dropped in on vespers services at a tiny Russian Orthodox church, tucked away in an anonymous residential neighborhood far from the downtown core. There, I walked through a simple wooden door and into a space resplendent with gold and candles, pungent with incense. As I stood there uncomfortably not knowing when to bow, an odd thing happened: I felt my muscles physically relax. This unexpected physiological response was a reminder of what ritual, in all its dumbfounding impracticality, means for human life. [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…]

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…]

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…]