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...]

The “Religion vs. Creativity” Debate Rages On

Connor Wood

CreativityLast week, columnist and blogger Rod Dreher at the paleoconservative magazine The American Conservative got wind of my Patheos post claiming that religion and creativity are anti-correlated. His take on the idea, and the blog post that resulted, kicked off a very spirited debate among commenters. Many of the ideas were similar to the critiques my original article received: there have been plenty of religious artists throughout history; the creativity/religion dichotomy is a product of modern secular culture (Dreher’s position); the whole claim hangs on a mistaken definition of creativity. And of course, many readers agreed with the original thesis, expressing that they recognized their own struggles to meld creativity and meaning in their lives. I’d tried to respond to some of these critiques previously, in a follow-up post to the original, and Dreher kindly also devoted another post of his to my follow-up. (Update: Andrew Sullivan at The Dish also just weighed in.) The conversation was fascinating, and I encourage you to check it out. But are religion and culture really the enemies of creativity? [Read more...]

Social Capital (and Religion?) Helped the Spread of Nazism

Connor Wood

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.

[Read more...]

Science and humility

Connor Wood

On this summer Saturday in Internetland, where everyone is an expert, here’s an image we could all benefit from:

Let's be humble

Source: Rob Brezsny, FreeWillAstrology.com

Everybody, myself included, loves to feel right. This extends to religious people, atheists, scientists, and pundits (especially pundits). One thing that worsens this addiction to being right is becoming an “expert” – for example, earning a PhD or gaining public recognition in a field. I’ve noticed this tendency in myself over the years in my doctoral program.

[Read more...]

Religion: is it always tribal?

Prejudice sign

Connor Wood

It’s time to talk about a bogeyman of modern democracy: tribalism. Everyone knows that humans have given their allegiance to their own small groups – at the expense of larger groups and outsiders – since time immemorial. It’s also no secret that religion has played a central role in this process, by dividing Muslim from Christian, Protestant from Catholic, insider from outsider. The very soul of the modern Enlightenment is about overcoming this pernicious factionalism and forging one world in harmony. Unsurprisingly, then, advocates of post-tribal ethics from Jeremy Bentham to Kurt Vonnegut have been critics of religion. But the real story may be more complicated than such skeptics claim. Religions, it seems, offer tools both for creating tribes – and for expanding beyond them. [Read more...]

Religion and creativity: A follow-up

Connor Wood

Last week, I posted a piece on this blog that quickly became…quite controversial. In it, I claimed that religious commitment was positively correlated with personal stability, but negatively correlated with creativity. My aim was to point out what had long seemed to me a personally frustrating dynamic, and to raise questions about how to reconcile or overcome it. Many readers appreciated my perspective, but plenty more thought I was off in left field. Some rejected my claim that religion is associated with stability and tight relationships. Others questioned my working definitions of creativity, religion, and science. But the most common rejoinder was, “What about all the creative religious people, and spectacular religious art, throughout history?”

[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...]

Five ways religion can influence political beliefs

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Typically, when people think of “religion and politics,” they think of social issues such as abortion, contraceptives, and gay marriage. While that’s not a bad place to start, it does in fact start at the group level rather than focusing on individuals. Wanting instead to see how religion can affect political beliefs at the individual level, Ryan LaMothe (St. Meinrad School of Theology) found five ways in which this can happen.

[Read more...]


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