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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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Over generations, religion shapes genetics

Connor Wood

In the United States, religion is usually said to be a personal affair – one’s own private decision about how and what to believe. But this remarkably private and individualistic approach is somewhat odd when compared with the vast majority of cultures and religions throughout history. Far more often, religion has been a public affiliation, determining cultural identities, affecting marriage and family choices, and defining groups in relation to each other. A fascinating recent study published in PLOS Genetics shows just how inextricable religion often is from culture, finding that religious identity has decisively shaped the genetic landscape of the Levant – so decisively, in fact, that Lebanese Muslims are more closely related to fellow Muslims from Morocco or Yemen than they are to their Christian or Jewish compatriots.

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How criminals use religion to justify their crimes

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Handcuffs & Bible

Redemption stories are the stuff of movie magic: a hardened criminal goes to jail, has a religious conversion, and then turns his life around and becomes a force for good. While this makes for compelling drama, it does not make for an accurate description of criminals’ actual appropriation of religion. Research by criminologists Volkan Topalli, Timothy Brezina, and Mindy Bernhardt (all Georgetown State University) suggests that “[t]hrough purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance” criminals take advantage of religious beliefs in order to justify their ongoing criminal behavior.

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Response to Connor Wood: “Evolved” and “Rational” Aren’t the Same Thing

Nicholas C. DiDonato

On this blog, my esteemed colleague and friend Connor Wood recently wrote a defense of the Templeton Foundation that centered on a defense of the study of “religion” (a word I wished he would have defined). While I agree with 90% of what he argued, the remaining ten percent troubles me. More specifically, I strongly disagree with his statement that, “refusing to engage religion… is an apparently rational decision that betrays a woeful misunderstanding of the delicate, unconscious, and evolutionary processes that endowed us with religious cultures.… Religion was not designed by conscious agents, and rejecting its explicit beliefs scarcely touches its actual nature.”
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Why the Templeton Foundation Is a Darn Good Thing

This week, an article at Slate has been making the rounds in which Sean Carroll, a Caltech physicist, proclaims loudly that he will never accept research funding from the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is one of the largest non-governmental funders of scientific research in the world, and it distinguishes itself from other organizations through its interest in religion and its mandate to address the “big questions” like the meaning and purpose of life. Carroll and others believe that this religion-science collaboration stains of the purity of science, and I think this is great. It means there’s more Templeton research funding for me, my colleagues, and others who think that religion needs to be taken seriously.  [Read more...]


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