Awesome theories of religion, Part 2

Connor Wood

Religion is confusing, right? Why do people do these weird things, like lighting candles next to statues of gods, praying to deities with names like “Krishna” and “Jesus” and “Buddha Amitabha,” and pursuing master’s degrees in theology? Everyone has an opinion. Some people think that religion arose to explain the frightening natural world, and now that we have science to explain things, religion is obsolete. Others think that religion is a cynical tool for elites to keep the masses down. Fortunately, we don’t have to just rely on speculations. There’s a massive, growing body of literature on religion, and learning about it can help us understand what religion is and where it came from. [Read more...]

Don’t understand religion? Experiment with it.

Connor Wood

Man worshipping

Here’s a question for you: is religion fundamentally about beliefs, or about something else? Most people in American culture, especially those likely to be reading articles and blog posts about religion online, are pretty convinced of the former claim. Read the comments section on any article about religion, and you’ll find a lot of fiery debate about evidence and belief, with the underlying assumption that religion comprises propositions we choose to believe about the world or not, propositions that may or may not be reasonable or backed up by evidence. You’ll find very little emphasis on behavior – on what people do. [Read more...]

Holden Caulfield and the Super Bowl

Connor Wood

Football

Two days ago, two American football teams met in New Jersey to play the Super Bowl. It was a terrible game, especially for those of us with Colorado connections. But that’s just football. The weekend also featured something worse than the Broncos’ pitiable offense: thesportsballmeme, wherein people feign total ignorance of football (including calling it “sportsball”) in order to show how different they are from the average schmo. Now, I don’t have any problem with not liking football. What I do have an objection to, though, is Holden Caulfield Syndrome (HCS), which causes people to sneer at the arbitrariness and absurdity of culture – thus conveniently elevating themselves above it. If the Internet is any guide, HCS is spreading like wildfire, and spurring on the deadly polarization of our culture as it goes.

[Read more...]

Does atheism arise from wealth?

Connor Wood

Rich guy

A recent Alternet piece stirred up a storm by posing the question, “Is atheism an intellectual luxury for the wealthy?” The author, Chris Arnade, is a former Wall Street high roller who now works with the homeless in the Bronx. In his new job, he was surprised to find that the disadvantaged and destitute were far more devout than the educated folks he’d spent most of his life associating with. This realization inspired Arnade to wonder whether faith was something only the successful could afford to abandon. Ongoing research suggests that from a systemic perspective, there may be something to this – but not necessarily in the way Arnade describes.

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Religion, imagination, and secret worlds

Connor Wood

Make-believe

Here, try something: Take a minute to think about one of your best friends. How did you get to be close? I don’t just mean how you met – at a party, taking Freshman Comp together, serving on the same top-secret CIA mission to Burma – I mean how you got to be friends. If you’re like most people, the chances are good that your friendship blossomed by sharing not real things, but imaginary ones. Relationships, research in anthropology and ritual studies suggests, flower best when people take part in shared, alternate worlds of imagination – subjunctive worlds that are cordoned off from reality, where our minds can play.

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Trust issues? The answer might be rhythm

Connor Wood

Djembes

One mistaken assumption many Americans have about religion is that it’s a private affair – a certain set of beliefs that individuals either do or don’t hold in their hearts. But the reality is that throughout cultures and history, people have gathered to chant, sing, and worship in communities, from Korean Buddhist sanghas to little Protestant chapels in New England. While there are massive differences between traditions, members of nearly every religious community take part in some sort of synchrony, or shared, rhythmic action: think singing in time, or bowing simultaneously toward Mecca. And recent research from New Zealand shows that this moving or chanting in sync helps people act more generously  – especially if they’ve worked hard to stay in time with each other. [Read more...]

Ritual reduces life’s noise-to-signal ratio

Connor Wood

Digital processing

Ritual: it’s got a bit of bad rap. To many in the modern world, the very word “ritual” conjures images of rote and inscrutable actions, meaningless ceremonies, dusty and lifeless tradition. In fact, “lifeless,” “meaningless,” “dry” and “rote” probably cover about 80% of what most people think about ritual. And from my extensive research (that is, hanging out and talking with people), I’ve learned that a lot of today’s young adults grew up in traditions where the rituals did seem pretty dry and purposeless. But ritual has been around a lot longer than today’s religious institutions, and it doesn’t have to be pointless. One of my very favorite anthropologists, Roy Rappaport, articulated one good reason why: ritual boosts the signal-to-noise ratio in human societies.

[Read more...]

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...]

Ritual bypasses conscious cognition

Connor Wood

Muslim ritual

Pretend you’re an alien anthropologist come to Earth to study humans. What do you notice most about these strange, bipedal creatures? Their glittering cities? Their fondness for chocolate? Their use of daringly creative insults during traffic jams? Maybe, but let’s not forget one behavior that distinguishes humans almost more than anything else: ritual, and lots of it. No other animal participates in, invents, or performs rituals as complex and detailed as humans. But why? Our bemused alien anthropologist might benefit from new Danish research describing how ritual, using what’s called “cognitive resource depletion,” helps cultures pass knowledge and values down to new members.

[Read more...]


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