Monday, November 10, 2008

What Religion Are We Talking About?

Photo of Baha'is in the Big Apple gettin' their prayer on. If you look closely you will find me in this picture (wink).

Slate.com has an interesting piece on social science related to religion and 'niceness'. Check it out:

"Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans say that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified atheist as president, meaning a nonbeliever would have a harder time getting elected than a Muslim, a homosexual, or a Jew. Many would go further and agree with conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger that morality requires a belief in God—otherwise, all we have is our selfish desires. In The Ten Commandments, she approvingly quotes Dostoyevsky: "Where there is no God, all is permitted." The opposing view, held by a small minority of secularists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, is that belief in God makes us worse. As Hitchens puts it, "Religion poisons everything."

Arguments about the merits of religions are often battled out with reference to history, by comparing the sins of theists and atheists. (I see your Crusades and raise you Stalin!) But a more promising approach is to look at empirical research that directly addresses the effects of religion on how people behave.

In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one's reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them." (Read the whole thing here)

An important thing to keep in mind whenever you read about social science research is to look closely at the way the variables are conceptualized by the researcher(s). Whether you find that research on religion supports or challenges your current assumptions, a central question is "What 'religion' are we talking about?" I'm reminded of commentary from One Common Faith, a document commissioned by the Universal House of Justice:

"A commonplace of popular discourse is that by “religion” is intended the multitude of sects currently in existence. Not surprisingly, such a suggestion at once arouses protest in other quarters that by religion is intended rather one or another of the great, independent belief systems of history that have shaped and inspired whole civilizations. This point of view, in turn, however, runs up against the inevitable query as to where one will find these historic faiths in the contemporary world. Where, precisely, are “Judaism”, “Buddhism”, “Christianity”, “Islám” and the others, since they obviously cannot be identified with the irreconcilably opposed organizations that purport to speak authoritatively in their names? Nor does the problem end there. Yet another response to the enquiry will almost certainly be that by religion is intended simply an attitude to life, a sense of relationship with a Reality that transcends material existence. Religion, so conceived, is an attribute of the individual person, an impulse not susceptible of organization, an experience universally available. Again, however, such an orientation will be seen by a majority of religiously minded persons as lacking the very authority of self-discipline and the unifying effect that give religion meaning. Some objectors would even argue that, on the contrary, religion signifies the lifestyle of persons who, like themselves, have adopted severe regimens of daily ritual and self-denial that set them entirely apart from the rest of society. What all such differing conceptions have in common is the extent to which a phenomenon that is acknowledged to completely transcend human reach has nevertheless gradually been imprisoned within conceptual limits—whether organizational, theological, experiential or ritualistic—of human invention."

So next time someone you're talking to attempts to strengthen their arguments regarding religion (positive or negative) by citing "research", look them straight in the eye and ask "How was religion defined in this research?" The response may prove more illuminating than the research itself.

3 comments:

  1. Very good point, and one that I usually try to bring up when a discussion about the merits of religion comes up. The word "religion" must first be defined before a conversation can take place.

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  2. Sholeh, always a pleasure. Thanks for weighing in. I heartily agree with you.

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  3. Wonderful post! It is wonderful to learn the language of sharing concepts as opposed to informtion. A vast amount of our population understands religion as something totally different to how Baha'u'llah describes His Revilation. I continue to find Ruhi book 6 useful in learning how to share concepts that are fundamental to understanding the significance of the day we live in. Great work and keep up the blogging!

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