New Horizons in Religion and Health

Jonathan Morgan

Chiragh Dheli, New DelhiBeginning a blog-post with the words “cultural consonance” isn’t exactly click-bait.    But if you’re at all interested in the relationship between religion and health, then pay attention to this phrase.

In a variety of ways, religion and spirituality seem to be pretty good for your health.  Researchers explore this relationship in a variety of different ways. Actually, let me rephrase that, because “a variety” sounds too simplistic – what I really mean is that there are thousands and thousands of these studies out there.  Just check out this database!

Sorting through them all is a herculean task.  Sometimes they’re looking at mental health outcomes, where the intuitive connection is probably the strongest.  Other times they’re suggesting that spirituality helps people recover from surgery more quickly.  The various connections are substantiated well enough that the U.S. Army feels comfortable incorporating “spiritual fitness” as part of their Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.

But, of course, these findings aren’t clean cut.  Researchers go back and forth about why this relationship might exist.  Is it the social support of a religious community or the comfort of religious beliefs?  Is there some underlying trait that supports both religiosity and health?  Or is it the coping strategies that come along with religious practices?  Like I said, sorting through all this is incredibly difficult.  And it’s made all the more difficult because of the relatively modest effects of the relationship. (For the statistically literate: if your research explains 20% of the variance, you’re ecstatic).

That brings us to cultural consonance.

The cognitive anthropologist, Craig Dressler, developed this concept as a fancy way to talk about how closely someone fits their community’s ideal.  For example, if you’re a hipster and you’ve got a cool beard, your dad’s old flannel, a sweet fixie, you only drink single origin coffee, or PBR, and you play in an experimental synth-pop band that you only nonchalantly care about (sorry guys, I had to pick someone to caricature), then you have pretty high levels of cultural consonance.  Not all cultural norms are so clearly articulated, but the idea is that we all have some sense of our community’s ideal behaviors and beliefs.

Dressler used this idea in his research to get at the psychological stress of falling outside of that norm.  (Just remember how stressful middle-school was!) And while we all may intuitively agree that it’s incredibly difficult when you don’t fit in, it’s notoriously challenging to model that relationship.  But cultural consonance provides a way to do just that, and Dressler has used the model to study how “social incongruence” can impact blood pressure, BMI, and various factors of psychological health.

The challenge of this tool is finding which cultural model is the most relevant to individuals.  For example, Dressler’s work in urban Brazil found that people’s consonance with a cultural model of the ideal family life was the best predictor of major depression.  But other times, perceived skin color, or national identity, or what food you eat provided the cultural standard by which people judged themselves.  And across the board, how closely people come to the standard also predicts many of their health outcomes.  You probably see where this is going.

The medical anthropologist, Francois Dengah, has been using cultural consonance as a tool to measure well-being among Brazilian Pentecostals, and his results are incredibly promising.  Remember above when I said researchers get excited about explaining 20% of the variance in their outcomes?  Dengah’s model is explaining 51% of the variance in psychological well-being!  That’s a level of explanation that you almost never find in the social sciences.

Dengah’s argument is complex, but it hinges on the ability to parse out the interlocking cultural models within which people live.  Among the community he’s studying, Brazilian Pentecostals, adherence to the ideal religious lifestyle seems to override all other cultural models.  For example, imagine you’re a member of the church but have a hard time experiencing the Holy Spirit, or haven’t converted your family (both part of the ideal model).  If this is the case, then even if you conform to the broader society’s ideals of success, like making lots of money, you’re still likely to experience some serious psychological stress.

In other words, the Pentecostal community is able to alter the perceived value of other cultural models.  In this case, conforming to those things “of the world” becomes radically less important to people who have bought in to the Pentecostal community’s ideal.*  And these differences in what people value impact their health.

This is a much more dynamic model than simply measuring church attendance or how many times someone prays.  Instead, it looks at these behaviors in light of the religious ecosystem that gives them meaning.  It also captures how religion can dramatically shift the way we orient ourselves towards broader cultural models: the influence of the ideal American dream loses its appeal if you join an ascetic community that encourages vows of poverty.

If we take all of this seriously, then perhaps the well-being that aligns with religiosity doesn’t come from any particular belief or any particular practice.  This research suggests that the reason religious people may be happier and healthier than the non-religious is because they fit into their cultures better than their secular counterparts.  If Dengah’s research is any indication, then how well we fit into our communities may be one of the best predictors of our health.  Furthermore, there may be particular communities that are able to overturn larger cultural ideals in favor of their own.

This isn’t a full-blown conclusion; research examining cultural consonance within religious groups is still in its infancy.  But, this tentative consequence would also explain why the positive relationship between religion and health unravels within European samples – being Pentecostal in Scandinavia would probably bring a fair amount of stress into your life!

Cultural consonance is the first tool I’ve found that provides a way to integrate beliefs and behaviors within their unique context and then compare all of this to health outcomes.  And if we have any hope of understanding the connection between religion and health, we need such a tool that is able to handle this much complexity in one fell swoop.

 

*It’s worth noting that there is no single Pentecostal ideal.  Some communites’ ideal (e.g., the prosperity gospel folks) may look very much like mainstream consumer success.

What if there were no God?

Jonathan Morgan

Chaos concept in the hand of a womanDon’t worry, this isn’t a post about why God doesn’t exist– frankly, those arguments are pretty boring.  Instead, this is a thought experiment. The results will say more about you than about the existence, or non-existence, of God.

However you conceive of God – whether as a creative impersonal force or as a loving being with goals and actions, or even as the abstract ground of being – imagine that God doesn’t exist.  What does the world look like without God?  How would your life change?

Often it’s difficult to say how God functions in your life, but by imagining the negative –by picturing the absence of God – those functions emerge more clearly.  A duo of psychologists asked a group of American Christians this very question, and the results were striking.

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Does religion influence how you see the world?

Jonathan Morgan

I’m not talking about whether you see the world as a good place full of meaning and purpose.  I’m talking about the details of your perception – what do you notice and what do you miss?  Researchers in psychology have argued for quite a while that culture can impact what you see in the world.  For example, check out the figure below.  Which line is longer?

 

Muller-Lyer Illusion

 

 

Did you say the top one?  Or were you trying to be sneaky and choose the bottom one?  Turns out, they’re the same size.  But the really interesting part of this illusion is that Europeans and Americans are more susceptible to it than people from other cultures.  Think about how strange that is.  There are various arguments about why this might be the case, but I’m not going to get into those here.  The important point is that culture can influence how we see the world.

So if we really want to know why people perceive the lines differently, then we should, in part, be looking at cultural groups (and probably looking at a more local level than nationality).  More recent research has argued that religion might be one of the important cultural influences on how we see the world.

взгляд вселеннойThe primary researchers working on this problem are cognitive psychologists from the Netherlands: Bernhard Hommel and Lorenza Colzato.  In a series of papers, they have argued that different religious practices and communities can lead to strong differences in thought and perception.

This comes out the most clearly in their study comparing perception across religious and non-religious groups in the Netherlands, Italy, and Israel.  For this study, they didn’t use the Muller-Lyer illusion, but instead used a test of how attuned people are to specific details of a picture.  It’s like a test of whether you’re more likely to see the forest or the trees.

Participants are presented with a large rectangle or square made up of smaller rectangles or squares.  This means you could have four different combinations: a big rectangle made of little squares, a big square made of little rectangles, a big square made of little squares, and a big rectangle made of little squares.  I know, that’s a little confusing.  But remember – it’s a test of whether you see details or the larger picture.  One of these four options appears on the screen, along with a cue to describe either the small shapes or the larger shape.  For example, up comes a big rectangle made of little squares and you’re asked: what shape are the little ones?

It sounds like a ridiculously easy test, and it is.  But if you analyze how long it takes people to respond, you get some interesting patterns.  In the Netherlands, atheists responded much faster to the larger shapes than the smaller shapes.  Dutch Calvinists, on the other hand, showed a preference for the smaller shapes. And among the Calvinists, the conservative Calvinists showed the strongest preference for detail.

That’s truly weird, cause this isn’t a conscious choice – people aren’t filtering their answers based on their ideas of who they are as religious or secular.  They’re just answering questions on this really easy test.  “Rectangle.  Rectangle.  Square.”  And the pattern that emerges shows a dramatic difference in whether people are attuned to the details of the picture or the global, holistic picture.  But it gets even weirder.

The pattern could be taken to argue that religion, specifically religious practices, train participants to pay close attention to detail.  If that’s the case, then religious people in other countries would show the same preference for detail.  Or the pattern may be explained, as Colzato and Hommel argue, since Calvinism specifically emphasizes individual responsibility and the Netherlands encourages a strict separation of private religious practices from public life.  So, is it religious practice or cultural setting that cause this difference in perception?

Colzato and Hommel’s research team addressed these questions by repeating the same experiment among Catholics in Italy and Orthodox Jews in Israel.  They argue that these religious cultures have similarly strict rules as Calvinism, but differ in their emphasis on social solidarity over personal responsibility.

And it turns out that in both Italy and Israel the trend flips.  Catholics and Orthodox Jews show a much higher preference for the larger, global, patterns than their secular counterparts.  So in the Netherlands, the religious folks showed an increased attention to detail, while in Italy and Israel, the religious participants paid more attention to the whole picture.

Of course, Calvinism, Catholicism, and Orthodox Judaism are different in many ways.  And as long as we’re thinking about confounds, the countries are pretty radically different too.  But Colzato and Hommel argue that the important difference is between an emphasis on individual responsibility in Calvinism and social solidarity in Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism.

This is part of their larger argument that an emphasis on individual responsibility or social solidarity will create nonconscious control parameters (a fancy phrase for the internalized rules telling us how to act in the world).  Religions provide a strong source for these internalized rules.  And as they guide our behavior in particular ways, the rules become reinforced.  Their findings are only correlational, so we can’t directly talking about religion causing this difference in perception.  But Colzato and Hommel argue that these implicit guidelines, given by religious communities, don’t just change how nice we are to strangers – they shape such basic things as how we see the world.  Given their evidence, they just might be right.

 

**Our sister website, ScienceOnReligion.org, has previously covered this research here and here.  Check them out for a different perspective.**

5 Ultimate Questions

Jonathan Morgan

RipHow and why is there something rather than nothing?  If that’s not an ultimate question, I don’t know what is.  It’s also the driving question of the philosopher and theologian Robert Cummings Neville’s latest, and most ambitious, opus.  This work, Ultimates, is not just ambitious in its question; it’s also incredibly ambitious in scope, as Neville looks at nearly every major religious tradition in depth.

The most surprising and refreshing part of this book is that it’s actually relevant to life.  This is incredibly rare within modern philosophy, which is all too often just weird, dense, abstract reflections on itself.  Instead, Neville dares to talk about goodness, beauty, and truth.  He dares to recognize value.  It’s crazy to have to call such a thing “daring,” but regrettably most of modern philosophy won’t touch these topics.  Best of all, Neville doesn’t just talk about how we actually live – he brings as much data to bear on the question as possible.  Like I said, it’s an ambitious book.

So of course I can’t cover the whole thing.  But here’s a snippet.  Given the way the cosmos is, Neville argues that there are “ultimate” questions that we can’t help but run up against.  They’re the problems that are inescapable – to opt out of answering them is itself an answer.  They’re also the sorts of problems that nearly all religions have built solutions to address. That’s not to say the solutions are all the same – they tend to range across the imaginable spectrum.  It’s simply to say that even radically different solutions are aimed at answering the same questions – the ultimate questions.

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Animals and Religion

Jonathan Morgan

Monkey yogaHow much evidence does it take to change our beliefs about the world?  Sometimes, when we don’t really care about the belief, it doesn’t take much evidence at all.  For example, say you like ducks and believe mallards are the most devoted of partners.  That’s a good belief- mallard marriages stay together about 91% of the time.  They’re more steadfast than American marriages, which along with the Nazca Boobie, split up 40% of the time.  And they’re way better than flamingoes, who break up 99% of the time.  BUT, your belief about mallards would be wrong because Albatrosses are 100% faithful.  They never break up.  In this case, unless you really, deeply believe in mallard fidelity, it probably didn’t take much to change your belief.

In other instances our beliefs are much more entrenched and therefore much harder to change.  Take, for example, our beliefs about intelligence.  You may not even think you have beliefs about intelligence, but just because they aren’t well articulated doesn’t mean they aren’t there.  Think of someone you know is smart.  How do you know she’s smart?  Whatever criteria you thought of form part of your beliefs about intelligence.  How about when ants form bridges, is that a sign of intelligence or just a fluke of adaptation?  What about this wily honey badger?  The author Michael Pollan wrote a great article about the intense debates surrounding plant intelligence.

My point is that our beliefs about intelligence are like a complex net of largely unexpressed assumptions.  Evidence may change certain strands of that net, but in order to really change the belief one must look at the overall structure of that net.  You do that by asking- What do we really mean by intelligence?  That’s why it would take a large amount of evidence AND a philosophical shift to make scientists feel comfortable with a term like “plant intelligence.”

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Religion and Your Future Self

Jonathan Morgan

Woman looking to the futureConsider yourself in ten years.  What’ll you be like?  Will you be as funny, kind, or wise as you are now?  Now, as you’re thinking about yourself in 2024, consider one more thing- how connected do you feel to this version of yourself?  How real does she or he feel?

I know, it’s hard enough to imagine 2024, especially considering that in 2004 Lance Armstrong was winning his 6th Tour de France, a gallon of gas cost around $2, Colin Powell was resigning from his position as Secretary of State, and thefacebook.com was just being launched.  Who knows what 2024 will look like, but regardless of how sci-fi it might be- how strong does your connection to your future self feel?

It’s a weird question.  The obvious answer is very connected- “it’s me after all, how could I be anything but connected to myself?”  But think about how hard it is to keep new year’s resolutions or how easy it is to procrastinate.  These issues, which we all face, have lead psychologists and neuroscientists to explore the relationship between our present and future selves.  The converging opinion is that this connection is more tenuous than we initially assume.  But, it’s also widely agreed that we can do things to strengthen the connection.  And perhaps religion is one of those things.  But before speculating about how to fix the connection, it’s worth reviewing the research that says it’s in need of fixing in the first place.

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Statistics on Religion pt. V- Religion & Same-Sex Marriage

Hand holding a rising arrow, representing business growth.The religious landscape in America is changing dramatically.  I’ve written on this before, but the results remain surprising: over the past decade, the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated has doubled- rising from 8% in 2003 to 21% today.  Something is happening in the tides of public opinion on religion… but what is happening remains open for debate.  Why are these numbers rising so quickly?

A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit doing research on religion in American public life, has been tracking how opinions on same-sex marriage have impacted people’s religious affiliation.  From this survey it’d seem that same-sex marriage was a deciding factor for many people’s choice to leave their childhood religion.  But, as always, the relationship isn’t so cut and dry.

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Four ways to mess up a conversation between science and religion

Jonathan Morgan

Zen stones balance conceptSometimes I feel like the religion and science police – always patrolling for people messing up.  I don’t want to do that because, frankly, I’m all for making mistakes.  Any conversation that moves between science and religion is covering treacherous terrain.  The only way to do it is to occasionally misunderstand… and then hopefully, and respectfully, keep trying to correct those misconceptions.  So I’m really not trying to call people out just for messing up, but sometimes the mistakes are too obvious and disrespectful to not say anything – like David Barash’s recent articles on Buddhism and Biology.

Barash’s articles are an exploration of why Buddhism might be more hospitable to science than other religions.  Barash is trained as a biologist, but in these essays he reflects on (and distorts) the history of religion and science, discusses similarities between Buddhist philosophy and ideas from Biology, and then suggests a new way to understand the relationship between religion and science.  It’s a bit over-ambitious.

I’m assuming these essays are an effort to promote his recent book: Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science.  They don’t make me want to buy his book (and the patronizing title doesn’t help either), but they do give us some great examples of what NOT to do if you’re going to work with religion and science.

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Luhrmann, Prayer, & Health

Jonathan Morgan

Global freedomLast week Tanya Luhrmann, the psychological anthropologist from Stanford, gave back-to-back lectures at Harvard and Boston University.  Luhrmann’s latest book, When God Talks Back, is getting a ton of publicity, so this was a bit of a rockstar tour.  Except academics are always a bit more tame than rockstars.  But it may be unfair to call Luhrmann tame when her past work has tackled modern witches and her current work tries to figure out how evangelical Christians come to perceive God as imminently real and close.  In American culture, where taking God seriously is either a taboo or private matter, this sort of research is pretty edgy- maybe not St. Vincent edgy, but edgy nevertheless.

The entry point for Luhrmann’s research is prayer.  Like any good academic, she starts by breaking her subject into different types.  For Luhrmann there are four different types of prayer: adoration, supplication, thanksgiving, and confession.  The writer Anne Lamott captured these categories a little more succinctly: Help, Thanks, Wow.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it captures some of the most typical ways in which people pray.

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Evolution versus Creationism- Ships passing in the night

(and firing shots at each other)

Jonathan Morgan

TEvolution and origins concepthe Super Bowl was painful to watch, but at least everybody was playing by the same set of rules. And at the end, fans from both teams could sit down together and lament what a boring game it was. Debates between evolution and creation, on the other hand, are like watching one team play soccer while the other’s trying to play rugby. And they never seem to end in camaraderie. While Bill Nye and Ken Ham were civil enough on stage, social media was full of condescension.  For example, one guy at Buzzfeed said- “I require my textbooks to be newer than 4000 years old.” The culture wars rage on and frankly they’re getting boring. That’s understated, more frankly they’re dangerous. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to learn.

Before talking about culture wars, let’s talk about why these debates never go anywhere. In the debate last night there were all sorts of arguments made and evidence cited, but nobody was swayed. In order to understand why, we have to talk about epistemology, a very fancy (and stodgy) word for how we know what we know. To understand someone’s epistemology you don’t listen for what they believe, you listen to how they justify the things they believe. Why do you believe what you believe? That’s epistemology. Ken Ham, representing the creationists, was completely blunt about his epistemology: “The Bible is the word of God. I admit that’s where I start from.” His appeal is to authority. More specifically he accepts the authority of the fundamentalist tradition, which has only been around since the end of the 19th century. For Ham, and many others in the fundamentalist camp, authority is the ultimate decider of truth.

Authority isn’t in vogue these days, but don’t dismiss it immediately. Instead, think about it as the trust we give to people and institutions we respect. By that definition most of our beliefs are based on authority. We’re cognitive misers and trusting authorities saves us a ton of effort- think about how hard it would be to fact check everything! The question isn’t whether authority is good or bad, but which authorities to accept.

Bill Nye’s epistemology comes out the most clearly at the very end of the debate. When asked what evidence would change his mind, Nye replied- “any single piece of evidence.” Of course this is a rhetorical jab, but he’s also echoing the tradition of science which rests on empiricism. Nye’s referring to the epistemology of science, which (at least in ideal form) is grounded in experimental tests of evidence. The enterprise of science is built around a persistent communal refinement of questions, criteria, and evidence. It’s a complex and multifaceted enterprise, but when it comes down to epistemology it’s based primarily on empiricism.

If authority is “because we say so,” empiricism is “show me.”

These different epistemologies are the fundamental difference within this debate. Ham takes a particular interpretation of the Bible as the final arbiter of truth and Nye takes the scientific enterprise and empiricism as the means of knowing. This is the level of the difference, but of course this isn’t the level of the debate.

That’s why no amount of evidence either way is going to sway anybody. They’re two ships passing in the night. It’s a dog and pony show.

But that’s a little too benign of a description, because the whole debate simply fuels the culture wars. Far from coming to any sort of resolution, debates like the one last night promote the myth that there are only two ideological camps: science or religion.

I think Kurt Vonnegut’s advice is relevant:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

If we pretend that the choice between either science or religion is a real choice, then it slowly becomes a real choice. The middle ground, that nearly all of us stand on, will begin to vanish.

There are all sorts of reasons that would be bad news, but I’ll give you three.

1) It’s a demeaning and patronizing view of religious believers- the vast majority of whom have no problems believing in the Big Bang and evolution. Remember, the fundamentalist stance is a recent minority position in the long history of Christianity.

2) That’s reason enough to be wary of such polarizing debates. But an even more serious danger is that such debates weaken science. Plenty of people would agree because they see last night’s debate as a way for Ken Ham to raise money for his ark. Those people are probably right, but that’s not the case I want to make. I see the danger as more significant than that.

Science needs sharp and serious philosophical critics. Above I described science as progressing toward pure knowledge through empirical investigations, but that’s a fantasy. Science is a cultural project interwoven with politics and money and philosophical assumptions. This isn’t to say I don’t love science- I think it’s amazing. My point is that science needs strong and critical conversation partners to keep it in check. Without such partners, I believe, science will actually be weakened.

Ham and creationists simply aren’t strong conversation partners. These debates present weak criticisms of science. That may seem harmless, but the impact is to water down more serious critiques. If you’ve heard a dozen trite accounts about the uncertainty of scientific evidence, you’re going to begin thinking all such critiques are trite. Furthermore, the polarized atmosphere of the culture wars promotes the idea that- you’re either for us or against us. In such a hostile space it becomes taboo to question, much less critique, science.

3) It’s only on the middle ground that we’re going to solve many of the challenges we face. We need both religious leaders and scientists working together to address the serious dangers of climate change. Global health initiatives advance by scientific and religious leaders working together. This middle ground is the hospitable terrain where most of us live and is the space where we face problems together.

I’d welcome a real debate that addressed the different ways we come to believe things. That’s the sort of conversation that defuses the culture wars, recognizes the other side without disparaging it, and can then begin moving towards some real solutions to very real problems. That sort of debate might never be televised, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have such conversations with each other. Because in the end, the culture wars are only as real as we let them be.