Sacredness pt. 2

Jonathan Morgan  


Last time I wrote about how we reason differently for those things that we consider sacred compared to profane things.  For most of our daily lives, we make decisions using instrumental or utilitarian processing– “is the benefit worth the cost?” But when we’re dealing with sacred objects or values, we switch into a decision-making process that is concerned with right and wrong instead of cost. That’s pretty interesting in and of itself, but it leaves one big question: how do certain things become sacred? Could the banana on my desk become a sacred object? In this post we’ll look at two different strands of research that give us clues into this question.

Not only do we know that people switch out of utilitarian reasoning when they’re thinking about sacred values, we also know that not everyone does this to the same degree. Some folks are more likely than others to consider values as sacred. That may seem obvious– of course religious people will regard more values as sacred than non-religious folks. But, this difference extends beyond the religious values that you might expect. For example, what may seem to be a matter of preference, “do you like Macs or PCs?” can become charged with a sense of right and wrong. For some people, it’s no longer a matter of simply liking Macs more, the preference becomes imbued with the feeling that Macs are just better. In the context of this research: these are preferences that you wouldn’t switch for any amount of money.

Obviously we’re out past the terrain of typical religion, unless you consider the cult of Mac a religion… but that’s an issue for another time. Given this difference between people, it raises the question: why? Why are some people more likely than others to switch into this right/wrong mode of reasoning?

The same guy we talked about last time, the anthropologist Scott Atran, has been working with a team exploring this question. There are some good guesses out there for who might be prone to make things sacred: one would be people who have a high need for closure. Need for closure is a psychological trait describing someone’s preference for structure and their tolerance of ambiguity. As an example, Burning Man would be deeply uncomfortable for someone with a high need for closure. Lots of theorists (such as the wonderful Mary Douglas) have suggested that one of the main functions of ritual and sacredness is to provide structure and order to our inherently ambiguous existence. So it’d make sense that need for closure would correspond with a tendency towards sacralizing values.

Another good guess for what drives this tendency is the trait of disgust sensitivity. Disgust sensitivity is just what it sounds like– how easily you feel grossed out. There’s a developing line of research in moral psychology that suggests we culturally link our disgust reflex with moral judgments. For example, think about the revulsion you feel about certain injustices or crimes. Isn’t revulsion just a synonym of disgust? Some people are more likely than others to feel this disgust, and it turns out that those with higher disgust sensitivity also make stricter moral judgments. So, that’s our second good guess– it seems likely that people with a high sensitivity to disgust, may also be more like to turn preferences into sacred values.

But, when Atran and his team, led by the psychologist Hammad Sheikh, ran their analysis neither of these psychological traits corresponded with the tendency to turn preferences into sacred values. In other words, how well you handle ambiguity and disgust had no relationship to how likely you were to turn simple preferences into sacred issues of right and wrong. That’s one of those exciting moments in social science when all your expectations are turned upside down. But it doesn’t end there.

The one variable that did predict this tendency to sacralize was how often someone performed religious rituals. This could be attending mosque, meditating quietly alone, or taking communion. Those people who performed more rituals were also more likely to transform values into matters of right and wrong. Of course this would make sense if we were only talking about religious preferences, but this tendency held for non-religious preferences too. So even those preferences like “Mac versus PC” or “Coffee versus Tea” were more often sacralized among those who did some sort of religious ritual.

A couple of things are worth mentioning. First– this is a correlational study, so we can’t tell for sure whether religious practice drives the tendency to sacralize or vice versa. Second– they didn’t separate out religious practices, from affiliation or belief. Of those three, actually practicing your religion is probably the best indicator of your religiosity, so kudos to Sheikh, Atran, and colleagues for choosing that one to measure. But, it’d be nice to have a wider picture of these people’s religious profile.

With those caveats in place, we can think about this relationship between practice and sacredness in a couple of different ways. One guess is that there’s a third factor influencing both the tendency to sacralize and the tendency to do religious things. That seems like a good guess, but the primary contenders for such a third variable would be Need for Closure and Disgust Sensitivity. Even if it wasn’t one of those two exactly, by our best theories you’d expect the third variable to at least show up through those two. This, tentatively, weakens the case for a third variable.

Another possibility is that the tendency to sacralize stands alone as a personality trait. If that was the case, then people with this trait could also be drawn to do religious things. This guess describes the causal influence running in one direction. But there are certain conditions, like feeling threatened or experiencing empathy, that can change people’s tendency to sacralize. In other words, the tendency to sacralize is malleable, it changes depending on the situation. Malleability isn’t what you want for a personality trait, which suggests this probably isn’t the characteristic driving the relationship.

The third possibility is that performing rituals actually leads to this tendency to turn preferences into sacred values. You can probably guess from the last two paragraphs that if I had to bet, this is where I’d put my money. My reasons will have to wait for next time, but suffice it to say that I believe that what we do changes what we think, what we believe, and ultimately what we experience. So it could be that performing religious rituals actually changes how you see the world and turns it into a place infused with sacredness. This could transform seemingly normal decisions into issues with moral weight beyond preference. But, that argument will have to wait for next time.


Sacredness pt. 1

Jonathan Morgan

devils towerWhat do you hold sacred? Maybe it’s a relationship? Maybe a family heirloom? How about a piece of land or time of year? A particular value? When people talk about modern society becoming less and less religious, part of what they’re talking about is the shifting landscape of what people consider to be sacred. This may be a simple decrease in how much of our lives we consider to be sacred. Or it could be that we just think about different things as sacred– in the past we might have shared the same group of sacred things, but fewer and fewer us belong to those tight communities with a common set of core values. Next week I’ll write about how those two possibilities are related, but first it’s worth wondering what we even mean by “sacred.”

Some of the earliest, and most mustached, anthropologists studying religion described the way it divides the world into sacred and profane parts. This remains one of religion’s most common and persisting traits. Ancient hunter-gatherer cultures had particular places, objects, and rituals that were set apart as sacred. The Catholic church marks off certain times of the year as holy and others as ordinary. Hindus have the sacred Ganges. Buddhists have sacred temples and Muslims have sacred texts. You get the point– religion is partially about setting off that which is sacred and holy from the profane and ordinary.  But that doesn’t really get to the question: what is this quality of sacredness?

Anthropologists and psychologists are weighing in on this question, and revealing some interesting differences in how we relate to the sacred and the profane. One of the key differences they’ve found is called the “backfire effect.”  Here’s what happens– you give people a list of values, and after they’ve told you how important they consider each value, you offer them money to comprise the value. For example:

How important is honesty to you?

Oh definitely, really important.

Would you be willing to lie to a friend for $10?

No way. What sort of experiment is this?

Okay, how about $50?

Ummm. Nah, I don’t think so.

Would $100 do?

Hmmm. yea, probably so. But could I apologize later?

On certain values, it’s true– everyone has a price. But, only on certain values. For others, the more I offer you, the more offended you’ll likely become. This is the backfire effect: rather than becoming more likely to give in as the price grows, on sacred values people grow offended, disgusted, and entrenched at the rising offer:

What do you mean $500?! I already said no. This is ridiculous!

An unfortunate example of sacred values at work is Kim Davis’ rigid persistence in violating the law and refusing to issue marriage licenses.  The issue of same-sex marriage has become sanctified for her, and other evangelicals in the US, which makes it inaccessible to compromise or discussion.  Scott Atran, the main anthropologist studying sacredness, is primarily interested in this negative side of sanctification; he works on terrorism and religious violence.  By understanding how our perceptions of sacredness influence our thoughts and actions, we might gain some traction on these issues.

But sacredness isn’t always such a negative thing.  The theologian, Paul Tillich, made this distinction when he talked about people’s ultimate concerns, which we can think about as what they consider sacred.  Tillich suggested that when people elevate something that is not ultimate, to the place of the ultimate they become demonic.  Of course, as a theologian he has very specific meanings for each of these terms like “ultimate” and “demonic”.  But we can think about it as roughly analogous to idol worship.  In that sense, by sanctifying her resistance to gay marriage, Kim Davis has given an ultimate status to something that is not ultimate and is now worshiping that idol.

But, as I said, sacredness isn’t always so negative– sometime people are better at humbly refining their ultimate concerns to fit the character of the ultimate.

A more admirable example is Unist’ot’en Camp’s ongoing resistance to Enbridge and Chevron’s attempts to develop on their land.  The companies want to buy access to the Wet’suwet’en Clan’s territory to build pipelines for oil and gas. From a world ruled by money, this may seem like an absurd decision by the Wet’suwet’en: why oppose the opportunity to make loads of money? But from a perspective where parts of the world cannot be measured in money, the very offer of buying the land is absurd and offensive.*

This difference in perspective is how researchers have begun explaining the backfire effect. They suggest that people often use a utilitarian, or instrumental, mode of thinking as they go about their business. This “utilitarian mode” just means people are weighing costs and benefits (in terms of time or money or effort or whatever) when they’re faced with decisions.

But for some things people switch out of this mode. Instead they weigh the decision through a deontological mode of processing (sorry- only academics could come up with such a terrible word). This just means people consider the decision in terms of right and wrong instead of utility. This sense of right and wrong feels like it’s intrinsic to the world, so the offer of comprise for money is like being asked to betray the inherent order in the cosmos. In a broken world or with a broken self, what value could money have?  Similarly, rational dialogue can’t really touch this level of perceived right and wrong.

If that doesn’t make sense, think of your best friend. How much would I have to pay you to never talk to that friend again?  Doesn’t the very suggestion disgust you and make you angry at me for even offering? I’m sorry for the example. But that’s what this feeling of right and wrong is like. Thinking about something like a friendship in utilitarian or instrumental ways just feels intrinsically wrong. It’s not just a difference of degree, no amount of money would change that feeling– it’s a difference in type.

So from the point of view of this theory, sacred values or things trigger the backfire effect; they live in the realm of right and wrong.  That’s interesting, but I don’t think it quite captures the sacred. There are plenty of things that we hold dear and would never sell off, but might not consider sacred.  Perhaps those things point to what we consider sacred, but are they sacred themselves?  And as Tillich argues, sometimes sanctification misses the mark and can become something really nasty.  I think it’s worth keeping the idea that sacredness must have some ultimate dimension to it– it must point beyond the everyday to something absolute and ineffable.

Despite these shortcomings, I still like this theory of sacredness.  For one, it helps shed light on why people act the way they do sometimes.  But I also like it because you may not have thought of anything when I first asked you what you hold sacred. But now, thinking about the backfire effect, I bet you can name a number of things that you wouldn’t imagine selling. In other words, all of us have parts of our lives that transcend a cold utilitarianism and it’s often these parts of our life that give the most zest and value to our existence. And I think that gift of value and vibrancy is one of the best characteristics of the sacred.

*There’s also, you know, the disastrous environmental effects of notoriously leaky pipelines that don’t have a price.

The Good Life

Jonathan Morgan

Statue of AristotleWhat’s the good life? Ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred different answers. But if you step back and look at all their answers, they’ll tend to fall into two camps. One group will talk about pursuing pleasures, satisfying desires, and having fun. Others will talk about a life of meaning and purpose. The distinction between these two strategies has been around since the ancient Greek philosophers, and remains relevant today with contemporary psychologists empirically studying the differences. Of all the different ways religions influence our lives, one of the most important is how it pushes us towards a life of meaning or a life of pleasure.

From Socrates onward, Greek philosophers debated about the term eudaimonia. Eudaimonia translates most directly as “good spirit,” (think about “eu” as in euphoria and “daimon” as in, well… daemon or demon or spirit). But it has also been translated as happiness or flourishing. Their debates about what constitutes a good spirit or good life were almost never-ending. But the really surprising part is that such discussions always involved virtue. Think about that for a second. In our culture we rarely talk about happiness and virtue in the same breath– the two are treated as totally disconnected. Maybe that’s a problem.

For the Stoics, virtue and eudaimonia were completely connected. In other words, living a virtuous life was all that was necessary for well-being. Even if you were poor, had bad health, and were suffering in other ways, if you had virtue then you’d have a good life. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw true eudaimonia as involving a balance of virtue with pleasure, health, and other beautiful elements of life– virtue alone wasn’t quite enough for a fully flourishing life. The debates between the two schools of thought are much more complex than this; they involve different ideas about passion, purpose, human nature, and our roles within society. But despite the complexities and disagreements, they agreed that virtue was a necessary part of the good life. Pleasure alone wasn’t going to lead to a good life.

Psychologists today seem to be coming to a similar conclusion. As I wrote about last time, the field of positive psychology has been systematically studying the difference between a life of pleasure and a life of meaning. And some key studies have found important differences between the two.

Roy Baumeister, one of the most prominent social psychologists, summarized these differences in a paper a couple of years ago and came up with three essential points where the happy life and the meaningful life diverge: how we handle desires, how we picture our place in time, and how we picture our place in community. Here are his main points:

1.  A life built around pleasure and a life built around meaning handle desires differently. We all have basic needs and desires, and we feel good when they’re satisfied. Along those lines, Baumeister found that when people felt that life was a struggle, they often reported lower levels of happiness– but struggle was unrelated to whether they found life meaningful or not. Perhaps more to the point of desires and needs, experiencing a scarcity of money had impacted levels of happiness at twenty times the rate it influenced people’s perceived levels of meaning. Those were just two of a variety of measures tracking the fulfillment of desires and needs, but the take-away from all these studies is our first point of difference: Feeling good or bad has great bearing on happiness, but is pretty much unrelated to whether you live a meaningful life or not.

2.  The second point deals with time: happiness tended to depend upon the present moment, while meaningfulness was more concerned with integrating the past, present, and future. Not only did happiness depend on the present moment, but thinking about the past and the future had a negative impact on happiness. Perhaps that makes sense: worrying about what’s going to come and ruminating over what has happened often take away from good things in the present moment. But reflecting on what has happened and planning for the future are also necessary skills for living up to certain ideals, which is connected to the meaningful life. Interestingly, it’s not just how much people think about the past and future that influences meaningfulness. Meaning is about linking together the past, present, and future– it’s about integrating time, whereas happiness is just concerned with the present moment.* Which brings us to our final point:

3.  Both happiness and meaningfulness are related to being involved in communities– being disconnected is bad for both happiness and meaningfulness, while belonging somewhere, anywhere, is good. But once you get beyond belonging, the two diverge. Within a group, happiness is about being a taker, while meaningfulness is about being a giver. This was one of the stronger correlations of the study, so it’s worth repeating. Doing things for others is connected to a meaningful life, while having others do things for you is connected to happiness. In fact, once you control for meaningfulness, doing things for others actually has a negative impact on happiness. That means the happiness you feel from giving a gift is almost entirely tied up with how meaningful that act is. This finding extends into other research Baumeister highlights, which suggests that serious involvement with things beyond oneself promotes meaning, but hurts happiness.

Of course, these three points of divergence are interrelated. Fulfilling desires is largely a pursuit within the present moment and is often indifferent to how those desires are fulfilled. Meaning, on the other hand, is largely indifferent to current desires and is instead focused on ideals or values that transcend the present moment and the individual.

Baumeister summarizes these findings within a framework that suggests that happiness is natural but meaningfulness is cultural. This is a pretty deep insight into human nature, because we are inescapably cultural animals. We span these two domains and thus are left to constantly balance and choose between fulfilling animal desires or cultural values.

And this is where religion enters the picture. Culture and religion are intimately intertwined, probably for as long as culture has existed. So it’s no surprise that religions have offered a variety of strategies for navigating these two pulls. It’s also not surprising that religion often comes down more heavily in favor of meaning. Ascetic traditions represent the extreme position by suggesting that human fulfillment requires completely transcending fleshly (that is, animal) desires and wedding oneself to transcendent ideals. But other traditions offer a much more balanced approach by trying to describe how to align desires like having wealth with meaning, by prescribing generous giving.

Religion often gets a bad reputation for being too restrictive – we live in a culture that equates freedom with the ability to have and fulfill desires. So religions are seen as stodgy old things that just don’t want us to have fun. But where else do we get people seriously wrestling with how to balance desire and value? Unlike the Greek ethicists who take this question up in earnest, our contemporary ethicist worry themselves with ridiculous hypothetical situations that nobody will ever encounter. So even if religion is sometimes stodgy, at least it’s willing to take this question seriously. Because despite religions’ disagreements on precisely how to balance desire and ideals, the commonality across all of them is that they take values as real.

If we can’t discuss virtue and values, then we’re left with the lowest common denominator– our animal nature. The debate is no longer whether or not virtue is sufficient for eudaimonia. Instead it’s simply assumed that the good life must be the life spent pursuing pleasure. At least we know that’s real. But within a culture built around fulfilling desires we rarely ask ourselves what desires are worth having.

Asking such questions puts us immediately into the realm of values and meaning, a realm that weighs the present moment in light of the past and the future, and balances individual wants with collective needs. If we are truly bio-cultural animals, then it’s a realm that we can’t escape– so shouldn’t we at least pause and think about how to balance the two? Because if the Greek philosophers are right, and Baumeister’s research is right, then sometimes happiness has to be traded in to live a meaningful life.


*This could be taken to imply the common assumption that happiness is fleeting. But that also didn’t seem to be the case. Instead people who were happy tended to be pretty stably happy across time.

Religion and Virtues: Why Practicing Makes a Difference

Jonathan Morgan

Hands crossed in prayerLast time I wrote about indexing, or how our actions allow us to point to and access deeper aspects of experience and reality.  It was a pretty heady conversation, so it’s worth grounding it in some data.  If what we do makes a difference in how we experience the sacred, then that should show up, right?  We should be able to notice the difference in some tangible ways.  No single study will prove this point, but to get an idea of the type of study I’m talking about, check out this research from Germany.

Two psychologists from the university of Zurich, Anne Berthold and Willlibald Ruch, set out to see if people who practiced their religion were more satisfied with their lives than those who claim a religious affiliation but don’t practice.  They were also testing whether such differences also showed up in people’s kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, and what made people happy.  As you might guess, practicing made a big difference. In fact, those who were affiliated with a religion but don’t practice didn’t differ at all from those who weren’t religious.  But, like most of these studies, we can’t just take these findings at face value.

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How we point to the sacred …and why that seems ridiculous to some

Jonathan Morgan

Weather WaneAfter a long hiatus from blogging, it’s foolish to return by talking about an obtuse idea from philosophy.  But here I go– because this concept is essential to understanding so much of what is going on in religion is about.  Plus it has the added benefit of clarifying lots of conversations about meaning, love, friendship, virtue… you know, kinda important things.  The concept is indexing, and it comes from the American philosopher who founded pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce.  I know, “pragmatism” doesn’t sound particularly esoteric, so it won’t impress at a dinner party.  But understanding indexing is vital to understanding some of the most valuable parts of our experience, so it’s probably worth the trade.

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Genuine Morality?

Jonathan Morgan

Begging handsWhat makes a good deed good?  Is it the motivation? If you help someone out just because your religion tells you to, does that taint your good act?  The social psychologist Will Gervais has a new article out that attempts to address these questions by testing people’s perceptions of good deeds.  What he found is baffling, and deeply revealing of our cultural bias.

In the experiment, Gervais is asking whether it makes a difference if someone does a good deed for religious reasons as opposed to other reasons.  Through an online survey site, like this one, Gervais gave people a set of stories about a protagonist, Brad.  Some participants read a scenario where Brad does a good deed for religious motivations (e.g. Brad gave $500 to charity after reading a tragic news story and thinking about his religious beliefs). A different set of people got stories where Brad gives $500 after reading the same tragic story and simply thinking about it.  And a final set read stories where Brad thought about his secular beliefs before donating.

After reading the vignettes, all participants are asked to rank the morality of Brad’s actions and to what degree he deserves praise.  Religiously motivated benevolence was perceived as less moral than both the neutral “just thinking about it,” and the secular motivation.  In other words, these judgments weren’t simply based on whether Brad acted in accordance with a belief system that encouraged altruism.  Instead there seemed to be something particular about religious motivations that make them seem less moral.

Subsequent experiments honed in on this difference and found that it was based on intentionality and responsibility.  By intentionality, Gervais is talking about whether people do a good deed for the deed itself or whether the action is a side effect of some other goal.  If the man paused to think about his religious beliefs, then his benevolence was viewed as a side effect.  If the guy thought about his secular worldview, then his good deed was viewed as an intentional goal, not a side effect.

Gervais measured responsibility by asking, “To what degree was Brad personally responsible for his actions?”  At first this seems like a silly question, but when Brad thought about his religious beliefs before acting, he was seen as less responsible for his actions.  As Gervais summarized, “religiously motivated actors are seen as less responsible for their good deed than are actors performing the identical good deeds for other reasons.”  In the final analysis, Gervais found that these perceptions of losing responsibility were the primary reason people also found religious motivations to reduce the morality of good deeds.

I don’t disagree with Gervais’ methods, analysis, or findings– it’s a pretty straightforward experiment and I can’t argue with the data.  But I’m baffled by people’s judgment!

First off, why would thinking about your religious beliefs make you less responsible for your actions? And why are secular beliefs given a special status such that you can be motivated by them without losing responsibility for your actions?

My sense is that we are all embedded in worldviews that guide a lot of our actions.  The food you eat, the clothes you wear to work, how you get to work, who you say hello to, and what you talk about (and with whom) – all of these things are primarily guided by our culture.  And thank goodness!  If we had to consciously think about everything we do, it’d be exhausting – we need communities and systems of belief that take care of some of those decisions.  Even more strongly – we don’t just need these systems, we’re always part of them.  Does that make us less responsible for these actions?

Of course not.

This negative association between responsibility and reliance on communities is built on the myth of a perfectly rational actor.  We want the purely objective person who isn’t swayed in their judgments by cultural norms or the expectations of others.* This person, the myth goes, would be truly free and responsible for their actions.  But don’t others always influence our actions?  Tying responsibility to an absence of influence seems absurd to me, if not downright dangerous.

Yet this seems to be the myth behind the second connection that Gervais uncovered: if religiously motivated people aren’t responsible for their actions, then they’re less moral.  What?!

Why should being part of a community that encourages you to do good things make your actions less moral than someone who decides on their own to do a good deed?  I’ll admit that being part of such a community makes it easier to act altruistically.  If I don’t want to give to charity, but I know my friends are giving and expect me to as well, then I’ll probably suck it up and give.  Is that still moral?

Apparently many people would say no.  Or at least call it less moral than if I decided to give because of my objective commitment to some secular standard.  But to me, that rational sort of commitment seems way more fragile than the felt obligations to a community.  On our own, we can rationalize our way out of doing pretty much anything that we don’t want to do.  But, if we’re bound to a community, then we’ll probably do those things even if we don’t want to.  I don’t know if that makes someone less moral, but I do know that it often makes for better neighbors.


*And for good reason– sometimes those culture norms can be pretty nasty.

The mountains don’t care

But sometimes they do

Jonathan Morgan

Moraine lakeIf you’re ever out in the Rockies, you’ll come across signs warning you about the dangers of the mountains.  These signs don’t beat around the bush– they directly let you know that “Mountains don’t care.”  And it’s true.  The weather doesn’t care that you forgot your raincoat.  Lightening isn’t going to discriminate between you and that boulder.  Heck, even that boulder doesn’t care enough to not twist your ankle or roll over your arm if you misjudge its balance.  The mountains don’t care.

But they’re also full of beauty.  And if you’re thirsty, those mountains are full of water– though you may want to bring iodine or a pump to kill off the germs.  If you’re hungry, they’re full of food– as long as you know what’s poisonous and what’s not.  And if you’re tired, you can find shelter among their slopes.  It won’t be as comfortable as a La-Z-Boy recliner, but it’ll keep the sun off your head and some of the rain off your back.  Before I run the risk of getting too poetic and sappy– my point is simply that the mountains also do care.

This is a microcosm for so many situations in our lives.  Sometimes life sucks: illness strikes at random; accidents happen; loved ones pass away; jobs are lost; opportunities disappear; war breaks out; injustice strikes at the core of your community.  But at the very same time, dear friends have new children; new relationships blossom; we receive random kindness; projects come to completion; strangers stand together for a common cause; or there’s just a really beautiful sunset.  We’re caught within the whole ambiguous mess.  The world doesn’t care.  The world cares.

Considering that this is a blog on a website that studies religion…well, you probably see where I’m going.  But I’m not trying to make any theological statement about the divine, and whether it cares or not.  Instead I’m struck by the capacity of religions, at their best, to hold these contradicting truths together.

The Hebrew Bible (or what Christians call the Old Testament) is full of laments about the staggering injustices of the world.  Yet it’s also full of amazing hymns of praise and awe.  These two voices are potently distilled in the Book of Job, a story about a devout and holy man, Job, who suffers every imaginable woe: his family dies, his fortune is lost, friends abandon him, and he even gets skin boils.  When he brings his anger before YHWH about this injustice, YHWH responds with an epic speech about the foundations of the earth and huge fish, which humbles, but also reassures, Job.

In the Bhagavad Gita, a famous Hindu scripture, the prince Arjuna is directly brought into the brutality of the world through his duty to fight and kill his relatives.  Yet, he’s simultaneously reassured by Krishna that it’s all okay– nothing is permanent in this world, everyone dies, but it’s not the true self that dies.  The true self, Atman, will never die.

In Buddhism, suffering is front and center as the First Noble Truth. Samsara – the cycle of birth, life, and death – is notoriously full of suffering.  Nirvana, as the liberation or salvation from this suffering, may seem like a handy solution to the problem. But Nagarjuna, one of the great Buddhist philosophers, taught that Samsara is Nirvana.  That’s confusing, and radical, and gets right to the heart of this tension.

Religious stories and teachings have a remarkable ability to face the ambiguity of existence.  The mountains care and they don’t care.  Life is suffering, and it’s also sublime. Great literature and artwork often face the same paradox of living.  But religion differs by also providing rituals and communities to help engage with that ambiguity– which is helpful, because the ambiguity isn’t going away.

Having the capacity to hold both truths at once is a deeply important virtue.  Without this virtue we risk falling to either side.  If the mountains simply don’t care, then despair’s the right response.  Or if they really do care, then we’re lead into some fantastical mania in which life is always on our side and even mountains will bend to serve us.  I suppose you could also just rule out both options and decide that the universe is just purely indifferent– but that position doesn’t seem to equip people to live very well.

I’m not dwelling on this capacity to hold ambiguity in order to simply applaud religion.  Instead, I want to highlight what’s lost if you treat religion as if it’s built out of propositional truths.

By “propositional truths” I’m talking about the sort of statements that are either true or false.  Water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  The core of the sun is nearly 16 million degrees Celsius.  The Hudson Valley was largely formed during the Taconic and Acadian orogenies.  These are propositional statements, and while a philosopher of science might debate with me, such statements are primarily true or false.

But how about the statement: Samsara is Nirvana?  It simply doesn’t make sense if you take it as a propositional truth.*  Something else is going on.  In the Book of Job, YHWH cares and doesn’t care about Job’s suffering.  If you demand that these are propositional truths, then they both can’t be true.

But if you listen to most contemporary debates about religion, they take it for granted that religion is built of propositions.  Creationists exemplify this tragedy by saying the book of Genesis is full of literal truths.  But even debates about the existence of God seem to depend on the assumption that this propositional quality of religion is its most important aspect.

If you force religious thought into that propositional framework, then it loses its capacity to handle the ambiguity of existence.  Instead it’s forced to pick sides.  This is tragic because it’s so rare to find symbols, stories, communities, and practices that bring us directly into that tension between the world’s indifference and concern.

If religion is primarily about truth-statements, then this tension is flattened into an irresolvable dilemma.  How can you choose only one side?  And, even more tragically, we lose the practices and thoughts that help carry us through the inevitable ambiguity of living.  The mountains don’t care and they care.

Either way, I’m going hiking.

*If you think it does make sense, you should check out some of Nagarjuna’s other writings (especially Mulamadhyamakakarika) where he uses four-way negations (which if you want to sound fancy is called a tetralemma) to undermine any tendency to think you have figured him out!


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,, has previously covered this research here and here.  Check them out for a different perspective.**