Monthly Archives: October 2013

Is Science a Religion?

Jonathan Morgan

ScientistBefore you scoff, try to take the question seriously. If you’re willing to do that, then your first question should be: what do I mean by religion? But definitions are slippery — it really depends who’s doing the defining. There are plenty of definitions that make my question ridiculous: for example, religion is belief in supernatural beings. But this definition is science’s own definition of religion. Shouldn’t it raise some suspicion that the times science seems the furthest from religion is when science is defining religion?

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Religion and Self Control

Jonathan Morgan

The hand of Golden Buddha image.Self-control may be one of the things that really distinguishes humans from other animals.  Ok, that’s not entirely true- my dog is using an incredible amount of self-control when he’s willing to sit and stay before going on a walk.  Nevertheless, self-control may have been one of the qualities that helped humans thrive in the evolutionary game.  When we exercise it, our ability to resist impulses, delay gratification, and persist through challenges makes it possible to work together in groups.  And let’s face it – without working together, our defenseless, slow, and awkward ancestors probably would’ve been eaten.  It turns out religion may have helped us preserve and grow this ability.

Last year, a group of researchers from Queen’s University conducted a series of experiments to see whether religion really is connected to self-control.  The experiments relied on a priming technique, which is psychology jargon for exposing someone to an idea or concept that will then change their behavior.  For example, have you ever noticed that after a friend tells you about a book or a new restaurant, you’re likely to notice that book when you walk by a bookstore or perk up when they mention that restaurant on the news?  I’m not saying that it’s not a coincidence when this happen, but it’s also an example of being primed.  Just as hearing the name of that book may change your attention, being primed with other concepts may change your behavior in more subtle ways.

In these experiments, participants were primed with religious ideas by simply unscrambling phrases that contained religious words.  If religion is connected to self-control, then this simple exposure would be enough to affect people’s self-control.   The psychologists conducting this research found just that.

Some of their techniques for measuring self-control may seem trite, but they’re small-scale ways to test people’s ability to delay gratification or persist through a challenge.  Researchers can’t just ask people to sit there and resist impulses.  One experiment told people that they would be paid for their time participating; they could come back the next day for $5 or return the next week for $6.  60% of those who were religiously primed waited a week, while 34% of people who just unscrambled a neutral phrase waited.  This modest example of delaying gratification wouldn’t tell us much by itself, but it fits with their other experiments to create a stronger argument.

In another test, they had participants drink a gross, but harmless, mixture of orange juice and vinegar.  The mixture was in 20 small cups, with 1 ounce in each cup.  People were told it was a test of motivation and that they’d be paid a nickel for each cup they drank.  People who were religiously primed drank nearly twice as much as those who weren’t.  Again, this may seem to be a trite measure of self-control, but it does get at people’s ability to persist through an unpleasant task.  And let’s face it- living requires dealing with plenty of unpleasant tasks.

The other two experiments supported the same conclusion.  When people were exposed to religious words, they exercised more self-control.  In one task religion even seemed to replenish people’s self-control.  If self-control is like a tank of gas, then religious concepts helped re-fuel people’s tanks in the midst of difficult tasks.  For a great summary of these other tasks see the religion scholar Nicholas DiDonato’s essay at

While these experiments are good at establishing a connection, they can’t really tell us the nature of that connection.  At best they seem to imply a causal connection, but whether religion fosters self-control by making people feel judged and compliant or strong and steady is still up for debate.

Either way you interpret the data, these experiments support the idea that religion may have played a key role in helping our ancestors work together in groups.  It’d be difficult to live in a cohesive group if people gave in to their aggressive impulses whenever they felt angry.  Even a cohesive group would have a hard time thriving if its members weren’t able to delay gratification in order to store up food or other resources.  Religion isn’t the cause of these features of self-control, but its ability to nurture self-control may have helped make it an integral part of evolving human communities.

American Judaism

Jonathan Morgan

LA TORAHEarlier this week, the Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life came out with a new portrait of Judaism in America.  The New York Times wrote up a quick summary  about how more and more American Jews are identifying as non-religious.  At first glance that’s not too unsurprising- you can see that increase as part of the rising number of Nones in America.  While the trend itself isn’t too shocking, it highlights an interesting question- what does it mean to be a non-religious Jew?  We’re so used to talking about ethnic Judaism, that we don’t stop to think about what the name reveals.  Is it possible to be a non-religious Christian or Muslim?

I’m not trying to be ridiculous- I’m trying to draw our attention to what we mean when we say non-religious.  Why does “non-religious Christian” sound wrong?  I think it’s because we have an implicit assumption that being Christian means believing certain things and that being non-religious means rejecting those beliefs.  Put the two together and you sound as ridiculous as talking about a non-fruit-fruit (a tomato perhaps?).  The reason it doesn’t sound meaningless when we say “non-religious Jew” is that we have the ethnic or cultural category for Judaism as well.

But perhaps that cultural category reveals part of the ambiguity in the definition of religion.  Many religious scholars – Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, Mary Douglas, and Nancy Ammerman, to name a few – argue that religion is way more about what people do than what they believe.  Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, a total boss in the study of comparative religion of the 20th century, even went so far as to argue that talking about religion as if it were a thing is a bit silly.  He, of course, said it more eloquently and professionally than that, but the point is that religion is largely a way of life that is integrated into actions and thoughts.  It only becomes a system of beliefs when we call it religion and begin to analyze it as such.

When we say non-religious Jew, we are straddling two different categories of religion.  There’s the sense that religion is a cultural way of life that’s fundamental to one’s identity.  And there’s the sense that religion is a set of ideas and beliefs that we might change around like furniture.  I think most people exist somewhere between these two extremes, because religion is both.  But the dominant assumption in America, and most of Europe, is that religion is about belief – which is why non-religious Christian sounds silly but non-religious Jew, or non-religious Hindu, for that matter, doesn’t.

If we’re surveying and studying religion, then we have to be aware of these different categories and deliberate about which we are using.  Professed beliefs are a bit easier to study, but as this most recent poll by Pew revealed, they’re not always the most fitting for how people think about themselves.  Given all these difficulties, it’s important to let people define themselves – kudos to the Pew forum for doing just that.  Following their lead, I’ll shelf the category non-religious Christian, at least for now because, when it comes down to it, people don’t actually describe themselves that way.