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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.


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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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!


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 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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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.

A Guide to Thinking about Spirit Possession

Jonathan Morgan

ApsarasBus stations in downtown Accra, Ghana, are almost always packed with people.  A two-hour wait is pretty common, and on Fridays the crowd triples in size – and so does the wait.  The only thing that makes this bearable is the good company in line and the constant stream of snack and drink hawkers passing by.  “Yes, I will have another fried plantain!”  I knew all this, but nevertheless found myself waiting for a bus late on a Friday afternoon back in 2004.  By 8 p.m. the orderly line disintegrated whenever the bus pulled in – people climbed through windows and smashed through the front door. Because of the chaos, I missed the last bus.

And as I stood there contemplating how many plantain snacks would make the 7-mile walk home bearable, a car pulled up and one of the guys I met in line asked if I wanted a ride home.  (Minor miracles – aka the kindness of strangers – are one of the best parts of traveling.)  As we pulled out into traffic I commented on how many people were out in the streets.  Both the driver and my new friend nodded in consent and nonchalantly said “Yeah, of course, all the spirits come out on Fridays.”

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