Tag Archives: Psychology of Religion

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.

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.**