Tag Archives: Religion

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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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.

5 Ultimate Questions

Jonathan Morgan

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

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

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

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Animals and Religion

Jonathan Morgan

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

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

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

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Religion and Your Future Self

Jonathan Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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