Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Posts Tagged conservative

The Culture Wars: An Armistice

I’m not going to get into the details, but I went through some extremely difficult times over the past three and a half years. As in, completely life-changing. The type of experiences that alter you forever, fundamentally shifting your relationship to what you thought was the world around you. 

This essay is not about those times. I’m not even going to tell you about them.     

What I am going to say is that, for the first time in my life, I was forced into searching for reliable ways to be happy. Not because being happy was a palliative, or a distraction from my woes, but because the choice was between learning to wield some of the basic tools of happiness or slope intractably into dissolution, into the type of defeat from which the soul does not recover. This was a matter of survival.

So: enough background. Let me tell you why I bring this up. A terminal nerd, I am a doctoral student at Boston University, and over the past few semesters I’ve found myself somewhat extensively researching the differences between conservatives and liberals – from psychology to music preferences to religious beliefs. Definitions are in order. Conservatives are, for my purposes, people who exist close to the heart of a traditional culture, whatever that culture is. They tend to be invested in religion, because religion is another way of saying culture. They are not bigots per se, but they tend to distrust or act coolly toward those who live beyond the warm bubbles of their own traditions. Tribal beings, they are cocooned in worlds of constructed social meaning: culture.

Liberals, in contrast, are those who dwell at the flickering edges of their cultures, in the strange and eerie space between the spheres of the world’s traditions, religions, belief systems. They tend to be cosmopolitan, to live in places where many different cultures rub up against one another daily. Because of this exposure, liberals have perceptive, even burdensome insight into how each culture is flawed and deluded in its own, often very serious, way, and so they cannot allow themselves to buy into any of them wholesale. From a liberal perspective, to belong to a culture unthinkingly means to accept that culture's injustices and stupid horrors: to grin blithely at the binding of women’s feet and the redlining of black neighborhoods. And so the liberal can never fully trust human culture. She is destined to live just at its peripheries, in the weird interstices between worlds.

It’s fascinating material, this, but more striking has been the timing of my involvement in it. This is because the study of the ideological spectrum could easily be recategorized as an inquiry into different approaches to the problem of happiness. 

The child of pot smokers and rebels, I have always been taught to believe that conservatives are mostly wrong, about most things, and that the project of civilization is largely the process of dragging these atavistic, blunt-browed austalopithecenes along, very much against their will, until we – the radicals and liberals – have built a society free of inequality, racial hostility, and recreational automobile racing. 

I no longer subscribe to that vision.

Instead, I have a vision that is far more interesting, because I think it is closer to reality – and reality is always more interesting than our models of it. In these times of great social discord, as conservatives and liberals increasingly slander and vilify one another on windy talk radio shows and in harrumphing newspaper op-eds, as the Occupy movement has galvanized an entire generation with its tent cities and raucous but defiantly democratic general assemblies, as the culture wars continue screeching on about what women can or cannot do with the richness of their wombs, I have begun to recognize a distinction that makes much of this absurd conflict seem tractable, finally make some sense. What I have seen is this: conservatives are, in fact,  wrong, but mostly only on those issues and difficulties that arise on the macro scale, the sweeping scope of planetary systems, environmental threats, and cultural tides. This is because conservative people do not think at this scale.

Instead, conservatives see people. That is, bluntly speaking, bodies – families, children, neighbors. They live in environments where they can see and be near each other corporeally, slap each other on the back, make off-color jokes, hear the register of each other’s laughs. Conservatives are connoisseurs of the quotidian. They are remarkably good – as a general rule, with endless exceptions – at being human animals.

Meanwhile, liberals and progressives are, let us be honest, spot-on about the larger issues. This is why they – we? – so viscerally understand the horrifying implications of the groaning shift of the climate, why they attend talks to learn about the decline of cheap oil, why they buy farm shares instead of Monsanto beans, why they grow indignant at the treatment of factory workers in China and Peru. They are act on these issues because they see how the workings of things are interconnected, because they can shift the scale of their awareness to pan out, take in the entire picture, and thus include assembly line wage slaves whom they have never met in their vision of what is right and wrong.

Conservatives are microscopes. Liberals are macroscopes. 

But conservatives, reliably, are happier.

The difficulty with being a progressive, radical, or liberal is that the scale of the world is far larger than a woman or man can ever be. There is a basic mismatch between the aspirations and dilemmas of liberal-leaning people and their meager status as individual, warm-blooded mammals who must live in family and tribe.

To move toward my conclusion with a concrete example, let me tell you about a chemical. Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus. Sex, hugging, breastfeeding, and taking part in shared rituals all release oxytocin. Its effects are to make the participants in these humble activities like and trust one another more, to boost feelings of well-being, to ooze rivers of warmth through our emotional veins. Oxytocin is one of the primary ingredients in the rich cocktail of tribal, family life. When oxytocin is coursing through our bodies, we feel blessed, as if life is benevolent and our fellows trustworthy and good.

Compared with conservatives, liberals tend to be less happy with their family lives, to have fewer children, and to think and exist on more abstract scales. They also tend to be less religious. In other words, they use fewer of the basic biological tools nature has evolved for us to organize and streamline our social lives. Oxytocin is common in all people, but I'd be willing to bet that it is more plentiful in conservatives. They use the tools of the body with more effectiveness to make themselves, and each other, happy.

Basking in the warmth of tribal affection, though, conservatives are blind to the looming dangers at the planetary scale and the miseries the status quo inflicts upon the dispossessed. In a very real way, liberals and radicals pick up where conservatives leave off, struggling always to make the world better, to make it more fair, more just.

But it can do little good to succumb to the laziness and hunger for excitement that incites us to cast our enemies as ogres. Conservatives have real wisdom about life, specifically about life as a warm, love-hungry animal. They are reconciled to it, to its limitations. Liberals, it seems to me, quixotically fight against it. But when the time comes to adjust yourself to life because there is no choice – when you realize that you cannot fight the big battles right now because the smaller ones, the ones arising from relationships, from personal tragedies, from the pain of actual living, are threatening to finish you – the wisdom of the animal body offers real comfort and good. 

Conservatives’ small-scaled lives teach us that friendships and the touch of a loved one matter immensely – give me the choice between a companion and bread, and I will starve with the company. Liberals inspire with their broad understanding, their ability to see the entire and its patterns, their compassion for those who are left outside where it is cold and damp. Perhaps it would be trite to say we need both these strategies. Instead, I will say that I need both: I cannot live in the world of vast systems or in the warm, compressed universe of the tribe alone. My own happiness depends on marrying these knowledges. 

When I decided I needed to learn to be happy, I found that my counterculture background had not provided me with the tools I needed. I found that the people who voted for my enemies had a glowing wisdom about the project of the body, its need for love, touch, and social regularity, that the wild lives of my peers lacked. The culture wars go on, on Fox News and the Daily Show. But inside myself, I have called an armistice.

Note: This is a very slightly modified version of an essay I wrote in early 2012 for an event in Boston.

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A Civil Exploration of Religion

Religion affects everything – and I mean everything – we do. From debates about global warming or evolution to disagreements about how to educate children, there’s no area of social living that isn’t deeply influenced by our religious commitments. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to untangle all the different ways that religious beliefs influence social, moral, and practical viewpoints, in part because these issues can be so polarizing. But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying! Our Boston University research team has developed a new set of religion surveys that will shed much-needed light on people’s religious, spiritual, and moral convictions – particularly along the all-important liberal-conservative dimension. We'd you to check them out at

These surveys represent a new direction in research because for a long time, many social scientists who studied religion wrote from a skeptical – no, a downright disapproving – perspective. The majority of psychologists, influenced in part by the staunchly this-worldly writings of Freud and his followers, assumed that religious belief was a kind of mental disturbance, a symptom of repressive neurosis. Critical theorists, rooted in the Marxist tradition, saw religion as little more than a tool for social oppression. And many social scientific surveys were subtly biased against religion, so that people with strong religious beliefs showed up as being authoritarian, reactionary, or unintelligent.

In a way, these academic prejudices regarding religion reflected the broader social trend, identified most famously by sociologist James Hunter in 1991, of increasingly divergent worldviews in American public culture. Progressives, who according to Hunter saw society as constantly improving and who operated with a more scientific, less religiously informed viewpoint, formed one camp. The “orthodox,” or traditionalists, made up the opposite camp. Traditionalists were more conservative, saw human society as depending on God for well-being, and understood the world in terms of sacred relationships rather than value-neutral scientific descriptions.

Interestingly, both progressives and traditionalists increasingly looked the same across denominations – that is, by the mid-20th century, a socially conservative Methodist had more in common with a conservative Catholic or Mormon than with a liberal Methodist peer. And certain areas of society found themselves much more aligned with one or the other viewpoint – academia, for example, was strongly progressivist in its outlook, while farmers and other agricultural workers were often traditionalists. In this increasingly polarized social environment, religion and tradition became a flashpoint for what Hunter famously called “the culture wars."

Like a real military conflict, the culture wars encouraged people to demonize and ridicule people on the other side. Thus, for example, religion was widely derided within the largely progressive world of social science, while religious conservatives irresponsibly caricatured media personalities as out-of-touch “Hollywood liberals” who lacked morals or personal responsibility. Within religious denominations, the more progressive members rolled their eyes at what they saw as the conservatives’ blind adherence to tradition, while the conservatives mistrusted the progressivists’ willingness to accept secular lifestyles and assumptions.

But in the face of all this mistrust and scorn, there have also been reasons for optimism. Starting in recent decades, a small group of researchers in the evolutionary and cognitive sciences began focusing their lenses on religion. What they’ve found has been a potential game-changer when it comes to the culture wars, in no small part because it helps make sense of religion from a secular viewpoint. Many of these researchers – for example, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson – found themselves convinced that religion was actually adaptive, helping humans to form strong, stable groups throughout history using ritual and other tools.

Among these researchers has been New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has gained recognition in the past few years for helping develop the innovative “moral foundations theory.” Haidt’s theory posits that conservatives and liberals emphasize different basic moral instincts. The instincts themselves are innate to human social cognition, but traditionalists and progressives emphasize them differently and for different – valid – reasons. Importantly, Haidt’s research transformed him from a dyed-in-the-wool liberal (and atheist) into someone who claims to be much more open to conservative perspectives (but who’s still an atheist).

Between shifting views in the social sciences and increasing sophistication in the scientific study of religion, the debates about religion and its role in human societies, history, and ideology are becoming rapidly more complex, sophisticated, and interesting. Writers are bringing concrete evidence to bear on their various positions. And it’s becoming less professionally risky for serious researchers to portray religion as more than simply a psychological aberration or set of delusions (although certainly some people still see it that way).

In this climate, the groundwork has been laid for a new model of religious, moral, and social attitudes that could go beyond the traditional “liberal is good, conservative is bad” view that has dominated in academic circles. If religion – often associated with more conservative social orientations – could potentially be adaptive, help communities function, or work to improve people’s health, then perhaps there is more to the religion-society relationship than a simple right-wrong dichotomy. Religion’s negative facets, including tribalism, religious violence, and oppression of women, might be balanced against its other, more agreeable, features to produce a nuanced model that does not demonize or valorize religiosity – or secularism.

The kind of research seen in the work of Haidt, D.S. Wilson, and others represents a new attitude toward religion in the academy, one that tries to be both rigorous and open, ideologically neutral yet aware of the flaws and benefits of different orientations. The dynamic religion quizzes we’ve put online for anyone to take at are examples of this new attitude. We believe that we can actually learn something about religion, rather than just endlessly argue about it. And we can do so in a way that doesn’t pit liberal against conservative, progressive against orthodox, or secular against religious – instead, we want to learn the benefits, drawbacks, and basic assumptions of these different worldviews, so that our cultural conversation can start moving forward.

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The Morality of Religion, Ideology, and Environmentalism

We live on planet Earth, and she is allergic to us. Our car exhaust, airplane emissions, and coal-fired power plants are smothering her. Our waste is choking her oceans and streams. These and other looming ecological and environmental catastrophes are the most pressing issues of our time, the problems at which all our collected human genius must be aimed. Or are they? The scientific study of religion and ideology has prompted me, a lifelong liberal, to question many of my most basic assumptions. Among them is the belief that large systems – abstract connections at the level of the planet, the biosphere, the world economy – produce the problems that most demand our attention, genius, and energy. 

In the liberal, scientifically literate milieu in which I was raised, large problems were king. The environment, wars in the Middle East, world hunger, the quest for world peace – as a child, it seemed as if every moral urge that issued from a trusted adult’s mouth was aimed at some terrible challenge far grander than the scale of my neighborhood or home. Compared with these system-wide concerns, nothing else – least of all small-minded conservative complaints about non-topics like “family values” – came close to mattering as much. This gorgeous, vulnerable pearl of a planet, whirling in space, was the context for everything else we humans might do, every moment of our lives – every love, every broken heart, every war and every summer night. As such, it had to come first.

The biggest of these big narratives – the one about short-sighted human beings choking their own poor planet to death – was one I and other youngish, educated children of the 70s, 80s, and 90s absorbed through our public school classrooms, earnest public television programs, and books. And let me be clear: this ecological, big-picture narrative still guides my own decisions about how to live, what kinds of economic choices to make, where to plant my flag upon our culture’s moral landscape. This is because the systemic, environmental, and ecological challenges that currently loom before us are, I think, the fulcrum upon which the 21st century will pivot – and indeed perhaps even the centuries beyond it. To speak bluntly: I think this stuff is important.

But now, today, the adult version of me also studies at Boston University and investigates the many-sided role religion plays in human communities. I peer through an evolutionary and biological lens to interpret religious behavior, and I take seriously that humans are evolved animals saddled with a confusing and complicated Darwinian legacy. This legacy  has shaped us into a species that, to a greater extent than nearly any other mammal, depends on strong, closely knitted groups for survival. A solitary human being in the ancestral wilds was not a proud individualist; she was dinner. Since humans have no fangs, claws, or ability to outrun wolves or leopards, we evolved to use our intelligence as our basic survival tool – notably our astoundingly acute social intelligence, which is what allows us to tackle problems collectively.

This, in turn, meant that one of the most important tasks for humans, along with gathering food, tending fires, and making clothing, was and is the daily maintenance of important social relationships. In the ancestral environment, friendships and strong family ties were not a luxury. They were the stout webbing that kept us cocooned against the forces of darkness, the inhospitable void. They were the very stuff of life.

The scientific study of religion is intimately tied with this story of our species’ tribal history because religion, it seems, provides many of the basic tools that people have used to create and maintain strong, durable relationships. Rituals, with their repetitive, rhythmic motions and communal singing or chanting, help sync up people’s bodies, harmonizing them with one another so that individuals are more disposed to trust and assist each other afterwards. Myths and supernatural beliefs create compelling imaginative worlds for tribes and groups to inhabit, weaving a sense of being privy to special secrets about the universe. And religious norms and morals often make people less competitive with others from their ingroup, helping to defuse the inevitable conflicts that erupt from status and mating.

So: what does this have to do with the environment? Everything. First, of course, it was the astounding success of these social and religious tools that allowed human groups to dominate their natural settings, and eventually the planet.

But even more important, I have come to believe, is that the inward-oriented, tribal machinations of human social groups often blind their members to issues beyond the group’s social horizon. The more involved a given person is in the everyday life of his community, his neighborhood, or his church, the less the grander, systemic patterns of planetary life are likely to be visible to him. The more faithfully a person carries out the countless small, daily ritual actions that maintain her all-important relational bonds, the less her eyes will be trained on the problems that loom beyond her social world – the troubles of history and global politics, the ominously shifting patterns of climate.

Conversely, it’s the people who are less invested in the particular ritual life of any single, specific cultural world who are most able, and likely, to stand back and perceive the broad-scale patterns in the life of the planet. In general, only the relatively “cultureless” – educated cosmopolitans, for example – are able to easily take in the bigger picture and understand, with a dark and sinking feeling, what will happen when fossil fuel really does run short or global climate change finally inundates the world’s coastlines.

Evidence for this irksome incompatibility is found in the literature of the social sciences. To take one example, in 2002, the University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox found in a longitudinal study that conservative Protestant and Catholic fathers in the United States spent significantly more quality time with their children than liberal Protestants or fathers who lacked religion. This included one-on-one time, dinners with family, and volunteering for youth activities. Perhaps most tellingly, it was church attendance that accounted statistically for much of the difference; conservative fathers who attended church – and thus who partook regularly in religious rituals – appeared to be more invested in the basic emotional lives of their families.

But this pleasantly mushy finding loses much of its luster when compared with another study from the early 1990s, in which political scientist James L. Guth and several colleagues found that it was precisely the same demographic groups that were much less likely to care about or be interested in environmentalism or ecological issues. That is, conservative Protestants and those who attended church services weekly were uniquely unlikely to say that they worried about the environment. In contrast, liberal Christians and those who infrequently partook in religious rituals considered the environment to pose one of the greatest problems for society today.

(Interestingly, though, Catholics – whose levels of church attendance and family involvement were more similar to those of conservative Protestants – were among the most likely to claim that the environment was a major concern for them. In many ways, Catholics in the U.S. often display characteristics of both the political right and left simultaneously – a topic we’ll tackle another time.)

Despite the characteristically complex position of Roman Catholics, these and similar studies  suggest that people who participate regularly in ritual, and who believe deeply in a spiritual worldview that is unique to their own religious society, are often both more invested in the small-scale health of their personal relationships – especially family and children – and less interested in larger, more systemic issues such as environmental degradation. Conversely, those who have little to do with regular ritual and who spurn particular religious worldviews appear to expend relatively less time and effort on the everyday maintenance of their closest relationships and to concern themselves much more directly with broader, more abstract problems.

I and many of my peers operate out of the latter paradigm. We’re educated, well-traveled, and savvy. We read and worry about big problems, like global warming or world overpopulation. And we tend not to be overly invested in any one particular cultural tradition. In fact, many of us see all traditional religious cultures, from Siberian shamanism to Roman Catholicism, as quaint, and slightly bemusing, relics of a different time. At their worst, they even seem dangerously parochial, superstitious, ignorant.

I believe that this broader, cosmopolitan perspective is extremely valuable. The big problems are real – very real – and we need to confront them with cunning and vision if we value our future on Earth. But even as we use our educated perspectives to tackle the big dilemmas, the research I have been citing urges that we also ought to realize that not all important problems are necessarily big – that is, abstract or structural – problems.

In fact, as I’ve studied the interactions of religion and culture, I’ve realized that the seemingly banal, everyday ritual interactions with our colleagues, family members, and friends are of precisely equal ethical importance to the big problems of climate change and social progress. It really does matter whether we partake in the effortful, often tedious work of maintaining relationships and communities. Religious participation and ritual appear to be vestiges of evolutionary tools that are remarkably good at helping us to do this. But the more educated and cosmopolitan mindset is largely abstract, systemic, and removed from the warmth and urgency of interpersonal life. It claims instead that if we can remember to recycle, sign petitions against human rights abuses, and buy compact florescent light bulbs – all of which are essentially abstract and non-interactive modes of expressing moral stances – our ethical duties have been accomplished.

This abstract ethics is what I no longer believe in. I believe the study of religion and ritual in human cultures argues compellingly for the importance of an interactive morality, one that prioritizes the concrete and particular life of communities and their relationships. This kind of morality is closer to that encouraged by our evolutionary heritage, which demanded constant, daily investment in relationships as the basic currency of survival.

At the same time, this interactive morality, on its own, is also no longer enough. We live now in a very broad, complex, and swiftly changing world in which systemic and abstract phenomena actually can affect us all – even at the local level of the tribe or community. If climate change disrupts all the weather patterns and agricultural cycles on Earth, then the best ritual practices and relational bonding in the world won’t save our societies from collapse.

The difficulty lies in the fact that the more our minds and bodies become habituated to one mode of morality – concrete and interpersonal on one hand, abstract and systemic on the other – the more deaf we become to the other mode. So, then, the environment is not the greatest problem. The greatest problem is our inability to weave together these two seemingly opposed ways of being moral. And if we cannot learn to embody both within each of us, then we will probably never be able to communicate effectively enough across ideological lines to solve the terrible dilemmas that stand before us as a civilization. And if we fail at this mutual communication, those seemingly distant large-scale threats will  become very concrete indeed – for all of us.

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.