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