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 ExploringMyReligion.org.

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 ExploringMyReligion.org 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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