Religion and Social Health

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 2

“People who frequently participate together in religious rituals achieve a feeling of community that enhances their ability to cooperate and avoid conflict. Even though they may not be conscious of it, they also are able to monitor one another for the sincerity of their commitment, thus making participation in religious rituals a credible signal of commitment.” (William Irons, 2001, 364)
That's where religion comes from. Shared rituals would have included music, drumming, and dance, and a variety of ritual behaviors to perform and watch others perform. Sacred stories supported the group's moral code and reinforced the group's identity.

And a third thing: Early humans attributed a stronger sense of agency than most modern humans do to trees, rivers, mountains, animals, sky, and, perhaps, "reality as a whole." They understood these features of their world to have beliefs, desires, and various means for effecting their desires. They understood trees and rocks and sky to be watching them. This probably triggered the same parts of the brain that account for gossip's effectiveness. Feeling watched made them more likely to "stay in line."

Through the rituals, the stories -- and this sense of being watched and accountable even when other people aren’t around to see -- religion is a cohesive power.

This shows up in studies of communes – communities that hold property in common. Communes often do not last long: if you were a young adult in the 1960s, you may have some direct experience of that. They tend to fall apart because the level of trust and cooperation required is just so difficult to maintain. Studies have found, though, that “communes that base their existence on religious ideals tend to last roughly four times as long on average as do those that base their existence on a secular ideology.” Groups with shared rituals and sacred stories cohere better. Marxist or Skinnerian Behaviorist communes could have benefited from some good hymns -- as well as other features of religion.

So here’s the upshot: Religion is an adaptive strategy fostering group cohesion in larger groups than can be managed by gossip alone.

Religion gives us a sense of US. The corollary is that it also gives us a sense of THEM – a feeling that those who don’t participate with us in our rituals and story-telling are different, are other, and dangerous.

So here’s the further upshot: We have religion because we had war. War places a premium on group cohesion, and “religion” is the rituals and stories that produced what was needed. War! (Huh!) Church! (Huh!) What are they good for? Each other!

It’s no wonder that human history is filled with wars over religion. This fact once seemed to me ironic and perverse. Why do people have wars over religion, when the religion on both sides teaches peace? But it's hardly surprising that an adaptation for succeeding in war would play a role in prompting us to go to war.

Part Two: What Religion Does Today

Faith community meets real human needs. It feeds people spiritually. But it has also facilitated war, from its very beginning. And, more often than not, it is related to social problems. A recent study in The Journal of Religion and Society did a large-scale cross-cultural comparative analysis, taking into account key indicators of societal well-being for 800 million people in the U.S., Japan, and western Europe. The study found that higher levels of religiosity correlated with lower levels of social well-being. The U.S., where church attendance is high, has had more school shootings than all of Europe and Japan combined. The study found:
“in general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is . . . almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so. The view of the U.S. as a ‘shining city on the hill’ to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.” (Gregory S. Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” The Journal of Religion and Society, 7, 2005. View complete article: HERE.)
Europe scores lower than the US on measures of religiosity and higher than the US on measures of social health and well-being. In Europe, a lot fewer people are in prison -- and a lot fewer people are in church.

Religion reinforces a moral code, binds members into community through ritual and story, and triggers our brains to perceive a transcendent, interconnected whole beyond and more deeply satisfying than the concerns of personality and ego. But at what social cost? Is there a way for religion to be more pro-social? Yes, there is.

Next: Evolving a Better Religion

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 1: Where Religion Came From


Where Religion Came From

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 1

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam war, Edwin Starr made the charts with a protest song: “War (What is it Good For?)” “Absolutely nothing,” was the song’s answer.

“Church” – or any sort of faith congregation: synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, vihara – actually is good for quite a lot, though it turns out religion and war have a shared origin.

As Starhawk said:
“Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our power.”
Don’t we need that? In these times of political turmoil, of social conflict and apparent chaos in our national government, we need more than ever a way to come together so that “I” can become “we”; “me” can become “us.” We are wired to have this need.

I want to look today at where this need came from – so we can understand it better. Religion was an adaptation to the conditions of early humans. But how adaptive is religion to modern conditions? The role of religion in modern society is problematic. Let’s ask whether there is a better way to adapt our wiring to modern conditions so we have more faith and more community and less war and conflict.

Part One: Where Religion Came From

The emergence of coherent society begins with reciprocal altruism. My survival chances were enhanced if I did favors for associates who would later do favors for me – although, if I went too far, allowed myself to be taken advantage of by doing favors for associates who would never reciprocate, then my survival odds diminished. In order for a reciprocity system to work, we had to have brains “capable of carefully tracking the behavior of the other organisms with which [we] interact.” (W. Irons) So there was selective pressure to develop the capacity to track and remember others’ behavior.

A second force in the emergence of society was the need for groups to cooperate in order to out-compete other groups. Bands of primates, generally males, competed violently with other bands for food, for territory, for access to females. We see that going on in chimps today – and on campuses. This group-group competition was a powerful force driving us toward formation of larger and better-united groups. Social cohesion required rules, and some method of communicating and enforcing them – keeping most of the members more-or-less in line most of the time. These selective pressures turned our ancestors into the sorts of beings with a facility for learning moral rules.

Reciprocal altruism gradually turned into a system of moral rules. Language allowed us to keep tabs on more and more of each other, which let us maintain a larger group, which allowed a more cohesive and larger fighting force and a better chance of defeating rival groups. Our ancestors learned a technique that we readily recognize and still use, though sometimes we say we don't like it: we call it gossip. Our ancestors met in small groups to monitor others' behavior and moralize about it.

Gossip emerged among early humans because it worked. It tracked who was trustworthy, reinforced the social ties of the gossipers, and strengthened the moral rules of the tribe. There are solid evolutionary reasons why we humans are attracted to gossiping. It’s a part of the system of maintaining the social order.

There is, however, a limit to how far gossip can go. Researchers find that moral rules reinforced through gossip can maintain unity up to about 150 members. Indeed, gossip magazines today maintain a list of no more than 150 celebrities that they keep up with the gossip about. More than that, and it’s too much to keep up with – the gossip just doesn’t pull us in. Larger groups need to be held together with something else. That's where religion comes in.

Religion facilitates cooperation among a group's members by serving to reinforce commitments to each other in a recognizable way. Participating in a group's rituals psychologically reinforces your actual commitment to the group and also lets the group know you're committed to them.
“participation in a ritual tends to alter individuals' brain states and to cause them to feel emotions of identity with a group more strongly and to hold this feeling more firmly in memory.” (Eugene Aquili, The Spectrum of Ritual, 1979)
Reciting and listening to sacred stories works the same way: it bonds us to the group with which we share the story.

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This is Part 1 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 2: Religion and Social Health


Protecting Faith While Preventing Discrimination

Washington State began recognizing same-sex marriages in 2012. In 2013, Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, WA, refused to provide flowers for the wedding of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed. Ms. Stutzman
"knew that Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed were gay and had sold them flowers for years, but then refused to provide flowers for their wedding. Her Christian faith, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, created a line, she said, that she could not cross." (NYT, Feb 16)
Wait. If her faith defines marriage as between a man and a woman, then, in the eyes of her faith, the event for which Ingersoll and Freed were requesting flowers was NOT a wedding. The couple may have called it a wedding, and the State of Washington may have recognized the result as a marriage, but Stutzman is not being asked to recognize it as a marriage. She can say, "My faith doesn't recognize this as a real wedding. I am simply providing flowers for this social occasion that, in form, resembles a wedding." For her, it's just one more sale of many she had previously made to Ingersoll and Freed.

Recognizing legitimate marriages is required of, say, insurance companies who offer policies that protect one's spouse. If there are any rights or benefits afforded to married couples but not to unrelated friends, then same-sex married couples are as entitled to those benefits as opposite-sex married couples are. But recognizing the legitimacy of a marriage is not required of florists. Florists only have to sell flowers without discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. As long as the florist avoids offering any benefit -- a special discount, say -- to couples who prove they are married, she can have any opinion she wishes to have of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of any "marriage." So Stutzman could have sold the flowers while at the same time, in her own mind and heart, in accordance with her faith, regarding the "wedding" as fake. In this way, Stutzman would remain true to her faith and the couple would get their flowers.

But Stutzman didn't do that. Instead, she refused to sell the flowers. Ingersoll and Freed then sued Stutzman for violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which added sexual orientation to its list of protected characteristics in 2006. Currently 19 states -- and Washington is one of them -- ban discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In the 31 other states, Ingersoll and Freed might have had a tougher case to make.

In the case, State of Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, Stutzman's attorney argued that flower arrangement is artistic expression and is thus protected as free speech. Speech? OK, then what would the florist supposedly be saying by providing flowers? According to Stutzman's side, providing flowers would say Stutzman endorses the wedding.
"She believes that participating, or allowing any employee of her store to participate, in a same-sex wedding by providing custom floral arrangements and related customer service is tantamount to endorsing marriage equality for same-sex couples." (Washington v. Arlene's Flowers)
This is nonsense. As I argued HERE, businesses such as restaurants, bakeries, and florists may deny service to unruly customers, or to any customer that doesn't follow a set procedure for ordering (as in the Seinfeld episode where the Soup Nazi denies service to Elaine). They may not, however, deny service on the the basis that service signals approval when, in fact, the service does not signal approval. Does hiring a person indicate approval of the person's particular or general non-work-related habits? No. Does renting housing to a person indicate approval of the person's particular or general habits? No. Does producing and selling a cake (with no message on it, or with only a generic message like "Congratulations") indicate approval of the context in which it will be displayed or eaten? No. Nor does providing flowers for an event signal approval of the event.
"The decision to either provide or refuse to provide flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding. As Stutzman acknowledged at deposition, providing flowers for a wedding between Muslims would not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Islam, nor would providing flowers for an atheist couple endorse atheism." (Washington v. Arlene's Flowers)
The only "statement" Stutzman would be making by selling the flower arrangements is that Stutzman is a florist.

It's pretty clear-cut. The lower court ruled in the couple's favor, and the 9-Justice State Supreme Court ruled unanimously in upholding the lower court.

David French, writing for National Review, characterizes the court's ruling as meaning
"a florist was bound by state law to use her artistic talents to design floral arrangements to celebrate what she viewed as an immoral event: a gay wedding."
But, of course, (1) said florist is not bound to celebrate anything. She only has to provide her business services without discrimination. Selling flowers to an event does not constitute celebrating that event. (2) Her faith says that same-sex weddings are nonexistent. Again: since her faith defines marriage as between a man and woman, then a wedding-like ceremony between two men is not a real wedding -- even if the couple, their families, and Washington State happen to regard it as real. As the Court's opinion notes:
"Stutzman is an active member of the Southern Baptist church. It is uncontested that her sincerely held religious beliefs include a belief that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman." (Washington v. Arlene's Flowers)
It's not that Stutzman believes same-sex marriage to be wrong or immoral. Rather, her faith belief is that no such marriage can exist.

Might Stutzman regard it as immoral to simulate a wedding? If so, she would have to regard every play or movie with a wedding scene in it as immoral. That is not a position that Southern Baptists have taken. In any case, Stutzman did not argue that she found it immoral to engage in what she regarded as a simulation of a wedding.

We have long been used to the idea of annulment: the determination that a marriage, despite initial appearances, did not actually exist. A Catholic wedding is annulled when a diocesan tribunal decides that no marriage covenant was created because the wedding was conducted under false pretenses. Pretenses which might later be discovered to have been false include: openness and honesty, maturity, emotional stability, full consent, and appropriate motivation. Thus, faith organizations sometimes determine that a "wedding" wasn't a real wedding. Similarly, Stutzman may take the position that, in the eyes of her faith, there was no real wedding.

This raises the question: May a florist refuse to provide flowers for a wedding in which the florist has strong reasons to believe that the parties lack emotional stability, haven't given full consent, or aren't appropriately motivated? Proprietors may, as mentioned, refuse service for a variety of reasons -- generally having to do with the customer's behavior on the business premises. It would certainly be highly unusual to refuse service for a wedding on these grounds, and I don't know how the courts would end up ruling. On the one hand, sale of flowers does not endorse, or approve -- or "celebrate" -- the wedding. On the other hand, if the parties to the marriage (or "marriage") are not in a protected class, perhaps the courts would allow that denial of service. There is no Washington law forbidding discrimination against people planning to wed under false pretenses -- but there is a law forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The point here is that the concept of annulment establishes a distinction between apparent marriages and actual marriages -- and when it comes to whether a same-sex wedding is real or not, Stutzman is free to have an opinion differing from the state's.

The Washington Supreme Court's opinion does not make the point I have made: that the sincerely held religious belief in question denies not the morality but the existence of same-sex marriage. Too bad. Allowing for individuals to make faith-based determinations about which marriages are "real" -- as long as those determinations do not result in denying a benefit that would otherwise be provided -- protects faith while also preventing discrimination.


I Don't Deserve a Donut

"The Desertless Life" part 3

In the last post, I concluded, "The idea of deserving something positive can be replaced, in some cases, with policies creating entitlements. In other cases, desert can be replaced with notions of reward, or of celebrating appreciation (or a mix of the two)." What about deserving something negative? For instance, we say a criminal deserves punishment. Again, does the notion of deservingness help? Reasons for punishment might include:
  • Society needs to protect itself by removing dangerous people.
  • Punishment might serve as a deterrent for others.
  • Punishment might also help a person become less likely to commit subsequent crimes.
None of those reasons requires a concept of deservingness, nor does desert add anything helpful. What would you gain if, for this year’s Imbolc cleaning of your conceptual garage, you decided to throw away that musty old idea of deservingness, despite your sentimental attachment to it?

First, one thing you’d gain is freedom from thoughts about what you deserve. No more stewing about “I deserve this” or “I deserve that.” You can still stew about what you think you’re entitled to, but entitlement is created by some specific institutional structures, rules, procedures – so, at least, it’s a little more objective whether you really are entitled or not. When I stop thinking about what I deserve, I become more open to grace.

I do not, for instance, ever deserve a donut. Sometimes, to my delight, the opportunity to have one presents itself. When it does, I have to weigh whether to take it. Donuts aren’t very good for me, but, on the other hand, they’re very tasty. If I do take one, it isn’t because I deserve it. I don’t have to have desert in order to have some dessert. (A desertless life is not a life without ever having dessert.) I take my donuts as blessings of grace rather than as something deserved. Isn’t that a more joyful attitude?

Even if I get in the car, drive to a donut shop, stand in line, and pay for a donut, I don’t deserve that there should be such things as donuts or donut shops. If I pay for a donut, then, per the established institutions of commerce, I am entitled to get one. And we could say I'm entitled to the car and the currency in my pocket – because I did certain things that, per instituted practice and procedure, afforded them to me – but I didn’t create any of those institutions, so those are also a grace. Everything is ultimately grace, at its foundation – a fact I can see much more clearly when my vision isn’t obscured by ego’s conceits of self-deservingness.

Second, there are thoughts about what other people deserve. Could we do without those ideas? Perhaps we could. The reasons for rewarding or punishing – or for celebrating or condemning other people’s actions – can stand or fall on their own without notions of deservingness.

If dropping the notion of my own deservingness helps me be in touch with grace, dropping the notion of other people’s deservingness helps me be a grace to others. So maybe I put a quarter in someone else’s parking meter, or pay for the order of the person behind me at the, um, donut shop, or I go to kiva.org and fund a loan that can drastically improve some perfect stranger’s life, or I google “pay it forward” and get more ideas for wonderful, kind things I can do.

In all those cases, it’s not about whether the recipient deserves it. It’s just about the joy of being an instrument of grace in this world of tragedy and of beauty. In fact, if you’re thinking about who deserves what and why, it only gets in the way.

So my suggestion to you this month, with our theme being grace, is that you honor entitlements, where they pertain, and that you treat people as fairly as can, but that you try throwing away the concept “deserve.” For your Imbolc cleaning this mid-winter, try sweeping that concept away. If it turns out you really do need it, you can bring it back later, but for the next few weeks, at least, try living desertlessly – expunging the word “deserve” from your vocabulary. Try it.

Here in the US, we have this rather unusual custom of consulting a groundhog in mid-winter – or a hedgehog, or nutria, or desert tortoise. Strange as this seems to people of other lands, our custom offers to us a lesson. You see, there’s never any suggestion that the groundhog is passing judgment on whether we deserve a long or a short winter. There’s no suggestion we can in any way control our nonhuman guide. Long winter or short, it’s all grace. May we open our hearts to receive desertless groundhog grace.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "The Desertless Life"
See also
Part 1: Mid-Winter Groundhog Grace
Part 2: Shedding Desert