The Frontal Cortex

Psychology and Religion

Over at Mixing Memory, Chris has an excellent post complicating the recent psychological study which demonstrated that reading selected passages from the Bible about retributive violence makes people more aggressive. He reminds us that other studies have found the opposite effect. Chris’ sobering conclusion is exactly right:

Religion, like any other social institution, can cause good and bad behavior, depending on the context and the ways in which it is used. Overall, religion and similar secular institutions may serve to promote prosocial behavior, but when individuals focus on certain parts of a religion’s or government’s message, aggression and violence can also result. As is usually the case in the social sciences, the role that religion plays in society and the individual psyche is complex and messy.

That’s why I’m so suspicious of studies linking some aspect of religiosity to increased aggression, or a belief in political conservatism to some sort of psychopathology or fear of death. These experiments have a troubling tendency to confirm their original hypotheses. If you want to link the bible and violence, I have no doubt that it’s possible. (It really shouldn’t be too surprising that an aggressive-sounding phrase modulates our unconscious preferences for aggression.) And if you want to turn Republicans into a tribe of order-loving, death-fearing hucksters, then that’s probably possible too.

But I’m convinced that this is the wrong way to understand our cultural inventions. I worry that these sorts of experiments generate more heat than light. They reduce a complicated human experience into a few vague variables; a weak data set inevitably generates a strong conclusion. The truth of the matter is that our cultural phenomena and belief systems are never reducible to a single cause or effect. Clifford Geertz (and Max Weber before him) were right: “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun…I take culture to be those webs and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”

As Geertz might have put it, these sorts of experiments are “thin” descriptions of culture. What we need is a little more thickness.


  1. #1 Mark
    February 27, 2007

    While it might not be fair to link religiousness or religious belief to psychopathology, I think it is probably fair to link religiosity to some kind of psychopathology, since religiosity is used most of the time to mean excessive, obtrusive or sentimenal religiousness.

  2. #2 razib
    March 1, 2007

    As Geertz might have put it, these sorts of experiments are “thin” descriptions of culture. What we need is a little more thickness.

    but we’ve been having geertzian ‘thick’ descriptions for a few generations now, and where has that gotten ups? lots of data, but no theoretical framework. another way of exploring these issues is taking a naturalistic approach to analyzing culture, rooting it in evolution, cognitive science and many other fields. we can never reduce culture, but naturalistic models with many parameters can offer insight.

    (in general i agree with the thrust of your post, i simply want to suggest that a geertzian approach is simply orthogonal to what reductionists want, and the better approach is to tackle the issues head on and actually try to model reality with greater granularity, precision and accuracy)

  3. #3 razib
    March 1, 2007

    also, dawkins references the naturalistic anthropological literature early in the god delusion. he simply doesn’t address it as the book progresses….