Mark Chaves sent me this great article on religion and religious practice:
After reading a book or article in the scientific study of religion, I [Chaves] wonder if you ever find yourself thinking, “I just don’t believe it.” I have this experience uncomfortably often, and I think it’s because of a pervasive problem in the scientific study of religion. I want to describe that problem and how to overcome it.
The problem is illustrated in a story told by Meyer Fortes. He once asked a rainmaker in
a native culture he was studying to perform the rainmaking ceremony for him. The rainmaker refused, replying: “Don’t be a fool, whoever makes a rain-making ceremony in the dry season?”
The problem is illustrated in a different way in a story told by Jay Demerath. He was in Israel, visiting friends for a Sabbath dinner. The man of the house, a conservative rabbi, stopped in the middle of chanting the prayers to say cheerfully: “You know, we don’t believe in any of this. But then in Judaism, it doesn’t matter what you believe. What’s important is what you do.”
And the problem is illustrated in yet another way by the Divinity School student who told me not long ago that she was having second thoughts about becoming an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ because she didn’t believe in God. She also mentioned that, when she confided this to several UCC ministers, they told her not to worry about it since not believing in God wouldn’t make her unusual among UCC clergy.
This last story reminds me of the saying, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in God. What matters is if God believes in you.”
Also, on a more serious note, I had a friend of a friend who joined a Roman Catholic religious order—she became a nun—because, according to my friend, this person was “looking for Sister Right.” A couple of years later she quit, I believe. I have the impression that the generally positive press received by nuns etc. in our culture gives certain naive and idealistic people false expectations of what they can achieve in such a position. (This is true of academia too, I’m sure!)
Here’s Chaves’s summary:
Religious congruence refers to consistency among an individual’s religious beliefs and attitudes, consistency between religious ideas and behavior, and religious ideas, identities, or schemas that are chronically salient and accessible to individuals across contexts and situations. Decades of anthropological, sociological, and psychological research establish that religious congruence is rare, but much thinking about religion presumes that it is common. The religious congruence fallacy [emphasis added] occurs when interpretations or explanations unjustifiably presume religious congruence.
This reminds me of a corresponding political congruence fallacy. My impression is that many people have a personal feeling of political congruence–they feel that all their political views form a coherent structure–even though the perceived-congruent views of person X will only partially overlap the perceived-congruent views of person Y. For example, X can be a Democrat and support legalized gambling, while Y is a Republican who supports legalized gambling, while persons A and B are a Democrat and a Republican who oppose gambling. Four positions, but each has a story of why they are coherent. (For example, X supports gambling as a way of raising tax money, Y supports gambling because he opposes the nanny state, A opposes gambling as a tax on the poor, and B opposes gambling as immoral.)
I’ve felt for awhile that this phenomenon, in which each of can frame our particular beliefs as being coherent, creates problems for politics. People are just too damn sure of themselves.
On another point, Chaves’s discussion of placebo effects reminded me of my irritation of the research on the medical effects of so-called intercessory prayer (person A prays for person B, with B being unaware of the prayer). Every once in a while someone does a study on intercessory prayer which manages to reach the statistical significance threshold and gets published (I can only imagine that secular journal editors bend over backward to accept such papers and are terrified of appearing anti-religion) and gets mentioned in the more credulous or sensationalist quarters of the popular press.
What irritates me about these intercessory prayer studies is not that I care so much about prayer but because such studies seem to me to be a pseudo-scientific effort to remove the part of prayer that can actually work. It’s plausible enough from a scientific (i.e., non-supernatural) perspective that if A prays for B with B’s knowledge, that this could make B feel better. I doubt it could fix a broken heart valve but perhaps it could be calming enough that a certain heart attack might never happen. This makes sense and is, to my mind, perfectly consistent with a religious interpretation–why couldn’t God work through the mechanism of friendship and caring? To me, the studies on intercessory prayer, by trying to isolate the supernatural aspect, end up removing the most interesting part of the story. In the language of Chaves’s article, I’d call this an example of the coherence fallacy, the idea that the way to prove the effectiveness of prayer is to treat it as some sort of button-pushing.
I mentioned this above point to Chaves and he wrote:
I agree! Though this is maybe insulting only to those who self-consciously think of themselves as religious while also explicitly rejecting any sort of supernaturalism, and this type of person has become rarer in American society, which is part of the story behind the collapse of liberal Protestantism and the rise of religious “nones.” I think it’s easier for Jews than Christians to achieve and feel comfortable with this sort of self-conscious liberal religiosity, perhaps because of the ethnic identity aspects of being Jewish.
Interesting. I hadn’t though of that.
Chaves also pointed me to this article by Wendy Cadge.
Finally, regarding the WWJD bracelet etc (no, that’s not the same WWJD as our motto here in the Applied Statistics Center!)., there’s something Chaves implies but doesn’t say, which is that presumably the wearing of the bracelet is, in economists’ jargon, “endogenous”: the bracelet is intended to be part of a commitment device, so the “treatment” is not really the bracelet-wearing but rather the entire constellation of thoughts and behaviors associated with the decision to live a better life.