Feb 23 2009
Is religion a bad thing? While there are some individuals who would immediately answer that question with a yes or no, more thoughtful people tend to pause. Fewer still go to the length of questioning the question before proceeding.
As an aspiring 360-degree skeptic (that term somewhat of a mal-phemism for “critical thinker”) I try to question everything. And I have found that the best place to start is to question the wording of an inquiry itself. As for “Is religion a bad thing?” — that is one sloppy question. Religion can mean one of a great number of things. People will talk past one another when they pick different things denoted/connoted by the word. And bad? Bad how?
As someone who isn’t particularly fond of religion, I nonetheless welcome research into the matter. Above all, I want to understand. So when a study such as the following is released, I pay attention.
In this fascinating bit of research, I learned that organized religion can provide a roof for individuals to participate in activities that encourage commitment to causes, even violent causes.
While the relationship between religion and popular support for suicide attacks is a topic of frequent conjecture, scientific study of the relationship is rare. The researchers found that the relationship between religion and support for suicide attacks is real but is unrelated to devotion to particular religious beliefs or religious belief in general. Instead, collective religious ritual appears to facilitate parochial altruism in general and support for suicide attacks in particular.
While the data collected is not of a particularly strong type — survey results — you’ve got to applaud the attempt to probe more deeply into the matter.
The researchers surveyed Palestinian Muslims about their attitudes towards religion, including how often they prayed and went to mosque. The researchers found that devotion to Islam, as measured by prayer frequency, was unrelated to support for suicide attacks. However, frequency of mosque attendance did predict support for suicide attacks. In a separate survey of Palestinian Muslim university students, the researchers found again that those who attended mosque more than once a day, were more likely to believe that Islam requires suicide attacks, compared to students who attended mosque less often.
So it seems that while the strength of religious devotion is not a bad thing, in terms of violence against non-group members (but to say nothing of the many other ways devotion might influence a person), frequent participation in group rituals might be bad — in terms of fostering commitment to causes that favor the in-group at the expense of non-group members.
Fascinating stuff. Let the research continue.