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The WEIRD (Mis)Guide to Religion

Why the West -- especially Western elites -- can't understand how the rest of the world thinks about religion

I have written about the WEIRD mentality before. If you have forgotten what that is, take a look at this article. Excerpts:

In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” (pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.


Norenzayan became interested in how certain religious beliefs, handed down through generations, may have shaped human psychology to make possible the creation of large-scale societies. He has suggested that there may be a connection between the growth of religions that believe in “morally concerned deities”—that is, a god or gods who care if people are good or bad—and the evolution of large cities and nations. To be cooperative in large groups of relative strangers, in other words, might have required the shared belief that an all-powerful being was forever watching over your shoulder.

If religion was necessary in the development of large-scale societies, can large-scale societies survive without religion? Norenzayan points to parts of Scandinavia with atheist majorities that seem to be doing just fine. They may have climbed the ladder of religion and effectively kicked it away. Or perhaps, after a thousand years of religious belief, the idea of an unseen entity always watching your behavior remains in our culturally shaped thinking even after the belief in God dissipates or disappears.

Why, I asked Norenzayan, if religion might have been so central to human psychology, have researchers not delved into the topic? “Experimental psychologists are the weirdest of the weird,” said Norenzayan. “They are almost the least religious academics, next to biologists. And because academics mostly talk amongst themselves, they could look around and say, ‘No one who is important to me is religious, so this must not be very important.’” Indeed, almost every major theorist on human behavior in the last 100 years predicted that it was just a matter of time before religion was a vestige of the past. But the world persists in being a very religious place.

I offer that to you as background for a great comment that Ken Myers — creator and host of the indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal (if you are a Christian interested in the life of the mind, you must subscribe) — left on a previous thread about Obama and Islam:

According to classical liberal orthodoxy, “religion” is the label given to beliefs that are private, personal, and spiritual. Religion properly understood (according to this orthodoxy) is never public, communal, and political. It appears that the Obama administration is straining to be faithful to this orthodoxy.

The President’s recent comments at the National Prayer Breakfast celebrated the separation of Church and State, which (whatever its virtues) has been interpreted for many decades as an expression of the essentially private and spiritual nature of religion.

To acknowledge that the acts of ISIS and other Muslim groups are the consequences of sincere religious convictions is problematic for liberalism. It serves the liberal definition of religion (safely domesticated and cordoned off in the realm of spiritual life) when all public acts and all claims about political order are discussed purely in terms of an allegedly neutral secular politics.

William Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence) once quipped that the really interesting question is not what caused the politicization of Islam, but what encouraged the “religionization” of Christianity. Western Christians have largely embraced the liberal understanding of the separate spheres of religious and secular. But that configuration is not theologically neutral, contrary to what liberal pundits and politicians may believe. As Oliver O’Donovan has pointed out (The Desire of the Nations), for most of Western history, the corresponding term for “secular” was not “religious” or “sacred,” but “eternal.” And they were corresponding terms, not opposites. The secular, “this passing age,” was not a religion-free zone, but an era which had to be ordered in light of eternity.

The modern redefinition of “religion” and “the secular” is at the root of many of our contemporary crises and confusions. It is not a “neutral” definition, and should be contested at every opportunity. I’m glad that many have taken issue with the White House’s rhetorical policy on this matter, but this is a problem deeper than political correctness.

It is one thing for the church to be separate from the state, but a meaningfully different thing for religion to be separate from life. This is something very hard for Western liberals (of both the left-wing and right-wing sort) to grasp.

Here is an interview with William Cavanaugh, who talks in part about how we in the West think of ourselves as perfectly rational in our actions, and the others to be religious crazies. Excerpts:

William T. Cavanaugh: A speech given by a Department of State official four years into the occupation of Iraq condemned those “who try to achieve their goals through the use of violence.” His target was Sunni and Shi’ite partisans. Journalist Rami Khoury remarked on the speech: “as if the US had not used weapons when invading Iraq.” The myth of religious violence works so that secular violence just doesn’t seem to count as violence. As I illustrate in the book, one of the primary motivating myths behind the spread of secular social order—by military means if necessary—is the idea that only secular social orders successfully solve the problem of religious violence. So the US spends more on its military than all the other nations of the world combined, but we are much more interested in talking about someone else’s violence. Despite all the current talk about drastic budget cuts, the military budget is off limits, in part because our violence isn’t violence. It goes by other, more honorable, names, like peacemaking and patriotism.

More Cavanaugh:

The reason that it is so hard to distinguish “real” religion from the religion of nationalism, for example, is that, as Durkheim saw, people treat all sorts of things as sacred. Political theory and theology are inseparable; to try to banish theology from the university is to ignore the fact that we are all doing theology, including those in the so-called social sciences.

My previous theological work is all about showing the inseparability of theology and politics, both revealing the covert theologies of state and market, and the latent politics of Jesus in Christian theology. I wrote this book without any overt theology because I wanted to appeal to a secularist audience with historical arguments that can be assessed on their own terms. But from another angle, the theological theme of the book, though I don’t mention it explicitly, is idolatry. People spontaneously worship all kinds of things, flags and money among the most prominent of them. Where I depart from Durkheim is that I think that there really is a God, and that we can try, tentatively and humbly, to discern true worship from idolatry. One of the signs of true worship, I think, is the attempt to eschew violence.

Here’s a link to Brad Gregory’s review of Cavanaugh’s book in First Things. Excerpts:

William Cavanaugh seeks “to help us in the West see into a significant blind spot that we have created for ourselves.” He succeeds so well that many readers might wish he had left them to their impaired vision. The blind spot Cavanaugh illuminates is the conviction”widespread among liberals and conservatives, religious believers and unbelievers alike”that religion is particularly and inherently prone to divisiveness and violence. Its pervasive corollary is that religion”in contrast to secular, ideologically neutral liberalism”must be vigilantly contained in its public expressions at home just as it must be suppressed in its dangerous militancy abroad by the peace-loving, democratic state.

Considering the consequences of the aggressive renewal of Wilsonian foreign policy during the Bush administration, all Americans should read Cavanaugh’s book, although few will find it comforting. And Americans prize few things more highly than feeling good about themselves and their country. Cavanaugh’s clear-sighted analysis sheds subversive light on the self-justifying, self-exempting legitimation of violence perpetrated by modern Western states”above all, in the early twenty-first century, by the United States. The Myth of Religious Violence is a tour de force.


Cavanaugh has no interest in denying the obvious, that human beings are sometimes motivated by religion to act in violent ways. Nor does he seek to differentiate between “genuine” and “so-called” religion in an effort to keep the sincere and the devout free from the taint of violence.

Exposing the myth of religious violence means something else: the careful demolition of the variously argued idea that in ostensible contrast to rational, modern, secular ideologies, there is something distinctively disruptive, divisive, and dangerous about religion that makes it, across historical epochs and cultures and peoples, inherently prone to irrational, intractable violence. Because of this, the argument goes, religion must be resolutely corralled and controlled by the benign secularism of the liberal state, if necessary by justifiable, pacifying violence of the state’s own.

According to Gregory, a Notre Dame historian, Cavanaugh reveals that there is nothing especially violent about religion per se; people are willing to kill and be killed, and to bring force to bear against enemies of “secular” things that they hold sacred.

The book is The Myth of Religious Violence. Let’s be clear here: Cavanaugh does not claim that the religious are not violent. He is claiming that there is nothing especially violent about the religious; in fact, the myth that there is serves to mask the violence within secular forms of thought and social organization by taking it as axiomatic that secularism solves the problem of religious violence. This is something WEIRDoes don’t get — and it gets them in trouble. Us in trouble.

UPDATE: DGR is an ex-Muslim who was part of a radical group:




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