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How much difference does religion make? - Input Junkie
December 6th, 2009
08:38 am

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How much difference does religion make?
From Thorne Coyle
Hearing Anwar Ibrahim and Pal Aluwalia – prominent Muslim and Sikh thinkers – state unequivocally and clearly that any inferior or unequal position of women was strictly cultural and not part of their religions, gives me hope for our world. (I have heard this stated by feminist Muslim thinkers, but hearing it from these two respected men was heartening confirmation).

It's not giving me huge amounts of hope-- the Koran's been a center of the religion for some 1300 years, and so far as the treatment of women is concerned, the prestige of the religion has been put behind misogyny rather than being used to moderate or eliminate misogyny.

There was a recent study which concluded that people tend to assume that God agrees with them, even if their opinions change. More discussion here.

On the one hand, the study was done on average American Christians, so it's not clear how far it generalizes to other religions. What's more, it hasn't been done on people with active prayer/meditation lives, nor on those who actively study their religion or who say that their religion has significantly affected their choices.*

Anyway, the question of how much difference religion makes wasn't intended as a snark. It's a real question. What do you think?

*Afaik, studies of religiousness ask about such things as attendance at religious services. I've never heard of a survey which asked people whether their religion had a significant impact on their choices about sex and/or money and/or how they treat people.

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From:cakmpls
Date:December 6th, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
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I think that people find the religion, or the denomination of a religion, or the particular church, that fits their existing beliefs and/or meets their needs for belief. God is created in humans' image.
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From:fabricdragon
Date:December 6th, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC)
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not always.
while you may choose a church, based on what you already believe, there are many accounts of people who started out hostile to the religion, and converted after persuasion of .. something.

most of teh converts to Catholicism from other faiths didnt start out thinking "i agree with the Catholics". look at some of the prominent preachers who have converted. most fo them joined after being HOSTILE to Catholicism, but being convinced by something.... old Christian texts, Apostolic Succession.. whatever

and very often the group you belong to.. (religious or not) will influence what you believe...
social groups can, especially over time, end up PROFOUNDLY influencing what you think. partly because you have friends.... your friends are good people... they all think X, maybe you dont. but it becomes easiler to understand X because all your friends think so....

and of course if you believe that God is real, you dont think you created him/her/them
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From:cakmpls
Date:December 8th, 2009 03:50 am (UTC)
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I have encountered people who believe that God is real, and also believe that most (or all) of what people think about God reflects the people, not the reality of God.

I don't think a person's hostility to something necessarily means it isn't what they believe and/or what they need. Sometimes people are the most hostile to what they believe and/or need.
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From:sartorias
Date:December 6th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
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I think it depends on the people. I know a number of deeply religious people of varying faiths, or syncretists.

I found an interesting link about prayer once, and lost it, but searching on Lewis and the purpose of prayer turns up some thoughtful discussions on this subject among Christians.
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From:bradhicks
Date:December 6th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
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I figured out a LONG time ago that nobody changes their beliefs to match their religion; they change their religion to match their beliefs.

BTW, that first link is broken. It should point to http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/12/01/0908374106.abstract
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 6th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
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Link corrected. Thanks. I was trying to point to the whole thing rather than the abstract.

You know more about religious people than I do. Do you think no one gets input from their religion, or that the proportion is so small as to make no practical difference?
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From:bradhicks
Date:December 6th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC)
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I've known a lot of people across a lot of faiths; hell, I've practiced a lot of faiths myself. I can count on the thumbs of one hand all of the people I've met who even agonized over it when you showed them that their behavior was significantly inconsistent with the teachings of their faith. And even he didn't change his behavior, he just kept agonizing over it until after he was done.

Oddly enough, the Bible has something to say about this, too, in Proverbs 21:2.

What no faith has ever been able to cure people of is the following syllogism:

1) I am a good person. (Just ask me!)
2) All good people agree with me. (Just ask me!)
3) God is a good person. (Just ask Him.)
4) Therefore God agrees with me. (QED.)

The unsustainability of those first two assertions can almost never be hammered into people's heads. Expert professional evangelists can get people to confront their own "sins," actual or in the evangelist's eyes, for maybe 20 minutes at a time; as soon as they're out of the evangelist's presence, they go right back to believing that what they're doing is okay with God. Or the gods. Or operating Thetans. Or whoever.

Did you see the study, some years back, of the attitudes towards abortion of women who were interviewed in the waiting room of an abortion clinic in Little Rock, Arkansas? Nearly all of them believed that abortion was murder according to God. None of them intended to let that stop them. One of them was blunt: she would rather go to hell than bear this child. But the rest, each and every single one of them, said words to the effect of, "God would approve of my abortion, because my circumstance is different from all of these other sluts. That rule was made for them, not me."
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From:fabricdragon
Date:December 6th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
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i have to disagree.
while i certainly know many situations exactly like that you speak of (that is, i do think many people act this way) there are also many many cases of people changing their beliefs or behavior because of their associations.

i know many people who were, for example, lukewarm or middle of the road about abortions, who after joining a church or group that was strongly one way or the other became more radical.....

i know many people who , for instance, didnt believe in the real presence of the Eucharist, who became believers AFTER becoming more involved in the church...

i also know people who had many beliefs about feminism, or abortion, or pagans, or what not who changed those opinions after associating with people who had different views.
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From:bradhicks
Date:December 6th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
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Covered, in the study Nancy linked to. Other people persuaded them to change their minds. But right up until other people persuaded them to change their minds, they would have sworn up and down that God believed X. Once they changed their minds and now believed not-X, they also simultaneously concluded that God believes not-X.

And my experience is that there is always, without exception that I have seen in a long and varied life, more to convincing people to change their opinions than showing them the plain text of what their faith says that God thinks. No, you have to argue it with them on exactly the same kinds of moral, emotional, or (on very rare and lucky days) intellectual grounds that you would use if their faith, if their God, were not involved in the argument. Then and only then do they change their mind about what God thinks.
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From:madfilkentist
Date:December 6th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)
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Whether people are influence by religion isn't the same question as whether they're influenced by being persuaded about God's opinions. God, according to most major religions, is always right, therefore there should be no conflict between what God thinks and what is true. People may first be convinced that something follows from the principles of their religion, and hence must be right; if it's right, then God must also think it's right. Even if they haven't found a holy text which says "Thou shalt/shalt not regard people of the opposite sex as equal," their conclusion can be and often is based on their religious principles.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 6th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
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It's conceivable that people are more capable of internally generated change than being convinced by being told.

Change of topic: Idris Shah has somewhat about how people who have no background in mysticism think they can recognize mystics.

And another topic: There was somewhat in The Survivor's Club about how unhealthy it is to think that God hates you. I can see how people would want to avoid that possibility

I haven't seen that study, but it seems plausible.

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From:solri
Date:December 6th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
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how unhealthy it is to think that God hates you

I'm reminded of that Stephen King quotation:

When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, "Why god? Why me?" and the thundering voice of God answered, "There's just something about you that pisses me off."
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From:osewalrus
Date:December 7th, 2009 10:54 am (UTC)

Maybe It's A Christian Thing

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Or, more accurately, when you start with a religion with immutable rules, it becomes a lot more difficult to play these sorts of games.

I can only speak from personal experience and my observation of those around me in the religious Jewish world, but the chain of reasoning you describe is not a particularly Jewish chain of reasoning.

We have our own mental games, mind. But if you believe, as I do, that God has a lengthy list of actual things he wants you to do every day, starting with the first words out of your mouth when you wake up and running to the last thing you say before dropping off, you don't grow up with the idea of a mushy-squshy God who is your personal BFF. It is, of course, this adherence to an inflexible rule set that gets so many other religions (include other Jewish denominations) down on us and why we are so prone to forming small, clannish groups.

We are also very big on the whole notion that God is punishing us personally for our sins -- individually and collectively. Sure, there are plenty who think that means "all you folks not following the law my way," but it's hammered in pretty hard that no, these are YOUR PERSONAL SINS are keeping the Messiah from coming and the Temple rebuilt. ("Nice going") Did I mention we're very big on the guilt thing.

Final point: what makes Orthodox Judaism more difficult to play these games is that real world outcomes are dictated by the rules set. There is no distinction between the "religious" and the "secular" (which is also an aspect of Islamic law). The first set of religious laws I studied was "the law of returning lost objects."

Edited at 2009-12-07 11:00 am (UTC)
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From:solri
Date:December 6th, 2009 08:59 pm (UTC)
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But generally they change neither. As Mill said, "the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin." People tend to adopt both the norms and the religion of their social group, behave in accordance with both as far as possible, and make excuses the rest of the time.
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From:madfilkentist
Date:December 6th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
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People tend to get their ideas from the culture. For those of us living in areas where fandom thrives, religion is not apt to be a major part of the culture, at least for the people we hang around with. The major exception is Jews (including fannish Jews), from purely secular to orthodox, where religion and culture are much more closely intertwined than for nominal or active Christians. But even for them, there isn't much connection between religion and the political aspects of culture, since they tend to look inward toward the group rather than seeing their religious ideas as a blueprint for non-Jewish society. Israel is a very different case, partly because of the self-selection of the people who've chosen to live there, partly because it is conceived as a Jewish nation.

Where religion is a major factor in the culture, as in Islamic countries, or in parts of the US most of us here have less contact with (e.g., Mormon Utah), I'd expect it to have a much greater effect on people's ideas, and everything I've heard about them bears that out.
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From:agrumer
Date:December 6th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
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I think it probably depends on whether you think of religion as what people say they believe or what people participate in. In the former case, probably not much; in the latter, probably quite a bit.
From:llennhoff
Date:December 6th, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC)
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In my experience the good person bad person axis and the religious - atheist axis are completely orthogonal. But religion does influence my actions. As an observant Jew my observance makes me do things I wouldn't do otherwise. Some are morally neutral - not eating pork for example. Some are positive - I give 10% of my net income to charity, which I didn't do before. And some are negative, and I hope y'all will forgive me if I don't choose to provide an example.
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From:ndrosen
Date:December 7th, 2009 04:30 am (UTC)
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I don't have the right to demand an example, but I am puzzled. I can understand someone's religion causing him to do things which those who don't share that religion see as negative (hijacking and crashing airplanes, to take an extreme example), but how can you say that your religion causes you to do bad/negative things which you would not otherwise do, and yet believe in that religion? Do you believe that He Who is infinitely wise and good commands you to do what is wrong? Or do you tend to do negative things as an unfortunate side-effect of adhering to a religion that you believe to be, in itself, good and true?
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 7th, 2009 09:59 am (UTC)
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Here's something on the subject. I think the central idea is that people try to buy off the universe with their own and other's suffering, and religious hierarchies encourage that way of thinking.
From:llennhoff
Date:December 7th, 2009 12:11 pm (UTC)
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Interesting article but not what I was talking about. What I mean is that there are conclusions about moral issues that I have reached through reason that are contradicted by the legal framework of my religion. And in almost every practical case I have chosen to trust that my religion (as duly interpreted by those entitled to do so(*)) has gotten it right and my reason has gotten it wrong.

(*) Which is in an of itself a radical change for me. Earlier in my life I was a radical individualist - I thought that the moral responsibility for one's actions could not be shifted.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 7th, 2009 12:17 pm (UTC)
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Have you been following this policy long enough to have an opinion about the consequences of following your religion vs. following your reason?
From:llennhoff
Date:December 7th, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)
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Well, nothing I do has consequences that will be visible a century past my lifetime anyway, so any consequence is limited. If you mean 'has following my religious choices given me experiences to show that my reason was in fact flawed' some but not a lot.

My reason and intuition tell me that deciding ritual roles based on gender makes no sense and is unjust. Having lived in an Orthodox community for about 6 years now, I understand more why weakening the strongly defined gender roles would make community life more problematic. This leads to one of the bedrock differences, IMO, between Orthodoxy and contemporary American morality - O is much more comfortable calling for the sacrifice of individual goods for the sake of the group than American morality is. I still don't have the habits of mind to routinely place the group above the individual, so I have to keep reminding myself about it.

Frex, making men and women both fully obligated in thrice daily prayer with a minyan(*) would lead to many couples simply not being able to meet this obligation - getting the kids up and out, preparing for work, and going to shul for both parents every morning would be an impossible burden. I think trying to shoulder that burden would result in few person-hours attending synagogue than the present system.

(*) technically prayer with a minyan (group of 10, in this context men) is not required, only very strongly encouraged. But the sources agree a man should do on a regular basis, with the times that he prays by himself to meet the minimum obligation being exceptions rather than his regular practice.
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From:osewalrus
Date:December 7th, 2009 10:57 am (UTC)
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As another religious Jew, I have a difficult time thinking of something that my religion compels me to do which is morally negative. I do see occasional hard choices, but this is where my conception of the religion is. If God always agrees with me and I never have to do anything I dislike doing, then it's not religion, it's God as my personal coach.
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From:osewalrus
Date:December 7th, 2009 11:05 am (UTC)
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Looked at the abstract. Have not read the study, so cautious about generalization, but seems to me the study is looking at the wrong evidence. If I have internalized the idea that I am supposed to live life as God wants me to live, then I would expect the thinking about what God wants to be more self-referential than my thinking about others. I already think I know what God wants at this point -- at least in a general way -- unless you think God is going to actually tell you personally. By contrast, an awareness that other people are not the same as you is a good first step in understanding them.

I did not get 12 years of Jewish day school to figure out how other people think. But I am supposed to have enough of an idea of what God wants to be able to live my life without calling my Rabbi every two minutes.
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From:richardthinks
Date:December 7th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
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I believe that Anwar Ibrahim and Pal Aluwalia may have interpretations of Islam that allow for sexual equality but the interpretations I've seen definitely formalise inequality in a number of ways, one of the most visible and quantifiable being inheritance of property, where being female means your share of any inheritance gets cut in half. I'm told that the status of women in the Koran and in Islamic law (of any major school) is much better than it was among pre-Islamic Meccans, but the claim of parity in scripture or fiqh seems like it would require some fancy interpretive footwork. I don't know of any evidence that Islam is itself "misogynistic" - that it feels women are bad or inferior per se - but it definitely confers unequal status on women.

Of course, being godless myself I have a hard time separating religion and culture. I tend to regard both as living things, subject to change in fact, if not in theory. I'm used to thinking about "imagined communities" as things that are thought of as eternal, even though they need to be remade every time they're called to mind. And you can track the changes in these supposedly immutable institutions and ideas.

The concept of, and ability to appeal to, eternal or timeless standards and to large, complex and inseparable bundles of laws or social norms seems like it would make a difference, though. The idea that some attitudes and behaviours are non-negotiable, that they have a source that we, here, now, cannot change of overturn, has been used in order to critique political and social action in the here and now. The classificatory systems for behaviours that religions tend to impose - that x is like y but not like z (eg killing community members is like fratricide but not like killing people outside the community) - can affect the horizons and terms of debate without ever themselves being debated. So I'd say religion makes enormous differences. But I'd interchangeably say that culture makes enormous differences, which may mean that I just don't get the point.
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