Research Assignment: Explain Religion

How should we best explain religion? The Economist reported recently ("The good god guide: Tentatively, scientists are asking: exactly what is religion, and what is it for?") on the project called Explaining Religion, "To bring a little scientific order to the matter, researchers taking part in a multinational project called Explaining Religion have spent three years gathering data on various aspects of religious practice and on the sorts of moral behaviour that religions often claim to govern. The data-collection phase was wrapped up at the end of 2010, and the results are starting to be published."

In one part of this study, researchers involved found that high arousal, painful, emotional religious activities are more effective in building group solidarity:
...Psychologists distinguish two types of long-term memory. One, semantic memory, records things consciously learned without first-hand experience—history lessons at school, for example. The other, episodic memory, records memorable events from a person’s own life.

Harvey Whitehouse, also of Oxford, thinks these different ways of remembering are harnessed by what he sees as two distinct aspects of religiosity. The doctrinal religious mode, as he dubs the first of these aspects, favours frequent but not particularly exciting rites that allow large bodies of teaching to be stored in a person’s semantic memory. That explains Friday prayers in Islam, or daily mass for the more enthusiastic sort of Catholic.

The second aspect—the imagistic mode, in Dr Whitehouse’s terminology—relies on rare but highly arousing events that are etched into the episodic memory by dint of their emotional salience. In principle, these could be either cheerful or unpleasant. However, since depths of trauma are recalled more vividly than heights of euphoria, religions should, in his view, prefer the former. Which, indeed, they do.

In one particularly grisly rite of passage, for example, young men belonging to Australia’s Aranda tribe are first circumcised and then pinned face down as several of their elders bite the initiate’s scalp and chin as hard as they can, before slitting his urethra with a stone blade. That is the sort of thing you are not going to forget in a hurry. You are also going to feel a strong affinity with those others who have gone through it, and perhaps a certain disdain for those who have not—a solidarity-building exercise, then, if ever there was one...
Interesting to ponder. We await further interpretations.

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