Miscellany, December 29

  • Per John Tierney in the Times, a new review of the literature has “concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control”, which may help explain why religious belief is often associated with greater success in such goals as personal health and marital stability. Mere going through the motions doesn’t seem to be enough, “Dr. [Michael] McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.”
  • A new Vanity Fair article based on interview with GWBush administration insiders includes this quote from David Kuo:

    “The reality in the White House is – if you look at the most senior staff – you’re seeing people who aren’t personally religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious-right leaders,” Kuo said.

    “In the political affairs shop in particular, you saw a lot of people who just rolled their eyes at … basically every religious-right leader that was out there, because they just found them annoying and insufferable. These guys were pains in the butt who had to be accommodated.”

    Note, by contrast or otherwise, DH’s just-preceding post on GWB’s personal beliefs.

  • For those who haven’t overdosed on the subject, the gang at Volokh Conspiracy have a lot to say about the “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” question, with attention to the use of the latter phrase (long before the recent culture wars) as an attempted way to avoid awkwardness between Christians and Jews. Relatedly, David Kopel brings word that readers of the Boulder, Colorado, Daily Camera, have now heard from one of the world’s touchiest atheists on the subject.

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include overlawyered.com. Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
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5 Responses to Miscellany, December 29

  1. Jon Rowe says:

    I suspect there are 3 different personality types that lead to fervent belief in a particular religion.

    The first is the non-rebel. He inherited his beliefs from his family and wants to stay loyal for that reason. My friend Chris from law school (a devout Catholic) fit this to a “t.” He believed everything his church preached (though, he found it hard to always “practice” it).

    The second is sort of a rebel — the kind of rebellious person who can’t control himself. He may have had problems with drugs, alcohol, gambling, prison and the like and religion helps keep him in line. George Bush arguably fits here. Religion may have helped him overcome alcoholism.

    The third is the neurotic — someone who can’t handle life without the “rock” of God. Death and danger terrify him. Jessee Ventura with a poor choice of words referred to this type of person as “weak minded.” He later qualified his words noting his wife was a “worrier” and used religion for this purpose. Pat Robertson has testified as well that he converted Christ chiefly for this reason.

    Those three probably represent 90-99% of how folks come to fervent religious belief. And fourth category, much smaller (so small I thought about not even mentioning it) the philosopher. Someone who “searches” for ultimate truth and finds it in a particular “religion.”

    Of course Leo Strauss once reportedly said that no true philosopher can believe in God, that they are “paid” to be atheists.

  2. David Hume says:

    1) Read the paper Tierney alludes to here (PDF).

    2) Be careful of taking the ceteris paribus assumption literally and overgeneralizing. For example, they cite research which suggests that religious students have higher test scores and GPAs. Don’t be tempted to conclude the most elite universities in the United States have the most religious students!

    3) Pay close attention to the r-squareds. Many are not too large (though some are non-trivial indeed).

    4) They don’t do a good job clearing up whether religion precedes prosocial tendencies, or whether prosocial tendencies precede religion. In other words, particularly conscientious people might be attracted to religion, or religion might produce particularly conscientious people. I would bet on the former, while social engineers would prefer the latter (though it is probably a mix of the two, the weights of which one matter).

  3. Caledonian says:

    People who are interested in meeting social standards, for whatever reason, are more likely to participate deeply in religious practices and are more likely to claim to be religious believers.

    That much is obvious.

    Whether religion itself is really very relevant is less so. I suspect examples of highly-conformist but irreligious countries like Sweden indicate that the social organization doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘religious’ in nature.

  4. Susan says:

    What do you mean by “social standards”? I wasn’t raised in any religion, and have been a non-believer since childhood, but I think I meet the social standards, if by those you mean not breaking the law and conducting myself with a degree of consideration for others. If I need money I don’t rob a bank because I’m afraid The Bogeyman will get me after I croak; I don’t rob banks because it’s a destructive thing to do.

    As for religion: No, I don’t it’s necessary in a small homogeneous society (such as Sweden was, until fairly recently) where the norms of behavior may be implicitly agreed-upon by all the members. But Sweden may be a bad example of such–the country has always had a high suicide rate and a high alcoholism rate, neither of which are indicators of an entirely healthy society.

  5. Caledonian says:

    “if by those you mean not breaking the law and conducting myself with a degree of consideration for others”


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