God and the Ivory Tower

What we don't understand about religion just might kill us.

The era of world struggle between the great secular ideological -isms that began with the French Revolution and lasted through the Cold War (republicanism, anarchism, socialism, fascism, communism, liberalism) is passing on to a religious stage. Across the Middle East and North Africa, religious movements are gaining social and political ground, with election victories by avowedly Islamic parties in Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. As Israel's National Security Council chief, Gen. Yaakov Amidror (a religious man himself), told me on the eve of Tunisia's elections last October, "We expect Islamist parties to soon dominate all governments in the region, from Afghanistan to Morocco, except for Israel."

On a global scale, Protestant evangelical churches (together with Pentacostalists) continue to proliferate, especially in Latin America, but also keep pace with the expansion of fundamentalist Islam in southern Africa and eastern and southern Asia. In Russia, a clear majority of the population remains religious despite decades of forcibly imposed atheism. Even in China, where the government's commission on atheism has the Sisyphean job of making that country religion-free, religious agitation is on the rise. And in the United States, a majority says it wants less religion in politics, but an equal majority still will not vote for an atheist as president.

But if reams of social scientific analysis have been produced on religion's less celestial cousins -- from the nature of perception and speech to how we rationalize and shop -- faith is not a matter that rigorous science has taken seriously. To be sure, social scientists have long studied how religious practices correlate with a wide range of economic, social, and political issues. Yet, for nearly a century after Harvard University psychologist William James's 1902 masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience, there was little serious investigation of the psychological structure or neurological and biological underpinnings of religious belief that determine how religion actually causes behavior. And that's a problem if science aims to produce knowledge that improves the human condition, including a lessening of cultural conflict and war.

Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good (as when Judea's Jews around the time of Christ persisted in rebellion unto political annihilation in the face of the Roman Empire's overwhelmingly military might). But religion can also hinder a society's ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don't understand what religion is all about. That's the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.

Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn't fly blindly into the storm.

Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.

Fortunately, the last few years show progress in scientific studies of religion and the sacred, though headwinds remain strong. Across history and cultures, religion has often knit communities together under the rule of sentient, but immaterial deities -- that is, spiritual beings whose description is logically contradictory and empirically unfalsifiable. Cross-cultural studies pioneered by anthropologist Pascal Boyer show that these miraculous features -- talking bushes, horses that leap into the sky -- make lasting impressions on people and thereby increase the likelihood that they will be passed down to the next generation. Implausibility also facilitates cultural transmission in a more subtle manner -- fostering adaptability of religious beliefs by opening the door to multiple interpretations (as with metaphors or weekly sermons).

And the greater the investment in outlandishness, the better. This is because adherence to apparently absurd beliefs means incurring costs -- surviving without electricity, for example, if you are Amish -- which help identify members who are committed to the survival of a group and cannot be lured away. The ease of identifying true believers, in turn, builds trust and galvanizes group solidarity for common defense.

To test this hypothesis, anthropologist Richard Sosis and his colleagues studied 200 communes founded in the United States in the 19th century. If shared religious beliefs really did foster loyalty, they reasoned, then communes formed out of religious conviction should survive longer than those motivated by secular ideologies such as socialism. Their findings were striking: Just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning 20 years after their founding, compared with 39 percent of the religious communes.

It is not difficult to see why groups formed for purely rational reasons can be more vulnerable to collapse: Background conditions change, and it might make sense to abandon one group in favor of another. Interestingly, recent research echoes the findings of 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, who argued that long-term differences among North African Muslim dynasties with comparable military might "have their origin in religion … [and] group feeling [wherein] mutual cooperation and support flourish." The more religious societies, he argued, endured the longest.

For this reason, even ostensibly secular countries and transnational movements usually contain important quasi-religious rituals and beliefs. Think of sacred songs and ceremonies, or postulations that "providence" or "nature" bestows equality and inalienable rights (though, for about 99.9 percent of our species' existence, slavery, and oppression of minorities were more standard fare). These sacred values act as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational sacrifices in cooperative endeavors such as war.

Insurgents, revolutionaries, and terrorists all make use of this logic, generating outsized commitment that allows them to resist and often prevail against materially stronger foes. Consider the American revolutionaries who defied the greatest empire of their age by pledging "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" for the cause of "liberty or death." Surely they were aware of how unlikely they were to succeed, given the vast disparities in material resources, manpower, and training. As Osama Hamdan, the ranking Hamas politburo member for external affairs, put it to me in Damascus, Syria, "George Washington was fighting the strongest military in the world, beyond all reason. That's what we're doing. Exactly."

But the same logic that makes religious and sacred beliefs more likely to endure can make them impervious to compromise. Based on interviews, experiments, and surveys with Palestinians, Israelis, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans, and Iranians, my research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges, Douglas Medin, and others demonstrates that offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence. Such backfire effects occur both for convictions with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, sharia law) and for those that are at least initially nonreligious (Iran's right to a nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees' right of return).

According to a 2010 study, for example, most Iranians think there is nothing sacred about their government's nuclear program. But for a sizable minority -- 13 percent of the population -- the quest for a nuclear capability (more focused on energy than weapons) had, through religious rhetoric, become a sacred subject. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases anger and support for it.

Although this sacralization of initially secular issues confounds standard "business-like" negotiation tactics, my work with political scientist Robert Axelrod interviewing political leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that strong symbolic gestures (sincere apologies, demonstrating respect for the other's values) generate surprising flexibility, even among militants, and may enable subsequent material negotiations. Thus, we find that Palestinian leaders and their supporting populations are generally willing to accept Israeli offers of economic improvement only after issues of recognition are addressed. Even purely symbolic statements accompanied by no material action, such as "we recognize your suffering" or "we respect your rights in Jerusalem," diminish support for violence, including suicide terrorism. This is particularly promising because symbolic gestures tied to religious notions that are open to interpretation might potentially be reframed without compromising their absolute "truth." For example, Jerusalem might be reconceived less as a place than portal to heaven, where earthly access to the portal suffices.

If these things are worth knowing, why do scientists still shun religion?

Part of the reason is that most scientists are staunchly nonreligious. If you look at the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences or Britain's Royal Society, well over 90 percent of members are non-religious. That may help explain why some of the bestselling books by scientists about religion aren't about the science of religion as much as the reasons that it's no longer necessary to believe. "New Atheists" have aggressively sought to discredit religion as the chief cause of much human misery, militating for its demise. They contend that science has now answered questions about humans' origins and place in the world that only religion sought to answer in the days before evolutionary science, and that humankind no longer needs the broken crutch of faith.

But the idea that we can simply argue away religion has little factual support. Although a recent study by psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan indicates that people are less prone to think religiously when they think analytically, other studies suggest that seemingly contrary evidence rarely undermines religious belief, especially among groups welded by ritualized sacrifice in the face of outside threats. Norenzayan and others also find that belief in gods and miracles intensifies when people are primed with awareness of death or when facing danger, as in wartime.

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion -- that it is history's prime instigator of intergroup conflict -- does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored "God and War" audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history's most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as "humanity" arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire's majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what's going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion -- and the values it imposes -- can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes "Holy Land." Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments. In a multiyear study, our research group found that Palestinian adolescents who perceived strong threats to their communities and were highly involved in religious ritual were most likely to see political issues, like the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel, as absolute moral imperatives. These individuals were thus opposed to compromise, regardless of the costs. It turns out there may be a neurological component to such behavior: Our work with Gregory Berns and his neuroeconomics team suggests that such values are processed in the brain as duties rather than utilitarian calculations; neuroimaging reveals that violations of sacred values trigger emotional responses consistent with sentiments of moral outrage.

Historical and experimental studies suggest that the more antagonistic a group's neighborhood, the more tightly that group will cling to its sacred values and rituals. The result is enhanced solidarity, but also increased potential for conflict toward other groups. Investigation of 60 small-scale societies reveals that groups that experience the highest rates of conflict (warfare) endure the costliest rites (genital mutilation, scarification, etc.). Likewise, research in India, Mexico, Britain, Russia, and Indonesia indicates that greater participation in religious ritual in large-scale societies is associated with greater parochial altruism -- that is, willingness to sacrifice for one's own group, such as Muslims or Christians, but not for outsiders -- and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks. This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: Modern global multiculturalism is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements aimed at reviving group loyalty through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.

So why does it matter that we have moved past the -isms and into an era of greater religiosity? In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford to let science ignore religion and the sacred, or let scientists simply try to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images


Capture the Flag

What the rebel banner says about Syria's civil war.

Deep in the Syrian Archives in Damascus, one can find black-and-white photographs of a military parade that took place in the Syrian capital on Syria's 17th Independence Day: April 17, 1963. The event occurred only 40 days after the Baath Party seized power. Members of Syria's top brass were dressed in their military attire, with colorful decorations of medals across their uniforms, and led by the two co-creators of the Baath regime: Deputy Chief of Staff Salah Jadid and Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad. Behind them fluttered the official Syrian flag: a standard with three stripes of green, white, and black and three red stars drawn across the middle.

Nearly half a century later, this same flag is being waved by those seeking to destroy the regime Assad created and obliterate the Baath Party he commanded. But the symbol of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad is being trashed by regime officials, who claim that it is the "flag of the French Mandate" imposed on Syria from 1920 to 1946. According to state-run media, Syrian rebels are using it to restore Western hegemony over Syria, part of a "galactic" Qatari, Israeli, Saudi, and American plot against Damascus.

From 1932 to 1963 (with one short 1958-1961 interruption), the "revolutionary flag" was Syria's official flag, which explains why it still strikes a nostalgic chord among elderly Syrians. The struggle to return to it speaks volumes about anti-regime Syrians' national identity and their desire to break with everything that reminds them of 49 years of Baath Party rule -- even if it means bringing down Syria's oldest surviving state symbol.

Attacking the flag as a symbol of colonialism lacks credibility. For years, after all, it had been hailed by state-run Syrian TV on Independence Day as a symbol of Syria's long fight against the French Mandate, rather than a sign of subservience to it. It had been created in 1932 -- during the era of Syria's first democratically elected civilian president, Muhammad Ali al-Abid -- by a parliamentary committee headed by the respected Ibrahim Hananu, one of the leaders of the anti-French revolts in the 1920s, whose name has been immortalized in Syrian history books, even by the Baathists themselves. The colors referred to rulers in Syria's past -- white for the Umayyads, black for the Abbasids, and green for the Rashidun caliphs of Islam.

The flag was hoisted on government buildings on the day of Syria's independence from France in 1946, and it remained Syria's flag until 1958, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser abolished it upon the creation of the United Arab Republic. Syrians returned to the green-white-black standard when the union was dissolved in 1961, and it remained in use for almost a year after the Baathists came to power in 1963.

This long history explains why the flag remains such a potent symbol. It had been used by 12 Syrian presidents, starting with Abid and up to Amin al-Hafez in 1964. It survived 14 years of French occupation, one war with Israel, and six coups. The Syrian regime cannot write it off so easily.

That may explain why Syrian officialdom, taken completely aback by the audacity of a new flag, was slow in reacting to the new symbol. After initial hesitation on how to react to the flag controversy, pro-regime commentators began appearing on talk shows, in a clearly systematic campaign, trashing the old flag as having been "created and imposed by the French high commissioner in 1932, against the will of the Syrian people." The story was baseless, of course, and they could not document their argument. They also failed to answer why, if this were true, the people of Syria maintained the "commissioner's flag" 17 years after the end of the French Mandate.

Commentators also invented an imaginary story that the three stars in the middle of the old flag were a reference to three sectarian states created during the Mandate: the Alawite state, the Druze state, and the Sunni state (though no such states ever existed in Syrian history). "Those carrying the Mandate flag" they barked on TV, "want to divide Syria along sectarian lines and create three confessional states in our midst." In reality, however, the three stars on the old flag, according to the official 1932 decree, referred to "three revolts against the Mandate" -- those of the Alawites, the Druze, and northern Syria, headed by Hananu himself. They are symbols of unity, not federalism.

Along with the smear campaign came an attempt by the Syrian regime at increasing popular allegiance to the existing flag. Countless red, white, and black tricolor flags were manufactured for pro-Assad rallies in Damascus -- with some people going as far as placing a photo of Assad between the flag's two green stars. Meanwhile, a state-run campaign was launched to carry the "longest flag in the world" across the Mezzeh Autostrade, the urban artery that runs through the heart of Damascus.

Paying the price for years of Baathism

Syrian officials grumbled. How people could abandon their flag that easily? After all, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts had not challenged the existing flag. Even the Lebanese did not think of changing their cedar flag after years of civil war -- it continued to represent every faction of the complex Lebanese system, ranging from Maronite nationalists to Shiite Islamists. Why was Syria different?

The answer, of course, can be found in the Syrian regime's own malpractices. Until 2003, the regime never promoted true allegiance to the Syrian flag. Long before the outbreak of the revolt, Syrian officials were always seemingly more interested in marketing the flag of the Baath Party, as well as the image of the president, rather than Syrian state symbols. That flag, which is the same as that of Palestine, was copied from the 1916 Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. It consists of the same tricolors as the old Syrian flag -- a black, white, and green horizontal triband -- plus a red triangle on the left side. Syrians growing up in the 1980s often had a hard time identifying the official flag of Syria because the Baath flag -- along with photos of Hafez al-Assad -- flew higher at public rallies and in government offices. The Syrian flag fluttering on government buildings was more often than not miserable and torn into pieces by so much neglect.

The result? Generation after generation came of age with little attachment to the Syrian flag -- respect for state symbols had been forced upon them, rather than developed with explanation, emotion, and humanity. People felt that the flag meant very little to Syrian officialdom, giving them little reason to hold it in reverence if state officials were themselves seemingly more committed to Baathism than "Syrianism." The same applied to the Baath Party anthem, which was blasted at rallies either side by side with the official Syrian national anthem, or sometimes instead of it. During these ceremonies at state-run schools, the words of the national anthem lost their meaning, and so did the spirit of the flag.

When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, that began to change -- reportedly upon the advice of the Turks, who attached great importance to the Turkish flag after Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to the premiership in 2003. Erdogan firmly believed in the power of the flag to unite all Turks and bridge the gap between his country's Ottoman past and secular present. After 2003, accordingly, Syria's official flag began to take precedence over that of the Baath Party. The regime took to the idea and milked it dry, using the flag's tricolor at every presidential event and even manufacturing it into jackets, watches, bracelets, and caps. The flag became yet another loyalty test to measure fealty to the regime, the state, and the president.

When protests broke out in March 2011, Syrian officials resorted to the flag in any attempt to find a state symbol that Syrians could rally around. But by then it was too late -- the two flags had already emerged in Syria, one for the pro-regime street, and one for the opposition. Soon the country would have two armies as well, one for each flag. The state's abuse of the Syrian flag from 2003 to 2010 made it difficult for the flag to serve as a unifying force in 2011. Syrians wanted a new symbol, and they found it in the independence flag.

The red-striped flag is no more the flag of the regime, however, than the green-striped one is that of the French Mandate. Both assessments are flawed and need to be revisited calmly and seriously by Syria's new regime, which will likely include figures from the outgoing era uninvolved in the violence and destruction of the past 16 months. Some obviously want to maintain the current flag -- as happened in Egypt -- while others will push for a Libya-like flag change. A national referendum is vital at some point in the future.

Amid the tumult in Syria today, the colors of the flag may not seem like the most pressing issue. But this controversy raises an important issue for Syria's future -- how Syrians relate to each other as citizens of a common nation. They simply cannot go on judging each other's patriotism by the color of the flag they are waving. Neither banner can be eliminated from Syrian history. Millions still identify with the current flag, regardless of their views of the regime. Likewise, not everybody who opposes Assad feels at ease with the revolution's flag. And all of these people are going to have to work together to build a new Syria.

ADEM ALTAN/Getty Images