Religion and Self-control


Evolutionary psychology, evolutionary neuroscience, and evolutionary religious studies have been getting some good press lately thanks to Mike McCullough. Dr. McCullough is Professor of Psychology and Religious Studies at the University of Miami. He is the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (2008: Jossey-Bass) and co-author (with Brian Willoughby) of "Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations, and Implications" (Jan 2009: The Psychological Bulletin).

I first learned of Dr. McCullough from the Evolutionary Religious Studies website, which lists him (as well as me and Connie) among the "faculty and independent scholars" writing and speaking about religion from an evolutionary perspective. I wrote about this field of study in my Evolutionary Religious Studies blog post in September of 2007.

A couple of months ago, Connie and I listened to Krista Tippett interview Dr. McCullough on American Public Media's Speaking of Faith show. The program was titled "Getting Revenge and Forgiveness". The interview was excellent, as usual. (I recommend subscribing to the Speaking of Faith podcast). Most recently, ran a most helpful summary of McCullough and Willoughby's research, as did John Tierney from The New York Times, who wrote a feature article titled, "For Good Self Control, Try Getting Religious About It."

Tierney, who says he's not a particularly religious person himself, seems fascinated by the fact that eight decades of research concludes that religious belief and piety promote self-control. This, of course, makes perfect sense from an evolutionary religious studies perspective, as I'll disuss in my next blog post. I suspect that the reason Tierney is amazed by this finding is because he's not read much evolutionary psychology or evolutionary brain science. It's certainly what one would expect when one understands the challenges of living in a modern/post-modern world with instincts that have ancient agendas (i.e., fulfilling the survival and reproductiive needs of our reptilian, mammalian, primate, and hominid ancestors).

In any event, I highly recommend reading both the summary and John Tierney's NY Times column, as well as Tierney's December 29 blog post and reader responses (some insightful, some innane). And, of course, I also recommend listening to Krista Tippet's wonderful interview with Dr. McCullough. In a separate blog post I'll write later this week, I'll discuss how and why all this makes sense from the perspective of Evolutionany Religious Studies and Evolution Theology.