Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Romanticizing religious strictures

David Brooks on Friday wrote about the merits of what he calls "rigorous theology." Moderate feel-good religion doesn't cut it, he says. He says that more rigorous religion is what motivates people to behave sexually, and that if Mormons refrain from coffee, that willpower must extend to the rest of their lives. Even setting aside the implicit "without god all is permitted" issue, his premise is dubious. The abstinence movement shows clear examples of religion not motivating people to behave sexually. Evangelical sociologist Mark Regnerus's book about evangelical teens describes how they compartmentalize their sexual behavior from the rest of their religiosity.

As for whether discipline in one area extends to others: I'm not aware of any research of the sort. My understanding of the psychology literature is that willpower is limited: if one is exerting willpower in one area, one has less will power for other efforts. On the other hand, a life-long dietary adherence requires no willpower at all. It's just habit, and habit requires no thought. In fact, people who break dietary restrictions for the first time describe the will-power that it takes to take that first habit-breaking step.

David Brooks keeps kosher himself, so I would think that he would have realized that habitual dietary laws don't impact will-power at all. Perhaps in the throes of Passover bread deprivation (his op-ed was published on the 4th day of Passover), he wanted to believe that his week without bread was bettering himself. Now that he can go back to bread, perhaps Brooks will realize how much he was romanticizing religious strictures. Or perhaps he'll continue keeping Passover for another month because the first week was so rigorous.

1 comment:

Eve said...

I'm skeptical of Brooks's logic, too, but the first article you cited on willpower suggests that in the long term, exercising willpower in one area can in fact increase your capacity to exercise willpower in other areas. It's only when willpower is challenged in multiple areas at once or in quick succession that it appears to be depleted.

I'm also skeptical of the chocolate chip cookie study in general, particularly because (according to another article I read about it) the participants were required to skip breakfast the morning of the study. Presumably, the sooner they gave up on the puzzle, the sooner they could go home and eat. Unless that isn't true (e.g., the researchers kept everyone locked in a room for a set period of time, which is totally possible), it seems to me that the participants weren't actually exercising willpower in two different areas (puzzle solving and resisting cookies), but in one area (staying to work on a puzzle rather than eating).