“It’s Absolutely Essential That You Continue, Teacher…”

obedienceThe other day, my REL 245 class, concerned with investigating some of the background assumptions that make it possible for many scholars today to study religion in America in terms of choice — as if religious consumers are shopping in a competitive spiritual marketplace — took a look at Stanley Milgram’s famous series of psychology experiments; dating from the early 1906s, this series of experiments examined the role authority plays in human action and decision-making.

Readers of a certain generation may know all about this experiment, of course, but younger readers, or current students who’ve not happened upon it in an intro to psychology textbook, may not know anything about it.

If so, take a look. You may be surprised by what you learn.

The moral of the story?

The white lab coat matters.

Calling people not by personal names but by formalized roles matters.

Making them feel exempt from responsibility matters.

Oh, and nice people sometimes do not so nice things.

However, as we learn at the 39:29 point of the film’s conclusion, it would be an error to explain the results by appealing to the lone individual actor (you know, they way we often assume that the “one bad apple” theory adequately accounts for why some people do what we see to be terrible things). Instead, the structure of the situation needs to be examined. Or, as the narrator puts it:

The context of their actions must always be considered. The individual, upon entering the laboratory, becomes integrated into a situation that carries its own momentum…

So what’s all this got to do with the study of religion?

I bet my students are asking the same thing.

Today we look at the no less famous (or should I say infamous) Stanford Prison Experiment (from 1971) to keep pressing on the weak points of the widely shared presumption, at least among some scholars, that religious affiliation is best studied as a a series of individual choices made by a lone actors.

We’ll see what they make of it….

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