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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Black Friday and the Spirit of Christmas

Around this time of year, it isn't unusual to hear some Christians complain about the use of "Xmas" rather than "Christmas," arguing that it is a secular attempt to remove the religious aspect of Christmas by taking the "Christ" out of "Christmas." Such complaints, however, are misplaced. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letter "X" was used as an abbreviation for "Christ" as early as 1485, long before the term "Xmas" was used. It comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός, which is translated "Christ." It is also found in the labarum (see example at left), often referred to as the Chi-Rho, and is a Christian symbol representing Christ.

Another problem is that Christmas has not always been a terribly pious holiday. In fact, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is a far more "religious" holiday now than it was back in the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then celebrations got so out of hand that the Puritans attempted to ban it (that's right, they passed a law making it illegal to celebrate Christmas) and led one Anglican clergyman to remark that we do more to dishonor the name of Christ during the 12 days of Christmas than we do in the other 11 months of the year. This is all wonderfully documented in The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum.

Nevertheless, putting a little bit more Christ into Christmas strikes me as a good idea. The recent happenings on Black Friday being a case in point. No doubt, most of you have heard about the individual who on Black Friday pepper-sprayed her fellow shoppers in her quest for an X-Box. She reportedly was looking to gain an advantage. Gain an advantage? Is "gaining an advantage" what Christmas is all about? I have a hard time imagining Jesus condoning such behavior. In fact, he might even call it sinful. I know I do.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion

In 1967 article Robert Bellah argued that America is constituted by what he called "civil religion," which helped connect it to the divine order of things, giving it a sense of origin and direction. It is the idea that America is a chosen nation, a city on a hill, a light to the nations. Like traditional religions, American civil religion has its sacred texts, symbols, and rituals. For texts, there is the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. For a symbol there is the American Flag (if you doubt its sacred status, try to burn one and see what happens). For rituals there are several: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, July 4th, 9/11, and perhaps the most important, Thanksgiving.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is the consummate America civil religion ritual. It is the American Exodus story. Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom probably didn't descend from the families that had fled from Pharaoh's wrath but later affiliated with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims. However, just as the Exodus story became the story for all who chose to worship Yahweh, the Thanksgiving story has become the story for most Americans. On the 4th Thursday of every November, most of us sit down with family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the Thanksgiving story.

Robert Wuthnow has noted that there are actually two versions of the civil religion story. One that you might call the priestly or conservative version, and one that you might call the prophetic or liberal version. One holds up America’s greatness; the other, America’s obligations. The priestly or conservative version is perhaps best captured by the phrase “One Nation Under God," and its greates spokesperson was probably President Ronald Reagan:
I’ve always thought that a providential hand had something to do with the founding of this country. God had His reasons for placing this land between two great oceans to be found by a certain kind of people; that whatever corner of the world they came from, there would be in their hearts a fervent love of freedom and a special kind of courage, the courage to uproot themselves and their families, travel great distances to a foreign shore, and build there a new world of peace and freedom.
The phrase “With Liberty and Justice for All” is a nice way of capturing the essence of American civil religion's prophetic version. It calls on Americans to live up to their loftiest ideals, and it was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech, who tapped into this version as well as anyone every has and perhaps ever will.
If America is to be a great nation, there must come a day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning ‘My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing / Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride / From every mountainside, let freedom ring!’
While these two stories are not necessarily incompatible, they are somewhat in tension with one another. One of the nice things about Thanksgiving, though, is that it helps many of us transcend our differences, if only for awhile, as we recall a story of sharing, celebration, and welcoming the stranger into our midst.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gobble, Gobble: Thanksgiving Preferences and Unintended Consequences

Guess what percentage of commercially raised turkeys in the US are the product of artificial insemination? Surprisingly, 100% ("Unnatural Turkeys"). Why? Well, it appears that because of Americans preference for breast meat, turkeys have been selectively bred over the years to have bigger and bigger breasts. Unfortunately (at least from the perspective of the turkeys), the selective breeding process has been so successful that male turkeys can't reproduce the old-fashioned way because their breasts get in the way. Who would've thought?

You need not despair, however.  If you want a turkey this Thanksgiving that's the product of natural turkey reproduction, there's always the heritage turkey. Be prepared to spend $150 - $200, though.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

25 Worst Passwords of 2011

The Internet security firm SplashData has come up with its list of the 25 worst passwords of 2011. It's hard to believe that "password" tops the list.  I can't help but wonder if "username" is the #1 user name:
  1. password
  2. 123456
  3. 12345678
  4. qwerty
  5. abc123
  6. monkey
  7. 1234567
  8. letmein
  9. trustno1
  10. dragon
  11. baseball
  12. 111111
  13. iloveyou
  14. master
  15. sunshine
  16. ashley
  17. bailey
  18. passw0rd
  19. shadow
  20. 123123
  21. 654321
  22. superman
  23. qazwsx
  24. michael
  25. football

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Education and Church Attendance: The Conventional Wisdom is Wrong

Dating back at least to Karl Marx, an often unchallenged assumption is that education and religion don't mix. That is, individuals with higher levels of education will be less religious and consequently attend church at lower rates or not at all.

As if often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Individuals with lower levels of education actually attend church less frequently than those with a high school education or less. As the table below indicates (from the 2008 General Social Surveys accessed using the ARDA's "Quick Stats" feature), 22.7% of individuals who didn't finish high school and 22.6% of those who only completed high school report that they never attend church (both above the national average), while only 17.6% of those with a bachelor degree and 18.8% of those with a graduate degree say they never attend church. The opposite is also true. Those with bachelor and graduate degrees are more likely to report that they attend church weekly (24.3% and 22.6% respectively) than those with a high school diploma or less (17.0%). Some college appears to have some interesting effects. Junior college graduates are the least likely group (15.3%) to never attend church and the most likely group to attend church more than once a week (11.0%).

The bottom line is that higher levels of education do not predict irreligiousness (or rather, church attendance). Education levels do, however, predict the "type" of religion people are attracted to (if in fact they are attracted to any at all). Individuals with higher levels of education tend to prefer faith communities that have somewhat accommodated their beliefs and practices to the wider society (i.e., they have become somewhat secularized) whereas individuals with lower levels tend to prefer faith communities that resist the trappings of modern life (i.e., they are far less secularized). The former are sometimes referred to as "church-type" churches and the latter as "sectarian" churches. It is probably best to see this more as a continuum than as a dichotomy, running from highly sectarian churches at one end to highly secularized churches at the other.

What are some of the more reliable predictors of frequent church attendance (or non-attendance)? Well, females tend to be more religious than males and as such attend church more frequently, and at least in the US, non-hispanic whites are the least religious race/ethnic group and so attend church less frequently. Another strong predictor is geographic mobility. People who move around on average don't attend church as often as those who have lived in a community for a long time -- probably because people are less likely to invest the time in a faith community until they know that such an investment will yield tangible benefits.

A possible objection is these results is that they are from a single survey, so we shouldn't take them too seriously. That would be a valid objection if this was the only survey that gave such results, but it isn't. Social scientists who study religion have known for decades (at least back to the 1970s) that education doesn't keep people from attending church (or synagogue, temple, or mosque). Getting the word out about this fact has not been easy, and some people refuse to believe it even when presented with the data, unwittingly giving credence to the motto: "never let data get in the way of a pet theory."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Hallelujah Chorus Like You've Never Seen it Before


Here's the Hallelujah Chorus like you've (probably) never seen it before ("Hallelujah Chorus"). This video from the small Yupiq Eskimo Village of Quinhagak, Alaska, was a school computer project intended for the other Yupiq villages in the area. Much to the villagers' surprise, over a half million people have viewed it. Now you can too!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Athletes Are Less Likely to be Arrested than Average Citizens

Here's a statistic that some might find surprising. Professional athletes are less (not more) likely to be arrested than the average citizen ("Surprising Numbers About NFL Arrest Rates"). According to FBI statistics, in 2010 while one in every 45 NFL players (2.2%) is arrested, the national arrest rate is 1 in 23 (4.2%). To be sure, NBA players are slightly more likely to be arrested than folks on the street (5.1%), but the MLB rate is 2.1%. Why does it seem like just the opposite is true? That is, why does it seem that athletes are more likely to be rogues and the average citizen? Simple. When the average person is arrested, it typically isn't news, but when a professional athlete is arrested, it usually is.

It is somewhat analogous to the attention the Catholic Church has faced because of the Catholic priests who have sexually abused children. Due to press coverage, many people assume that Catholic priests abuse children at higher rates than other males (and celibacy is typically held up as the cause), but such an assumption is wrong. Catholic priests do not abuse children at higher rates than other males (celibate or not). It's just when a priest gets caught, it's front page news, but when, say, a high school or college coach gets caught, it usually ends up in the local section, unless, of course, they used to work for Joe Paterno.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Unintended Consequences of Elections

Election season is upon us (and will be with us for the next year), and a recent Freaknomics podcast ("Wildfires, Cops, and Keggers") highlighted some of what you might call the unintended consequences of elections. For example, in mayoral and gubernatorial election years, police forces tend to grow and crime tends to fall. Why? Because incumbents’ incentives change when they run for re-election, and they often try perform better (or at least give the appearance that they are), so they do things like hire more police. This effect isn't limited to the US, either. Arkadipta Ghosh, a researcher with Mathematica Policy Research, found that crime rates (especially property crime rates) drop in India the year before an election and spike the year after.

Here's another one. Jeffrey Kubik of Syracuse University and John Moran of Penn State found that taxes on beer is more likely to go up in the year after election but cigarette taxes are not. Why. It appears that legislators up for re-election might raise cigarette taxes to avoid raising taxes on other, more important constituencies (like beer drinkers), but they will wait until after an election, once they've won another term, before they raise taxes on beer.

Here's another sobering fact: Executions are 25 percent more likely in gubernatorial election years. I guess if you want to be a governor in the US, you otta show you're tough on crime.

Here's a weird one. Spyros Skouras and Nicos Christodoulakis, professors at the Athens University, analyzed cycles of forest fires in Greece found that in election years, wildfires burn 2.5 times the area than they do in non-election years. They hypothesize that this could be a possible byproduct of building-permit regulations that forbid development on forest land unless it has been burned by a wildfire.


Sarah Anzia, a political science Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, looked at teacher pay and school-board elections and found that experienced teachers get paid more in districts that hold off-cycle elections. That’s because off-cycle elections generally have low voter turnout elections, which means that interest groups. such as teachers’ unions, can make a bigger impact at the polls.

The full transcript of the podcast can be found here: ("Wildfires, Cops, and Keggers: Full Transcript")

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Will President Obama be Reelected?

A year from now Americans (well, a little over 50% of Americans) will decide who will be our next President for the next four years. The big question, of course, is whether President Obama will be reelected or will the Republican nominee take over the reigns. Little has changed in the last month ("How Good Are We At Predicting the Future?"), so I'll repeat what I wrote then:
If the economy doesn't pick up between now and next summer, Republicans will control the House, Senate, and Mitt Romney will be sitting in the Oval Office come January 2013.
The difficulty, of course, is trying to figure out what is going to happen to the economy over the next year. As the stock market's volatility indicates, people aren't quite sure although yesterday's news in terms of new jobs and unemployment suggests that the likelihood of "double-dip" recession is receding.  Still, unemployment remains high and the economy is expanding at a very slow rate, all of which is not good news for President Obama (charts from Google Public Data Explorer).



Nevertheless, my sense is that if the economy (i.e., GDP) grows at 2.0% rate per quarter (or better) and unemployment drops below 9.0%, then his chances of being reelected are better than 50%. If it doesn't grow that fast and unemployment remains above 9.0%, then there's a very good chance that Mitt Romney will be our next President. Either way, it's going to be close.

An obvious objection is that American voters are concerned with more than the state of the economy. That is, they take other factors into account, such as a candidate's position on affirmative action, same-sex marriage, abortion, the war in Afghanistan, and so on. And that is, of course, correct.  And when predicting for whom individual voters will vote, these issues are more salient than the economy.  However, when it comes to predicting how American voters will vote in the aggregate, then it is an entirely different matter. In that case, the state of the economy explains almost everything.

Why? Because the economy is the primary factor for swing voters, and their votes are the ones that are most subject to change between now and November 6, 2012, while the votes of died-in-the-wool Republicans and Democrats are not. In other words, most Americans who are pro-choice and support same-sex marriage are not going to vote for the Republican candidate even if the economy goes into the tank. And most Americans who are pro-life and oppose same-sex marriage are not going to vote for President Obama even if the economy takes off. However, for those Americans for whom such issues are less important or don't toe a particular ideological line (e.g., they are pro-life but support same-sex marriage, or they are pro-choice but oppose same-sex marriage), then the economy typically becomes THE most important issue. And that's why the fate of President Obama and Mitt Romney hinge on how the economy performs over the next twelve months.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What's the Definition of a Good Driver?

While in a coffee shop the other day, I heard the tail-end of conversation where a waitress was telling two customers that she was a very good driver because she had very quick reactions. Well, at least most of the time quick reactions. Except for the two times she didn't and had an accident.

So, I'm a bit confused. What is the definition of a good driver?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Heartwarming Sports Story

OK. Here's something that you gotta see (even if you've seen it before), a heartwarming story that occurred back in 2006, but I just heard about. It's a story of an autistic teen, who was his High School basketball team's manager (i.e., he carried out the balls, handed out towels, etc.) and was given a chance to play in the team's final game of the season. And he didn't just play. He scored. And scored. And scored... You have to see it ("Autistic Teen's Hoop Dreams Come True").