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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost: It's 5 o'clock Somewhere

One of the lectionary readings (Acts 2) for Pentecost Sunday, which is today, contains one of my favorite passages. It tells these story of how the Holy Spirit spread through the disciples, causing them to speak in numerous languages, and helped give birth to the Church. Most observers were amazed, but a few thought something else was at work:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken... Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They've had too much wine.” 
Then Peter stood up, raised his voice, and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people aren't drunk... It’s only nine in the morning!
I guess Peter didn't know that it's always 5 o'clock somewhere.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Religion, Fast and Slow

The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's recent book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," has become something of a modern classic. In it, he distinguishes between fast (intuitive) and slow (reflective) thinking. The former refers to situations that call for automatic responses; the latter to situations when concentration and deliberation are in order. Kahneman believes that both types of thinking are necessary for us navigate life's obstacles.

While one may be inclined to think that slow thinking is more valuable, Kahneman notes that over reliance on it can result in tunnel vision and the inability to make simple decisions (e.g., do we really want to deliberate the sturdiness of the chairs in our kitchen each time we sit down?). However, over reliance on fast thinking can lead to over confidence in our ability to fully grasp the world around us. For example, in considering the Wall Street debacle of a few years ago, he writes that the entire industry appears to be built largely on an illusion of skill, noting that research has shown that mutual fund managers perform more like dice rollers than poker players.

Kahneman’s research has been applied to a number of areas, but it is his (and the late Amos Tversky, his co-author of a number of years) application of it to economic decision making that garnered the most attention. So much so, in fact, that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Most observers believe that if Tversky had still been alive, the prize would have been awarded to both of them.

The distinction between fast and slow thinking has been applied to the cognitive study of religion. As noted in a previous post (Religion's Surprising Persistence"), cognitive scientists of religion have come to believe that religious belief is intuitive; it is cognitively natural. By natural they don’t mean that it is hardwired into us and that therefore everyone is religious. Rather, they argue that a belief in a God, or gods, or a supernatural force is a natural outcome of the maturational process. It is, in other words, easy for us to believe. Of course, the contents of our beliefs and practices are, in part, a product of the cultures in which we grow up. Nevertheless, getting our head around them is cognitively easy.

However, not all religious beliefs and practices are created equal. Some are “slower” than others. Some involve abstract forms of thought and as such require deliberation and reflection. That's why (all else being equal), more abstract forms of religion typically have a more difficult time attracting adherents than do less abstract ones. This is true not only across religions but also within religions. That is, not only do more intuitive religious traditions outperform less intuitive ones, but within a particular religious tradition, such as Christianity or Buddhism, strands that are cognitively natural (American Evangelicalism? Pure-Land Buddhism?) tend to enjoy more success than do those that are not (Philosophical Christianity? Zen Buddhism?).

This suggests that in order to survive, religious traditions whose beliefs and practices deviate substantially from expectations and are highly counterintuitive, they must construct and maintain what Justin Barrett, calls “cultural scaffolding,” by which he means those “special artifacts, institutions, practices [and] other devices that help people learn and use these more complex concepts ("Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology," Chapter 6).” He continues:
The metaphor scaffolding suggests that extra structures are needed to build up some ideas or practices that are not particularly natural (close to the ground). Furthermore, scaffolding is not permanent and can be removed. Analogously, the cultural conditions or devices that help build up relatively unnatural beliefs and practices can be removed. Previously common knowledge (such as how to start a fire from natural materials) can vanish when the cultural scaffolding is removed (Chapter 6, footnote 16).
What types of scaffolding are needed? Most obviously, worship, but that's probably not enough:
Successful theological traditions have developed [the] cultural scaffolding to make complex ideas more accessible. A portion of religious activities includes teaching, preaching, or instructive components in which religious ideas are communicated. These institutionalized practices are one part of the cultural scaffolding. Likewise the use of written texts (scripture) and sermons, common features in many religions, is the clearest example of cultural scaffolding that aid in transmitting relatively unnatural theological ideas (Chapter 8).
In other words, successful religious traditions must put into place institutional practices that help make complex practices more understandable and transmittable. That's why we should expect to find that successful Christian denominations and congregations almost always have robust preaching along with well-developed child and adult education programs (that's a testable proposition, by the way). Indeed, a study funded by the the Lilly Foundation ("What Makes Faith Mature") concluded that of the six denominations examined (five mainline and one evangelical), the evangelical denomination (The Southern Baptist Convention) did a better job at educating its members than did the five mainline denominations (Disciples of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church). The report carries substantial weight because mainline Protestants carried out the study.

Does this mean that religious traditions should dumb-down their theology in order to make it more intuitive? Not necessarily. Some experimental research has found “that concepts that are only slightly counterintuitive are as or more memorable and transmittable than wholly intuitive ones” (Chapter 6). That is, being a little counter intuitive may be better than entirely intuitive.

Why this is so, is debatable, but the research of Larry Iannaccone (“Why Strict Churches Are Strong”), Dean Kelley (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing”), and Christian Smith (“American Evangelicalism” and “Moral Believing Animals”) suggest that religious traditions that demand more from their members (at least up to a point) do a better job at creating those things that attract and retain people: robust fellowship, satisfying worship, and a sense of meaning and identity. However, in order to demand more from followers (and potential followers), “slower” religious groups will have to work harder than "faster" groups at constructing and maintaining the theological scaffolding they need to flourish.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Athletic Success

Recently I was inducted into my high school's (Los Gatos) athletic hall of fame, and I was asked to speak for 3-5 minutes, so I reflected upon why I excelled at sports ("Cast of 10 Former Cats Joins LG Athletic HoF"). One factor was that I was (and am) extremely driven. I played with a lot of athletes who had far more raw talent than I did, and except for a handful, I don’t think any of them worked any harder than I did. I spent literally hours in the batting cage (if I would have spent more time fielding ground balls, I would have been able to "pick" like Mike Denevi, another member of the LGHS HoF, who also played at Santa Clara U), and this drivenness continued past my playing days when I turned my attention to academics.

However, drivenness can be a bad thing and needs to be offset by something else, and that something else is "fun." I think back to my days playing in Los Gatos Little League, Pony League, Colt, Thoroughbred, and High School, and while we almost always played to win, we also played because it was fun, and the coaches I played for (e.g., my Dad, Bill and Randy Frey, Scotty Downs, Phil Couchee' and Joe Zanardi, Pete Denevi, Joe Winstead, Wayne Senini, Charlie Wedemeyer), coached because sports were fun (granted, it's a lot more fun to win than lose).

Now contrast that with today. I think many coaches have forgotten that in the end sports are just a game. For example, three of my son’s friends will play baseball for a local junior college baseball team next year, and so this summer they’re playing for the college's summer travel team. Now, I understand the logic behind this—the team's coaches want next year’s team to be the best it can be, and the sooner the players start playing together the better—but can’t they just play on a team with their friends one last time? That’s what we did. The summer after I graduated from Los Gatos, almost all of us played for the Los Gatos Thoroughbred team, regardless of whether we planned to play ball in college or not (in fact, most of us didn't).

I suspect that a lack of fun is leading good athletes to quit playing before their time. I know of a local girl who turned down a soccer scholarship at a major east coast powerhouse because it wanted to control everything she did, from her class schedule, where she lived, and probably who she hung out with. But she wanted her freedom, and so she chose to not play at all in college. And I know of another girl, a top volleyball player in Florida, who turned down a scholarship to a premiere program because she burned herself out playing club ball for several years. And those of us who’ve been around for a while, will remember what happened to Todd Marinovich, whose father started his training regimen when Todd was still in the crib (I’m not kidding).

I guess if there’s a takeaway it’s that in order for our young athletes to succeed, they do have to be driven. They have to want to best that they can be. But they also need to have fun. So, I think it’s up to the rest of us, those of us whose playing days are in the past, to do all we can so that in their drive to succeed, they'll always have fun.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Religion's Surprising (at least to some) Persistence

In 1966 the late (and great) anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently declared that "the evolutionary future of religion is extinction. Belief in supernatural beings... will become only an interesting historical memory." He was not alone in this view. The conventional wisdom of the majority of social scientists at the time was that as the world became more modern, it would become increasingly secularized.

That clearly has not happened. Religion has not faded away. In fact, in some ways it is stronger now than it was a century ago. For example, in the United States in 1906 church adherence rate was at 51%. It reached a peak of approximately 60% in 1980, a level at which it has remained ever since. That's right. That's not a misprint. Church adherence rates are higher now than they were a century ago.  In fact, they are higher than they were over two centuries ago.

And the resurgence of religion has not been limited to the United States. While Europe remains relatively irreligious (at least in terms of church attendance), religious belief around the world is quite robust. (Even in Europe secularism may be overstated. Just because people aren't attending church doesn't mean they aren't religious (or spiritual) -- indeed, the sociologist Grace Davie has coined the phrase, "believing without belonging," to describe religious belief in Britain. Moreover, secularism tends to be self-limiting for the simple fact that secularists reproduce at much lower rates than do people of faith. Regardless, social scientists, such as Peter Berger, who was once a strong proponent of secularization theory, have repented of their earlier views and concluded they'd been wrong:
I think what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularization and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization. It wasn't a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it's basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It's very religious (Christian Century, 1997).
There's still a few secularization theory holdouts (e.g., the sociologist Steve Bruce and scientist Richard Dawkins), but more and more scholars are not only recognizing that religion isn't going away soon (or at all) but that it needs to be taken seriously by individuals and societies as a force with which to be reckoned. Religion's persistence and influence has been explored in a number of recent books, such as God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global PoliticsGod is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, and The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics.

But why does religion continue to persist? Why is it so resilient? Perhaps the most parsimonious answer is that it continues to flourish because people are responding to a genuine experience of the divine. That is, there really is a God, or gods, or some higher power that evokes a sense of awe in some of us. Such an explanation simply won't do from a social science perspective, however, which is why there are numerous "theories" of religion that attempt to explain why some people are religious. Indeed, I have a book on my office shelf that outlines eight theories of religion.

A recent theory (or set of theories) that has attracted attention in recent years (not one of the "eight") comes from the work of cognitive scientists of religion, such as Justin Barrett (Why Would Anyone Believe in God?), Jesse Bering (The Belief Instinct), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), Robert McCauley (Why Religion is Natural and Science Is Not), and Scott Atran (In Gods We Trust). Cognitive science isn't a discipline in and of itself (at least not yet), but instead is an amalgam of scholars trained as linguists, neuroscientists, computer scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, and philosophers.

If you're wondering, not all cognitive scientists of religion are religious (e.g., Scott Atran and Jess Bering are quite vocal about their lack of faith), but they do agree (sometimes for slightly different reasons) that human beings are naturally religious, not in the sense that religious belief is biologically determined, that everyone is religious, or that what people come to believe about the divine is necessarily true, but rather that it's cognitively easy for us to be religious because it belongs to those set of cognitive capacities that are a part of the natural maturing process. Put differently, religious belief is intuitive. (Those familiar with the work of Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman will recognize the similarity between this and what Kahneman calls "fast" (intuitive) and "slow" (reflective) thinking ("Thinking, Fast and Slow")).

Why they believe religious belief is intuitive, I will probably take up in a later post. For now it's suffice to note that because religion is natural, these scholars believe that in spite of the wishful thinking of folks like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, religion will always be with us. Its strength will vary from time to time and place to place, but it will never, ever, completely go away.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How Far We Have (Over) Come

Last night's episode on American Idol featured the top three finalists. A benefit of being in the final three is that each contestant is given his or her own homecoming concert, parade, and other related activities in, well, their home town.

One of the contestants, Joshua Ledet (pictured at right), is an African-American from a small Louisiana town (Westlake). Highlights of his homecoming visit were shown on American Idol, and what was interesting was how most of the people who showed up to the various events and were clamoring for Joshua's autograph were white. And I was struck by how far we, as a nation, have come. That wouldn't have happened in the 1960s, at least not in Louisiana.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where Do They Send the Bill?

While waiting at a light today, there was a man sitting next to the left turn lane, holding a sign that indicated he was homeless and looking for food or work. When I looked closer, I could see that he was smoking a cigarette and talking on a cell phone. And I couldn't help but wonder, "Where do they send his phone bill?"

Of course, he might have one of those prepaid cell phones, but this strikes me strategically as a poor choice. I mean, who do you think the average driver going to give money to? Someone who spends their money on cell phones and cigarettes? I don't think so.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Stereotypes in War and Politics

In a recent post I noted that social psychologists have found that we humans tend to regard in-group members more highly than we do out-group members (however we may define who is in and who is out), leading us to do things such as valuing in-group members' opinions more than others and treating out-group members as less intelligent and moral than ourselves.

While I hope it's obvious why it isn't fair to treat others as immoral or stupid, it may not be immediately obvious why it isn't always smart to do so. To be sure, sometimes it doesn't matter, but when it comes to war and politics, it often does. For example, in war it's often dangerous to treat your opponent as stupid (as General George Patton clearly knew, which is why he held opponents such as the German General Erwin Rommel in such high esteem).

Unfortunately, this has happened over and over again since 9/11. Islamic terrorists have been repeatedly portrayed as poorly-educated, religious fanatics, who are motivated by visions of heavenly grandeur when in fact most are well-educated (especially when compared to the countries from which they come) and come from secular and middle class backgrounds ("Terrorist Stereotypes and Misconceptions"). John Updike's novel, The Terrorist, somewhat reflects the uninformed perception.

The same is true in politics. While it's tempting to treat one's political opponents as beneath you, it is ill-advised to do so. In the early 2000s, Democrats repeatedly mocked the religiosity and intellect of theologically conservative Republicans. However, as  the cognitive scientist and UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff ("Don't Think of an Elephant") who was the darling of the political left during the 2004 Presidential election, warned his liberal colleagues, just because conservatives see the world in a different way, doesn't mean they're mental midgets. To do so, is a mistake:
A lot of progressives hear conservatives talk and do not understand them because they do not have the conservatives' frames. They assume that conservatives are stupid. They are not stupid. They are winning because they are smart. They understand how people think and how people talk. They think! (p. 17, emphasis added).
So, what's the takeaway? I think a good operating strategy, regardless of your ideological leanings, is to assume that until proven differently your opponents are smart, moral, and competent. Assume otherwise at your own peril.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Faustian Bargain: Michael Sandel, Selling Souls and the Moral Limits of Markets

Faust is a German legend which tells the story of an intellectual who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Goethe' turned it into a play, and it has inspired a number of books, movies, and songs, such as the musical "Damn Yankees," which is based on the novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,"Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Steven Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," and Charlie Daniel's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

While these stories of selling one's soul (or at least bargaining with it) are fictional, there is at least one case where someone has sold their soul to someone else. In a comment posted on the Freakonomics website after an interview with Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, Caleb B. asked:
What is it about the idea of a soul that even people who confess to not have one are hesitant to sell it? I have been trying, for the better part of ten years, to buy a soul. I’ve offered a dollar amount, between $10 and $50, for someone to sign a sheet of paper that says that I own their soul. Despite multiple debates with confessed atheists, no one has signed the contract. I have been able to buy several people’s Sense of Humor and one guy’s Dignity, but no souls. Additionally, will any Freakonomics reader take me up on this? I’m willing to spend $50 on souls.
Caleb eventually found a seller, one Bruce Hamilton, who agreed to sell his soul to Caleb for $50.00. This transaction eventually led to a Freakonomics podcast on the topic ("Soul Possession"), which not only includes interviews with Caleb and Bruce but also with Mary Roach, author of "Spook: Science Tackles on the Afterlife," as well as with Harvard professor Michael Sandel, who's new book, "What Money Can't Buy," explores the moral limits of markets.
A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being, an unreflective way of thinking and being that just assumes that all the good things in life can in principle be up for sale. And that, I think, diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor, and that money can’t or shouldn’t buy.
With Freakonomics host Stephen Dubner, Sandel explores the moral limits of a market for souls, reflecting I think a bit of skepticism. Too bad Yahweh didn't weigh in.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Celibacy and the Pastoral Abuse of Minors

Readers of the San Jose Mercury News probably saw the story about the Assistant Principal at Leland High School who was arrested unlawful sexual conduct with a minor ("Leland High Assistant Principal Arrested for Alleged Unlawful Sexual Contact with Minor"). In fact, every few months, there seems to be a story about a principal, doctor, athletic coach, teacher who had inappropriate sexual conduct with a minor. And each time I read one, I am reminded how often it is NOT a Catholic priest who is the abuser.

In fact, contrary to popular perception Catholic priests do not sexually abuse minors at a greater rate than do males in the larger population. According to the best available research, the percentage of male protestant pastors, teachers, coaches, doctors, and (yes) school principals who sexually abuse minors is about the same as it is for Catholic priests (approximately 4%). An obvious implication of this is that priestly celibacy is not a cause of the pastoral abuse of minors. If it was, the rate among Catholic priests would be higher than the rate for the male population, but it isn't. So that's why although I (a married Protestant pastor) think there are a lot of good reasons (including theological reasons) why diocesan Catholic priests should be allowed to marry, the prevention of the pastoral abuse of minors is not one of them.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Where's the (Environmental) Outrage?

Did you know about 80 percent of all cut flowers sold in the US are imported from countries, such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, essentially places where the sun shines 12 hours a day, all year-round. Flowers that are imported from such countries must be refrigerated immediately after they’re cut and most are flown to the Miami International Airport. Then, here's the kicker, they're trucked to their destination, even if that destination is on the West Coast. So, as Freakonomics host, Stephen Dubner, asks in the latest podcast where all of this is discussed ("A Rose By Any Other Distance"):
Where is the outrage over these globe-trotting... flowers? If we ship food halfway across the planet, at least we eat it; it’s our sustenance. But flowers just get looked at, and then tossed. They seem to have somehow escaped the environmental scrutiny that accompanies what we eat, how we transport ourselves, etc. Perhaps it’s the halo effect from the flowers themselves? They’re so pretty, after all.
You gotta wonder.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Real Clear Religion

Here's a helpful website that I just learned about from a Research on Religion podcast (see below): Real Clear Religion for those of you interested in religion. It is an information aggregation site that seeks to identify and provide links to interesting and high quality articles on religion. For instance, I was quickly able to find good articles on religion and science as well as an editorial by Jimmy Carter on the death penalty. Here is how Real Clear Religion describes itself:
Real Clear Religion is a catch-all source for religion stories, opinion and controversy. Everyday the Real Clear Religion team scours the Web to find the best religion news and analysis to help readers of all faiths better understand one another. We cover religion in itself and religion as it touches our lives through music, books, business, history and -- yes, sigh -- politics.
It is actually part of a much larger site, which dedicates itself to a number of different topics (e.g., Real Clear Sports, Real Clear Science, Real Clear Politics, etc.)

The editor, Jeremy Lott, occasionally writes his own articles, either for the site or for another outlet to which he then provides a link. Here's an interesting one he wrote just prior to President Obama's State of the Union address: "Is the Era of Big Religion Over," which (amongst other things) dispels such myths as the US is becoming more secular and that people of higher education and income attend church at lower rates than people of lower education and income (just the opposite is true). Here's an interesting fact: Did you know that 21% of self-described atheists believe in God (gotta wonder about the education level of some atheists since they don't seem to know what the word "atheist" means).

Lott was recently interviewed by Anthony Gill of Research on Religion ("Jeremy Lott on Real Clear Religion"), which is how I learned about the website. Here's a description of the interview from the Research on Religion website:
If you need to get a daily fix of religious-related news, where are you going to go? Real Clear Religion, of course! Jeremy Lott, the editor of Real Clear Religion and other related news portals, joins us to chat about how the Interwebs have changed the way we hear about religious news. He reveals the history of the “Real Clear” network of news sites (or “intelligent aggregators”) and how RCR fits into that general model of internet sites. We then talk about the various media trends Jeremy has seen over the years, including some discussion on the state of religion & politics and the upcoming election.