Follow by Email

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Geniuses for Jesus

Some would have us believe that religion and science are incompatible, but as the late evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould (who was, at best, an agnostic) once remarked (Scientific American, 1992):
To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time. . . science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. . . Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.  
While Gould isn't the final word on the matter, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that science and religion are not incompatible. Take, for instance, James Henry Leuba's 1914 survey of scientists, which some mistakenly point to as evidence of their incompatibility. Leuba asked a large sample of scientists: "Select one of the following statements about belief in God"
  1. I believe in a God to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer,” I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.
  2. I do not believe in God as defined above.
  3. I have no definite belief regarding this question.
42% of the scientists chose the first option, which is remarkable considering it's a highly restrictive definition of belief. In fact, most mainline Protestant pastors probably couldn't affirm it. Less restrictive definitions can be found on more standard surveys, such as the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, which asked the following question: "Which one statement comes closest to your personal beliefs about God?"
  1. I have no doubts that God exists
  2. I believe in God, but with some doubts
  3. I sometimes believe in God
  4. I believe in a higher power or cosmic force
  5. I don't know and there is no way to find out
  6. I am an atheist
  7. I have no opinion
It's likely that if Leuba had phrased the question like this, the percentage of scientists who affirmed a belief in God or a higher power (whether with some doubts or not) would have been higher. Perhaps more interesting is that when Leuba's survey was repeated in 1996, 40% of scientists chose Leuba's first option, a statistically insignificant change from the first survey more than 50 years before. So much for the inevitable march of secularization...

Similarly, increased levels of education don't seem to damper church attendance rates, at least not in the United States. As the table below indicates, people who didn't graduate from high school are more likely than any other group to report that they don't attend church at all, and their rate of non-attendance is only slightly higher than those with only have a high school or junior college degree. Just as striking is the group that is most likely to report weekly attendance: those with a four-year college degree (those with junior college or graduate degrees are right behind):


If we use these data to predict average days of attendance per year (see the graph below) there is a slight but clear increase as one moves up in terms of level of degree earned. In other words, on average people who have earned a graduate degree report that they attend church at higher rates than do those without a high school degree.


But I digress. Sociologists of religion have known about this relationship between education and religion for decades although for some reason, it has not filtered out to the larger population. My intention in this (extended) post is not to reiterate known facts but to provide a series of brief biographies of "geniuses" who are/were also Christians. Some are scientists (e.g., Steven Barr, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne), some are philosophers (e.g., René Girard, Alasdair MacIntyre, Gabriel Marcel, Charles Taylor), some are writers (e.g., Maya Angelou, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Marilynne Robinson, Dorothy Sayers, John Updike), and some are hard to classify (e.g., Jaques Ellul, C.S. Lewis, John Sexton, J.R.R. Tolkien). Most are Roman Catholics, which is somewhat surprising given the disdain that many intellectuals have for the Catholic Church. This, of course, isn't a random sample, so I may have a bias toward Catholics although I'm not one myself. And there are some notable folks I could've included but didn't (e.g., Alastair McGrath, Peter Berger, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Søren Kierkegaard, Cornell West), and I purposely left professional theologians out since they might be seen as "biased." Of course, although this post focuses on intellectuals who are Christians, one could just as easily write about intellectuals who are affiliated with other faiths (e.g, the philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas). But, I'll let someone else take up that task.

Note: Information on the geniuses was gleaned from numerous sources, such as Wikipedia, news reports, websites about the individuals, etc. They appear in alphabetical order.

Maya Angelou (Baptist)—Angelou is probably best known for her series of autobiographies, the first of which, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, tells about her life up to the age of 17. She became a poet and writer after holding a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, prostitute, nightclub performer, and coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was active in the Civil Rights movement and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. From 1982 onward she taught at Wake Forest where she held the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She taught a variety of subjects, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing. In 1993 she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" (1993) at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, becoming the first poet to give an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost gave one at President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. Angelou used the same "writing ritual" for many years. She'd wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible. She averaged 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she would edit down to three or four in the evening. Angelou was a member of both Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem (for over 30 years) and Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. Both held services after she passed away in May 2014.

Stephen M. Barr (Roman Catholic)Stephen Barr is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, and a member of its Bartol Research Institute. He does research in theoretical particle physics and cosmology and in 2011 was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society, the world's second largest organization of physicists. Barr obtained his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1978. He went on to do research at the University of Pennsylvania as a post-doctoral fellow (1978–80), the University of Washington as a Research Assistant Professor (1980-85), and Brookhaven National Laboratory as an Associate Scientist (1985-87), before landing at the University of Delaware in 1987. Barr is a Roman Catholic and writes about religion and science. He is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, and he serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of the religious journal, First Things, in which many of his articles have appeared. In 2007, he was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Benedict XVI, and in 2010 he was elected a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology.

Francis S. Collins (Evangelical)Collins is an American physician/geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project. He is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at Yale in 1974 and then enrolled in medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which he graduated in 1977. He became known as a gene hunter when working at the University of Michigan, which led him to be to be appointed the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). He has been elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. Collins's parents were, at best, nominal Christians, and by graduate school he considered himself an atheist. Dealing with his dying parents, however, led him to investigate various faiths, and C.S. Lewis's book, Mere Christianity, played an instrumental role in becoming a Christian. H has written several books on science, medicine, and spirituality, including the bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Dorothy Day (Roman Catholic)Dorothy Day was an American journalist, social activist, who after living something of a bohemian life in New York, converted to Catholicism and helped give birth to the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist movement that continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf. Her parents were nominal Christians who rarely attended church, but as a young child she displayed a religious streak, reading the Bible frequently. When she was ten she started to attend an Episcopal church, after her brothers join the church choir. She eventually was baptized and confirmed in that church. She quickly drifted away from the faith, however, and she soon described herself as an anarchist and a socialist. She worked for several Socialist publications and wrote in support of women's rights, free love, and birth control. She had long love affair with Mike Gold, who later became a prominent Communist, and in the early 1920s, after the end of a love affair that resulted in an abortion, she was married in a civil ceremony to Berkeley Tobey. The marriage evidently didn't take because she soon became involved with Forster Batterham, but their relationship became strained when Day became increasingly interested in Roman Catholicism. Soon after the birth of their daughter Tamar Teresa, she had their baby baptized in July 1927, but Batterham refused to attend the ceremony. And after one last fight in late December, Day was baptized into the Catholic Church.

Jaques Ellul (Reformed)Ellul was trained as a sociologist although many consider him a philosopher. He was a professor of History and the Sociology of Institutions on the faculty of Law and Economic sciences at the University of Bordeaux. He authored 58 books and more than a thousand articles. Many of these focused on the threat to human freedom and religion created by modern technology. Ellul was educated at the universities of Bordeaux and Paris, and during World War II he was a leader in the French resistance. For his efforts to save Jews he was awarded the title, "Righteous among the Nations," by Yad Vashem in 2001. He converted to Christianity when he was about 20. According to Ellul, a few years before, while translating Faust, Ellul knew he was in the presence of a something so astounding and overwhelming that he jumped on a bike and fled, eventually concluding that he had been in the presence of God. This kick started a conversion process that continued over the next few years. Ellul was heavily influenced by the work of three people: Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth. Marx and Kierkegaard were the only two authors of which he read all of their work, and he considered Barth the greatest theologian of the 20th century. Ellul was active in the worldwide ecumenical movement although he later criticized it for its often uncritical endorsements of leftist positions. He was, however, also critical of those on the right, and he staked out an explicitly anti-political stance as an alternative to both. Ellul is also credited with coining the phrase, "Think globally, act locally."

René Girard (Roman Catholic)Girard was born on December 25, 1923, in Avignon, France. He studied in Paris’s École Nationale des Chartes and specialized in Medieval studies. In 1947, he emigrated to America and earned a doctorate at the University of Indiana. He remained in America and taught at several different institutions, including Indiana University, State University of New York in Buffalo, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Bryn Mawr, and Stanford until his retirement in 1995. During the beginning of his career as lecturer, Girard was assigned to teach courses on European literature. As he read the great European novels in preparation for the course, he became especially engaged with the work of five novelists in particular: Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Proust. His first book, Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque (Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure) (1961), is a literary comment on the works of these great novelists. Until that time, Girard was a self-declared agnostic. As he researched the religious conversions of some of Dostoyevsky’s characters, he converted to Christianity and ever since has been a committed and practicing Roman Catholic. However, his Christian views were not publicly expressed until the publication of Des Choses Cachées Depuis la Fondation du Monde (Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World) (1978), widely considered to be his greatest work. In 2005, Girard was elected to the Académie Française, one of the highest distinctions that French intellectuals can attain.

C. S. Lewis (Anglican)As an undergraduate student at Oxford University Lewis won an unprecedented triple first, that is, the highest honors in three areas of study: Greek and Latin literature in 1920, Philosophy and Ancient History in 1922, and English in 1923. He was then elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he worked for nearly thirty years until 1954 when he was awarded the newly founded chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University and elected a fellow of Magdalene College. As a scholar he concentrated on the later Middle Ages, but he is probably best known for his Christian apologetics (e.g., Mere Christianity) and the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis was raised in a church-going family in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), but he became an atheist at 15, describing himself as being "very angry with God for not existing." He slowly re-embraced Christianity, influenced largely by arguments with his colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien (see below) and the book, The Everlasting Man, by G. K. Chesterton. He first converted to theism in 1929 and then to Christianity in 1931, following a late-night discussion with Tolkien and another friend. He became a member of the Church of England, much to the disappointment of Tolkien, who had hoped he would become a Roman Catholic. Lewis is commemorated on the 22nd of November in the Episcopal Church's church calendar, which marks the day he died in 1963 (the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated). On the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis was honored with a memorial in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Alasdair MacIntyre (Roman Catholic)MacIntyre is a Scottish philosopher known primarily for his moral and political philosophy but known also for his work in history of philosophy and theology. He was educated at Queen Mary College, London, and has Master of Arts degrees from the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford. He began teaching in 1951 in the UK and then moved to the US in 1970. He has taught at numerous universities, including University of Manchester, Oxford, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame. He was a relatively well-known Marxist philosopher for years until his "conversion" to Aristotelean ethics, which he articulated in his most famous book, After Virtue. Shortly thereafter he converted to Roman Catholicism after he became a fan of Thomas Aquinas. His conversion to Aristotelian ethics and the Roman Catholic Church hasn't led him to completely abandon his Marxist leanings, however. He has, for instance attempted to combine historical insights of Marx with those of Aquinas and Aristotle, and he does nothing to hide his contempt for liberal capitalism, which he believes dominates the world both in the realm of ideas and in its manifestations in political and social institutions. Thus, although he is in many ways a traditional Catholic, his politics often leans to the left.

Gabriel Marcel (Roman Catholic)Gabriel Honoré Marcel was born in Paris in 1889 and is remembered as a philosopher, playwright, music critic, and Christian existentialist. He authored over a dozen books and at least thirty plays, but he is best known for his two-volume work, The Mystery of Being (1951), the 1949–50 Gifford Lectures, one of the most prestigious lecture series in the world. Marcel's mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his aunt and father. His father was an agnostic, and Marcel was an atheist until he covered to Roman Catholicism in 1929. Marcel obtained the agrégation in philosophy in 1910 at the age of 21. During the WWI he worked with the Red Cross to convey news of injured soldiers to their families. He then taught in secondary schools, was a drama critic for various literary journals, and worked as an editor for Plon, a major French Catholic publisher. For many years, he hosted a weekly philosophy discussion group through which he met and influenced important younger French philosophers like Jean Wahl (Jew), Paul Ricoeur (Christian), Emmanuel Levinas (Jew), and Jean-Paul Sartre (Marxist). Evidently, Marcel was disappointed that he was known almost entirely for his philosophical works and not on his plays, which he hoped would appeal to a wide lay audience.

Flannery O'Connor (Roman Catholic)—Flannery O'Connor was an American writer and essayist, who wrote two novels—Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960)—and 32 short stories, some of which are collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965). Her posthumously published collection of short stories, The Complete Stories, won the 1972 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. O'Connor was born in 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, and her writing reflects her Southern roots. In 1945 she graduated with a degree in social sciences from Georgia State College for Women (Georgia College & State University), in an accelerated three-year program. In 1946, she was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa where she got to know a number of important writers and critics who lectured or taught in the program, including Andrew Lytle, who was the editor of the Sewanee Review in which he published several of her short stories. In 1951, she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, the same disease her father died of. She was only expected to live 5 more years but lasted 14, dying at the far too young age of 39. O'Connor was a devout Roman Catholic. She collected books on Catholic theology and gave lectures on faith and literature, sometimes traveling quite distances in spite of her poor health. In 2013 her prayer journal ("A Prayer Journal"), which she kept while in Iowa and was just recently discovered among her papers, was published to rave reviews.

John Polkinghorne (Anglican)The Rev. Dr. John Charlton Polkinghorne is an English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer, and Anglican priest. A prominent and leading voice explaining the relationship between science and religion, he was professor of Mathematical physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979. For 25 years, he worked on theories about elementary particles, played a role in the discovery of the quark, and researched the analytic and high-energy properties of Feynman integrals, and the foundations of S-Matrix theory (whatever that is). He also spent time at Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, and at CERN in Geneva, and in 1974 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which is the oldest an probably the most prestigious society for science in the world. In 1979 he resigned his chair in order to study for the priesthood, and in 1982 he was ordained an Anglican priest. He is the author of several book on physics and theology (e.g., Belief in God in an Age of Science), the latter of which tend to focus on the relationship between science and religion. He delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1993-94, he was knighted in 1997, and in 2002 he was awarded the Templeton Prize, which is something of the Nobel Prize for religion; it is awarded to a living person who, in the estimation of the judges, "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension."

Marilynne Robinson (Congregationalist)Marilynne Robinson was born in 1943 and is an American novelist and essayist. She has received several awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2012 National Humanities Medal. She was born and grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, and earned her undergraduate degree in 1966 (magna cum laude) at Pembroke College, the former women's college at Brown University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington in 1977. Robinson has written three highly acclaimed novels: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). Housekeeping was a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (US), Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer, and Home received the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction (UK). Lila, which was just released this year, has received excellent review. Home and Lila are companions to Gilead and focus on different aspects of the family of a Congregationalist minister. Robinson grew up in the Presbyterian church but later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism, and her interest in the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, have influenced her writing. In an interview with the Church Times in 2012, Robinson said: "I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker."

Dorothy Sayers (Anglican)Although she was a poet, playwright, essayist, translator (e.g., Dante's, The Divine Comedy), and worked in advertising (she is credited with coining the phrase, "it pays to advertise"), she is best known for her mystery novels featuring the Lord Peter Wimsey, which are still in print and continue to remain popular; in fact, several have been turned into BBC and PBS movies. Sayers also wrote several essays and plays on the Christian faith, including Creed or Chaos? (1940), The Mind of the Maker (1941), and The Man Born to be King (1942). In fact, her religious works presented the orthodox Anglican theological position so well that, in 1943, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her a Lambeth doctorate in divinity, but she declined. Although not a member of the Inklings, she was good friends with many of them, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. Sayers was born in 1893 at the Head Master's House, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where her father was chaplain and headmaster of the Choir School. When she was six, her father began teaching her Latin, and in 1912 she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford where she studied modern languages and medieval literature and finished with first-class honors. At the time women Oxford did not award women degrees, in 1920 when the policy changed, Sayers became one of the first women to receive a degree (Master of Arts) from Oxford.

John Sexton (Roman Catholic)—John Sexton is New York University's (NYU) 15th President. He joined the University's Law School in 1981, was named the Dean of NYU's Law School in 1988, and became NYU's president in 2001. While he was the Law School's Dean (1988-2002), it was named one of the top 5 law schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report, since he has taken over as the school's President, NYU has been named the “number one dream school” four times by The Princeton Review. And in November 2009, Time Magazine named Sexton one of the 10 Best College Presidents. Sexton earned a B.A. in History in 1963 from Fordham College; an M.A. in Comparative Religion in 1965 and a Ph.D. in History of American Religion in 1978 from Fordham University; and a J.D. (magna cum laude) in 1979 from Harvard Law School. Unlike a lot of university presidents, he continues to teach a full course-load, including the exceedingly popular (and hard to get into) class, "Baseball as a Road to God," which was featured on Bill Moyers Journal and was later turned into a book of the same name. The class had its genesis in a crack about baseball that a student made to Sexton several years ago:
I hear you're a big baseball fan. I think the sport is silly and I don't understand why anybody would waste time on it. 
To which Sexton replied,
You are among the unwashed...   
If you will read twelve books that I choose next semester, I will direct you in an independent study at the end of which you will realize that baseball is a road to God.
And the rest, as they say, is history ("Baseball as a Road to God").

Charles Taylor (Roman Catholic)—Taylor is a Canadian philosopher who has been awarded the Kyoto Prize (arts and philosophy category), which is Japan’s highest private award for global achievement, and the Templeton Prize, which is is awarded to a living person who, in the estimation of the judges, "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works." He also delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1998-99 (and again in 2008-09), which became the basis of three books: Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited; Modern Social Imaginaries; and A Secular Age. Many people (e.g., Robert Bellah) believe the latter is already one of the most important books ever written on social and philosophical theory. Taylor earned his undergraduate degree at McGill University (B.A. in History in 1952) and then studied at Oxford, first as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College in 1955 (B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics), and then as a post-graduate (D.Phil. in 1961) where he studied under Isaiah Berlin and G. E. M. Anscombe. He was the founder of the Universities and Left Review (predecessor to the New Left Review) and a vice-president of the New Democratic Party. Perhaps his best known student is Michael Sandel, whose "Justice" series (the Harvard class, the PBS series, and the book) turned Sandel into something of an academic rock star and helped raise Taylor's profile outside of the academy.

J. R. R. Tolkien (Roman Catholic)—John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is best known for his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but he was also a professor of English Literature at Oxford for a number of years. Tolkien's first job after WWI was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked primarily on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter "W." In 1920, he took up a post as Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, and became the youngest professor there. In 1925, he returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College. While at Pembroke, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. As most people know, Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and he played a significant factor in the conversion of C. S. Lewis. Tolkien vocally opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party prior to WWII, and he especially despised Nazi racist and anti-Semitic ideology. He retired in 1953 and lived quite comfortably because of the sales of his books. He became something of a cult figure among the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, something with which he wasn't too pleased. He was, after all, a traditional Catholic.

John Updike (Episcopalian)John Updike was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic. He is considered one of the greatest American fiction writers of his generation and is best known for his "Rabbit" novels (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest). He is one of only three authors (Booth Tarkington and William Faulkner were the others) to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once. Updike was also a Christian and theological themes pervaded his books (see e.g., Roger's Version). In fact, at a 2004 talk at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, he told the audience of 300 that his Christian faith had “solidified in ways less important to me than when I was 30, when the existential predicament was realer to me than now. … I worked a lot of it through and arrived at a sort of safe harbor in my life... When I haven’t been to church in a couple of Sundays, I begin to hunger for it and need to be there... It’s not just the words, the sacraments. It’s the company of other people, who show up and pledge themselves to an invisible entity.” Unlike many of his mainline Protestant contemporaries, Updike apparently wasn't afraid to affirm tenets of the Christian faith, such as Christ's bodily resurrection, which many find embarrassing if not downright intellectually irresponsible:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

-- "Seven Stanzas at Easter," John Updike (1960)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Is Secularization Inevitable?


As it is generally understood, secularization theory argues that as societies become increasingly modernized (e.g., more education, technology, democracy, etc.), religion will become less and less important. Some go so far as to argue that it will completely disappear. And if one were to look only at Western Europe, one might conclude that secularization theory has merit since religious attendance in most Western European countries is currently quite low. This, however, assumes that religious attendance now is substantially lower than it was then, but that is highly debatable. Indeed, there appears to have been periods when medieval Europeans seldom darkened the door of a church.

Consider, for instance, the 13th century when the Catholic Church's Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 passed a series of reforms that sought to require that the laity confess and take communion once a year. Not once a week. Not once a month. But once a year, and it is unlikely that the Church wouldn't have passed such reforms if Western Europe was characterized by widespread piety.

Similarly, a lack of piety, among both the laity and the clergy, was one of the motivating forces lying behind the Protestant Reformation, but it didn't seem to have much of an effect. Fourteen years after Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Door, not much had changed. In fact, Luther openly lamented the the impiety of the masses:
Dear God, help us!... The common man, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about Christian doctrine; and indeed many pastors are in effect unfit and incompetent to teach. Yet they all are called Christians, are baptized, and enjoy the holy sacraments--even though they cannot recite either the Lord's Prayer, the Creed or the Commandments. They live just like animals (cited in Gerald Strauss, "Success and Failure in the German Reformation." Past and Present, p. 3063).
Late medieval Britain appears to have been equally impious. The British historian Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic) noted that it's questionable whether certain sections of the British population had any religion at all, and those that did go to church appeared to go reluctantly. When they did show up (probably because the authorities compelled them), they often misbehaved: they “jostled for pews, nudged their neighbors, hawked and spat, knitted, made coarse remarks, told jokes, fell asleep and even let off guns.” Church records also tell of a man who, in 1598, was charged with misbehaving in church after his “most loathsome farting, striking, and scoffing speeches” resulted in “the great offense of the good and the great rejoicing of the bad” (Thomas, pp. 161, 162).

Church attendance rates in England during the 18th century tell a similar story. One diocesan visitation report reports that in 1738, 30 parishes in Oxfordshire drew a combined total of 911 people at the four major Christian festivals – Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Christmas – less than 5% of the total population in those 30 parishes. That assumes, of course, that no one attended more than one of the four services (a problematic assumption to say the least). Moreover, according to calculations by Rodney Stark and Larry Iannaccone ("A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the Secularization of Europe"):
  • In 1800, 11.5% of the British population belonged to a church
  • In 1850, 16.7% of the British population belonged to a church
  • In 1900, 18.6% of the British population belonged to a church
  • In 1980, 15.2% of the British population belonged to a church
  • In 2000, 10.0% of the British population belonged to a church
This is not to suggest that medieval Europeans were unbelievers. They almost certainly were. The philosopher Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) argues that they lived in an "enchanted" world in which they believed spirits, demons, and moral forces, and it's likely that the Christian God functioned as something of a unifying factor of those beliefs. What's unclear, however, is how orthodox their beliefs were and what impact their beliefs had on their behavior (e.g, following Christian teachings, attending worship, etc.). In short, the evidence suggests that an "age of faith" it probably was not, at least not how it's generally understood.

But medieval Europe is not the only piece of evidence that calls into question the standard secularization story. For example, both contemporary Russia and China are experiencing religious revivals. As the sociologist Paul Froese has documented in his book, The Plot to Kill God, the Soviet Union's attempt to stamp out belief failed miserably. Religion is alive and well in Russian and former Soviet republics. And in China, Christians now outnumber communists ("Cracks in the Atheist Edifice") and are growing at "alarming" rates (alarming for secularists, that is)--see the graphic below (from The Economist):


Then, of course, there is the United States where a higher percentage of people are affiliated with communities of faith today than there were 200 years ago (see the graph below): In 1776 the church adherence rate was approximately 17%. It has grown steadily since, reaching a peak of 60% in 1980, a level at which it has remained.


But you may be wondering, "What about the 20% of Americans who say they have no religion?" While some have seized on this fact as empirical vindication of secularization theory, it’s a mistake to equate “no religion” with irreligiosity. In fact, of those who say they have no religion, 
  • 18% consider themselves religious 
  • 30% have had a religious or mystical experience 
  • 33% believe that religion is somewhat or very important 
  • 37% consider themselves spiritual but not religious 
  • 41% pray weekly or more, and 
  • 68% believe in God 
I’m unsure how to categorize such folks, but “irreligious” and “secular” aren’t terms that jump to mind. 

A better take on the future of religion is that there is (and probably always will be) upper and lower bounds of religious belief and practice. 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"), have noted that believing in God, gods, or some higher power is something that comes natural (easy) to human beings, similar to learning a language (FYI: Bering and Atran are non-believers).

This suggests that there will always be a proportion of the population inclined toward things religious. Whether this manifests itself in attendance at temple, synagogue, or church will depend on other factors (e.g., how compelling worship services are at local congregations, the level of religious freedom, the demands and/or pull of other activities, such as club sports that play on Sundays, and so on), but the "demand" for religion will remain relatively constant. Put differently, the future of religious practice will be one of variation, fluctuation. There will be periods of time when it will be quite high and times when it will be quite low. But it won't be going away any time soon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Aging Curves and Big Contracts

The Boston Red Sox just dropped a lot of money on two of the hotter free agents of the post-2014 season: Pablo Sandoval and Henley Ramirez. Sandoval received a 5-year contract for $95 million, and Ramirez a 4-year contract for $88 million. I'm happy about Ramirez, he's been something of a thorn in the Giants' side for a couple of years now, so I'm not sorry to see him go. But I am sad to see the Panda leave the Bay Area. He's been a lot of fun to watch over the years, and in 2012 and 2014, he was stellar in the post season (he hardly played at all during the Giants 2010 World Series run).

Still, I'm unsure if the Red Sox's moves make sense for the simple fact that baseball players tend to peak in their late 20s. Take, for instance, the aging curves below, which map and compare the performance of Hall of Fame players and average players, along with the years when players typically enjoy their best seasons and their WAR (win above replacement) statistic by age.


Hall of Famers tend to peak between the ages of 28-30 and average players between 25-27, which suggests that Sandoval, who is 28, and Ramirez, who is 30, may have already passed their prime. Because Fenway Park's friendly confines are a hitter's dream, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if over the next couple of years Pablo and Ramirez put up better offensive numbers than they did in their last couple of years in San Francisco and LA. But given that both have a history of injuries, and Sandoval has difficulty controlling his weight, I'm not sure whether, when all is said and done, that the Giants and Dodgers ended up with better deals.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Executive Orders and the Constitution

Unless you've been hibernating for the past week or so, you know that last week President Obama issued an executive order that states that work permits to be made available to nearly five million unauthorized immigrants. To say that most Republicans are furious would be an understatement. For instance, the senior Senator from Texas, John Cornyn, remarked, “I believe his unilateral action, which is unconstitutional and illegal, will deeply harm our prospects for immigration reform,” while Texas's junior Senator, Ted Cruz, stated that “the president is behaving in an unprecedented way.” Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma went so far as to claim that this will cause the country “to go nuts, because they’re going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president, and it’s going to be a very serious situation,” and House Speaker John Boehner referred to the President as “Emperor Obama.”

Whatever one might think about immigration reform, President Obama's executive orders are anything but unprecedented, however. As a recent FiveThirtyEight analysis of presidential executive orders shows ("Every President's Executive Orders in One Chart" -- from where the above quotes were found), every President has issued executive orders (even Presidents Washington and Lincoln), and Obama has issued them at a rate lower than any President since Grover Cleveland (the chart is reproduced below). The fact that every President has issued them certainly challenges the claim that they are, in and of themselves, unconstitutional. To be sure, the Supreme Court has overturned some executive orders, and that could happen here, but to argue that executive orders are unprecedented or unconstitutional is simply wrong.






































That, of course, doesn't make Obama's action right, but I'm fairly certain that most of the folks who've gotten their knickers in a twist said little or nothing about the constitutionality of executive orders issued by George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. Likewise, many of those on the left who experienced heart palpitations when "W" issued executive orders are now busy explaining away why Obama's is perfectly okay (it wasn't that long ago when critics on the left referred to "W" as an "imperial president" -- "Bush acting as Imperial President" -- how quickly we forget).

In other words, what's really driving the debate isn't concern about the constitutionality of executive orders but about their underlying ideology. Most of the people who agree with a particular order's purpose will affirm its legality, and most of those who don't will reject it. And they do this even if their reasoning completely contradicts something they said 8 years before (which, by the way, includes our current President). No doubt many of you who read this will think that you're the exception to the rule, that you're part of that small minority of Americans who isn't affected by the norms of your family, friends, and the surrounding culture. Call me a cynic if you want, but I'm fairly certain you're wrong.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Surprise: Guns and Religion Don't Go Together

It's taken for granted in many circles that, at least in the United States, guns and religion go together. People of faith, especially those living in the South, are more likely to own and support the use of firearms than others. Two recent studies call this relationship into question. They found that greater personal faith predicts lower attachment to guns and lower levels of gun ownership.

Using data from the 2014 Baylor Religion Survey sociologists F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese found that the more gun owners rated themselves as being moderately or very religious, the less likely they were to be attached to their weapons as sources of power in such areas as respect, safety and self-confidence. They also found that while people who were moderate church attenders were more likely to feel empowered by owning guns, attachment levels dropped for people who attended services weekly or more. Similarly, the sociologist David Yamane, using data from the General Social Surveys (2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012), found that the more people attended services, prayed and were engaged in spiritual groups in congregations, the less likely they were to be gun owners. He also found there was no significant relation between theological conservatism and gun ownership.

Why? Froese suggested that people who are very religious are less likely to be as attached to (non-religious) physical objects such as firearms, and Yamane speculated that the importance of religion may be related to the higher levels of trust people form within religious communities. That is, people who are more trusting of others may feel less of a need to arm themselves.

For a brief summary of the studies, which were presented at the most meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), see the article by David Briggs, "Religion and guns: Studies find faith linked to lower devotion to firearms." Briggs also discusses what factors appear to contribute to increased attachment to guns.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mormons and Politics

With the advent of the Mitt Romney campaign for President, one could argue that the Mormon faith (aka the LDS Church--The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) has come of age. It is now part of the American mainstream. We can see additional evidence of this in the Broadway musical, "The Book of Mormon," which won several Tony awards and poked fun at the Mormon faith. The fact that the play's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who are also the geniuses behind "South Park," could produce such a play without fear of any significant backlash (e.g., violence) from people of the Mormon faith is a testimony to how mainstream the LDS Church has become.

In an interesting interview with two political scientists, David Campbell (from Notre Dame) and Quin Monson (from Brigham Young University), Tony Gill of Research on Religion explores the role of Mormons in public life in the United States ("David Campbell & Quin Monson on Mormons & Politics in America"). The interview explores many of the themes examined in the book, "Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics," which Campbell and Monson, along with University of Akron political scientist, John Green, just published through Cambridge University Press. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to (it's on my night stand). Campbell is coauthor of the book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, with Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam (another book that's up next on my to do list).

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

'Tis the Season

It's that time of year again: Although Thanksgiving's two weeks away, ABC Family is starting to play holiday movies, malls are being trimmed with Christmas decorations, friends and family are sending out invitations to holiday parties, and radio stations are starting to play Christmas music. And that is why it is also that time of year when many of us launch into our annual complaints about the "commercialization of Christmas," start clamoring that we need to put the "Christ" back in "Xmas," and remind anyone who will listen that "Jesus in the reason for the season."

I get it. I understand peoples' frustrations. In fact, I've bemoaned the commercialization of Christmas before ("Black Friday and the Spirit of Christmas"). But, I have to confess that I love the Christmas season. I love watching the movies. I love listening to the carols. I love walking through malls bedecked with tinsel and stars and lights and kids climbing onto the laps of Santas. And I'm clearly not alone. Most of us appear to crave the holiday season. We can't get enough of it.

I think the reason why is because it evokes in us a desire for something more. It taps into our longing to be better people and live in a better world (Aristotle might say that it evokes in us our longing for eudaimonia). It recalls the sense of magic that Christmas had for us when we were kids. It engenders feelings contentment when family and friends gather to celebrate life and one another other. It elicits images of a world in which the lion and the lamb lay down together and nations don't train for war anymore (Isaiah 2, 11). And isn't that world in which most of us want to live? I suspect so, and if I'm right, that might be why the Christmas season begins a little earlier every year. And while at first it may seem like a bad thing, I'm unconvinced that it is. It isn't only for the money (although that's part of it). It's also because we long for a world where it's Christmas year round. And I think that's a good thing.

Note: Complaints that the use of "Xmas" rather than "Christmas" is a secular attempt to remove the religious aspect of Christmas by taking the "Christ" out of "Christmas" are somewhat 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 an example of it to the right), which is often referred to as the Chi-Rho, and is a Christian symbol representing Christ.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Key to Wedded Bliss? Families and Friends without the Frills


The October issue of the Atlantic reported the results of a recent study that found that the percentage of marriages that lasted was positively associated with the number of people who attended their weddings. In particular, weddings where
  • 1-10 people attended, the marriage was 35% more likely to last
  • 11-50 people attended, the marriage was 56% more likely to last
  • 51-100 people attended, the marriage was 69% more likely to last
  • 101-200 people attended, the marriage was 84% more likely to last
  • 201 or more people attended, the marriage was 92% more likely to last
At the same, however, the study found that the more a couple (or their parents) spent on a wedding, the less likely it would last. More precisely, marriages where the weddings cost
  • $1,000 or less were 53% more likely to last than those that cost between $5,000 and $10,000
  • Between $1,000 and $5,000 were 18% more likely to last than those that cost between $5,000 and $10,000
  • $10,000 or more were 46% less likely to last than those who spent between $5,000 and $10,000
At first blush, the results suggest that couples should invite lots of family and friends to their weddings, while keeping the costs of the wedding down. A more likely explanation is that couples who are embedded in a dense network of friends and family probably don't feel the need to have extravagant weddings. The simple act of acknowledging their commitment to one another in the presence of their family and friends is more than enough, which is why their weddings are more likely to be well attended and cost relatively little. There's a lesson here I think...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Should the NCAA Pay It's Athletes?

In recent years more and more people have called on colleges to start paying their athletes. Most (not all) get scholarships, but the value of those pales in comparison to the money that college coaches, the colleges, and the NCAA make. Add to this the fact that others, such as video game manufacturers such as EA Sports (see image at right), can use the images (and stats) of college athletes without paying the athletes themselves for the right to do so. This is the topic of a recent NPR Planet Money podcast ("Is The NCAA An Illegal Cartel?"), which you can download from iTunes or listen to at the Planet Money website. It's quite good and only 18 minutes long.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Are Things Really Going to Get Bad for Obama and the Democrats?

Judging by most of the headlines following the retaking control of the Senate by the GOP is that the next two years will be difficult for both President Obama and the Democrats. But will that be the case? Possibly, but history also suggests that losing control of Congress may benefit the Democrats in the long run, in particular, in terms of the 2016 election. Consider, for instance:
  1. The last time the Republicans won control of the Senate was 8 years ago when George W. Bush was President. Two years later Barack Obama was elected President and the Democrats retook control of the Senate not long after George Bush's approval rating hit an all-time low (19%).
  2. Toward the end of President Bill Clinton's second year in office, when his approval rating got as low as 38% (not the lowest but close), Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress, and most people believed Clinton would be booted out of office when he came up for reelection. That, of course, is not what happened. The next two years were among Clinton's most successful, he was easily reelected, and he left office with relatively high approval ratings.
In short, because every President experiences periods of low approval ratings, what the party that holds the White House should hope for is that such periods occur during nonpresidential election years. That doesn't bode well for controlling Congress, but it does for controlling the White House. Presidential approval ratings aren't the only factor, of course, as the inability of Al Gore to get a bump for Clinton's popularity illustrates. But it does suggest that if Obama's approval ratings increase over the next two years, the nominee for the Democrats could do well.

Moreover, voter demographics continue to favor Democrats for national elections. In nonpresidential election years, minorities and young people are more likely than are older, white voters to stay home and not vote, meaning that conservative voters make up a disproportionate share of the electorate. That is unlikely to be the case two years from now when there's a strong possibility that Hillary Clinton will be the Democrat nominee ("How Hillary Clinton won the 2014 midterms"):
It’s one thing to win an election in a nonpresidential year, when minorities and young people stay home and older, whiter voters make up a disproportionate share of the electorate. It’s another thing to win when a Democratic presidential candidate is luring the party’s base back to the polls — especially when that candidate is Hillary Clinton, the most popular Democrat in America.
To be sure, a lot can and will happen between now and 2016, and I'm not quite ready to trot out my quadrennial presidential election predictions. I'll wait at least a year before I do that. Still, I don't think the Democrats have reason to panic, at least not yet, and as an editorial in Forbes magazine points out, the Republicans should not be too overconfident ("Republicans humiliated Obama, now they need to humble themselves").