Monday, December 26, 2011

Your's Truly on Research on Religion

Previously I've mentioned the Research on Religion podcast, which is hosted by the political scientist Tony Gill, a professor at the University of Washington. Below, I have posted links (as well as brief descriptions taken from the website) of some of the recent podcasts. Note that the last one listed is an interview with your's truly on dark (i.e., covert and illegal) networks.

Jason Jewell on John Locke & Religious Toleration. Jason Jewell enlightens us on the life, times, and philosophy of John Locke with specific attention to his views on religious toleration. We discuss Locke’s influence on Western culture as well as how he may have affected our views on church-state relations and religious liberty. Jason and Tony also contemplate the role of intellectuals on history and Jason gives us some insight into his online project to read the Great Books of Western Civilization.

Jared Rubin on Christian and Islamic Economic History. Did religion or church-state institutions have anything to do with the great economic divergence between Christian Europe and the Islamic world beginning in the 11th century? Prof. Jared Rubin of Chapman University reviews the economic history of these two civilizations, covers the dominant explanations for the observed divergence, and then discusses his own research showing that the relationship between religious and political authorities in each region of the world had a great deal to do with why Europe surged ahead economically. We focus primarily on the role of usury laws and financial interest, but Prof. Rubin gives us a taste of some of his work relating to the economic importance of the printing press.

Mark Glickman on the Cairo Genizah. It is amazing what can be found hidden in plain sight! Rabbi Mark Glickman recounts the tale of the discovery of valuable Jewish documents located in the genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt during the late 19th century. While many individuals knew there was a storehouse of old documents in this synagogue, it wasn’t until Rabbi Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University got hold of a snippet of the Ben Sirah manuscript that anyone realized how remarkably valuable these documents “hidden in plain sight” were. Rabbi Glickman takes us on the journey of discovery, reveals the treasures contained in these documents, and tells his own story of his visit to the Cairo Genizah. A “must listen to” podcast for those interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Allen Hertzke on Religious Liberty. Prof. Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma joins us to discuss religious liberty around the world. We cover why religious liberty has become an increasingly important issue in foreign affairs and why many intellectual and government elites tend to dismiss its importance. The conversation also includes current threats to religious freedoms in many parts of the world and what positive effects might arise from the spread of religious liberties.

Steve Pfaff on Denominationalism, Sin & Other Stuff. Sit in on a collegial discussion with Tony and his good friend Prof. Steve Pfaff as they discuss a range of topics including denominationalism and whether churches today emphasize sin enough. These two topics lead us down several different paths taking a look at how and why churches create brands, the benefits of religious pluralism, youth religious practice and whether megachurches are really just soft-peddling Christianity. This open-ended discussion is a window into what Tony & Steve often talk about while hanging out at the University of Washington and is a great wrap around to several recent podcasts we’ve featured on the show.

Sean Everton on Dark Networks. Dark networks are clandestine organizations that often engage in nefarious behavior. Often associated with religious terrorist groups, these dark networks are the focus of our discussion with Prof. Sean Everton of the Naval Postgraduate School. He covers the nature of these groups, how we learn about them via network analysis, and how counter-insurgency efforts are being crafted to disrupt these networks in places like Colombia, Indonesia, and Iraq.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Christmas Story: Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ [a] the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Cards and Family Pictures

Like many we get our share of Christmas cards from friends and family. I enjoy getting them because they're often accompanied by short (and sometimes not so short) notes about what they've been doing for the last year. Many also include pictures, which allow us to see how people have changed and grown. One tendency I've noticed is that when peoples' kids are young, the cards often contain picture(s) of the entire family, but as the kids get older, they sometimes only contain pictures of the kids.

Why is that? Are people embarrassed what they look like as they age? Heck, we're all getting older; it's a part of life. I don't think there's a Benjamin Button among us (although there was a girl at my recent high school reunion that appeared to be heading in a different direction than the rest of us). Do they think we only want to see what their kids look like? I certainly don't. It's not that I don't care what their kids look like. I do care, and I am interested, but I also want to see what my friends and family look like. I don't think I'm alone in this.

Just saying.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Christmas Trees!

These photos of Christmas trees from around the world were sent to me by email by Billie Cole, a friend from church. Enjoy:

We begin with the Christmas tree at the Capitol building in Washington DC. It is decorated with 3,000 ornaments that are the handiwork of U.S. schoolchildren. Encircling evergreens in the 'Pathway of Peace' represent the 50 U.S. states.

The world's largest Christmas tree display rises up the slopes of Monte Ingino outside of Gubbio, in Italy 's Umbria region. Composed of about 500 lights connected by 40,000 feet of wire, the 'tree' is a modern marvel for an ancient city.

A Christmas tree befitting Tokyo 's nighttime neon display is projected onto the exterior of the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka.

Illuminating the Gothic facades of Prague's Old Town Square, and casting its glow over the manger display of the famous Christmas market, is a grand tree cut in the Sumava mountains in the southern Czech Republic.

Venice 's Murano Island renowned throughout the world for its quality glasswork is home to the tallest glass tree in the world. Sculpted by master glass blower Simone Cenedese, the artistic Christmas tree is a modern reflection of the holiday season.

Moscow celebrates Christmas according to the Russian Orthodox calendar on January 7th. For weeks beforehand, the city is alive with festivities in anticipation of Father Frost's arrival on his magical troika with the Snow Maiden. He and his helper deliver gifts under the New Year tree, or yolka, which is traditionally a fir.

The largest Christmas tree in Europe (more than 230 feet tall) can be found in the Prado Comrcio in Lisbon, Portugal . Thousands of lights adorn the tree, adding to the special enchantment of the city during the holiday season.

'Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree': Even in its humblest attire, aglow beside a tiny chapel in Germany's Karwendel mountains, a Christmas tree is a wondrous sight.

In Paris, even the Christmas trees are chic. With its monumental, baroque dome, plus 10 stories of lights and high fashion, it's no surprise this show-stopping department store draws more visitors than the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.

In addition to the Vatican 's heavenly evergreen, St. Peter's Square in Rome hosts a larger-than-life nativity scene in front of the obelisk.

The Christmas tree that greets revelers at the Puerta del Sol is dressed for a party. Madrid 's two-week celebration makes millionaires along with merrymakers. On December 22nd, a lucky citizen will win El Gordo (the fat one), the world's biggest lottery.

A token of gratitude for Britain 's aid during World War II, the Christmas tree in London 's Trafalgar Square has been the annual gift of the people of Norway since 1947.

Drink a glass of gluhwein from the holiday market at the Romer, Frankfurt's city hall since 1405 and enjoy a taste of Christmas past.

Against a backdrop of tall, shadowy firs, a rainbow trio of Christmas trees lights up the night (location unknown).

Arlington National Cemetery. These wreaths are donated by the Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington, Maine. The owner, Merrill Worcester, not only provides the wreaths, but covers the trucking expense as well. He's done this since 1992. Also, most years, groups of Maine school kids combine an educational trip to DC with this event to help out.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Loyalty and Albert Pujols

Although it potentially benefits my San Francisco Giants, I was disappointed when I learned that Albert Pujols had signed with the Anaheim Angels. I was hoping he would finish his career in St. Louis, that he was something of a throwback to the day when players felt a sense of loyalty to their teams.

That said, I'm not sure whether I blame him. I have little doubt that if he had stayed with the Cardinals, toward the end of his career, the Cardinals would have jettisoned him, just like the Giants did with Willie Mays, the 49ers with Joe Montana, the Packers with Brett Favre, and the Patriots will probably do with Tom Brady. By leaving now, Pujols was able to have his pick of teams, and he chose one that wasn't a rival of the Cardinals. Heck, they're not even in the same league, so the only possibility that they'll meet is in the World Series.

This may sound like a minor detail, but just ask Packers' fans how they felt about Brett Favre playing for the Minnesota Vikings. "Judas" is a not uncommon term used to describe him. But one has to ask, "How many choices did Favre have?" He wanted to keep playing and play for a contender. If he had had his drothers, he would've played for the New Orleans Saints, but they already had Drew Brees; they didn't need Brett Favre. So, Favre's choices were limited, and the Vikings were the ones who came knocking. All I can say is that I'm glad that Mays didn't end up with the Dodgers or Montana with the Rams or Cowboys!

Thus, while we shouldn't expect Cardinals fans to be happy that Pujols left for Anaheim, I suspect they'd be even less happy if in a few years, he signed with the Cardinals' chief rival, the Chicago Cubs, because they were the only team that showed any interest in him.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Incentives, Biases, and Bowls

Bowl season is upon us, and as usual, there is some disagreement about which teams belong in which bowls (in particular the national championship game) as well as the yearly clamoring for a national playoff (which actually appears more and more likely as conferences continue to consolidate). As many readers know, the teams chosen for the championship game is based on a ranking that, in turn, is based on human polls and computer rankings.

I suspect that it will not come as too much of a surprise that voters (in particular, coaches) are biased in terms of which teams they rank high and which teams they rank low. A recent study by Matthew Kotchen and Matthew Potoski ("Conflicts of Interest Distory Public Evaluations: Evidence from the Top 25 Ballots of NCAA Football Coaches") found that football coaches vote in ways that benefit them:
Using individual coach ballots between 2005 and 2010, we find that coaches distort their rankings to reflect their own team's reputation and financial interests. On average, coaches rank teams from their own athletic conference nearly a full position more favorably and boost their own team's ranking more than two full positions. Coaches also rank teams they defeated more favorably, thereby making their own team look better. When it comes to ranking teams contending for one of the high-profile Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games, coaches favor those teams that generate higher financial payoffs for their own team. Reflecting the structure of payoff disbursements, coaches from non-BCS conferences band together, while those from BCS conferences more narrowly favor teams in their own conference.
A short write-up about the study can be found at the Freakonomics website ("We Are Shocked — Shocked! — to Learn that College Football Coaches Exhibit a Conflict of Interest When Rating Teams").

Friday, December 9, 2011

Top Holiday Songs...

In addition to being inundated with holiday movies, most of us are also being inundated with holiday songs. Searching the web I tracked down a couple of top 100 lists that you might find interesting. I only list the first 10 of each list and provide a link for those who want to explore all 100. First, the Top 100 Pop Performances:
  1. Happy Xmas (War is Over) - John Lennon
  2. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  3. Have Yourself a Merry Christmas - Judy Garland
  4. O Holy Night - Celine Dion
  5. Santa Claus is Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi
  6. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  7. Jingle Bell Rock - Billy Idol
  8. The Little Drummer Boy - David Bowie and Bing Crosby
  9. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - NYNSC
  10. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
And the 100 greatest Christmas songs as compiled by WCBS FM:
  1. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  2. The Chipmunk Song - The Chipmunks
  3. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Gene Autry
  4. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - Jimmy Boyd
  5. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  6. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  7. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  8. Here Comes Santa Claus - Gene Autry
  9. Little Drummer Boy - Harry Simeone Chorale
  10. Donde Esta Santa Claus - Augie Rios
And finally here's a few of my favorites (in alphabetical order):
  1. All I Want for Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
  2. Angels We Have Heard on High -- Glee Cast
  3. Auld Lang Syne - James Taylor
  4. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Dean Martin
  5. Baby, Please Come Home for Christmas - Eagles
  6. Believe - Josh Groban
  7. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
  8. Carol of the Bells - Various
  9. The Chanukah Song - Adam Sandler
  10. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  11. Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away - Amy Grant
  12. Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  13. Christmas in Your Arms - Alabama
  14. The Christmas Shoes - NewSong
  15. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  16. Christmas in Hollis - Run D.M.C.
  17. Christmas Island - Jimmy Buffett
  18. Christmas Waltz - Michael W. Smith
  19. Cold December Night - Michael Bublé
  20. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
  21. Extraordinary Merry Christmas - Glee Cast
  22. Feliz Navidad - José Feliciano
  23. Frosty the Snowman - Jimmy Durante
  24. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
  25. Grown Up Christmas List - Amy Grant
  26. Happy Xmas (The War is Over) - John Lennon
  27. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Vonda Shepherd
  28. Hey Santa - Carnie and Wendy Wilson
  29. Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
  30. Home for the Holidays - Kenny Loggins
  31. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Mellencamp
  32. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Michael Bublé
  33. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Andy Williams
  34. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Frank Sinatra
  35. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  36. Let it Snow - Dean Martin
  37. Linus and Lucy - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  38. Little Alter Boy - The Carpenters
  39. Little Drummer Boy - Bing Crosby
  40. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen
  41. Merry Christmas Darling - The Carpenters
  42. Mister Santa - Amy Grant
  43. Mistletoe and Holly - Frank Sinatra
  44. Nothin' New for New Years - Harry Connick, Jr. & George Jones
  45. The Nutcracker Suite - Various
  46. River - Joni Mitchell
  47. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Burl Ives
  48. Santa Claus in Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen
  49. Skating - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  50. Silent Night - Sarah McLachlan
  51. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  52. Snow - Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen
  53. Song For A Winter's Night - Sarah McLachlan
  54. Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant
  55. There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays - Perry Como
  56. This Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  57. Walkin' Round in Women's Underwear - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  58. What are You Doing New Year's Eve? - Ella Fitzgerald
  59. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  60. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Boris Karloff

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Baker's Dozen of Holiday Movies

The holiday season is upon us, and we are inundated with holiday movies. For instance, ABC Family is once again running its "25 Days of Christmas" program that features at least one Christmas movie a day for 25 days. In the interest of helping readers sort the wheat from the chaff, I offer the following list of holiday movies worth viewing:
  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)
  2. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)
  3. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)
  4. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)
  5. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)
  6. Groundhog Day (Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell)
  7. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)
  8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)
  9. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)
  10. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn)
  11. Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)
  12. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)
  13. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)
Note: the list appears in alphabetical order and does not pretend to be exhaustive. On another day, I might have included other movies on the list (e.g., Love Actually, Polar Express, Home Alone) than those listed above.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unpious Colonial America

In my previous post I made a passing reference to the fact that Colonial America was anything but pious. In fact, it is far more religious now than it was then. In fact, the celebration of Christmas in early America devolved to such an extent that the Puritans were appalled and made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. Cotton Mather, for instance, an prominent Puritan minister who later became involved in the Salem witch trials, remarked
"The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty... by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by Rude Reveling..." (quoted by Steven Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas, p. 7)
And one Anglican clergyman to remark that we do more to dishonor the name of Christ during the 12 days of Christmas "than in all the twelve months besides" (quoted by Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas, p. 7).

But how could this be? Most of us were taught as children that the people fled to the future United States in order to worship God freely. Implied in this story was the notion that most of the early colonists were church-goers, so it seems inconceivable that such behavior could occur.

The problem with the story is that it is only partially true. People did flee to the US to worship freely (or at least differently from how they worshipped in Europe), and most of those that did were regular church-goers who found the ribald behavior of their fellow colonists appalling. However, they were not the only ones who came to America. Some were fleeing from the law (e.g., a few European countries shipped prisoners to America); others came seeking fortune (e.g., Jamestown was founded as an economic outpost not a religious one); others were social misfits who had no ties keeping them from leaving (i.e., they were social isolates). In short, while some colonists were religious, many were not, which is why early American piety was not widespread.

This fact has been empirically demonstrated by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in their book, "The Churching of America," which was originally released in 1993 and then updated in 2007. What they uncovered from a variety of sources was that the church adherence rate was only around 17% in 1776 and then grew at a steady rate until 1980 when it peaked at 60%, the level at which it remains today. Why it has increased over time is a story for another day; for now, it is sufficient to note that Finke and Stark's empirical research confirms the historical (but largely anecdotal) research of Nissenbaum.

Note: the church adherence rate shouldn't be confused with church attendance. The church adherence rate refers to the number of people who are either "church" members or children of members -- that is because in some denominations (e.g., Baptist) children cannot become members until they are older, while in other denominations (e.g., Episcopal) children can become members.

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 a 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 greatest spokesperson may have been 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").

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How Well Does the Jesus Seminar Follow Its Own Rules? Part II

In a previous post concerning whether the Jesus Seminar follows its own rules, I noted that its voting members appear to favor the Gospels of Thomas and Q over the canonical gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but I had yet to take the dating of the various sources into consideration. I do so in this post.

The dating of sources is no easy task, however; it is more art than science. In the table below, I summarize two dating schemes: one that I refer to as the conventional dating scheme because it reflects the dates that most critical biblical scholars assign to the various sources of Jesus's sayings. It is based largely on Bart Ehrman's work, primarily because he has explicitly documented the dates of more sources than have most other biblical scholars. Where Ehrman is "silent" on the date, I use the "Early Christian Writings" website for dates. The other dating scheme I refer to as the Jesus Seminar because it appears to reflect the dates that most members of the Jesus Seminar ascribe to. It is based primarily on John Dominic Crossan's work and is supplemented by his Jesus Seminar colleague Robert Miller's book, "The Complete Gospels" where Crossan does not provide a date.

Looking at the table, what is striking is the difference between the two schemes. Note that Crossan dates all of the canonical gospels no earlier than 75 AD, while dating Q and Thomas to the mid-50s. These dates are at odds to the dates that most biblical scholars assign to these gospels. Q is typically dated to the mid-60s and Thomas to the late 1st-Century or early 2nd-Century.

Table 1: Conventional and Jesus Seminar Dating of Sources

Jesus Seminar






1 Corinthians

1 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Peter

2 Timothy





1 Clement

2 Clement

Apocryphon of James

Epistle of Barnabas

Dialogue of the Savior


Egerton Gospel

Papyrus Vien 2325 - Fayyum

Gospel of Peter

Gospel of the Ebionites

Gospel of the Hebrews

Gospel of the Nazareans

Shepherd of Hermas

Letter of Ignatius - Ephesians

Letter of Ignatius - Philad

Letter of Ignatius - Polycarp

Letter of Ignatius - Smyrna

Letter of Ignatius - Trallians

Justin Martyr - Trypho

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1 (Greek Thomas)

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654 (Greek Thomas)

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 655 (Greek Thomas)

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1224

Letter of Polycarp - Philip

This early dating takes on even greater importance, at least when considerng Crossan's own work on the historical Jesus and the sayings he includes in his inventory for determining whom Jesus was. After assigning dates to the various sayings, he then groups them into what he calls "complexes" (what most people would probably call "themes") and sorts them into four different strata: 30-60 AD, 70-80 AD, 90-120 AD, and 120-150 AD. Then he declares that for his reconstruction of the historical Jesus, he will only consider sayings that appear in the first strata.

This methodological move on his part has profound consequences. By dating the first stratum from 30-60, Crossan is able to include all of Jesus' sayings in Thomas and Q and eliminate all sayings in the canonical gospels that are not traceable back to Q. In other words, sayings found in Mark as well as those that are unique to Matthew ("M") and Luke ("L") are not considered by Crossan in reconstructing the historical Jesus.
Crossan also builds upon John Kloppenborg's work in order to argue that the non-apocalyptic portions of Q (Q1) predate the apocalyptic portions (Q2) although he believes that all of Q came together in the 50's. As Bart Ehrman notes, however, claiming to distinguish layers within Q and then drawing conclusions on such layers is probably more than what is warranted given the fact that we don't even have the document.
According to this line, the original edition of Q did not have the apocalyptic traditions about Jesus. These were only added later, when the document was edited by Christians who were a bit obsessed with the imminent end of the age. Thus, according to this theory, Q as we have it (well, even though we don't have it), may be an apocalyptic document. But in fact it provides evidence of a non-apocalyptic Jesus" (Bart Ehrman, "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings," 3rd ed., p. 257).
All we know about Q is what Luke and Matthew included in their gospels. If there were portions of Q that neither decided to include, they are most likely lost to history. And, of course, some of the material that is only found in Matthew ("M") or in Luke ("L") could also have come from Q:
"Despite the exuberant claims of some scholars, we cannot fully know what Q contained because the document has been lost. We have access to it only through the materials that Matthew and Luke both decided to include in their accounts, and it would be foolish to think that one or both of them included the entire document. Indeed, if only one of them included a passage from Q, then we would have no solid grounds for knowing that it came from Q rather than, say, M or L. It is entirely possible, for example, that Q had a Passion narrative, and that neither Matthew nor Luke chose to use it., or that only one of them chose not to do so (so that some of the verses of Matthew's or Luke's Passion narrative not found in Mark actually derive from Q). At the same time, it is equally possible that Q was almost entirely sayings, without a Passion narrative (or nearly any other narrative). Regrettably, we will never know, unless, of course, Q itself should serendipitously turn up" (Bart Ehrman, "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings," p. 88)!
So, what does an analysis of the voting yield. In separate multivariate regressions (i.e., an OLS and an ordered logit -- Table 2, which is quite large but summarizes the OLS results, appears at the bottom of the post) that included the conventional dating scheme as one of the independent variables, the two most significant predictors of a higher score were whether a saying could be traced back to Q or Thomas, while the number of indpendent sources had a negative effect on a saying's score. Just as interesting is the finding that a saying's date had virtually no impact on whether the saying was voted red, pink, gray, or black. There was a slight negative effect, such that the older the source, the lower the saying's score. However, the effect was minimal and of little consequence.

The exception to this occurs if one includes Crossan's strata in place of the estimated dates of the gospels. When you do that, sayings located in the first stratum receive higher scores than those that are not. Recall, however, that only sayings that can be traced back to Q or Thomas are included in this strata (well, sayings found in Paul's letters are also included, but they are few and far between), so this lends empirical support to the charges of critics who argue that for Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, non-canonical sources are superior to canonical gospels. Bart Ehrman summarizes the concerns of many scholars quite nicely:
Crossan engages in a detailed analysis to argue that other sources not found in the New Testament are earlier than the sources that are. These others include such documents as the 'Egerton Gospel,' a fragmentary text from the second century that contains four stories about Jesus; the Gospel of the Hebrews, which... no longer survives, but is quoted a bit by some church fathers in the late second to the early fifth centuries; and parts of the Gospel of Peter, which survives again only as fragments. Such sources, Crossan claims, provide more reliable access to Jesus than the New Testament Gospels, which everyone, including Crossan, dates to the first century.
But this strikes most scholars as a case of special pleading. Most recognize clear and certain reasons for dating the New Testament Gospels to the first century. But giving yet earlier dates to noncanonical Gospels that are, in most cases, not quoted or even mentioned by early Christian writers until many, many decades later seems to be overly speculative and driven by an ultimate objective of claiming that Jesus was not an apocalypticist even though our earliest sources indicate that he was (Ehrman, "The New Testament," p. 258).
What then are we to conclude? The modern tools of social science and literary theory to not appear to prevent modern scholars from creating Jesus in their own image, a critique that Albert Schweitzer made against 18th and 19th century biblical scholars. As the table above illustrates, the dating of sources is more art than science, and while multiple, independent sources are in theory useful for separating the wheat from the chaff, their presence (or absence) does not seem to get in the way of scholars rejecting (or accepting) the historicity of a particular saying or deed.  In short, in spite of scholars' best efforts to objectively uncover what Jesus said and did fraught with difficulties. The temptation to create Jesus in our own image is so powerful that it is difficult to transcend in our quest for objectivity.

Table 2: OLS Regression


























# of Sources

Date (Ehrman)

Date (Crossan)



1st Stratum


Adjusted R2