Category Archives: Religion

Are Successful Religions Just Lucky?

Religion scholars have long said that what separates a religion from a sect is success. In other words, religions all start as small sects; if they stay that way, we never hear about them, but if they grow, then over time they become a religion. But these scholars haven’t really discussed what makes one sect succeed and one not, or if they have, it’s in the context of ex post facto justification of the success. History is written by the victors and all that.

Adherents of most faiths say that their religions have grown because they are right. The religion is the word of god, and so naturally it gains more and more followers. Non-believers, and even some adherents who see a religion as metaphor rather than the literal word of god, would say that their church has grown and lasted because it provides wisdom and values and spiritual succor.

But what if they are all wrong, and the successful religions were simply in the right place and the right time. What if religions succeed purely based on random luck?

This hypothesis of religious randomness is based on the work of Duncan Watts, a sociologist who I’ve mentioned before, in the context of showing that Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point theory of “influencers” is fatally flawed.

Watts studies cultural phenomena and social networks, especially how trends and memes spread across a culture. He is perhaps best known for his work on “hit” music, in which the popularity of a song in an experimental population is self-propelling. People like a song because they see that other people like it. So once a song gains some initial popularity, in Watts’ experiments that song was almost certainly going to become a hit, because its early popularity propagated itself across the culture.

More importantly, what Watts discovered was that the initial burst of popularity, which destined the song for hit status, was not due to the musical quality of the song or the votes of initial “influential” listeners or any other objective measure. It was random. Watts ran his experiment over and over and over, and which songs became hits was a random walk. Here is the money quote from an NY Times article:

The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors.

So let me break it down for you: purely at random, a song gets an initial burst of popularity. Not because it has a great melody, or words that speak universal truths, but because for whatever reason a bunch of people chose that song one day. Based on that initial popularity, other people start to like the song (“it’s popular, so it must be good”), and soon enough, the song is a hit. To wit: Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.

The application to religion is pretty straightforward. Any religion – Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, whatever – has to get an initial burst of popularity. A few people start following the leader. Other people notice the following and start to tag along (“old Mr. Dalrymple is following, and he hates everything. It must be good”) and next thing you know, the small sect with a single leader becomes an established religion.

But why do people start following that one leader? Our traditional reaction is that it’s because he had something great to say. But if we follow Watts’ work, maybe it’s just random. Maybe Jesus gave an early sermon next to a lemonade stand on a hot day. Maybe Joseph Smith’s talk about his golden tablets attracted the prettiest woman in town, who then attracted a bunch of men.

Certainly there were plenty of other preachers right around Joseph Smith. His part of New York was called the “burned over district” because it was so frequently swept by religious fervor. So why did Smith’s story stick, and lead to a worldwide faith, when other preachers fell by the wayside? Maybe it’s because Smith’s story of the angel Moroni was the direct word of God. But the experimental data suggest that it was probably just random.

Are there examples of religions that didn’t have the lucky jump to popularity? I’m sure there are, but we don’t know about them. If a preacher only gets to 10 followers, then he is unlikely to make it into the history books. Religions that we know have disappeared – the Greco/Roman pantheon, for example, or Shakers – were reasonably successful in their day; they just suffered from conquering and celibacy problems. But go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, or listen to the speakers on sidewalks in America, and you might see a preacher who has great ideas but just hasn’t caught the lucky break that will turn him into the next Joseph Smith.

Street preacher

Readers have undoubtedly noticed that for established religions there are two concepts at play here: success and longevity. Not only are the established religions successful, but they have been around for many, many (sometimes MANY!) years. A religion could be successful in terms of popularity, but then not have what it takes to last. The success that I’m talking about in this post is the growth from tens of followers to thousands. This is the equivalent of going from an average song to a hit song and thus is, as Watts demonstrated, random. However, the extension from a popular sect to a long-lasting religion is more than just popularity; it’s like the difference between being Fountains of Wayne with Stacey’s Mom and being U2. Longevity demands continued provision of a quality experience, whether that is through great songwriting or spiritual relief.

Does Morality Vary By Culture?

Those of us who have grown up in a single culture (ie. almost all of us) often forget that our worldview is culturally mediated, and that people from a different culture might see things entirely differently. Not that we should be required to understand, or try to incorporate, other worldviews, but it can often be instructive to see how other cultures view things. For example, I recently read an interesting article about how morality operates in the Confucian worldview.

According to this article (and I should stipulate here that I am taking the article on face value, since it was written by an expert on the subject and published in a serious journal. I know virtually nothing about Confucianism, except what my fortune cookie tells me), in a Confucian world you cannot separate personal ethics from societal structure. The set of principles that structures society and guides the ruling classes “are mandated by Heaven, an abstract source of both natural order and human norms.” So too are personal ethics; they are part of the same system: “Heaven’s pattern for human affairs is what in fact works best, as a matter of natural logic.”

This has implications for how people should live, particularly those people who are in the power elite. The elites are held to a higher standard, because if they don’t follow Heaven’s pattern they “will inevitably undermine the basic solidarity and sense of fairness that every social order needs.” Leaders have a responsibility, to Heaven and to society, to follow the rules. If they “put their own private interests above the common interest, then they have lost their legitimacy.” Although this comes from a distinctly Eastern worldview, it is not that different than the very Western concept of noblesse oblige, or from the maxim of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

However, it’s also a significant distance from the dominant Western worldview, which is one of free enterprise, in which individuals pursuing their own self-interest will be guided by Adam Smith’s mighty hand into patterns that will benefit society. In our system, there is no duty to maintain the social order and the ruling elites aren’t expected to have higher moral standards than anyone else. In the Western view, the system takes care of all that.

I’m not saying that this Confucian system is any better than ours; merely different. But it’s certainly interesting the way the worldview plays out in how individual are supposed to behave. Of course, given the willingness of Chinese executives to put poison into milk just to make an extra yuan or two, it’s not clear that the Confucian system really works.

US: Religiously Diverse, Tolerant and Turning Liberal

As I pointed out in a previous post, Robert Putnam has a new book out describing the current status of religion in America, based on a large survey he conducted. I recently heard Putnam give a lecture about his new book. One of his key theses is that America is highly religious, but extremely diverse and tolerant.

Putnam’s survey, like others in the field, reveals that most Americans describe themselves as religious and many go to church regularly. The numbers in America are significantly higher than in other developed countries. This religiosity is spread across a wide diversity of faiths and denominations. Interestingly, although the vast majority claims to be religious, there is a strong polarity in how seriously they take their religion. When asked whether they said grace regularly, sometimes, or never, the responses were 44%, 10% and 46%, respectively. In other words, people either practice hard or not at all, with very little in the middle. This matches the polarization of politics that is tied to religion.

However, unlike the political polarization, in which the two sides seem to hate each other, when it comes to religion America is highly tolerant despite its polarization. When asked whether they had positive views of other faiths, most Americans said yes. The most popular faiths: Judaism, Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. Only 13% of Putnam’s respondents said that their faith was the only path to heaven, and 80% said there was some truth in all religion.

Why such tolerance? Putnam, who thinks like a sociologist despite being a political scientist, provides a social explanation: diversity breeds tolerance. With all the different faiths in America, and more geographic mobility than in the past, we are all more likely to know, and like, someone of a different faith.  Putnam supports this with data showing that more people change religions now than ever before, and pointing out that the majority of marriages are now interfaith, at 51%, compared to 25% a century ago. Putnam calls this the “Aunt Susan” phenomenon. We all know someone, perhaps our aunt by marriage, who is of a different faith, but who is totally awesome. How can Aunt Susan not go to heaven just because she is Methodist rather than Catholic?

An additional reason for the tolerance, which Putnam didn’t point out but I will, is that while Americans are broadly religious, they are also somewhat shallow about it. In other words, and despite the data on saying grace mentioned above, many Americans don’t take the teachings of their faith that seriously. For example, not only do 87% of Americans believe people of another faith can go to heaven, but 54% of evangelical Protestants believe that non-Christians can go to heaven. This means that 54% of evangelical Protestants are rejecting (or don’t understand) a basic tenet of their faith. Catholics, at 22% of the country, should alone swamp the 13% figure, but they clearly don’t. In other words, Americans’ willingness to ignore (or ignorance of) some of the key teachings of their faiths allow them to be more tolerant of other faiths.

Religion and Politics is a New Mix

I recently went to hear a lecture by Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who is best known as the author of Bowling Alone, a book about the decay of civil institutions in America. Putnam has a new book out, called American Grace, about religion in America and its intersection with politics, and his lecture was a summary of that book. The book is based on both historical study and a large survey of US citizens, and has two main theses:

  1. The mix of religion and politics in America is new and massively polarizing
  2. American religion is so diverse and tolerant, especially among the younger generation, that the above polarization will likely moderate over time

This post is about Putnam’s first thesis; I will add another post soon summarizing his second thesis.

Putnam started his lecture by describing the rise of the religious right and how this is a new development in America. Of course the founding fathers were – mostly – deeply religious men; that’s how people rolled 250 years ago. But historically you could not correlate a person’s religious belief with their political beliefs. There were devout Christians who were liberal and secularists who were conservative. The Democratic and Republican parties each contained a mix of religious beliefs and commitments.

Things began to change in the 1960’s, with the rise of hippies and free love and drugs and rock & roll (all the stuff my parents dug, man). In reaction to this libertine environment, conservative people moved toward more bedrock values, generally in the form of evangelical Christianity. These people got more serious about their religion and then certain church leaders (eg. Jerry Falwell) saw an opportunity to turn that movement into political power. As the religious right gained power there was something of a backlash, and non-evangelicals moved further toward secularism.

Thus you have significant movement to the poles – the religious right and secularism – without any growth in the center. And now you have, according to Putnam, significant correlation between religion and politics. Putnam says the best way to understand how someone will vote is to ask about their church-going, or vice versa. This plays right into the polarization that we are seeing in modern American politics. Of course, Putnam’s theory of religious trends is not the only explanation for the rise of the religious right and political polarization. There were also geographic, economic and racial trends at work. But religion clearly played a role, and this is Putnam’s bailiwick, so I give his theories some weight.

An interesting side note: Putnam says that according to his research, if a person’s politics and religion don’t match, they are more likely to change their religion than their politics. In other words, conservative people move to more conservative churches and liberals move to more liberal churches or to none at all. Given that religion controls your soul whereas politics affects your pocketbook, this is surprising, but the surveys say what the surveys say. Another, less interesting, side note: the waves of religion and backlashes toward secularism described by Putnam could make for a classic dialectic, with their thesis and antithesis, but there is no synthesis. Instead, the movement trends apart rather than together. This is further proof of my pet theory that Hegel was an idiot.

Here is a photo of someone bowling, possibly alone:

Nixon bowls, possibly alone

LSD and Human Frailty

I went to a book reading the other night by Don Lattin, author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club, a new bestseller about the period in the early 1960’s when Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, professors at Harvard, were conducting free-wheeling experiments using LSD and other psychedelic drugs. It sounds like a great book, and well worth reading.

The book discusses the broad theme of how psychedelic use ushered in the 60’s as we know them, but I want to focus on two of the personality issues that Lattin brought up last night. It turns out that one of the Harvard undergrads who tried to get involved in the experiments was Andrew Weil, who would later become Dr. Andrew Weil, bearded king of holistic medicine. Weil was rebuffed, since Leary and Alpert had promised not to use undergrads in their experiments. He did not take this rebuffery well, and used his position as a reporter for the Harvard Crimson to dig up dirt on Leary and Alpert, lying, cheating and betraying his best friend in the process. So to clarify: Dr. Andrew Weil, who has made millions on “balanced living,” got his start by sliming other people.

After being fired from Harvard, thanks to Weil’s sneaky maneuvers, Richard Alpert traveled to India, found a guru, and came back to the US as Baba Ram Dass, becoming a well-known spiritual teacher who wrote the bestseller Remember, Be Here Now. Since then, Alpert has dedicated himself to living, and helping others live, a spiritual, be in the moment kind of life. Despite that, Lattin described how when he was spending time with Alpert while working on the book, Alpert still got angry at the thought of Andrew Weil, even 40-plus years later. This is not exactly the behavior one expects of a spiritual guru.

My point is not to criticize Weil and Alpert. My point is to note that even the most centered among us is still human, and thus fallible. Actually, Weil may not be centered – he may be an ambitious, money-grubbing jerk – but that is beside the point. Whether centered or not, spiritual or not, LSD-gobbling or not, we are all human, all too human, and with our humanity comes frailty. We would do well to remember that as we observe the behavior of those around us.

Mother Nature vs. Capitalism

I was recently reading a transcript of a speech that theologian Sallie McFague gave on religion and ecology. In the speech McFague works her usual metaphor magic, discussing how language drives thought, and thought drives actions. Specifically, she called for a reimaging of the Christian worldview, from one in which the world is seen as a thing, a machine in which humans live, to one in which the world and the humans therein are seen as shared parts of a holistic body of God. This view – “that the world is from the beginning loved by God and is a reflection of the divine” – would forefront the inherent value of the environment and the religious importance of its conservation.

Interestingly, McFague claims that this reimaging is not new, but instead a return to a traditional worldview, held by Christians and non-Christians alike. The concept of earth as machine, she claims, “is an anomaly in human history, for until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the earth was assumed to be alive, even as we are.” McFague is not calling for a return to pre-scientific thinking, in which we must appease tree spirits and illnesses are caused by foul humours (although the current use of medicinal leeches is totally cool), but rather a recognition that all of creation is equally part of God.

For McFague, the culprit is less the scientific revolution than the drive toward individualist consumption that the market economy has engendered. Consumption of goods is linked to consumption of the earth’s resources.

“From the time of Aristotle to the eighteenth century, economics was considered a subdivision of ethics; the good life was understood to be based on such values s the common good, justice, and limits. Having substituted the insatiable greed of market capitalism in place of these values, we are now without the means to make the qualitative shift in thinking that is required.”

While I would not be inclined to say “insatiable greed,” there is no question that a market economy is inherently consumptive and that it drives people to focus on the individual rather than the common good. McFague would have us work within the current system, but temper its impact on our behavior by changing how we think and speak about the world.

To McFague’s argument from metaphor I would only add that it’s not nice to fool mother nature.

Liberals and Atheists are Smarter

At least that is what this study in Social Psychology Quarterly says. Only a summary is available online, so I can’t comment on the methodology of the study itself. However, it all seems to make logical sense.

What I find interesting is the broader point: behaviors that are evolutionarily  contraindicated require additional intelligence. This is closely correlated to an argument that I have been making for years, although I reverse the directionality to create a normative mandate: because humans are intelligent beyond animals, we should not behave like animals, even if that means ignoring our evolutionary impulses.

Spirituality and Evolution

A good friend recently steered me to a radio interview with Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author of the best-selling book How We Die. I am far too impatient to listen to the online stream of the interview, but fortunately a transcript was made available, so I could read it quickly. The title of the interview was The Biology of the Spirit, and it was based on Dr. Nuland’s theory that human consciousness and spirituality are based in evolutionary biology.

Nuland believes that humans have evolved to have a sense of spirituality. Although he comes from a Jewish background, Nuland’s theory is not based in religion, but rather in his understanding of human biology and how evolution works. In his view, spirituality tends to make people happy or relaxed or content – a position that is hard to argue with. And whichever one of those words you use, it implies being well suited to survival, and thus should be selected by evolution. Or, as Nuland puts it:

“When a stimulus comes in and the brain has 50,000 different ways of responding to it, some of those are useful for survival and some of those will either prevent survival or mar survival, and the human brain, in classical evolutionary pattern, will pick the one that is healthiest, that gives greatest pleasure. What gives greater pleasure than a spiritual sense?”

What struck me about Nuland’s theory is not just how common sense it is – assuming you believe in evolution – but how it resonates with the work of theologian Gordon Kaufman. Although I was unable to get into Professor Kaufman’s class while in graduate school (a fact which still mildly annoys me), I did study his great book In Face of Mystery, in which he discusses evolution. Kaufman’s view is that when you look at the history of evolution on earth, the general trajectory is up, toward what he calls the “human and humane.” This trajectory, this evolutionary path away from animals and toward all that is human, is, for Kaufman, God.

Kaufman comes at this as a professional theologian, an ordained minister in the Mennonite Church, but his position is not far from that of Nuland, the surgeon, who says “…for the past 40,000 years since modern Homo sapiens appeared on Earth, the way we have adapted to stimuli from the outside, we have relentlessly pursued this upward course, I believe, toward creating the richness of the human spirit.”

The fact that the minister and the surgeon have come to the same conclusion, from opposite directions, doesn’t mean that the conclusion is true, of course. But for me, it gives that conclusion some intellectual valences, a certain righteousness, that it might not otherwise have. Maybe that is because I agree with the conclusion; I have long argued that being human has a spiritual quality. But I think that even if I wasn’t on board with the results, I would pay closer attention to a conclusion that was reached by two such intelligent, yet opposite, thinkers.

Religion and Violence

I recently attended a lecture by James Carroll, writer of Constantine’s Sword and House of War, among other books. Carroll was ordained a Catholic priest, but left the priesthood to write, and has become critical of both religion and the military-industrial complex. He combined these issues in his lecture, which was generally about war, religion and violence.

I won’t try to summarize Carroll’s lecture, which was wide ranging and full of allusions, particularly with references to Civil War violence and its place in the American psyche, but I’ll try to reconstruct the thrust of his argument. Fundamentally, Carroll believes that religion promotes violence, partly through its inherent duality – non-believers are wrong – and partly through its emphasis on martyrdom. He posits that this religious conveyance of violence is demonstrated by what he calls “irrational escalation” of violence: when individuals or states keep attacking beyond a point where it makes any sense. The bombing campaigns of the late Vietnam War are an example for Carroll of violence which a participant – in this case the US – escalated past rationality. For Carroll, the irrationality of this violence is proof of its religious origin (I’ll ignore for the purposes of this post any counterarguments, such as the role of game theory in irrational violence).

Carroll then takes this concept of escalating violence and brings it forward into the nuclear age. For him, nuclear war is fundamentally different than conventional war. While the bombing of Vietnam generated horrific deaths, it didn’t actually threaten humankind. Nuclear war does. Thus Carroll states that irrational escalation of violence, which used to be just awful, is now unacceptable, because it could destroy the world. Add in the potential of non-state actors to acquire nuclear weapons or other WMDs, and Carroll sees that religion has a duty to actively renounce violence. There are interesting parallels here to Sam Harris’ arguments in The End of Faith.

Carroll’s talk was surprisingly moving, and he received a heartfelt ovation at the end. I think the emotionality was due not only to Carroll’s outstanding oratorical skills, but also to the tremendous import of what he was discussing. This was not your standard scholarly lecture on the nexus of religiosity and violence, but rather an impassioned call for organized religion to try to save the world. Carroll’s passion was contagious; he stood, utterly firm in his analysis and resultant convictions, and we were inspired to stand with him.

It is unclear to me whether Carroll would position himself as a fully Gandhi-style non-violenceinist (no, it’s not a word), but he is absolutely trying to move the world away from institutionalized violence, pushing religion to help with that movement. In face of a history of human savagery, Carroll still hopes to create change, viewing his hope as not a futile dream, but rather an essential political act. And for the 75 people who heard him speak, we were lucky enough to experience how we can be moved and inspired by a single man’s fierce hope.

Yet again, thanks to Septa for her input.

Deep Grief and Lost Keys

Recently I was reading a collection of religious writing and there was an essay by Patricia Monaghan called Physics and Grief about how she coped with the loss of her husband to cancer. A few months after he died, she misplaced her keys in her house, and was utterly unable to find them. She searched and searched, and finally giving up, she broke down and screamed, letting out all the accumulated grief, screaming at her husband, screaming at the universe. After, she regretted the scream, and particularly the subject: just a set of lost keys.

“If I were going to throw down the gauntlet to the universe…, couldn’t I have chosen something more important as proof? World peace? Personal economic security? A beatific vision?”

I’ve never lived through a tragedy like losing a spouse, and hope that I never do, but somehow screaming over lost keys seems entirely appropriate in a situation like hers. After suffering through something so meaningful and so horrific as a husband’s death, the least you might expect is that the little things in life would go well. I can fully see myself in her place yelling at the universe: “You took away my husband, now for fuck’s sake, at least give me my keys. You owe me that.”