Tag 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

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.

America: Democracy or Dollarocracy?

A mere 15 years after buying it, I am finally getting around to reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Thoughtbasket readers will probably see numerous posts inspired by this book, likely spanning months, since that is how long it will take me to finish it based on my current reading pace.

The basic premise of the book is that while people, as individuals, are generally pretty moral, once they group together – as tribes, countries, companies, trade organizations – they often act in immoral ways. How Niebuhr bridges this dichotomy will require me reading beyond page 25, which is where I am now.

But in setting up the dichotomy Niebuhr discussed the forces that push man into society and ways that society enforces mores and rules. Writing in 1932, he says this:

“With the increased centralization of economic power in the period of modern industrialism, this development merely means that society as such does not control economic power as much as social well-being requires; and that the economic, rather than the political and military, power has become the significant coercive force of modern society.”

I don’t know whether to be relieved or disturbed that the economic elite have controlled our society for at least 75 years.

As the government throws trillions of dollars at Wall Street, with Goldman alumni seemingly running the Treasury department, and bankers using taxpayer dollars to pay themselves multimillion dollar bonuses (why isn’t that bonii?), it really seems like Simon Johnson is right and the financiers have taken over government via a quiet coup. But according to Niebuhr they took over government long ago, and while they have certainly managed to pillage the common man in the intervening years, the reality is that standards of living have increased since the 1930’s, so perhaps economic coercion isn’t that bad. That’s the relieved side of my brain.

US Income Distribution

The disturbed side of my brain, on the other hand, focuses on the pillaging. Note that in the above graph, standards of living have improved dramatically at the top end, but not so much at the bottom end. Not surprisingly, those who hold economic power ensure that society is set up such that most of the proceeds of growth accrue to them. Or, as Niebuhr puts it, “the dominant class….always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.” I wonder when and how we went from being a democracy deriving its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” to a society in which economic entities are dominant.

Should we blame greedy businessmen and craven politicians? Of course. But we need to look in a mirror too. Gary Cross discussed at length in An All-Consuming Century the trade-offs that labor organizations consciously made to ensure steady employment at a stable wage. Many of these trade-offs transferred power from unionized masses to the corporate elite. And as I’ve noted before, we all need to be more active and informed voters; when our representatives are more beholden to corporations than to people, we need to vote them out.