Éirinn go Brách!!!

May 23, 2015

As you all have probably heard by now, voters in the Republic of Ireland have voted heavily in favor of marriage equality.


Reports are that the turnout was very high by recent standards, especially among the young; and Irish citizens resident abroad returned home in significant numbers to vote (international mail ballots were not allowed). Naturally the largest majorities were in Dublin, but rural areas voted in favor also, just more narrowly; only one electoral district seems to have voted “no,” and that also by a rather small margin.

It has been pointed out that these same rural areas voted against the 1996 divorce referendum which passed very narrowly on the basis of support in the capital.

Maybe some people just want gays to have an equal right to be trapped in unhappy marriages.

More likely, the shift is a symptom of the loss of authority on the part of the Catholic Church. Whereas not too recently the Irish were considered the most pious nation in Europe, the last couple of decades of sex abuse scandals, along with general modernization and cosmopolitanization of society at large, have taken a toll; church attendance, once over 90%, has declined to levels closer to those in the rest of Western Europe, espcially (of course) in Dublin and especially among the young. The speed of secularization in Ireland is reminiscent of the Quiet Revolution in once ultra-pious French Canada.

So there’s more to write about the decline of religion in the modern world; stay tuned.

Nones again

May 16, 2015

The Pew Research Center has a new study out on the “landscape” of religion in America. In just 7 years the percentage of American adults not claiming any religious affiliation has risen from 16.1% to 22.8%. The “Nones” now outnumber Roman Catholics, and way outnumber “mainline Protestants” according to Pew’s classification of denominational families; only the Evangelicals are more numerous, at 25.4%. At the same time total Christian identification has fallen from 78.4% to 70.6%

The increase in Nones seems to involve both generational change – the more religious older folks dying out and being replaced in the sample by youngsters – and a steady drift away from religion within each generational slice. There has been little sign of what used to be considered a “thing”: people drifting away from church in their late teens and twenties, but returning when they marry and have kids of their own. And while in the past a significant number of people raised as Nones eventually found themselves churched, this too is becoming less common.

As I see it, Nones have reached a self-sustaining critical density in many parts of the country, especially metropolitan areas outside the South. When I was a kid in the 1950’s, even though I myself wasn’t actually raised in a church (my parents were marginally affiliated with Greek Orthodoxy), I got the sense from people I knew, as well as from the media, that church-going was something normal, something most people did. This was the age of Eisenhower, who said it was important to have a religion, no matter which; I recently read somewhere that he was the only President to have been baptized while in office. It was the age when Billy Graham was always being mentioned in the media, widely admired by millions who didn’t share or even understand his particular beliefs. There were times I felt I was missing something, and once I was on my own I had to try to figure out what it was and how it worked. Today’s young people are much less likely to get that message, less likely to have close friends or relatives who are religious and who might inspire or at least enable them to give it a try at some point; moreover, most of the Christians and other religious-identifiers whom a young None is likely to encounter in daily life, in school or at work, are a lot less likely to be involved in their respective faith traditions than their predecessors were, more likely to have lifestyles and moral and political beliefs similar to those of the Nones rather than to those of the religiously more conservative, and therefore much less likely than in previous decades to pull their None friends into church (or whatever) with them. Back in the ’50s, even though there were plenty of differences among religious and denominational groups, they all seemed to share a certain mindset – a respect for traditional teachings, scriptures, and that hot topic for kids growing up in all eras, sexual morality; it was those who rejected religion altogether who were “marked” as a somewhat alien minority. Today it’s the Evangelicals who are isolated on the conservative wing, with Mainliners, Catholics, members of non-Christian traditions and Nones tending to agree among themselves on most issues.

Ross Douthat and others have published interesting reflections on the Pew results, which I may find time to comment on in days to come…

Where to (re-)start…

April 16, 2015

In the months since my last post, hardly a week goes by without something in the news or everyday life that makes me think “I should post something on that;” but by the time I get to where I can sit down and do it, I have other things on my mind and it never happens.

Maybe the trick is to stop feeling I have to clear enough time and attention to do a long fully-argued post before I can write anything.

But I like spinning out long fully-argued posts.

OK, here’s a quickie. This thought underlies a lot of my thinking about politics, morality and religion topics, and almost everything I start spinning out on those topics leads back to it, so I’ll say it once here, and maybe unpack it in the near future:

The history of all human society is, above all, the history of society.


November 26, 2014

This op-ed by one Razib Khan in Tuesday’s NY Times, on the evolution of domesticity in cats and humans, reminded me of a train of thought I’ve taken from time to time over the past few years, so now I feel like posting something on it.

It started for me in 2006 when another Times article introduced me to Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist who boldly defended modern evolutionary theory in the age of Stalin and Lysenko, and went on to begin a long-range experiment with Siberian foxes and other wildlife. His goal was to establish and study the heritability of characteristics tending towards domestication, and his method was the classic method of animal breeders throughout time, such as those who inspired Darwin: collecting a batch of animals, selecting and separating out for breeding those with at least some trace of the trait desired – docility in this case, or (for the sake of contrast) aggression – and repeating the process for each generation so as to create in the end two distinct populations: one with the temperament of house pets, the other so aggressive it cannot be handled at all.

More recently, the work of Belyaev was referenced by Harry Turtledove, the Byzantine historian turned alternate-history writer, in a short story called It’s the End of the World As We Know It, And We Feel Fine (Analog, March, 2013). Turtledove describes a future in which humankind has finally dealt with the danger of totally destructive warfare by deliberately breeding all the aggression, nastiness and egotism out of itself. In this world almost everybody is compulsively nice; also rather plump, and with other physical markers that go with domestication (I don’t recall whether they have floppy ears as well). The reader may well sense (at least I did) a certain authorial dyspepsia, an attempt to communicate that there’s something’s wrong with this picture and that something essentially human has been lost, but the story is well-enough written to avoid excessive heavy-handedness; the future is presented fairly on its own terms.

(Just a day or two before I read “End of the World” I had been leafing through a book in the self-help and business management category, suggesting among other things that we can improve both our mood and our effectiveness by toning down the words we use to think of and describe situations; dialing back from “catastrophe” and “disaster” to maybe “misfortune, problem, unpleasantness.” So I was delighted to find that Turteldove’s characters call the near-total war that led to their Belyaevization “The Big Fracas.”)

But what I have been thinking on and off since 2006 is more along the lines of the Razib Khan op-ed – a kind of long-term natural Belyaevization, going back to the first human societies and intensifying as communities have grown larger and more complex. With each stage in our history, reproductive advantage has shifted away from the wilder and tougher among us, in favor of those who are best able to get along and follow the rules of their community. It can’t be helped; this is how we are, for better or for worse; probably for better, as the alternative would be for us not to have made it this far.

It is perfectly possible – as demonstrated with lactose tolerance – for significant differences in heritable traits to have developed among human populations within the relatively short span of human history. Maybe some of the alleged differences in personality and aptitude that have been taken (disparagingly) to correlate with primordial “races” might in fact really exist at some level, but only as a fairly recent development, depending on whether or not a given population has within the past couple of millennia gone through the Belyaev pressure-cooker of agriculture and urbanization.

In the months since my last post, lots of things have happened. We’ve had a national election, for one thing, which by most accounts has assured us two more years of political gridlock and confirmed the deep polarization of public opinion. At the same time, the drive for marriage equality has gone from one success to the next, with only an occasional glitch. (One – only one – circuit of the Court of Appeals has taken a stand against the trend, increasing the chances of the Supreme Court taking a case soon and deciding once and for all whether the Equal Protection clause requires equal marriage laws.)

And as usual I’ve been reading lots of stuff.

The polarization thing has drawn me back to my interest in the roots of representative democracy as we know it, in 17th and 18th century England. This is something I may be able to cook down into a series of blog posts. The latest soundbites from the conflict of Whigs and Tories. Actually, most recently I’ve been looking at the earlier history of Scotland, because it was Scots Calvinist resistance to royal imposition of Episcopacy and its trappings that triggered the English Revolution of the 1640’s. Which wouldn’t have happened if the crowns of the two countries hadn’t been united since 1603. That’s one of the things I’m getting from my study of history – a sense of how things could have turned out very differently if some heir to a throne had lived longer, or died sooner, or been born a different gender.

So let’s see if I can get myself to write up some of this stuff, and whatever else comes up.

Wish me luck!

Atheism: What Is It?

July 25, 2014

There’s a (probably apocryphal) tale about a German scientist who proved conclusively, by the laws of aerodynamics, that hummigbirds cannot fly. In a similar vein, this article has been circulating around the web recently, purporting to show that atheism may not be psychologically possible.

It would seem that the author is using the word differently from the growing number of people who claim to be, in fact, atheists. The cognitive scientists he refers to speak of unconscious metaphysical presuppositions that seem to be hard-wired in the brain. Maybe they’re right. Self-described atheists are talking about something else, which is a conscious, as-rational-as-possible evaluation of evidence leading to a conscious, as-rational-as-possible conclusion regarding a specific proposition about the real world, namely the existence of a being or beings that can be plausibly called a “god.” Many people claim to have made this evaluation and to have decided the question in the negative; writers like Mr Vittachi can hardly dismiss this fact out of hand. If the metaphysical hard-wiring he claims is really there, then there must be a way we can consciously override it, at least under certain conditions and for certain purposes. If this is not possible then it is hard to see how any sort of science is possible. The very authorities that Mr Vittachi calls upon to support his conclusions are not possible. His own article is not possible. And if it is not possible, I see no reason to say any more about it.

It is true though that the word “atheism” has collected a lot of baggage. Theism is so deeply engrained in Western culture, education, and our sense of the ethical that to deny it can easily seem to be a denial of everything good in the world. If atheists were necessarily amoral, they would never admit to being atheists, given all the trouble it gets them into. Give them credit for honesty at least.

On the other hand, the most outspoken atheists like Dawkins seem to me at times to err in the opposite direction, treating everything that goes by the label “religion”, every attempt to find comfort and joy in metaphysical possibility, as just as evil as the most rigid fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not essential to religion. Strict doctrinaire theism is not essential to religion. Fundamentalism exists, and Dawkins exists, and on all the issues clearly dividing the two I side with Dawkins, but there’s a lot of ground in between and a lot of other dimensions on which to agree or disagree, which are to me often more interesting than simply saying Yes or No to “god.”

Enough for now. I’ve managed two posts this week, that’s pretty good, I think I’ll save some material for a few more.



Religion: what is it?

July 21, 2014

A few words on a favorite topic of mine, to see if I can get back into the writing habit.

A few weeks ago I noticed a brief theater review in the New York Times. In the play, “The Religion Thing,” a young couple with successful high-powered careers find that a visiting college friend has joined an evangelical megachurch, married a fellow she met there, and is giving up her partnership in a law firm to prepare for motherhood. This naturally leads the couple to reappraise their own plans and the role in them of their own conflicting but largely ignored religious traditions. The review is generally positive regarding the staging and performances, but ends with this paragraph, which is what really held my attention:

Crucially, though, for a play called “The Religion Thing,” there is surprisingly little real discussion of theology. Patti and Jeff briefly describe the crises that brought them to their church, while Mo and Brian mention the rituals they have set aside. But virtually absent is any true talk of spirituality, of what role it plays in their lives. Without that, religion is just another weapon for people to wield against one another.

You see, I have increasingly come to believe over the years that for most adherents, both now and through history, this is just what religion is like. Something that can provide a useful social/cultural framework for life, a set of rituals to follow or not, a sense of belonging to a community, help from time to time with severe emotional needs, and yes, all too often a weapon. Theology has never been the concern of more than a handful of experts; very few of the loyal church members I have known over the years have known or cared much about the details of it. Nor have I known many to profess any really profound distinctively spiritual experience. And I doubt that this is just a function of my having lived my whole life in an urban secularizing environment. I doubt very much that many of the Catholics and Protestants who only recently stopped killing one another in Ulster could have given an articulate explanation of why they endorsed one faith over the other, beyond the fact that they were born to it; likewise the Sunnis and Shi’ites who are still very much engaged in killing one another in the Middle East. Religious wars, no less than political ones, are conducted by organized social groups most of whose members support with more or less fervor the side they happen to find themselves on, with no real say in the matter.

Not that theology and spirituality are not interesting topics worthy of study; I just think their role within the vast complex of phenomena we label “religion” tends to be overrated.


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