The Real Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma is a newly available documentary on Netflix about the peril of social networks. 

The documentary does a decent job of introducing some of the ways social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) are negatively impacting society. If this is your entry point to the topic, you could do worse.

But if you’re looking for really thorough analysis of what is going wrong or for possible solutions, then this documentary will leave you wanting more. Here are four specific topics–three small and one large–where The Social Dilemma fell short.

AI Isn’t That Impressive

I published a piece in June on Why I’m an AI Skeptic and a lot of what I wrote then applies here. Terms like “big data” and “machine learning” are overhyped, and non-experts don’t realize that these tools are only at their most impressive in a narrow range of circumstances. In most real-world cases, the results are dramatically less impressive. 

The reason this matters is that a lot of the oomph of The Social Dilemma comes from scaring people, and AI just isn’t actually that scary. 

Randall Munroe’s What If article is technically about a robot apocalypse, but the gist of it applies to AI as well.

I don’t fault the documentary for not going too deep into the details of machine learning. Without a background in statistics and computer science, it’s hard to get into the details. That’s fair. 

I do fault them for sensationalism, however. At one point Tristan Harris (one of the interviewees) makes a really interesting point that we shouldn’t be worried about when AI surpasses human strengths, but when it surpasses human weaknesses. We haven’t reached the point where AI is better than a human at the things humans are good at–creative thinking, language, etc. But we’ve already long since passed the point where AI is better than humans at things humans are bad at, such as memorizing and crunching huge data sets. If AI is deployed in ways that leverage human weaknesses, like our cognitive biases, then we should already be concerned. So far this is reasonable, or at least interesting.

But then his next slide (they’re showing a clip of a presentation he was giving) says something like: “Checkmate humanity.”

I don’t know if the sensationalism is in Tristan’s presentation or The Real Dilemma’s editing, but either way I had to roll my eyes.

All Inventions Manipulate Us

At another point, Tristan tries to illustrate how social media is fundamentally unlike other human inventions by contrasting it with a bicycle. “No one got upset when bicycles showed up,” he says. “No one said…. we’ve just ruined society. Bicycles are affecting society, they’re pulling people away from their kids. They’re ruining the fabric of democracy.”

Of course, this isn’t really true. Journalists have always sought sensationalism and fear as a way to sell their papers, and–as this humorous video shows–there was all kinds of panic around the introduction of bicycles.

Tristan’s real point, however, is that bicycles were were a passive invention. They don’t actively badger you to get you to go on bike rides. They just sit there, benignly waiting for you to decide to use them or not. In this view, you can divide human inventions into everything before social media (inanimate objects that obediently do our bidding) and after social media (animate objects that manipulate us into doing their bidding).

That dichotomy doesn’t hold up. 

First of all, every successful human invention changes behavior individually and collectively. If you own a bicycle, then the route you take to work may very well change. In a way, the bike does tell you where to go. 

To make this point more strongly, try to imagine what 21st century America would look like if the car had never been invented. No interstate highway system, no suburbs or strip malls, no car culture. For better and for worse, the mere existence of a tool like the car transformed who we are both individually and collectively. All inventions have cultural consequences like that, to a greater or less degree.

Second, social media is far from the first invention that explicitly sets out to manipulate people. If you believe the argumentative theory, then language and even rationality itself evolved primarily as ways for our primate ancestors to manipulate each other. It’s literally what we evolved to do, and we’ve never stopped.

Propaganda, disinformation campaigns, and psy-ops are one obvious category of examples with roots stretching back into prehistory. But, to bring things closer to social networks, all ad-supported broadcast media have basically the same business model: manipulate people to captivate their attention so that you can sell them ads. That’s how radio and TV got their commercial start: with the exact same mission statement as GMail, Google search, or Facebook. 

So much for the idea that you can divide human inventions into before and after social media. It turns out that all inventions influence the choices we make and plenty of them do so by design.

That’s not to say that nothing has changed, of course. The biggest difference between social networks and broadcast media is that your social networking feed is individualized

With mass media, companies had to either pick and choose their audience in broad strokes (Saturday morning for kids, prime time for families, late night for adults only) or try to address two audiences at once (inside jokes for the adults in animated family movies marketed to children). With social media, it’s kind of like you have a radio station or a TV studio that is geared just towards you.

Thus, social media does present some new challenges, but we’re talking about advancements and refinements to humanity’s oldest game–manipulating other humans–rather than some new and unprecedented development with no precursor or context. 

Consumerism is the Real Dilemma

The most interesting subject in the documentary, to me at least, was Jaron Lanier. When everyone else was repeating that cliché about “you’re the product, not the customer” he took it a step or two farther. It’s not that you are the product. It’s not even that your attention is the product. What’s really being sold by social media companies, Lanier pointed out, is the ability to incrementally manipulate human behavior.

This is an important point, but it raises a much bigger issue that the documentary never touched. 

This is the amount of money spent in the US on advertising as a percent of GDP over the last century:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s interesting to note that we spent a lot more (relative to the size of our economy) on advertising in the 1920s and 1930s than we do today. What do you think companies were buying for their advertising dollars in 1930 if not “the ability to incrementally manipulate human behavior”?

Because if advertising doesn’t manipulate human behavior then why spend the money? If you can’t manipulate human behavior with a billboard or a movie trailer or a radio spot, then nobody would ever spend money on any of those things.

This is the crux of my disagreement with The Social Dilemma. The poison isn’t social media. The poison is advertising. The danger of social media is just that (within the current business model) it’s a dramatically more effective method of delivering the poison.

Let me stipulate that advertising is not an unalloyed evil. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with showing people a new product or service and trying to persuade them to pay you for it. The fundamental premise of a market economy is that voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial. It leaves both people better off. 

And you can’t have voluntary exchange without people knowing what’s available. Thus, advertising is necessary to human commerce and is a part of an ecosystem flourishing, mutually beneficial exchanges and healthy competition. You could not have modern society without advertising of some degree and type. 

That doesn’t mean the amount of advertising–or the kind of advertising–that we accept in our society is healthy. As with  basically everything, the difference between poison and medicine is found in the details of dosage and usage. 

There was a time, not too long ago, when the Second Industrial Revolution led to such dramatically increased levels of production that economists seriously theorized about ever shorter work weeks with more and more time spent pursuing art and leisure with our friends and families. Soon, we’d spend only ten hours a week working, and the rest developing our human potential.

And yet in the time since then, we’ve seen productivity skyrocket (we can make more and more stuff with the same amount of time) while hours worked have also remained roughly steady. The simplest reason for this? We’re addicted to consumption. Instead of holding production basically constant (and working fewer and fewer hours), we’ve tried to maximize consumption by keeping as busy as possible. This addiction to consumption, not necessarily having but to acquiring stuff, manifests in some really weird cultural anomalies that–if we witnessed them from an alien perspective–probably strike us as dysfunctional or even pathological.

I’ll start with a personal example: when I’m feeling a little down I can reliably get a jolt of euphoria from buying something. Doesn’t have to be much. Could be a gadget or a book I’ve wanted on Amazon. Could be just going through the drive-thru. Either way, clicking that button or handing over my credit card to the Chick-Fil-A worker is a tiny infusion of order and control in a life that can seem confusingly chaotic and complex. 

It’s so small that it’s almost subliminal, but every transaction is a flex. The benefit isn’t just the food or book you purchase. It’s the fact that you demonstrated the power of being able to purchase it. 

From a broader cultural perspective, let’s talk about unboxing videos. These are videos–you can find thousands upon thousands of them on YouTube–where someone gets a brand new gizmo and films a kind of ritualized process of unpacking it. 

This is distinct from a product review (a separate and more obviously useful genre). Some unboxing videos have little tidbits of assessment, but that’s beside the point. The emphasis is on the voyeuristic appeal of watching someone undress an expensive, virgin item. 

And yeah, I went with deliberately sexual language in that last sentence because it’s impossible not to see the parallels between brand newness and virginity, or between ornate and sophisticated product packaging and fashionable clothing, or between unboxing an item and unclothing a person. I’m not saying it’s literally sexual, but the parallels are too strong to ignore.

These do not strike me as the hallmarks of a healthy culture, and I haven’t even touched on the vast amounts of waste. Of course there’s the literal waste, both from all that aforementioned packaging and from replacing consumer goods (electronics, clothes, etc.) at an ever-faster pace. There’s also the opportunity cost, however. If you spend three or four or ten times more on a pair of shoes to get the right brand and style than you could on a pair of equally serviceable shoes without the right branding, well… isn’t that waste? You could have spent the money on something else or, better still, saved it or even worked less. 

This rampant consumerism isn’t making us objectively better off or happier. It’s impossible to separate consumerism from status, and status is a zero-sum game. For every winner, there must be a loser. And that means that, as a whole, status-seeking can never make us better off. We’re working ourselves to death to try and win a game that doesn’t improve our world. Why?

Advertising is the proximate cause. Somewhere along the way advertisers realized that instead of trying to persuade people directly that this product would serve some particular need, you could bypass the rational argument and appeal to subconscious desires and fears. Doing this allows for things like “brand loyalty.” It also detaches consumption from need. You can have enough physical objects, but you can you ever have enough contentment, or security, or joy, or peace? 

So car commercials (to take one example) might mention features, but most of the work is done by stoking your desires: for excitement if it’s a sports car, for prestige if it’s a luxury car, or for competence if it’s a pickup truck. Then those desires are associated with the make and model of the car and presto! The car purchase isn’t about the car anymore. It’s about your aspirations as a human being. 

The really sinister side-effect is that when you hand over the cash to buy whatever you’ve been persuaded to buy, what you’re actually hoping for is not a car or ice cream or a video game system. What you’re actually seeking is the fulfillment of a much deeper desire for belonging or safety or peace or contentment. Since no product can actually meet those deeper desires, advertising simultaneously stokes longing and redirects us away from avenues that could potentially fulfill it. We’re all like Dumbledore in the cave, drinking poison that only makes us thristier and thirstier.

One commercial will not have any discernible effect, of course, but life in 21st century America is a life saturated by these messages. 

And if you think it’s bad enough when the products sell you something external, what about all the products that promise to make you better? Skinnier, stronger, tanner, whatever. The whole outrage of fashion models photoshopped past biological possibility is just one corner of the overall edifice of an advertising ecosystem that is calculated to make us hungry and then sell us meals of thin air. 

I developed this theory that advertising fuels consumerism, which sabotages our happiness at an individual and social level, when I was a teenager in the 1990s. There was no social media back then.

So, getting back to The Social Dilemma, the problem isn’t that life was fine and dandy and then social networking came and destroyed everything. The problem is that we already lived in a sick, consumerist society where advertising inflamed desires and directed them away from any hope of fulfillment and then social media made it even worse

After all, everything that social media does has been done before. 

News feeds are tweaked to keep your scrolling endlessly? Radio stations have endlessly fiddled with their formulas for placing advertisements to keep you from changing that dial. TV shows were written around advertising breaks to make sure you waited for the action to continue. (Watch any old episode of Law and Order to see what I mean.) Social media does the same thing, it’s just better at it. (Partially through individualized feeds and AI algorithms, but also through effectively crowd-sourcing the job: every meme you post contributes to keeping your friends and family ensnared.)

Advertisements bypassing objective appeals to quality or function and appeal straight to your personal identity, your hopes, your fears? Again, this is old news. Consider the fact that you immediately picture in your mind different stereotypes for the kind of person who drives a Ford F-150, a Subaru Outback, or a Honda Civic. Old fashioned advertisements were already well on the way of fracturing society into “image tribes” that defined themselves and each other at least in part in terms of their consumption patterns. Social media just doubled down on that trend by allowing increasingly smaller and more homogeneous tribes to find and socialize with each other (and be targeted by advertisers). 

So the biggest thing that was missing from The Social Dilemma was the realization that social isn’t some strange new problem. It’s an old problem made worse. 

Solutions

The final shortcoming of The Social Dilemma is that there were no solutions offered. This is an odd gap because at least one potential solution is pretty obvious: stop relying on ad supported products and services. If you paid $5 / month for your Facebook account and that was their sole revenue stream (no ads allowed), then a lot of the perverse incentives around manipulating your feed would go away.

Another solution would be stricter privacy controls. As I mentioned above, the biggest differentiator between social media and older, broadcast media is individualization. I’ve read (can’t remember where) about the idea of privacy collectives: groups of consumers could band together, withhold their data from social media groups, and then dole it out in exchange for revenue (why shouldn’t you get paid for the advertisements you watch?) or just refuse to participate at all.

These solutions have drawbacks. It sounds nice to get paid for watching ads (nicer than the alternative, anyway) and to have control over your data, but there are some fundamental economic realities to consider. “Free” services like Facebook and Gmail and YouTube can never actually be free. Someone has to pay for the servers, the electricity, the bandwidth, the developers, and all of that. If advertisers don’t, then consumers will need to. Individuals can opt out and basically free-ride on the rest of us, but if everyone actually did it then the system would collapse. (That’s why I don’t use ad blockers, by the way. It violates the categorical imperative.)

And yeah, paying $5/month to Twitter (or whatever) would significantly change the incentives to manipulate your feed, but it wouldn’t actually make them go away. They’d still have every incentive to keep you as highly engaged as possible to make sure you never canceled your subscription and enlisted all your friends to sign up, too. 

Still, it would have been nice if The Social Dilemma had spent some time talking about specific possible solutions.

On the other hand, here’s an uncomfortable truth: there might not be any plausible solutions. Not the kind a Netflix documentary is willing to entertain, anyway.

In the prior section, I said “advertising is the proximate cause” of consumerism (emphasis added this time). I think there is a deeper cause, and advertising–the way it is done today–is only a symptom of that deeper cause.

When you stop trying to persuade people to buy your product directly–by appealing to their reason–and start trying to bypass their reason to appeal to subconscious desires you are effectively dehumanizing them. You are treating them as a thing to be manipulated. As a means to an end. Not as a person. Not as an end in itself. 

That’s the supply side: consumerism is a reflection of our willingness to tolerate treating each other as things. We don’t love others.

On the demand side, the emptier your life is, the more susceptible you become to this kind of advertising. Someone who actually feels belonging in their life on a consistent basis isn’t going to be easily manipulated into buying beer (or whatever) by appealing to that need. Why would they? The need is already being met.

That’s the demand side: consumerism is a reflection of how much meaning is missing from so many of our lives. We don’t love God (or, to be less overtly religious, feel a sense of duty and awe towards transcendent values).

As long as these underlying dysfunctions are in place, we will never successfully detoxify advertising through clever policies and incentives. There’s no conceivable way to reasonably enforce a law that says “advertising that objectifies consumers is illegal,” and any such law would violate the First Amendment in any case. 

The difficult reality is that social media is not intrinsically toxic any more than advertising is intrinsically toxic. What we’re witnessing is our cultural maladies amplified and reflected back through our technologies. They are not the problem. We are.

Therefore, the one and only way to detoxify our advertising and social media is to overthrow consumerism at the root. Not with creative policies or stringent laws and regulations, but with a fundamental change in our cultural values. 

We have the template for just such a revolution. The most innovative inheritance of the Christian tradition is the belief that, as children of God, every human life is individually and intrinsically valuable. An earnest embrace of this principle would make manipulative advertising unthinkable and intolerable. Christianity–like all great religions, but perhaps with particular emphasis–also teaches that a valuable life is found only in the service of others, service that would fill the emptiness in our lives and make us dramatically less susceptible to manipulation in the first place.

This is not an idealistic vision of Utopia. I am not talking about making society perfect. Only making it incrementally better. Consumerism is not binary. The sickness is a spectrum. Every step we could take away from our present state and towards a society more mindful of transcendent ideals (truth, beauty, and the sacred) and more dedicated to the love and service of our neighbors would bring a commensurate reduction in the sickness of manipulative advertising that results in tribalism, animosity, and social breakdown. 

There’s a word for what I’m talking about, and the word is: repentance. Consumerism, the underlying cause of toxic advertising that is the kernel of the destruction wrought by social media, is the cultural incarnation of our pride and selfishness. We can’t jury rig an economic or legal solution to a fundamentally spiritual problem. 

We need to renounce what we’re doing wrong, and learn–individually and collectively–to do better.

Are Americans Religiously Literate?

I’ve written a lot of about political knowledge (or the lack of). A recent Pew study tests Americans’ religious knowledge and the results aren’t exactly inspiring. When it comes to Christian or biblical basics, the majority of the population answers correctly. Less so when it comes to Islam, but still a majority.

Most Americans are familiar with key elements of Christianity, terminology of nonbelief, basics of Islam

When you start to move beyond these religions, however, the knowledge drops drastically.

Three-in-ten or fewer Americans know when Jewish Sabbath begins, that Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year

One-in-five Americans know Protestantism (not Catholicism) traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone

The next bit reminded me of an incident at church a few years back. During a lesson, the teacher made a comment about how he “never asks about other people’s religion, but they always ask me about mine.” He took this as evidence of the “truthfulness” of Mormonism. I did not hesitate to point out that their curiosity likely had less to do with the Church’s “truthfulness” and more to do with us being a supposedly weird, polygamous cult with a different book. I then noted that learning about other religions improves interfaith dialogue by allowing us to better communicate with those of different faith backgrounds.

As the data below demonstrate, that teacher was not alone: Mormons are some of the most well-versed when it comes to the Bible and Christianity, but some of the least knowledgeable regarding other religions.

Evangelical Protestants get the most questions right about Christianity; Jews are most well-versed in world religions

Overall, it appears that American religious literacy is pretty meh.

Some Thoughts on the Tolkien Movie

I could have sworn there was a quick image of a cross in one scene, but I couldn’t find it online. So here’s a generic screen shot from the movie instead.

I saw Tolkien last week, and I really enjoyed it. This was surprising to me, because religion was absolutely essential to J. R. R. Tolkien’s life, to his motivations for inventing Middle Earth and all that went with it, and to the themes and characters of all the works he wrote in Middle Earth. Hollywood, on the other hand, is utterly incapable of handling religion seriously. So, how did Tolkien manage to be a good film anyway?

By basically ignoring religion.

Don’t get me wrong. They do mention that he’s Catholic, depict his relationship with the priest who was his caretaker after his mother died, and talk about the tension when Tolkien–a Catholic–wanted to pursue a relationship with Edith, who wasn’t Catholic.

You might think that’s religion, but it’s not, any more than Romeo and Juliet coming from different houses was about religion. His Catholicism is treated as a kind of immutable faction that he was born into and so is stuck with it.

Now, if the movie tried to explain anything deep about Tolkien’s character or his work while omitting religion, it would have failed utterly. It succeeds because–after redacting religion from Tolkien’s life–it also studiously avoids trying to say anything deep about his life or his life’s work.

As far as this film is concerned, all you need to understand how Tolkien’s life led him to create Middle Earth are a series of simplistic and primarily visual references. Tolkien left behind a boyhood home of rolling green hills. That’s the shire. Once, he saw the shadows of bare tree branches on the ceiling of his childhood room at night. That’s ents.

And of course there’s World War I. German flamethrowers attacking a British trench became the balrog. Shattered and broken human corpses mired in a denuded wasteland reduced to mud and water-filled craters became the Dead Marshes. And a kind of generic sense of impending, invisible doom became a dragon and also Sauron’s all-seeing eye.

As for the most famous aspect of Tolkien’s writing–the fact that he invented entire languages–that’s basically written off as a kind of personal obsession. Some people juggle geese. What are you going to do?

None of this is wrong, and that’s why the movie is so enjoyable. It’s fun to see the visual references, even if they are a bit heavy-handed. The rise-from-ashes, boyhood camaraderie and romantic plotlines are all moving. But for the most part the movie avoids all the really deep stuff and just tells a light, superficial story about Tolkien’s circle of friends growing up. And I’m fine with all of that.

Not everything has to go deep, and a movie is far from the best way to investigate what Tolkien meant by “subcreation” or a “secondary world” and all the theology that goes with that, anyway. Even if Hollywood could do religion. Which, seeing as how they can’t, just makes me grateful that in this film they didn’t try. That saves it from ruin and makes it a perfectly fun movie that every fan of J. R. R. Tolkien should see.

Does Religion Lead to Good Sex?

Drawing on a new IFS study, David French writes in the National Review,

How many happy, sexually vibrant religiousmarried couples have you seen on popular television shows or movies — even in this era of fragmented, targeted entertainment? Now, compare that number (which is very, very close to zero) with the number of times you’ve seen liberation from religion portrayed as the key to sexual fulfillment.

How many times, amid the celebrations of sexuality on college campuses, do you hear the speakers at the various “sex weeks” say something like, “If you really want to improve your odds of enjoying a sexually satisfying life with a faithful partner, you might want to check out church”? Or how many wonkish progressives — the very people most likely to share charts and graphs about the effects of public policies or to pass around the latest social science about race, gender, and gender identity — will dwell on charts such as these, from the invaluable Institute for Family Studies:


He continues:

The global data reflected the U.S. reality. Highly religious couples “enjoy higher-quality relationships and more sexual satisfaction” compared with mixed or entirely secular couples. Moreover, in the global study, religion has an increasingly positive influence on fertility. Religious couples had “0.27 more children than those who never, or practically never, attend.”

Sadly, however, religious practice was “not protective against domestic violence.” There was no statistically significant difference in risk between secular and religious couples.

The IFS study doesn’t just explode progressive cultural stereotypes of unhappy, sexless religious prudes. Conservatives often think of feminists (especially secular feminists) as angry and joyless. But the study indicates otherwise. There was a “J-Curve in overall relationship quality for women.” It turns out that women in “shared secular, progressive relationships enjoy comparatively high levels of relationship quality.” They were surpassed only by “women in highly religious relationships, especially traditionalists.”

Less sex may also be contributing to less happiness. “IFS senior fellow Bradford Wilcox and IFS research fellow Lyman Stone followed Julian’s work by examining whether the sex recession was related to the measurable decline of happiness in America’s young adults. They concluded that “changes in sexual frequency can account for about one-third of the decline in happiness since 2012 and almost 100 percent of the decline in happiness since 2014.”” In short, the sexual revolution has brought about

its own brand of unhappiness, including — ironically enough — sexlessness…Sexual liberation has all too often brought neither sex nor liberation, and thanks to the work of the IFS, we can respond to felt need with real data. Are you seeking love in this life? The church doors are always open, and while matchmaking isn’t its purpose, the connection to a holy God carries with it connection to his flawed people, and in those connections you can find profound joy.

Stuff I Say at School – Part V: Tocqueville and Social Capital

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

The Assignment

Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the active involvement of American citizens in civil society distinguishes America from Europe and helps to prevent American government from becoming over centralized.  In fact, civil society not only prevents Big Government from taking over, but enlarges each citizen’s life, helping them overcome the natural tendency of democratic citizens to isolate from each other.  Contemporary social observers, like Robert Putnam and Marc Dunkelman, have seen trends of disengagement from civil society in their recent studies (and more engagement in virtual communities via technology).   Discuss the significance of civil society from Tocqueville’s perspective and whether these recent trends of disengagement should be viewed as a cause of some alarm.

The Stuff I Said

Tocqueville’s view of civil society is very organic; a kind of pre-state network guided by cultural norms and both individual  and communal pursuits. The bottom-up, arguably emergent nature of Tocqueville’s perception is likely why many classical liberal writers quote him so favorably. The ability of private individuals to organize to advance societal goals rather than relying on the coercion of the state appears to be deeply encouraged by Tocqueville. This makes public engagement a necessity to avoid “despotism.” This makes the decline in social capital potentially problematic. 

However, there are a few points worth noting about the claims of social capital decline and the march toward despotism:

First and foremost, government has grown significantly since the mid 1800s. Democracy in America was written 20-30 years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. My own state of Texas had not even been annexed yet. For all we know, Tocqueville might think we’ve been in the era of Big Government for over a century.

Next, economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn find that declines in social capital (i.e., volunteering and organization membership, entertainment of friends and relatives at home) between 1952 and 1998 were largely among women due to their increased participation in the labor force. Other contributors were income inequality and increasing ethnic heterogeneity. While income inequality can be a problem (it tends to erode trust), increasing diversity and female labor participation are, in my view, not negative developments.

Parents also appear to be spending more time with their children. For example, a 2016 study of 11 Western countries found that “the mean time the average mother in the 11 countries spent daily on child care in 1965 was calculated to be about 54 minutes, it increased to a predicted 104 minutes by 2012. For fathers, the estimates increased from a scant 16 minutes daily in 1965 to 59 minutes in 2012” (pg. 1090). Engaged parenting results in better child outcomes. So while parents may not be entertaining friends or bowling with buddies as much, they are giving their kids more attention. Considering Tocqueville’s focus on family, I think he would find this a plus (especially in the midst of the family fragmentation that has occurred over the last few decades).

But even with these declines, a majority of Americans still participate in various organizations. Drawing on the 2007 Baylor National Religious Survey, sociologist Rodney Stark finds that while 41% of Americans have no membership in non-church organizations, 48% had 1-3 memberships and 11% had 4-5 memberships. “About six Americans out of ten belong to at least one voluntary organization. Add in church organizations and the number rises to more than seven out of ten, and the median becomes two memberships” (pg. 122-123).

Finally, the labor market was dominated by agriculture (76.2% in 1800; 53.6% in 1850) during the period that Tocqueville wrote. By the turn of the 20th century, however, most of the labor force could be found in manufacturing (35.8%) and service sectors (23.6%). By the 21st century, service had come to dominate the labor market (73% in 1999). While social capital in the form of organizational participation may have declined over the last half century, the kind of work we do has changed drastically. This includes our workplace experience. We actually have co-workers that we spend hours each day cooperating with and customers that we are obligated to respect day in and day out. The relationships (and social capital) we establish through the workplace are very different from 19th-century farms or even industrial-era factories. The late Peter Drucker believed that today’s business institutions “are increasingly the means through which individual human beings find their livelihood, find their access to social status, to community and to individual achievement and satisfaction” (pg. 16). I don’t think we should underestimate the long-run impact of commerce on social capital. Numerous studies find that markets foster socially-desirable traits like trust, cooperation, and tolerance.

In short, I think Tocqueville might find some of our over-reliance on government distasteful, but overall would be impressed with how incredibly adaptive the American people have been over the course of nearly two centuries of rapid change and development. This latter point would confirm many of the observations he made about the underlying mores of American civil society.

Stuff I Say at School – Part I: Tocqueville and the “Nones”

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

I started my MA program in Government at John Hopkins University this past month. Homework is therefore going to take up a lot of my time and cut into my blogging. Instead of admitting defeat, I’ve decided to share excerpts from various assignments in a kind of series. I was inspired by the Twitter feed “Sh*t My Dad Says.” While “Sh*t I Say at School” is a funnier title, I’ll go the less vulgar route and name it “Stuff I Say at School.” Some of this material will be familiar to DR readers, but presenting it in a new context will hopefully keep it fresh. So without further ado, let’s dive in.

The Assignment

A recent Pew study showed that millennials are less religiously affiliated than any other previous cohort of Americans (sometimes called the rise of the “nones”).  Given the emphasis Tocqueville places on the role religion plays in creating a culture that helps to keep democracy in America anchored, analyze these developments through Tocqueville’s viewpoint[.]

The Stuff I Said

Tocqueville would likely have a strong affinity for Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark’s research on religion. Stark’s sociological analysis of religion takes a similar approach to Tocqueville, acknowledging that the religious competition and pluralism (i.e., religious free market) that resulted from religion’s uncoupling from the state produces a robust, dynamic religious environment. He puts it bluntly in his book The Triumph of Faith: “the more religious competition there is within a society, the higher the overall level of individual participation” (pg. 56). It is the state sponsorship of churches, he claims, that has contributed to Europe’s religious decline.

I was struck by the claim in the lecture that 95% of Americans attended church weekly in the mid 19th-century because it contradicts the data collected by Stark and Finke:

On the eve of the Revolution only about 17 percent of Americans were churched. By the start of the Civil War this proportion had risen dramatically, to 37 percent. The immense dislocations of the war caused a serious decline in adherence in the South, which is reflected in the overall decline to 35 percent in the 1870 census. The rate then began to rise once more, and by 1906 slightly more than half of the U.S. population was churched. Adherence rates reached 56 percent by 1926. Since then the rate has been rather stable although inching upwards. By 1980 church adherence was about 62 percent (pg. 22).

Tocqueville might also be more optimistic about the state of America’s religious pulse. For example, Stark has criticized the narrative that often accompanies the “rise of the nones”:

The [Pew] findings would seem to be clear: the number of Americans who say their religious affiliation is “none” has increased from about 8 percent in 1990 to about 22 percent in 2014. But what this means is not so obvious, for, during this same period, church attendance did not decline and the number of atheists did not increase. Indeed, the percentage of atheists in America has stayed steady at about 4 percent since a question about belief in God was first asked in 1944. In addition, except for atheists, most of the other “nones” are religious in the sense that they pray (some pray very often) and believe in angels, in heaven, and even in ghosts. Some are also rather deeply involved in “New Age” mysticisms.

So who are these “nones,” and why is their number increasing–if it is? Back in 1990 most Americans who seldom or never attended church still claimed a religious affiliation when asked to do so. Today, when asked their religious preference, instead of saying Methodist or Catholic, now a larger proportion of nonattenders say “none,” by which most seem to mean “no actual membership.” The entire change has taken place within the nonattending group, and the nonattending group has not grown.

In other words, this change marks a decrease only in nominal affiliation, not an increase in irreligion. So whatever else it may reflect, the change does not support claims for increased secularization, let alone a decrease in the number of Christians. It may not even reflect an increase in those who say they are “nones.” The reason has to do with response rates and the accuracy of surveys (pg. 190).

Finally, Tocqueville was right to recognize the benefits of religion to society. As laid out by Stark in his America’s Blessings (pg. 4-5),the religious compared to irreligious Americans are:

  • Less likely to commit crimes.
  • More likely to contribute to contribute to charities, volunteer their time, and be active in civic affairs (a recent Pew study provides support for this last one).
  • Happier, less neurotic, less likely to commit suicide.
  • Living longer.
  • More likely to marry, stay married, have children, and be more satisfied in their marriage.
  • Less likely to abuse their spouse or children.
  • Less likely to cheat on their spouse.
  • Performing better on standardized tests.
  • More successful in their careers.
  • Less likely to drop out of school.
  • More likely to consume “high culture.”
  • Less likely to believe in occult and paranormal phenomena (e.g., Bigfoot, UFOs).

Overall, I think Tocqueville would be pleased to see data back up his observations.

More Stuff

A classmate pointed to a recent study claiming that when one controls for social desirability, the amount of atheists in America possibly rises to over a quarter of the population. The study is certainly interesting, though I wonder if this would hold up in other countries. Based on Stark’s The Triumph of Faith, these are the following average percentages of atheists across the world:

  • Latin America: 2.5%
  • Western Europe: 6.7%
  • Eastern Europe: 4.6%
  • Islamic Nations: 1.1%
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: 0.7%
  • Asia: 11.3%
  • Other (Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand): 8.4%

As for the unaffiliated Millennials, unchurched and irreligious are two different things. A Pew study from last year found that 72% of the “nones” believe in some kind of higher power, with 17% believing in the “God of the Bible.” Even 67% of self-identified agnostics believe in a higher power, with 3% believing in the “God of the Bible.” But unchurching can lead to other forms of spirituality. The Baylor Religion Survey has found, perhaps surprisingly to some, that traditional forms of religion and high church attendance have strong negative effects on belief in the occult and paranormal. In other words, a regular church-goer is less likely than a non-attendee to believe things like Atlantis, haunted houses, UFOs, mediums, New Age movements, alternative medicine, etc. This is probably why Millennials are turning to things like astrologyalternative medicinehealing crystals, and the like.

Inclusive Institutions and the Church

A few months ago, I posted about a new working paper exploring the origins of WEIRD psychology. A brand new job market paper builds on this research:

Political institutions, ranging from autocratic regimes to inclusive, democratic ones, are widely acknowledged as a critical determinant of economic prosperity (e.g. Acemoglu and Robinson 2012, North, Wallis, and Weingast 2009). They create incentives that foster or inhibit economic growth. Yet, the emergence and global variation of growth-enhancing, inclusive political institutions in which people broadly participate in the governing process and the power of the elite is constrained, are not well understood. Initially, inclusive institutions were largely confined to the West. How and why did those institutions emerge in Europe?

This article contributes to the debate on the formation and global variation of inclusive institutions by combining and empirically testing two long-standing hypotheses. First, anthropologist Jack Goody (1983) hypothesized that, motivated by financial gains, the medieval Catholic Church implemented marriage policies—most prominently, prohibitions on cousin marriage—that destroyed the existing European clan-based kin networks. This created an almost unique European family system where, still today, the nuclear family dominates and marriage among blood relatives is virtually absent. This contrasts with many parts of the world, where first- and second-cousin marriages are common (Bittles and Black 2010). Second, several scholars have hypothesized that strong extended kin networks are detrimental to the formation of social cohesion and affect institutional outcomes (Weber, 1958; Todd, 1987; Augustine, 1998). Theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430) pointed out that marrying outside the kin group enlarges the range of social relations and “should thereby bind social life more effectively by involving a greater number of people in them” (Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 / 1998, p. 665). More recently, Greif (2005), Greif and Tabellini (2017), Mitterauer (2010), and Henrich (forthcoming) combined these two hypotheses and emphasized the critical role of the Church’s marriage prohibitions for Europe’s institutional development (pg. 2).

His findings?:

The analysis demonstrates that already before the year 1500 AD, Church exposure and its marriage regulations are predictive of the formation of communes—self-governed cities that put constraints on the executive. The difference-in-difference analysis does not reveal pre-trends and results are robust to many specifications. They hold within historic political entities addressing concerns that the relation is driven by other institutional factors and when exploiting quasi-natural experiments where Church exposure was determined by the random outcomes of medieval warfare. Moreover, exploiting regional and temporal variation in marriage regulations suggests that the dissolution of kin networks was decisive for the formation of communes.

The study also empirically establishes a robust link between Church exposure and dissolution of extended kin networks at the country, ethnicity and European regional level. A language-based proxy for cousin marriage—cousin terms—offers a window into the past and rules out that the dissolution was driven by more recent events like the Industrial Revolution or modernization. Moreover, the study reports a robust link between kin networks, civicness and inclusive institutions. The link between kin networks and civicness holds within countries and—getting closer to causality—among children of immigrants, who grew up in the same country but vary in their vertically transmitted preference for cousin marriage. Kin networks predict regional institutional failure within Italy, ethnicities’ local-level democratic traditions and modern-day democratic institutions at the country level. Measures for the strength of pre-industrial kin networks rule out contemporary reverse causality or the possibility that the estimates are driven by contemporary omitted variables. The analysis also demonstrates that the association between kin networks and the formation of inclusive institutions holds universally—both within Europe and when excluding Europe and countries with a large European ancestry. This universal link strengthens the hypothesis that the Church’s marriage regulations, and not some other Church-related factor, were decisive for European development.

Underlying these early institutional developments was most likely a psychology that, as a consequence of dissolved kin networks, reflects greater individualism and a more generalized, impartial morality (Schulz et al. 2018). This is a building block not only for inclusive institutions but also for economic development more generally. For example, transmission of knowledge across kin networks and the shift away from a collectivistic culture toward an individualistic one, a culture of growth, may have further contributed to Europe’s economic development (Mokyr, 2016; de la Croix, 2018).

…To build strong, functional, inclusive institutions and to foster democracy, the potentially deleterious effect of dense kin networks must be considered. Also, simply exporting established formal institutions to other societies without considering existing kin networks will likely fail. Policies that foster cooperation beyond the boundaries of one’s kin group, however, have a strong potential to successfully diminish the fractionalization of societies. These can be policies that encouraging marriages across kin groups. More generally, policies that foster interactions that go beyond the boundaries of in-groups such as family, close friends, social class, political affiliation or ethnicity are likely to increase social cohesion (pg. 41-42).

Women Asked to Fast from Social Media by The Restored Church of Jesus Christ

Because internet outrage has an attention span of approximately 3.14159 seconds, and there were some submission and response delays, this story is no longer being discussed. However, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will probably forever be accused of being anti-woman, we’re still going to publish it here at DR.

This was originally written about 2 weeks ago, in the full swing of the Latter-day Saint Woman Social Media Blackout, when George Takei finally shocked his fans with information about this LDS scheme to control women. When it got to this point, I couldn’t help but respond.

I hope whether you participated or not, and whether you liked the idea or not, that you can get something out of this…


On October 6 of this year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a historic meeting of the women of the Church. Twice a year, in April and October, regular Church services are suspended and 8 hours (yes 8!) of services are broadcast across the world from Salt Lake City in what is known as general conference. The 8 hours are done in 2 hour increments over Saturday and Sunday.

Prior to this October’s general conference, an extra Saturday evening session was held for the men of the Church (the general priesthood session), while women met a week before on Saturday evening (the general women’s session). However, this was the first meeting for women held during general conference weekend, as the men’s session and women’s session will alternate during the April and October sessions. Not the most exciting change (depending on your prospective), but a change nonetheless.

The women’s session is for all females ages 8 and up, and the men’s is for all males ages 8 and up. During this fall’s women’s session, President Nelson, the president and prophet of the Church, made four invitations for the women of the Church: 1. a 10-day social media fast, 2. read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year, 3. attend or learn about the temple, and 4. participate in Relief Society (the last was directed to adult women as it is the women’s organization of the Church for those 18 and older).

Before we get all frothy at the mouth about De Oppression of De Womenz by De Menz (TM), let’s take a moment to think through the largest complaints about the social media invitation and also think of ways to make this request work for a variety of women in a variety of circumstances. Most of the following is directed to members of the Church, but many outside the Church may find it informative. Full disclosure: I am a female member of this Church, and I have not yet participated in the social media fast.

Addressing the Major Complaints

Complaint 1: Right before elections.

I had seen this complaint many times, and eventually I decided to look at the numbers. The invitation was made October 6, and elections are November 6. That’s 31 days. Even if you started the fast on October 7, you still have 3 weeks to get informed on the election, if you’re not already. Plus, there are plenty of news sites that provide better election commentary and information than social media. Please don’t get all of your election information from social media (can mouth-frothers become a thing? because I think that’s what social media produces). Read a variety of reputable national and local news sites, and watch the news on TV, if you still have it. QED, you are informed ladies.

Complaint 2: Women use social media to work.

Keep going to work, y’all. I don’t think there’s any reason to stop working to continue this fast. Just like we don’t stop taking medicine when we fast from food, and some professions have to work on Sundays, we don’t need to kill our livelihood for this request. President Nelson himself said “Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast.” It may also be a great time to set up a business page/account if all of your work is through your personal page/account.

Complaint 3: Only the Women.

I’ve seen this combined more sinisterly with Complaint #1. Keep all the women uninformed before the election! However, the meeting included all females ages 8 and up and was worldwide, for a Church that has more members outside the United States than inside. So the idea that this was supposed to keep women in the USA specifically uninformed before the election is quite silly and really ignoring the reality of the Church.

Could this request have been made to everyone during the general attendance meetings? Of course. Why wasn’t it? I don’t know, I think that’s for every member of the Church to determine for themselves, and hopefully in a way that attempts to be generous to our leaders.

The fact of the matter is, men get requests from the Church’s leadership and sometimes women don’t get those same requests, or don’t get them as often. I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. Are the optics iffy when a male-led (if you only think of priesthood leaders) Church asks women to do something, but not the men? Yes. Does it mean it’s automatically sinister? No. And, let’s be honest, maybe some of us are placing social media on too high of a pedestal when thinking about this invitation.

Ideas to Make the Fast Work for You

When thinking about these complaints, I thought of several ways that women could follow the fast in a way that works for them. We have commandments where the leaders of the Church have said it’s up to you to prayerfully determine how to follow this commandment. And those are commandments, not requests (or invitations, even less of a requirement). So, determine how this can work for you, I’m sure there are lots of other ways than those below. I’ll again refer to President Nelson’s specific words, “Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast.”

Idea 1: Ask your family to join you, yes even the men and boys. Honestly, if my kids were old enough to be on social media (some of their friends are but it’s a while off for mine), this is definitely the direction I would go. Plus, in the same session, President Eyring made it very clear that women are supposed to be the guiding force of spiritual education in the home. USE YOUR POWER LADIES.

Idea 2: Do the fast on Sundays, or another day of the week. Fast every Sunday. Fast every fast Sunday. If you’re already doing this, add an extra day somewhere. Yes, it may provide more of a shock to the system to do it all at once, but maybe family contact or working is not something you can just give up for 10 days straight.

Idea 3: Fast from personal social media, but not business social media. Plenty of women make money by advertising or running their business on social media. See Complaint #2 if you need more convincing.

Idea 4: Do it with a friend and keep each other entertained via text message. I think a social media fast can help us connect with our families more, but it can also help us connect with our friends. Send each other pictures, send each other funny thoughts. If you’re already doing this, start including other people you’d like to have more contact with. If social media is one of the few places you get to communicate with other adults (I’m looking at you new/young moms), don’t lose contact! You need it!

Idea 5: Fast from the worst parts of social media. I’ve already spent a lot of time “unfollowing” many a person and blocking many a group on Facebook so my news feed isn’t full of stuff that stresses me out. But, when thinking about the fast, I’ve realized there is probably a lot more cleaning house I can do. Take the time to filter your feed (and continue to do so as with Facebook more new stuff will start to appear). Or fast from particular social media sites that seem to make you feel the worst after visiting them.

I hope everyone is feeling a little more calm and a little more empowered about this request. You’re awesome ladies, keep doing your thing, and always do what’s best for you and your family. I’ll give you an example of how I am responding to one of the invitations. I had already planned to finish the Book of Mormon by the end of the year. I’m in Alma. I am NOT starting over. And, in fact, I’ve been reading scriptures in a different way recently: for the most part, I listen to the scriptures on the Church’s Library app. I’ve found a lot more enjoyment with this approach, so I’ll continue to “read” the scriptures this way when I can.

PS: I had this thought when reading some media portrayals of the social media fast. If the only sites you are reading about this request are still calling the Church “the Mormon Church,” then it should already viewed as suspect. Either this is not a real journalist, or it is a journalist who is purposefully ignoring the Church’s new style guide (even in just the headline – the editor should follow the style guide). It doesn’t mean everything they have to say is inaccurate or from a particular agenda, but their objectiveness may be in question.

PPS: Since originally writing this, I have finished Alma! #hollah

Does More Education Mean Less Religion?

It depends. In a recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologist Philip Schwadel finds that the effects of education depend on religious context during adolescence:

Results show that higher education is particularly likely to lead to religious decline for mainline Protestants and those with religiously active parents, and to increases in religiosity for the religiously unaffiliated and those with parents who infrequently attend religious services. Unaffiliated emerging adults and those from homes with parents who rarely attend religious services are, on average, less religious than other emerging adults, but, unlike most other emerging adults, they are likely to increase in their religiosity if they go to college. These findings demonstrate how the religious context in adolescence conditions the influence of education, both positive and negative influences (pg. 870).

In short, “the widespread view that education “erodes” religion (Johnson 1997) does not apply equally to all emerging adults, and the religious context in adolescence is one dimension along which it varies” (pg. 882).

This expounds on Schwadel’s previous work. For example, his 2016 article in The Sociological Quarterly found that “graduating from college is associated with declines in prayer, religious certainty, and especially religious belief during emerging adulthood” (pg. 778). However, he also found that “the highly educated are relatively likely to attend religious services. These results suggest that church pews are now disproportionately filled with college-educated young adults, many of who question key religious beliefs. This comports with a long tradition of sociological research (e.g., Fukuyama 1961; Roof 1976) that emphasizes that college students, and the college-educated more generally, often compartmentalize religion to weekend services and holidays (for more recent examples, see Campbell 2005; Clydesdale 2007)” (pg. 779).

When he did a 2015 cross-national analysis, Schwadel found that while those with university degrees had lower levels of religiosity overall, “sex, marital status, and age have considerably larger effects on religiosity than does higher education” (pg. 414). Furthermore, “the average level of higher education in each nation is not associated with individual religiosity” (pg. 414). In fact, GDP per capita has a much stronger, negative effect on religiosity than average levels of higher education. Most telling, however,  is the fact that “the effect of university degree ranges from robustly negative to positive. The largest negative effects of university degree are in Israel (b = −.427) and Italy (b = −.409). University degree has a relatively strong, positive effect (b > .16) in Sweden, New Zealand, and South Korea. Overall, the effect of university degree is positive and significant (p < .05) in 9 nations, negative and significant in 18 nations, and has no significant effect in 12 nations” (pg. 411). 

What’s more,

the negative effect of higher education on religiosity is more robust in relatively religious nations. This is evident both from the negative correlation between the random slope for university degree and the adjusted mean of religiosity (i.e., intercept), and from the positive interaction between university degree and the mean with no religion in each nation. These findings appear to support the diffusion argument that the highly educated are innovators and early adopters (Rogers 2003) of new ways of being religious (or irreligious) but that secularity then diffuses to the less-educated segments of the population. As Elias (2000) suggests in regards to attributes associated with the upper classes (e.g., manners), secularity may be a form of status differentiation for the highly educated in relatively religious nations, but it cannot serve that function in relatively irreligious nations (pg. 415).

All of this complicates the narrative of “more education = less religion.” Even Pew’s research from last year–which is often thrown out as evidence of the religiosity-killing nature of education–doesn’t vindicate the common narrative. While college-educated Americans are more likely to, say, identify as “atheist/agnostic”, their religious affiliation and church attendance is about the same as those who never finished/attended college.

College graduates, non-grads report attending religious services at similar rates

For Christians with college degrees, their religious commitment is basically the same as Christians without them. In fact, the college-educated Christian is more likely to attend weekly religious services than their less-educated fellow devotees. 

College-educated Christians about as observant as Christians with less education

A 2007 study actually found that “it is the respondents who did not go to college who exhibit the highest rates of diminished religiosity. Those with the highest level of education – the respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree – are the least likely to curtail.their church attendance. They are followed by those with an associate’s degree, then by four-year college students, and then two-year college students. The most educated are also the least likely to report a decrease in religion’s importance, although those who attended college but did not finish also report low levels of decline in religious salience” (pg. 1677). The researchers also found that “cohabitors are the most likely individuals to report each type of religious decline,” while married persons “are the least likely to report each type of decline” (pg. 1677). Premarital sex and marijuana use was also associated with declines in religiosity. Schwadel’s 2011 study also found that education “has a positive effect on religious participation, emphasizing the importance of religion, and supporting the rights of religious authorities to influence people’s votes. Increases in education do not diminish devotional activities or belief in the afterlife, though highly educated Americans disproportionately lean towards belief in a higher power rather than definite belief in God” (pg. 178).

But does education at least lead to more liberal religious beliefs? A 2011 study found

contrary to longstanding scholarly wisdom, attending college appears to have no liberalizing effect on most dimensions of religious belief. In fact, on some measures, college students appear to liberalize less than those who never attended college. College students are less likely to stop believing in a personal god and less likely to stop believing in the propriety of conversion attempts. On the other hand, they are more likely to develop doubts about their religious beliefs. In the main, however, the effect of college on students’ religious beliefs appears to be extremely weak. Although significant  minorities of emerging adults become more liberal in their religious beliefs, college itself does not appear to be the culprit. College students do not liberalize any more than those who do not go to college.

In fact, the case for the null (and perhaps protective) effects of college on traditional religious belief is even stronger than it appears from these results. In supplementary analyses (not shown), college attendance also failed to predict differences on six other variables measuring religious beliefs. College students are also no more likely than non-students to stop believing in a judgment day, stop believing in an afterlife, stop believing in angels, stop believing in demons (except in the final two models, where social networks appear to suppress a positive effect of college attendance), become more uncertain about the existence of God, or abandon the belief that active congregational participation is a necessary aspect of being religious. Thus, on 10 out of 13 possible beliefs, attending college shows no net liberalizing effect before accounting for social networks; on two others, college appears to support traditional beliefs; on only one outcome – increased religious doubt – does college appear to undermine traditional religious belief. In the debate over how college influences religious beliefs, this study overwhelmingly supports those who claim that its influence is largely negligible, and perhaps even somewhat protective of traditional religious belief (pg. 199-200).

Basically, when it comes to education and religion, it’s complicated. 

Prayer: Reorienting Desires and Rehearsing for Death

In his book Atheist Delusions, Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart writes,

[I]t is bizarre for anyone to think he or she can judge the nature or credibility of another’s experiences from the outside. If [Daniel] Dennett really wishes to undertake a “scientific” investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion (which…does not really exist), and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its phenomena from within. As a first step, he should certainly–purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor–begin praying, and then continue doing so with some perseverance. This is a drastic and implausible description, no doubt; but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or of what it is not (pg. 11-12).

Praying is an aspect of religion I actually struggle with. It’s very difficult for me, largely because it feels repetitive and admittedly silly. What’s more, it is difficult to stay focused. But this seems to be the nature of the beast. Mormon philosopher Adam Miller captures this well:

When you pray, notice how the same thing happens almost every time. You address God and then you start to think about what you should say and then this prompts you to think about something else and then, caught up in thinking about this other thing, you forget that you were saying a prayer. Your brain browns out. Eventually, after a few minutes, you remember why you were kneeling there in the first place. This moment is the key. When, for the first time, you remember this, your prayer can start for real…To pray is to practice remembering God. The more frequently you forget, the more chances you’ll have to remember, and the more you remember, the deeper your prayer will go. With patience and practice, you’ll remember God more often.

However, I’m beginning to think I need to try harder. Anglican priest Sarah Coakley provides some reasons in a 2012 interview:

It took me a long time to realize this, but I think that what seems to be our sheer incompetence in prayer is actually the place where something is happening: it is God invading our willed vulnerability. I think a lot of people try to pray and then give up. They feel it isn’t right for them, that they aren’t good at it. But prayer is not like riding a bicycle or getting a good grade on a term paper. It’s something sui generis precisely because relating to God isn’t like relating to anything or anyone else.

…Many traditions that are enfolded within Christianity plot a sort of progression to prayer, but I’m fairly resistant to the idea of progress as prayer because I have a strong sense that every time I try to pray I know I’m incompetent. At the same time, however, anyone who is seriously committed to prayer on a daily basis will know that things do start to happen: one is being transformed, one’s whole life is being drawn like a magnetized set of iron filings in a unified direction so the bits of one’s self that one thought were completely unconnected suddenly become vibrantly connected. The greatest writers on prayer in the Christian tradition tell us that once you seriously embark on this journey, it’s like giving your life away: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31 NRSV). And we could say that there are stages of progression in this journey, but it’s never for us to say where we are.

Now, I think that one of the most important things to happen in such a progression is a barely perceptible sharpening or transformation of the senses and the mind, partly because what we now call the unconscious is welling up and forcing itself to be integrated. We suddenly realize that we are seeing and knowing and responding to the world in ways that we didn’t before…[T]he basic idea is that our life is set on a course of transformation and purification. We are given a sensual life, an imaginative life, an affective life, and a noetic life, and each of these features of selfhood has to pass through transformation and purification en route to the vision of God. So of course that affects the mind, the senses, and the imagination.

She continues:

Christianity tells us that these senses ultimately unite in the beatific vision—because there could be nothing more joyous or transformative or pleasurable than being desired by God and responding in complete unity with God—but in the lower rungs of life we have to make choices about how we are going to spend our time, let our imaginations play, or direct our will. In prayer, particularly in silent prayer, these choices press on us in a way that is very disconcerting. We only have to spend about five seconds in silence before we’re thinking, “This is boring. Why don’t I go do something more interesting?” Our minds are immediately distracted with intense desires for cream buns or with random sexual fantasies. Laying ourselves out before God in a sort of naked way releases the imagination. It isn’t relieving; it’s humbling. It’s also quite funny—this is the lot of humanity! Yet if I were starving or dying of thirst, I would only have one interest: the desire to find something to eat or drink. This wandering of the mind—that I can wonder what video game I’m going to play or whether I’m going to have a diet Coke or a non-diet Coke—is thus a privilege of affluence. In North Atlantic culture I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that desires are all related in a kind of nexus, that our desire for a cup of tea is intimately, though not obviously, connected to our desire for sex, for power, and for influence, and these things are ultimately bound up with our desire for God. Silent prayer forces us to think about these puzzling connections and to order our desires in relation to God… Desire isn’t simply about sex; the tether of desire is the lot of humanity, and it requires spiritual and moral discernment. And theologically, I think our goal is to spread out these desires before God, to have them find their proper place. Some of these desires are strongly inflected by sin, and they need attention through grace and the Spirit. Other desires are not necessarily sinful but can get wrongly intensified; they can be in the wrong place or in the wrong order at the wrong time.

She concludes, “Prayer is this constant return to the place where one’s projects are frail and fallible and where one can only fall on God’s mercy. That’s the place God works. And God works powerfully there.” Perhaps prayer is an act of vulnerability and humility; what Coakley refers to below as “rehearsing for death.”

Perhaps I need to rehearse more.