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.

On Contraceptives vs. Abortifacients

The political outrage of the moment is the assertion that SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh thinks that contraceptives and abortifacients are the same thing. HuffPost provides a sample article with the contention that “Kavanaugh] referred to contraception as ‘abortion-inducing drugs.'” and then a quote from the EVP of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund:

Kavanaugh referred to birth control ― something more than 95 percent of women use in their lifetime ― as an ‘abortion-inducing drug,’ which is not just flat-out wrong, but is anti-woman, anti-science propaganda.

This is a convenient narrative for pro-choice activists, who routinely smear the pro-life movement as being motivated by regressive prudery or just an outright “War on Women.” They would have you believe that pro-lifers are out to control women’s reproduction, and therefore pro-lifers oppose contraception and abortion as one and the same thing.

None of this is true.

First, it’s not true that the pro-life movement conflates contraceptives and abortifacients. These are two very different things. Abortifacients act after fertilization to cause the death of an innocent human being. Opposition to this–at least, in elective cases–is the core of the pro-life cause.

Contraceptives, on the other hand, act to prevent fertilization. If there’s no fertilization then no human life is at stake. So the pro-life movement has no relevance here.

It’s true that some pro-life people view contraception as immoral. It’s also true that some pro-life people would like to bring school prayer back. But just because they do, it doesn’t make school prayer a pro-life issue. It just shows that there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who like school prayer. Same concept here: there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who view contraceptives as immoral, but opposition to contraceptives (morally or legally) has nothing to do with the pro-life cause because there isn’t a human life directly at stake. 

Second, returning to Kavanuagh specifically: he knows this. Much as Planned Parenthood would like to scare up some more donor dollars by terrifying people with the specter of a crazed misogynist who can’t tell the difference between contraception and abortion, Kavanaugh’s dissent in Priests for Life vs. HHS (which is what Ted Cruz was asking Kavanugh about) makes clear that he is perfectly aware of the difference:

By regulation, that insurance must cover all FDA-approved contraceptives, including certain methods of birth control that, some believe, operate as abortifacients and result in the destruction of embryos.

Page 1 of Kavanaugh’s dissent.

The drug that Kavanugh is talking about is levonorgestrel. In low doses, levonorgestrel is a contraceptive that acts by preventing fertilization. This raises no pro-life concerns. But levonorgestrel is also available in a much higher dosage as the emergency contraceptive Plan B. In this higher dosage–and taken after sex (which is the whole point of an emergency contraceptive)–levonorgestrel may kick in after fertilization has already occurred and prevent an embryo from implanting. This is the scenario that concerns pro-lifers, because once fertilization takes place we have a new, living human being and the entire point of the pro-life movement is that it shouldn’t be legally permissible to electively kill human beings.

So, contrary to Planned Parenthood propaganda, Kavanaugh isn’t attacking all contraceptives. He’s not even attacking all uses of levonorgestrel. In fact, he’s not attacking anything at all.  He’s merely pointing out that “some believe” (i.e. Priests for Life believe) that in this particular case, levonorgestrel may act as an abortifacient and not as a contraceptive.

Is the concern reasonable? Probably.

The question of whether or not Plan B can act as an abortifacient is incredibly controversial because it has to do with abortion, but Wikipedia (with a citation) concludes that “While it is unlikely that emergency contraception affects implantation it is impossible to completely exclude the possibility of post-fertilization effect.”

One last important thing before we wrap up. There’s a lot of sophistry surrounding the issue of whether or not Plan B is an abortifacient. WebMD is a case-in-point:

Plan B One-Step is not the same as RU-486, which is an abortion pill. It does not cause a miscarriage or abortion. In other words, it does not stop development of a fetus once the fertilized egg implants in the uterus. So it will not work if you are already pregnant when you take it.

This is misleading because they’re relying on a technical definition of pregnancy that doesn’t have anything to do with the moral issue at hand. Their argument is that pregnancy starts at implantation rather than fertilization. If Plan B stops an embryo from implanting, then it hasn’t interrupted a pregnancy because technically the pregnancy hasn’t started yet. Therefore it can’t be an abortion, because there is no pregnancy to abort. This is all technically true and yet at the same time ethically irrelevant, since the germane issue is not whether a pregnancy has ended but whether or not a human life has ended. 

Other sources, like NPR, have covered the issue much more responsibly and still conclude that Plan B is not an abortifacient because it doesn’t block implantation, only fertilization. If that is demonstrably proven (my understanding is that the jury is still out) then Plan B will no longer be a pro-life concern.

Ultimately none of this will be persuasive to people who are pro-choice because it seems self-evident that an embryo only a day or so old is not really what we mean by “a human life” even if, speaking scientifically, it is in fact a distinct, living human organism. I understand that, and I’m not going to address that aspect of the debate today.

My point is simply this: Kavanaugh in particular did not conflate all contraceptives with abortifacients and the pro-life movement in general is similarly able to tell the difference between these two very distinct things.

T&S Review: Saints, Slaves, & Blacks

I have a review of Newell Bringhurst’s 2nd edition of Saints, Slaves, & Blacks at Times & Seasons. Some highlights:

Image result for saints slaves and blacksAccording to Paul Reeve, “one of [the book’s] most significant contributions…is…its exploration and thorough documentation of the racial universalism inherent in the first two decades of Mormonism” (pg. 193). As Bringhurst explains, “Initially, however, the status of blacks did not differ from that of any other ethnic group. As objects for probable Mormon salvation, black people fell within the purview of Mormon universalism. The Book of Mormon proclaimed a basic desire to preach the Gospel among all peoples, blacks as well as whites. “All men are privileged the one like unto the other and none are forbidden” (2 Ne. 26:28). Joseph Smith expressed this same universalism throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. According to Smith, the voice of the Lord was “unto all men” and he was “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:2, 38:16).3 As for the gospel, it was “free unto all” regardless of “nation, kindred, [or] tongue” (D&C 10:51).4 “All those who humble themselves before God” would “be received by baptism into his Church,” including the “heathen nations” (D&C 20:37, 45:54). The Mormon Prophet instructed missionaries to go “into all the world” and preach the gospel “unto every creature . . . both old and young, both bond and free” (D&C 43:20). Finally, the Mormon gathering to Zion would include the righteous from “every nation under heaven” brought together “from the ends of the earth” (D&C 45:69, 58:9, 45)” (pgs. 32-33).

Another insight:

[W]hile I was already convinced of the theologically bogus nature of the temple/priesthood ban, I came across yet another reason to question its veracity: the whole notion of a temple/priesthood ban based on “lineage” is undermined by another teaching put forth by both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, namely that the Holy Ghost purges Gentiles of impurities and makes them the literal seed of Abraham. Bringhurst writes, “In fact, the Saints were anxious to “purge out . . . impure elements” not just from the larger Mormon community but also from the bodies of individual church members. This could be done, Young said, “through the Holy Ghost,” which could act upon individual Saints tainted with impure “Gentile blood.” These impurities would actually be purged “out of their veins” and replaced with the pure blood of Abraham. This process would remove impure “blood out” of the bodies of Mormons of varied ethnic backgrounds, including those who had the “blood of Judah”” (pg. 124).

I conclude,

I was admittedly hesitant when I was asked to reviewSaints, Slaves, & Blacks. Having read a good amount of the recent scholarship on the topic and knowing the book was a largely unchanged 2nd edition, I was worried that I wouldn’t have much to say about it. Fortunately, my worries were put to rest in the first chapter. Despite originally being published nearly 40 years ago, the scholarship still feels fresh and relevant. Bringhurst’s book simultaneously plays the role of both the foundation of and a contributor to modern scholarship on Mormonism and race. And we should be thankful to Greg Kofford Books for making it available once more.

Check it out.

Men, Religion, and Hormones

Related imageWomen worldwide tend to be more religious than men. In the United States, for example, self-identified Christian women are more religious than self-identified Christian men. Numerous possible reasons have been offered, from the social to the genetic. Last year, I highlighted a study that found religion to be less analytical and more pro-social: “In a series of eight experiments, the researchers found the more empathetic the person, the more likely he or she is religious. That finding offers a new explanation for past research showing women tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. The gap may be because women have a stronger tendency toward empathetic concern than men.” As noted by economist Bryan Caplan, “Stereotypes about personality and gender turn out to be fairly accurate: on both Myers–Briggs thinking–feeling and FFM agreeableness, there are large male–female gaps in the expected directions. Women are about half a standard deviation more agreeable than men; on the binary Myers–Briggs measure, the thinking–feeling breakdown is about 30/70 for women versus 60/40 for men.” According to Pew,

Under the “nature” umbrella are theories that variously attribute gender differences in religious commitment to physical or physiological causes such as hormones, genes or biological predispositions.

For example, Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark postulates that men’s physiology – specifically their generally higher levels of testosterone – accounts for gender differences in religion. His argument rests on what he views as increasing evidence that testosterone is associated with men’s greater propensity to take risks, which he argues is why men are less religious than women. By inference, women are more religious because they have less risk-promoting testosterone.

A new study offers some evidence for the testosterone theory:

From the analysis of over 1000 men, [Aniruddha] Das found that men with higher levels of the sex hormones testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in their bodies had weaker religious ties.

“Religion influences a range of cultural and political patterns at the population level. Results from the current study indicate the latter may also have hormonal roots,” says Das. “There is therefore a need for conceptual models that can accommodate the dynamic interplay of psychosocial and neuroendocrine factors in shaping a person’s life cycle.”

He believes that more studies should be done to better understand how hormones, in particular, shape a person’s religious patterns in later life. This is of importance, as religion has been shown to have a positive influence on how people age and ultimately experience their later years. According to Das, the findings further point to biological reasons behind the particular personal networks and social affiliations that people form during the course of their lives.

Testosterone has been shown to reduce empathy, perhaps explaining why women tend to be more empathetic–and therefore, more religious–than men. As Steven Pinker explains, “Women have more intimate social relationships, are more concerned about them, and feel more empathy toward their friends, though not toward strangers.”

It’ll be interesting to see what future research finds.

DR Editor in Deseret News: The LDS Church and Immigration

Back when I published my immigration article in BYU Studies Quarterly, I was asked to write a condensed version for Deseret News as part of their “Faith & Thought” column. It was initially meant to provide more publicity for the latest issue of the journal. However, the article apparently ran into a few hiccups along the way. But with the LDS Church’s latest statement on immigration policy in the US, it looks like the article was able to be pushed through. Though my critical tone was muted a bit by the editors (I come off as far more moderate than I actually am on the matter), I’m happy to see it in print. A few highlights:

A cursory acquaintance with LDS history and scripture shakes up caricatures of migrants by reminding the faithful that many revered prophets in LDS scriptures were themselves migrants. It’s easy to forget that the story of migration is the story of holy writ. God’s biblical people were often displaced and migrating, often due to persecution or war. Consider the exile of Adam and Eve, Abraham’s overland journeys, Jacob and his family’s famine-driven journey into Egypt, the Exodus, the deportations under the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Jewish dispersions under the Greeks and Romans, Christ’s status as a refugee in Egypt and the early Christian scatterings.

The Book of Mormon contains similar accounts, detailing numerous mass migrations, including the departure of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem to the New World and that of the Jaredites from Babel to the promised land. Even the early years of the LDS Church started with several interstate migrations (often due to local persecution and governmental hostility), from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois until the Saints’ eventual settlement in what was then Mexican territory (Utah). As recent events have revealed, it can be easy to assume the worst about migrants from a comfortable, settled position. However, the scriptures and Mormon people’s own history disturb any negative, simplistic ideas about the worth and dignity of migrants in God’s eyes.

Furthermore, one of the most prominent and consistent themes throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptural canon is the obligation to care for those in need. Included among the list of the disadvantaged classes in need of provisions and protection — widows, orphans and the poor — are also “strangers” and “sojourners.”

The biblical tradition warns God’s people against “vexing” or “oppressing” the stranger. The book of Exodus reminds, “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As many scholars have noted, hospitality was considered one of the highest virtues in antiquity, and the violation of this virtue through the mistreatment of the stranger seeking refuge is given in the Bible as one reason for the destruction of Sodom.

…Beyond religious and scriptural commitments, LDS statements acknowledge the positive economic impact of immigrants. The Utah Compact underscores the contributions immigrants make to their communities.

2011 meta-analysis by economist Michael Clemens found that dropping all current immigration restrictions would result in a doubling of world GDP. A more recent analysiscorroborated these findings, concluding that lifting all migration restrictions would increase world output by 126 percent. Similarly, a 2013 study found that dropping all immigration barriers would result in an additional income of $10,798 per worker (migrant and non-migrant alike); doubling the income of the world’s most deprived.

Despite these economic benefits, many rich country natives worry that an overabundance of immigrants will make things worse. Some accuse immigrants of stealing native jobs, depressing native wages, undermining native culture and institutions, bloating the welfare state, and/or being criminals and terrorists. The vast majority of empirical studies, however, contradicts these arguments. Several large literature reviews — including two from the National Academy of Sciences and one from Oxford University — find that the long-term effects of immigration on jobs, wages and the fiscal budget tend to be neutral to slightly positive. Immigrants also assimilate rather well into their host countries and even appear to boost the economic freedom of their institutions.

…In 2011 the church stated that “The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern especially where race, culture, or religion are involved.” The church called for “immigration reform” that adopts a “balanced and civil approach to a challenging problem, fully consistent with its tradition of compassion, its reverence for family, and its commitment to law.” Seven years later, perhaps the United States is now ready to listen.

Read the whole thing here.