Religious Knowledge, Religious Feeling

September 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Robin Hanson has a “it isn’t about” list (here). It begins
  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Also on the list is
  • Church isn’t about God
Maybe church isn’t about religious ideas either.

I was reminded of this recently when I followed a link to a Pew quiz on religious knowledge (here). It’s a lite version of the 32-item quiz Pew used with a national sample in 2010.  One of the findings from that survey (the full report is here) was that people who went to church regularly and who said that religion was important in their lives didn’t do much better on the quiz than did those who had a weak attachment to church and religion.

The strongly committed averaged 17 correct answers out of the 32 questions; the uncommitted, 16.  This same pattern was repeated in the more recent 15-question quiz.

The committed may derive many things from their church attendance and faith, but knowledge of religion isn’t one of them.  To be fair, the quiz covers many religions, and people do know more about their own religion than they do about others.  “What was Joseph Smith’s religion?” Only about half the population gets that one right, but 93% of the Mormons nailed it. Mormons also knew more about the Ten Commandments. Catholics did better than others on the transubstantiation question.  But when it came to knowing who inspired the Protestant Reformation, Protestants got outscored by Jews and atheists.

Overall, onbelievers, Jews, and Mormons did much better than did Protestants and Catholics.

One reason for their higher scores might be education – college graduates outscore high school or less by nearly 8 points out of 32.

It may be that nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons are more likely to have finished college. Unfortunately, the Pew report does not give data that controls for education.

But another reason that these groups scored higher may be their position as religious minorities. Jews and Mormons have to explain to the flock how their ideas are different from those of the majority. Atheists and agnostics too, in their questioning and even rejecting,  have probably devoted more thought to religion, or more accurately, religions. On the questions about Shiva and Nirvana, they leave even the Jews and Mormons far behind.

For Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, learning detailed information about their religion is not as crucial. Just as White people in the US rarely ask what it means to be White, Christians need not worry about their differences from the mainstream. They are the mainstream.*  So going to church or praying can be much more about feelings – solidarity, transcendence, peace, etc.  That variety of religious experience need not include learning the history or even the tenets of the religion itself. As Durkheim said, the central element in religion is ritual – especially the feelings a ritual generates in the group. Knowing the actual beliefs might be a nice addition, but it’s not crucial.

* These same majority-minority differences apply in politics as well. A lifetime Democrat or Republican can get by on general principles without having to worry about the details of policies or candidates’ positions. Socialists and Tea Partistas are more likely to devote more time and thought to those issues.

Reality Football

September 5, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Over at Scatterplot , Jeremy Freese posts this excerpt from Season of Saturdays, by Michael Weinreb, a sports writer.

Maybe you don’t understand at all: Maybe you attended a liberal arts college in New England, or maybe you grew up in a city where the athletes were professionals (New York, say, or Boston, or Chicago, or London). . . . Maybe the thought of a university’s morale being tied to its football team strikes you as a fundamental failing of American society. Maybe you hear stories about corrupt recruiting and grade-fixing, and maybe you cannot understand how a sport with a long history of exploitation and brutality and scandal can still be considered a vital (and often defining) aspect of student life. Maybe you see it as a potentially crippling frivolity, or as a populist indulgence, and maybe the threat of football encroaching on the nation’s educational system makes you wonder how someone could possibly write an entire book extolling its cultural virtues.

And the thing is, I would like to tell you that you’re wrong, but I also know that you’re not entirely wrong.

Jeremy, a long-time Big Ten fan (Iowa and now Northwestern), admits to his own increasing ambivalence about the game.  Me, I’m more like those “maybe” people Weinreb imagines. In the town where I grew up, many adults felt towards the high school football team the way college team fans feel about their team. They went to all the games (sometimes even the away games), they knew the team’s history and would compare individual players to those of five or ten or more years earlier. And this wasn’t Odessa, TX.; it was a white collar, WASP suburb of Pittsburgh. I wondered what was wrong with these grown men. Many of them didn’t even have kids in the school.  The phrase “get a life” hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had, that’s what I would have said.

I had the same feeling some years later when I went to a Princeton game – the alums in their tweed sport coats and striped ties shouting “Go Tiger” while we – grad students and young faculty – regarded the whole scene with stoned irony.

Over the years, I grew less critical about the fans, mostly because of sociology, which taught me to look at institutions, not just individuals. Some of the men in my town really liked school football. Others (my father, for example) liked to play bridge. So what? But those accusations of brutality, exploitation, and corruption that Weinreb mentions – those are more than just “not entirely wrong.” They are accurate and important.  But the fault lies with institutions like the NCAA, not with the fans and athletes.

Hackers and Voyeurs

September 3, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two brief thoughts on the theft and distribution of Jennifer Lawrence’s private photos.

1.  The “Don’t take nude selfies” response is both self-evident and stupid. As Lena Dunham said, it’s the equivalent of reacting to rape by saying, “She was wearing a short skirt.”*  You expect this blame-the-woman reaction from nonentity Facebookers and Tweeters. But Nick Bilton is a New York Times columnist whose Twitter has 231,000 followers.

Bilton later claimed that his tweet was “meant as a larger point about state of the Web and insecurity,” and maybe it was. Still, I wonder: if someone had hacked Bilton’s bank and brokerage information – account numbers and passwords – and looted his savings, would his response be, “1. Don’t use online financials. 2. Don’t use online financials . . . ”?

2.  Why is seeing a nude picture of Jennifer Lawrence such a big deal? Not because of the inherent eroticism in a picture of an attractive nude female. Those are so commmonplace that it’s hard to avoid them.  What makes it special is that it’s a celebrity and that she did not want the pictures seen. That’s true of most paparazzi shots that fill the celeb mags even when the celebrities are going about their daily life fully clothed.

The voyeurism driving the JLaw pictures is similar though more explicit about its sexual interest.  More important, woven in with that sexual interest is a nasty form of power – the power to violate.  The hacker/voyeur is successful only if his act is a violation of the woman’s privacy.  Is the picture badly lit and out of focus? No matter. What’s important is that he is seeing something she did not want him to see.  Better if the victim is a celebrity, but a neighbor or ordinary woman in the street will do, so long as she is someone who we can assume does not want her naked body on display. 

In her short-skirt comment, Lena Dunham did not use the word rape, but the parallel is obvious.

* The LA Times responded to Dunham’s remark in an offensive and belittling way with the headline, “Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos have FBI, Lena Dunham on the case.”

Old Book, Old Line

August 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1970s, it seemed that every undergraduate who had gone within twenty yards of Career Services was carrying a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute.  I hadn’t seen anyone with the book in a long time, so I assumed that Parachute had long since fallen to earth and lay forgotten in some distant meadow.  I was wrong. The Times business section has an article (here) about the book, now out in its 2015 edition.

Six years ago, I exploited the title for a blog post about photo retouching in celeb mags.  This was back in the day when Madonna and ARod were newsworthy.  Never afraid to recycle my garbage, I reprint the post in full.


July 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
Sociological musings in the checkout line at the Publix. Two lovers, two magazines. Same story. But why is A-Rod so much darker on the In Touch cover than on Us?

I did not buy the magazines to see if the stories too were different. I didn't even buy the Star to see if Mary Kate was going back to rehab.

The title of the post was What Color Is Your Paramour.  I liked it, but I’ve always  wondered if anyone got the allusion