Category: Religion

My take on the Statue of Liberty

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Cleveland described the statue as “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” This is not exactly warm rhetoric — the plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming the “huddled masses” to America was not added until 1903 — and although Cleveland supported free trade, he opposed Chinese immigrants, as he regarded them as unable to assimilate. The statue was never about fully open borders.

We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that’s not necessarily the case. In her forthcoming “Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty,” Francesca Lidia Viano points out that you might take the torch and aggressive stance of the statue as a warning to people to go back home, or as a declaration that the U.S. itself needs more light. Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.

There are other interpretations of the statue’s purported message based on the details of its design. You plausibly can read the statue as a Masonic icon, a homage to the family coat of arms of Bartholdi the sculptor, a hearkening back to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a celebration of Orientalism, Orpheus and Samothracian civilization, and as a monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War. The statue also contained design clues celebrating the now-French city of Colmar (home base for Bartholdi), and threatening revenge against the Germans for taking Colmar in 1871 from the Franco-Prussian war.

And that does not even get us to the main argument.  In the meantime, I would stress what a wonderful and splendid book is Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.  It is entirely gripping, and one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.

The important thinkers of the future will be religious thinkers, installment #1637

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her Catholic faith and the urgency of a criminal justice reform

From her:

By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And let us not forget the guiding principle of “the least among us” found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.

For the pointer I thank Nick C.

The origins of WEIRD psychology

This is one of the most important topics, right?  Well, here is a new and quite thorough paper by Jonathan Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich.  Here is the abstract:

Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). We propose that much of this variation arose as people psychologically adapted to differing kin-based institutions—the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, residence and related domains. We further propose that part of the variation in these institutions arose historically from the Catholic Church’s marriage and family policies, which contributed to the dissolution of Europe’s traditional kin-based institutions, leading eventually to the predominance of nuclear families and impersonal institutions. By combining data on 20 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both kinship and Church exposure, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds.

As you might expect, a paper like this is fairly qualitative by its nature, and this one will not convince everybody.  Who can separate out all those causal pathways?  Even in a paper that is basically a short book.

Object all you want, but there is some chance that this is one of the half dozen most important social science and/or history papers ever written.  So maybe a few of you should read it.

And the print in the references to the supplementary materials is small, so maybe I missed it, but I don’t think there is any citation to Steve Sailer, who has been pushing a version of this idea for many years.

My Conversation with Elisa New

Here is the audio and transcript, Elisa is a Professor of English at Harvard, with a specialty in poetry, and also star and driving force behind the new PBS show Poetry in America.  Most of all we talked about poetry!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let me express a concern, and see if you can talk me out of it. I’m going to use the word best, which I know many literary critics do not like, but I believe in the concept nonetheless.

In my view, the two best American poets are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and they were both a long, long time ago. They were quite early in the literary history of this nation.

Is that a statement about the fame-generating process, a statement about somehow their era was better at generating the best poets because we had a much smaller population, or am I simply wrong in thinking they’re the best American poets?

NEW: I don’t know what to say to you. I revere them. They are the most important poets for me. They invent two ways of being a poet, and two of the ways that so many poets who have followed them also acknowledge.

Would there be Hart CraneAllen GinsbergCarl SandburgC. D. WrightC. K. Williams? Would there be any of those — Frank O’Hara — without Walt Whitman? And they would be the first to say, “No.”

Would there be Susan HoweMarianne MooreElizabeth BishopSylvia Plath? All in different ways, would we have them without Emily Dickinson? I don’t know. I’m not sure I can enter . . . Is it that we’ve lost it? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’ve lost it.

COWEN: I turn to European history, again using the “best” word, but it’s plausible to think Homer and Dante are the two best European poets ever in some regards, and they, too, are each quite early in a particular stage of history. What is it about poetry that seems to generate so many people as at least plausible bests who come at the very beginnings of eras?

NEW: Well, isn’t it that poetry is cumulative, and canons are cumulative, and those who are there first, they’re never superseded — unlike, say, for economists who would say, “Adam Smith is a really smart guy, but it’s not like we go to Adam Smith to understand Bitcoin.” They would say, “No. That knowledge has been superseded.”

In literary knowledge, we continue to learn from our predecessors and also continue to feel awe before the persistence of certain phenomena that they . . . Shakespeare saw that Iago was a slippery-mouthed conniver of a kind we still recognize.

We recognize ourselves. We recognize something enduringly human in these oldest of poets, and then, maybe, we elevate them even more.

And:

COWEN: Is it possible that American English isn’t rich enough? I find if I go to Ireland, or especially to Trinidad, I envy the language they have there. They’re both speaking English. If you think of America today, there’s texting, now a long history of television.

Our language is great for quick communication, number one in the world for science. Now there’s social media. Nineteenth-century American English has longer sentences. It’s arguably more like British English. Isn’t the problem just the language we grow up with around us isn’t somehow good enough to sustain first-rate poets?

NEW: It is. It’s so rich. I love the way it evolves, the way my kids don’t say “whatever” anymore. “Whatever” had such incredible potency. “Epic.” When they started to say “epic” had such potency. When hip-hop artists say, “That’s really ill.”

I love the fertility of slang. I love the way mass culture, and its technological limitations, and then its new breaths does funny things to language. I tell my students about this. I say, “You know the way how in ’30s movies, the women are always sweeping around going, ‘Oh, darling,’ in The Thin Man, and there’s this ‘Hi, honey . . .’” [laughs]

If you watch a ’30s movie, and then you watch a ’50s movie, and you see the plasticity and the ingenuity that human beings put into . . . We don’t say, “Hey, kid.” We don’t call anyone a kid anymore. It sounds really archaic and corny.

And:

COWEN: Which is more interesting, Instagram poetry or Facebook poetry?

Definitely recommended, interesting throughout.  We talked about Shaq too.  After the conversation ended, Elisa said something striking to me, something like: “I liked this conversation because you didn’t ask me about “the humanities,” you asked me about poetry.”

My Conversation with David Brooks

David was in top form, and I feel this exchange reflected his core style very well, here is the audio and transcript.

We covered why people stay so lonely, whether the Amish are happy, life in Italy, the Whig tradition, the secularization thesis, the importance of covenants, whether Judaism or Christianity has a deeper reading of The Book of Exodus, whether Americans undervalue privacy, Bruce Springsteen vs. Bob Dylan, whether our next president will be a boring manager, and last but not least the David Brooks production function.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Walt Whitman, not only as a poet, but as a foundational thinker for America. Overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: I’d have to say slightly overrated.

COWEN: Tell us why.

BROOKS: I think his spirit and his energy sort of define America. His essay “Democratic Vistas” is one of my favorite essays. It captures both the vulgarity of America, but the energy and especially the business energy of America. But if we think the rise of narcissism is a problem in our society, Walt Whitman is sort of the holy spring there.

[laughter]

COWEN: Socrates, overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: [laughs] This is so absurd.

[laughter]

BROOKS: With everybody else it’s like Breaking Bad, overrated or underrated? I got Socrates.

[laughter]

BROOKS: I will say Socrates is overrated for this reason. We call them dialogues. But really, if you read them, they’re like Socrates making a long speech and some other schmo saying, “Oh yes. It must surely be so, Socrates.”

[laughter]

BROOKS: So it’s not really a dialogue, it’s just him speaking with somebody else affirming.

COWEN: And it’s Plato reporting Socrates. So it’s Plato’s monologue about a supposed dialogue, which may itself be a monologue.

BROOKS: Yeah. It was all probably the writers.

And on Milton Friedman:

BROOKS: I was a student at the University of Chicago, and they did an audition, and I was socialist back then. It was a TV show PBS put on, called Tyranny of the Status Quo, which was “Milton talks to the young.” So I studied up on my left-wing economics, and I went out there to Stanford. I would make my argument, and then he would destroy it in six seconds or so. And then the camera would linger on my face for 19 or 20 seconds, as I tried to think of what to say.

And it was like, he was the best arguer in human history, and I was a 22-year-old. It was my TV debut — you can go on YouTube. I have a lot of hair and big glasses. But I will say, I had never met a libertarian before. And every night — we taped for five days — every night he took me and my colleagues out to dinner in San Francisco and really taught us about economics.

Later, he stayed close to me. I called him a mentor. I didn’t become a libertarian, never quite like him, but a truly great teacher and a truly important influence on my life and so many others. He was a model of what an academic economist should be like.

Recommended.  (And I actually thought David did just fine in that early exchange with Friedman.)

Especially prominent figures and concepts in Ethiopian Christianity

Yes there is Mary, Jesus. and the (Monophysite) Trinity, but beyond that literally every day I hear about the following from a very religious populace:

King Solomon

Queen of Sheba

The Ark of the Covenant: “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant, or Tabot, in Axum. The object is currently kept under guard in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Replicas of the Axum tabot are kept in every Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church, each with its own dedication to a particular saint; the most popular of these include Mary, George and Michael.”

St. George, slaying the dragon, he is prominent in church paintings.

Days of fasting, 55 a year, and thus Ethiopian restaurants are very good for vegetarians and vegans.

Addendum: from the comments, by Yves-Marie Slaughter:

55 is only the number of days of fasting during Lent, prior to Easter.

Total number of fasting days for a ‘normal’ Christian per year, would be closer to 155…

A monk may fast more than 200 days a year.

By the way, pork is prohibited altogether.

My Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interesting throughout, so interesting I don’t feel the need to give you an excerpt, here is the audio and transcript.  There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware.  At the end of the conversation, just keep on scrolling, Taleb starts up with Bryan Caplan for an hour, mostly on education.  Here is the link for the Caplan segment only.

The Cultural Divide

That is the title of a new and very important paper by Klaus Desmet and Romain Wacziarg, here is the abstract:

This paper conducts a systematic quantitative study of cultural convergence and divergence in the United States over time. Using the General Social Survey (1972-2016), we assess whether cultural values have grown more or less heterogeneous, both overall and between groups. Groups are defined according to 11 identity cleavages such as gender, religion, ethnic origin, family income quintiles, geographic region, education levels, etc. We find some evidence of greater overall heterogeneity after 1993 when averaging over all available values, yet on many issues heterogeneity changes little. The level of between-group heterogeneity is extremely small: the United States is very pluralistic in terms of cultural attitudes and values, but this diversity is not primarily the result of cultural divides between groups. On average across cleavages and values, we find evidence of falling between-group heterogeneity from 1972 to the late 1990s, and growing divides thereafter…

This, from the paper, is also illuminating:

For some questions, such as several questions on sexual behavior and public policies, there is growing social consensus. For others, such as questions on gun laws and confidence in some civic institutions, we find growing disagreements. Some of these dynamics can be understood as transitions from one end of the belief spectrum to the other. For instance, on the issue of marijuana legalization, attitudes have moved from generalized disagreement to majority agreement, so heterogeneity rose and is now falling. Overall, we find some evidence of a systematic tendency toward greater heterogeneity after 1993 when averaging over all available memes, yet on many issues heterogeneity changes little.

By the way, “urbanicity” shows “declining levels of cultural fixation,” contrary to what you often read.

Overall I take this to be an optimistic set of results.

How many atheists are there?

One crucible for theories of religion is their ability to predict and explain the patterns of belief and disbelief. Yet, religious nonbelief is often heavily stigmatized, potentially leading many atheists to refrain from outing themselves even in anonymous polls. We used the unmatched count technique and Bayesian estimation to indirectly estimate atheist prevalence in two nationally representative samples of 2,000 U.S. adults apiece. Widely cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest U.S. atheist prevalence of only 3–11%. In contrast, our most credible indirect estimate is 26% (albeit with considerable estimate and method uncertainty). Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability. Prevalence estimates of 11% were even less credible than estimates of 40%, and all intermediate estimates were more credible. Some popular theoretical approaches to religious cognition may require heavy revision to accommodate actual levels of religious disbelief.

That is from Will M. Gervais and Maxine B. Naije, via someone on Twitter I think (God only knows).

What to make of Robert Aumann’s “agreement theorem”?

Here is my 2004 paper with Robin, if you need the background, or try this recent Scott Aaronson post.  Recently I was sent a question somewhat along these lines:

If someone blithely continues to disagree with their (apparent) epistemic peers, how much should we downgrade the rationality and/or intelligence and/or integrity of that person.  My answer was:

We can take a dimmer view of them, and should, but also have to take a dimmer view of ourselves, I think. I don’t think the “they” get downgraded relative to “us.”

…let’s say we agree with it [Aumann’s construction] completely. Then it would be true and non-operationalizable, keeping in mind that the smartest people I know — by whatever metric — do not themselves internalize the argument. There is some kind of semi-rational back and forth estimation process, where in part you judge [peer] expertise by the actual views people hold, and iterate accordingly. There is probably no fixed point theorem here, and no single obviously best way to proceed. Maybe we should downgrade those who do not know that. But I don’t know by how much. Maybe not by a lot, since knowing all those complications doesn’t improve one’s own rationality by a whole lot, as far as I can tell.

With a bit more thought, I have come up with a further and more specific answer.

Let’s say you are staying at a hotel, and everyone agrees that the hotel offers room service.  There is also a very good restaurant one hour away, but people strongly disagree on how to find the place.  Half of the people think the restaurant is to the West, and you strongly agree with this group; the other half strongly believe the restaurant is to the East.  If you choose the wrong direction, you will have wasted two hours driving and will have to settle for the room service in any case.

If you buy into Aumann, you should be more likely to start with the room service, even though you strongly believe the restaurant is to the West.

You will note that is a purely self-regarding choice only.  For choices in that category, accepting Aumann means you should be more willing to focus on what everyone agrees is good, possible, beneficial, etc. — you might call this common sense morality.

Alternatively, let’s say it is a choice for all of society, and many other people are pitching in their efforts to some kind of common enterprise — let’s call it politics.

You then have to ask what kind of stupidity you are most likely to expect from the contributing others.  If the relevant bias is excess conformism, I see no special case to take greater care to converge upon what others think is best.  In fact, there might be external benefits from doubling down on your own stubbornness.  You might be wrong a lot of the time, but still it will be truly rare when lots of people are really quite right, and it is important that your voice shine through and be heard in those cases.

So in a nutshell, the implications of Aumann are “common sense morality for yourself, but political orneriness remains on the table.”

From the comments, on reverence for asceticism

…[the] US for instance…worships sex, and…celibates are viewed as “losers”. A Hollywood film that describes this social mindset is “40 year old virgin” that came out a decade or so ago.

India makes an interesting contrast. Though the life of the “married householder” is an ideal in India, celibates are viewed with respect and admired for their self-restraint. This is actually one important contributor to the charm and charisma of Narendra Modi – a celibate man, a teetotaller among other things. He is viewed as someone who has “conquered his senses” and is incorruptible.

This streak of anti-sensuality, very much a part of Indian culture, is not to be found in US.

More westernized Indians on the cultural Left, back in India, mock at the public’s fascination with Modi’s celibacy and his puritanism. There are jokes in this group that Modi is probably gay or asexual. No wonder he can stay single.

Again this highlights the large chasm between the attitudes of the modern western mind which does not choose to view sensual restraint as a virtue, versus more traditional societies where self denial and austerity command a certain awe.

That is from Shrikanthk.

What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?

How scary are Christians?

Only 3 percent of white Christians are first-generation immigrants. That compares with 10 percent of black Christians, 58 percent of Latino Christians, and 66 percent of Asian Christians. In other words, American Christianity is growing heavily through immigrants who are people of color. If Christians are really so scary, maybe it’s time to build that wall.

By the way:

And around the globe, the people most likely to be Christians are women of color.

So to put all the pieces together:

if you’re mocking Christians, you’re mostly mocking women, because women are more likely than men to be Christians. The greatest disproportion is found among black Christians, of whom only 41 percent are male. So you’re mocking black women in particular.

That is from the excellent Stephen Carter at Bloomberg.

How do people respond to shared trauma?

Studies of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19th, 1995, indicate that the traumatic event resulted in people seeking to strengthen their bonds with loved ones: Divorce rates went down, and birth rates went up.

While tragic, the Oklahoma City bombing provided a fortuitous case study. When domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols carried out the truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, a total of 168 people died and more than 700 were injured. At the time it was the most calamitous terrorist attack in American history. Sixty-two percent of people in the city reported that they were personally affected by the events of that day. Forty percent said they knew someone who was injured or killed. The death of nineteen young children in the bombing was particularly traumatic.

Researchers have since studied the ripple effect the attack had on both divorce rates and birth rates. Family researchers Paul A. Nakonezny, Rebecca Reddick, and Joseph Lee Rodgers note that after the bombing, survivors were statistically less likely than the general population to divorce. Divorce rates, compared to the previous 10 years, declined in the Oklahoma City region in the months after the blast. Researchers thought that the impact would be felt most acutely by those closest to the bomb site, and indeed, the impact was highest among those who lived in counties most directly affected by the bombing, and lessened in Oklahoma counties located further away from downtown Oklahoma City.

In a separate study, Joseph Lee Rodgers, Craig A. St. John, and Ronnie Coleman discovered that Oklahoma City metropolitan area underwent a baby boom nine months after the bombing. In seventy-seven Oklahoma counties, both factors—marriage longevity and increased procreation—declined the further away the counties were from ground zero.

That is from Daily JStor.