Category: Religion

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.

Those new service sector jobs

In North America the modern undertaker’s job is increasingly one of event-planning, says Sherri Tovell, an undertaker in Windsor, Canada. Among the requirements at her recent funerals have been a tiki hut, margaritas, karaoke and pizza delivery. Some people want to hire an officiant to lead a “life celebration”, others to shoot ashes into the skies with fireworks. Old-fashioned undertakers are hard put to find their place in such antics. Another trend—known as “direct cremation”—has no role for them at all.

Besides having to offer more diverse services, the trade also faces increased competition in its products. Its roots are in carpentry. “You’d buy an expensive casket and the funeral would be included in the price,” remembers Dan Isard, a funeral consultant in Phoenix, Arizona. The unwritten agreement was that the dead would be treated with dignity and that families would not ask if there was an alternative to the $1,000 or $2,000 coffin, or whether embalming was really needed. The business has something in common with prostitution, reflects Dominic Akyel of the University of Cologne. It is legal (as prostitution is in some places) but taboo, “and certainly not to be discussed or haggled over”.

The undertaker used to be able to rely on a steady stream of customers who asked few questions and of whom he (and it was usually a he) would ask few in return. Protestant or Catholic? Open coffin or closed? And, in some parts of the world, burial or cremation? A new generation of customers, though, no longer unthinkingly hands over its dead to the nearest funeral director. They are looking elsewhere, be it to a new breed of undertaker, to hotel chains that “do” funerals, or—for their coffin or urn—to Amazon or Walmart.

Here is more from The Economist, interesting throughout

Interview with MbS

There are many excellent bits in this Jeffrey Goldberg exchange, here is one:

MbS: Saudi Arabia is a network of thousands of absolute monarchies, and then has a large absolute monarchy. We have tribal monarchies, town monarchies. Moving against this structure would create huge problems in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi fabric is much more complicated than you think.

Jean Bodin would be proud.  And this:

Goldberg: Do you believe in women’s equality?

MbS: I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So I support women.

MbS does seek to do away with Saudi guardianship laws, and he also seems to fully support Israel’s right to exist.  This is one of the best interviews you will read this year.

China simulated death markets in everything

Beijing’s biggest funeral parlor held an open day last Thursday that featured a virtual reality simulation of death, reported The Beijing News — though it left some wondering why you would want to experience death prematurely.

Visitors could don VR glasses and earphones to experience having a seizure at work, a failed paramedic rescue, and entrance into the afterlife. Funeral parlor employee Dong Ziyi told The Beijing News that the immersive experience “enables people to better cherish the beauty of life.”

In addition to the death experience, visitors can use VR to explore funeral services with a five-minute session that goes through corpse delivery and storage, mortuary preparations, the memorial service, and cremation — a tour that would take an hour in real life.

Here is more by Liang Chenyu from Sixth Tone, one of my favorite media outlets.

Are the Amish unhappy?

We were able to recruit 52 Amish participants for our study of which 56 % were male and for which the average age was 44. Interestingly, the average levels of life satisfaction as measured by the SWLS (Diener et al., 1985) was 4.4; just above the neutral point. Above neutral scores are consistent with the idea that “most people are mildly happy” (Diener & Diener, 1996), and that mild happiness is evolutionarily advantageous (Fredrickson, 2001). Comparatively, the Amish satisfaction in our study can be interpreted as meaning that the Amish fall lower than members of many other groups. In a study of more than 13 thousand college students from 31 nations, for example, only students from Kenya (whose average life satisfaction was 4.0) scored lower than the Amish (Diener & Diener, 1995).

Anecdotally, the Amish society in which we conducted our study was fraught with contrasts. On the one hand, the Amish had a pronounced pro-social attitude. One man I interviewed, for example, had donated tens of thousands of US Dollars toward the medical treatment of his neighbor’s son, with no thought of repayment. Similarly, the Amish often helped one another in quilting, construction, and food preparation. On the other hand, these neighborly behaviors were confined to in-group members. There was a conspicuous degree of prejudice toward out-group members, especially ethnic or religious minorities. One bishop, for example, asked me whether I thought the space shuttle Challenger exploded because there was a Jewish person (Judith Resnick) aboard.

Another set of contrasts could be found in the relationship between the Amish and the larger “English” society in which they live. While on the one hand there is a strong cultural push to remain separate from industrialized society. The Amish I spoke with were highly invested in publicly conforming to group norms related to abstaining from the use of industrial technologies and from remaining aloof from broader society. Privately, however, the Amish revealed themselves to be as curious and as human as people from any other society. One participant, for example, admitted that he used his workplace telephone—an allowable technology—to phone a newspaper number that hosts recordings of the world’s news. Another informant revealed that she had secretly flown on an airplane. These examples reflect the on-going tension of a society that must—individually and collectively—continually re-negotiate its relation to the larger society in which it exists. Where subjective well-being is concerned, the tension between retaining traditions and adapting to new circumstances is an interesting issue for research.

…global and specific domain satisfaction should, theoretically, be in agreement. For example, if a person is satisfied with her romantic life, her friendships, and her family relationships—all specific domains—she should, logically, report about the same amount of satisfaction with her overall social life (the global domain). Diener and colleagues found that this correspondence occurred in some cultures, such as Japan. In other cultures, however, they discovered an inflationary effect. People in Colombia and the United States, for instance, are likely to inflate their global reports of satisfaction over that reported for specific satisfaction.

That is by Robert Biswas-Diener, there is much of interest in this paper on happiness in small societies.  Via Rolf Degen.  By the way, this article about Norway is worth a ponder too.

*The Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard*

That is the new book by Cynthia L. Haven, which I was very enthusiastic about.  I find about half of it to be a revelation, and the other half to be perfectly fine, though material I largely had seen before (but still useful to most readers).  Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. As a child, “…his favorite game was a solitary one: with toy soldiers, he reenacted France’s major battles, taking all the roles himself.”

2. In 1944, at the age of 21, he saw many French collaborators killed or put on trial, and from that time started to develop some of his major ideas.

3. When he migrated to America, he associated the country with grandness and Avignon with petiteness.  He was at that time “adamantly atheistic.”

4. He wrote his dissertation on “American Opinions on France, 1940-1943,” which at 418 pp. contained some early versions of his later ideas.

5. He was turned down for tenure at Indiana University, claiming he spent several years “devoted essentially to female students and cars.”

6. He insisted that he witnessed a lynching (likely in North Carolina) in the early 1950s, although after reading Haven’s discussion I suspect this was a fabrication.

7. He was significantly influenced by the Dante circle at Johns Hopkins where he ended up teaching, including by Charles Singleton.

8. Like myself, Haven considers Theater of Envy to be his most underrated book.

9. His work day typically started at 3:30 a.m.

10. Peter Thiel, as an undergraduate, actually took a class from Girard.

Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in Girard.  Here is my recent summary post on Girard.