Dec 31, 2012

What we can't yet see

What you can't see

My most-viewed picture of 2012. The photos I have taken since moving to Germany in 2008 can all be seen here

E-books & the changing market for Christian fiction

The data on digital books, the market for e-books and e-book readers, is kind of conflicted at the moment. Prognosticating the future of reading is for the most part futile, anyway, but the tea leaves right now are especially mysterious.

Sales of e-readers dropped by about 36 percent, apparently due to the popularity of tablets and devices that do more than reading, leading some industry experts to predict the waning of the Kindle moment.

The rate of e-book buying has also slowed. The market's soft. About a third of those who read e-books haven't bought one in the last 12 months. This might be because they haven't read the ones that are already on their digital devices. An analyst talking to the New York Times called it the "overloaded night stand" effect: "someone isn't going to buy any more books until they make a dent in reading the ones they've already acquired."

On the other hand, the percentage of Americans owning an e-reader went up in the last year, from 10 percent to 19 percent, and the percentage who owned any kind of device that can be used for reading digital books increased by 15 points, so now more than one third of Americans could read e-books if they wanted.

Which they do: as of November 2012, about 30 percent of people who read had read an e-book in the last 12 months.

I don't know what to make of that. What's happening or what's going to happen. It's not clear whether the whole trend has crested or whether, as others say, the digital book future is just beginning.

The market, however, has already changed the way people read and what people read. The effects can be seen in the market for Christian fiction, which looks different now than it it did in 2007, and different in ways that can be directly linked to digital books.

Most popular posts of 2012

If [Joel] Barlow was America's first atheist, he was tentative about it. "Flirtation," [James] Turner's term, seems to be accurate. He came to his unbelief privately, in the context of his reading and his private notebooks, and he kept it private too. It's significant, nonetheless, that he did go so far as to disbelieve, even if only cautiously. It was, in his notebooks, a crazy thought. And not one without consequences. Barlow hesitated, in the face of those consequences, but still might be rightly understood as marking an early moment in a significant societal shift. 
Barlow's private unbelief, as possibly America's first atheist, is an important moment in that move Charles Taylor describes as "a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood as one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace," the shift from a society in which "it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believes, is one possibility among others." 
In this sense, Barlow is significant to late 18th, early 19th century America. There may have been a historical moment, there, where in the privacy of his notebooks Barlow was the only American anywhere who thought of himself as rejecting all conceptions of God. Where he was the one who thought what was almost unthinkable, that there is no God, and thought it even to the point of tentatively, privately, accepting for himself what to most was an insult, a slur, the name "atheist."
5. On the meaningfulness of books bought, but not read 
Even if one does, eventually, read all the books one owns -- itself a dubious proposition -- there's a delay, a lag. There's no easy, simple link between buying a book and reading it. There's no simple formula by which one could predict readership based solely on sales. 
If this seems obvious, it should. Yet, without fail, cultural critics act as though there's no difference between book purchase and book reading, as if measuring the one were measuring the other. As if the one always and everywhere&nbsp meant  the other. As if there were a simple relationship between the two acts, and the only reason anyone ever bought a book was to read it, the purchase a promise always made good. 
Somehow, this needs to be broken. 
There has to be a way to talk about book purchases as culturally meaningful and yet distinct from and different from acts of reading.

Dec 28, 2012

Interrogating the "nones"

One of the big, big stories in the study of religion in the last few years has been the "rise of the nones." The Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life has documented a shift in religious identifications, and popularized the term "none," a new category of religious affiliation, that of disaffiliation.

At least, that's one way to understand what's meant by "none."

The term has begotten lots of confusions, it seems. When I was last in America, and spent a little time in  an evangelical church in Chicago, I was told by both ministers and lay leaders that atheism and agnosticism was sweeping America. These people didn't know the Pew poll, and but they knew the phrase "nones," and they used that phrase to explain what they thought was happening to the culture around them. They were quite surprised when I told them that while there were some atheists among the "nones," more than 90 percent of them actually say they believe in God.

Others have similarly used the term to reach foregone conclusions.

A recent example of this is a piece at Religion Dispatches, where author Elizabeth Drescher suggests a reading list for those "keen to explore what Nones are up to on their own terms." Those terms, as Drescher understands them, are spiritual but not religious.

Talking about the problems with that interoperation of the "nones" started a twitter exchange that became something of an impromptu internet round table interrogating the term, the category, and consequences of various taxonomies in understanding religious and nonreligious groups.

I've storified the twitter discussion below in the hopes that, as Michael J. Altman says, we might use it a place marker to know where to dig.

Starting the conversation is Chris Cotter of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, who is joined by me, Michael J. Altman of Emory University, and Per D. Smith co-chair of the Secularism and Secularity group of the American Academy of Religion.

What it means to be Mainline Protestant

In 1972, a quarter of young adults in America -- 25 percent -- self-identified as Mainline Protestantism. In 2010, that was down to a mere 6 percent.

That's a 19 percent plummet, apparently.

This bit of data from LifeWays Research is consonant with two major stories that are regularly repeated about religion in America today: 1) that the mainline churches are in decline, and 2) that an increasing number of people are giving up on religion altogether, and now you have these "nones."

A second bit of data complicates both these story lines, though:

Of the quarter of self-identified Mainline Protestants in 1972, only 4 percent said they attended a Mainline Protestant church on a weekly basis. In 2010, that number had declined by half, so only 2 percent of self-described Mainline Protestants also said they attended church every week.

This means that in the '70s, lots of people would say they were Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalists, etc., but that identification did not connect in their minds to the cultural practice of church attendance. Church identification was not taken to mean weekly church attendance.

It's possible that the dramatic change we're currently seeing is only a change in that idea of what it means to say one is a Mainline Protestant.

That is itself a kind of secularism, as religion's dominance has declined at least in the sense that's it's now increasingly okay to say you don't have one, but this is a lot, lot less than is usually claimed for secularism, and a lot, lot less than is usually claimed for these sorts of statistics.

Dec 27, 2012

'A mode of a priesthood in a church forever'

The poet Charles Olson was born 102 years ago today.

Olson, in a terribly, hilariously cranky interview with the the Paris Review, said of his poetry,
I write a poem simply to create a mode of a priesthood in a church forever, so that a poem for me is simply the first sound realized in the modality of being. If you want to talk about actuality, let’s talk about actuality. And it falleth like a doom upon us all. But it falleth from above, and if that's not straight the whole thing is doodled and if straight then you can modality all you want. You can do anything, literally. Right? That I think is one of the exciting possibilities of the present. Modal throughout -- that's what I love about today’s kids. I like them because I think they’re modaled throughout. I don’t think their teachers are at all. I mean I'm almost like astringent here. I sit back in my lollipop Gloucester and don't do anything. A dirty lousy cop-out. I remember way back when I was young, ten years ago. I was lobbing 'em in. Now it's the Vietnam War. Dig? You follow me? It was marvelous. Playing catch, if I may say that -- with a European audience as well. But I mean catch -- we were playing catch. And he's a goddamn nice fielder. All that Jewish Bronx shit. I don’t mean because it’s Jewish. It’s this late Jewish, late east Bronx literature which to a geologist like me is just uninteresting. A geochronologist geologist. The world machines -- that’s what they got now. The world machines. When will government cease being a nuisance to everybody.
Elsewhere, perhaps in a different mood, perhaps more seriously, he said, "right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand."
A day-after Christmas walk in the woods

Dec 24, 2012

Culturally contested Christmas

A curious historical fact: the first people to work to "take the Christ out of Christmas," as it were, were not atheists, or crass materialists, or secularists/pluralists trying to diminish the role of Christianity in American culture. They were Protestants.

Protestants were very conflicted about Christmas in the 1800s.

For one thing, many were opposed to the "mass" part of Christmas, i.e., the Catholicism implicit in the holiday. If December 25 was a religious holiday, that seemed to mean accepting the Catholic tradition of the church calendar and the Catholic idea of tradition, the same tradition that led to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, the authority of the Pope and the church councils, and all the sundry things Protestants argued should be rejected because they're not in the Bible. The Bible which says nothing about a gift-giving solstice holiday.

At the same time, Protestants felt a strong impulse to take the cultural practice of the day -- the Christmas of the tavern, the Christmas of the department store -- and repurpose them as devotional practices.

This meant that they were at the same time critical of the non-religious celebrations of Christmas and leery of the religious celebrations too.

Dec 22, 2012

The variety of Christian fiction

The current variety of Christian fiction is illustrated pretty well in the Library Journal's list of the year's five best.

There's an Amish romance, though the review calls it a "fresh take on an overcrowded genre," two historical romances', one set in Tudor times and the other on the Titanic, a Christian horror novel, and an apocalyptic/CIA novel.

That might still seem rather limited -- Christian fiction authors of more speculative works, such as sci fi and horror, certain complain about the constraints of the market -- but it was only a decade ago that an organization with a name like American Christian Fiction Writers only served romance novelists.

Another year-end list, from a LifeWays Christian Stores' book buyer, shows the variety to be found even in what is still, broadly speaking, the romance genre. via Carole.

Dec 21, 2012

The postmodern technique of the most-sold Christian novel of 2012

The Harbinger begins by addressing its own problem of unbelievability.

It opens by directly dealing with the readers' likely problem of suspending disbelief for this novel. The subtitle is The Ancient Mystery that Holds the Secret of America's Future. The first page begins with that same phrase spoken as dialogue -- a bit of dialogue that could be between the author and the reader, or the author imagining that conversation, acting it out, playing both parts, his and the reader who's going to read this. And it starts by repeating that line:
'An ancient mystery that holds the secret of America's future.'
'What would I think?'
'Yes, what would you think?'
'I'd think it was a plot for a movie. Is that it? Is that what you're presenting ... a movie manuscript?'
'A plot for a novel?'
'Then what?'
He was silent.
'Then what?' she repeated.
It is the plot for a novel, actually, though within the fiction-world of the narrative the "ancient mystery" isn't fiction, as the character named Nouriel Kaplan insists twice on page two. And as the author Jonathan Cahn has also said in multiple interviews outside the fiction-world of The Harbinger.

On a Christian, apocalypse-oriented radio program, he said "the form is a narrative" but "90 percent of it is non-fiction." On a Charismatic TV show, he repeated the message of the book without any reference to narrative or a novel or fictions of any sort, but only to the "prophetic message known as The Harbinger." The host represented the work as revelation from the Holy Spirit, a characterization Cahn didn't dispute. In an e-mail interview with a Charismatic podcast, Cahn said,
[The Harbinger] reveals things that believers have felt in their hearts but without the evidence to back it up. It reveals a biblical mystery of specific template of judgment that is now playing out in America, before our eyes, lying behind everything from 9/11 to the crash of Wall Street, biblical harbingers of judgment appearing in New York City, Washington, D.C., involving some of the highest of American leaders, the replaying of an ancient drama of judgment, even giving exact dates.
This is also all presented in the dialogue in the first few pages of the novel, meaning the author, a messianic Jewish minister from New Jersey, contends that he is presenting non-ficiton as fiction, but within the fiction, the main character is arguing that the story seems like fiction but "it's not fiction -- it's real."

It's a fascinating bit of metafictionality, I think.

A similar thing happened in Left Behind, where criticisms of the book, specifically that it was badly written and unbelievable, were written into the book. Left Behind briefly calls attention to its own status as fiction, predicts the readers' response, and makes that response a part of the narrative, thus re-framing its own problem of plausibility as the readers' struggle with belief. The problem of believing that God is directing the apparently chaotic events of history, and that the Bible is relevant to todays world and to an individuals life, is collapsed into the problem of suspending disbelief to read a novel.

The Harbinger does the same thing, but more so, and more directly. Here the very postmodern technique of self-reflexivity is used, and used aggressively, but to a very different end.

This has caused some deal of controversy among those who, actually, are open to the idea of the imminent return of Christ at Armageddon to reign for 1,000 years.

I wouldn't want to say that this is at all related to that, but that novel, The Harbinger, is the only Christian fiction to make it onto's list of 100 most-sold books of 2012. It comes in at number 23 for the year -- ahead of J.K. Rowling's foray into adult fiction, the Steve Jobs biography, and John Grisham's latest.

Many would likely scoff at that news, a response that's expected by the text and anticipated, written into the story. "I don't expect you to believe me yet," the main character says. "But hear me out!"

Dec 20, 2012

The night watch

The night watch

The obsession with the obsession with the end of the world

The first episode of the reality TV show Doomsday Preppers was watched by 1.29 million people. It is the most-watched show in National Geographic's history. By the time the fourth episode of the second season aired last month, ratings had suffered a little, but still there were more than 700,000 viewers.

It's very unlikely that all those 700,000 viewers were themselves interested in ways to prepare for the end of the world. It seems unlikely even that such a show would make sense, economically, if it catered only to those sympathetic to the ideas of the subjects of the show. And really, the people featured in this show are presented as strange, as freaks, as laughable.

To quote the New York Times review:
Watch [...] for a short while and, unless you’re a prepper yourself, you might be moderately amused at the absurd excess on display and at what an easy target the prepper worldview is for ridicule.
It may be the case that there's a "burgeoning 'prepper' movement," as USA Today claims, but there's little actual evidence of that. Such people do clearly exist, but that's not a new thing. And that's not why such a show exists.

If you want to explain the reason such a show as this exists, you have to look not only at the existence of the people featured in the show, asking why there are so many people dedicating their lives to preparing for the end of the world, but also at the audience.

Why are there so many people so fascinated by people so obsessed by the end of the world?

This is true, too, with the slate of apocalyptic predictions all due tomorrow, the Mayan calendar and the black hole at the center of the galaxy and the hidden planet set to collide with earth. The number of people who take such theories seriously is vanishingly miniscule. The number of people who take seriously the people who take such theories seriously, however, is quite sizable. How do we explain that?

I'm very skeptical, personally, about reports of how widely such apocalyptic theories are believed. A lot of the accounts of belief seem to be very vague or very naive about what it means to believe, and there's also a strong, strong tendency towards credulity when it comes to other people's credulity. However, even if we accept the phenomenon of apocalyptic beliefs without any skepticism, that wouldn't explain the cultural phenomena of obsession with the end of the world. Because that obsession, in American culture at this moment, is not just and not even most basically obsession with the end of the world, but obsession with obsession about the end.

Beyond the matter of "true believers," there's a cultural phenomenon right now of avid interest in true believers. There's a market, here, and it's booming.

It's not enough to just explain the people featured on Doomsday Preppers, the people out there who aren't joking about Nibiru, the people who are violent in their belief in the possibility of zombie apocalypse. If we want to understand this, we can't just look at the obsessed on the TV screen. We have to also look at us looking at the TV screen.

Dec 19, 2012

Beyond theodicy, in the days after Sandy Hook

There are reasons to highlight the horrible theodicies offered by the likes of Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer, when a tragedy happens like the one that happened in Connecticut last week. These men lead, and aspire to lead, and hold positions of privilege. Publicizing their comments serves to marginalize them. Everyone, even those who might otherwise find these men reasonable and believable, gets a chance to be horrified, and side with those who are suffering rather than the ideologues' ghastly ideologies. Which is what happened.

Their comments, though, shouldn't be taken for a fair representation of the bulk of those Christians, or even evangelicals, or even conservative evangelicals who listen to the likes of Huckabee and Fischer. These theodicies aren't widely embraced. Even where they are, in theory, accepted, most recoil from that kind of talk when it would actually be applicable, when they're actually a tragedy to be explained.

The more common response, the one you would have heard in most evangelical churches in America last Sunday, was more likely of the character of Ross Douthat's recent column. Evangelicals, like the Catholic columnist for the New York Times, for the most part understand God to be on the side of the suffering, and not the ultimate cause of violence. While that may, in terms of theology, leave violence unexplained, and leave unanswered the very real question of there could be such violence and also exist a totally good and totally powerful God, it nevertheless allows the believers to respond with empathy, and to understand God to respond that way too.

As Douthat wrote:
the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains. 
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. 
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
Others echoed this. James K.A. Smith, himself a Calvinist, responded to the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary by arguing against a Christian theodicy:

'Some weeping'

From the NPR review of Consuming Spirits:
[Chris] Sullivan's Appalachian Gothic takes us into a convent chapel where the mother superior makes product endorsements part of her tour; a tiny local-history museum where unruly children chatter while being told about the ghoulish, recently found Indian corpse that's been hurriedly taxidermied and added to a display; and into the touched mind of Victor, a depressive, alcoholic man-child who drifts in and out of consciousness behind the wheel of his truck while listening to Gray's radio show.

Dec 14, 2012

The necessity of philosophy

... one might think that a certain degree of philosophical training would be very useful to a scientist. Scientists ought to be able to recognize how often philosophical issues arise in their work — that is, issues that cannot be resolved by arguments that make recourse solely to inference and empirical observation. In most cases, these issues arise because practicing scientists, like all people, are prone to philosophical errors. To take an obvious example, scientists can be prone to errors of elementary logic, and these can often go undetected by the peer review process and have a major impact on the literature — for instance, confusing correlation and causation, or confusing implication with a biconditional. Philosophy can provide a way of understanding and correcting such errors. It addresses a largely distinct set of questions that natural science alone cannot answer, but that must be answered for natural science to be properly conducted.
-- Austin L. Hughes, The Folly of Scientism in The New Atlantis.
Alternative selves

Dec 12, 2012

The contraception coverage argument in a phrase

Perhaps it will ultimately be a matter of phrasing.

A third for-profit corporation has filed suit against the Obama administration's Health and Human Services' mandate that health insurance plans include coverage of contraceptives. In addition to a small flotilla of Catholic charities suing over this rule, there are also these three specific cases, where the question is finally whether or not the First Amendment's protection of religious exercise includes corporations. That is, whether or not corporations have inalienable human rights and whether or not they can in some sense be religious.

The latest suit is from Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, a woodworking company based in Landcaster Country, Penn. With the suit, the corporation joins and follows the arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby and the Christian book publisher Tyndale House, making the case in federal court that corporations have religions.

The news story in the Philadelphia Inquirer reporting on the suit says the company, which has more than 900 employees and makes cabinets, is owned by Mennonites. Reporter Amy Worden describes Conestoga Wood Specialties as a "Mennonite-owned cabinetmaker." This seems to be a fact that no one disputes.

The headline for the piece, however, says the company is a "Mennonite firm." This is exactly what's in dispute.

Whether or not there's an important distinction between the two phrases is, it seems, basically the crux of this case.

The Obama administration's case is that a Mennonite-owned company is not the same thing as a Mennonite company. After all, there are more than 900 people working there. The religious practices of the owners may include decisions they make in running the company, but the corporation does not belong to any church. That's the argument.

Others disagree. Or, at least, favor the kind of phrasing that takes as fact what's disputed in the court case. For example:
Then, of course, there are those like the editor at First Things whose headline elides  and implicitly denies any meaningful difference between a "Mennonite-owned corporation" and a "Mennonite corporation" and all the Mennonites.

The way one views this argument may be a matter of assumptions, really. Assumptions that come out in questions of phrasing. It just depends on how you put it.

Update (Dec. 13): The Philadelphia Inquirer has updated its headline to read "A Mennonite firm sues over Obamacare contraception coverage." Whether because the reporter or someone raised the issue I mention here or for some other reason, I do not know.

Dec 11, 2012

An interpretive endeavor

Jason N. Blum, "Retrieving Phenomenology of Religion as a Method for Religious Studies," in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Dec. 2012:
Phenomenology of religion is not keyed to offer explanations of religion, and especially not in naturalistic or social scientific terms. However, it is well equipped to offer an interpretation of religion, or of religious experience and consciousness. It is this interpretive function that should define phenomenology of religion, and which sets it apart from social scientific or naturalistic methods that seek to explain religion. The category of explanation is privileged by McCutcheon, Proudfoot, and others, and may be regarded as the style of analysis that characterizes a good proportion of social scientific work. An economist or sociologist may, for example, seek to explain why conservative or fundamentalist types of religious identification tend to increase in the face of economic hardship, globalization, or intecultural penetration. In this sense, “explanation” consists of proposing a causal relationship wherein certain observable, natural factors are identified as providing reasons for related religious phenomena.

By contrast, the phenomenologist of religion attempts to interpret or understand religion, which is to say that he seeks to disclose the meaning or meanings of it as they are constructed, perceived, and experienced within consciousness, or from the perspective of the religious subject. While this interpretive task is distinct from the explanatory one, it is not necessarily opposed to it, and may in fact represent a guide or aid in the explanatory endeavor.

[.... It is] an interpretive endeavor designed to disclose the meaning of religion, as understood and experienced from the perspective of religious consciousness."

Dec 10, 2012

Mark Driscoll on pot: sloppy, lazy, deeply unserious

Full disclosure: I am a public transportation user.

This makes it difficult to achieve or maintain the necessary distance to dispassionately review Mark Driscoll's new e-book, Puff or Pass? Should Christians Smoke Pot or Not. Because, it turns out, Driscoll's big argument opposing the recreational use of marijuana is the same as his argument against taking the train. Bus riders and pot smokers turn out, in Driscoll's understanding, to have the same problem. His message to both sets of "users" is identical: grow up.

I am not making this up, and I'm not stretching to make this argument.

Driscoll, "one of the world's most downloaded and quoted pastors," according to his church's website, explicitly makes this comparison.

He writes that the question of marijuana use comes up in his ministry because he works with "a high (pun intended) percentage of single young guys living typical, irresponsible urban lives." The real problem, the root problem of the issue of marijuana use, is that irresponsibility and immaturity: marijuana is just another example of the spiritual epidemic of boys who won't grow up, according to Driscoll. So even though smoking a joint isn't illegal anymore in Washington State, where Driscoll ministers, and even if marijuana isn't specifically prohibited by his church and maybe won't bring down church discipline, it's wrong because it's another way people avoid maturity.

Driscoll writes:
[...] as a pastor I have noticed that people tend to stop maturing when they start self medicating. Everyone has very tough seasons in life, but by persevering through them we have an opportunity to mature and grow as people. Those who self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol (as well as other things) often thwart maturity as they escape the tough seasons of life rather than face them. 
[...] when a man acts like a boy, that’s a real problem. A recent article even noted that young men are now less likely than ever to own a car, as taking public transportation allows them to use their smartphone more hours every day playing video games and downloading porn. The last thing these guys need is to get high, be less motivated, and less productive; instead, they need to "act like men, [and] be strong" (1 Cor. 16:13).
The article that Driscoll cites about public transportation users doesn't say anything like he says it says. He links an Atlantic Monthly piece entitled "Why are Young People Ditching Cars for iPhones?" The author writes that economic changes and changes in consumer culture explain the 11 point drop in young people's car purchases between 1985 and 2012. There's nothing in there -- at all -- about a somehow new age of irresponsibility, and not even a single mention of publicaly viewed porn or lives devoted to video games.

I don't know if Driscoll's just making stuff up or what.

I can tell you what people do on buses and trains, though. I commute to work on a train and spend, some semesters, up to eight hours a week on public transportations. I made the decision to take public transportation rather than buy a car for financial reasons, and also to make better use of my time. I read, grade papers and prep classes on the train. I have also slept on the train, had breakfast on the train, and occasionally played computer games on the train. The other commuters I've seen are like me: they read, write e-mails, listen to music, do homework, talk to people, watch TV, and sometimes just stare off into space. Apparently, to Driscoll, this looks like a public health crisis of immaturity. To me it looks like people doing stuff. Maybe Driscoll looks at commuter traffic and sees manliness: I see waste and frustrating boredom.

If car culture encourages adult behavior and car ownership correlates to personal responsibility, I'm sure I don't know how. 

But this is the thing about this little digital booklet. Supposedly the value upheld and advocated is maturity. On a certain level, that's what's happening. However, this work is also itself enormously lazy, and, I think it can be argued, encourages and fosters immaturity.

Dec 9, 2012

Rodney Stark's strange interview w/ Kathryn Jean Lopez

I can't remember the last time I've seen an interview as strange as the one National Review published recently, where Kathryn Jean Lopez asks sociologist Rodney Stark about his new book on the evidence of the benefits of religious adherence. 

This really reads like an interview where something has gone horribly wrong:
LOPEZ: Religion can keep me from mental illness? My inbox suggests it is evidence of my mental illness.
STARK: Several hundred studies are unanimous that frequent church-attenders are far less likely than non-attenders to suffer from mental illness — I devote many pages to the matter.  
LOPEZ: The 'higher the church membership of a city, the lower its crime rates.' What evidence do you have for this contention?
STARK: I cite many published studies. 
LOPEZ: How can you prove that 'religious parents are better parents, who raise better-behaved and better-educated children'?
STARK: I cite a very large research literature.
It continues from there, with Lopez asking strange questions that seem -- best I can guess -- to be bad imitations of the kinds of questions she thinks atheists and/or liberals would ask. The gag, maybe, is that all of these things are obvious, and so obvious as to obviously not need evidentiary support. But now there is statistical evidence ... so, hahaha. Or something.

Stark, who's done some important work in the sociology of religion but has also been sharply criticized for some of his work, and, generally, seems way over-defensive when questioned about the conclusions he draws from his facts, gives answers that equal the questions in oddity. With some answers, he sounds like your standard resentful conservative ("the media are dominated by the irreligious. So are universities". With others, Stark sounds as cranky someone with a toothache listening to a baby cry.

One of his answers, literally, is "See Scandinavia."

I suspect there are serious problems with this book. The whole thing appears to be based on a basic misunderstanding of evidence, and the kinds of correlation-causation confusions that one would hope an accomplished sociologist would understand and avoid. I'm disinclined to read the book and find out if that's the case, though, after this very weird case of book "promotion."

Via twitter, Per D. Smith suggests that it's been hard to take Stark seriously as a sociologist for more than a decade, citing the article "Atheism, faith, and the social scientific study of religion" in the Journal of Contemporary Religion from 1999.

Dec 8, 2012

What happened to Robert Ingersoll?

Susan Jacoby wonders why the 19th century's "Great Agnostic" Robert G. Ingersoll was more or less forgotten to history. One theory she suggests: it was liberals' smug confidence in their victory over fundamentalism after the Scopes trial. 

Jacoby writes:
Ingersoll's collected works were published within a few years of his death [in 1899] by his brother-in-law C. P. Farrell, who owned the Dresden Publishing Company (named for Ingersoll’s birthplace in upstate New York). The Great Agnostic remained a well-known, frequently cited figure into the 1920s, not only because many of his friends and enemies remained alive but also because his writings were still thought to be capable of corrupting American youth. 
The memory of Ingersoll faded swiftly, however, after the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted the leading spokesman for religious fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow, the nation’s most famous criminal lawyer and an equally famous agnostic, who had been strongly influenced by hearing Ingersoll’s speeches in the 1870s and 1880s.
Jacoby has a biography of Ingersoll coming out in 2013.

I'm slightly suspicious of the question, here. There's an assumption that it's odd or abnormal for Ingersoll's presence to have faded or have been forgotten, an assumption that goes to support Jacoby's thesis about Ingersoll's significance without making an argument for his importance.

There is an interesting question here, though. To what extent did the "victory" in the Tennessee court house, as understood by those who were critical of religion, as represented by them to themselves, change the shape of skeptical arguments and the development of the atheistic cause?

Dec 7, 2012

Thinking about religious books as commodities

Matt Hedstrom, American Studies professor at the University of Virginia and author of the recently released The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century, talking about his book on Virginia public radio.

Hedstrom starts with a brief, of sorts, for the book markets and book cultures, and why that study is important in the study of religion:
"Religions also always take on the characteristics of their moment, of their surrounding culture. When you think about the United States in the 20th century, and still in the 21st century, I think the most powerful cultural forces we've got are media and the consumer marketplace. We shape our identities so much through what we consume and how we choose to consume all kinds of commodities, and how we consume media in particular. And, for a lot of Americans, over the course of the the 20th century, the most culturally significant commodity that they bought were books."
Thinking about books as commodities and about how faith as currently, culturally understood, is constructed in the context of such market interactions between consumers and commodities has been one of the major developments of my thinking in my dissertation work. Hearing Hedstrom talk at the Religion and the Marketplace conference in Heidelberg, in Oct. 2011, spurred me on in this.

His book, I think, will be a good addition to the growing body of work on religious book cultures.

Dec 6, 2012

Christian book covers

The Evangelical Christian Publisher's association has announced the finalists for the 2012 cover design awards. Most seem to me ... underwhelming. Some are very bad. There's certainly a clear preference for visual puns and over-literal interpretations.

I'm not an expert at these things. Perhaps the above, for example, does what it's supposed to do in a bookstore, catches attention and communicates a basic idea very succinctly. I can't help but feel, though, that such covers communicate also a deep disrespect for the intended audience.

The very worst of the nominated covers:

Dec 4, 2012

Daniel Dennet discovers Erasmus

Daniel Dennett is notoriously horrible at history. It turns out, though, if you give him an award and €150,000, he is willing to do a little.

Here, in an interview with a Dutch journalist about how he won the Erasums award, he discovers Erasmus, and finds he has, at least in one specific sense he'll admit to, been preceeded.

Dennett: "It's a little bit eerie to discover that you're echoing a debate which is hundreds of years old. And some very similar points being made."

Indeed, Dr. Dennet. Indeed.

For an offhand -- and, I'd argue, deeplyunserious -- dismissal of phenomenology and Thomas Nagel's famous paper What Is It Like To Be A Bat?", keep watching to the 11:07 mark.

via 3 Quarks Daily.

Dec 3, 2012

Rob Bell's internal contradiction

Rob Bell's been gone from the Michigan megachurch he founded for more than a year now. When he remembers the church, he often in a sense misremembers it, according to Kelefa Sunnah's piece in the New Yorker.

Not misremembers, exactly, but rather remembers the beginning and not the end, what was overcome instead of what was created. He talks about the energy of the potential, not the extent to which an institution is an institution is an institution. The difference between what's emphasized and what's not is the contradiction inherently internal to the megachurch project, and also to Bell himself.

Sennah writes:
"Because [Bell] vividly remembers the early days, he still sometimes talks about Mars Hill as a gritty, scrappy place: a church with no sign, no steeple, no cross, and hardly any decoration. This is all true, but Mars Hill is also a comfortable, well-run facility, with plenty of parking and age-specific child care. It was just after eight o’clock on a seasonably cold morning, and worshippers were trickling in and stamping the snow off their boots."

Dec 2, 2012