Tag Archives: religion

Visiting Israel, with demography (this is not sustainable edition)

With audio, and photographs!

Israel’s trajectory is unsustainable in more ways than one.

The political situation is not the subject of this post, but it’s necessary to say at the beginning that the oppression of Palestinians by the state of Israel, made possible by the United States, is morally unacceptable and relative to all the other national oppression in the world rates pretty bad. For that reason, although I don’t endorse the movement for academics to boycott Israel, I oppose the movement to censor it.

So, last month I went to Israel for the first time since 1979. Since this is a blog I can include both academic and personal observations from that visit.

The Shuk Market, Jerusalem, on Friday afternoon (photo pnc: https://flic.kr/p/23AxGdJ)

Demography

The workshop I was invited to attend was a joint effort of colleagues at the University of Maryland and Tel Aviv University, with the Israel Forum for Population, Environment, and Society, called “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Culture and Sustainable Population Dynamics.” The main organizers were Alon Tal and Michele Gelfand. Tal has written a very good book called, The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel, which is both a demographic history and an ecological analysis, from which I learned a lot.

I’m not expert on the ecological stuff, but the demography is quite shocking on its own. (In the demography here, unless noted I’m talking about Israel within its pre-1967 borders, which is now most of these statistics are reported.) Israel is very densely populated, although everyone I talked to (besides demographers) was surprised to hear it. That may be because when you travel outward from the cities, it quickly looks like barren countryside — it’s just that the empty countryside doesn’t go on very far before you get to the sea or a border.

The population of about 1 million in 1950 is now almost 9 million, having doubled in the past 30 years. This figure shows the population density of countries with 5 million or greater population in 2016, with select countries labeled using World Bank codes and those with populations over 100 million circled. The 1986 density is on the x-axis and the 2016 density is on the y-axis, so to distance above the diagonal is the increase. That’s Israel way up at 200, 400 (click to enlarge).

Population density 1986-2016The rapid rise in population density in Israel will invariably exacerbate their problems with water, energy, transportation, housing, habitats, pollution, and — of course — politics. These are all pretty bad problems, which Tal explains at length.

Contrary to popular belief, since the wave of ex-USSR immigrants in the early 1990s, most of the population growth has been from births, not immigration. And contrary to other popular beliefs, the growth is now — and increasingly — driven not by the Arab or Muslim populations but by the so-called Ultra Orthodox or Haredi population. (Here I cite a paper by Barbara Okun, but we also heard from demographers Eliahu Ben Moshe and Ameed Saabneh, whose presentations I do not have to share.) This figure from Tal’s book shows the Jewish/Arab breakdown. Where in 1997 there were about 2.3 Jewish births for each Arab birth, in 2013 it was more than 3-to-1:

jabirths

Overall, Arab and Muslim fertility have fallen a lot, and Jewish fertility has not (most but not all Arabs are Muslim; some Jews have Arab ancestry, but they don’t count as Arab). Here are the overall trends, using completed fertility by birth cohorts, from this paper by Barbara Okun:

bo1

The Arab/Muslim trend looks like a lot of poor countries, while the Jewish and total trends (Israel is about 80% Jewish) does not look like a lot of rich countries. As a result, Israel has the highest birth rate of all OECD countries, by a lot, and it’s now rising (runner-up Mexico shown for comparison):

oecdtfr

Why is Israel’s birth rate rising? Increasingly, because of the Ultra-Orthodox population, among whom the most recent cohorts to reach age 40 have averaged about 7 children per woman:

bo2

Right now the Haredi population are 13% of the total Jewish population. Not-that-long story short, the Haredi will be the majority of Israeli Jews pretty soon (maybe 50 years). And because of population momentum (the next generation’s parents are already born), that is likely almost no matter what else happens.

As Ben Moshe pointed out, this process of rising ultra-orthodox dominance may be accelerated if the “secular” Jews (two-thirds of whom think having a religious wedding is “very important,” and 38% of whom fast on Yom Kippur) reduce their fertility rates to something more like the European norm. If that happens, it won’t do much to slow Israel’s population growth, but it will change the composition of the population. The math of this is pretty dramatic.

Postmodern premodernism. She wears a fashionable wig, he wears an old European-style hat and coat, the baby (girl, just guessing) wears pink. (photo pnc: https://flic.kr/p/24BvW9C)

The idea of a policy to reduce birth rates — that is, Jewish birth rates — in Israel is so far a complete political non-starter. Even among secular Jews, Ben Moshe reports, 80% say they would like to have three children or more. State policy is very pro-natal. The national health insurance pays for unlimited IVF cycles, and Israel has more than 10-times as many IVF treatments per capita as the US does, and more than twice as many as the next highest country (as Daphna Carmeli reported). Same-sex couples can’t marry or adopt children, but they can produce and parent them with IVF or through surrogacy. Abortion is technically legal but discouraged. The state pays monthly child subsidies for each kid, and provides child care from age 3.

The Haredi population, which plays a pivotal role in the country’s parliamentary coalition, controls their own state-funded school curriculum, and they are exempt from the mandatory military service that most other Jews are required to perform. In addition to fostering resentment among the non-orthodox, this also means they get started on their childbearing earlier, since they don’t have military time after high school. Of course, these are not biologically distinct populations, and people can move in and out of the groups, but thus far the Haredi population is not experiencing much intergenerational defection, partly because of the institutional supports they have from the state.

Remarks

Anyway, I had the chance at the workshop to offer remarks, which I present in edited form here, in a 15-minute audio clip.

One part is was a warning about “population policy” from Puerto Rico and China. And I commented on gender inequality, saying, “It’s indelicate to walk into a place and say that. On the other hand, if we look at the history of extremely high-fertility, very religiously-oriented, patriarchal societies, that’s what they are,” and talked about how education affects birth rates:

It’s one thing to increase an individual woman’s education and then see that she is less likely to have more children. But you’re not increasing her education when she’s 18, you’re increasing her educational opportunity when she’s 18, or her vision for herself 20 years in the future that’s going to change her behavior at age 18. If you say to an 18-year-old, “You live in a society where everybody goes to college, and women have good jobs when they come out,” then her behavior at age 18 is much less likely to be marriage and children right then. It’s more likely to be, “I will pursue this education, and then I’ll be in a better position to pursue my career, to bargain from a better position in terms of choosing a spouse,” and the behavior follows from that knowledge of the future.

Also some comments on the border situation, where I said, in a very roundabout way:

I think it’s interesting for the discussion of why do the secular Israel Jews still have such non-European fertility levels, and it partly is the context. Maybe it’s how religious were their parents, or their other relatives or their siblings, or maybe it’s their city or the culture they were brought up in in some way, or the policies of their government, but it’s also — in terms of the war and ethnic conflict — it may have to do with the political or ethnic or perceived national threat. And so in my idealistic world when we open all the borders, one source of conflict is actually reduced, and the people’s behavior is changed.

Here’s the talk:

There was a writeup on the workshop in the Jerusalem Post, here, which includes more from Alon Tal.

Entering the Western Wall Jewish area of the Old City in Jerusalem. (photo pnc: https://flic.kr/p/23AxGdJ)

Visiting Israel

As far as I’m concerned I’ve always been White in America, which is the dominant status. But once in a while being Jewish makes me feel I’m down a peg. Or even sometimes, for a fleeting minute, as the Nazis on Twitter like to tell me, that I’m not really White. Funny thing about being in Israel, for me, was that it felt kind of like being really White in America. My people were on top, as they usually are, but a little more specifically. Surprisingly, perhaps, this felt less morally compromising than I expected, at least in comparison to how I normally feel in America. It also reinforced my growing sense of Jewish as ethnicity rather than religion in the US context (I’m an atheist), which has of course been exacerbated by the current pro-Nazi regime and anti-Semitic attacks I get on Twitter since Trump took power.

Being a Jewish-American (the ethnic term) anti-Trump person on Twitter is odd. One of the weirder things I did not predict, but which I see very often, is the gotcha thing the anti-Semites give me when I speak out against Trump on xenophobia and the Mexican-border wall. For example, these are tweets I got from people I don’t know in response to posting this photo essay on the border wall in Contexts, without mentioning Israel.

walltweets

Contrary to popular belief among Nazis, some Jews don’t support Israeli apartheid. (I wrote a post comparing the Israel/Palestine and US/Mexico borders, here.) Anyway, on top of that, I have family members in Israel whom I dearly love. And on top of that, some of those family members are Jews with whom I have the most in common about Israeli politics (and some, not much at all). So, it’s complicated.

20180216-DSC_2473

On the bus in Jerusalem. (photo pnc: https://flic.kr/p/GxAkrE) Also on the bus was a sign that read: “Anyone may sit anywhere (except places marked for disabled people). Harassment of a passenger on this matter may be a criminal offense.” This was to stop ulta-orthodox men from forcing women to sit in the back of the bus, and represented a victory for feminists.

Of course, the closer you look the more “nuanced” things become. To Haredi folks, for example, there are large, vital differences between different Haredi communities, that you or I would probably find hard to discern. And for another example, there are a lot of negative attitudes toward the Haredi people from some secular Jews in Israel, for living off government benefits, not serving in the military, not letting the buses run on Saturday, and subjugating women. And sometimes, maybe just because I’m more defensive about anti-Semitism these days, those attitudes have a slight anti-Semitic aftertaste. So they are simultaneously the “most” Jewish people in a “Jewish state,” with outsized political and cultural influence, but also something like a disparaged minority.

Anyways, I have no conclusion.


These photos, and others from the trip, are on Flickr under Creative Commons license: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmeU5n6s.

4 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

Who’s happy in marriage? (Not just rich, White, religious men, but kind of)

I previously said there was a “bonafide trend back toward happiness” within marriage, for the years 2006 to 2012. This was based on the General Social Survey trend going back 1973, with married people responding to the question, “Taking all things together, how would you describe your marriage?”

Since then, the bonafide trend has lost its pop. Here’s my updated figure:

hapmar16

I repeated this analysis controlling for age, race/ethnicity, and education, and year specified in quadratic form. This shows happiness falling to a trough at 2004 and then starting to trend back. But given the last two points, confidence in that rebound is weak. Still a solid majority are happy with their marriages.

Who’s happy?

But who are those happy in marriage people? Combining the last three surveys, 2012, 2014, and 2016, this is what we get (effect of age and non-effect of education not shown). Note the y-axis starts at 50%.

hapmar16c

So to be happy in marriage, my expert opinion is you should become male and White, see yourself as upper class, go to church all the time, and have extreme political views. And if you’re not all those things, don’t let the marriage promoters tell you what your marriage is going to be like.

Note: I previously analyzed the political views thing before, so this is an update to that. On trends and determinants of social class identification, see this post.)


Here’s my Stata code, written to run on the full GSS through 2016 data. Play along at home!

set maxvar 10000
use "GSS7216_R1a.dta", clear
gen since73 = year-1973
gen rwgt = round(wtssall)
keep if year >1972
gen verhap=0
replace verhap=1 if hapmar==1
logit verhap i.sex c.age##c.age i.degree i.race c.since73##c.since73 [weight=rwgt]
margins, at(since73=(0(1)43))
recode attend (1/3=1) (4/6=2) (7/8=3), gen(attendcat)
logit verhap i.sex c.age##c.age i.degree i.race i.class i.attendcat i.polviews if year>2010 [weight=rwgt]
margins sex race class attendcat polviews if year>2010

 

6 Comments

Filed under Research reports

Couple fact patterns about sexuality and attitudes

Working on the second edition of my book, The Family, involves updating facts as well as rethinking their presentation, and the choice of what to include. The only way I can do that is by making figures to look at myself. Here are some things I’ve worked up recently; they might not end up in the book, but I think they’re useful anyway.

1. Attitudes on sexuality and related family matters continue to grow more accepting or tolerant, but acceptance of homosexuality is growing faster than the others – at least those measured in the repeated Gallup surveys:

gallupmoral

2. Not surprisingly, there is wide divergence in the acceptance of homosexuality across religious groups. This uses the Pew Religious Landscape Study, which includes breakouts for atheists, agnostics, and two kinds of “nones,” or unaffiliated people — those for whom religion is important and those for whom it’s not:

relhomoaccept

3. Updated same-sex behavior and attraction figures from the National Survey of Family Growth. For some reason the NSFG reports don’t include the rates of same-sex partner behavior in the previous 12 months for women anymore, so I analyzed the data myself, and found a much lower rate of last-year behavior among women than they reported before (which, when I think about it, was unreasonably high – almost as high as the ever-had-same-sex-partner rates for women). Anyway, here it is:

nsfgsamesexupdate

FYI, people who follow me on Twitter get some of this stuff quicker; people who follow on Instagram get it later or not at all.

4 Comments

Filed under Research reports

Teen birth rate low but Bible remains a concern

In 2012 I did a post about teen birth rates, abstinence, and Google searches for Antichrist stuff. The most important point was that abstinence education doesn’t work. In this post I use the percentage of teen (women) having a birth, and see what people are Googling in places with more teen births.

This is an inductive approach that generates ideas and surprises. Out of the billions of things people search for, which searches are most correlated with a demographic or social pattern across states? For example, the relationship between low marriage rates and searches about Kanye West is very strong (even controlling for a bunch of demographics), and state suicide rates are highly correlated with lots of searches about guns. If you think these are random flukes, you may be right — but then look at what searches correlate with racial/ethnic composition of states.

So for teen births, this is easy to get from the American Community Survey via IPUMS (I used the 2010-2014 combined file), which asks of each person if they had a baby in the previous year. Teen birth rate is the percentage of women ages 15-19 who did. Then you surf over to the Google Correlate tool and upload the teen birth rates file. The result is the 100 searches that are most highly correlated with the state file you uploaded. Someone with the keys to Google could get more, but this is what any member of the public can do.

We know that teen births are most common in the Southwest and South, and that broad pattern is really what’s most important: Republican-dominated states, the Bible belt, and places with a lot of poor young people.* Here’s the broad strokes:

db46_fig1

The Google searches is just for thinking about subtler cultural relationships and generating ideas.

Among the top 100 searches most correlated with teen births, American muscle cars stand out: Mustangs (13), Camaros (5), Hummers, Chargers, along with related things like transmissions. Next, however, is Bible stuff. There are 12 searches that correlate with the teen birth rate at .80 or higher on the list:

nephilim
original bible
book of enoch
bible talk
the book of enoch
i believe in god
yeshua
book of enoch pdf
bible names
the truth shall set you free
yhwh
truth shall set you free

Here’s a map showing the ACS teen births rates on the left and searches for “original bible” on the right, correlation .83:

teenbible-map

(A little disturbingly, “what is cinnamon” is also high on the list [correlation .81] — cinnamon is often promoted as a “natural” medicine to cause miscarriage.)

I exported the correlation file from Google and then averaged those 12 searches, producing a bible searches index that correlates with teen births at .87 (all the search correlations come out as z-scores, so the average has mean of 0 and s.d. of .93). Here are the results:**

teen-birth-bible-searchs

I’m no Bible expert, and this could all be a total coincidence, but I think some real research on it might be pretty interesting. Maybe the people who say the Bible is awesome for families and teen births are bad should look into it.***

Followup: Of course, if you only look at the highest correlations out of billions, you find high correlations. So I don’t expect a research award for discovering that. And that fact that these bible searches are from certain niches of Christianity is an interesting tidbit but just as food for thought. The more theory-driven version of this research might start with searches for just the word “bible”and test the hypothesis that it’s correlated with teen births.  That relationship is not as strong (correlation .74), but it’s still plenty to go on:

teen-birth-bible-searchs2

I take from this weaker finding that the stronger pattern above is not just a fluke or an artifact of the method.

  • Follow the Google tag to see the many posts using this stuff.
  • Follow the teen birth tag for more, including the argument that the teen birth rate is a myth, and the racial implications of promoting delayed births.

 


* This survey measure is correlated .89 with the 2008 list of state teen birth rates published by the National Center for Health Statistics. I would have a better sense of which is the right one to use if Google Correlate would say what time period is used for their analysis, but I can’t find that anywhere. When I used the NCHS list instead of my ACS list, it was more dominated by muscle cars and had less Bible stuff, as only “book of enoch” was in the top 100, correlated .87 with teen births.

** Here's the Stata command for making this figure (which I then prettied up a little):
gr twoway (scatter teenbirth biblesearch , mlabel(state) mlabposition(0) msymbol(i)) (lfit teenbirth biblesearch)

*** The 2010-2014 teen birth rates, from the IPUMS release of ACS data are these:

State State Teen birth rate (%)
Alabama AL 2.44
Alaska AK 2.727
Arizona AZ 2.385
Arkansas AR 2.886
California CA 1.901
Colorado CO 1.755
Connecticut CT 0.902
Delaware DE 1.644
District of Columbia DC 2.088
Florida FL 2
Georgia GA 2.578
Hawaii HI 1.991
Idaho ID 2.202
Illinois IL 2.009
Indiana IN 2.69
Iowa IA 1.477
Kansas KS 2.432
Kentucky KY 2.936
Louisiana LA 2.36
Maine ME 0.852
Maryland MD 1.783
Massachusetts MA 0.941
Michigan MI 1.881
Minnesota MN 1.428
Mississippi MS 3.545
Missouri MO 2.756
Montana MT 2.065
Nebraska NE 1.304
Nevada NV 2.449
New Hampshire NH 1.135
New Jersey NJ 1.005
New Mexico NM 3.5
New York NY 1.494
North Carolina NC 2.48
North Dakota ND 2.328
Ohio OH 1.901
Oklahoma OK 3.214
Oregon OR 1.568
Pennsylvania PA 1.928
Rhode Island RI 1.978
South Carolina SC 2.829
South Dakota SD 2.271
Tennessee TN 2.974
Texas TX 3.303
Utah UT 1.666
Vermont VT 1.073
Virginia VA 1.636
Washington WA 1.688
West Virginia WV 2.146
Wisconsin WI 1.305
Wyoming WY 1.6

4 Comments

Filed under In the news

Pick your potion, Dalai Lama and Pope Francis edition

If you only like religious leaders who agree with what you already think, what do you need them for?

Sometimes people cheer for statements by religious leaders like sports teams: Yay when they agree with you, boo when they don’t. So what’s the leader for? When was the last time a religious leader made you change your mind about a core moral issue?

That time when you realize the Dalai Lama really thinks a female Dalai Lama would be "not much use" if she weren't attractive.

That feeling when you realize the Dalai Lama really thinks a female Dalai Lama would be “not much use” if she weren’t attractive.

The BBC has an interview up with the Dalai Lama, which focuses on the refugee crisis and other issues. Such as the gender of the next Dalai Lama. Starting at 4:52 of the video:

Reporter, Clive Myrie: Is there going to a 15th incarnation of the Dalai Lama?

Dalai Lama: The very institution of the Dalai Lama should continue, or not, up to the Tibetan people.

CM: So the people will decide. Could it be a woman?

DL: Yes! One occasion in Paris, one woman’s magazine, one reporter, come to see me, I think more than 15 years ago. She asked me, any possibility female Dalai Lama. I mentioned, why not? The female, has biologically more potential to show affection…

CM: And compassion…

DL: Yes, compassion. Therefore, you see now, today’s world, lot of trouble, troubled world, I think female should take more important role. And then, I told that reporter, if female Dalai Lama come, her face must be — should be — very attractive. [Laughs]

CM: [Laughs] Oh well. So you can only have a female Dalai Lama if they’re attractive. Is that what you’re saying? You can’t have…

DL: I mean, if female Dalai Lama come, that female…

DM: …will be…

DL: …must be…

DM: …must be very attractive. It’s just gonna…

DL: Otherwise, not much use.

DM: Really?!

DL: I think some people — my face…

DM: You’re joking, I’m assuming. Oh, you’re not joking.

DL: Oh? I mean, true!

Cut.

All over right now there are conservative Catholics who are unhappy because the Pope is not saying the things that they already believe. Like the Federalist Staff, who are upset that:

During his remarks [to Congress], which were regularly interrupted by rounds of applause from the assembled lawmakers, Pope Francis condemned the death penalty, called for better environmental stewardship, and even talked about the ills of political polarization. He did not, however, mention Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection form the very foundation of the Christian faith.

Apparently, Francis’s faith in Jesus is not to be taken for granted. (Personally, I find it polite it when religious leaders from religions to which I don’t belong, when speaking in state-sponsored settings before audiences that include non-followers, don’t invoke their own gods.)

Some religious people (but not only them, of course) use their religion to prop up unsupported empirical assertions. Michael Strain, from the American Enterprise Institute, for example, recently wrote, “we must begin with the understanding that each of us is called to love God and to love others.” Beginning with an understanding — rather than coming to an understanding on the basis of evidence — is one hallmark of faith over reason. But what Strain really has faith in is free markets — which to him are the one-variable empirical solution:

free enterprise dramatically reduces extreme poverty. In 1970, over one-quarter of the world lived on less than one dollar per day. By 2006, about one in 20 people lived in extreme poverty — an 80 percent reduction. We have the adoption of free markets across the developing world to thank for this massive reduction.*

For Strain, His Holiness’s appreciation for this single-variable view of history is disappointing: “The effect of liberalizing markets on extreme poverty and the good this does for families is a fact I wish the Holy Father discussed more often.” Strain seems to prefer Pope John Paul II, who wrote that “Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth.” That mandate, for example, apparently includes the mandate to reform disability insurance to make more disabled people work.

This is not allegiance to religious leadership, but rather the political business of cheering for the expression of views one already holds. (For example, I like it when powerful people say good things about sociology — not because it makes me believe them, but because it’s a point for our side.)

Having a pope speak against their views must be especially disheartening to the people who specifically chose to be Catholic because they thought the Catholic church would tell them (and their neighbors) to believe what they already believe.

As an atheist, I find some of this mystifying. However, I do appreciate the way people use religion to provide institutional support to values they support (especially when I support those values, too). That’s just building a social infrastructure to satisfy collective needs. (And yes, I know that the values I hold are partly the result of religious influence on me and those who taught me right from wrong. But citing religion isn’t the same as having faith in it.)

What I find even more mystifying is religious authority. And especially people going out of their way — like changing religions — to follow a religious authority. This seems sad to me; it’s an affirmation of one’s impotence. But odder still is people complaining about the views expressed by the religious authorities they choose to follow. I guess it’s like being misled by a movie preview and finding yourself stuck in the kind of movie you hate. You’ve already bought the ticket, and now you’re sitting there. Grr.


* That link Strain uses is to an NBER paper that seems to be an outlier in poverty analysis. The World Bank had 13.5% of people living at under $1 per day in 2008 (you can see various estimates here), but they prefer a measure of $1.25 per day, by which 22% of people were that poor in 2008.

3 Comments

Filed under In the news

The difference fundamentalists make

Just a quick followup to yesterday’s post about Santa.

Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor of the conservative Christian publication First Things, wrote a funny response, calling me a “Grinch Professor” whose complaint about Santa is “nakedly hysterical.” The piece badly mischaracterizes what I wrote, but I don’t need to get into that. I just want to elaborate on my implication that the problem of large numbers of literal Bible believers in the USA is serious.

I showed a table from Pew reporting that about three-quarters of American adults believe, for example, that Jesus was born to a virgin woman. That’s one kind of belief. Santa is another. And the belief that the Bible is the “actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” is another. I don’t know the exact overlap between these beliefs across the life course, but I presume they’re positively correlated (among self-described evangelical Protestants, about 95% believe the Christmas story is literally true). The General Social Survey (GSS) only tells us about the actual word of God (AWG) people, so it doesn’t answer the whole story, but it helps.

Schmitz’s mocks me this way:

The first thing Cohen fears is that Santa will put children on the path toward membership in the Westboro Baptist Church. Belief in the “Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism,” he writes, including opposition to “marriage rights for homosexuals.”

Note my “leading edge” comment was about literal belief in the Christmas story, not Santa, and I think it’s a pretty solid hypothesis. In fact, I clarified later:

Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

But I want to go back to the Westboro Baptist Church comment. WBC is a fringe hate group. I’m talking about a mainstream fundamentalist movement. The American AWG community in 2012 included 28% of men and 35% of women. I reported that the GSS shows these folks are much more likely to think we put too much trust in science, to oppose gay marriage, to say we worry too much about the environment, and to want women to stay home instead of working.

This is not fringe stuff — these are pretty common right-wing positions. What I didn’t make clear is what a large contribution AWG makes to the prevalence of those views. So here is the percentage of people holding each position who are AWGers. The way to read this is, for example, “69% of people who strongly agree that we put too much faith in science instead of religious faith also believe the Bible is the actual word of God.”

bible-views.xlsx

The point is that for trust in science, gay marriage, and women’s employment, the majority of American opposition comes from people who hold fundamentalist Christian views (for thinking we worry too much about the environment it’s just over 40%).

Of course I don’t think, and didn’t say, that belief in Santa causes this problem. But I think it’s likely a risk factor. And it’s never too early to start building the knowledge and critical thinking skills we need to overcome it.

Merry Christmas.

santasatan

6 Comments

Filed under In the news

Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897 and barely updated here, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him.” That’s the substance of it. It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.

Science

From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened.

Here are the details:

PR_14.12.15_Christmas-05

So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey GSS has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and,”The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Those “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.

Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

Children’s ways of knowing

A little reading led me to this interesting review of the research on young children’s skepticism and credulity, by Woolley and Ghossainy (citations below were mostly referred by them).

It goes back to Margaret Mead’s early work. In the psychological version of sociology’s reading history sideways, Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels social evolution. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea of believing in Santa as indicative of a state of innocence.

In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [“traditionally” here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds. These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Richard Dawkins has speculated that religion spreads so easily because humans have an adaptive tendency from childhood to believe adults rather than wait for direct evidence of dangers to accumulate (e.g., “snakes are dangerous”). That is, credulity is adaptive for humans. But Woolley and Ghossainy review mounting evidence for young children’s skepticism as well as credulity. That, along with the obvious survival disadvantages associated with believing everything you’re told, doesn’t support Dawkins’ story.

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In this figure, adapted from Woolley and Ghossainy, true judgment is in green, errors are in red.

whatchildrenthink

We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

It is perplexing that a young child could believe that his or her knowledge of the world is complete enough to deny the existence of anything new. It would seem that young children would understand that there are many things that exist in the real world that they have yet to experience. As intuitive as this seems, it appears not to be the case. From this perspective, development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information.

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in germs or vaccines or evolution just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to inhabit the green boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s NYT essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving — for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf. According to Google Trends, interest in this concept has increased 100-fold since 2008. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

Foucault is not amused. Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like these handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on:

elfwarning

So is this non-rationalize gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.

Inequality

What does all this mean for inequality? My developmental question is, what is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? In other words, how long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? Where do these curves cross?

santaclass

Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get. Of course, I’m not the first to think of this:

santapoormeme

Conclusion

I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses.

Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?

24 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized