Moral rules, ruling morals (race, class and gender edition)

One of the common beefs atheists have with theists (especially Judeo-Christians) is when the latter say the former don’t have a moral compass by virtue of their nonbelief in god. But then the first thing religious people do is pick and choose which religious moral dicta they want to follow, and reinterpret the rest, according to their cultural sensibilities (or genetic predispositions) — in other words doing just what the atheists do in the first place.

This is true even of the more orthodox religious movements, the process is just a lot slower. Since I picked on the Pope and his crowd recently, here’s an example from my own, Judaism.

According to a guide from the orthodox Jewish Chabad website, every day, a person (man?) should recite the following, thanking God for (in this order):

Not making me a gentile (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי גּוֹי)
Not making me a slave (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי עָֿבֶד)
Not making me a woman (שֶׁלֹּא עָשַֹֿנִי אִשָּׁה)

You can see the Hebrew, with translations, here (or look under weekday prayers).

Quick aside

It’s great to have an authoritative ancient source for the correct order for the inequality trinity, “Race, Class and Gender,” which has bedeviled American academics for several decades. In Biblical terms, this ordering makes perfect sense, representing distances from privilege in the eyes of god — in a nested hierarchy, from the most-fortunate (Jewish man), to the pretty fortunate (Jewish woman), the unfortunate (slave) and finally the likely-annihilated (non-Jews,  when born in the wrong place and the wrong time, e.g., Joshua 6:21, or just in general, as in the orthodox Passover prayer: “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord”).

This Biblical ordering fits with current academic usage, as shown here: the frequency of the following phrases in the JSTOR academic database:

raceclassgender

Rules to live by

But back to the point. Each day orthodox Jewish men thank god they are who they are – or rather, they’re not who they’re not. This strikes some as old fashioned, especially the woman part (if you weren’t happy about being Jewish you wouldn’t be saying the rest of the prayers either; and being thankful for not being a slave just seems like common sense). But why be thankful for not being a woman?

Tzvi Freeman, head of Chabad’s “Ask the Rabbi Team” offers a commentary:

Why is our world this way? This is not just another injustice. It is a stage in humanity’s development, a reflection of the state of the general human consciousness: We — both men and women — are stuck within the perception of the masculine role as superior and the feminine as inferior. Our behavior only reflects our perception.

In other words, men are thankful they’re not women because women are subordinate, which is an injustice. Why doesn’t god fix this injustice – or even allow modern Jews to alter their daily prayers (and other practices) in the hope of moving their perceptions and the reality they reflect? Patience.

As with the general scheme of the cosmos, so with man and woman and the human consciousness. The history of humankind can be seen this way: A transition from male to female values, from authority to dialogue, from dominance to persuasion, from control to nurture. But we’re not there yet.* And the best evidence is that we do not have the power, according to Halachah [Jewish law], to change this blessing.

This is charmingly circular: when it’s ready to be changed, we will have the power to change it. What is that power? The emergence of a new Jewish governing body “greater in wisdom and in number” to change the old law. In practical terms, we’re back to infallibility. In response, Rabbi On the Beach Eliyahu Fink joked: “The biggest innovation in the history of orthodox Judaism is that there is no innovation in orthodox Judaism.” Of course there is lots of debate about rules, including over which rules are subject to debate. Whether this aspect of the liturgy should be off limits is itself debated.

Chabad’s type of explanation is not satisfactory, even to some orthodox folks such as Fink:

There are several apologist explanations for the blessing. They all basically say something along the lines of women are really on a higher level than men, they don’t need to do as many commandments, they can if they want, but they don’t have to, men need the commandments to lift men out of the abyss, the blessing recognizes that men are appreciative for having those commandment to elevate them and thanks God for that opportunity. It is not insulting to women because it is not about who is better, it is about appreciating having more commandments.

The idea of making a change now – within orthodoxy – bubbled up last fall, when a rabbi named Yosef Kanefsky, who leads a big orthodox traditional Jewish community in Los Angeles, suggested making the “unusual halachik [legal] maneuver” of affirmatively thanking god for being Jewish, and then omitting the remaining thank-yous.

The kerfuffle over his original post led him to take it down, replaced by a more moderate one in which he wrote:

I believe fervently that Orthodoxy has yet to grapple fully or satisfactorily with the dignity of womankind. We know and understand, like no generation before us has known and understood, that women are men’s intellectual and spiritual equals. Our society has accordingly decided to treat both genders with equal dignity, and has opened all professional, political and communal endeavors to both genders equally. I believe that our community however, falls short of this goal in many ways. We are, of course, committed to operating within the framework and rules of halacha. But it is not hard to construct a halachik universe in which women’s physical space in shul [synagogue] and intellectual space in day schools and Study Halls are not lesser, but equal. It is not hard to imagine a halachik universe in which virtually all positions of leadership are available to all. And we must create a halachik universe in which the extortion of women by their ex-husbands as the Bet Din stands helplessly by, is simply unfathomable.**  It’s not halacha’s fault that we are lagging. It’s our fault.

The cached versions of Kanefsky’s synagogue’s mission says “orthodox,” but now it says, “We’re traditional, but innovative, and deeply committed to strengthening the bonds of understanding among the different movements within the Jewish community.” I’m intrigued that B’Nai David-Judea doesn’t use “orthodox” in their mission statement anymore. Was Kanefsky’s kerfuffle part of a schism?

Kanefsky says “we are, of course, committed” to following laws with which he clearly does not morally agree. I’m sure I’ve lost some of the nuance of this debate, having jumped in several thousand years late. But what I like about the story I am confident about: It shows how people in tradition-based religions sometimes do hard work to live by traditional rules according to their morals, while believing — or insisting — that their morals come from those rules.

*Wait a minute: did Freeman just describe a future history that foresees The End of Men?

**This refers to the law requiring husbands to give permission for their wives to divorce them.

What do Jews Google on Christmas?

I don’t know. But I do know what Google searches are geographically correlated with searches for “Hanukkah,” and it includes “Chinese food.”

Here are the maps:

hanukkahgoogle

The map looks close to the Jewish population map from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census (a private outfit).

jewishmap

Here are the top-100 most Hanukkah-like searches, in the obvious categories: Religious/cultural, Howard Stern, Food, Travel and People.

jewishsearches

Merry Christmas.

 

Why Don’t Parents Name Their Daughters Mary Anymore?

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

Understanding the rapid decline of what was once America’s most popular name

virgin mary tattoo

Each year I mark the continued calamitous decline of Mary as a girls’ name in the United States. Not to be over-dramatic, but in the recorded history of names, nothing this catastrophic has ever happened before. Mary was the most common name given to girls every year from the beginning of record-keeping (at least back to 1800) through 1961 (except for a six-year dip to #2, behind Linda).

And then it happened. In 2011, according to the latest report from the Social Security Administration (SSA), Mary fell three more places, to 112th. In absolute numbers, the number of girls given the name Mary at birth has fallen 94 percent since 1961. Here is the trend:

cohen_mary.png

The modernization theory of name trends, advanced most famously by the sociologist Stanley Lieberson, sees the rise of individualism in modern naming practices. “As the role of the extended family, religious rules, and other institutional pressures declines,” he wrote, “choices are increasingly free to be matters of taste.” Mary—both a traditional American name and a symbol religious Christianity—embodies this trend.

The other day I did a search of newspaper birth announcements for the name “Mary,” and turned up a lot of grandmothers named Mary. Here, from a recent day’s birth announcement page from Rock Hill, South Carolina, are three Marys in the grandparent generation, in three different families announcing the births of Mazie, Ja’Nae, and Asani. I diagrammed the family names:

cohen_mary2.png

Other generational sequences in recent announcements also mirror the history of common names: Mary–Jennifer–Madelyn; Mary–Ashley–Emily; Mary–Cora–Elizabeth.

In the tradition of treating statistical trends as horse races, I imagine that there is one person named Mary, who is constantly falling behind: first behind Linda, then Lisa, Jennifer, Ashley, Jessica, and so on, all the way to Isabella and now Sophia.

But that’s not how it happens—it just looks that way because of the amazing regularity in human behavior, which produces an orderly succession of names. Incredibly, out of 1.7 million girls’ names recorded by the SSA in 2011, I was able to predict to within 87 how many would be named Mary. By simply taking the number born in 2010 and subtracting the 5-year average decline, I predicted 2,584 would be born; the actual number was 2,671 (an error of 3.3 percent).

Somehow, out of the millions of individual decisions parents make, they produce steady trends like this. (If you’re as amazed as I am, consider a career in sociology! If not, please bear with me.)

So what does the Mary trend mean? First, it’s the growing cultural value of individuality, which leads to increasing diversity. People value names that are uncommon. When Mary last held the number-one spot, in 1961, there were 47,655 girls given that name. Now, out of about the same number of total births, the number-one name (Sophia) was given only 21,695 times. Conformity to tradition has been replaced by conformity to individuality. Being number one for so long ruined Mary for this era.

Second, America’s Christian family standard-bearers are not standing up for Mary anymore. It’s not just that there may be fewer devout Christians, it’s that even they don’t want to sacrifice individuality for a (sorry, it’s not my opinion) boring name like Mary. In 2011 there were more than twice as many Nevaehs (“Heaven” spelled backwards) born as there were Marys. (If there is anything more specific going on within Christianity, please fill me in.)

I’m not here to give advice to people who want to bring back the “traditional family.” But if I were I would recommend putting your names where your tradition is—and producing some more Marys.

There are precedents for bringing names back. My simple linear prediction method fails once in a while, when a name’s trend turns around. The greatest example is probably Emma. Emma was at number three when the SSA records begin, in 1880. She fell almost down to #500 by the 1970s. But after a decade of uncertainty she began a fantastic run, finally reaching number one in 2008.

cohen_mary3.png

I don’t know (yet) what makes a name turn around like that. Why Emma and not Mildred or Bertha, both former top-10s who fell into oblivion? But if any name has a chance for a similar resurgence, it might be Mary, at least as long as Christianity keeps hanging around.

Let a hundred churches bloom

For Independence Day, I pause to consider religious freedom and immigration.

I recently made some trips out New Hampshire Ave., in Montgomery County, MD. In a 9-mile stretch of road (including a turn off onto the road where my kids’ summer camp was), here is some of what I saw:

Muslim Community Center
St. Andrew Ukranian Orthodox Cathedral
Iglesia de Dios / Church of God
First Alliance Church
Transfiguration Church Episcopal Anglican
Eun Sam Evangelical Church of Washington
Colesville Baptist Church
Colesville Presbyterian Church
New Hampshire Avenue Gospel Chapel
Our Lady of Vietnam Parish
Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Good Shepherd United Methodist Church
Lutheran Church of St. Andrew
Lord’s Prayer Presbyterian Church
St. Thomas Indian Orthodox Church
Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring
New Life Baptist Church
Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church
Heritage Christian Church
Iglesia Adventista

I counted about 30 houses of worship along what some people call the Highway to Heaven. Through some combination of immigration and residential settlement patterns, real estate and zoning conditions, and county tax exemptions, this neighborhood has become an extreme hotbed of religious centers.

I imagine that this kind of eclectic, diverse, religious cacophony is uniquely American, but maybe that’s not true. Anyway, there is something about all this post-modern pre-modernity that I get a kick out of.

Montgomery County, which abuts Washington, D.C., is a major urban suburb, with a million people. Not all those churches are filled with immigrants, but many of them are. In the county, 32% of the population is foreign-born, according to the 2010 American Community Survey (table B05006). Talk about diversity, here are the top 50 – out of 122 – countries of origin for residents of the county, color-coded by region (click to enlarge):

Montgomery County, Maryland, immigrants, by country of origin (top 50 countries, 88% of all immigrants shown).

Immigrants tip the county’s numbers toward the “traditional” side of the ledger in terms of marriage and family structure: 60% of immigrants here are married, compared with 49% of the U.S.-born adults (B06008); and 51% of immigrant kids live with both parents, compared with 46% of the natives (B05009). But their religious and cultural diversity push the county toward the less-traditional future, ethnicity-wise.

Good site for some research, I reckon.

DOMA can’t survive rationality

Secular rationality killed the antigay legal star.

Reading the frustratingly futile discussion over at the Family Scholars blog, I was struck by the collision-of-worldviews aspect of the marriage rights debate. The antigay advocates for restricting marriage rights have floundered in their attempts to win in the legal-rational arena — from the extreme comparisons of homgamous marriage rights to incest and bestiality, to the only-slightly more rational claim that a marriage ban helps children.

Their only recourse is to tradition and emotion — religion, really — and courts have been having a hard time fitting that into the model of rights and laws that constitute the “letter” of the law.

The latest legal turn was from the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which declared that one aspect of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — the part that prevents the federal government from recognizing legal homogamous marriages — is unconstitutional. It sends the law toward the Supreme Court, where it now may get a hearing ahead of California’s state marriage ban, which also was overturned by a federal court.

The decision is relatively short and easy to read. Here is my non-expert interpretation of it.

Starting with an aside

Maybe DOMA should be invalidated on philosophical-science grounds, since the sexes are not “opposites,” but merely pretty different in some ways. DOMA says:

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word “marriage” means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.

Anyway, looking at this image may help a little with this argument.

thinker
Image by Anna Fox from Flickr Creative Commons

Assessing an irrational law

DOMA is consequential. It obviously harms married couples or survivors who can’t access federal benefits for married people. But some of the adverse consequences for states that permit homogamous marriage are symbolically and financially devastating as well. For example, the court points out, the federal government could rescind funding for an entire veteran’s cemetery if a state buried a gay-married spouse there.

DOMA was an emotional act, motivated by religious imperatives and political expedience, rather than a legal-rational one. And the court therefore had the difficult job of figuring out how “to assess the rationale for a congressional statute passed with minimal hearings and lacking in formal findings.” For example, because of DOMA, federal laws regarding a whole host of cases don’t apply to homogamous couples: ethics and nepotism for politicians, the recusal of judges, bribery and threats to family members of government officials; and the Census couldn’t count legally-married homogamous couples. The law just doesn’t survive rational scrutiny.

Equal protection

The decision is a socially conservative one. It refuses to consider the constitutional imperative of a right to marriage. It refuses to apply the “intermediate scrutiny” that gender-based discrimination draws from the courts (which is itself less demanding than the “strict scrutiny” applied in race cases). It hews closely to Supreme Court precedent.

Instead of getting into gay rights, the court merely acknowledges that there has to be some reason to overrule state laws:

in areas where state regulation has traditionally governed, the Court may require that the federal government interest in intervention be shown with special clarity.

In the absence of any such “interest,” you can’t just inflict harm on a specific group of people, legally. (Unless, the decision mentions, you are Antonin Scalia — who dissented, in a preview of his opinion on the DOMA case to come.) So, under equal protection principles, DOMA fails — it harms people substantially for no good reason.

Federalism

With regard to federalism, the decision considers whether the federal government has a legitimate reason to in effect overturn state marriage laws:

Given that DOMA intrudes broadly into an area of traditional state regulation, a closer examination of the justifications that would prevent DOMA from violating equal protection (and thus from exceeding federal authority) is uniquely reinforced by federalism concerns.

As for the DOMA defenders’ cynical claim that it protects the interests of children, that’s just ridiculous:

Whether or not children raised by opposite-sex marriages are on average better served, DOMA cannot preclude same-sex couples in Massachusetts from adopting children or prevent a woman partner from giving birth to a child to be raised by both partners.

As in the California case, the judges here found that denying marriage rights to homogamous couples does not in any rational way improve or protect “traditional” marriage or its supposed benefits to children (despite the claims of self-described experts):

DOMA does not increase benefits to opposite-sex couples–whose marriages may in any event be childless, unstable or both–or explain how denying benefits to same-sex couples will reinforce heterosexual marriage. Certainly, the denial will not affect the gender choices of those seeking marriage. This is not merely a matter of poor fit of remedy to perceived problem, but a lack of any demonstrated connection between DOMA’s treatment of same-sex couples and its asserted goal of strengthening the bonds and benefits to society of heterosexual marriage.

In short, by the weakest possible rational standard, DOMA is both pernicious to minorities and an unjustified imposition on states:

If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress’ will, this statute fails that test.

The decision ends with a wistful look at “traditional” motivations:

Traditions are the glue that holds society together, and many of our own traditions rest largely on belief and familiarity–not on benefits firmly provable in court. The desire to retain them is strong and can be honestly held. For 150 years, this desire to maintain tradition would alone have been justification enough for almost any statute. … But Supreme Court decisions in the last fifty years call for closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern.

In short, much as “we” might love traditions, they just aren’t a legitimate basis for laws that substantially harm groups of people any more.

As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”

Where it goes

George W. Bush was probably right when he said the only way to prevent homogamous marriage from eventually becoming legal would be a constitutional amendment. But with the movement of public opinion that seems increasingly unlikely. And with marriage facts-on-the-ground coming from the leading-edge states, I don’t see how federal courts will ultimately block the way forward.

It is ironic, though, that a universal right to marriage — that pre-modern institution, that bastion of patriarchy, that arbitrary and undemocratic mechanism for distributing property and dividing labor — would end up enshrined in modern law because there is no other rational response to the progress of social change. That’s something.

Maryland’s marriage rights bottleneck

Last year I wrote that Black Christian leaders in Prince George’s County, Maryland, were the political force that blocked the state’s marriage-rights legislation from passing. According to the Washington Post, despite the “state’s reputation as one of the nation’s most liberal states,” the percentage of people here who support gay and lesbian (homogamous) marriage rights is about the same as the national average. That’s because of a large population of Christian African Americans who oppose the law, it appears.

Here is the breakdown of the Post‘s latest poll:

Among Democrats, the gay/lesbian marriage divide has got to be one of the sharpest between Blacks (41% support) and Whites (71% support). Evidence from the General Social Survey (reported here) attributes the race difference to the denominational and religiosity differences between Blacks and Whites. (Of course, 41% Black support is not negligible.)

Those on the wrong side of history appear to be swimming against an insurmountable demographic tide (or whatever). Barring a dramatic turn of events, all the evidence points toward popular support for marriage rights becoming a solid majority in the next few years. That shows in the trend over time, as well as the age split, in the Post poll. Sooner or later, I think, either the churches will decide to change or the population will swim out from under them, dunking them in the drink of political history.

Church saves marriage, and produces curious coefficients

Things that make you say… “peer review”?

This is the time of year when I expect to read inflated or distorted claims about the benefits of marriage and religion from the National Marriage Project. So I was happy to see the new State of Our Unions report put out by W. Bradford Wilcox’s outfit. My first reading led to a few questions.

First: When they do the “Survey of Marital Generosity” — the privately funded, self-described nationally-representative sample of 18-46-year old Americans, which is the source of this and several other reports, none of them published in any peer-reviewed source I can find — do they introduce themselves to the respondents by saying, “Hello, I’m calling from the Survey of Marital Generosity, and I’d like to ask you a few questions about…” If this were the kind of thing subject to peer review, and I were a reviewer, I would wonder if the respondents were told the name of the survey.

Second: When you see oddly repetitive numbers in a figure showing regression results, don’t you just wonder what’s going on?

Here’s what jumped out at me:

If a student came to my office with these results and said, “Wow, look at the big effect of joint religious practice on marital success,” I’d say, “Those numbers are probably wrong.” I can’t swear they didn’t get exactly the same values for everyone except those couples who both attend religious services regularly — 50 50 50, 13 13 13 , 50 50 50, 21 21 21 — in a regression that adjusts for age, education, income, and race/ethnicity, but that’s only because I don’t swear.*

Of course, the results are beside the point in this report, since the conclusions are so far from the data anyway. From this figure, for example, they conclude:

In all likelihood,  the experience of sharing regular religious attendance — that  is, of enjoying shared rituals that endow one’s marriage with transcendent significance and the support of a community  of family and friends who take one’s marriage seriously— is a solidifying force for marriage in a world in which family life is  increasingly fragile.

OK.

Anyway, whatever presumed error led to that figure seems to reoccur in the next one, at least for happiness:

Just to be clear with the grad student example, I wouldn’t assume the grad student was deliberately cooking the data to get a favorable result, because I like to assume the best about people. Also, people who cook data tend to produce a little more random-looking variation. Also, I would expect the student not to just publish the result online before anyone with a little more expertise had a look at it.

Evidence of a pattern of error is also found in this figure, which also shows predicted percentages that are “very happy,” when age, education, income and race/ethnicity are controlled.

Their point here is that people with lots of kids are happy (which they reasonably suggest may result from a selection effect). But my concern is that the predicted percentages are all between 13% and 26%, while the figures above show percentages that are all between 50% and 76%.

So, in addition to the previous figures probably being wrong, I don’t think this one can be right unless they are wrong. (And I would include “mislabeled” under the heading “wrong,” since the thing is already published and trumpeted to the credulous media.)

Publishing apparently-shoddy work like this without peer review is worse when it happens to support your obvious political agenda. One is tempted to believe that if the error-prone research assistant had produced figures that didn’t conform to the script, someone higher up might have sent the tables back for some error checking. I don’t want to believe that, though, because I like to assume the best about people.

* Just kidding. I do swear.

Once more, with urgency (the fall of Mary)

In case I wasn’t urgent enough in the previous post on the fall of Mary.

In the past 5 years the number of girls named Mary at birth in the United States has fallen at a rate of 8% per year, reaching an all-time low of 3,105 in 2009. At that rate — declining 8% per year — there will be less than 1,000 Marys born in 2022, and less than 100 by 2048. If you go by the absolute drops instead of the percentage drops, there will be no Marys born within 10 years.

Surely, you say, that can’t happen, not in a country where Mary was the most popular name given to girls from the beginning of recorded White European history until 1961 (with just 6 years out of the top spot). With more than 2 millions girls born per year, three-quarters of them to Whites, how is that possible?

Yesterday we learned learned that Mary had dropped below the rank of 100 for the first time. Here’s yesterday’s graph, but this time including all the years from 1880, to accentuate the suddenness of the drop, which started in 1962:

It’s a very rapid fall from grace, so to speak. But it’s not unprecedented.

For example, Ethel peaked at #6 in 1896. Where is she now? Fell to #100 by 1939, and dropped out of the top #1,000 in 1976.

Or consider Mildred, who peaked at #6 as late as 1920. She was out of the top #1,000 by 1985. I’ve done some sophisticated projections based on this history, and present them here for Mary beside the history for Mildred. The graph below shows the trends in rank, starting on the left side in their last peak year (1 on the x-axis).

Mildred’s actual history is shown in the blue line. A quadratic formula is used to approximate her progress, shown in the thin blue trend-line. After about 1935 that line is a great fit. The R-square measure of fit for this trend-line is .98 (with 1.0 being perfect).

The graph also shows two projections for Mary. Because Mary started her descent so much later, we can use Mildred’s function as a template, and apply a quadratic formula to Mary as well. Fitting a quadratic formula to Mary’s whole trend since 1961 produces a worse fit, however (.92). That projection has her reaching complete obscurity in 2150. OK, that buys her some time.

However, a closer look shows that Mary has been falling much faster since 1999 (the green inset line). A line fit to the 11 years from 1999 to 2009, also using the quadratic formula, fits much better (.98), and projects Mary disappearing by 2046.

Is it all over? Can Mary come back? Some names have come back, perhaps none more dramatically than Emma, which was #3 in the 1880s before cratering around #425 at the end of the 1960s, only to rise all the way back to #1 in 2008.

On the downside, of course, is Bertha. Her quadratic fit is only .97 — what she really needs is an exponential fit (.99), showing an initially slow drop building to a lightning collapse. Like Mary, she took more than 40 years to fall out of the top 100 — and then fell the next 900 places in following 55 years.

What makes someone’s name an Emma and someone else’s a Bertha? I don’t know, but Mary might want to look into it.

The fall of Mary

Forget the war on Christmas. What about the fall of Mary?

I’m posting this a little before Easter to give The Media time to work up the story by the weekend. Here it is: For the first time in the history of the United States of America, the name Mary is not in the top 100 given to newborn girls.

That’s according to the 2009 Social Security name database. And it’s not just the rankings but the raw numbers. The number of Marys born in 2009 was down 93% from 1961, the last year she was at #1 — a drop from 47,645 that year to just 3,105 now.

Mary was the #1 name every year in the database from 1880 — it’s first year — to 1961 (except for dropping to #2 to Linda, 1947-1952). The database is not perfect or 100% complete. But there is no reason to suspect it was over-counting Marys. And I’m pretty sure she was #1 before 1880, too. Naming your daughter Mary was as traditional as girls wearing blue.

This is not about immigration or ethnic diversity. Although the number of immigrants has increased, so has the number of White Christian Americans. In fact, as Stanley Lieberson has reported in his seminal analysis of American naming patterns, in the old days Mary was common among Blacks as well as Whites, and in the mid-20th century even some Jews were naming their girls Mary. The fact is: few people want to have girls named Mary. (Maria did a little better than Mary,  #71.)

To put this in perspective, there were almost twice as many girls named Nevaeh in 2009; she came in at #34. The Nevaeh trend (which appears to have peaked) is a tipoff to what’s going on: the long-term increase in naming diversity. Americans want kids with less popular names than they used to. For example, the top 20 girls names were 34% of the total in 1940s, but they now represent just 12%. Isabella, today’s #1, was given to just 1.1% of girls in 2009. In 1961 Mary was given to more than twice that proportion, 2.3%.

If Americans like tradition, maybe they just want other people to name their daughters Mary. So, this Easter, who will stand up for Mary?

Anti-gay authority

I apologize for the sarcastic tone here. It’s just been very exasperating these last few weeks to see the Catholic church turning against social change. As a dismayed liberal Catholic advocate put it when the church decreed that merely attempting to ordain women is a “more grave delict,” just like pedophilia: “It tells us that the church still understands itself as an environment dominated by men.” Very disappointing.

Against nature

On the other hand, Natural Law suffered a crushing defeat with the breakthrough for legal homogamous marriage in Argentina this week.

One Argentine senator protested: “Marriage between a man and a woman has existed for centuries, and is essential for the perpetuation of the species.” But surely that depends how many centuries you’re talking about. I am pretty sure there were centuries in which the species survived without the benefit of marriage between men and women. And that’s just our species.

I’m no expert on either, but history does not appear to be Natural Law’s best subject.

Recently, University of Illinois Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion Kenneth Howell found himself in hot water over an email he sent to his students, explaining “utilitarianism and sexuality.” He wrote:

NML [Natural Moral Law] says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act.

If that logic is hard to grasp, consider his history. “In the last few centuries,” he wrote:

We have gradually been separating our sexual natures (reality) from our moral decisions. Thus, people tend to think that we can use our bodies sexually in whatever ways we choose without regard to their actual structure and meaning. This is also what lies behind the idea of sex change operations. We can manipulate our bodies to be whatever we want them to be. If what I just said is true, then this disassociation of morality and sexual reality did not begin with homosexuality. It began long ago.

Ah, so the downward moral slide didn’t begin recently – when homosexuality was invented – but long ago. That must have been back before masturbation was discovered. Just to be clear that his moral conclusion was not dependent on religion – which some people might consider inappropriate – Howell clarified, “Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.”

The other foot

Sometimes authority’s shoe is on the other foot. Dean Dad writes that, about once a year, a student complains to him about a gay professor. When pressed, these students clarify, “I don’t care what you do at home, but you shouldn’t wave it around in my face.” Here in the Dictatorship of Moral Relativism, sometimes religious professors feel they are treated the same way with regard to their religion.

Who would have thought that such feelings of persecution would be nowhere so strong as they are among the Catholic church hierarchy, which finds itself scurrying from port to port in search of shelter for its cargo of precious pedophile priests. Strange times indeed.