March 18th, 2008

post book group: religious retention, toleration

Book group turnout was a little higher than usual; most of the usual suspects showed up (we're wondering where B. has been; I always like what she has to say and miss her) and we got a new member, both younger than any of us and a man. He was personable, participated, had great things to say and says he'll be back. I hope he does return next month for _Stiff_.

Two people in the group did not finish it, and no one liked it as much as I did. By a lot. Lots of complaints about the choppy cutting up of threads. Most people wanted to find out how the Lafferty thread turned out. Issues with Krakauer's journalistic writing style. One of the people who hadn't finished it had read _Escape_ by Carolyn Jessop and contributed interesting sidelights from that book. I hauled in a lot of what I've been blogging about, and talking about with friends, including my frustrations with Sam Harris' _The End of Faith_, which I may yet finish reading (reviews have it he advocates torture! Inquiring minds need to know, but of course this is often where advocates of intolerance wind up). [Ed: He does!]

The person who really liked _The End of Faith_ latched onto the Harold Bloom (he gets the credit in _Under the Banner..._, altho I suspect the statistic originated with Stark) comment about the Mormon growth rate and what that meant for the US _if it continued_. Of course anyone who pays attention to all of what Stark has to say (carefully ignoring the intrusive factual errors which unfortunately litter his books in a distracting and detracting way) knows that New Religious Movements don't stay NRMs forever. And of course, the Mormons haven't. With the recent Pew study, I decided to do a little checking around on cumulative growth and retention, etc. for some of the smaller/more demanding religions: JWs, LDS and SDAs. JW and SDA in the US are both around a million. LDS is larger, but not by a factor of 10. What is striking about JW and SDA (but I'm having more trouble ascertaining for LDS) is that while in any given year they may grow quickly, over a period of years they are stable-to-negative (which is why over 10 years after I quit being a JW, there aren't substantially more US JWs than when I left).

The Pew study explicitly noted the spectacularly low retention rate of JWs in the US: 37%. That is to say, if you ask a bunch of people what they affiliate with now and what they affiliated with before, only 37% of the before JWs are still JWs in the after question. (I'm hoping I got that in the correct order.)

Is LDS different? Harder to tell with them than JWs because their HQ generated stats reflect baptisms and people who were excommunicated or resigned. Unlike JWs, they don't track "active" members (nor do they work hard to boot out officially inactive members, as JWs do -- altho this may vary regionally for both groups; it isn't easy to tell. Certainly, fading works to some degree for both, but fails to some degree for both as well.). The LDS birth rate is higher than for JW (JWs are anti-natalist; LDS is pro-natalist; these are doctrinally driven), but dropping. LDS retention according to Pew is 80%, which is better than Protestant/Catholic.

What about out of the US? JW, SDA and LDS all have significant missionary activities around the world, and have loudly touted their successes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in recent years. Before that, the case was made strongly for Africa and before that, Central and South America. LDS has lousy retention (based on a BYU sociologists work, and some HQ data). Most converts last under a year with only perhaps a quarter ever fully behaving as a convert should. External surveys of population have only a quarter of the number of "official" converts identifying as LDS.

There are some fascinating blogs out there (Mormon blogs, ex-Mormon blogs, ex-JW blogs -- JWs who blog are probably disfellowshipped so none of those, altho HQ does post comments in other blogs -- blogs of Christians who have a "countercult" mission to Mormons, etc.) picking apart all this information and trying to make sense of it in their own (non/anti) religious life, which strongly supports Pew's assertion that the US is a highly competitive religious marketplace.

There's fairly widespread agreement that religious toleration/tolerance arises in the context of numerous, approximately similar strength groups that quite strongly disagree with each other. In an all out battle, no one can win; they can only exhaust themselves and splinter out further groups. The solution: agree to disagree, and then quietly duke it out for converts and desperately try to retain existing members. Toleration, contrary to what Harris seems to believe, has little to do with _feeling_ respect or esteem for the beliefs of others (except for some fraction among us who have that capacity). In general, toleration is about _showing_ through word and deed, respect and courtesy for the beliefs of others. Go to the Netherlands after learning a little Dutch. Use it, and then hang around while they tell you just what they _really_ think of everyone coming to Amsterdam and behaving badly. They have a policy; they are not somehow ascended beings.

What happens to atheist/agnostic/unbelievers (like Harris) in this context? That depends. At various points in history, as long as you believed, you were let largely alone -- but unbelievers got into all kinds of trouble, up to and including execution (cf. Islamic empire, France at some points, etc.). My gut reaction to an unbeliever who wants to start taking on all believers -- who wants to end the ceasefire of toleration unilaterally -- is to sit on them. Hard. And then pound some sense into them. However, this might be an artifact of being raised in a totalitarian religion that brooked no dissent (they'll kick you out for a very minor disagreement and then _not_ let you back in when they decided to believe what you had all along. They'd only let you in if you agreed you _should_ have held the other belief before and changed with The Organization).

What might happen now to unbelievers who end the ceasefire? After all, Pew says clearly that the unaffiliated category is growing rapidly; some do leave, of course, but far more are coming over (at least currently) from the other affiliations. While unaffiliated is not exclusively unbelievers, it could be considered largely that. Does 15% (growing) of the US population have a real shot at beating out any/all of the rest of the groups? Well, one indication is an other Pew survey about what happens when scientific information clashes with a long-held religious belief (let's just say the science doesn't win). While unbelievers of a scientific bent (not all unbelievers are, altho I know that'd be a shock to some) can't make any sense of believers who compartmentalize to continue to believe in science and have their faith, forcing those people to choose would probably not be a net win for the unbelievers. We might well see the walls between groups harden, as organizations and cultures battened down the hatches and started limiting access to scientific information on the part of their members.

There's a lesson to be learned by watching the Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals undergo a generation transition. It's what you would expect: they don't believe what their parents belief. But it's not a straight up sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll rebellion, either (altho neither was the '60s; lots of religion, western and eastern, coexisted with the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll). It's a change in focus from identity groups (anti-GLBT, anti-abortion, anti-feminism, racism) to a social justice message (Sudan, global warming, guardians of the creation). Can some acceptance of evolution be many decades behind? It'd probably be of the Prime Mover or Watchmaker form, but hey, who the hell cares?

It's not easy to tell precisely what Harris means by "not tolerating" religion/religious ideas/religious groups. Does he think we should duct tape their mouths shut (after washing them out with soap)? Take their kids away from them and raise them in unbeliever kibbutzim? Kill 'em all and let, er, yeah, let their component parts nurture the earth from which they evolved? Torture them until they don't believe any more? Tax believers punitively? Only allow unbelievers to own property? Refuse public services (police, fire, etc. protection) to believers? Refuse to allow believers to hold public office (hey! Back to the religious test, where success = failure and failure = sucess).

Or does he just think we should speak our minds: yeah, dude, we think you're freaking nuts to believe the earth was created in 6 24 hour days. But wait! We already do that! I see it on TV quite frequently, I've heard people do it in person and I've made my own fair share of derisive remarks behind people's backs and to their faces and in this blog when I thought they believed something nutty and/or dangerous. If that's his beef -- hey, secularists! It's safe to speak your mind! Then more power to him.

Altho he'd better recognize that when you start a flame war, you'll be feeling some heat yourself.

Harris also has nothing good to say about sociologists who try to find economic/political/etc. explanations for religiously motivated behavior. While I agree there is a certain group out there that will go to any lengths to avoid acknowledging doctrinally motivated screwiness, not everything is doctrinally motivated -- secular considerations modulate (and moderate or amplify) religious motivation and action. If you don't like what a particular religious group is up to, one of the easiest ways to get a fulcrum to move them is to identify some real world thing they care about (their tax exemption, say, or their right to own property as a collective and administer it as they will) and conditionalize its continued presence. Kicking out your members because they accepted medical treatment? Maybe we'll revisit whether you are a net benefit to society and thus whether you are a charity and thus your tax status. Booting out men who disagree with some doctrinal point and not letting them live in a house they built with their own resources? Maybe we'll put our own Trustees in charge of your Trust as a way of dealing with all these unlawful enrichment cases clogging up our courts.

Ignoring the secular component of religious motivation and action removes a significant option.

Harris has huge issues with religious belief because you can't "prove" anything. Partly because he can't be bothered to really learn about religion -- he figures he'll always lose if it comes down to exegesis. Well, _Harris_ might lose, but there are plenty of cases of JWs who went door to door, ran up against a well informed Christian of another variety (or unbeliever, natch), and made the mistake of hanging about a little too long. Boom. Not a JW any more. Mormon Coffee is a blog for Xtians who have a counter cult mission. They _may_ be all ex LDS, but they don't seem to be (tone's wrong, for one); they do, however, scrupulously study what their target convert studies so they can intelligently counter it and turn it to their own ends. Morning, noon and night, there is no proof (not even in science, for the most part), just convincement, evidence, something that compels (un)belief. Refusing to do the hard work to meet people where they are is lazy.

Wanting to create societal change by latching onto the next generation and gettin' 'em while they're young and vulnerable (which appears to be Harris' entire Plan) is just awful. Never mind the massive violation of rights and the potential hazard (dude, ever considered that maybe diversity of opinion, independent of truth value, might be a _good_ thing?) (and hey, ever consider that _you might be wrong_?) (or, say, try this one on for size: what if you're right -- AND everyone else is, too? Too tough for you? _Job_ by Heinlein or _Jurgen_ by Branch Cabell should lay it all out in terms even you can comprehend). It won't stick. Even if you destroyed all the books, redacted every document to remove "in the year of our Lord", destroyed our entire cultural heritage to remove any reference to religion, all it takes is one of those parents beating the crap out of one of those kids, and that kid growing up with an Impending Sense of Doom and a strongly dualistic view of the universe (sound familiar?). Give that adolescent some drugs (even prescription ones) or sleep deprive (for finals) or a bad breakup and ensuing emotional crisis and BOOM! Mystic experience. Get unlucky and the mid-20s adult is charismatic and the fucking cycle begins anew -- without the thousands of years of experience with this kind of nonsense to immunize that kid's generation.

I think you -- heck, I think _I_ could come up with a plausible plan to eliminate religion as a significant part of human society within a century or two at the most. But this is not it.

[Ed.: In the mean time, I've decided I don't have to read the whole book to produce a review, when other people have done such a lovely job already.]

direct to DVD review: Stargate: the Ark of Truth

Plot summary here:

I would say, enough about religion, now for the fun stuff, except anyone who has watched any Stargate knows it's All About Religion. I suspect this would make absolutely no sense at all to anyone who hasn't watched Stargate, and if you stopped watching Stargate before the Ori ark, you'd probably still be completely at sea. In fact, even having watched every episode of all ten seasons, I am still mildly confused at moments.

As usual, SG-1 wanders about finding artifacts that are millions of years old that people have been looking for For Ever and finds them almost immediately, but still gets captured (with the artifact) so Antics Can Ensue. Also as usual, SG-1 is forced to deal with an enemy in their midst (IOA agent) while simultaneously fighting with against a numerically superior enemy with better weaponry and ships. And a Goddess on their side.

Nice costuming on Adria; the licking flames are particularly cool. The hairstyles on this show are going to seriously date in about, oh, I don't know, a couple years? Whatever. That's true of just about anything. There was some particularly good dialogue for Teal'c to Toumin about How Do You Deal With Having Been a Butcher for the Bad Guys.

Other than that, a whole lot of the same old same old, which is why I watch this and miss it so now that there will be no more (until Continuum comes out). Oh, and Carter is now flirting with Cam. One wonders if she's got a thing for her COs. I would consider this a discipline problem, but all of SG-1 is Discipline Problems, so what can one say?

Very nice moment at the bit as The Adventure Continues with them discussing the let down of having Beat the Big Bad, and how they felt the same way after beating the Gou'ld. And the Replicators. The First Time.

a bit more about reviews of Harris et al

"This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is not easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness; it makes Dawkins’s claim that religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate.

Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.” "

limits to freedoms

We've got some great freedom in this country, at least according to the Constitution -- it's always a struggle to ensure those freedoms in reality. Freedom of speech. Freedom of assembly.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Implicit in these freedoms is freedom of thought and belief, in that free exercise of speech or religion requires freedom of thought and belief. The law has long recognized that freedom of speech has limits (yelling fire in a crowded theater when there isn't a fire; fighting words; obscenity; defamation -- for which truth of statement is a complete defense; sedition; etc.). The law has also recognized that freedom of religion has limits (polygamy being an early test case, and it's worth noting these were all adults involved in the test case, peyote being a more recent example, in both cases, religions which used/required these activities were unable to overcome a neutral law prohibiting these activities -- this is Lockean).

The freedom to assemble in the first amendment has been reinterpreted a bunch, being at times held subordinate to the right to petition, but in general is not now. But freedom to assemble can be limited by public safety concerns.

So we have quite strong protection of our right to think what we want, slightly less strong protection of our right to say what we want, slightly less strong protection of our right to worship as we want, and considerably less strong protection of our right to join together for any of the above.

Sam Harris et al have every right to say outlandish things (as people with the freedom to do so have done for thousands of years, at least going back to Socrates and Plato and probably much earlier) about how we should limit the freedom of others to think, believe and speak. We'd damn well better have the sense to recognize that whether it's the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses kicking out a member for what they think (even when they don't talk about it to anyone else), or a New Atheist proposing we go after people for holding beliefs that might potentially lead to Bad Actions, these people are proposing that we throw away rights we've fought wars and been activists to defend. Baby. Bathwater. Really fucking stupid.

And totally unnecessary. There are plenty of laws to go after Bad Actors -- for their Bad Actions, not their foolish and dangerous beliefs. And we've got all the freedom we need to speak truth to their foolish and dangerous beliefs. We create a structure in which we start saying you-can't-think-or-say-that-because-of-what-it-leads-to, and let's just say it won't go anywhere good. We _really_ should have learned our lesson from the Zero Tolerance limits to freedom of property. And yet, we haven't.