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Noah Smith: Why Do Americans Like Jews and Dislike Mormons?


I am delighted to host another guest religion post by Noah Smith. Don’t miss Noah’s other religion posts on

  1. God and SuperGod 
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God
  4. Mom in Hell
  5. Buddha Was Wrong About Desire
  6. Noah Smith: Judaism Needs to Get Off the Shtetl

Here is Noah:


The Pew Research Center recently did an interesting survey asking Americans how they felt about various religious groups.Here are the findings in a single table, shown above.

was actually surprised by the low numbers across the board - there was almost no category in which more than 70% of people of one religion felt warmly toward people of another religion. But I wouldn’t put too much stock in that, actually - answers to these surveys usually tend to change a lot depending on how you phrase the question. The relative ratings are more interesting. Some of the findings are easily explained—the low ratings given to Muslims, for example are obviously an unfortunate result of the current political troubles with jihadist terrorist groups. But other findings are more surprising and intriguing. Here are some thoughts I had, looking at the numbers. 

Why do Americans like Jews?

As many have noticed, Jews received the most positive ratings of any religious group in America. This confirms that American society is not in any meaningful way anti-Semitic, which is good news. But why do people like Jews so much? 

Hypothesis 1: Nobody knows what Jews even are. When I was in high school in a medium-sized Texas town, another kid asked me about my religion. He asked: “Are you…Hanukkah?” So maybe people just have no idea what Judaism is, and figure it must be a minor thing that is no threat to their own faith. 

Hypothesis 2: Jews are no threat. Jewish culture has a strong stigma against proselytization. I’ve criticized that insularity, but maybe it’s paying dividends. People don’t like threats - that’s why Japan and Germany are such popular countries these days. Judaism is not going to knock on your door and ask you if you’ve heard about Yahweh. 

Hypothesis 3: The entertainment industry. There are lots of Jewish actors, comedians, etc. If you ask the average American to name someone Jewish, she’ll probably think of a funny guy like Jerry Seinfeld or a cute girl like Natalie Portman, or maybe a musician like Bob Dylan. If people knew that Drake, Scarlett Johansson, and James Franco were Jewish, they’d probably like us even more! 

In addition, the two main drivers of anti-Semitism—European conspiracy theories and Muslim anger about Palestine—are both notably absent in America.

Why don’t Americans like Mormons more?

Mormons get middling low ratings in the poll. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, given the prevalence of anti-Mormon discrimination in America. But what is the cause of the discrimination? David Smith, a political scientist at the University of Sydney (and no relation to Yours Truly, though we have clinked a few glasses over the years), finds that many Americans consider Mormons as an “outsider” group, which is strange considering that Mormonism is the only major religion to begin on American soil. Why do people see Mormons as outsiders?

Hypothesis 1: Proselytizing. One possibility is that the rapid spread of Mormonism poses a threat to other, more established religions. In this respect, Mormonism is the polar opposite of Judaism—every Mormon man must go out and convert people. That’s threatening, no matter how politely it’s done.  

Hypothesis 2: The perception of secrecy. There is a perception of secrecy and exclusivity surrounding Mormonism. Anyone can go participate in any Jewish prayer service. But not even all Mormons can enter “dedicated" Mormon temples! Some Mormon weddings exclude non-Mormons. And there’s a perception that many other aspects of the religion are secret. Secrecy seems alien, and exclusivity is suspicious.

I think anti-Mormonism is a bad thing, but I don’t know how to combat it.

Why don’t Jews like Evangelicals?

One interesting finding from the poll is that although 69% of Evangelical Christians expressed positive feelings toward Jews (one of the highest ratings given), only 28% of Jews expressed positive feelings toward Evangelical Christians (one of the lowest ratings given). This is weird, since Evangelical Christian sects - unlike, say, the Catholic Church - have no history of anti-Semitism or persecution of Jews. Also, the asymmetry itself is strange. Why don’t Jews like Evangelicals more?

What’s going on? 

Hypothesis 1: Instinctive fear of dominant religion. Jews in Europe and the Mideast had a long history of being persecuted by whatever the dominant religious sect in the area happened to be - the Catholic Church, Islam, or the Eastern Orthodox Church. Jewish culture may have simply inherited an instinctive distrust of whatever the most powerful religious group seems to be. 

Hypothesis 2: Politics. American Jews are generally liberal, while Evangelicals are generally conservative. In America, politics is often a stronger religion than actual religion. In addition, some Jews may be afraid that Evangelicals only like them because of a millenarian desire to see Israel recreated and then destroyed (in accordance with Biblical prophecy), or perhaps a cynical desire to use Israelis as expendable shock troops against the Muslims. This is probably not a motivating factor for most Evangelicals, but it does get some play in the media.

Hypothesis 3: Anxiety about the end of Judaism. Non-Orthodox Judaism is a dying religion. In America (and Britain), Jews are marrying non-Jews and ditching their ancestral religion at an astounding rate. It turns out that integration and assimilation destroys Judaism, while pogroms, ostracism, and oppression keep it going (someone might have bothered to mention this to Hitler!). Many Jews are naturally anxious about the end of their distinctive culture, and may tend to displace this anxiety by feeling bad about America’s “dominant” religion - Evangelical Christianity.

I think this attitude is a bad one. Evangelical Christianity is far more pro-Jewish than any other branch of Christianity has ever been. Furthermore, Evangelical Christianity has been an important factor in the creation of American society, the most philo-Semitic Western society in history. Jews should have a more positive view of Evangelicals.

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John Stuart Mill’s Rejection of Anarcho-Capitalism


British policemen in Manchester (illustrative photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Anarcho-Capitalism of Murray Rothbard does not recognize the legitimacy of taxation even to fund police protection. John Stuart Mill has a broader view of what a state can legitimately do. In On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraphs 1-3, he writes:

What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?

Each will receive its proper share, if each has that which more particularly concerns it. To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.

Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest. This conduct consists first, in not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights; and secondly, in each person’s bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation. These conditions society is justified in enforcing at all costs to those who endeavour to withhold fulfilment. Nor is this all that society may do. The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare, without going the length of violating any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law.

John’s argument that “every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit” is one that Elizabeth Warren has been echoing to argue for the legitimacy of taxation to support a wide range of government activities. E. J. Dionne’s review of her book A Fighting Chance  in the Washington Post offers these quotations from the book:

1. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” she said. “Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.” …

2. “There’s nothing pro-business about crumbling roads and bridges or a power grid that can’t keep up,” she writes. “There’s nothing pro-business about cutting back on scientific research at a time when our businesses need innovation more than ever. There’s nothing pro-business about chopping education opportunities when workers need better training.”

Although her specific examples of government action in these quotations sound fairly benign, the way Elizabeth is using the argument that ”every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit” does not provide any obvious principle for putting a bound on what the government can legitimately raise taxes for. I suspect that, if magically revived in the modern world, John Stuart Mill would argue for a more limited government than the one Elizabeth Warren advocates. (And it is clear from the passage in On Liberty quoted above that he would not go along with her invocation of a “social contract.”)     

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Will Women Ever Get the Mormon Priesthood?


Mormon women lining up to get into the Priesthood Session of General Conference to highlight the fact that women are barred from the Mormon priesthood

Until I was almost 18 years old, the Mormon Church would not ordain men of black African descent to the Mormon priesthood. That all changed in 1978—a change I wrote about in these posts:

Having changed its policy to allow men of African descent to be ordained, could the Mormon Church ever allow women to be ordained? On the one hand, the Mormon Church recently excommunicated Kate Kelly for founding and leading the group Ordain Women, which advocates allowing women to be ordained to the Mormon priesthood.  (See Emma Green’s June 24, 2014 Atlantic article "Kicked Out of Heaven for Wanting Women Priests." And here is a podcast of an excellent interview with Kate Kelley that Sid Sharma alerted me to.) On the other hand, it seems as if Ordain Women’s efforts are having some effect. Among those efforts, one of the most powerful has been organizing women to line up to get into (and get turned away from) the “Priesthood Session” of the Mormon Church’s twice-a-year “General Conference.” The Mormon Church’s sensitivity to this bit of activism is indicated by the efforts it has made to ban news cameras from Temple Square to avoid more pictures of Ordain Women’s protest about women being excluded.    

Kate Kelly did not want to be thrown out of the Mormon Church. My view is that, given the realities of how the Mormon Church as an institution operates, Kate Kelly’s sacrifice of being willing to stand her ground and be excommunicated was an important contribution toward greater equality between men and women in the Mormon Church, for two reasons. First, organizing women for a highly visible protest of women’s exclusion—and Kate’s excommunication itself—get Mormons talking about the issue.

Second, the advocacy of Ordain Women creates space for quite a bit of movement toward greater equality under cover of saying “Those women trying to get into the Priesthood Session of General Conference are going too far, but …”. In other words, progress often requires someone to volunteer to be the hippie for “hippie-punching.” (See Josiah Neeley’s guest post “The Science of Hippie-Punching on Noah Smith’s blog Noahpinion for an explanation of the term “hippie-punching.”)

Even top leaders of the Mormon Church can now push for greater equality between men and women while reassuring more conservative colleagues that they won’t go too far in undoing the traditional exclusion of women from positions of power by agreeing that Kate Kelly had to be excommunicated. (The concern of more conservative Mormon leaders would be to (a) keep the Mormon Church from looking bad and (b) to set limits.) Given the likely discussions among top Mormon leaders about what to do about Ordain Women before Kate Kelly was actually excommunicated, it is appropriate to see Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks’s General Conference talk "The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood" as the outcome of such dynamics within the leadership of the Mormon Church. (As you can see from Suzette Smith’s Ordain Women blog post "Reflections on Elder Oaks’ Remarks in the Priesthood Session of General Conference,” I am not alone in seeing Dallin Oaks’s talk as a favorable development for women’s equality in the Mormon Church.) 

In the Mormon Church, the longest-serving apostle still alive becomes the head—President and Prophet—of the Mormon Church. And seniority in this sense of time in rank is also very important in how Mormon leaders interact with one another. Dallin Oaks is currently the 5th most senior apostle, and several of the more senior apostles are in poor health due to advanced age. Also, before being appointed to high church office, Dallin Oaks was a high-powered lawyer. So  other Mormon Church leaders trust him to present their position well. Given his lawyer’s training, Dallin is careful to represent the collective views of the Mormon Church leadership, but he himself has a mild liberal streak, having served as founding member of the editorial board of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which sometimes hosts articles in opposition to official positions of the Mormon Church (including key articles that helped prepare the way for the extending the Mormon priesthood to men of black African descent.   

Here are some key passages from Dallin’s General Conference talk "The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood" with my commentary after each passage. 

1. With the exception of the sacred work that sisters do in the temple under the keys held by the temple president, which I will describe hereafter, only one who holds a priesthood office can officiate in a priesthood ordinance. 

Mormon temples are at a much higher level of sacredness than the regular meetinghouses where Sunday services are held. They are the site of many powerful and very interesting rituals that non-Mormons never see. The passage just above from Dallin’s talk is remarkable for openly acknowledge that in Mormon temples, women officiate in certain rituals in what to all appearances is a priestly capacity fully parallel to the way in which men officiate in a priestly capacity in the corresponding rituals. If Mormon women took roles this closely parallel to those taken by men in rituals outside of temples as well, they would have a version of the Mormon priesthood in all but name.  

2. We are accustomed to thinking that all keys of the priesthood were conferred on Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple, but the scripture states that all that was conferred there were “the keys of this dispensation” (D&C 110:16). At general conference many years ago, President Spencer W. Kimball reminded us that there are other priesthood keys that have not been given to man on the earth, including the keys of creation and resurrection.

Dallin’s reference to one of my (unfortunately deceased) grandfather Spencer W. Kimball’s statements is a reminder that, as the official distillation of Mormon belief into thirteen “Articles of Faith” says, “we believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” In context, this is a positive note that God could open the door to ordination, or at least more extensive priestly or priest-like roles for Mormon women. (A good example of an additional priest-like role for Mormon women that would not be too radical a change from current policy would be if Mormon women were once again encouraged, as they were in the 19th century, to give healing blessings—that is, when appropriate, to put their hands on someone’s head while saying a prayer for that person to recover from a sickness.)

3. The divine nature of the limitations put upon the exercise of priesthood keys explains an essential contrast between decisions on matters of Church administration and decisions affecting the priesthood. The First Presidency and the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, who preside over the Church, are empowered to make many decisions affecting Church policies and procedures—matters such as the location of Church buildings and the ages for missionary service. But even though these presiding authorities hold and exercise all of the keys delegated to men in this dispensation, they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.

Just as Mormon Church leaders said about extending the Mormon priesthood to men of African descent, Dallin is saying it would take a special revelation from God to extend the Mormon priesthood to women. But of course, Mormons believe that God did give a special revelation in 1978 that the Mormon priesthood should be offered to all faithful men. So that is not at all ruling out more extensive priestly roles for women, only saying that Mormon Church leaders would have to feel they had a powerful subjective spiritual experience (which they interpreted with confidence as an actual communication from God) in favor of such a change before they would think they had the warrant to do so.    

4. In an address to the Relief Society, President Joseph Fielding Smith, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said this: “While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, it has not been conferred upon them, that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. … A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord. They have authority given unto them to do some great and wonderful things, sacred unto the Lord, and binding just as thoroughly as are the blessings that are given by the men who hold the Priesthood.”

In that notable address, President Smith said again and again that women have been given authority. To the women he said, “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you.” He also said that the Relief Society “[has] been given power and authority to do a great many things. The work which they do is done by divine authority.” And, of course, the Church work done by women or men, whether in the temple or in the wards or branches, is done under the direction of those who hold priesthood keys. Thus, speaking of the Relief Society, President Smith explained, “[The Lord] has given to them this great organization where they have authority to serve under the directions of the bishops of the wards … , looking after the interest of our people both spiritually and temporally.”

Thus, it is truly said that Relief Society is not just a class for women but something they belong to—a divinely established appendage to the priesthood.

We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.

In giving this quotation from Joseph Fielding Smith, an earlier church leader who later became President of the Mormon Church, Dallin not only alludes again to the clearly priest-like functions women perform in Mormon temples, but also says that while women do not have “the priesthood," they routinely have "the authority of the priesthood" in the many "callings" (appointive church volunteer positions) in which they serve in the Mormon Church. The effect is to more nearly equate the prestige of the callings women serve in to the callings men serve in.  

5. As stated in the family proclamation, the father presides in the family and he and the mother have separate responsibilities, but they are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.” Some years before the family proclamation, President Spencer W. Kimball gave this inspired explanation: “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.”

In the eyes of God, whether in the Church or in the family, women and men are equal, with different responsibilities.

Despite its origins as a document hoping to hold the line against legal gay marriage (a topic I address here), and its essentialist views on gender, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” does say that men and women are equal. This and other official statements that men and women are equal because they have the potential to counteract the very understandable inference by Mormons that since only men hold the priesthood, men are more than equal to women. It is this difficult-to-suppress inference that is the most damaging aspect of Mormon women being excluded from priesthood offices—much more damaging than the (significant) hurt from not being able to perform certain rituals. 

6. In his insightful talk at BYU Education Week last summer, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave these teachings:

“Our Church doctrine places women equal to and yet different from men. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other. …

“When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which is priesthood power. … Access to the power and the blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children.”

In most religions that have ordained women, women have gained the opportunity to take on exactly the same offices as men. That is the usual pattern. But in Mormonism, what the threads of past tradition point to as a more likely resolution of the current structural inequality between men and women is (a) the recognition of a parallel priesthood for women that is different, but of equal dignity and (b) inclusion of women in all the decision-making councils of the church on the basis of their separate but equal priesthood. Already it is well within the discretion of the bishop who leads a Mormon congregation to include female leaders in the key decision-making meetings. (And many do.) A simple step for the Mormon Church would be to insist that all bishops do this, rather than merely allowing it. A more radical step would be to recognize the top female leader in a Mormon congregation as the co-equal of the bishop, just as the church leaders Dallin quotes recognize the wife as a co-equal of the husband in a marriage.    

One of the great strengths of Mormonism is its adaptability. Unlike in Catholicism, where the Pope is limited to interpreting the preexisting tradition, the Mormon Prophet can declare de novo revelations from God. And to the extent precedents are desired, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was creative enough (and other Mormon leaders also felt latitude to be creative given the doctrine that they could get inspiration from God) that a wide variety of precedents are available. The Mormon hierarchy is set up in such a way that it is led by old men, who have a great deal of wisdom from their life experience. So it is resistant to fads and sometimes resistant to changes that should happen. But with the lag one would expect from the age structure of the leadership, many changes that should happen eventually do happen. Someday, I expect women to have a much more equal station in the Mormon Church than they do now. As part of that equality, I see a future Mormon Church that is led by wise old women as well as wise old men.

Despite being a non-supernaturalist myself, I know that religions that expect belief in the supernatural matter a lot to their adherents, just as religions that fully welcome non-supernaturalists matter to people like me. And having grown up within Mormonism, and having many friends and family who are still believers, makes me care about Mormonism. I think that equality between men and women is important for both supernaturalist and non-supernaturalist religions. However, in religions that believe in the supernatural, beliefs about the distribution of supernatural gifts between men and to women matter. One way or another, I hope that Mormonism finds its way to a greater level of equality between men and women, as I think it will.   

—written in Rome

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Safe, Legal, Rare and Early

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Even in a year when the abortion issue has been relatively quiet, the struggle over abortion policy continues to make news. On June 26, the Supreme Court decided that a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics was too great an imposition on the free-speech rights of anti-abortion activists. On June 3, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck down restrictions on pills that induce abortion early in pregnancies.

And Wendy Davis’s uphill campaign to become governor of Texas was jumpstarted by her filibuster against restrictions on late-term abortions

The American politics of abortion generates a lot of heat because of the passion of those with extreme views. Yet most Americans have moderate views on abortion. The debate over abortion restrictions involves a tragic conflict between a human life—however small and undeveloped—and the freedom of a potential mother to determine the course of her life.   

Bill Clinton famously said during the 1996 presidential campaign:  “Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare.” In saying this, he missed another important proviso. According to most Americans, abortion should be not only safe, legal and rare—when there is an abortion, it should be done early in pregnancy. Gallup polls from 2012 indicate that only 31% of adults think abortion should be illegal in the first trimester, but 64% think abortion should be illegal during the second trimester, and 80% think abortion should be prohibited in the third trimester. And these attitudes have been remarkably stable over time.

I agree with the majority of Americans. It makes sense to me that someone ought to have the right not to be killed the day before they would otherwise have been born. And it makes sense to me that, despite its potential, the interests of a single human cell from a recently fertilized egg cannot weigh as much in the balance as the interests of a woman in choosing one of the most basic aspects of what her future will look like. In between, I see the ethical weight of nascent human life as increasing gradually over time. There are milestones along the way: fertilization, implantation, getting a heartbeat, becoming able to feel pain, being born. But even those transitions, seen up close, are gradual ones.  For example, birth is not one moment of transition, but many: the breaking of the water, the emergence of the baby’s head, the first breath, the cutting of the umbilical cord, and many key moments along the way.

Even after birth, loving parents feel a baby becoming more and more precious with every passing day. And with passing time, the child gains a greater and greater consciousness of its own existence, and (in all but pathological cases) its own strong desire to live. At the other end, even before conception, I like to think that even the unconceived have at least some small ethical interest in getting a chance to become an actual human being.

So to me, there are no sudden ethical jumps, but instead, a gradually increasing ethical weight to a developing human life, at least from shortly before conception to shortly after birth. What this ethical view means for policy is that when an abortion does happen it is better to have it occur early. Laws against partial-birth abortion seem ethically appropriate to me just as laws against killing the baby one day later are, but attempts to discourage women from using morning-after pills such as “Plan B” do not. It takes many, many fertilized eggs to equal the ethical weight of a single one-month-along fetus aborted because a woman was kept from using a morning-after pill. And while it might be reasonable to consider short waiting periods to encourage people to think things through, restrictions on abortion (or harrassments to drive out abortion clinics) that force women to go to another state at the cost of weeks of delay magnify the horror of the abortion that ultimately does take place.   

Unfortunately, the extreme viewpoints that have driven much of the policy debate have left little room for us to focus on trying to insure that the abortions that do occur are early ones. The politically most active parts of the pro-life movement claim that a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of a baby, while the politically most active parts of the pro-choice movement are loath to give any rights to a human being the day before birth. So it is the duty of the rest of us—who have both pro-choice and pro-life leanings jostling in our hearts at the same time—to work toward policies that will insure that abortions are not only safe, legal and rare, but also early.



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John Stuart Mill’s Brief for Individuality


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I have been publishing a post based on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty every other Sunday since January 27, 2013. Each of these posts is a bit like a homily based on a passage of scripture; but the “scripture” in this case is On Liberty, and occasionally I disagree with John. (You can seem them all on my Religion, Science and Humanities sub-blog.)

Chapter I of On Liberty is an introduction. When I completed my series of posts on Chapter II of On Liberty, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” I organized that series of posts in “John Stuart Mill’s Brief for Freedom of Speech.” That post is 43d in my latest list of most popular posts, and exhibits a continuing steady popularity long after its first appearance. I have now completed my series of posts of Chapter III of On Liberty, “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being.” So I wanted to do a post gathering together links to all my posts based on that chapter.

Time has passed quickly enough that I am surprised by the total number of posts. I think the titles of these posts give a pretty good idea of the progression of John’s argument: 

On the whole, I think John’s argument for individuality is a bit less well known than his argument for freedom of speech. I found many of the things he had to say surprising.  

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Noah Smith: Judaism Needs to Get Off the Shtetl


Image source: “Chana Kowalska’s painting ‘The Shtetl’, painted in 1934, shows a traditional Shtetl in Eastern Europe during the 1930s.

I am delighted to be able to host another guest religion post by Noah Smith.

Don’t miss Noah’s other religion posts on

  1. God and SuperGod 
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God
  4. Mom in Hell
  5. Buddha Was Wrong About Desire

The point of this one is that it would great if more people in the world were Jewish. Let’s give people a chance to become Jewish by letting them now how easy it is to join Reform Judaism. (Note that you don’t have to be Jewish yourself to give people this useful bit of information.)

To me, Reform Judaism in particular is an important religion because it is one of the rare religions that fully welcomes non-supernaturalists. 


Scott Aaronson has a wonderful blog about math and computer science, called “Shtetl-Optimized”. I’m not sure why it’s called that, since the name has nothing to do with the blog (which you should check out if you are a hardcore nerd). But anyway, this post is about the name, not the blog, since the phrase “shtetl-optimized” got me thinking about Judaism.

I was raised Jewish, but gently set it aside when I grew up and lost my taste for life rules for which I couldn’t see a point (e.g. “Don’t mix milk and meat!”). But I still think there is a lot to be valued in Judaism - as there is in most major religions - and I am mildly frustrated by the failure of these good things to diffuse out into the wider world. You see, the Jewish religion is still shtetl-optimized.

shtetl was a Jewish ghetto in Central or Eastern Europe, similar to the town featured in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Modern Judaism developed much of its current mix of ideas and culture in those little ghetto towns. These are precisely the elements that I think much of the world would embrace: 1) a love of knowledge, education, and friendly argument, and 2) a concept of personal morality based on healthy living and positive personal relationships.

Of course, these things have naturally diffused into modern culture to some extent, through American academia and Hollywood (two institutions in which Jews have a large presence). But I think people in many countries would enjoy being able to have a religion that emphasized these things on a daily basis, and provided the kind of cultural community that religions are good at providing. In other words, I think a lot of people in a lot of countries would enjoy being Jewish.

Unfortunately, they don’t get the chance. Most people don’t realize that it is very easy to convert to Reform Judaism (the less strict flavor, which doesn’t make you wear a funny hat). They don’t realize that because Jews consciously avoid making them aware of this fact. Jews, you see, have a cultural taboo against proselytizing. When I suggested to my (more religiously inclined) cousins that Jews should accept more converts, they were horrified.

Making people aware of the ease of conversion is actually not the same as “proselytizing”. “Proselytizing” means trying to convince people to convert. But my bet is that in the Old Country of Europe, the Christians who surrounded Jews failed to see that fine distinction. My guess is that if there was any rumor that the local Christians were converting to Judaism, then some Jewish people’s houses were going to get burned. 

So my guess is that Jews learned their insularity on the shtetl. The cultural taboo against informing people in China, or Brazil, or Indonesia that they can be Jews if they want is an anachronism. If Judaism is to survive, much less bring the benefit of its unique perspective to those who would enjoy it, it’s going to have to learn to inform the goyish (non-Jewish) world that they, too, can be Red Sea Pedestrians.

(Of course, there are a few Jews who are insular for a quite different reason - they want to preserve the purity of the Ashkenazic race - an ethnic group that is mostly Jewish. I myself belong to that group, but to me, preserving the purity of the Ashkenazic race sounds about as desirable a goal as giving myself a vasectomy with a Dremel.)

Anyway, the upshot is this: Jews, time to get off the shtetl! There are lots of people in China and Brazil and Indonesia who would love to join your religion. Why not let them know they can?

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John Stuart Mill on the Tension Between Maintaining the Variation that Ferrets Out Improvements and the Quick Diffusion of Best Practices as Currently Perceived


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It is no secret that I am a partisan for Saltwater Macroeconomics as a better route to insight into business cycles than Freshwater Macroeconomics. (For a good sense of my own views, see "On the Great Recession," "The Neomonetarist Perspective" and "Why I am a Macroeconomist: Increasing Returns and Unemployment.") Yet, as Noah Smith and I wrote in “The Shakeup at the Minneapolis Fed and the Battle for the Soul of Macroeconomics,”

We are strong proponents of the idea that scientific progress—especially in economics—depends on a vigorous debate among widely divergent points of view.  

The analogy that comes to my mind is biological evolution. Genetic variation is the crucial raw material on which natural selection operates in order to raise overall fitness, with all of the fascinating complexity of life that often accompanies higher fitness. Similarly, variation in viewpoints and approaches is the crucial raw material for the advances that result from scientific debate. 

One of the key drivers of biological evolution is the need for disease resistance. (Indeed, the Red Queen Hypothesis holds that the key evolutionary driver for the origins of sexual reproduction was the need to outmaneuver parasites.) In agriculture, monocultures that gives a large share of a crop an almost identical genetic makeups run the risk of disastrous blights. In economics, having everyone look at things the same way would risk having no one prepared to understand new circumstances that the world might find itself in. As Noah and I wrote:

Scientifically, Freshwater macroeconomics plays an important role in laying out how the world should be if everyone thought like an economist.  

In the future, more people may think much more like economists. And as I point out to my students, when talking about Real Business Cycle models, these models (done as well as possible, of course) establish, the benchmark of what the natural level of output is. And the dynamics of the natural level of output and the natural level of other macroeconomic variables in turn describe how the economy will behave in the future when (I optimistically predict) central banks will be much better at their task of keeping the economy at the natural level of economic activity. We need Freshwater Macroeconomics (again, done as well as possible) to be well-prepared for that possible future. (The blight in the analogy I am pursuing would be a blight on models that focus on the consequences of an output gap in a future when there aren’t much in the way of output gaps any more because monetary policy is so good.) 

One of the counterintuitive logical consequences of the importance of diversity of approaches is that diffusing best practices too rapidly can actually be a bad thing. John Stuart Mill explains, in On Liberty, Chapter III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 18 and 19:

The circumstances which surround different classes and individuals, and shape their characters, are daily becoming more assimilated. Formerly, different ranks, different neighbourhoods, different trades and professions, lived in what might be called different worlds; at present, to a great degree in the same. Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. Great as are the differences of position which remain, they are nothing to those which have ceased. And the assimilation is still proceeding. All the political changes of the age promote it, since they all tend to raise the low and to lower the high. Every extension of education promotes it, because education brings people under common influences, and gives them access to the general stock of facts and sentiments. Improvements in the means of communication promote it, by bringing the inhabitants of distant places into personal contact, and keeping up a rapid flow of changes of residence between one place and another. The increase of commerce and manufactures promotes it, by diffusing more widely the advantages of easy circumstances, and opening all objects of ambition, even the highest, to general competition, whereby the desire of rising becomes no longer the character of a particular class, but of all classes. A more powerful agency than even all these, in bringing about a general similarity among mankind, is the complete establishment, in this and other free countries, of the ascendancy of public opinion in the State. As the various social eminences which enabled persons entrenched on them to disregard the opinion of the multitude, gradually become levelled; as the very idea of resisting the will of the public, when it is positively known that they have a will, disappears more and more from the minds of practical politicians; there ceases to be any social support for nonconformity—any substantive power in society, which, itself opposed to the ascendancy of numbers, is interested in taking under its protection opinions and tendencies at variance with those of the public.

The combination of all these causes forms so great a mass of influences hostile to Individuality, that it is not easy to see how it can stand its ground. It will do so with increasing difficulty, unless the intelligent part of the public can be made to feel its value—to see that it is good there should be differences, even though not for the better, even though, as it may appear to them, some should be for the worse. If the claims of Individuality are ever to be asserted, the time is now, while much is still wanting to complete the enforced assimilation. It is only in the earlier stages that any stand can be successfully made against the encroachment. The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves, grows by what it feeds on. If resistance waits till life is reduced nearly to one uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it.

However wrongheaded they may seem, minority viewpoints, especially those articulately advanced, are to be treasured as a key to scientific advance and resiliency. Similar things can be said for minority political, cultural, and religious viewpoints. For example, whatever my differences of opinion with the Mormon Church, it is a prodigious generator of important social experiments, many of which may have turned up useful ways of doing things. See for example

(See also the discussion of non-monetary motivations in Scott Adams’s Finest Hour: How to Tax the Rich.) I am confident that those who know them better could point to similar contributions to the rich array of alternatives for ways to organize society that have been identified by other minority religions. (Hint for comments!)  

As an example in the cultural vein, while some presume to make strong value judgments about different genre’s of music. I have found many German economists to be scathing in their view of Schlager music, for example, in an intensified version of the way many highly educated Americans look down on Country music as low class. My attitude is that substantial numbers of people enjoy a particular type of music, there is likely to be something to it. I listen trying to find the angle from which I too can get that kind of pleasure from each genre. I may not succeed, and then retain a preference for other music instead, but it is worth giving each genre a good try.

In politics, of course the disdain with which the Left looks upon the Right and the Right looks upon the left has been a target of mine since the beginnings of this blog. I insist that there are crucial insights on both sides of the political spectrum. Our nation and all other democratic nations would go disastrously wrong in their policies if either side of the political spectrum were eradicated from the range of opinions expressed in political action.  

One of the most common temptations human beings face is the temptation to try to make people saying something disagreeable shut up. Another common temptation is to try to make people doing something that seems disgusting cease and desist. But stop and consider: a point of view (with its attendant insights) or a way of life (with its attendant practices) that does not currently agree with your own views may someday be your salvation.  


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Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet


Earth and the Sun, as viewed by the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet

In this moment, as in all the moments I have, may the image of the God or Gods Who May Be burn brightly in my heart.

Let faith give me a felt assurance that what must be done to bring the Day of Awakening and the Day of Fulfilment closer can be done in a spirit of joy and contentment.

Let the gathering powers of heaven be at my left hand and my right. Let there be many heroes and saints to blaze the trail in front of me. Let the younger generations who will follow discern the truth and wield it to strengthen good and weaken evil. Let the grandeur of the Universe above inspire noble thoughts that lead to noble plans and noble deeds. Let the Earth beneath be a remembrance of the wisdom of our ancestors and of others who have died before us. And may the light within be an ocean of conscious and unconscious being to sustain me and those who are with me through all the trials we must go through. 

In this moment, I am. And I am grateful that I am. May others be, now and for all time.


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John Stuart Mill on the Limits to Top-Down Progress


The Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty

I have always thought that the great weakness of Obamacare is that its basic philosophy is to mandate that things be done the same way throughout the United States. John Stuart Mill is eloquent in laying out what is lost when top-down control pushes things toward a single approach instead of a diversity of approaches. On this theme for health care, see my posts 

 Of course, the message of On Liberty, Chapter III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 17 and 18 has a much broader application than to health care policy. It points to the benefits of the diversity fostered by liberty in a wide variety of contexts: 

We have a warning example in China—a nation of much talent, and, in some respects, even wisdom, owing to the rare good fortune of having been provided at an early period with a particularly good set of customs, the work, in some measure, of men to whom even the most enlightened European must accord, under certain limitations, the title of sages and philosophers. They are remarkable, too, in the excellence of their apparatus for impressing, as far as possible, the best wisdom they possess upon every mind in the community, and securing that those who have appropriated most of it shall occupy the posts of honour and power. Surely the people who did this have discovered the secret of human progressiveness, and must have kept themselves steadily at the head of the movement of the world. On the contrary, they have become stationary—have remained so for thousands of years; and if they are ever to be farther improved, it must be by foreigners. They have succeeded beyond all hope in what English philanthropists are so industriously working at—in making a people all alike, all governing their thoughts and conduct by the same maxims and rules; and these are the fruits. The modern régime of public opinion is, in an unorganized form, what the Chinese educational and political systems are in an organized; and unless individuality shall be able successfully to assert itself against this yoke, Europe, notwithstanding its noble antecedents and its professed Christianity, will tend to become another China.

What is it that has hitherto preserved Europe from this lot? What has made the European family of nations an improving, instead of a stationary portion of mankind? Not any superior excellence in them, which, when it exists, exists as the effect, not as the cause; but their remarkable diversity of character and culture. Individuals, classes, nations, have been extremely unlike one another: they have struck out a great variety of paths, each leading to something valuable; and although at every period those who travelled in different paths have been intolerant of one another, and each would have thought it an excellent thing if all the rest could have been compelled to travel his road, their attempts to thwart each other’s development have rarely had any permanent success, and each has in time endured to receive the good which the others have offered. Europe is, in my judgment, wholly indebted to this plurality of paths for its progressive and many-sided development.

In this passage, I am impressed to see John articulate so early on a theory for why China fell behind that is still taken very seriously by economists: the idea that the top-down nature of the Chinese system under the 1644-1912 Qing dynasty hindered progress. It is worth considering how the end of the 21st century could see a reversal of roles, if the people of China embrace political, intellectual and economic freedom, but top-down control wins out in Europe and its offshoots.  

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