Sunday, March 27, 2011

Extinction: probably not, but.

A new and provocative study presented to the American Physical Society last week by a trio of mathematicians predicts that organized religion is on its way to extinction in nine countries.  Their work (using census data going back a century) was based on the same mathematical model employed in 2003 by the lead author Daniel Abrams to predict the extinction of little used languages.  What stimulated Abrams interest this time was learning that none is the fastest growing religious group in many countries around the world including here in America.  Moreover, those who have left religion behind represent a significant portion of their populations — already a 60% majority in the Czech Republic.  In a CNN interview, Abrams said that he and his colleagues were not trying to make any commentary about religion or whether people should be religious or not.  Rather they wanted to understand the long-term implications of the growing disaffiliation, particularly in Western-style democracies.  The United States was not included in the study because its census doesn’t ask about religion, but among the countries that do and where the researchers posit religion is likely to become extinct are Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and our neighbor Canada.

The trio developed a model to study competition between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies.  Again, as in America, none is the fastest growing group and trending higher.  The model, they write in their conclusion, indicates that in these societies the perceived utility of religious non-affiliation is greater than that of adhering to a religion, and therefore predicts continued growth of non-affiliation, tending toward the disappearance of religion.  Talking to the BBC, co-author Richard Wiener said, the study posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join.

Higher mathematics is far above my pay level, so I have no way of knowing if the trio’s model holds water.  My own sense is that their extinction prediction may be overstated.  That said, there is little doubt that in many countries trends are going against religion not for it.  What intrigues me about this work is that it leans so heavily on social dynamics, which I would argue under the umbrella of community has played a critical role in building and then protecting religion throughout history.  One of the questions with which I have been wrestling in my own work regarding those who have left religion behind is how and if non-religion can be viable without community?  It’s complicated because many people have left religion precisely, sometimes mostly, because they are rejecting community — religion in its organized form.  Lack of community may suit their immediate and personal needs, but their no religion stance may be difficult to carry into future generations.  Also, and hardly inconsequential when the Religious Right is again (Iowa’s Conservative Conference) raising its ugly head, the absence of community translates into having no place at the table.  Simply put, those without community lack political clout.

For that reason alone — there are others — I think some semblance of community engagement may be required.  The question is how, absent creating the very kind of organizational structure that is so anathema to them, can the nones both survive ideologically and protect their rights in the larger society?  When starting to think about this some years back, there was no good answer.  That may have changed in the face of social networking and the emergence of virtual communities.  And that’s exactly what Abrams suggested to CNN.  It's more attractive, he said, to be part of the majority than the minority, so as religious affiliation declines, it becomes more popular not to be a churchgoer than to be one the majority effect.  People are more likely to switch to groups with more members.  Social networks can have a powerful influence.  Just a few connections to people who are (religiously) unaffiliated is enough to drive the effect. 

I would add that the rise of social networks could potentially accelerate the move from religion for a number of reasons.  First, because it may give voice to people who identify with religion solely because they’ve been told it’s what everyone does or should do.  Through social networking they may discover that the everyone in question is a myth.  Second, social networks often benefit from the viral effect, spreading the word in a way heretofore unknown and doing so instantaneously.  It’s not reading or hearing that some statistic says an amorphous 16% of Americans have moved beyond religion, it is that a someone specific to whom you can relate personally, call it a friend, shares your views.  Finally, social networks can lead to action — old fashion people power — influencing perceptions and conventional wisdom.  Just look at what’s happening in the Middle East where the idea that everyone is loyal to the dictator is being debunked across the landscape.  That no such everyone loyalty exists empowers those who thought themselves to be in the minority but are not — think Abrams’ majority effect.

Community has been essential to the world’s religions and might well be equally so for those who have left religion behind.  It may simply require rethinking what it takes to make and be a community, and clearly that’s no longer restricted to a village.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

And now, Mr. "McCing".

I spent some time last week watching Peter King’s controversial hearing.  Okay, I should get a life.  The Long Island Congressman is said to be obsessed with the Muslim menace, ostensibly because he was so traumatized by 9/11.  Standing on a Riverside Park pier that day, Manhattan neighbors and I watched in shock and disbelief the smoke and ash rising into a crystal clear sky over what was left of the Towers downtown.  But horrifying as that brutal invasion of our beloved city was, I haven’t emerged with an obsession about what Joseph McCarthy called Enemies from Within

It is the specter of a McCarthy déjà vu that has so aroused Mr. King’s critics and with good reason.  Both the late Senator and this latter-day, shall we call him McCing, share a penchant for seeing exaggerated threats and making unsubstantiated fright-provoking assertions.  Some of King’s fabrications were enumerated in the NY Times editorial before the hearing.  Echoes of old Joe’s 1950s could be heard in Peter’s 2011 Washington with talk of a Muslim conspiracy.  South Carolina’s freshman Jeff Duncan raised the specter of Shariah law, implying it might be imposed on all of us.  To digress a moment — those who want to terrify us with this danger (as he put it) are the very same folks relentlessly seeking to incorporate their particular religious ideology on social issues — abortion, marriage, stem cell research and the like — into our civil law.  Perhaps they don’t call it Shariah, but to me it’s a difference without distinction.

McCartyites persecuted American citizens, particularly on the left, by declaring they were conspiring to turn us into a Communist state.  In the modern version, King asserts that Al Qaeda is actively grooming radicals who are lurking in every single mosque (think every government agency and university in the ‘50s) across America.  Assumably that would be part of the danger posed by the lower Manhattan Islamic Center, which he so vehemently opposes.  Even were we to accept the Committee’s exclusive focus on Muslims — which I don’t — the absence of objective experts or the presentation of hard verifiable data was in itself a glaring indictment.  The only credentialed outside witness was the LA Sheriff put forward by minority Democrats.  King opted to hear from the leader (good American Muslim) of a tiny activist group and (for drama) two individuals from whose anecdotal reports, however distressing, one can’t extrapolate even close to the comprehensive menace that King claims we face.

Speaking of that threat, let’s put all of this in context starting with a realty check.  To hear King and his like-minded committee members you’d think Islam, with its evil intentions, is spreading here ameba-like, infiltrating every city and town. In fact, according to the authoritative Pew Religious Landscape Study, Muslims account for a miniscule .06% of our population (behind Buddhists at .07% and slightly ahead of Hindus at .04%).  That’s important because what strikes me isn’t only the similarities between this wrongheaded hearing and those of the McCarthy years, but how it reflected our continued problem with racism and religious prejudice.  The tipoff is that virtually every speaker — Republicans and Democrats — felt obliged to make the obligatory and often disingenuous some of my best friends or most Muslims are decent law abiding people statement.  As a member of a small religious minority (1.7% qualifies), I am all too familiar with this code; African Americans and Hispanics can likely recite unending variations of it in their sleep.  Add to that the pompous pronouncement that terrorism is a perversion of a great religion uttered by someone, who likely hasn’t a clue about the nature and teachings of Islam but nonetheless feels empowered to make that judgment.  These are all manifestations of that disdain/wariness of the other, the subject of an earlier post.  Nothing typifies this more than the unending suggestions that our President is not native born and a closet Muslim to boot. 

Of course the larger context of King’s hearing is the post 2010 election environment in which a tea soaked Republican Party considers itself mandated (by the American people) to dismantle whatever gains the country may have made recently and revert to the old ways and more.  This smells more like politics than protecting our homeland's security.  It’s a blatant attempt to put up a smoke screen that might distract us from their real agenda.  With it comes the resurgence of people like Abramoff’s pal Ralph Reed and the Lazarus resurrection of the hypocrite serial adulterer and newborn Catholic, Newt Gingrich.  What we’re experiencing is a general retrogression into another déjà vu, the days of the Taliban-like Christian Right.   Make no mistake, what threatens us aren’t terrorist cells in every mosque but the resurgence of people who want to permanently disable government and undermine whatever meager workers rights and social safety net remain. 

Peter King rails against Islamic terrorists, while having built his early career as a vocal cheerleader for the then terrorist IRA.  Those were his people — right color, right religion — who he characterized as the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland and not morally to blame for, among others, 600 civilian deaths.  I remember being in London when some of those wonderful folks detonated a nail bomb in Hyde Park killing four members of the ceremonial Queen’s Guard and seven horses, all obviously oppressors of the Irish.  Mr. King sees no immoral equivalency, and that’s all we really have to know about him and his supporters.  The sad thing is that his prejudice extends far and wide, and that, much like the irrational fear and loathing of Communists in an earlier time.  Ultimately it’s this kind of thinking and what comes out of it that threatens our long-term security.  That’s truly scary.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gandhi rebooted.

Muammar el-Qaddafi’s ranting notwithstanding, what’s going on across the Middle East is not bin Laden but Gandhi.  After decades of us being told with such absolute certainty that Arab youth was both ripe and destined for Islamic radicalization, we discover a generation that has opted for peaceful revolutionary protest not ideological violence.  To be sure, many among them in Egypt and elsewhere are personally religious, but they seem intent on ridding their countries of oppressive and despotic rule not transforming them into new theocracies.  The once proclaimed demoralized Arab Street, a group lacking self-esteem, is in fact a generation proudly engaged in the future, not mired in a self-defeating retrogressive past.  Regardless of the ultimate outcome, which no one can predict with accuracy, there is little doubt that the last weeks have changed everything.

No place does that change have greater impact than upon the State of Israel.  Cairo’s uprising in particular, but hardly alone, has upended its strategic calculus.  That Israel will have to renegotiate relationships in the region is perhaps the least of it.  From its inception, Israel has faced a hostile neighborhood, attacked repeatedly by Arab countries (Egypt among them) from without and later by the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah from within.  That it survived the first onslaught in 1948 speaks partially to an inept and manifestly corrupt group of adversaries — more bluster than knowhow — but also to the dogged determination of a post Holocaust generation to survive.  What decades of conflict have wrought, undoubtedly out of necessity not desire, is a nation that may be better known for the strength of its military, the highly professional and (thanks to the United States) well-equipped IDF, than for any of its other considerable accomplishments.  In a profound sense, Israel’s adversaries have perpetuated this image by provoking predictable and certain violent responses to deadly suicide bombings and cross border rocket fire.  Those have been variously characterized as measured self-defense and, in the case of Lebanon and more so Gaza, as excessive.  What is indisputable is that the Holy Land is engulfed in a culture of violence; a lethal tit for tat resulting in an atmosphere of mutual fear, insecurity and mistrust that undermines negotiated solutions.

That brings me back to bin Laden and Gandhi.  Of course, other than using it to his rhetorical advantage, bin Laden has not been a factor in the Israel/Palestine dispute. Nor so has been the long dead Gandhi. But as tokens for their different approaches, it’s fair to say that where a culture of violence prevails bin Laden has thus far carried the day.  It hasn’t worked for either side.  What might happen if a rebooted Gandhi emerged on this stalemated scene much as he did on the streets of Cairo?  Given the era in which we live and the redefined Arab Street (Palestinian literacy is extremely high), the better question may be, what happens when Gandhi shows his face on the West Bank?

What the military discovered in Egypt was that in an instantaneously connected transparent world, one simply couldn’t fire on or even use much force against an essentially unarmed and often good-natured citizenry on the march.   Speak about the limits of military power; speak about the curtain being lifted on an 82 year old contemporary Wizard of Oz.  Picture for a moment the rebooted Gandhi leading thousands of young Palestinians, all of them having traded guns, bombs and even rocks for placards held high and resolute smiles. That’s what must (or should) be on the minds of Bibi Netanyahu and his colleagues.  If Gandhi works against a totalitarian regime, how much more powerful will it be against a democracy?

I’ve made no secret of my own belief that leaving the West Bank and dismantling of settlements on Palestinian territory is both necessary and right.  So too is an independent Palestinian state.  At the same time, it’s both simplistic and unfair to suggest that Israel’s reliance on military power was not born out of necessity.  The threats to its existence have been both real and ongoing.  The Jewish people have endured often-lethal persecution throughout much of human history.  That the world community acquiesced to a relatively tiny strip of homeland out of collective guilt in the wake of Hitler’s barbarism to which many of its members had averted their eyes is a fact that only the immoral can overlook.  Israel’s situation and stance is more than understandable, but that doesn’t make it less of a tragedy for them and for the Palestinians.

In the light of a rebooted Gandhi, it’s high time for a bold rebooting of the Israel/Palestine stalemate.  Cairo will likely be a tactical wakeup for the Palestinians and should be a seismic wakeup call for the Israeli’s.  A crisis, we’ve been told so often by people like Mayor-elect Emanuel (a lover and supporter of Israel) should not be missed as an opportunity to move forward.  I’m happy for all those young Arabs who have taken their country closer to authentic self-rule.  I’d be happier still if it led Israel and Palestine to overcome whatever obstacles may stand in the way to achieving the peace that both so clearly deserve and desperately need.   As Gandhi taught, as both King and Mandela learned, feeling yourself wronged or obsessing on being right may give you the sense of moral superiority.  It doesn’t solve anything in the long run.  Rebooting and moving on with a sense of non-violent reconciliation, as hard as that may be, changes everything.   To quote the Jewish sage, if not now, when?