“Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates”

Carol and I have finally been reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, the 2000 bestseller that gave a popular account of some scientific research in epidemiology, psychology, and sociology. Like Dr. Johnson, neither one of us has wanted to read the whole book all the way through*, so it lives in the bathroom, and we read bits of it when we’re not looking through the catalogs and magazines that also live there.

But while I haven’t actually read the book, I have been reading the end notes, which are really more informative than the book. In these endnotes I finally came across a reference I have wanted for some time: a reference to the scientific work that helps explain why human organizations with less than about 150 members are qualitatively different than human organizations with more than 150 members. The reference is: Robin I. M. Dunbar, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates,” Journal of Human Evolution, 1992, vol. 20, pp. 469-493.

And why should we care about the size of primate neocortexes? The neocortex is the part of the brain through which primates keep track of relationships; the larger the neocortex, the more relationships a given species of primate can keep track of; thus the large size of the Homo sapiens neocortex allows us humans to keep track of all the relationships in a group of up to about 150 members. When, however, human organizations are larger than 150 members, individuals can no longer keep track of all the relationships, and the group therefore feels qualitatively different.

This helps explain why congregations often stop growing when their active membership (measured as the average weekly attendance of adults and children) becomes larger than 150. My guess is that because our neocortex can’t handle any more relationships within that group, we literally cannot relate to any newcomers who may arrive. And if the newcomers can’t make connections with the other primates in the congregation, they’re not going to stick around — we primates are social critters who want to make connections with others of our species. This also helps explain why something like three-quarters of all U.S. congregations have an average attendance of fewer than 200 adults and children — we’re just more comfortable in groups with 150 or fewer humans. 

Whether a congregation is growing or not may thus have less to do with the attractiveness of the congregation’s theology than with the neocortex size of the primates who make up that congregation.

* “Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’” — Boswell, Life of Johnson, Monday 19 April 1773.

Regionalization webinar

This afternoon, I attended a webinar offered by Linda Laskowski, on “regionalization” — that’s the current catchphrase for a jumble of attempts to reorganize the field staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Like most for-profit and non-profit organizations, the UUA has been forced to look for ways to increase efficiency and reduce staff expenditures; personally, I suspect some form of regionalization will eventually be necessary as a way to cut costs and increase efficiency.

Many of the regionalization ideas floating around include shutting down or merging one or more of the 19 districts; districts are the organizations which provide some of the funding for UUA field staff. But Laskowski said that this kind of regionalization is not something with which the UUA Board is concerned, or with which the Board can be concerned. She pointed out that the UUA Board cannot have a plan for shutting down or merging district organizations because they are all 501(c)3 organizations with a separate corporate existence from the UUA.

Laskowski said the UUA’s regionalization initiatives include a couple of instances of helping districts share staff. More importantly, the UUA assigns districts to one of five large geographical regions (see map below), and appoints one district executive to serve as the head district executive for that region (e.g., Ken Brown, district executive for the Pacific Southwest district, serves as the lead district executive for the far western region). Most importantly, the UUA Board will ask General Assembly to reduce the number of its members; currently, each district elects one board member, so a reduction in the number of board members would mean that would no longer be the case.

Regionalization Map

The current UUA regions

Susan Ritchie, Visiting Professor of Unitarian Universalist Heritage and Ministry at the Starr King School for the Ministry, offered historical perspectives on districts and regionalization. She offered a wealth of details which served to demonstrate that much of the current district governance structure within the UUA is a result of historical accidents. Laskowski expressed her opinion that the current organizational structure of the UUA does not work as well as it should, to the point where some kind of reorganization is necessary.

This webinar was offered to ministers of the Pacific Central District (PCD). A couple of webinar participants pointed out that one significant barrier to regionalization in the PCD will be the negative feelings that have resulted from the UUA’s decision to withdraw from co-employing Cilla Raughley, PCD District Executive; because of the way Raughley’s contract was written, that led to her termination. Laskowski reminded webinar participants that the Pacific Central District is a separate corporate entity, and that regionalization cannot be imposed by the UUA; it will be up to the PCD to decide whether or not to participate in any regionalization efforts that may happen.

A brief footnote: I attended the webinar on site at the Starr King School for Ministry, along with half a dozen other PCD ministers. After the webinar was over, some of us chatted briefly. Susan Ritchie said that it’s remarkable how many people continue to believe that UUA Board has some kind of plot to take over the districts, when that is clearly impossible and clearly is not on the Board’s long-range agenda. I said the UUA needed to pass out tin-foil hats. You know, to protect us all from the evil rays that the UUA is beaming into our heads to convince us to give up our individual identity and become part of the UUA Borg. In fact, I’m wearing mine now:

Tin Foil Hat

Me in my tin-foil hat. Look, you can see the evil rays coming in at me from the skylight behind me.

The power of habit

Increasingly, I’ve come to be convinced that one of the chief reasons many people stay with a congregation is habit. Human beings really are creatures of habit. This is why weekly services, and annual holidays, are so important:— If you are in the habit of attending a weekly service, you will be more likely to stay with a congregation in spite of dissatisfaction and annoyance. If you are in the habit of attending an annual holiday observance (e.g., Christmas eve candlelight service, etc.), you will likely attend year after year in spite of the quality of the service or theology of the congregation.

This implies that anything that might cause people to break their habits will lead to some people drifting away from a congregation. If you have no Sunday services during the summer, at least a few people will get out of the habit of showing up, and they will drift away from the congregation. If you have two worship services during most of the year, but only one during the summer, you will lose at least a few people over the summer (I watched that happen at the Palo Alto church over the past summer — we lost at least a couple of newcomers). If your minister disappears for two months during the summer, and instead you have guest preachers or lay leaders, I would be willing to bet that at least a few people will drift away from your congregation, for you have broken their habit.

It seems to me that if we are looking for ways to get newcomers to stick with our congregations, one of the main things to do is not to get people to think about theology, but rather it’s to get people to develop the habit of congregational life.

Down with Rome!

I’ve been reading apocalypses recently: Revelation, an ancient Christian apocalypse, and Joel, an ancient Hebrew apocalypse, to be specific. As a Transcendentalist, I have a soft spot in my heart for Joel’s insistence that everyone is going to have transcendent visions: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2.28-29)

Politically, however, I’m more interested in Revelation, which rails against the oppression of the Romans, and longs for the destruction of the Roman Empire. It’s the vivid expression of an oppressed people’s longing for the destruction of their foreign oppressors, filled with extravagant imagery. I know conventional Christians see Revelation as the coming of the End Times when they all will get raptured up to heaven; but to me it reads more like political hate mail for the Roman overlords.

To better understand Revelation, I’ve been reading bits of a non-canonical apocalyptic book, the Sibylline Oracles, written somewhere around the same time as Revelation, give or take a century or two. This passage from Book VIII makes the political content quite clear:

God’s declarations of great wrath to come
In the last age upon the faithless world
I make known, prophesying to all men
According to their cities. From the time
When the great tower fell and the tongues of men
Were parted into many languages
Of mortals, first was Egypt’s royal power
Established, that of Persians and of Medes
And also of the Ethiopians
And of Assyria and Babylon,
Then the great pride of boasting Macedon,
Then, fifth, the famous lawless kingdom last
Of the Italians shall show many evils
Unto all mortals and shall spend the toils
Of men of every land….

There shall come to thee sometime from above
A heavenly stroke deserved, O haughty Rome.
And thou shalt be the first to bend thy neck
And be razed to the ground, and thee shall fire
Destructive utterly consume, cast down
Upon thy pavements, and thy wealth shall perish,
And wolves and foxes dwell in thy foundations.
And then shalt thou be wholly desolate,
As if not born….

The Sibylline Oracles, trans. Milton S. Terry, 1899, Book VIII, ll. 1-15, 47-55; pp. 161-163.

Nothing about the Rapture here, just straightforward hate mail for Rome. In my reading, Revelation is also hate mail for Rome; it makes more sense that way. Yes, it is a lot less straightforward than the above passage from the Sibylline Oracles; yes, it is filled with bizarre imagery; but it makes a lot more sense as an ancient religio-political tract predicting the downfall of Rome than as a onto-theological text predicting — um, from a theological point of view, I’m not sure exactly what Revelation is supposed to predict.


There was just enough rain for Carol to keep her umbrella up. It was dark and cool and quiet as we walked along, the only sound coming from the occasional car hissing by along the wet pavement. We walked through a place where some plants hung low and dark over the sidewalk, and suddenly we were enveloped in the heavy perfume of some unseen blossoms. In two steps we were past it, and in another step it was gone and I couldn’t smell it any more.

What kind of online religion do you do?

I’ll be spending the coming week exploring Web-based religious participation, and I’m hoping that you, my readers, will be willing to help me out by answering one or more of the questions below.

(A) Which of the following do you consider yourself:

  1. Digital Native (you don’t remember a time before the Internet)
  2. Digital Immigrant (you feel fully at home in the Internet)
  3. Digital Alien (you have your green card, but you don’t feel fluent in the language and customs)
  4. Digital Tourist (the Internet is a place you visit, but you don’t live here)

(B) Aside from reading (this blog)(my Facebook feed), which of the following ways do you access religious content online online? (I also ask for specific examples of each kind of content, but if you don’t have the time to get specific, I’d still love to know which types of content, if any, you access.)

  1. Looking at a congregation’s Web site, or a denomination’s Web site (please list one or more)
  2. Reading sacred texts (Bible, Qu’ran, etc.) online (please specify which ones)
  3. Reading religious blogs online (please name some)
  4. Watching videos with religious content online (please describe one you remember)
  5. Listening to sermon podcasts online (please say who was preaching)
  6. Listening to religious music, broadly defined, online (please name some performers, composers, and/or songs/works)
  7. Taking classes in religion or religious topics online (please describe one or more)
  8. Looking at religious content online with your children (please specify)
  9. Other (please specify)

(C) Any general comments about online religious content?

If you’ve never commented before, I’d really love to hear your answers to one or more of the above questions. Even if you don’t access any other online religious content, I’d still love to know that. Thanks in advance for your assistance!

Peter J. Gomes is dead

Peter J. Gomes, minister at Memorial Church of Harvard University, died Monday, February 28. New York Times obituary here, and Harvard Gazette obituary here.

Gomes is probably best known in popular culture for coming as gay in 1991. It was much more difficult to come out as a gay man twenty years ago; and Gomes was then identified with conservative politics (he gave the benediction at one of Ronald Reagan’s inaugurations) which in those days must have made it even more difficult to come out.

But when I think of Gomes, I think of someone who had the reputation of being one of our living American preachers. I never heard him preach in person, but I heard him on the radio, and he really was fabulous — a gorgeous voice under perfect control, backed up by a sharp intellect.

When I think of Gomes, I also think of his Cape Verdean background. His father was born in the tiny African nation of Cape Verde, and came to the United States to work in the cranberry bogs of southeastern Massachusetts. This is an unusual family history for an African American: a family that chose to emigrate, rather than being enslaved and forced to go America.

And finally, when I think of Gomes, I think of someone who can be considered a religious liberal. In his books, Gomes presented contemporary Biblical scholarship to a popular audience, and sometimes it feels as though he takes great joy in puncturing the pretensions of Biblical literalists:

Jesus came preaching — we are told this in all the Gospels — but nowhere in the Gospels is there a claim that he came preaching the New Testament, or even Christianity. It still shocks some Christians to realize that Jesus was not a Christian, that he did not know “our” Bible, and that what he preached was substantially at odds with his biblical culture, and with ours as well. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, 2007, p. 14.

I get the distinct impression that Gomes took just a little bit of pleasure in shocking “some Christians” who weren’t smart enough to know that Jesus was not a Christian. Even though I felt Gomes could be a little bit pompous in his writing, I like him for taking that little bit of pleasure in shocking the literalists.

If I asked

If I asked
what you thought
about God,

would you try
to tell me
there’s no God?

would you try
to save me
from some hell?

like most: an
axe to grind.

All I want
is to talk,
just to talk,

nothing more.