A thought experiment

Some scholars of religion criticize the very category of religion. There are several possible critiques, including:

  • “Religion” as typically defined by Western scholars assumes Western religion as a norm, so that for example belief in a supernatural, transcendent deity is a defining characteristic of religion, even though significant numbers of Buddhists and Confucians do not require such belief.
  • “Religion” can’t be separated from the larger culture; there is no religion separate from art, politics, sport, etc.

So here’s a thought experiment. Let’s jettison, just for the moment, the usual definition of religion as something separate from the rest of culture, something that requires belief in a perhaps unbelievable deity, and something the must be associated with a hierarchical or otherwise organized institutional structure.

Once we jettison that definition, we can understand religion as something that is akin to art and politics: it is something that is integral to culture, something that cannot easily be separated out from culture. Using this model of reality, we can make more sense of some otherwise baffling phenomena. Celebrity culture in the West, for example, may be considered as a religious phenomenon: Oprah and Princess Diana are saintly figures in just the same way as the Dalai Lama and the Pope are, which makes it more understandable why they receive the kind of religious veneration as the Dalai Lama and the Pope. Sports may also be considered as a religious phenomenon, right down to the orgiastic frenzies, reminiscent of Bacchic rituals, in which those who are not followers of one’s own sect are physically assaulted. Art and music may also be understood as religious phenomena: we’re all familiar with analogies between rock concerts and religious rites; and, speaking for myself, I get as much religious inspiration by going to an art museum as I get in a worship service.

If religion must be understood more broadly in this way, how then are we to characterize Western-style organized religion? It is a subset of religion, a specific manifestation of the way our broader culture does religion. We might consider it a discipline; early Christians sometimes referred to what they did as a disciplina, and it is Christianity more than anything else which has narrowed our Western understanding of what constitutes religion. However, “discipline” is somewhat problematic because it implies that this kind of religion can perhaps be done by oneself, which is clearly not the case. We could also speak of institutional religion, as opposed to other religious activities such as art, politics, etc.; organized religion is a less accurate way of saying much the same thing, for to say “organized” doesn’t tell us that this is religion organized into institutions.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this thought experiment. What do you think?

Disaster preparedness for congregations

Recently, I’ve been thinking about disaster preparedness for our congregation here in Palo Alto. Fortunately, here in the Bay Area the odds are extremely low for blizzards, ice storms, typhoons or hurricanes; and tornadoes are rare (although we did have one tornado watch this part year). So I don’t have to worry about whether the steeple is going to blow down in a hurricane, as we had to in Massachusetts; nor do I have to know where the storm cellar is, as we had to in Illinois. But we do have to prepare for some potential disaster scenarios.

Two of the more common Bay area disasters shouldn’t worry us much in Palo Alto: we’re on the flats so we don’t have to worry about landslides, and we are far enough from the Bay that tsunami risks are low. However, our buildings are at some risk for flooding: we are in Flood Zone X, which is defined as “an area of moderate risk of flooding (roughly speaking, outside the 100-year flood but inside the 500-year flood limits).” Thus, while we should be paying attention to flooding, it’s not of the highest priority.

Our highest priority for disaster preparedness is, not surprisingly, earthquakes. The USGS “Shaking Map for Future Earthquake Scenarios” (click on the map for Mountain View) shows that our location, because of underlying soils, etc., could be expected to experience very strong to violent shaking (Mercalli Instensity VIII-IX) in an earthquake like the magnitude 7.9 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In other words, it could be bad, and we should be paying attention to preparing for this kind of disaster. So at the moment, I’m reading through the USGS publication “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country”.

I’d be curious to know if your congregation has disaster plans in place, and what preparations you have made. Feel free to hold forth in the comments.

If Girl Scouts are doing it, will congregations be next?

200 Girl Scout troops in Ohio now take credit cards for cookies. One council reported a 20% increase in sales once they started using GoPayment, a little gadget that attaches to a smart phone, takes your money, and sends a receipt to your email address. Here’s a video from the Associated Press showing how they do it. And if you’re wondering how much it costs the Girl Scouts to take payment this way, here’s the scoop from a print version of this AP article:

Intuit, the Mountain View-based company that manufactures GoPayment, charges a small fee per transaction and offers various pricing plans to customers based on sale volume…. Intuit charges the Girl Scouts its lowest rate, at 1.6 percent plus 15 cents per transaction. Most customers pay 2.7 percent per transaction. [San Mateo County Times, 26 March 2011, p. A2]

As fewer and fewer people carry ready cash, this is an obvious way for the Girl Scouts to try to increase sales. But would it work for congregations who pass the collection plate in their services? If you watch the video, it’s obvious the transaction would take too long for the average offertory. It might possibly work for bake sales, rummage sales, ticket sales and the like, but my guess is that the cost is too high and the sales volume too low to make it worthwhile. If congregations want to fight their way out of the dark ages of cash transactions, my guess is that we’re going to have to change the way we do things — but I don’t know what that’s going to look like.

Statistical modeling of membership in organized Western religion

A recent research paper, “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation”, co-authored by Daniel M. Abrams, Harley A. Yaple, and Richard J. Weiner, applies the tools of statistical mechanics and non-linear dynamics to membership in religious organizations. Unfortunately, based on this mathematical analysis, the authors jump to unwarranted broad conclusions:

People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest growing religious minority in many countries throughout the world. Americans without religious affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states; in 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent. In the Netherlands nearly half the population is religiously unaffiliated. Here we use a minimal model of competition for members between social groups to explain historical census data on the growth of religious non-affiliation in 85 regions around the world. According to the model, a single parameter quantifying the perceived utility of adhering to a religion determines whether the unaffiliated group will grow in a society. The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction. [p.1]

The mathematical analysis appears to be sound — I’m not a mathematician, and not competent to judge this myself, though it seems consistent with what little I know about mathematical modeling of non-linear systems. But the model really only applies to reported membership in traditional Western religious groups. In religion will be “driven toward extinction”, the authors are assuming that membership in a congregation or organized religious social group is equivalent to “doing religion” or “being religious.” While this may be true for certain cultural contexts, e.g., where contemporary Western Christianity is assumed to be normative, it does not hold true in other cultural contexts. For example, in Japan individuals are often not “affiliated” with, or “adherents” of Buddhist temples or groups, yet when a family member dies many people will still turn to a local Buddhist temple for funeral rituals; this type of religion does not equate being religious with group or institutional affiliation or adherence. Continue reading “Statistical modeling of membership in organized Western religion”

Limits of entrepreneurial endeavor

In the most recent issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Johan van de Gronden, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund in the Netherlands, says that markets are not capable of solving all the world’s problems:

As change agents, we’d do well to seek inspiration beyond the language of business and entrepreneurship…. Suggesting that sufficient entrepreneurial tools and practices will solve most of society’s ailments is a category mistake. It comes with the tacit assumption that society is better off when social entrepreneurs replace the many functions of government. This is the classic fallacy of development aid. When NGOs start delivering the services that many poor governments can’t deliver, they involuntarily aggravate the problem rather than build a solution. Governments spiral into a starvation cycle. If citizens cannot hold government accountable for basic services, for the proper spending of the collective revenue for the public good, then on what grounds would they favor one government over the other in the polls? And what reasons would citizens have to pursue a government career?

It seems to me that some of these characteristics are not alien to, say, the state of California. The world’s eight largest economy and home to some of the planet’s wealthiest individuals is barely capable of running a balanced state budget, while providing a minimum of basic and affordable services to its citizens, from health care to public schooling. There is tragic irony in this, as some of the world’s most generous foundations, finest NGOs, and best universities are part of the same societal fabric. And I think there is a correlation. When we place so much emphasis on the values of entrepreneurship to the extent that we start defining the poor quality of basic services as market failures, we may begin to think that the conception of a business plan in the mother of all solutions.

— Johan van de Gronden, “It takes three to tango: a European perspective on American civil society,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, spring, 2011, p. 23.

The peculiar American proclivity for insisting that markets provide solutions for all problems does interesting things to liberal religious congregations. This proclivity forces those of us in congregations to adopt entrepreneurial approaches in order to remain in existence, because we have to compete in the market with extraordinarily well-funded and well-supported alternatives, such as large market-driven conservative mega-churches that preach the gospel of prosperity, the entertainment industry, therapists, yoga studios, etc. In the same vein, this American proclivity also affects the expectations of those of us in congregations, such that we demand the constant innovation of products and services that is characteristic of American markets.

Those of us in liberal religious congregations have to carry an essentially impossible balancing act. We have to utilize the best resources of entrepreneurial endeavor, not just to thrive, but to survive; and as the years go by, we have to rely more and more on entrepreneurial endeavor. At the same time, we would be betraying our ethical and theological ideals if we go too far down the market-driven path of the prosperity gospel (“Come to church, build a purpose-driven life, and you will find financial success!”), or if we began to believe that the markets are more important than our historic ethical and theological ideals. This is a big part of the basic challenge facing liberal religion today.

Online summary of distributed cognition

Joe sent me a link to an excellent online summary of distributed cognition some time ago, and I have been meaning to post the link on my blog. Here it is:

“Distributed Cognition” by Edwin Hutchins of the University of California, San Diego

In this ten page paper, Hutchins gives a good concise introduction to distributed cognition. He points out the close relation between Vygotksy’s theories and distributed cognition. Hutchins provides a nice division of distributed cognition into three types: cognition “may be distributed across the members of a social group,” cognition may involve an interaction between internal processes and the material environment, and cognition may be distributed through time.

I’ve been finding that the concepts of distributed cognition are extremely useful in understanding how congregations work. I’ve found this paper to be very helpful as I continue to deepen my understanding of distributed cognition, so I thought I’d share it here.

A truth about bosses

As much as we would like to believe otherwise, here’s some truth about leaders of organizations from Robert I. Sutton, an organizational theorist at Stanford University:

The truth is that bosses of everything from small groups to Fortune 500 firms don’t matter as much as most of us believe. They typically account for less than 15 percent of the gap between good an bad organizational performance, although they often get over 50 percent of the blame and credit. Bosses of small (and young) workplaces have the biggest impact, especially on human reactions like turnover, satisfaction, and health. Yet even those bosses are over-romanticized, and their impact is magnified in our minds. In fact, even when bosses have no influence at all, we still heap on the credit and blame. When experiments at Stanford and Caltech were rigged so it was impossible for leaders to influence team performance, members still gave the appointed ‘leader’ most of the credit and blame. Members of poorly performing teams were even willing to spend their own money to get rid of their ‘lousy’ (if irrelevant) leaders.

If you are a boss, this is your lot in life. You can’t change it, so you better learn to deal with it. [Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton (New York: Business Plus, 2010), p. 49.]

Based on my own experience, all this is true of ministers. As a minister, I have gotten credit for successes that I had little to do with, and I have been blamed for failures that I had little to do with. I’ve seen the same happen to chairs of congregational boards. As Sutton says, that’s life — best to learn to deal with it.