Saturday, July 10, 2010

Religious Studies Does Not Equate to Being a Minister/Priest/Pastor

A friend of my mother's asked me today if I was still majoring in Religious Studies. I said I was and she asked me if I planned to teach it when I got my degree. I said I might, but that there were other options I wanted to explore, as well. She proceeded to tell me about several members of her family who were ministers of some sort or had been to some sort of Divinity school. While she didn't come right out and say it, the implication was that she thought I might be interested in that, too.

Uhm, no.

In fact, I often tell people that my major is History because many people make the assumption that I want to lead a church when they hear Religious Studies. While I admire those who have that calling, I most certainly do not. In fact, I think I would make a rather poor preacher. I do have very strong personal beliefs, but they are just that. Personal. I don't even really share most of my beliefs with those closest to me.

My interest is in studying religion itself and how it works and what people do in its name. I find it fascinating. History is close enough to that so I don't quite feel like I'm quite lying (history of religion?) even if I do feel a bit guilty when I say that. I'm just trying to save them some confusion when I have to attempt to explain that my major is secular.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Faith vs. Science

Dreher writes about the problems with having blind faith in science.

We should be responsibly skeptical of authority -- not only religious authority, but scientific authority. We live in an age of Scientism, in which many people invest science with the power of ideology. Wendell Berry calls this "modern superstition," because people have given science the powers they used to give to religion. Berry wrote a fantastic book defending the integrity and value of art and religion as ways of knowing, against the idea that Science should be the undisputed master of all. He doesn't oppose science, but he thinks that all three ways of knowing -- art, science, religion -- must be understood as limited. The trouble comes when any one is elevated as supreme above all others, and their spheres.

I agree 100% that we should be skeptical of authority of all types. I don't think there is ever anything wrong with asking questions, with not accepting anything blindly. We have brains for a reason (to reason...hahaha...nevermind). No one who espouses any sort of thought about something should be upset with someone else asking them, "Why do you think that?"

However, I'm not sure it's accurate to say we live in an age of Scientism. More accurately we do live in such an age, but it's only different from every other period in human history in terms of what we have blind faith in. Having a skeptical, questioning nature is hard. In fact, it seems to go against human nature. We are wired to accept certain things and we don't want to think that our belief (in religion, in science, in whatever) could be wrong. That's scary. So, we blindly accept a premise, however we've come to it, and then cling to it with a fearful fury. Certainty is much more comfortable than its opposite.

In my mind, school is where we should learn to get away from this. School should be less about facts and more about thinking, reasoning, questioning. I would much rather have a kid graduate knowing the bare minimum of facts about say, the American Revolution, but with a strong ability to critically examine the entirety of it, its pros and cons, its consequences, and what it meant. The ability to think critically is a much more useful skill than rote memorization of facts.

One last thought on skepticism. Being critical of everything does not mean not believing in anything. It means being able to explain why you believe something, not just what you believe.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

America's Rules

Glenn Greenwald kindly sums up the way things work here in America.

* If you torture people or eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by the criminal law, you receive Look-Forward Imperial Immunity.

* If you shoot and kill unarmed rescuers of the wounded while occupying their country and severely wound their unarmed children sitting in a van -- or if you authorize that conduct -- your actions are commended.

* If you help wreck the world economy with fraud and cause hundreds of millions of people untold suffering, you collect tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.

If you disclose to the world evidence of war crimes, government lawbreaking, or serious corruption, or otherwise embarrass the U.S., you will be swiftly prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and face decades in prison.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry reading that, but either way, it's patently absurd. We are living in America, right? Right?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Touching is Important

Here is a fascinating article from Discovery on how what we touch affects our judgment.

First off, in two experiments reminiscent of another study I’ve written about, Ackerman showed that holding a light or heavy clipboard can affect a person’s decision-making. In a study of 54 volunteers, those who clutched the heavier board rated a job candidate more highly based on their resume, and thought that they displayed a more serious interest in the job. They even rated their own assessments as being more important! However, the boards didn’t affect the recruits’ judgments on areas unrelated to importance, such as the candidate’s ability to get along with others.

In a second test with 43 volunteers, those who held the heavier boards were more likely to call for government funds to be spent on serious social matters like setting air pollution standards, over more trivial affairs like public toilet regulations. Again, the mere feeling of weight appears to influence the importance we give to matters.
Ackerman also looked at the influence of an object’s hardness. He asked 49 volunteers to touch either a hard block of word or a soft blanket, under the pretence of examining objects to be used in a magic act. Afterwards, when they read an interaction between a boss and an employee, those who felt the wood thought the employee was stricter and more rigid than those who touched the blanket (but no less positive). It doesn’t have to be the hands that do the touching either – when he repeated the same task with 86 volunteers who sat in either a hard, wooden chair or a soft, cushioned one, he found the same results. “We primed participants by the seat of their pants,” he writes.

The chair experiment also gave Ackerman the opportunity to test the effect of hardness on decision-making. He asked his recruits to place two offers on a $16,500 car, the second following a straight refusal of the first by the dealer. While the volunteers offered the same average amount at first, those who sat on the softer seats offered far more on their second go than on their first. That’s consistent with the idea that hardness has connotations of rigidity and stability. People who feel hard sensations are less likely to shift in their decisions. Harder chairs made for harder hearts.

This is really neat stuff and I can see companies and marketers using this to influence in all sorts of ways we won't realize.

Interestingly, just a few days before I read this I was thinking about the growing prevalence of hands-free devices. I began wondering how that would impact our understanding of and feeling toward these technologies. There is something about touching an object that helps us connect with it. Think about your car, the feel of the wheel in your hands, the gas pedal as you press it down, the gentle rumble (or not depending) of it as you drive it. This makes the car come alive in a way making it more than just a metal husk taking you from A to B.

I also wonder where this will lead. If we become more and more reliant on hands-free devices, how will that affect our relationships with other people? Will we value more the physical contact we make with loved ones (hugs, handshakes, and more) or will we place less emphasis on these as we become used to interacting with things without actually touching them? I don't know, but is something to think about while I physically press the keys on my laptop to type this.

Sunday, July 4, 2010