May 18, 2009

The Big Sort

Posted in Politics, Sociology at 3:09 pm by caelesti

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop

Why is there such political and cultural polarization in America today? That is the question Bill Bishop sought to answer in “The Big Sort”. He discovered that while we were once much more mixed in our neighborhoods, cities and counties, we have been moving- often intentionally to be around “people like us”. So how and why did this shift occur? He traces it back to the year 1969- before that people trusted each other more, and trusted the government much more. After events in that year, there has been a steady decline in civic involvement, and increasing distrust among races, religious vs. secular people, liberals vs. conservatives as these groups have had less contact with each other.
There are a lot of statistics and numbers laid out in this book, which I liked being a former political science major. For others it may be more than you want to know. But it’s great to see thorough research backing it up, not just rampant speculation as many other books have done. Also while you are reading this think about how your lifestyle has been “sorted” and what impact that has on your actions and worldview.

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July 9, 2008

Religious Literacy

Posted in History, Nonfiction, Religion, Sociology tagged , , , , , , , , at 8:58 pm by caelesti

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know- and Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero

Perhaps this book is preaching to the choir when I picked it up- I am pretty knowledgeable about various religions, though there’s always more I could learn. But I’m well aware that my knowledge and literacy is above average- I just didn’t realize how much! Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies realized the extent of this ignorance when he encountered college freshmen who didn’t know things he thought of as common knowledge, like the story of Noah & the ark, Moses, and the Sermon on the Mount, let alone basics of world religions like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. (This reminds me a bit of Prof. Alfred Kinsey who realized his students didn’t know very basic info about sex!)

It wasn’t always like this- Prothero details the United States’ robust history of religious learning, how the early schools were all sectarian. Even when public schools were started the textbooks were filled with Biblical references and theological lessons. Colleges and universities were founded primarily as places to educate future clergy, and all students were instructed in theology. But as the country become more religiously diverse, it became more difficult to have religious themed curricula. Since denominations couldn’t agree on theology, ethics was emphasized more, in fact religion was boiled down to just ethics. In higher education religion came into conflict with the growth of science, and it was seen as enemy to intellectual freedom and inquiry. Finally as more concern over church & state separation arose, religion was pushed even further out.

Prothero doesn’t want us to go back to the days of singing hymns in classrooms, or leading students in prayer. But by neglecting the teaching of such an integral part of American and global culture, language, music, history and politics we ill-prepare students to deal with the world as it really is. High school and college students should all take a course on world religions-Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism and another on Christianity and the Bible. He supports this with Supreme Court decisions that have determined that teaching about religion is constitutional- as opposed to making judgments about which religion is right (or if all of them are wrong) I definitely agree these things ought to be taught. He makes the point that giving all religions equal time as some liberals argue makes no sense, students need to know more about larger religions they’re more likely to run into, like Christianity.

I learned a lot from this book about the history of religious literacy and it made me realize how secular my upbringing was, despite being brought up going to church/Sunday school. Growing up I took it for granted that discussion of religion was taboo in school. But as a student at a Lutheran-affiliated college I was required to take classes in religion. No one told me what I had to believe, but I found it was a great opportunity to learn more.

To put on my Pagan hat, I realize that Prothero is talking about “world religions”- not New Religious Movements (NRMs) that Paganism would be classified under. But at the same time, I’m rather miffed that his Glossary of Religious Concepts all Americans Should Know included Scientology (a pyramid scheme that somehow managed to get status as a church) but not modern Paganism, which a lot more people follow, and gets more press.

June 18, 2008

The Paradox of Choice

Posted in Nonfiction, Psychology, Sociology tagged , , , , , , , , at 2:26 pm by caelesti

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz

The American gospel of individualism and the free market seems to preach that the more choices we have the better. But Barry Schwartz argues that as our options increase, the worse we tend to be at making choices. And the less we enjoy the choices we make. He starts by discussing this in shopping- all the different types of bread, or jeans we can buy. Then he goes on to show all the phone & communication options, entertainment, choices over how we pursue relationships, careers, religion. He supports his claims with many psychological studies.

Schwartz explains that people respond to this smörgåsbord of choices by being “choosers” who think about the importance of the decision and “pickers” who passively pick from whatever is available. Maximizers try to get the best, but while looking everywhere for it and finally making a decision, they wonder if it was really the best. Satisficers settle for what is good enough. Maybe sometimes they don’t get something as good as the maximizers, but they don’t stress out about it as much, and they don’t spend all that time needed to find the “perfect sweater”.

I have often felt overwhelmed by decision-making, and while others chided me for being indecisive, I thought there was something wrong with me. So reading this book was very reassuring, that yes, there is something psychologically overwhelming about all the choices we have. At the end of the book he gives a list of practical suggestions on how to make choices easier to deal with. One is to be more grateful for what you have, so that you will be more satisfied. Don’t compare yourself to others- figure out what is meaningful to you, and what makes you happy. This is something I really needed to hear- lately I’ve been very hard on myself for not being “good enough” compared to how I saw others around me. Accept some constraints on your choices. I would recommend this book to anyone in a modern industrial society, but especially people struggling with stress and depression. Folks with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), ADD, and autism often have trouble making choices and so I’d suggest it to them too.