Tag: <span>Culture</span>

Challenging Children

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I.

The story of Adam and his father in my last essay, The Ineffability of Conservatism, generated a lot of pushback. The negative reactions mostly came from people who were never religious or who had left religion in a fashion similar to Adam. None had taken that journey when they were quite so young, but some wished that they had. And while I think religion had an important role to play in the story, a role I’ll be returning to before the end, I also think that its inclusion may have obscured the fundamental message. (Though using the word “ineffability” in the title probably didn’t help.)

Actually, I take that back. The fundamental problem is still somewhat opaque to me, which means that the fundamental message must necessarily be as well. But, the presence of religion made some points less clear than they could have been. So I decided to take another stab at the topic from a different direction. 

For those unfamiliar with the previous essay, I told the story of Adam, a young man who had decided he no longer believed in the religion of his family and local community. In an attempt to influence him towards staying, the bishop/pastor had arranged for Adam’s father to teach his Sunday School class. Adam, upon seeing that his father was going to teach, very publicly left, despite his father’s entreaties to stay. Much of the post was a reflection on how it would have never even occurred to people of my generation to do such a thing. 

As you can see the story had a very heavy religious angle. It was clearly about young people leaving the faith of their fathers. Which is happening a lot. But it’s also a story about raising children, and parenting. So I decided to write a follow up post where I approach it from that side of things. I think doing so might make certain points easier to get to.

Perhaps there’s something in the water because the minute I made that decision I came across some other people making points similar to the ones I would like to make. Let’s start with Freddie deBoer. Freddie opened the new year with a post titled, Resilience, Another Thing We Can’t Talk About. As you may or may not know, Freddie is no fan of religion. (His second post of the year bemoaned the fact that Richard Dawkins style atheism/skepticism has fallen out of fashion.) But, despite our diametrically opposed religious views, his discussion of resilience is definitely heading in the same direction I plan on going:

If I know one thing is true about every single person reading this, it’s that at some point in 2023, they will suffer. Teaching people how to suffer, how to respond to suffering and survive suffering and grow from suffering, is one of the most essential tasks of any community. Because suffering is inevitable. And I do think that we have lost sight of this essential element of growing up in contemporary society, as armies of helicopter parents pull the leash on their kids tighter and tighter and as harm reduction has eaten every other element of left politics.

Suffering is a big topic, and while Freddie seems mostly focused on involuntary suffering, people also choose to suffer. In my extended family, we frame this latter form of suffering as “doing hard things”. And it’s my contention (and perhaps Freddie’s as well) that teaching children how to do hard things is one of the central tasks of a parent. Your children are definitely going to be confronted with hard things once they’re adults, and if they haven’t mastered that skill or at least practiced it, they’re likely going to fail — maybe catastrophically.

Even if someone agrees that it’s useful to have children do hard things, they may balk at putting all suffering in the same bucket. There is an argument to be made that the challenge of studying hard enough to get a scholarship is a completely different thing than being bullied at school, and that the challenge of attending church when you would rather not, is yet a third sort of challenge. Part of the purpose of this post will be to demonstrate that there’s less difference than you might think, and I will further argue that, even if there is, the skills developed to deal with voluntary suffering can help with involuntary suffering as well. 

Unfortunately, as Freddie points out, a large part of society does not even agree with the need for voluntary suffering. Freddie asserts that everyone will end up suffering at some point during the next year, and this is true, but suffering isn’t guaranteed the way it once was. And while the effect has been gradual, this has led some to decide that suffering can and largely should be eliminated — both the involuntary and the voluntary. Often these people are parents. Freddie calls them “helicopter parents”. I prefer the more recent term “snowplow parents”, parents who clear the path in front of the child, pushing aside all obstacles. Obviously some examples of such parents are more extreme than others. But it’s gotten to the point where lots of these attitudes have spread to society at large and become the default. The question is how did this happen? And can anything be done?

II.

One of the major themes in my previous post was the difference between the conditions teenagers experience now and the conditions I experienced when I was a teenager. These differences are numerous and run the gamut from really large things, like the internet, to small things, like the proliferation of memes. We’ll examine some of the bigger things in a moment, but I would also argue that simply making a list doesn’t do justice to the profound difference between now and 40 years ago. First, we’re almost certainly overlooking some of the things which have changed, because they’re either too small to measure or no one has bothered to measure them. But more importantly, I think that we’ve yet to fully grasp the way changes combine and feed off one another. 

Out of all this, clearly one difference is a broad reduction in the amount of material suffering: The infant mortality rate in the US has nearly halved just since 1990. The child poverty rate has been reduced from 20% to 5% since 1983. And, while these numbers are harder to quantify, childhood injuries appear to also be declining. The obvious progress we’ve made has encouraged parents, who were already predisposed to do everything they can for their kids, to look for ways to eliminate all the suffering which still remains. Given our previous successes, it’s worth asking, “What’s the harm in that?” Unfortunately the answer might be “substantial”.

Obviously I’m not the first person to make this argument, nor will I be the last, but it’s worth reviewing the arguments in light of the different ways suffering can manifest. Probably the best known book to tackle this subject is The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. We don’t have the space to go into everything but a few years ago I did spend a couple of posts talking about it. The Coddling of the American Mind puts forth the idea that there are three great untruths which have spread far and wide through the education system, and society as a whole. As part of our current discussion we’re just going to look at the first one:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

Freddie calls this untruth the quest for “harm reduction [which] has eaten every other element of left politics.” Lukianoff and Haidt argue that it really kicked in on college campuses starting around 2013, so children born starting in 1995. They mention that this maps to the cohort Jean Twenge labeled as iGen, in her book of the same name. On the opposite side of things from these college kids there is, of course, Nietzsche, from whom the authors adapted their label. And, as you might imagine, since they call it an untruth, Lukianoff and Haidt, who make the case that college students (and humans in general) are antifragile — exposure to stress and suffering make them stronger, up to a point.

That last bit “up to a point” is where most of the fighting takes place. My guess is that most people reading this, and indeed most people, period, agree that children need some challenges. (If you don’t think children need to be strong and resilient this post is not for you.) The fight is over where to draw the line. Which sorts of stress and suffering should be put in the beneficial bucket and which sorts of stress and suffering should be put in the garbage? Obviously involuntary suffering, by definition, can’t be disposed of. So, taken together, we’ve identified three buckets: 

  1. Challenges you can’t avoid.
  2. Challenges you can avoid but choose not to.
  3. Challenges you can avoid and choose to.

Some people would argue that the greater ability to move things from bucket one to bucket three is the whole point of progress. And while humans have been moving things from one to three since at least the dawn of agriculture, lately we’ve gotten a lot better at it, to the point where some would argue that we’re within shouting distance of emptying bucket one. (Which might be a serviceable definition of transhumanism.)

While this movement from one to three is interesting, the subject of this post mostly hinges on whether, if the challenge is in fact voluntary, we should ever place it in bucket two rather than bucket three. And beyond that, under what circumstances the parent should be empowered to put a challenge in bucket two when the child really wants it to be in bucket three.

As I mentioned, our ability to move things out of the first bucket has been increasing for a long time, but Lukianoff and Haidt are arguing that the desirability of moving things from backet two to three has dramatically increased in just the last ten years. There are certainly lots of reasons why this has happened, and getting into the actual causes would take us too far afield, but what Lukianoff and Haidt, and for that matter deBoer are arguing is that it’s spread far and wide enough to have become a societal expectation. Particularly when you’re making the choice between bucket two and three for someone else, i.e. your kids. 

To put it in more blunt terms: it would be insane to argue that we should be maximizing the suffering of children, but on the other hand it seems equally obvious that they need some amount of resilience, some ability to do hard things. So where do we draw the line? If we need to put something into bucket two, what criteria should we use? And perhaps more importantly what criteria should be culturally acceptable? Because if there’s a disconnect between the criteria we “should” be using and the criteria society finds acceptable then society is eventually going to win.

III.

At this point we’re still dealing with fairly crude divisions. If we’re going to get to the heart of the issue we’re going to have to start slicing things more finely, if at all possible. We need to start differentiating between various kinds of stress and suffering, and specific sorts of challenges. 

To start with, homework and other associated educational activities seem to be pretty mainstream, bucket two items. Beyond that some people feel that forcing kids to take music lessons is entirely appropriate. Still other parents are going to very strongly encourage their kids to play sports. By looking at activities like these we should be able to extract some attributes that allow us to differentiate between challenges that should be in bucket two versus those that should be in bucket three. Though, before we do so, it’s sobering to note that even within these broadly unobjectionable categories the expectations we place on kids have been eroding over the last few decades. A trend that was only accelerated by the pandemic.

As a final thought, It’s probably worth mentioning a subcategory of challenges within the preceding examples that involve having children confront their fears, particularly if those fears are irrational, like performing in front of people. Thus the phenomenon music recitals and actual competition with sports. 

We’ve covered, however briefly, forcing or at least strongly encouraging kids to do certain things. What about the flip side of that, restricting kids from doing things? The challenge we’re giving them here is not to do hard things, but to avoid pleasurable things. (Though such avoidance can certainly end up being a hard thing to pull off.) Here again we notice a cultural and societal shift. Certain restrictions against pleasurable things are as old as time itself, but recently both the number and the availability of pleasurable things has increased. Which means we have to implement broader restrictions, starting much younger than in the past. The expanded scope of this task has made the problem much larger than it was in the past.

We’ve already mentioned antifragility in this space, and I think most of the things we’ve mentioned can be placed in that framework. What does this framework look like? Well as it turns out you can graph it:

Antifragility comes from paying small fixed costs which cumulatively increase the chances of massive returns. (For the purposes of our discussion the variable is time.) So if a teenager pays the cost of being a diligent student they increase their chances of getting into a good school and from there landing a great job. On the other hand if the teenager spends all of their time on social media or video games, that’s the bottom graph. They get small fixed amounts of pleasure, but that path leads towards the greater likelihood that they’ll incur some large cost in the future. Perhaps they won’t go to college at all, and end up in a crappy job, or, worse, living at home and unemployed. Obviously none of this is guaranteed, and outliers abound, but remember we’re trying to have a discussion at the level of the entire society. 

Every parent who cares about doing a good job recognizes these trade-offs instinctively. We don’t make our children do hard things because we’re gunning for them. We make them do hard things and avoid short term pleasures because over the long run we think it will make them happier, more successful people. This is what all of the things I listed, and many more that could have been listed, have in common. They require short term pain but provide long term benefits. If your children do challenging things now they’ll be able to do challenging things later, and challenging things are rewarding, both monetarily and psychologically. On the other side of things we counsel against indiscretions, even small ones, because there’s always a chance they’ll lead to irreparable harm. No one tries drugs for the first time thinking they’re going to end up hopelessly addicted to opiods, but yet that does happen. (These days far more often than it should.) 

We’ve managed to spend a lot of time giving examples of antifragile challenges, and even offering up charts, but we’re still a long way from defining at exactly what point exposure to stress and suffering goes from making kids stronger to harming them. Also it’s tempting to imagine that we can separate actually suffering from challenging activities when we seek to encourage resilience. And perhaps you can to a very limited extent, but while involuntary suffering may help you deal with voluntary challenges, I don’t think the inverse is true. I think there’s a danger in trying to move too much out of bucket one. This is the whole basis of the hygiene hypothesis with its connection to the rise of asthma and potentially fatal allergies.

As far as this post is concerned, we may have gone as far as we’re going to in defining the perfect amount of stress and suffering, and as I said, that isn’t very far. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that this is a new problem. It’s only been very recently that we’ve had the option to adjust the level of stress and suffering across a broad enough area for it to make a difference. Accordingly we haven’t accumulated a lot of wisdom on which to draw from. 

Historically the environment was challenging enough to give children all the stress and suffering they could ever possibly need in order to be strong — in order for them to be antifragile. And then in far too many instances went beyond that point to cause them harm or even death. Though it is interesting to note that from what we can tell psychological harm appears to have been rarer during those times. So it is good that we can now dial it back, but our tendency is always going to defer to the person who wants it to go the lowest. Which is to say advocating for more suffering — more things in bucket two, and especially bucket one — is always going to be difficult to defend. 

This tendency to err on the side of suffering mitigation might not be so bad if our control and understanding of the nature of challenging children was more precise. But we don’t have the ability to fine tune challenges, particularly anything in bucket one, which as deBoer points out, continues to be a thing. And even voluntary challenges vary quite a bit in difficulty as a result of individual differences. There are a few kids who love learning to play the piano, most find it difficult and boring. All of this means that efforts to calibrate how challenging we make things are going to be very crude for the foreseeable future. Given this and our natural proclivity to lessen suffering, we should probably consciously create a counter-bias towards erring on the side of greater difficulty. Instead society has done the exact opposite, and in a way that largely overlooks the complexity and ramifications of this decision.

IV.

As we adjust the dials of suffering — using technology to move suffering from bucket one, or challenges from bucket two, into bucket three — we’re playing with a machine we scarcely understand. The goal is easy to understand: make the world better. And it’s obviously admirable. But our understanding of how moving the dials relates to achieving that goal is crude and incomplete.

This ties into another piece I came across recently which appeared to be making a point similar to mine:. The Social Recession: By the Numbers by Anton Cebalo. I ended my previous post by talking about the incel phenomenon and the staggering number of people not having sex. He uses that to open the piece and ties it to a larger phenomenon:

…a marked decline in all spheres of social life, including close friends, intimate relationships, trust, labor participation, and community involvement. The trend looks to have worsened since the pandemic, although it will take some years before this is clearly established.

The decline comes alongside a documented rise in mental illness, diseases of despair, and poor health more generally. In August 2022, the CDC announced that U.S. life expectancy has fallen further and is now where it was in 1996…even before the pandemic, the years 2015-2017 saw the longest sustained decline in U.S. life expectancy since 1915-18. While my intended angle here is not health-related, general sociability is closely linked to health. The ongoing shift has been called the “friendship recession” or the “social recession.”

What he describes fits under the broad definition of suffering. The decline in sociability robs us of tools to mitigate suffering. And the rise in poor mental and physical health, causes suffering we are therefore ill-equipped to deal with. 

So how is it, if we’re turning down (what appears to be) the suffering dial, that actual suffering is going up? Are we sure we understand how the machine works? Could it be that we have no clue? To be clear I’m not claiming I understand the machine either. I don’t. But that’s precisely why I think we should be very wary about messing with the dials.

To take things from another direction Cebalo is arguing that our culture has become more fragile, and correspondingly less antifragile. Also that our fragile culture appears to be composed of fragile individuals. Of course, fragile things eventually break, which is what Cebalo is worried about, but given that our culture hasn’t broken yet, it must not have been fragile for long. What was the quality of culture before all the things Cabalo describes started happening?

The whole concept of antifragility comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and for Taleb there are only three categories. Something can be antifragile, robust, or fragile. Fragile things, by their nature, don’t stick around for very long. Things that do stick around for a long time are therefore either robust or antifragile. In practice very few things are robust — neither harmed nor helped by stress — so long standing elements are generally antifragile.

Children have been around for a long time, and, as Haidt and Lukianoff point out, they’re antifragile. Much of what falls under the heading of culture, particularly as it stood 40 years ago, has also been around for a long time and is also probably antifragile. When something persists for a long time it evolves, a process that’s great at producing things that are antifragile. When this happens with culture we call it cultural evolution, and while we understand how it works, we don’t always correctly identify which elements of culture are antifragile products of this process and which are just dumb ideas some person in power came up with. To be more specific, when your thinking about something that used to happen but no longer does it can fall into three categories:

  1. Barbaric relics of the past which never served a useful purpose.
  2. Practices which are still useful, but we’ve incorrectly identified them as barbaric relics of the past, and dispensed with them.
  3. Practices which were useful, but through progress and technology we have ended up duplicating their utility in some other way. 

To take an example (as discussed in the previous post) dragging your disrespectful kid outside and walloping them, i.e. corporal punishment. Does this practice belong in category one, something that was never appropriate or useful? Category two? It’s still useful, but temporary cultural fads have incorrectly identified it as barbaric? Or category three? It was useful, but is no longer because we have different ways of punishing kids and/or the need for obedience is not life or death, like it used to be?

You may also notice some parallels between these three categories and the buckets we’ve been discussing, though it’s not perfect. But just like with the buckets, I think we’re bad at deciding what things should be in categories two vs. category three. We’re convinced we’ve grown beyond certain things, but in reality we might just be temporarily tired of them. 

As to the separation between categories one and two, I’ve talked about that in the past, and this post has already taken way longer than it should to write. But perhaps you’re familiar with the case of manioc and cyanide. It’s a great example of cultural evolution. Tribes in South America who lived off manioc did things that seemed completely unnecessary (category one) but when the cyanide content of the manioc was actually tested it turned out that those, seemingly unnecessary steps were absolutely critical (category 2). Finally we can presumably eliminate the cyanide through industrial processing (category 3). 

The point of the discussion of categories and manioc is the idea that it can be difficult to identify practices and behavior which result in antifragility. This is both the danger of turning dials and the ineffability of conservatism. We often sense that things are important without having the data to back it up. And from all of this we finally return to religion and church attendance. Which many people, including myself, strongly feel the importance of. Though also, fortunately, we also have some data. Returning to Cebalo’s post he makes a special point of highlighting the precipitous decline in church membership since the turn of the century:

As you can see from the caption he relates this decline to the larger point Robert D. Putnam brought up in his book Bowling Alone, but I think the decline in church membership has a larger impact than just one factor among many for the increase in loneliness. Though that’s certainly a non-trivial consideration.

Even if you think I’m misinterpreting the data. It would seem foolish to dismiss the trend in the chart above as inconsequential. Something big is happening. I suppose it could be because religion was always in category one, or that it has recently been successfully moved to category three, but given the incredibly long time it’s been around, I think it’s far more likely that it’s part of the culture that has evolved to make us antifragile. I.e. it’s in category two and society has dispensed with it to its detriment. 

The chart is interesting and even startling, but it’s not the best evidence for the connection between religion and better mental health. There’s actually quite a bit of more direct evidence. To take just one example I recently came across a working paper titled: “Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion”. Here’s the abstract:

In recent decades, death rates from poisonings, suicides, and alcoholic liver disease have dramatically increased in the United States. We show that these “deaths of despair” began to increase relative to trend in the early 1990s, that this increase was preceded by a decline in religious participation, and that both trends were driven by middle-aged white Americans. Using repeals of blue laws as a shock to religiosity, we confirm that religious practice has significant effects on these mortality rates. Our findings show that social factors such as organized religion can play an important role in understanding deaths of despair.

So religion helps us deal with despair. I understand the leap I’m taking when I make that assertion. But perhaps as we draw things to their conclusion you’re willing to entertain the idea that religion is an important source of antifragility. That in making us do small hard things it enables us to do large challenging things, and moreover to survive the intense, involuntary suffering that is still humanity’s lot. Religion doesn’t just provide practice at attending long, boring meetings, though I understand that it often gives that impression, it’s part of a whole network for doing challenging things, and mitigating suffering. It’s how we used to do hard things as a community, and through its transition to civic religion it’s how we still occasionally do hard things, though that form of religion is fraying as well. 

Sure, as many people brought up, it’s also a hard thing to leave a religion, and that probably gives an individual a certain amount of toughness, but we’re not interested in individual toughness, eventually any truly great endeavor requires societal toughness. And here, at the very end, I would like you to take a moment and reflect on how tough your ancestors were. And how much they probably suffered for their religion. Why? Because however much they suffered, religion offered relief from even greater suffering. It helped them deal with despair. It’s part of what made them tough. And yes it’s a good thing that we’ve been able to move things out of bucket one, that our children no longer die, that plagues are mild, and famine is rare. But in exchange, is it too much to ask that our children sit still for a couple of hours every week and do their best to understand the faith of those incredibly tough ancestors?


Paying for writing is one of the many things which got moved out of bucket one by the internet. Now you can choose whether to bear a cost for writing. You get to choose whether it should be bucket two or bucket three. I think the mere fact that I explained the buckets to you should make it a bucket two item


The Ineffability of Conservatism

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I.

I heard a story a while ago that I’m still trying to process. The story was related to me by a friend of mine who’s also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). He said that in his congregation there was a young man, who we’ll call Adam. (Details have been changed to protect the identity of “Adam”.) Adam is fourteen, and he had been reading some anti-LDS stuff on the web and because of the things he’d uncovered he decided he didn’t want to attend church any more. A combination of inertia and parental expectations had kept him coming, but it was clear that the situation was only temporary. 

His parents and the Bishop (for people who aren’t LDS bishops preside over local congregations), who were hoping to figure out some way to rebuild his faith and keep him in the church, hit upon the idea of getting his father to teach his son’s Sunday School class. The idea was that if they could shift the context somewhat, that perhaps his father’s words would be more effective than they had been. Also, while my friend wasn’t aware of all the details, he speculated that perhaps the son refused to engage in any kind of discussion at home, and they were hoping he’d be more likely to sit through it in this setting with peer pressure and what have you.

So there Adam is, waiting for Sunday School to start when his dad gets up to teach. Adam, apparently sensing where this is heading says something along the lines of: “No way. I’m not doing this”, and he stands up to leave the room. His father, in a kind of pleading voice says, “I would really like you to stay.” But Adam refuses and walks out of the room. My friend says that since this happened Adam hasn’t been seen in church. Though he still lives at home with his folks, does all the normal stuff, and even has the latest iPhone which, again according to my friend, his parents can scarcely afford.

My friend told me this story because he was struck by the difference between this event and what would have happened if he had tried the same thing forty some odd years ago when he was Adam’s age. First off he doesn’t think it would have ever even occurred to him to walk out on his dad. Given that he can’t imagine doing it, he has an equally difficult time imagining what his father would have done if he had, but he’s pretty sure that it would have gotten physical. I had to agree on both points, I never would have conceived of doing that nor can I entirely imagine the wrath that would have descended, but it feels like things would have bordered on the apocalyptic. 

II.

What are we to make of this story? Of the difference between what happened recently and what would have happened 40 years ago? And of the underlying issue: Should kids have some obligation to the “faith of their fathers”? Should they have any obligations, period, to their parents? Particularly if those parents are still feeding them, clothing them, and putting a roof over their head? Is it a good thing that Adam discovered the truth, or at least “his truth” as early as possible? Or is it a bad thing because whatever you think about God’s actuality, religion provides a cultural grounding that will later be very beneficial? Is it a good thing that his dad acquiesced so easily? Does it represent a better and more enlightened form of parenting? Or is filial piety important, separate from the benefits of religion? Given that teens are pretty dumb might a large amount of deference to adults be a good thing on the balance?

You might already be able to guess my answers to these questions. But these days I feel like my answers are significantly different from the modern consensus. So while I’ve certainly talked about subjects like these, I’ve never been entirely sure if people appreciate such posts or if they merely endure them. I was encouraged to think that it might be the former based on some comments I got on my recent survey. Which is part of the reason why I choose to write on this topic. 

In fact one person directly requested it:

You at one point mentioned that one of your children was NOT a Mormon, or religious? That to me is a huge story, because as far as I can tell being religious is about as good as it can be done in today’s day and age. How did your boy fall off? Will you ever do an episode on that?

I am not going to speak directly about my son because too many people who read this blog know him, which makes the discussion more fraught and complicated than I want to deal with. Though I may make some general references to it.

This second comment was not directly on point, but similar to the story I lead with it’s something I’ve been chewing on for awhile. 

I sometimes wonder how much of your stances on stuff is simply downstream from having a stable family environment and good fatherly figures. It feels like there’s a very hard-to-bridge gap when talking to religious people who have had good families growing up, and I wish I could explain how helpless most secular/liberal people I know really are in this regard.

Explaining the secular benefits of religion has been a long term theme of this blog. And this comment would seem to indicate that I’m actually underselling those benefits, that I have accrued benefits I’m not even aware of. But this also leads to me underselling the difficulties of “just doing it” as it were. And of course Adam still has a good fatherly figure, even if he’s not inclined to listen to him. But you can probably imagine how it all ties together, which is to say it’s not just me, my friend, and Adam’s father who thinks Adam is making a mistake. There are people, who, having grown up without the benefits Adam had, now wish they could access them. People who wish they were in Adam’s position, and if they were, they would make a different decision. 

It is possible I’m reading too much into these comments, and we still haven’t passed from the level of anecdotes to data. But I’d like to provide one final example that very directly speaks to the situation. One of the friends I made on my mission (I served a two year proselytizing mission in the Netherlands) has since that time left the Church, come out as gay, and now lives very happily with his husband on the east coast. You might imagine from this that he wishes he had stood up when he was 14 and walked out of his Sunday School class, and that he definitely regrets wasting two years on a mission. But in fact it’s the exact opposite. He doesn’t begrudge his mission at all, and considers it a major step in turning him into the adult he is now, even though he stopped attending church or being religious decades ago. And he bemoaned the fact that my son was never going to get that experience. 

None of these examples is going to convince someone who’s strongly anti-religious that Adam is making a mistake, but I’m hoping they might do the inverse, that is, convince people who aren’t strongly religious that despite this being an explicitly religious example that Adam nevertheless screwed up. That, even if you don’t believe in the existence of God, you might entertain the idea that there are benefits to raising children in a religion with strong families and fathers, and the whole package. Or to get more basic, that society, in the form of parents, might have something beneficial to pass along to teenagers. And that there needs to be some level of friction for opting out of this transmission.

The rest of the post is going to run with this assumption. Which to me seems pretty self-evident, but if you disagree with it I’d love to hear why.

III.

So Adam made a mistake, but is he the only person responsible for that mistake, or even the primary one? Certainly we’re all ultimately responsible for our actions, but Adam’s pretty young. If we think he’s too immature to understand the benefits of religion, and spending two years on a mission (even if he does subsequently leave the church) is he also too immature to be allowed to make that mistake? In other words, was this actually the Father’s mistake because he didn’t react more forcefully? Was it a mistake to not yell, or to not ground him? Dare we imagine that it was even a mistake to not take him out to the parking lot and wallop him? 

We can’t entirely discount these possibilities, but they’re all things that parents are strongly encouraged not to do anymore, especially the walloping, but even a father grounding a kid for being disrespectful is something that’s mostly fallen out of favor, particularly if it’s related to “forcing your beliefs” on the kid. To put it another way, many, if not most, of the people who feel that Adam made a mistake, would also be of the opinion that if the father did any of the things I listed, he would have made an even bigger mistake. And all of those who think that Adam didn’t make a mistake would definitely think that. So how is the father supposed to act in these circumstances? 

The current answer is that he should show forth unlimited love and acceptance. And this answer is hard to argue with. Both love and acceptance are very important. (Though love is much more important than acceptance, and it’s important to not conflate the two, though people frequently do.) Additionally, over the short term, this tactic probably leads to the best outcomes. But what about over the long term? Does a world where 14 year olds can abandon the traditions of their fathers with impunity end up better than the one where they don’t? But all this just takes us back to the point I made already. What I really want to know is should the father have handled things differently? 

Perhaps, but it would have been very difficult to act other than he did. A father in 2022 is a long, long way from the near absolute authority exercised by the pater familias in ancient Rome. These days if Adam’s father had been too harsh with him, he could have been left entirely without allies. At that point regardless of how the father wanted things to proceed. He wouldn’t have the requisite support to actually enact his desires, and if he went too far the government might even have gotten involved. 

IV.

If Adam was too immature to have made a mistake, and his father didn’t have the backing to have acted other than he did, where was the mistake? Or rather where would we go to correct the mistake? I believe that the difference between today and 40 years ago — when my friend and I were growing up — points to the answer. Neither Adam nor his father are at fault, rather society as a whole is. Over the last 40 years we changed the nature of the water we swim in. In the past the father would have had allies. On some unexpressed level everyone was on the same page when it came to defiant children. But this also meant that the father wouldn’t have needed allies because Adam would have never done what he did. 

So, yes, it would have been a bad thing for my Father to wallop me in the parking lot, and it would have been a bad thing for me to stand up at 14 and effectively tell him to go to hell. But neither of those bad things happened. We achieved the ideal outcome without effort and without drama. And yes, I realize this is an oversimplification, but within it there is a kernel of truth. I avoided making the same mistake Adam did, and my Father didn’t have to raise his hand against me or even say anything. How did that happen? How did society back then manage to coordinate to achieve this outcome?

I’m not sure there’s a straightforward answer. Certainly there’s not some switch that we can easily flip back to its historical setting. As I said it was basically just part of the environment, the water we swam in. Back then we all knew not to mess with our fathers. And it wasn’t specific. It wasn’t don’t do X or Y will happen. Both the nature of X and the nature of Y were left ambiguous, or at least the border was, but walking out on my father in the middle of Church was clearly deep in the territory of X, and it would bring some unknown and terrible Y. Despite this ambiguity everyone was essentially on the same page. But whatever that coordination was we’ve lost it. And it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to get it back. 

This is the ineffable nature of conservatism. It’s hard to describe the water when you’re in it. What it was that kept things working this way. What it is that we’ve lost. Why Adam made a mistake. And why “secular/liberal people” feel “helpless” as mentioned by the second comment. On the other hand it’s very easy to point to the gains brought by liberalism: women’s suffrage, the repeal of Jim Crow laws, healthcare for the old and the poor, and of course fewer kids getting walloped by their fathers for expressing defiance.  

This is part of what makes the culture war so contentious, and acrimonious. It’s easy for liberals to fall into the trap of believing that conservatives are just a bunch of old people yelling at clouds, because that’s precisely how nebulous their complaints seem. But conservatives know that things are different, that the water is changed, even if it’s hard to describe and even more difficult to solve. How do you get an entire society to all agree to go back to the “old ways” when you can’t even entirely define what those “old ways” were?

V.

All of this leads one to wonder, if it’s impossible to restore the consensus that was lost, how did we arrive at that consensus in the first place? Was it just an artifact of historical barbarism, of a more benighted time when “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, and parents were strong and children were weak? Or is it possible that it evolved as part of culture and society for precisely the reasons I mentioned above. And now that it’s gone we’ve ended up with a bunch of children and young adults who have been cast adrift at the mercy of their immature desires. (This post could be expanded to include statistics on the increase in suicidality and depression among that cohort but I think if you’re not already with me on this point that additional statistics are not going to tip the scale.)

But rather than arguing over the benefits of the old system it might be useful to consider the benefits of the new system. What did Adam get by walking out of church and never returning? Here I’m obviously biased and you should definitely take those biases into account when you consider my answer. With that caveat in mind, I’m not really seeing many. Sure he saves some time, a few hours on Sunday and a few hours here and there outside of Sunday. Additionally he’s spared some aggravation, annoyance and anxiety at the whole situation. There’s also probably some things that I’m overlooking, but overall, when piled up, it doesn’t seem to amount to much in the overall scheme of things. Which is not to say that the entire project of liberalism isn’t positive on the balance, but is there no way to preserve some of the best parts of what it replaced?

The possibility exists that there is no benefit to remaining with the faith of your fathers, even just until you’re an adult. That all the people I reference in Part II are wrong. If so, then perhaps Adam did the wise thing. But that’s not how it seems to be playing out, not just with Adam, not just with people close to me, but with young men everywhere. I understand I’m retreading territory which was already well explored by Pascal, but I think the math might be in favor of religion even if we don’t bring in an eternal and infinite reward.

Moving closer to home, I know a lot of Adams, and for nearly all of them, leaving church, contrary to the desires of their parents, starts a trend of isolation and sloth. This trend does not continue forever, but it continues long enough that most end on a plateau of ambition and achievement that’s well below where they would have been had they stayed. 

If we broaden our focus to all young men, one can’t help but consider the incel phenomenon — both those who identify as such and those who are involuntarily celibate without adopting the label. This problem would also appear to be tightly related. Because you know where there’s a lot more women than men, women who have a higher than average desire to marry? Most churches!

This is only one example of conservative ineffability, and a somewhat disjointed one at that. (Though only part of that is my failings as a writer. Part is the aforementioned ineffability.) There are certainly other examples, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Society has changed in profound and often unseen ways over the last few decades. (It should be noted that the US Christian percentage hovered around 90% as recently as the 1980. And church attendance was at 70% as recently as 2000.) And, because of their subtlety these changes are still being grappled with. There are a lot of Adams, and it’s not clear what to do about them, but I would opine that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. The problem is difficult to define, but that doesn’t mean it’s not consequential and important. 


I’m posting this right before Christmas, which means the connection to donating should be obvious. But instead I’m going to ask for something else, consider reaching out to a young man who seems to be having a hard time. 


Eschatologist #20: The Antifragility of Taboos

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We covered the fragility of systems and technology in the last newsletter. In this newsletter I’d like to move from the material to the ephemeral. In other words, let’s talk about culture. This is a huge topic for a short newsletter, so while much of what I say can be applied to traditional culture in general, I want to focus on traditional taboos. The older and stronger and more widespread the taboo, the better.

You might imagine that since taboos are also human creations that they would suffer from the same fragility I described in my last newsletter. But there is a difference between systems which were invented and systems which have evolved. The process of evolution separates the antifragile from the fragile. 

Antifragile things are made stronger by disorder, chaos and other shocks (up to a point). Fragile things are made weaker. Invented things, by nature of their novelty have not been subjected to ongoing shocks or chaos, while evolved things have undergone that evolution in the presence of and in response to such shocks and chaos.

All of this is to say that for something to become a taboo, it must have survived. It must not have broken. Which means, it’s antifragile. More specifically it made the culture as a whole antifragile. 

At this point some of you are saying, “Yeah, yeah. Chesterton’s Fence. I get it.” But I would argue that this is a stronger argument than the one Chesterton was making. Chesterton pointed out that you shouldn’t remove a fence unless you understood the reason it was constructed. But this assumed that if you put in some effort, you could uncover that reason. Probably just by asking around. The fence is an invention, and it’s assumed you could find the reason for its invention.

Evolutions leave fewer clues, but despite that they end up being even more important. You might be familiar with the famous example of how the preparation of manioc evolved in order to eliminate the cyanide. The indigenous people who undertook such preparations had no idea what cyanide was, nor would the connection between chronic cyanide poisoning and the processes of manioc preparation have been easy to discern. Now that we can test for cyanide the reason for the extensive preparations is obvious. But just because we can uncover the underlying reason for one taboo, doesn’t mean we can uncover the underlying reason for all taboos. 

To take an example that’s closer to home, let’s consider the longstanding and very widespread taboo against premarital sex. (Consider for a moment: Why should China and the West, historically so different in most other respects, have this exact same taboo?)

Adherence to this taboo has plummeted since the sexual revolution, and to the extent people think about why it existed in the first place they imagine that sex produces children who need to be cared for, but now that we have numerous methods of birth control we can dispense with it. They might admit that there used to be a reason for the taboo, but that technology has solved the problem—that our inventions have eliminated the need for our evolutions. 

I think this is sheer hubris, and I’m not alone. In her recent book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry makes the case that the taboo solved numerous other problems like preventing sexual violence, which we’re only now grappling with. That “hook-up culture is a terrible deal for women”. 

But does this mean that all traditional taboos are antifragile evolutions that should be maintained absent ironclad evidence to the contrary? And what about traditional culture more broadly? 

I’m arguing that in both cases this should be the default. That we should be very careful anytime we think we’ve invented our way out of a problem previously solved by cultural evolution. And in particular we should never imagine that our ancestors were silly and superstitious and had no reason for a taboo. And yet both things are far too common. In so many areas we’ve abandoned thousands of years of wisdom because it seemed unnecessary, archaic, or just inconvenient. 

This has been and will continue to be a mistake.

Some might dismiss me as an old man yelling at the clouds, but if old men have been yelling at clouds for thousands of years, I’m asking you to assume that there’s a good reason for it. 


I’m always on the lookout for good band names and this newsletter had a surprising number: Material to Ephemeral, Evolved Taboos, Sheer Hubris, and of course Old Men Yelling at Clouds. To those I’d like to add, Donations Encouraged.  


Freedom of Religion in 2016

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As is often the case, over the last few posts you may have lost track of the fact that this is ostensibly a religious blog. Well it is, though it might be one of those, if someone accused you of being a religious blogger would there be enough evidence to convict you? I’m sure one of the points which might be used against me is the fact that, before my last post about the election, I spent two posts talking about the first amendment, without any discussion of freedom of religion. What kind of religious blogger is more interested in freedom of speech than freedom of religion? Well in this post I intend to correct that. I think part of the reason why I tackled speech first is that it’s easier. People may disagree with my argument that it’s the best defense against authoritarianism, but the argument is not unreasonable on its face. Also there is not a group of people who feel that free speech is at best a collection of superstitions which should be gutted, if it’s allowed to survive at all, and at worst the cause of all the bad things that have ever happened. Those arguments have been used with respect to religion, which makes defending freedom of religion an entirely different endeavor. Basically it’s hard to argue that the existence of atheists and to a lesser extent agnostics doesn’t complicate things.  For example you’ll note (speaking of atheists and agnostics) that there are no similar terms for people who don’t believe in free speech, except maybe dictator.

Even for people who aren’t atheists or agnostics, part of the muddiness comes from what people consider freedom of religion, and along with that, what counts as an attack on that freedom. True freedom of religion can include things far more concrete than the right to say what you want without fear of censorship. As the old children’s rhyme goes:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

This is largely true, especially from a legal standpoint, if a group of people surrounds someone and yells at them, you might find that behavior annoying, you might even find it appalling, but you’re unlikely to think that those people should be arrested, and if they are, you would be surprised if they were held for more than a day or two. However, if a group of people surrounds someone and stones them to death (as recommended by at least two religions) you would expect a lot of arrests. Now obviously not all examples of religious freedom involve stones and dying, but even a comparatively mild example like not baking someone a cake involves something more concrete than just words. Putting freedom of religion in a significantly different place than freedom of speech.

I’ve mentioned the negative opinions of atheists and agnostics, and maybe someday they’ll succeed at eliminating religion entirely (similar to the Soviet Union and we all know how well that worked out.) But is freedom of religion currently under attack? Unlike with freedom of speech, where you need look no farther than a college campus to see things that, while technically legal, meet no one’s ideal of free speech, freedom of religion is trickier. One commonly cited example of freedom of religion being under attack is the persecution of Christians. (See the aforementioned reference to cake baking.) But there is disagreement on how prevalent or consequential this persecution actually is. With some people going so far as to declare the entire thing a myth. I don’t think it’s a myth, and this post will largely be an argument in favor of it’s existence.

When considering whether freedom of religion is being restricted, two things should be kept in mind. First, to refer briefly back to the Constitution, what it actually says is that the free exercise of the religion shall not be prohibited. The term “free exercise” strikes me as a higher standard than making sure religions aren’t persecuted. Second, it’s important to clarify that religious persecution can take many forms and operate on many levels. If my examples of persecution just took the form of hard-core atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, saying mean things about Christians, then this wouldn’t be much of a post. Dawkins, in particular, has been so abrasive recently that he has started to alienate even his fans. If I was going to write a post built around outrageous things Dawkins said, I’d be joining a pretty crowded field, and I would have to share whatever sympathy I could muster with thousands of others.

But I think that persecution is broader than just hard-core skeptics and atheists, and I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t think it existed, in fact I not only think it exists, but I think that it’s a bigger and more widespread problem than most people realize. This is not that uncommon, lots of times big problems aren’t that obvious, or at least their obviousness is frequently not directly correlated to their severity. Some people will claim that lead exposure explains nearly all the social ills that have afflicted America since the time of Columbus (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration). For my part I’d be surprised if lead exposure was quite as consequential as all that, but I would definitely agree that it had an impact far out of proportion to its obviousness. The persecution of religion is in a similar category. A non-obvious problem that’s bigger than people think. Which is not to say that it’s non-obvious to everyone. In the same way that some people have been warning about lead for decades, other people have been warning about religious persecution for just as long.

Maybe you are one of these people, perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, but if you’re not, and religious persecution isn’t apparent, what should you be looking for? How am I going to convince you that it’s as big a problem as I say it is? These are all excellent questions, but before we get to them it would help to establish some background by looking at three theories of religion:

Theory number one: God exists and religion is how we interact with him.

This theory of religion was dominant for most of human history. It hypothesizes that there is a God (or Gods) and that one or more of the religions on the earth reflect some greater or lesser portion of God: his divinity, his unchanging truths, or his eternal plan. Most adherents to this theory also believe in some form of afterlife, of infinite duration and happiness, meaning that whatever we do that doesn’t qualify us for this afterlife is a waste of time. Under this theory we shouldn’t be merely promoting freedom of religion the whole point of man should be religion. Freedom of religion, and by extension giving people the ability to find God, isn’t a nice policy it’s the only policy worth having period. Of course there is an alternative to freedom of religion under this theory, if you’re certain that you have the correct religion, then (if God doesn’t object, which he might) you can just make everyone be that religion. This particular scenario of dictating a single religion will be discussed in more depth later.

Theory number two: Religion is stupid

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea that God doesn’t exist, and not only does he not exist, but religion is superstitious garbage created by the brain’s over-active pattern matching and it’s garbage that should have been cleaned up a long time ago. The most visible adherents to this theory are the every-bad-thing-which-ever-happened-can-be-blamed-on-religion people, who feel that religion is similar to drinking, something they probably can’t prohibit (and attempts to do so have turned out badly), but which at best is a necessary evil and if we can get people to not do anything important while under it’s influence (to continue the drinking metaphor) everyone would be a lot better off. But in addition to these people we should also include those people who may even have some belief in God, but believe religion to be a waste of time and an annoying topic of conversation; not actively harmful, but not beneficial either, perhaps in their minds it’s similar to World of Warcraft, potentially an amusing diversion, but otherwise pointless.

Theory number three: Religion is just the accumulated culture and traditions of a given society.

Under theory three religion is neither the primary point of our existence, or a vestigial remnant of a superstitious past, and despite being neither of those things it is nevertheless unavoidable. If you have a society you’re going to have a religion, perhaps many of them, but ideas and traditions, taboos and beliefs don’t exist in isolation. They’re always going to end up bundled into a package of some sort. Some people want to label the packages which have been around for a long time as religions, and more recent packages as science, but not only is that division arbitrary, it gives unfair precedence to the science side of things, when, if anything it should be reversed. Societies don’t accumulate culture and traditions as a hobby, they accumulate them because they work. Science works as well (replication crisis aside) but even the best results in social science (the closest parallel to religion) have been arrived at by testing a few hundred people over the course of a few months. Religion is the distilled results of testing millions of people over thousands of years.

I know there are people who will reject this assertion outright, but if you take a moment to engage in some hard thinking, than this idea makes more sense than saying religion is stupid. If that were the case why isn’t the world dominated by non-religious societies and civilizations? Instead, not only is religion universal, but certain taboos, like the taboo against extramarital sex, turn out to have been present in most religions. I discussed this in far more depth in a previous post. But in short you can either accept that religion is universal and useful, or you can assert that all cultures went slightly mad in a very similar way.

Interestingly accepting theory number three doesn’t necessarily preclude theory number one, religion could exist as an extension of God’s existence, at the same time providing a useful store of accumulated wisdom (in the ideal case this would be God’s wisdom). However theory three is incompatible with theory two. For adherents of theory two their modern ideology is an entirely different thing than an ancient religion like Christianity or Islam. But if you believe theory number three, then modern ideologies are just another religion, one that could be better, but also could be a lot worse than the traditional religions.

Of course outside of these three theories, there are obviously many people who hold no theory of religion. Without being able to access people’s deepest thoughts it’s difficult to know how many people there are who truly have no opinion, but there are almost certainly people who really don’t give it much thought one way or the other, except to be annoyed when the Mormon missionaries show up at their door.

With the three theories of religion in place, let’s look at religious persecution through the lens of each theory. Examining persecution by way of the first theory is fairly straightforward. If there is a God and he’s commanded us to do X, and if we do we’ll receive some manner of infinite reward, anything which keeps us from doing X is essentially infinite harm. Now I personally think things can get screwy once you start tossing around infinities, and also I certainly believe that there is a continuum of acts. Preventing someone from praying in school is obviously less egregious than preventing them from praying period. And destroying all the LDS temples would be of greater harm than just banning the weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast. But still, in essence, any infringement on religious rights under theory number one is pretty bad, and while you may not see same-sex marriage or abortion as an infringement on anyone’s rights, in fact you might view it as a huge expansion in rights. It is certainly conceivable that a religious person might nevertheless view it differently. The same could be said for widespread acceptance of extramarital promiscuity, and the deluge of pornography. The standard argument is that no one is forcing you to engage in same-sex marriage, have an abortion, be promiscuous or view pornography, but all of these things make it much more difficult to for people live their religion and make it particularly difficult for them to raise their children to be religious. Which under theory number one is the whole point of life, meaning that religious persecution is pervasive, ongoing, and unlikely to do anything but get worse if you view things through the lens of the first theory.

To be clear I’m not advocating that this theory should be the dominant theory for interpreting freedom of religion under the first amendment, though it’s arguable that it was the dominant theory for most of the country’s existence. I’m just illustrating how, if this is the theory you’re operating under, persecution and infringement are everywhere.

Under the second theory of religion, the idea that it’s stupid, almost nothing counts as persecution. I mean if you can still meet in your special building once a week and talk about your crazy ideas concerning the existence of a supreme being, for whom no proof exists, then what else is there to complain about? I mean obviously if you do certain ridiculous things like have more than one wife we’re going to smack you down, cause that’s not freedom of religion, that’s insanity. I mean the whole thing is insane, but since we can’t outright prohibit it, we’ll continue to let you meet once a week, and I guess if you want to volunteer at a food kitchen or at a disaster site from time to time that’s cool too, but don’t give us any of this crazy bigoted stuff about same sex marriage being wrong or abortion being murder.

In other words, defining persecution under the first two theories is easy, in the first, persecution is everywhere and in the second persecution is nowhere. Understandably this has made discussion between the two sides difficult. Of course it’s a gross oversimplification to assume that there are just two sides, there are dozens, but hopefully you can see that where you stand on freedom of religion could in large part be determined by what you think the point of religion is.

It’s when we turn to the third theory that things get more difficult and more interesting. If religion is the accumulated cultural wisdom of the ages, there should be significant deference given to those points on which most religions agree (see extramarital sex above). On issues where one religion has something to say and other religions are silent (say the consumption of pork), religions should be given wide latitude since there’s a good chance that there may be wisdom in one religion which could profitably be shared with the society at large. Of course this is not going to eliminate ideological competition, but insofar as we can make it ideological and not violent competition, that would be preferable. In this respect freedom of religion bears a strong resemblance to freedom of speech, which is probably one of the reasons why they’re both in the First Amendment.

Just as speech loses most of it’s value if there is only one viewpoint, religion is subject to all manner of abuses if there is only one religion, particularly if that religion is state-sponsored. The Founding Fathers were very familiar with this potential for abuse, and had seen religion morph from accumulated cultural wisdom into a tool for the powerful to oppress their enemies (the tendency largely responsible for creating adherents to theory two.) Having some guidelines which help society run better is one thing, burning your enemies at the stake is quite another. But the founders could still distinguish between the state acting in the guise of religion and religion free from the influence of the state, and that’s what they tried to encourage.

As you can see theory three leads us to a place that looks very similar to what the founders probably intended, though possibly by a different route. And we end up with two principles for defining religious freedom. The first principle is that freedom of religion should be similar to freedom of speech, with some additional deference for tradition, and the second principle being that we should avoid dominance by a single religion, particularly a state sponsored one.

For most of the country’s history I would argue that these two principles were largely taken for granted. Which is not to say that there weren’t ideological disagreements like anti-catholicism (and that could be viewed as a reaction against domination by a single religion, rather than the opposite) but largely things went pretty smoothly. One of the biggest tests of religious freedom came with polygamy. Which the Supreme Court eventually decided was not covered by the First Amendment. We don’t have the space to jump into that briar patch, but it is important to note that it was prohibited largely because it didn’t match with what people viewed as traditional religion, particularly traditional Christianity. There’s a big debate about whether the recent ruling on same sex marriage will eventually lead to polygamy being legal, but it’s certain that if the issue does come before the Supreme Court that arguments involving what’s “traditional” will play a much smaller role than they did in Reynolds v. United States the original 1878 case which outlawed polygamy for good.

With these two principles in place we can finally consider what religious freedom looks like under theory three. Let’s start with the idea that freedom of religion should look like freedom of speech, with a bias towards traditional religious values. On this count I would have to say that things are not going very well. Regardless of where you stand on the issues I would hope that you could agree that there has never been a time more hostile to expressions of support for traditional religions particularly expressing traditional religious opposition to stuff like extramarital sex, same sex marriage, abortion, etc. Now to be fair this power balance has only recently flipped, and so it may seem like gay individuals still get more grief than people arguing against same sex marriage. In this era of flux it’s possible that both sides are getting a fair amount of censure and hate, ideally neither would.

Turning to the principle that we should be wary of having a single dominant religion, I think we’re doing poorly there as well. It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about the Religion of Progress, but I would argue that it is currently the dominant religion and de facto state-sponsored to boot. Though there would be a lot of people who would deny that it’s a religion. Combined with what I mentioned above the Religion of Progress is crowding out the practice, doctrine and even discussion of traditional religions.

I can certainly imagine that I’m wrong about all of this and all traditional religions need to be supplanted by the Religion of Progress, but even so is it really wise to have all our eggs in one basket? Is it really wise to dismiss everyone who came before us as stupid and superstitious? Are you really so confident that religions have nothing to teach us? That it’s fine if they are pounded down to the point where they barely resemble religions?

I’ve spent over three thousand words illustrating my view of how freedom of religion should be interpreted and whether religious persecution exists. But perhaps in all of the twists and turns the totality of the argument wasn’t clear, so in a somewhat glib summation, which should not take the place to the thousands of words which preceded, here is my argument:

There are three ways of looking at religion. Viewing religion as stupid and valueless (theory two) is, well, stupid. Both of the other viewpoints would strongly suggest that we treat traditional religions and traditional norms with a large degree of respect. In the last few decades we’ve decided against that. This is a mistake.


LGBT Youth and Suicide

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This is one of those posts where I’m sure I’m walking into a minefield. Well you only live once, so lets do this…

When people want to talk about the harm caused to LGBT youth by the intolerance of the Church, the first place they go is to a discussion of suicide. This makes sense. When someone takes their own life it’s tragic. There’s no way to sugar coat a suicide. It’s obviously a bad thing.

This discussion has been going on for awhile, but it seemed to really explode earlier this year with the publication of a report which claimed that 32 young LGBT Mormons aged 14-20 have committed suicide since the Church changed its policies on same sex marriage (SSM), labeling people in a SSM as apostates and forbidding their children from being baptized.

The connection to be drawn was clear. Through their policy the Church had indirectly killed people. This shouldn’t be a surprise. I have all the sympathy in the world for the parents, family members and friends of those individuals, and if they’re mad at the Church that’s understandable. I’d be upset as well and as part of that I’d certainly want something and someone to blame. And connecting these suicides to the policies of the Church and the attitudes of its members seems obvious.

That said, the more emotional the subject, the more difficult it is too really look at things rationally. And yet in a situation as consequential as this one, understanding what is really going on becomes more important than ever. I agree that the explanation offered by the article seems the obvious one, but so many times the obvious explanation is not the correct one. And there have been thousands of times when people thought they were helping when in fact they were doing exactly the opposite. And unfortunately as much as it pains me to say this, that may in fact be what’s happening here.

I mentioned the article from the beginning of the year, and as you can probably imagine, the issue hasn’t gone away. At the first of this month a piece was published in the Salt Lake Tribune once again talking about LGBT suicide and once again pushing the Church to do more about it. It should be noted that this op-ed was written by one of leaders of the organization who supplied the data on the 32 suicides featured in the initial article. I don’t think this undermines the claims or anything of that sort, but if you’re trying to get to the truth these sorts of details are important. But at this point I’m fine granting the LGBT Mormon Youth are committing suicide and that the numbers of youth committing suicide are in fact increasing. This idea is strengthened by an article linked to from the same page as the op-ed which reported that youth suicides have tripled since 2007.

Looking at the comments on the second article it appears that most people agree with the position of the op-ed, so the overall theory that the Church is causing suicides has considerable traction. But does it make sense? Is the connection really that clear? Let’s start by looking at the time line. First let’s look at the Church’s position on LGBT issues. Here are few milestones:

1995: LDS leaders issue the Proclamation on the Family which declares that “Marriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan” and that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

2008: LDS Church campaigns heavily for Proposition 8. Which passes, reversing the California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize SSM.

2010: In a tearful meeting in Oakland Elder Marlin K. Jensen apologized to those affected by Proposition 8 for the Church’s part in passing it.

2012: The Church creates the website www.mormonsandgays.org in an attempt to reach out to members who experience same sex attraction (SSA).

2015, November: Church labels people in an SSM as apostates and forbids children of those couples from baptism.

I’m sure I’ve left out some milestones. But I think it’s clear that since 2007 the Church’s engagement with the LGBT community has not been a series of escalations, with each step worse than the last. There have been some real attempts to reach out to the LGBT community. And while you may disagree with the effectiveness or even the sincerity of these efforts, I have a hard time seeing how the Church’s treatment of LGBT individuals is getting worse. The outreach of the website, or the Proposition 8 apology would have been unthinkable during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. And, while I was not alive for the decades before that I am reliably informed that attitudes towards LGBT individuals were even worse before then.

Taken together, the evidence strongly suggests that the Church and its leadership are making real attempts to be more loving and understanding. I can point you towards stories of transgender Mormons showing up in dresses to Church and being treated as women and gay bishops who publically talk about their struggle with same sex attraction. Yes, there are certainly lines that the Church has decided should not be crossed, but beyond that they’ve been unusually accommodating. But let’s set that aside for the moment. Perhaps the Mormon Church has become more draconian. Maybe there are elements, perhaps individual members, who are being horribly repressive and intolerant. Even if this is the case (and I don’t think it is) they are not the only factor in play. We also have to look at what things have been like outside of the Church with respect to LGBT acceptance. Some milestones there:

1999-2000: Domestic partnerships and civil unions become legal in California and Vermont respectively.

2003: SSM legal in Massachusetts.

2009: Numerous states make SSM legal (with lots of fights back and forth at the ballot box).

2011: Obama administration declares they will no longer defend DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act

2013: SSM made legal in Utah.

2015: SSM made legal everywhere in the US.

And this list doesn’t even include the increased acceptance of LGBT’s on TV and movies and in the media. For the last decade or more LGBT people have gone from one victory to another. By any conceivable measurement things are as good as they have ever been. If that’s the case why are so many of them committing suicide? Even if you want to claim that the LDS Church has been unusually repressive. It’s not that hard to leave the Church and reject its teachings. People do it all the time, and by all accounts there’s a large community willing to embrace them and celebrate their decision. Outside of the Church the argument that intolerance and bigotry are causing suicides just doesn’t hold any water. And even if you restrict your examination to what’s happening within the church, the evidence is weak to nonexistent.

To be clear, the suicide of anyone is tragic. And I would never want people to think I am minimizing the  suffering of those involved. But given how tragic it is, isn’t it that much more important to make sure that we correctly understand the causes? It’s easy to point the finger at the Church and declare that it’s all being caused by Mormon bigotry. But being blinded by animosity towards the Church could easily lead someone to overlook other issues. Once again, Youth suicides have tripled! The consequences of incorrectly diagnosing the problem are huge. And blaming it all on the Church looks like it might just be an example of an incorrect diagnosis. Or at a minimum not the whole story.

If the LGBT community is objectively being treated with more tolerance than ever why are suicides increasing? As I have said, he conventional wisdom is that we just need to be even more tolerant. But it’s worth examining the causes of suicide, because they don’t always map to one’s expectations. Interestingly enough one of the latest episodes of the Freakonomics podcast was a rebroadcast of an episode they did on suicide from 2011. It brings up a lot of points that are worth considering.

Before I jump into the Freakonomics podcast I want to make it clear, that I’m not saying I know why the suicide rate has increased or why LGBT youth are committing suicide. It would be ridiculous of me to take a podcast and a couple of articles from the internet and use them to pass judgment about what should be done. Instead, rather than saying why it is happening, I’m

offering up the opinion that it might not be happening because of the Church and its members. I intend to offer some alternative theories, mostly to show that there are other potential explanations, not to advance any of the explanations as THE explanation.

The first thing we notice when we listen to the podcast is the title, “The Suicide Paradox.” It’s called that because a lot of things about suicide don’t make sense, and can be downright paradoxical. For example it turns out that blacks commit suicide at only half the rate of whites. If your theory is that oppression and intolerance causes suicide you would expect their rate to be higher than the white rate. Another example (not from the podcast) is Syria, which one year into its civil war was tied for the lowest national suicide rate (now there may be all kinds of problems with that number, but it’s borne out by other surveys conducted before the war.) One of the best statements about the difficulty of understanding suicide comes from David Lester who was interviewed as part of the podcast. Lester has written over 2,500 academic papers, more than half of which concern suicide. And his conclusion is:

First of all, I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves. And myself and my friends, we often, when we’re relaxing, admit that we really don’t have a good idea why people kill themselves.

Despite this statement there are some general things that can be said about suicide. For instance suicide is contagious. If someone hears about a suicide or sees a suicide, say on TV, particularly if the person committing the suicide bears some resemblance to the person hearing about it, it can trigger a copycat suicide. This is called the Werther Effect after a novel by Goethe where he described someone committing suicide in a sympathetic fashion. Thus it’s possible that in the process of publicizing the suicide of LGBT Mormon youth that the people trying to prevent it are actually contributing to the problem. If so it that would be terrible, and as I said, I take no stand on what is actually happening, I’m only urging that a problem this serious deserves all the knowledge and resources at our disposal.

It’s also worth mentioning that Utah is squarely inside the suicide belt, that area of the country with the highest suicide rates. Explanations for the high suicide rates in the Mountain West have ranged from residential instability, to access to guns, to the thin air. This is a great site for comparing suicide rates among states, and it’s worth noting that the site doesn’t show a 3x increase in the number of suicides in Utah since 2007. If you follow the link and select states to compare, Utah looks very similar to Colorado and New Mexico. States which are not known for having a huge population of Mormons. Of course the original article talked about youth, and it’s not my intention to dig into the numbers (at least not now) though they could very well be suspect. The point I want to bring up is that Utah is already has an above average suicide rate and it appears to have nothing to do with the Church.

Finally you would expect that suicide to be more rare among wealthy people, and to an extent that’s true, but less than you would think. There is no strong correlation between wealth and suicide. Having more money doesn’t do much to lower your risk of suicide and may in certain cases increase it. Additionally some of the very highest rates of suicide are among older white males. Hardly the group you think of when you think of an unhappy minority. And indeed rich and famous people commit suicide all the time. The effect is even more pronounced if you look at the difference in suicide rates between rich and poor countries. Not only is this another mark against the theory that bigotry and intolerance cause suicide, but it leads us to another alternate theory for suicide.

According to this theory, people who are impoverished, discriminated against, or otherwise dealing with difficult circumstances can always point to these circumstances as the reason why they’re unhappy. When those circumstances go away, if the person is still unhappy, then it must mean that they’re broken in some fundamental way, and their unhappiness is therefore a permanent condition. If everything you think is making you unhappy goes away and you’re still unhappy what’s left?

This could be what we’re seeing with the LGBT community. In the “bad old days” the reasons for their misery were obvious, the world didn’t accept them and never would. Now they’re accepted everywhere. They can join the military, they can get married, companies come to their aid. What’s left? And yet, the suicide rate remains tragically high.

Chelsea Manning, the transgender whistleblower formerly known as Bradley Manning before transitioning, attempted to commit suicide recently. And it is among transgendered that the evidence for this effect is strongest. If on the one hand we just need more tolerance to solve the problem, than those individuals who have successfully undergone gender reassignment surgery and can pass as the opposite sex should have the lowest suicide rate. Instead individuals who’ve undergone the surgery experience a suicide mortality rate 20 times greater than a comparable non-transgender population. Even transgender individuals have taken these numbers and used them to argue vigorously against surgery.

Sticking with just transgendered individuals there are still well-respected doctors who argue that transgendered individuals suffer from a version of body dysmorphic disorder. In other words being transgendered is similar to having anorexia or bulimia. Thus we should be treating them like people with a mental illness, not as people who have a different but completely valid lifestyle. Obviously this is a very unpopular theory, but that should not be a factor in determining what’s really going on.

I know that the current orthodoxy is that we just need to allow people to do whatever they want and happiness will follow, but at some point don’t we need to look at the data? Is it in fact possible that telling people to pursue personal gratification at the expense of everything else is contributing to the problem?

I know people are convinced that the intolerance of the church and it’s members are indirectly killing people. And I can understand the reasons why they think this, but it just doesn’t add up. At some point you have to admit the possibility that some people are more interested in finding a club to beat the Church with than they are in getting to the truth, and by extension really helping these kids.

I’ll tell you what I thought when I heard the announcement that the Church would not baptize the children of same sex couples and were declaring anyone in a same sex marriage as apostate. I was relieved and excited, and I’ll tell you why. The Church had backed down on a lot of things, as I mentioned above they had apologized, they had put up websites, and all of these were probably even good things, but we can be so accommodating that we lose sight of the doctrine. And as I have attempted to point out here, we can be so accommodating that we are no longer able to think deeply about a topic. Our dialogue becomes nothing but accusations and apologies. Obviously I’m just a bit player in all of this. The leaders of the church know what they’re doing and along those linesl think Dallin H. Oaks said it best when he was speaking about this very issue of LGBT suicide:

I think part of what my responsibility extends to, is trying to teach people to be loving, and civil and sensitive to one another…beyond that, the rightness the wrongness, I will be accountable to higher authority for that…

In all of this that’s what we have to remember. We are accountable to a higher authority. As much as we might want to bring our own strong sense of right and wrong and justice to things, there is a greater hand than ours guiding the affairs of the Church. And it’s our responsibility to be obedient and accountable to that authority, even if it’s difficult.