Another Week Ends: Abrahamic Evolution, More Cookie Monster, The Law of Higher Ed, G.K. Chesterton as Saint, and the Puritan Legacy

1. Over at aeon, Benjamin Grant Purzycki once again demonstrates the poverty of discourse about religion […]

Will McDavid / 3.27.15

1. Over at aeon, Benjamin Grant Purzycki once again demonstrates the poverty of discourse about religion – the fact that little understanding of its required to make grand pronouncements. Anyway, he says some interesting things along the way, and it’s worth a read. First, we’re all biased toward thinking of God as a cosmic judge:

In a 2013 article in Cognition, I reported that Christian students from the University of Connecticut who claim that God knows everything will nonetheless rate His knowledge of moral information (Does God know that Sebastian robs grocery stores?) as better than His knowledge of non-moral information (Does God know that Rita likes chilies?). This bias is especially clear under time pressure…

If their answer was ‘Yes’, they pressed one key; if ‘No’, another. Unbeknownst to the participants, the software we used also recorded response speed. The quicker the response, the more intuitive the question. We found that even though people say: ‘God knows everything’, they are quicker to answer questions about God’s knowledge of moral information (Does God know that Leon hurts the elderly?) than non-moral information (Does God know that David has black gloves?). Even though people might say ‘Yes’ to every question, it’s easier to process God’s knowledge in the moral domain.

Even Christian students, it turns out, think of God as more of a scorekeeper and rule-enforcer than anything else.Purzycki continues with an evolutionary-psych explanation of religion’s rise:

From an evolutionary perspective, the gods facilitate social bonds required for survival by raising the stakes of misconduct. Having a cosmic Wyatt Earp on the beat aids survival and reproduction by curbing others’ banditry. If you’re tempted to steal from someone, but know that God cares and has the power to do something about it, you might think twice. If God knows your thoughts, perhaps you wouldn’t even think twice. The Abrahamic God appears to be a punitive, paranoia-inducing Big Brother always watching and concerned with our crimes.

Nice to know the Big Man’s doing something positive for the development of human culture. The misunderstanding about the punitive Abrahamic God sets Christianity into sharp relief. Evolutionary psychology is mostly just fun speculation anyway, the easiest way for quasi-scientists to get ‘Net clicks or book sales in airports, but the fact that Christianity completely disrupts the Wyatt Earp idea is interesting. Wyatt Earp aligns morality with self-interest: do this, or there are consequences. But what happens when Christ and Paul introduce a gulf between action and reward? After two thousand years, this message continues to elude and offend.

2. Two places this week, The New York Times and The Economist, have profiled fault lines in America’s oldest passport to the good life (and many emergent places’ newest), college. As with product that carries a strong sense of identity and empowerment, it feels increasingly like an obligation (especially after the GI Bill in the US), and small discrepancies in quality begin to look massive. First, on the industry from the Times:

41FlTrpcL0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[Frank] Bruni [in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be] argues that the first place some of us go — not to college generally but to a particular college — has less impact on identity, success and happiness than many suppose. What he calls the “industrialization of the college admission process” in recent decades amounts to a speedup abetted by expensive personal coaches, proliferating online applications and the inevitable U.S. News & World Report rankings. He admits to “bashing” the last of these familiar and easy targets. “I’ll proceed to bash,” he explains, “because I believe passionately that the college experience can’t be reduced in this fashion.”…

[In The End of College, Kevin Carey presents a picture in which] elite universities are fully accredited racketeers that employ intellectual and economic muscle to frighten parents into either paying protection money or risking something bad happening to their children.

Well, that’s bleak, and unfair. But psychologically, it probably does get at some truth about parents’ mindsets, the sense of obligation. The Economist had a similarly grim outlook: in America, “higher education has a divided soul: it is both a great collective enterprise to increase the nation’s welfare and a fight to the death between status-hungry parents.”

Given extreme tuition rises in real terms, and the increasing proliferation of student debt, it’s reasonable to expect more interesting work on exactly how people can step off the treadmill. Universities now have a monopoly on the national status-game, but we may be entering a time of disruption.

3. In Law/anthropology this week, The Onion reported “Man Has Carefully Calculated Timeline for Revealing Negative Personality Traits to New Girlfriend”:

BALTIMORE—Saying he doesn’t want to scare her off by springing too much on her all at once, local man Daniel Hastings explained Tuesday that he has devised a carefully calculated timeline for revealing his negative personality traits to the woman he is now dating.

The 31-year-old IT technician told reporters that by strategically planning when to expose each of his various character flaws to new girlfriend Melanie Carlin, he hopes to provide her with a sufficient period of time to acclimate to one shortcoming before she is presented with another.

“I’ll probably reveal my occasional stubbornness and impatience to her right off the bat, just to get those out of the way,” said Hastings, noting that years of experience have taught him he will need to “play this just right” if he doesn’t want the relationship to end prematurely. “Then I’ll lay off for a full month and let that settle in before I start showing her how I can be pretty sullen and childish when I don’t get my way.”…

“By month 10, I should be clear to start showing my controlling and possessive side by making a few sarcastic cracks about how Melanie spends too much time with her friends,” said Hastings, adding that he would be sure to do this in a joking manner so she would not be able to tell whether he was serious or not. “Just to plant the idea, you know? I figure I’ll definitely want to ease her into that one.”…

Though Hastings has reportedly expended a great deal of effort formulating his timetable, sources confirmed he would definitely be willing to speed up the disclosure of his personal faults should Carlin start revealing hers.

Also be sure to check out the self-explanatory “Siblings Quietly Relieved Older Brother Setting Bar So Low.”

4. At Liberate, John Zahl’s brilliant Grace in Addiction breakout is up here! If anyone’s ever wondered what Gospel freedom looks like, look no further.



5. At The Atlantic, James Parker beautifully makes the case for setting G.K. Chesterton on the road to canonization:

Fearing and detesting the centripetal, black-hole suck of the almighty modern Self, he faced the other way: into the fact of Creation. There is a reality outside the mind, Chesterton insisted—and part of his energy was his innocent, unflagging astonishment that he had to keep on making the point. To us, the great solipsists, for whom the recognition of another human being requires a galvanic imaginative act, he speaks very directly.

The campaign for the beatification of G. K. Chesterton has now reached the prayer-cards stage. Late last year, I walked into a Catholic church in Stowe, Vermont, and found on a table near the entrance a stack of cards inviting me to pray for Chesterton’s intercession “so that his holiness may be recognized by all and the Church may proclaim him Blessed.” In other words, I should ask him for a miracle. All right then, Gilbert, here it is: grant me a flash, just a flash, of your double-natured vision, the intuition that I, James Parker, have been summoned out of an “almost nihilistic abyss” into a world of radiant ordinariness, that my existence depends second by second upon the creative gesture of a loving God, continually renewed, and that I should be astounded and grateful. Make that happen, you rocketing squirrel in a fat man’s body, and I’m down for the cause.

The Falstaff of the Gospel

The Falstaff of the Gospel

6. The most rewarding article I’ve read in a long time, a review of Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age, by Luma Simms at The Federalist, tells the story of  America’s Puritanical legacy and Christian history. The author’s Roman Catholicism contributes a little much by way of voice (esp at the end), but the analysis of Evangelical Protestantism seems dead-on. On the Puritans,

They were perpetually finding fault within themselves and their ranks; they were perpetually refining, and this hit a breaking point of the human spirit, psyche, and culture. They had cause to be skeptical of man’s fallen reason and intellect, even their own, yet relied on it to interpret scripture, believing that the Holy Spirit would preserve them in this…

Amidst this uneasy tension regarding the intellect, the Puritan’s perpetual refining and purifying cleft this culture in two… Eventually Puritanism was cleft into a side which, in this dilemma cited above, took the “intellectual” route, becoming the liberal wing of religious society, reading the Bible ever more faithlessly until arriving at Unitarian Universalist positions. Those who took the “faithful” route became the biblical wing on a march toward fundamentalism…

So we see this strange tension, in what might be described the sloughing of traditional authority and it reestablishment in the individual, in the ‘noetic’ effects of The Fall (darkening the mind) as they relate to Scriptural interpretation. Simms continues:

Like mother like daughter: modern Protestantism divides in the same way today. On the one side we see the syncretism of those who label themselves Progressive Christians, and on the other is the clinging to fideism (setting the primacy of faith against sin-damaged reason), by those who call themselves conservative Protestants. Although there is a spectrum in between, these two extremes dominate the overall Protestant landscape in America. Each side clings, puritanically, to its respective authorities: social conscience informed by rationalism on the one hand, and a literal documentary-prescriptive reading of scripture on the other.

Evangelicalism’s thin intellectual heritage can’t take on secular philosophies.

The Calvinist and Puritan notion that reason is not merely insufficient, but broken and twisted by sin, carries on to some degree in fundamentalist circles today. This view of reason contradicts the empirical experience of the rational secularist. However, because it is now such a part of the public narrative equating Christianity with right-wing fundamentalism, it (intentionally or unintentionally) puts many people in the position of believing they have to commit intellectual suicide to believe the truths of Christianity.


7. In humor, The Blazing Center posted some really funny Christian stock photos with honest captions (above). Patheooffers a guide for how to tell if your once-saved friend is about to depart for the Episcopal Church, less funny than simply true, but you can’t have it all. Randall Munroe at xkcd shifts focus from existential angst to sci-fi dystopia. Finally on humor, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has been consistently brilliant, a great example of how humor can serve as an oblique avenue into truth. Most of his videos are up on youtube, sample below (usual HBO disclaimers apply):

Talk about the law increasing the trespass! But on a more serious note, the moralism involved in our treatment of even low-level ‘criminals’ is astounding.

Extras: A prosecutor apologizes to a man wrongfully convicted and held for three decades (ht ZW), The Atlantic questions the role of motivation in schools (ht WTH), The A.V. club finds post-punk icons reimagined as superheroes, aeon thinks fallen human nature trumps exalted tech, and Bradford Wilcox tries to account for the decline of religion (ht EB).

Also, be on the lookout for a new Mbird book, a collaborative effort between a few of our writers that should be available in time for NYC. Spoiler alert, the whole Law-Gospel thing plays a big role. Happy weekending. 

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


2 responses to “Another Week Ends: Abrahamic Evolution, More Cookie Monster, The Law of Higher Ed, G.K. Chesterton as Saint, and the Puritan Legacy”

  1. GM says:

    For the last few years I’ve had this sneaking suspicion, not without a dallop of dread, that I might be on the road to joining the Roman Catholic Church before I’m 60. If old GK gets beatified, that would be on the list of reasons.

  2. John Zahl says:

    I think that’s the best talk I’ve ever given, for what that’s worth. Thanks for sharing it! JZ

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *