Another Week Ends

Happier Believers, Atheism Online, Work Optimization, an Honest Cover Letter, and Remembering Norm Macdonald

Todd Brewer / 9.17.21

1. Leading off this week is a fascinating summary of recent research on the benefits of religion for mental health. What difference does a belief in God make for overall wellbeing? To answer this question, researchers measured the effects of more secular, naturalist beliefs vs. that of the religious. When it came to the big questions, like life and death, they found there is some comfort telling yourself that, “Our memory remains in the hearts and minds of those who loved us and those we left behind,” or “The molecules of our bodies … become building blocks of new forms.” The kind of belief-without-God things people say nowadays (#seculosity). But there’s a catch — a big one:

Just because people could generate natural sources of existential comfort, it doesn’t follow that those sources were just as comforting as their religious and supernatural counterparts. We also asked our participants to rate how successfully their explanations fostered positive emotions and buffered against negative ones, and we found that the explanations with only natural sources of comfort were judged significantly less successful than those that included only supernatural sources of comfort. Living on in people’s memories wasn’t quite as good as eternal life—at least when it came to emotional comfort, which is admittedly only one aspect of a valuable and meaningful system of beliefs.

Another study they conducted looked beyond the question of comfort to probe whether belief in God could be correlated to other values. And again, their findings buck conventional (secular) wisdom:

In one study with 501 participants, for example, each person received a scientific or religious explanation for one of our three existential questions—“How did the universe come to exist?”, “Why is there suffering in the world?”, or “What happens after we die?” On average, the scientific explanations were seen as more strongly based on logic and evidence, and also as more objective. By contrast, the religious explanations were judged to more successfully foster emotional comfort, social support, morality, and self-insight. So once again, religious explanations seemed to have an edge when it came to such (non-epistemic) sources of meaning. […]

We have some evidence for the humanist’s path: People can satisfy their existential curiosity through natural means, and in so doing obtain many of the goods we associate with religious belief: peace of mind, emotional comfort, and other forms of meaning and value. On the other hand, they may need to do more psychological work to get there — humanist beliefs don’t necessarily pack the same psychological punch as the more familiar, mostly Christian beliefs generated by our sample.

Amid the recent wave of mining religion for its psychological benefits, or religion for atheists, there does seem to be something irreplaceable about the actual content of the Christian faith, something that can’t be neutralized and appropriated for mass consumption.

2. Want to know what the internet did to us? Look no further than Pete Whitehead’s “The Strange Online Legacy of the New Atheism,” which examines the rise and evolution of the Richard Dawkins brand of atheism through the lens of technological shifts on the internet. He notes that the New Atheism, “spans a particularly turbulent time in the evolution of the internet, as it morphed from the internet of the late 90s/noughties: blogs, forums, chatrooms — and hundreds of them — to the more closed, regulated space we are in now.” Accordingly, the shifts in the anti-god, pro-science movement from elite liberalism to a politically rightwing gateway serves as a microcosm for broader cultural changes effected by our online world — a kind of canary in the coal mine. He writes:

Logical. Rational. Reasonable. These things stopped referring to ways of viewing the world, or systems of analysing data, and instead – in the endless market of the internet – just became another micro–identity. Rationality began to refer to something you are, not something you did. […]

You’ve probably heard before that we can’t have more than 150 friends, so we’re just neurologically unequipped to handle social media. I don’t know if that’s true or not – but I do know that it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what the internet does anymore.

Much is made of the internet’s ability to put you in touch with people who think the same thing, or at least are interested in the same kind of thing as you, via filter bubbles and echo chambers. Far less is made of the negative polarisation the internet enables, which is arguably more psychically damaging (and indeed, more economically rewarding). Now, the internet puts you in touch with everyone you hate, all of the time. You can find the most antithetical view to your own, at any point, and get angry about it. Echo chambers aren’t just bad because you hear the same thing over and over again; they’re bad because they’re full of people furious at the same stuff.  

If you’re making money from videos in which you ‘destroy’ your irrational opponent with ‘facts and logic’, you will need people to destroy. The problem was that they had already identified ‘irrationality’ as the root cause of all evil.  And indeed, the same YouTube culture that had thrived previously by debating Christians would go on to take up the cause of fighting ‘political correctness’, on the grounds that it was simply a new, liberal form of irrationality. The macho, combative culture was still there, but with a new enemy […]

In other words, people were now actively seeking out content they actively disagreed with. Even if you weren’t looking for it personally, you were heading to content creators that would do it for you. Anger and resentment has driven our politics for some time, but internet culture allowed it to become part of your very identity. 

Of course, it’s not just the New Atheism he’s talking about. The dynamics he describes are clearly mirrored in other places, whether it be community Facebook groups or Christianity. The observation that the internet makes us angrier isn’t that new, but the connection Whitehead makes between that anger and rationality is worth pondering. If you view yourself and other people as purely rational, any disagreement that arises must be because the other person is stupid.

3. Elsewhere in technology news this week, the Wall Street Journal published a series of less-than-shocking revelations about Facebook’s harmful effects. In its internal memos it seems that Facebook knew exactly what everyone else already knows. The reports have sparked another round of the “social media is a drug” discourse we’ve featured on the site a few times. But for me the lesson here has more to do with the underlying (high) anthropology of the software engineers fiddling with the knobs of the algorithm. In 2018, the company changed its formula to:

… strengthen bonds between users and to improve their well-being. Facebook would encourage people to interact more with friends and family and spend less time passively consuming professionally produced content.

Which might sound like a noble idea: fewer Buzzfeed cat video clickbait and more content from friends and family! Facebook was trying to respond to research that noted how “passive” usage of the site from media companies was linked to lower mental health. But fixing this problem had an unforeseen consequence:

staffers warned the change was having the opposite effect, the documents show. It was making Facebook’s platform an angrier place.

Company researchers discovered that publishers and political parties were reorienting their posts toward outrage and sensationalism. That tactic produced high levels of comments and reactions that translated into success on Facebook. […]

They concluded that the new algorithm’s heavy weighting of reshared material in its News Feed made the angry voices louder. “Misinformation, toxicity, and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares,” researchers noted in internal memos.

If this back and forth feels a bit like The Truman Show to you, you’re not wrong. But it’s also worth noting how the changes to the algorithm failed to take into account that giving individuals greater power to have their voices heard to a wider audience might end up amplifying the worst of ourselves. It almost makes me nostalgic for the days when social media was just an unhealthy distraction.

4. In the New Yorker, Cal Newport offers a refreshing historical perspective on the current self-optimization, cult of productivity trend. He notes the economic origins of the term “productivity” — a measure for the increase of worker output — before examining how economies have traditionally generated higher yields. Advances in productivity have had little to do with bludgeoning working with higher demands, but technological and systemic inventions: the assembly line, crop rotation, and the computer.

Historically, optimizing systems to increase productivity was exceedingly difficult. The assembly line didn’t arrive in a flash of self-evident insight. Ford suffered through numerous false starts and incremental experiments. He had to invest significant amounts of money and develop new tools, including one particularly ingenious mechanism, which could simultaneously drill forty-five holes into an engine block. Now we casually ask individual knowledge workers to undertake similarly complex optimizations of their own proverbial factories, and to do it concurrently with actually executing all the work they’re attempting to streamline. Even more troubling is the psychological impact of individualizing these improvements. In classic productivity, there’s no upper limit to the amount of output you seek to produce: more is always better. When you ask individuals to optimize productivity, this more-is-more reality pits the professional part of their life against the personal. More output is possible if you’re willing to steal hours from other parts of your day—from family dinners, or relaxing bike rides—so the imperative to optimize devolves into a game of internal brinkmanship. This is an impossibly daunting and fraught request, and yet we pretend that it’s natural and straightforward. It’s hard enough to optimize a factory, and a factory doesn’t have to worry about getting home in time for school pickups. […]

We should strive to be good at our jobs—to work deeply, to be reliable, to lead with vision. But, if our employers need more output for each unit of input they employ, we should be more comfortable in replying that, although we understand their predicament, solving it is not really our problem.

5. I’d be remiss to not mention the recent death of Norm Macdonald. The internet abounded with tributes and analyses of the late comedian’s unique style. The Ringer deemed him an “agent of comedy chaos.” For a bit more of a philosophical dive, there’s Front Porch Republic’s obituary. And at 1517, Erik Sorensen looks at the faith of the man behind the laughs. For a guy who once remarked to Vulture: “I don’t like organized religion so much,” Norm sure seemed to be pretty sympathetic to Christianity:

Some people believe that man is divine, like kind of a hippie idea. I can’t believe that because I know my own heart, and I know that’s not true. Other people believe that we’re wretched like the cynics or the atheists would believe we’re all just wretched nothingness, just animals, just creatures. I can’t believe that. It doesn’t make any sense, that we’re just beasts. I will say that Christianity has this interesting compromise where we’re both divine and wretched, and there’s this Middle Man that’s the Savior, that through Him we can become divine, but we’re born wretched. I kind of like that one, because it sort of makes sense.

6. In humor this week, there’s the Hard Times “I Can Fix Him,’ Says Woman Who Is Worse” and Belladonna has “How To Sound Like An Expert On A Topic You Just Learned Existed Five Minutes Ago”:

“I read about that in the New Yorker” sounds genuine and no one will question you because those articles are long and they didn’t read it, either.

And Max Barth’s “An Honest Cover Letter” is precisely the kind of low-anthropology self-promotion I can support:

If I’m fortunate enough to get this job, I will only call out sick from the spreadsheets when I am actually, physically sick or desperately in need of an excuse. This will happen rarely, for as my resume notes I am an expert at strategically doling out my failures in small, easy-to-forget doses. I promise I will keep only one failure in your short term memory at any given time so you don’t have to go through the process of replacing me and reading more of these godawful things.

I think I’d be a strong addition to the team, primarily because I bring both the experience of working for money and the interest in continuing that pursuit to this position. I have never been fired, as far as you know. This is because I generally leave jobs right before I lose my mind outright but right after I begin to wonder if losing my mind in a big (peaceful) public spectacle might be the best way out, aka the sweet spot.

Finally, there’s Norm Macdonald’s classic moth joke:

7. In her newsletter the Corners, Nadia Bolz-Weber offered a wonderful personal story about what I’d call the slow work of getting used to our justification. She had just spoken at a conference when an elderly, red-cardigan wearing woman came up to her and gave her a big hug and words of encouragement. Reflecting back on this an another similar event, Nadia writes:

For most of my life, when asked how I am, I would answer by referencing the last shitty thing that happened to me. But after a lifetime of seeing the glass as half fuck-you I wish now that I could tie these kinds of moments together with ribbon and don them in my greying hair. I want to make a wreath of them, a potpourri of blessings to make myself more beautiful. Because, readers, I so often have done the opposite. I so often have mined my memories for ore to fuel a coal fire of hurt.

Maybe as we grow older we get to tell different stories about our lives than the ones we have worn smooth by repetition.

I have a couple of those stories that are true, but are just not serving me anymore. Maybe I will thank them, release them and welcome these two into the rotation. And then, maybe I will find a scratchy cardigan of my own and refuse to stop embracing a younger woman who needs to be softened by submitting to a blessing.

Strays:

His medieval theology isn’t much consolation to a modern nonbeliever, yet his art and its truths feel more necessary than ever: that greater love for others is an antidote to the world’s barbarities, that evil may be understood as a sin against love, and that a soul can’t hope to dispel its anguish without first plumbing it.

  • Every Dog is a Rescue Dog,” by John Dickerson of the Atlantic.
  • Musician and Mbird favorite Nick Cave has announced the publication of an upcoming memoir on faith, doubt, and his reflections on the death of his son.
  • The latest Mockingcast episode, “No One is Enjoying Their Life,” just dropped this morning!

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