Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Life after Death, Part 2

What are the social (and personal) consequences of belief in some form of afterlife? Could terrorism, lack of economic development, and crime be connected to belief in an afterlife, or lack of belief? Perhaps.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that beliefs can have consequences for society. This post just explains some of the details relevant to belief in life after death.

Here's something you may not have considered: Belief in an afterlife may interfere with the development of social institutions that could improve conditions for vulnerable members of society. What!?!

Well, if we are just passing through this life on the way to a higher plane of spiritual development then the poor, frail, and disabled are just experiencing conditions that are unpleasant but transitory. This belief could be associated with belief in destiny or in a divine order of things. If a supreme being decides who is poor or disabled maybe there is no point in worrying about creating social institutions to take better care of them.

Belief in an afterlife could reduce our desire to deal with political and environmental crises as well. I once heard someone say about a nuclear war: "What's so bad about it? We'll just die, go to heaven and live forever." (OK, that's not really a direct qoute, but it captures the spirit of what he said.)

Could belief in an afterlife really lead people to become suicide bombers? Religious leaders in the Islamic world use the belief, among other beliefs, to create social conditions that help them recruit suicide bombers. Belief in an afterlife can encourage people to become suicide bombers. Yes, some of those people would still blow themselves up without belief in an afterlife. I'm guessing that those people would be much harder to recruit!

Belief in an afterlife could also be good for a person in many ways. You feel more "nromal" for sharing an important belief with other people. You can get social support from these people, especially in a religious community of any kind. You may also become more calm, self-disciplined, and industrious (ever heard of Calvinism?). After all, this life is just a phase.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Life after Death, Part 1

Whatever people in a culture tend to believe about this question will have consequences for society. That the consequences can be good or bad (suicide bombings come to mind) is clear enough. What isn't so clear is the net balance of benefits and costs. Before getting into that question, maybe we should pause to consider where our beliefs about life after death come from and why they persist, if they do.

Beliefs about life after death seem to have roots in four sources.

1. Habit - You pick up certain ideas, probably from church, and they become part of your habitual way of thinking about the big issues of human existence.
2. Socialization - the process through which we learn whats considered "real" or "true" by our society.
3. Peer groups - support for certain ideas, such as life after death being fiction, provides another source for our ideas.

Last but not least is the mass media. We have television preachers telling us about hell and heaven and our immortal souls. Enough exposure to that sort of thinking is likely to take hold of our imaginations and change our thinking. Then there are the spiritual gurus and "experts" spreading ideas about reincarnation, higher planes of existence, and the spirit world.

These four sources for ideas about life after death combine to create a social environment in which certain ideas are allowed to flourish. Our ideas about life after death then have consequences for society, or for other societies.

Next time: What are the social consequences of certain ideas about life after death?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Fate, Destiny, and Society 2

This post and the previous post offer an explanation of how belief in these metaphysical concepts arose and an explanation of the consequences (good and bad) for us and for society.

What does it mean for society that people belief in fate or destiny? Well, let me back up a step and describe some of the personal consequences. The personal consequences produce social phenomena, as we will see.

The major impact on people who put a lot of faith in things like fate and destiny has got to be a reduced sense of control over their lives. A feeling of personal control gives us the energy to try and make positive changes in ourselves and in our surroundings. Whether this feeling is mostly fact or mostly fantasy is of no importance for the individual. A reduced sense of control causes people suffer three general types of problems:

1. Career failures/problems - which often leads to money problems and to...

2. Relationship problems - money problems cause fights. We have our mates picked for us by fate (even the choice to pair up and produce children is experienced as "destiny"!).

3. Goal setting - which obviously comes before goal getting; Why worry about it if you have some destiny to fulfill.

(SIdenote: I'm focusing on the metaphysical belief in unseen forces that shape our lives. The related subject of religious belief in divine will is going to be the subject of future posts.)

So, what about social consequences? There are at least six types of consequences:

1. Lower quality of life - conditions are determined by metaphysical forces we can't control so why bother to try harder? This probably is not a consciously-held perspective but one that can still color decision-making in many cultures.

2. Slow economic growth - a weak commitment to taking charge of things may reduce the rate of growth; not a bad thing inherently, but many countries are too poor!

3. Political apathy - the government is controlled by metaphysical forces beyond our control so why bother? Maybe we were destined to suffer (for no clear reason or to produce a "better" society in the future).

4. Inequality - there is no way, really, to control who is rich and who is poor

5. Exploitation and oppression - It is our desitny to rule the continent, rule over black people, or whatever.

6. Acceptance of natural disasters - What can we do? It was destined to happen sooner or later.

Next Time: Life after death

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Fate, Destiny, and Society I

Are fate and destiny real? Are miracles real events or figments of our imagination? Why do we believe in fate, destiny, miracles, and things that were "meant to be"? What are the social consequences of these ideas? Stick with me for the next two posts, at least, and I'll try to answer those questions.

First, consider these thoughts:

1. Many, many kinds of events are highly improbable. There are millions, perhaps billion, of people who could experience any one of those events on any given day. It is just a matter of mathematics that lots of really unlikely things happen to people.

2. We tend to interpret events in two ways: First, we tend to try and find patterns in the events that we experience. We also tend to evaluate things from the standpoint of everyday experience and feeeling, rather than by using an "objective" set of criteria: When you win the lottery jackpot you may experience this as a "miracle" when it was really just a statistical fluke.

So, I think that some combination of 1 and 2 explains why beief in destiny and fate persists. The psychological need for these concepts and our own cognitive biases keeps the ideas alive while other supernatural ideas become less popular.

What about the common experience of feeling that a romantic relationship was "meant to be" or that the breakup shows your relationship was not "meant to be"? Are these ideas survivors of a time when we thought that supernatural beings controlled our fates? I think so.

Now we tend to believe (contrary ot all scientific evidence) that we are masters of our own destiny, while still believing that the relationship was meant to be. Interesting, no?

Maybe, just maybe, such ideas are a sort of psychological defense mechanism. Our minds try to protect themselves from the harsh realities of life by inventing comforting explanations for things. We get some protectiond from the constant emotional and phsyical stress that can threaten our sanity and physical survival.

Any psychologists out there care to comment on/rip apart my explanation?

Enough with the psychology lesson. Next time I'll mention some of the social consequences, good or bad, that result from our belief in fate and destiny. (I'll return to the subject of miracles in later posts on religious beliefs.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Money Brings Happiness, Part 2

Yes, there is a correlation between happiness and income. In societies there is a positive association between income produced (the gross domestic product) and life satisfaction. But the relationship is not as neat as you may have supposed (more money means more happiness).

What's my evidence? Here are a few of the online information sources you may uncover in your own brief search:




They all cover varying aspects of the rather complicated relatiohship between money and happiness. But this only takes us half way through the what I wanted to cover today.

We should consider what functions idea that money brings happiness might serve for society. Maybe the idea just survives for no particular reason. Maybe the fantasy implied in the idea - great wealth and great happiness - simply amuses enough people to keep the idea alive. I think that, just maybe, there are stronger sociological reasons for the idea to persist

1. It gives people hope, even if it is false hope, that there lives can get better.

2. The belief produces jobs for financial planners.

3. The belief provides opportunities for lottery and gambling revenue, as well as related jobs.

4. The belief helps to sell plenty of books and magazines.

I also think that the idea has a significant dark side to it. Specifically, believing that money brings happiness can lead to:

1. Poor people wasting vast amounts of time and money on lotteries.

2. Instrumental relationships with men. Women want access to the good things that come with plenty of money (or credit, but what's the difference?) so they try to land a man with plenty of money. (and men find it acceptrable to use their resources to attract multiple sex partners.)

3. Amoral reasoning - Men and women tend to accept behavior like that described above, without passing judgement. Moral reasoning tends to be set aside in business because moral may reduce growth and profitability.

4. People are encouraged to waste time fantasizing about how great life would be if...they won the lottery, they had a much higher salary, some rich relative would croak tomorrow, et cetera.

Next time: Is believing in fate or destiny a good idea and how would we know?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Money Brings Happiness

Here is another pervasive idea in the United States. I suppose it is present to some degree in any country with a capitalist economic system. And perhaps that fact - the existence of a capitalist economic system - explains why the idea is taken seriously by so many people.

Like all of the ideas that pervade society we would be well served to ask some hard questions about it. Not to idly criticize the idea. That is lazy thinking! No, the point is to make sure the ideas that form the basis of social life can survive harsh scrutiny. If they cannot, perhaps they should be replaced. This is when the real work begins. (Perhaps the creation and diffusion of new ideas needs to be addressed in future posts.)

So, here are some specific questions we should be asking about the idea that money brings happiness:

1. Where did the idea come from?
2. What causes the idea to stick around?
3. Is the idea logical?
4. Is the idea consistent with the facts?
5. Does the idea tend to support or undermine widely held values?
6. What are the social functions and social dysfunctions of the idea?

Next time I will answer questions 4 and 6.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Business versus Government, Round 2

Many of us believe that businesses are more efficient than government agencies. I suppose this belief holds regardless of the level of government - local, state, federal - in question. Never mind whether this belief is actually justified by facts. What's more important is to examine the social consequences of the idea.

Here are three things that happen:

1. Functions that could be carried out by the government are left to the private sector.
2. Privatization of public services occurs because of the bias against government.
3. Effectiveness is sacrificied to efficiency.

The last consequence is the one that seems most important. After all, is it really a problem if businesses are doing stuff for us that the government could do? And so what if privatization makes the government smaller and less expensive? What's the problem? Well, I'm getting to that.

Liberals will readily agree with the idea that we don't want businesses managing services like food inspection and sewage treatment that are vital to public health. Libertarians would probably say that businesses would probably do a better job so why not let them do the work?

The answer to that last question is simple: Efficiency is not the same as effectiveness! Efficiency tends to be the goal for businesses. Efficiency relates to profitablility after all. But government services are meant to be effective, that is, they are designed to produce desired outcomes to the greatest degree that resources and knowledge (and political considerations!) will allow.

For how many of our public services are we really willing to replace effectiveness with economic efficiency as a guiding principle.? Think about that for a bit. And tell me what you think!

Effectiveness is not the same as efficiency.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Social Pollution Index

I almost forgot to mention this little feature that I'm developing. I want to report indicators of the counterfactual, illogical, and value-damaging ideas that pervade society. The Index will mostly be about the United States. I am not sure what will eventually be reported but here is a taste of what to expect:

There are 31 ExxonMobile funded groups that have publsihed research disputing scientific claims about global warming. (Harper's Index, 07/05)

Percentage of Americans who believe in miracles: 83 (according to a survey I found through through HowStuffWorks.com)

Percentage who believe in astrology: 29 (same source)

Percentage of Americans who said, in a Pew survey, that living things have always existed in their present form: 42

(I shamelessly stole my format from Harper's Index. Its also worth perusing by the way.)

Is there anything you would like to see added? Please tell me! As I inidcate above, this will be the first in a series of posts spaced over several months.

Is business more efficient than government?

You may have wondered tha. More likely, you have assumed that the answer is "no" and gone on with your life. But wait! This question is really, really, really important.

At the risk of sounding rude, I must say that the idea of business being more efficient than government is without any factual basis, as far as most of us know. I did a brief search online for relevant research. In the short time I was willing to spend I couldn't come up with much.

That kinda makes me wonder two things. Am i really lazy? Does anyone who believes that the government is less efficient than business have any facts to support this belief. My guess is they have even less information than I gleaned from the two Web sites that I visited over the weekend. Here they are in case you were curious:


Probably the idea is based on anecdotes about lazy government buereuacracts played off against the relentless drive to innovate and compte that allegedly characterizes the private sector. (BTW I doubt that even one lone economist would say that this is an accurate picture of the United States economy. Just ask one!)

I guess that is enough said about the flimsy factual basis for the idea that the private sector is more efficient than government. But, sociologically speaking it really doesn't matter what the facts indicate. It matters what people think both about the existence of facts and about their interpretation.

At the risk of digressing wildly I just have to pause here and point out one more little thing: The facts never speak for themselves. If you have ever been taught this in a college class I feel you have a moral duty to go and demand a refund!!!!

Next Time: What are the social consequences of this belief? We shall see!
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