THIS BLOG IS MY CANVAS FOR WRITING ABOUT TOPICS THAT I ENCOUNTER IN sociology and RELIGIOUS STUDIES.

Friday, 29 November 2013

What Do US Catholics Think About Abortion?

A few weeks ago, my buddy, Jack Jenkins, wrote a nice piece for Think Progress titled "Why Pope Francis is Polling the World's Catholics."  The bottom line, says Jack, is that the Vatican is a bit disconnected with knowing what the world's largest Catholic populations actually think about matters like contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce, and other touchy matters.  Brazil, for instance, is actually very much in favor of same-sex marriage.  The United States, as well, is pretty in favor of most things that the Vatican denies.

Chatting with Jack about the matter, though, I started thinking about what Catholics in the United States thought about abortion.  I had made a post a few months back about how the different religious denominations responded to a question about gun control in one nationally representative survey.  The survey, the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES), is run by Stephen Ansolabehere at Harvard University and is sponsored by several other universities.  With around 30,000 respondents every run, the survey is a really great measure of political concerns.

So I checked out the last 3 available years of the CCES--2007, 2008, and 2010--to see how Catholics responded to the following question on abortion:

"Which one of the opinions on this page best agrees with your view on abortion?
-  By law, abortion should never be permitted.
-  The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman's life is in danger.
-  The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman's life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established.
-  By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice."

Here's what I got:


An interesting thing: both extremes (the "never" and "always" responses) have increased since 2007.  But overall, the one that has been consistently increasing over the past three years has been the "always" response.  

Just some food for thought.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Atheist Shoes?

Mark Silk has a really great blog post over at the Religion News Service site that mentions a German brand of shoes called Atheist Shoes.  The shoes are actually pretty "hip": probably the sort of thing you'd find in Williamsburg.  But the soles say different things like "Ich Bin Atheist," or "Darwin Loves."

Funny story is, though, that many Americans were finding that their packages were delayed.  Sometimes, the packages never arrived.

Could the problem be the big ATHEIST package tape on the outside of the box?  Hummm.  Check out Silk's blog post to find out about a little experiment that the German company performed.  Turns out that the ATHEIST tape could be part of the story...



Thursday, 14 March 2013

American Unbelief, Then and Now

As I continue my work on unbelief organizations (groups like the American Atheists, Ethical Unions, Humanist chapters, Freethought societies, etc), I’ve been picking up books and resources on the historical roots of these groups in the United States. I mainly have Joe Blankholm to thank for this, my historically-minded friend at Columbia who encourages me to take a step away from the statistics to look at the larger socio-historical picture.

In any case, one of my steps towards this was reading a really old book on a really fascinating topic: Albert Post’s Popular Freethought in America 1825-1850*. Albert Post was a Columbia University professor, and his book was published the same year as another Columbia historian’s book, American Freethought 1860-1914**.

Post’s book is fascinating for multiple reasons. First, it’s incredible to think about American unbelief in the 1800s. Large numbers of these “infidels” were British immigrants or members of the working class. The groups that sprung up in places like New York and Boston had names like “The Moral Philanthropists” or “Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge.”

But the book is also fascinating because it shows how many of the social relationships between believers and unbelievers in 1800s America are very similar to today.

Infidel societies in New York and elsewhere did many of the same things that unbelief groups today do. They put on debates between Christian apologists and unbelievers, for instance. Or they had lectures on theology, science, social theory, etc.

What is more, infidels at the time had a similar social stigma as some unbelievers today. There is a famous piece by Penny Edgell and others*** that talks about how social tolerance of diversity in America extends to many groups, but not atheists. “Atheism” or “atheist” is a bad term, essentially. Similarly, Post tells us that “if today one wishes to defame an enemy, he has only to call him a communist. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century one had only to accuse him of being an infidel” (195).

There were also the favorite books for the unbelievers at the time. Today, the population is familiar with the New Atheist literature. In the 1800s, people were more likely to read Paine’s Age of Reason or Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. Strauss’ Life of Jesus was also a favorite as was poetry by Shelley, Byron and Burns (101; 126-129).

It’s always great to see the common trends and diverging realities in social groups over time. This book by Post has really opened my eyes to what the reality of unbelief looked like in nineteenth century United States.
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* Albert Post. 1943. Popular Freethought in America 1825-1850. New York: Columbia University Press.

** Sydney Warren. 1943. American Freethought 1860-1914. New York: Columbia University Press.

*** Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review 71: 211-234.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Billy Collins in Prison


Last week’s topic for the sociology 101 course in Garden State Prison was the family.  One of the co-teachers went in on Tuesday to discuss issues of demographic and population-level changes, whereas I came in on Thursday to discuss more the issues of the family at the micro level: changes in cultural views of the family in the U.S., the social consequences of divorce and single-parent households, etc.

I had heard previously from my students, however, that they really enjoy poetry.  So I promised to bring in a poem when I came in to teach on the family.  I tried to pick one that would be relevant in some way, a poem that at least touched on family, and I finally settled on one of my favorite poems: “TheLanyard,” by Billy Collins.

The poem is about a man remembering the lanyards he used to make for his mother, the useless, worthless, silly lanyards that he used to make for his mother while at camp.  They were never used for anything, nor were they particularly beautiful in any way.  

“Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.”

Class began with a reading of the poem.  I asked the group of 11 men whether anybody had a good poem-reading voice and wouldn’t mind reading the piece out loud.  Several students called out for Jamal* to read it, all saying that he had a great way with words.  Jamal graciously said no, taking in the compliments of his fellow inmates while brandishing a sheepish grin of modesty.  With more and more students calling for him to read the poem, he finally assented and sat up in his seat, the grin still not having faded away.

“Could I rap it?” he asked me.

“I don’t think you’ll want to.  You’ll see when we get through the poem,” I responded.

Jamal laughed, but started reading the poem in a strong, booming voice.  He read it out slowly.  In fact, I felt as though it was too slow, but as he progressed it just grew in a way that became all too beautiful.  

A full enunciation of each word was thrown out powerfully, and he read the poem with excellent style: not stopping at the ends of the lines but rather at the punctuation marks.  He did, indeed, start reading the poem more like rap or hip-hop lyrics, but (as I expected) he changed his style during the middle of the poem.

He read the poem unlike any other poem reading I have ever heard.  Never have I sensed such power with the words, and never have I read this very poem with the kind of past that Jamal was bringing to it.  When he finished the last word, the silence that remained punched my core.  The students all nodded their head in approval, and several of them snapped their fingers to praise the beautiful poem reading.  I took note that the students enjoyed the poem; they all asked for more in coming weeks.

For me, the experience left an indelible mark.  Jamal’s voice still rings in my head; his beautiful reading still echoes in my mind.  Here is a poem by a successful white man, a poem that reminisces in part about the camps he went to “by a deep Adirondack lake.”  And here is an incarcerated black man reading this poem, one who stumbled with the very pronunciation of “Adirondack.”  The world became dizzy as I tried to come to terms with it all.  I still get chills thinking about it.

This is certainly not the last time I read this poem by Collins.  But whenever I hear or read this poem in the future, it will now be accompanied by Jamal’s voice.
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* Not his real name.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Sociological Imagination and Narratives of Self-Empowerment

In the spring semester of 2012, I hopped in with two other graduate students to teach an introductory sociology course at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility through Princeton's Prison Teaching Initiative.  I wrote two little pieces about that experience here and here.  I took off last semester but am now back in the prison teaching the same course for a second time.  

As with the last time I co-taught, we opened up the second lesson with discussing C Wright Mills' first chapter of The Sociological Imagination.  Titled "The Promise," this chapter is famous amongst social scientists for its clarity and inspiration.  It gives a sort of rallying cry for the discipline, encouraging the reader to view things in their wider historical and sociological context.  A person's trouble of losing their job can only be fully understood when placed in the wider issue of unemployment, for instance.  We must pay special attention to the tremors of history and remember that things exist in their place and time.  It is only with the sociological imagination, in the end, that we can truly come to understand what happens to us in this world.

I always enjoy re-reading this chapter; it gives me a kind of thrill to share this motivational piece with others.  But this time around, I found that my students really pushed back on Mills' argument.  When discussing the example of unemployment, one of the students offered his opinion:

"Maybe those people who are unemployed, I think they're just plain lazy."

Heads nodded in approval.

"Get up and jus' get a job!"

More affirmations.  Time and again, the students returned to the individual's role in the topic we were discussing.  

"I get what Mills is saying," one of the other students told me after class, "but why do you guys take this stuff as the truth?  I'm still a person!  I still make decisions!  My cuz, he's down and out 'cuz you know what?  He dropped out of school!"  

I must admit that it was difficult for me to fully take in comments like these.  Here were eleven men, all but one of whom were black, who had found themselves doing time in a prison.  Dressed in identical khaki prison scrubs, these were men who I saw as being the archetypical examples of people who might have found themselves on the wrong side of social structures: born in tough neighborhoods, ignored in terrible schools, these were the men who I thought would most come to appreciate the sociological imagination that took their trouble (time in the slammer) and placed it in a wider issue (the despicable incarceration rates of the United States that is fueled by inequality).

I brought my worries up in my carpool after class.  These other teachers had gone in to a neighboring prison to teach English and had their own share of troubles with teaching a Shakespearean sonnet on their second day.  But one of them raised a really fascinating point that has continued resonating in my mind since then.

Prison is meant to be a rehabilitative environment, one where an individual is able to improve his/her life.  (I have strong words about the sham that is the "prison as rehabilitation" language used in the U.S. but I will save those for another time.)  This other teacher pointed out, however, that the narratives used to rehabilitate inmates often emphasizes the individual.  Only you can get yourself out of this, they are encouraged.  It is through small choices that you make that you can come to get out and improve.  Or maybe, take charge of your life: only you can do so.

These kinds of messages are drilled into their minds day in and day out.  Individual choices, individual results, individual efforts: these are the things that both got them into prison and will help them get out.  I see the effectiveness that may come from this kind of narrative, but I doubt that they are told about how poverty contributed to their incarceration.  I doubt that they are shown the statistics of the gross racial inequality that exists in prisons.  And I would be willing to bet that they aren't told how prisons are actually big money ventures, how every living body that goes into those cells brings extra bucks to somebody's pocket.

I wonder, then, if this teacher is on to something.  Could the narratives of self-empowerment actually be at the root of some of this push back?  And how dangerous might that be?  It's easy for politicians to push the individual level because it means they would never have to address the bigger issues.  It's easy for the narrative to be misused because, at the end of the day, it would just be your own fault.

I'm tempted to have the students re-read the chapter at the end of the semester.  Would anything have changed by that point?  Maybe Mills' "promise" does not hold for prison inmates.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Gun Control and Religion

I am currently working on my second-year paper (one of the requirements for our masters degree) using the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES)*.  This semi-annual survey has really great methodology and, more importantly, has gotten an excellent response rate.  I'm using it for its religion and politics data since they do a good job parsing down these areas into detailed categories.

In any case, I noticed that the 2010 survey had a question on gun control.  It reads:


In general, do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are?
-  More Strict
-  Less Strict
-  Kept As They Are 
-  Skip

Given all the talk recently about gun control laws after the Newtown massacre, I wondered about ways of splicing this up to see how parts of the population answered this question.  First up: religious breakdown.  The 2010 survey has good religion questions, and I created variables for Evangelical Protestants, Black Protestants, and Mainline Protestants (many thanks to Carol Ann MacGregor for providing the do file to get these variables!).  

So I broke down the gun control question by religion and got the following result (BP = Black Protestant; MP = Mainline Protestant; EP = Evangelical Protestant):


(click to enlarge)

So which religious groups are the least likely to want stricter guidelines for gun control?  According to this data, it's the Evangelical Protestants and the Mormons.  Only approximately 20% of Mormons and 23% of Evangelical Protestants said that they would like more strict laws for the sale of firearms.

This is just a really basic breakdown, but I still found it really interesting!  Jews were the most in favor of stricter gun laws as were Black Protestants.  

Just some interesting data for your day.  Comments welcome.  I will continue splicing these results as time goes on.

------------------

Some more details.  A couple of people have asked about some questions that I forgot to consider!  Here are some of the missing pieces:

The survey is nationally representative with really good methodology (check out the website for the exact details).  The 2010 survey had 55,342 respondents, all of whom answered the gun control question.

I haven't been able to figure out how to put the percentages on the right-hand side of the graph, but here are the percentages of each religion in the whole population surveyed:
BP = 0.07%
MP = 14.58%
EP = 22.85%
Something Else = 4.97%
Nothing = 13.90%
Agnostic = 5.21%
Hindu = 0.16%
Buddhist = 0.82%
Muslim = 0.30%
Jewish = 3.00%
Eastern Orthodox = 0.49%
Mormon = 1.67%
Catholic = 22.67%
Protestant (keep in mind that this lumps all the categories, including BP, MP, and EP) = 46.82%

------
Stephen Ansolabehere, 2010, "CCES Common Content, 2010", hdl:1902.1/17705
V3 [Version]

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Quote of the Day

You've got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body's sermon
on how to behave.

Billie Holiday, jazz singer and songwriter (1915-1959)