Links and Comments: Decline of US Religion; Narrative in Science and TV Finales

Major news this past week, covered by many sources.

NPR: Christians In U.S. On Decline As Number Of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds

Washington Post: Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion

It’s often been noted that religiosity drops with rising economic conditions and educational levels, but this shift seems to be something different – the polarization of American politics, and the association of religion with retrogressive social policies.

And there have been several articles like this recently, pointing out how the modern Christian fundamentalist movement is an artifact, not of anything our ‘Founding Fathers’ did or intended, but on social and economic and political forces of the 20th century.

Salon: Christian fundamentalism is a capitalist construct: The secret history of American religion.


Leonard Mlodinow, whose new book THE UPRIGHT THINKERS I just bought, has an associated op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago: It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science.

This is about how the common narratives about certain scientific discoveries — Darwin and the finches, Newton and the apple, Hawking and black holes [as depicted in the film The Theory of Everything] — are at best simplifications of much more complex and subtle events. To me this is about the human bias toward narrative — making complex events simple and easy to understand within some basic template.

We all run into difficult problems in life, and we will be happier and more successful if we appreciate that the answers often aren’t quick, or easy.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project summed up a recent study by saying that the negative effects of today’s ubiquitous media “include a need for instant gratification.” The Darwin, Newton and Hawking of the myths received that instant gratification. The real scientists did not, and real people seldom do.


Along the same lines, an NPR story this morning by Shankar Vedantam, about how TV show finales (in particular last night’s Mad Men finale) affect, of all things, the stock market. It’s about how important narratives are to our lives, and how the endings of stories by characters we’ve come to identify with leave people in a kind of mourning, and thus more risk-averse.

Some psychologists have made the argument that for most of our evolutionary history, the only characters we saw around us were real people who were physically around us. … Today, a lot of the faces and voices we hear around us come from technology. And at a conscious level, we know those people are not actually in our physical presence. But at an unconscious level, the machinery in our brains, which evolved in this different time period, makes us feel as though these people are actually our real companions. And so this is why when people hear about scandals and gossip involving celebrities or politicians, we react to those scandals and that gossip as if we’re hearing about actual people in our lives when in fact we have no connection with those people whatsoever.

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