A Snapshot of America

More than ever today, we hear handwringing among the press, politicians, and pollsters, about how America is “headed in the wrong direction,” and eager finger-pointing over who is to blame.  Naturally, we assume that it is our politicians (especially the ones on the other side of the aisle, of course) who are responsible for the general national malaise.  But how much of it, I can’t help but wonder, is due simply to the steady inebriation of our senses with electronic media, and abandonment of reading?  One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to be sobered by the following statistics (taken from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows):

1150: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends online (on a computer)

49: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends reading any form of print publication.  

2,272: number of texts per month the average American teen sends (that’s 75 per day)

153: hours per month the average American spends in front of the TV (still rising despite increased internet usage)

Unsurprisingly, Americans outstrip Europeans by a long shot, spending 50% more time surfing the Net and three times as much time in front of the TV. 

(These figures are all from 2009, I should add, and are most likely considerably worse now, as they had been getting worse at a rapid pace through 2009.)

And consider that, as of 2006, 42% of those watching over 35 hours of TV programming a week (the national average) also used the Net for over 30 hours a week, for a total of over 65 hours per week, nearly 2/3 of their waking hours.  


Two Kingdoms Extravaganza

If you’re tired of reading about two kingdoms stuff on this blog, I have good news from you—I won’t be posting any here for a spell.  But if you’re not, I also have good news for you—I’ve got a bundle of great links to share.  

First, Darryl Hart has recently changed his tune noticeably, by suggesting that instead of being a neat, clean-cut dualism, his Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine is in fact a messy, complicated paradox, and so we shouldn’t ask for perfect consistency in his and VanDrunen’s exposition of it.  But that, he says, is a good thing.

Peter Escalante has responded on The Calvinist International with a hard-hitting deconstruction, which at the same time offers the fullest exposition yet of his and Wedgeworth’s vision for a modern Christian liberal politics, and how one might get from Reformational two-kingdoms teaching to that point.

Meanwhile, Matt Tuininga, a Ph.D student at Emory, recently wrote a little article which, although arguing that modern R2K advocates may have the contemporary application wrong, essentially retells their same narrative of the historical form of Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine—viz., that it was about the liberty of the Church over against the State all along.

The Calvinist International kindly hosted my substantial critique of Tuininga’s piece, which has already elicited a response from Tuininga, pledging a forthcoming refutation (at least as far as Calvin is concerned), but graciously seeking constructive dialogue and debate.  I am hopeful that the coming discussion will finally provide some helpful historical and theological illumination to a debate that has generated more heat than light on Reformed blogdom over the past couple years.  So stay tuned to The Calvinist International for follow-up.

Narcissism Goes Social

Have you ever found yourself reading over your Facebook feed over your morning coffee (or after dinner, or when you’re supposed to be working, etc.), and wondering to yourself, “What inanity has possessed the human race?  Why do all these people think we want to read their banal witticisms, their soapbox pontifications, or their semi-daily log of what they’ve been doing for the past few hours?  Of course you have.  And no doubt you have also found yourself, as I have, blinking at my Facebook wall seconds after posting an update and asking, “Why did I bother to post that banal witticism, or soapbox pontification, or pointless revelation about my recent activities?”  

A recent study helps answer the question for us by translating into scientific precision what we all already know deep-down.  We like to talk about ourselves.  We get a real kick out of it.  In fact, we get a little chemical high from it, a spurt of dopamine, the same thing that gives us a buzz after delicious food or sex, or after vanquishing a foe in a game.  

 Dopamine, in fact, is virtually programmed into the internet, since dopamine thrives on novelty, the sense of perpetual discovery and accomplishment.  As we click our way through link after link, our tiniest effort is rewarded with a new array of images and information, and our brain celebrates each “discovery” with a little dopamine party.  Since dopamine circuits have a strong tendency to become addictive, it is no wonder that the internet has proven so dangerously addictive, whether it be pornography, RPGs, or just mindless browsing.  Such addictions are troubling enough, but perhaps even more urgent is the need to reflect on what we may be doing to ourselves by subjecting our social lives to the constant influence of such stimuli.  


Let’s go back to that inane status update, that banal witticism.  We may get a little wave of satisfaction simply from posting it, simply from speaking our minds to the world, but that satisfaction quickly evaporates if our utterance goes unacknowledged.  We get a kick out of talking about ourselves, yes, but not (usually) by simply addressing an empty forest, but by addressing another human being, one who appears to be listening to us.  We crave, in short, affirmation.  We each play the starring role in our own mental narratives, and we desperately want to see that role acknowledged.  How often have you posted that status update, or that cool link, or made that clever comment, and found yourself randomly checking back in on Facebook later in the day, hoping to see notifications announcing that someone else “liked” what you said, or commented on it?  Maybe never.  Maybe it’s just me.  But if it is just me, I doubt Facebook would be that successful.  The “like” button was a genius idea.  Every time someone likes your status or your picture, it’s a little pat on the back.  The reward circuits in your brain purr with satisfaction.  Well done, me, they say.  You have achieved something, however petty, and it has been recognized as worthwhile.  Perhaps we even find ourselves subconsciously keeping score with ourselves—”Ha!  12 likes this time.  Last time I only got 8.”  To be sure, comments are great too, especially when they function (as they often seem to do except when responding to a controversial opinion) as just a glorified “like”—”Oooh, what a lovely picture!”; “Hahaha!  That was hilarious!”  Even when we tell ourselves we really don’t give a darn about the stupid world and its stupid Facebook (as I tend to do), we are not immune—we can’t resist feeling gratified at that little icon of proof that someone is listening, and someone is interested.


And of course we can’t.  We’re social creatures.  Narcissism may be the product of sin, but a desire for community, for relationship, to love and be loved, is quite natural.  But sin (and I should point out that I see no necessary contradiction between identifying something as sin and identifying it as a physiological proclivity of the brain) means that we are terribly prone to distort this desire for sociality, preeminently by letting the desire to be loved take charge, at the expense of the desire to love.  In other words, while a need for affirmation is natural, it can readily become pathological.  Indeed, we recognize unhealthy sorts of relationships in just this way.  It is perhaps most glaring in young boys, who will do the most absurd and obnoxious things just to get attention, just to get recognized—even negative recognition can seem like a victory.  In teenagerhood, we’re a little more subtle, at least in our eyes, but to outside observers still shameless in our pursuit of recognition and acceptance.  The different sexes may do it somewhat differently, but they have plenty in common—we want people to laugh at our jokes, listen to our stories, invite us to parties (even if we don’t want to go to the stupid parties!).  At this stage, most of us no longer get a high from negative recognition (and when we do, that’s usually a sign that we’re really starved for recognition), and so we try to groom our self-presentation so as to get as many signals of positive recognition as possible, to get real-world “likes,” demonstrated through words, gestures, and privileged seating arrangements.  

Hopefully, we become mature enough to recognize before long that this isn’t the ideal form of sociality, that the temporary highs of this kind of recognition are followed by inevitable lows, as we worry desperately whether it will be repeated.  It doesn’t actually make us feel affirmed, or happy.  This kind of sociality, based heavily on narcissism, is not the opposite of loneliness, but usually simply another path to loneliness.  

What we really need to be happy are relationships that are so close, so firm, that we do not need to receive constant indications of affirmation.  In our superficial relationships with “the cool people,” we want to always be told that we are cool too.  But from a really good friend, we want criticism as well as affirmation.  I want a friend who knows me as I really am, rather than merely the facade I try to present to the world, who is willing to tell it to me like it is, to talk to me about my faults, and about his faults.  From such a person I won’t require constant tangible proofs that he finds me interesting, and so I won’t need to always say something clever or brilliant to elicit approval.  These friendships are truly healthy relationships, the kind of sociality that we should strive for, but alas, they are rare indeed.  Now, what is my point in all this?  I have already admitted that the unhealthy kind of sociality, the projected facade hoping for recognition, is perhaps most common in most of our lives.  What does Facebook have to do with this? 

Well, the thing is that there are real limits as to how much we can ensure a constant stream of positive feedback in the real world.  Even the coolest of the cool people do stupid things.  And when you do something stupid in a social setting, the self-image you wish to project is broken, you are laughed at not for your wit, but for your foolishness; you receive negative recognition.  And indeed, rarely are we indulged with such self-enclosed cliques of mutual affirmation that we do not have to face criticism and questioning, people disapproving our actions whether than approving, all of which only the most self-deceived can ignore.  Our daily social lives, then, can never be a narcissistic dream come true.  We might still aspire to be the life of the party, the guy with all the great jokes, but we generally learn to settle for less.  We adopt strategies of self-deprecation and goofiness to make the best of our social shortcomings and faux-pases; we train ourselves to maintain a certain detachment both from praise and criticism so that we are not constantly lurching between psychological highs and lows.  In short, the unyielding reality of the real world of social interaction places great constraints on our narcissistic indulgence, and may indeed eventually condition us to be well-adjusted, psychologically stable inhabiters of the social world, able to love and be loved in due measure.


The online world is not like that.  Stephen Marche draws attention to the temptations it poses in an intriguing recent article for the Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely”:

“Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.”  

What the online world, and Facebook perhaps best of all, enables us to do is to curate our own self-presentation, our own terms of social engagement, largely free from external interference.  Sure, there can be disorienting moments, such as when someone else posts and tags a picture of you doing something embarrassing (though you can then at least remove the tag), or when someone makes an obnoxious comment on your wall (though you can delete it if you wish).  It’s far from perfect—indeed, to be perfect, it would have to be so removed from the real world as to cease to be a genuinely social medium.  But the possibilities are certainly tantalizing.  I can post only the pictures of myself in which I look most attractive, and when I’m doing the coolest activities; whereas in real social interaction, people see me from unflattering angles and at unflattering moments all the time.  I can choose which interests and hobbies to list, to make myself out to be a very intelligent, fun, and well-rounded person indeed.  But all of this is simply the canvas and the palette.  The real power of the medium is its freedom from the awkward give-and-take of conversation.  Perhaps I am almost incapable of making a witty rejoinder on the spot, but give me a few minutes on my own to think one up, and I might as well be Shakespeare.  To be sure, most of us are still not as responsible with the medium as we would like to be.  We still stick our foot in our mouth on Facebook (though again, we can delete the comment if we do).  But never before have we had such a platform for fine-tuning the persona we wish to project.  In Marche’s article, one scientist worries “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process,” and Marche goes on to observe,

“Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Australian study ‘Who Uses Facebook?’ found a significant correlation between Facebook use and narcissism: ‘Facebook users have higher levels of total narcissism, exhibitionism, and leadership than Facebook nonusers,’ the study’s authors wrote. ‘In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.’”


But all this is not the worst of it.  Let’s get back to that “Like” button.  Have you ever heard someone complain “There ought to be an ‘unlike’ button too.  That status/picture/link/etc. is just stupid, and someone needs to tell that person”?  Probably.  I know I have.  It’s only fair, isn’t it?  If someone’s going to put up a stupid piece of Republican propaganda or whatever, and get 37 “likes” for it, then the rest of us ought to at least be able to register our disapproval.  Why not turn Facebook into a 24/7 voting booth, where everything is constantly subjected to a popularity contest of likes and unlikes?  After all, Youtube does this.  I think Facebook’s programmers are too clever for that.  That would destroy the delicate psychological-chemical ecosystem they have designed.  We want to see that notifications button light up and know we’ve gotten something positive, some kind of affirmation.  When we see it, our brains release dopamine.  When we view it, and see the comment or “like,” dopamine again.  But if at every moment we faced the fearful possibility of an “unlike”?  That would cast an unhappy shadow over the whole user experience. 

To be sure, people can always make negative comments, but again, these are generally confined to disagreement on matters of controversy, like politics, in which the person posting often expects and perhaps wants to provoke disagreement.  But just as people will almost never tell you to your face that you look unattractive, or your baby has a stupid name, or your conversation is uninteresting, your jokes unfunny, your tastes frightfully gauche, your ignorance appalling, etc., people very rarely have the gumption to go and say these things on a Facebook status, either.  “You named your kid what?”—”Um, please tell me that wasn’t supposed to be funny”—”Are you trying to look like a slut in these pictures?”  How often do you see those comments?  Hardly ever, of course.  Most people don’t like to rock the social boat too much.  But didn’t I just say above that in real life, there are constraints on narcissistic indulgence, because of the negative feedback we can get?  Of course.  But most of this feedback doesn’t take the form of direct critical comments.  We have developed a thousand and one ways of manifesting skepticism, disapproval, or contempt without saying a word.  We have any number of social cues that say, “Dude, that was a stupid thing to say.  You’d better sit down and retreat to the corner so you don’t make a fool of yourself again.”  These cues are essentially lost in the online world.  In a medium like Facebook, then, we have a self-curated social space in which positive feedback, usually so ambiguous and evanescent in the real world, can be quantified, can be experienced as a direct chemical stimulus, and in which negative feedback, so crushing in the real world, can be muted almost altogether.  In short, we have a world where we can become increasingly insulated from criticism, from the brutally honest give-and-take relationships that actually make us mature and experience genuine fulfillment, and it becomes increasingly possible to live out our fantasy of being the hero of our own narrative of the world.


None of this is inevitable, I should hasten to add, and certainly the solution is not repudiation of all social media, especially as these tendencies are not unique to Facebook, but in blogs, email, chat, and almost everything about the internet.  As Marche’s article argues, those with otherwise healthy social lives can use Facebook effectively as a means to enrich them further (though I am skeptical that this is as easy as the article suggests; it still requires a good deal of discipline).  Our technologies are tools, which we can use for good or ill.  But we would be foolish to pretend that they are mere tools, in no way shaping us even as we use them.  Rather, they are intrinsically predisposed toward certain uses, and toward creating certain habits in their users.  We must not be heedless of the ways in which these “social media” may in fact erode the very foundations of healthy sociality, particularly in the young, the lonely, and those who have not yet formed healthy patterns of social engagement.  If these technologies are tools, we must remember that any tool is fit for only certain purposes, and only if we retain a clear sense of its purposes and limits can we continue to profit from its use.


Are Christians Anti-Science?

Fewer slurs against Christianity are more common today than the accusation that Christians are anti-science.  You know the portrayal—Christians as Bible-thumping fundamentalists, so sure of themselves they don’t give a darn what science says; Matthew Brady in Inherit the Wind.  A few, perhaps are happy to accept the stereotype, while others regret it, but see this as the price they have to pay in order to be faithful to Scripture on issues of creation and evolution.  Others more cockily insist they care deeply about science, but it’s just mainstream science that isn’t to be trusted, and they trumpet their own idiosyncratic scientific theories instead.  Outside of evangelicalism, and increasingly within, many have nervously shifted out of the firing line, doing their best to renounce all that is scientifically unrespectable in traditional Christian teaching.  On the wisdom of this latter strategy I do not intend to comment here (clearly, I have described it in rather unflattering terms, but on many issues, such accommodation may involve no trace of unfaithfulness).

On reading Merchants of Doubt, though, I was troubled by just how much truth there might be to the stereotype, and I have begun to wonder how true is the claim of American Christians that “We’re not anti-science in general; we just cannot accept mainstream science on Darwinian evolution.”  For when it comes to environmental skepticism, there seems little question that evangelical Christians have been in the front ranks.  To be sure, I speak somewhat impressionistically and anecdotally, but as I look back, it seems to me that not only was skepticism (or downright hostility) toward climate change issues the norm in my evangelical background, but also skepticism regarding the litany of other issues surveyed in Merchants of Doubt—the ozone hole, acid rain, the dangers of secondhand smoke, the dangers of pesticides, etc.  Certainly, “red states” that are strongholds of the religious right also tend to be the places where one would encounter the greatest opposition to mainstream science on such issues.  Much of this may be correlation without causation, and indeed, no doubt the chief source of evangelical skepticism toward environmental science is the same as it was for Fred Seitz and Fred Singer—allegiance to free market ideology, which is threatened by environmentalism.  

But still it seems so incongruous that Christians would so instinctively rally to the side of Big Tobacco or Monsanto that I couldn’t help but ask whether or not there might be a deeper cause.  Two might be identified.  First, I suspect that being a conservative Christian in today’s world cannot help but encourage a certain contrarian tendency, a tendency to “root for the underdog,” so to speak.  We are counter-cultural, we are despised and rejected among men, we insist on positions that are unpopular or anathema in respectable public opinion, etc.  And so we tend to have a predisposition to sympathize with others who hold minority or out-of-the-mainstream views.  If the majority is not to be trusted in matters of morals, then why should we think it is to be trusted in matters of ____ (fill in the blank—science, history, economics, aesthetics)?  Not only do we lend a favorable ear to such voices on the margins of respectable opinion, but we often go on to identify with them, and to extend some of the martyr complex that we may have developed to the resulting scorn we receive.  Within the Reformed world, I wonder if the passion for “Christian worldview thinking” doesn’t contribute to some of this—Christian claims, we are told, will shape how we think about every aspect of life and the world, so if our Christianity is counter-cultural, then why shouldn’t we expect ourselves to be counter-cultural on nearly every subject we take up?

Now, I should immediately add that I have a deep contrarian streak myself, and think there are often sound reasons for doubting the received orthodoxy on any number of issues.  But I have to be honest with myself and always ask how much of my reflexive skepticism might be due to this deeply engrained way of thinking. 

Second, I think we might have a particularly bad case of this contrarian pathology when it comes to science.  The culprit is not hard to find; perhaps the popular Inherit the Wind stereotype is not so far off.  To be committed to creationism (especially young-earth creationism) requires a determination to stubbornly contest almost everything that mainstream science—geology and biology in particular—most confidently affirms.  It may well be true that such contrarianism stems not from any particular anti-science animus, which is earnestly disclaimed by many, but it would be hard to imagine that it does not tend to generate a kind of instinctive skepticism.  After all, if mainstream science can have been so dead wrong on so many fundamental matters, as creationists must insist, then how are we to have much if any respect for it?  It is as if we were convinced that our history professor didn’t know whether Martin Luther or Constantine came first, or whether it was Hitler or Genghis Khan that ruled the Third Reich.  Would we really be disposed to trust him on other matters, however much we denied any particular bias against him?  Indeed, some creationists may feel that to be intellectually consistent, they have to denigrate the reliability of science across the board; if they place great faith in science on climate science, for instance, how can they consistently refuse to trust carbon dating?

 I write this not at all as an attack on creationism; but if creationists are going to hold their heads high and deny the charge that they are simply anti-science, then they’re going to have to find a way of resisting these tendencies; they’re going to have to show that they can take science seriously when it deserves to be taken seriously, and will not just join every contrarian chorus that comes along.  When they do refuse the conclusions of scientific orthodoxy, they’re going to have to be willing to articulate why with theological and scientific precision, without simply resorting to broad-brush attacks on science as a mere “naturalistic religion” or as the tool of some left-wing agenda.  My friend Bradley Belschner makes just this plea in his comment on my Merchants of Doubt post below (in another of our remarkably frequent intellectual deja vus, I was working on this post already before I saw his comment):

It’s important that we know what we’re doing when we oppose a “scientific consensus.” If we oppose global warming willy-nilly without even weighing up the scientific evidence carefully, then how will folks treat us when we start criticizing Evolution? Oh, there they go again—the idiot Christians who refuse to look at real science. . . . I would like for Christians have a reputation for rigorous science, which in my opinion would involve the realization that global warming is real and evolution isn’t.”


Even better are the words of Augustine, writing fully 1600 years ago in De Genesi ad litteram, and still incredibly relevant

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth. This knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think that our sacred writers held such opinions. Then, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining foolish opinions of his own about what our books say, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on matters of fact which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”