Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hopefully only a cane, probably a wheelchair

On Wednesday I realize a long-standing intention... I start a yoga-spin class offered at our local community center. It's 45 minutes of spinning and 45 minutes of yoga. Let's see, I am completely out of shape, and I can bend over just far enough to put my hands in my pockets, so I should be dead-meat on Thursday.

Why am I doing this? Besides my on-going, vague plan of getting in shape in the near future, I also have to worry about my sister. You see, Susie, who lives in South Bend, IN, is in amazing physical shape. She started taking spin classes several months ago (as something to do when it's too cold in South Bend to ride bicycles outside--roughly ten months a year), and already taunting spin instructors. She visited a gym recently to take their spin class entitled "Road Rage". About halfway through, she asked, in her most innocent of voices, "is this all?"

At somepoint I will visit my sister or she will visit me, and she'll sucker me into a walk or bicycle ride, and I want to make it further than usual before I fall over.

Church attendance series

This next week I will present a short series on church attendance rates among Christians. I.e., how often do self-described Christians/evangelicals/mainline protestants/Catholics attend church?

Friday, March 30, 2007

This last week I created an online survey using Wow! Where have you been all my life? (Or, at least career). It was actually easier to do it with SurveyMonkey than it is just using MSWord... I didn't bother reading the instructions (of course), and still got the survey up and running in no time on the first try. Not only that, SurveyMonkey has a great way of keeping track and contacting respondents.

Here's my only concern... why monkey? Last week I also had to use something from mediamonkey, so I did a little googling and found a whole troop of online monkeys.

Some of these added monkey to existing concepts, perhaps just to make them more fun: (Hey, I could have used that as a homepage)

Some added monkey to apparently random words:

The subtle-yet-powerful Japanese warrior-monkey connection:

And finally, this site added monkey to something I would never associate with jungle animals:

I expect to see the following church-related sites:

Basically, "" is used to mean accessible, fun website containing specialized information/ services on a given topic.

Why just monkeys? Why not otters or other "fun" animals?

Maybe we can use other animals to signify types of websites. E.g., could be sites that have cute pictures. could be anything outside. could mean sophmoric humor. could be conservation sites.


Thursday, March 29, 2007


My brother John, heretofore referred to as my all-time favorite brother (MAFB), has invited me out to Southern California in May for several days of hang gliding. Not only that, but MAFB is flying me out with his frequent flyer miles. Not only that, but he knows some really good Mexican food restaurants. Not only that, he has promised In-N-Out. Not only that, he lives less than a mile from the beach. Not only that, I get some quality time goofing with my adorable niece.

Is it May yet?


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

House MD

Well, we get rid of the television next week, as per our 3 months on- 9 months off schedule. With the UConn Huskies out of the NCAA tourneyment, and the kids starting to watch tv out of habit, I am ready for it to go. One good thing from this round of viewing: We discovered the show House M.D.

If you haven't seen it, its about a doctor with the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes, the interpersonal skills of Simon Cowell (of American Idol), doing CSI-like work with medicine.

I like the show for many reasons (e.g., a great character played by a great actor), but also Dr. House he says whatever he wants while at the same time making a huge positive difference in the lives of many. These are both things that I would like more of for myself (though, maybe not the first to the degree that House does).


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Faith and social construction

This may be one of those posts where the title is more interesting than the text...

Some days I think that everyone has about the same level of faith in some opinion/ proposition being fact, we just differ in what. That is, we're all "believers", we just believe in different things.

The other day I spoke with a fellow sociologist who had asked their students to define race. All the students, being good sociology students, reported that race is a social construction. The sociologist elaborated that there is no biological or other reality to race--it's only a social construction.

Now, I think it's a good idea to consider the social construction of race, but to state this social construction as an innate fact is, well, ironic. Sociologists view of race (and lots of other things) as a social construction is, itself, a social construction.

So, I guess my null hypothesis here is that we all have similar levels of faith/ belief in something unseen or unproven, and so the real issue is not one of belief versus reality rather belief in what.

(I may just be grumpy because it's another cold, gray day).

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Dewey on God

Here's a clip of Dewey, from Malcolm in the Middle, explaining his views on God. Hilarious.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Managing our credit cards

Our marriage has proven to be a sixteen-year failed experiment in... responsible credit card use. There is something about being able to have something now and pay for it some other time that my wife and I just can't get past. It's actually caused a lot of problems for us, and we've tried a number of solutions that have ultimately failed.

This year we are trying prison. Not for us, but for the cards. We rented a safe deposit box and every non-gas credit card goes into it and stays there except for trips. (The runner up solution: freezing the credit cards in a block of ice--a fun idea from Ben).

We have also switched over to a cash economy... pay the bills with the checkbook and put the checkbook away for the month. Each week we withdraw whatever food & everything else money we have allotted, and that's it. If we want to know if we can afford something, we look in our pockets: if we have money, we can.

At some point aren't I supposed to become mature and be able to handle these kinds of things?

Friday, March 23, 2007

When do Christian kids leave the faith?

I have recently undertaken a study of Christian deconversion--why do people leave Christianity. In reading about the topic, I came across an interesting study. A group of Dutch researchers studied religious (and other) transitions among 1,000 people. 653 of these respondents were raised in a religious home, and of them 186 left their church. Among those who left, when did they do so?

Percentage that leave the church by age group (n=186)
Age, % leaving church
13-14, 3.2%
15-16, 12.4%
17-18, 18.3%
19-20, 21.5%
21-22, 8.1%
23-24, 8.6%
25-26, 9.7%
27-28, 3.8%
29-30, 3.2%
31-34, 1.6%
35-39, 2.7%
40-49, 2.2%
50+, 2.2%

As a summary
, 28% of their sample left the Christian church, and, those who left were most likely to do so in the high school and early college years. I suppose this provides justification to churches that emphasize high school and college programs.

I also noticed that this looks a lot like the standard age-crime curve. Maybe there is just one table that sociologists use, and they simply change the axis labels?

(Citation: Need, Ariana, and Nan Dirk De Graaf. 1996. European Sociological Review 12(1)87-99. Table 3.)

Technical note: I probably would have analyzed the data differently--equal age ranges + looking at hazard of leaving over time, not raw percentages. This approach may over emphasize leaving in youth... but still I think that it's story is basically right.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A marriage proposal near-miss

It's perhaps human nature to be entertained (sometimes) by other people's misfortune. We slow down to look at car accidents, laugh at the Darwin awards, and watch soap operas (well, I do two of the three at least).

Likewise, here's a video collection of failed marriage proposals. These guys get seriously slammed!

I have sympathy for them because of the ambivalent response I got from my wife when I asked her to marry me. We had been dating for about 6 months, and I knew that I wanted to marry her. I didn't know if she was ready to say "yes", but I thought I would ask. Well... we were visiting the Gettysburg battlefield (she's a historian after all), and we had a late afternoon picnic overlooking the location of Pickett's charge. I figured that spot had been good for northern males in the past, so why not now. So, I popped the question.

I think that she went through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) in about thirty seconds, and then stammered out how nice it was that I asked her and how unready she was to answer. So basically, I got a marital "revise and resubmit."

The funny thing is that I took before and after pictures, wanting to commemorate the happy occasion. Before, she is beaming at the romantic picnic in such a wonderful place (for a historian), and afterwords she looks confused and sour. (When I show them to people now, I just switch the order!)

P.S., happily she said yes a couple months later.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Photographic regrets

I have various regrets in life--here's one of them.

Growing up we would visit my grandparents who lived in Bozeman, Montana. Big house, cool stuff, cousins, the whole scene. They also had a copy of my favorite book, the Best of Life Magazine's Photographs. This book contained a series of pictures taken by a man of himself and his daughter every year at the beach, from when she was a baby until he passed away, 40-50 years later. The change in both of them, seen together, is remarkably powerful.

Likewise, here's a site displaying photographs a man took of himself and his family every year (on July 17th) for thirty years.

I vowed as a kid I would do the same with my family... well I didn't. Sigh. Sure we have lots of photos, but to have a systematic portrait of the the family changing over time is no longer possible., and it makes me very sad to think about. What a lost treasure.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Integrating faith & sociology

This morning I had the chance to talk by phone with a class of students at Wheaton College--a Christian college in Illinois. Their professor, Jim Mathisen, teaches a seminar on integrating faith and sociology (in addition to having written several interesting papers on the topic).

This is probably the first time I have spoken with students, in a classroom setting, about matters of faith, and it took me awhile to make the transition away from the religious-neutral or -negative assumptions made in a public university.

I was also struck by how much they've already thought about this issue. They would ask questions along the lines of "have you thought about this" or "what about doing that", and I would try to say something smart, but inside I was thinking that I should think/ do what they were suggesting. Bright students who are into Christianity & sociology... how cool.

I'm thinking that I should enroll in that seminar myself.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Enough of the Inquisition! Christianity and genocide

Some time ago, I was having lunch with a good friend. The conversation turned to Christianity, and he asked me what I thought of it. I mumbled though my sandwich some generally affirmative answer, and he responded with utter conviction: "But what about the Inquisition?" In his mind, this Christian-based atrocity (which executed three to thirty thousand people) constituted sure proof against the validity of Christianity.

Ugh... This fellow is a good friend, and he's very bright, but what a knuckleheaded thing to say.

The logic of this church-morality argument goes like this: The Christian Church should be perfect, and the Christian faith is invalid if the church displays a grievous moral failure, which it has done many, many times. This argument is inconsistent with Christian beliefs, let alone common sense, both of which hold that the Church is not perfect.

This argument is not apostasy, it's bad social science.

If one wanted to judge Christianity by participation in atrocities, one should compare the Church's participation in atrocities versus that of other religious and secular institutions. As data for this comparison, here's a list of the worst genocides of the last 100 years:

China (1960s, 1970s), 30 million dead
USSR (1920s, 1930s, 1940s), 2 0 million dead
Germany (1930s, 1940s), 11.4 million dead
Japan (1930s, 1940s), 10 million dead
Pakistan (1970s), 3.1 million dead
Sudan (1960s, present day), 2.8 million dead
Nigeria (1960s), 2 million dead
Afghanistan (1980s), 1.8 million dead
Cambodia (1970s), 1.7 million dead
Turkey (1910s, 1920s), 1.5 million dead
Indonesia (1970s, 1980s), 1.2 million dead
Rwanda (1990s), 1 million dead
India (1940s), 1 million dead
(Source: Barbara Harff, National Geographic, Jan 2006, p. 30)

Okay, I don't think that counting up atrocities is a useful way to judge religions, but if one is going to do so, at least do it accurately. From the above list, it appears that most of these terrible atrocities have been committed by governments or institutions rooted in belief systems other than Christianity. By the logic of this argument, then, Christianity is supported.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sibling rivalry

My two sons, age 13 and 6 (two dissertations between them!), have entered a phase where they are obsessed with making sure that the other one doesn't get more of anything construed as valuable (and each is sure that the other is getting more). It drives me bonkers since both of them, as well as my wife and I, have so much more than we deserve--in both a moral and global sense.

In addition to yelling at them about it, which always works so-o-o-o well, I've come up with a solution that I think will work instantly. When Child A complains that Child B (we really should name them one of these days) got more of "X", then we give Child B even more of "X". This should take care of things rather quickly, don't you think?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Science vs. religion

The above diagram, from, shows a fairly common understanding of religion versus science. It's sort of like the before and after pictures for weight loss, aluminum siding, home improvement, or whatever. Basically, religious people are ignorant, scientific people enlightened. Clearly, I want to be in the scientific category--who wouldn't?

There are a couple problems, though, with this analysis. I write about it not to criticize this particular website, for I commend these diagrams for their clarity in presenting the issues (and other, funny posts), rather to deal with the issue more generally.

1) Some of the best scientists are people of faith. The assumption that it's either science or faith is problematic. Sure the Christian church has been anti-science at times, but for every Galileo trial there are many more instances of the church promoting science. For an article on the alliance of science and religion. The view of religion as opposed to science is an outdated stereotype.

2) Making the world better. As presented in the diagram, and accurately so, science focuses on understanding the world... but it offers no inherent motivation for improving it. A scientist can learn what causes leprosy, but why do anything to help solve it? It's an intellectual problem with understanding as an end, not a means to something better. This isn't to say that scientists don't care about the world, rather there is nothing in the scientific itself that would motivate care.

3) Ethical science. While science has been used to do a lot of good, it has also been the cause of plenty of harm. For example, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study allowed hundreds of African-Americans to suffer from syphilis for decades after the discovery of penicillin--though morally bankrupt, it was, strictly speaking, good science. From this and other ethical lapses, the scientific community has developed strong informed consent procedures, so this is not to imply that scientists have no moral center. Rather there is no basis for this morality in the scientific itself. Instead, it has to come from somewhere else, say religious faith.

Ultimately, comparing science versus religion is perhaps less interesting (and more prone to oversimplified, tired stereotypes) than is the integration of the two.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Let's have fun with census data

As you might have figured out from past posts on this blog, I'm into maps. Here's a cool tool for visualizing census data. Tell the program what area and what variable, and you get a map.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Blog evaluation--feedback wanted

I've been blogging for about 100 days now, and I would like to step back and do a little evaluation. Could you give me feedback? As I've written about, I'm big into evaluation as a way of improving, so I would like to ask three questions.

1) What works well for you with this blog?

2) What could be improved?

3) Additional comments/advice?

You can e-mail me your feedback, to, or post it as an anonymous comment... whatever works best for you.

Thank you!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Watching television for 3 months a year

After years of trial and error, my family and I have arrived at a television-management stratergy that works for us. We order cable tv for three months a year--from when the kids get out of school for winter break through the NCAA basketball championships (roughly mid-December - end of March). Out here in Storrs, CT, we don't get broadcast television, so that means no television for about nine months a year (we still watch occasional DVDs throughout the year, so we haven't gone completely Amish--as my brother John would put it).

Being on this schedule for several years now, I've come to appreciate its benefits.
* It saves money, about $500 a year.
* We stay mostly up-to-date with what we want to watch (with regular and repeat showings).
* The kids are aware of cultural references from television.
* We don't get into the habit of watching television constantly.
* It gets us outside when it's nicer weather.
* It gives us something easy to do in worse weather.

It's getting time to unplug cable, and I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Evolution and the need for a God

Did you know that two people independently arrived at the basic assumptions of evolution? Charles Darwin, of course, but also Alfred Russel Wallace. As told in one of my favorite books, The Discoverers by former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstein, Darwin started writing about his theory in the 1840s. But... being meticulous, Darwin spent over a decade preparing his work for publication, showing it to few others. During this time, Wallace figured out much the same ideas on his own. In 1858 he sent his essay on the topic to Darwin, which prompted Darwin to publish his work at the same time as Wallace.

Here's an interesting aspect of the story regarding religion. While Darwin turned from religion in light of his views on of evolution, Wallace turned toward it. According to Boorstein (p.472), Walace "needed a God to explain what he saw in nature."

To be clear, Wallace wasn't a Christian (I don't think so, anyway), but his need to posit a creator in view of nature is a nice counterbalance to Darwin's need to posit no creator based on the same evidence. Wallace's views illustrate that the theory of evolution (as is much of science) is religiously-neutral, neither inherently opposed to or in support of religious belief.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

John Frum and Jesus

February 15th was John Frum day, a high holiday in one of the South Pacific's cargo cults. In this cargo cult, adherents wait for the return of a religious figure named John Frum, an American, who will bring prosperity and wealth to those who follow him. (It appears that his name comes from a service man saying he was "John, from (some state or city)."

My first reaction to reading about it was to feel sorry for the adherents... here they are waiting for a divine being to return in glory after having visited them in person, but, at least my perspective, their beliefs have no basis in objective reality, and, if so, they are rather misguided.

My second reaction was to notice the similarities between cargo cults and Christianity. (Not necessarily a prosperity gospel, though one could make that parallel too). I profess to follow someone who came to world in rather humble circumstances, has promised to return, and, in the meantime, we should follow him. This is no more far-fetched than the cargo cults. Furthermore, their faith is, presumably, as real to them as mine is to me.

This gets to the importance of objective spiritual reality. Whether or not there was/is a Jesus, as described in the Bible matters a lot--if not, then this is just another, worldwide version of a cargo cult--deifying past experiences to our own benefit.

In a way, society lets Christians off too easily. Somehow, it's viewed as a rather respectable religion by many, but in reality, if one doesn't accept its fundamental premise (God, Jesus, crucifixion , etc...), then we should be held in contempt--a bunch of nutjobs running around wasting our time and others.

Of course, if the assumptions of Christianity are true, than those who disregard them risk being a bunch of damned fools (theologically speaking).

Ultimately, the reality of Jesus, and John Frum, matters a lot.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Break up at UNC

If you haven't seen it already, you might want to watch this video, described as follows in

"UNC student Ryan Burke found out his girlfriend was cheating on him. He planned out the entire event on Facebook. Roughly 3000 students showed up to see Ryan break up with his girlfriend on Valentine's Day in The Pit."

At first I thought it was hilarious--hiring a group of singers and having thousands of people watch a break-up, but then as it progressed I just felt sad for the two people involved. Both are desperately trying to hurt each other while at the same time acknowledging no hurt themselves--like wildly swinging punches. It reminds me of a scene from "The Great Divorce" in which C.S. Lewis describes how people in hell interact.

My guess is that both participants will eventually regret the situation.

Update: Last week the two people involved came out and said the whole thing was staged. My guess is that it was real but they realized how bad they looked and are doing damage control....

Friday, March 09, 2007

Uniforms & self-presentation

My trip to California this week afforded me some quality time in airports, and I noticed that the fashion for pilots these days is the military-style jacket shown on the left. (This picture is taken from a site that sells airline jackets). This type of jacket has its roots in among WWII Army pilots, so by wearing them, pilots for today's airlines convey that, if needed, they have the flying skills necessary to precision-bomb an opposing airline's terminal or strafe the ubiquitous overnight delivery planes. For now, though, the pilot will simply fly from Point A to Point B while his/her associates sell sandwiches to passengers.

This uniform makes for a more positive self-presentation that a uniform that comes more closely to the pilot's real job, say, that of public transportation. Maybe a bus driver's uniform? At some point, though, self-presentation with uniforms can only go so far beyond reality before it loses its effectiveness. For example, pilots probably won't get away with wearing astronaut outfits or clothes from the television show Star Trek.

Sociologists do a similar thing in dressing up for class. Walking around the department, I can usually tell who is teaching that day and who is not. Most people teaching dress as if they are going out to a good restaurant... nice slacks or dress, jacket, maybe a shirt and tie. I've asked various faculty and graduate students why they dress up for teaching, and I usually get one of several answers. 1) It shows respect to the students, 2) they feel more comfortable dressed-up, and 3) they feel a need for clothing that asserts authority (I've heard this one from several female teachers).

I'm not big into dressing up (think t-shirts and jeans), but early on I worried about not doing so. I've asked several of my classes if they would feel more respected if I dressed up, and they pretty much just laughed "no". (I suppose there could be an interaction effect here that I couldn't carry it off or it wouldn't fit with my teaching style.) If I wanted authority, I would bring a gun, or a least a taser, to class. Now that says authority! "Professor Wright, will this be on the midterm?" Zap-p-p-p-p, student down.

Ultimately, I don't think that dressing up for teaching serves any objective purpose beyond fitting the professor's preference. This is fine, it's just not my preference. If we want to do self-presentation, why not go seriously old-school and wear medieval caps and gowns. Now that would be cool!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Blogging as American Idol for columnists

I grew up reading newspapers, and I still cruise through several on a regular basis. I have never been interested in the columnists, though, and I just figured that was my own idiosyncrasy (which it may still be).

I now have a competing explanation: Most newspaper columns are not that good. Having started a blog, which has similarities to writing a newspaper column--regular short essays on a variety of topics, I have come to realize how very difficult this is to do on a regular basis.

More than a few times I have looked at the "new post" page of Blogger and said "be more interesting." (Like Homer Simpson telling his television to be "more funny")

Ann Althouse recently got a gig as a guest columnist for the New York Times, which makes a lot of sense. She brings with her a proven track record of strong writing as well as many regular readers. (To illustrate, when she wrote about one of my posts, my traffic increased by an order of magnitude for several days). I would imagine that in the coming years, newspapers and magazines will routinely turn to successful bloggers for columnists. Blogging is a proving ground for essay-writing in which anyone can participate. This makes blogging like the American Idol for essayists--many sign up at the auditions and a few make it to the big-time, and those few are arguably the most talented.

This makes me wonder how current newspaper columnists would do if they had to start up on their own with a blog.


In-N-Out Burger

I was in California for the last several days (family business), which means that I made a pilgramage to In-N-Out Burger. For the poor souls who have never been to In-N-Out, here is a primer of a fast-food restaurant that does just about everything right.

The menu is simplicity. Hamburger, Cheeseburger, Double-Double, Fries, Sodas, Coffee, and Shakes. That's it.

(It also has a secret menu for those in the know.)

The ingrediants are fresh, never frozen. When you order fries, they slice a whole potato. The bread is fresh-baked.

The company has a strong social conscioncious--They pay their employees far above the minimum wage and offer benefits to many of them. They even received a fairly positive write-up in Schlosser' book Fastfood Nation.

So, basically, In-N-Out is the fast food version of heaven... it's just a lot easier to document that the theological one. (I believe that they are a Christian-owned company, so this is an apt metaphor).


Sunday, March 04, 2007

A theologically troublesome survey question

I came across this in a church survey...

I would rather hear a "Christ-Centered" message
from the pulpit than a "social message."

Somewhat Agree
Somewhat Disagree

Does this mean that a social message should not include Jesus or that a Jesus message should not include society?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Ted Haggard as a high school student

This article was written by a high school friend of Ted Haggard. In it she describes their experiences working on a school newspaper together, and what Ted was like. An excerpt:

"Even as a teenager, the future pastor had that rare ability to work a room and command the respect of his peers. A practicing Baptist from a religious family, Ted was "born again'' at age 16 after attending a religious crusade, but the class vice president was better known for his popular, unsupervised weekend parties."

So much of the discussion of Ted Haggard focuses on who he is now that it's interesting to get some of the back story.

(Thanks Mike!)


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Teaching sociology: The usefulness of authentic self-presentation

It’s a natural and understandable tendency for professors to engage in strategic self-presentation when they teach; i.e., try to present themselves to be more “professor-like”. This includes dressing up, portraying oneself as knowledgeable, keeping an even emotional tone, and so forth.

I’ve concluded, though, that this isn’t really a good idea, and in terms of one’s teaching style, professors should seek authenticity—finding their “voice.” In my first years teaching, I tried to be professional and act like I thought a professor should act. In fact, I even wore a coat and tie to class my first semester (that didn’t last long!). Once I got tenure, I decided that the self-presentation was just too much work, and I resolved to do pretty much whatever I felt like in the classroom.

I now wear jeans & a t-shirt when teaching, except when I wear a Hawaiian shirt, and I’m usually barefoot. (Hey, I’m from California). If a topic comes up that interests me, off we go into a digression. I constantly joke around. If I get bored in lecture, we skip that section. When I’m hungry, I mooch from students who have food on their desk. If I don’t know about something, I say so right away. Basically, I show fairly little impulse control when I teach—what they get is who I am. (I draw the line at criminal offenses--at least felonies).

When I made this change, I figured that the quality and ratings of my teaching would go down, but that I would be happier. Well, the latter certainly happened, but not the former. In talking to students, they either don’t care (in the case of clothing style) or appreciate (joking around) the changes.

This leads me to the general point that following a standard, conventional style of teaching is over-rated , and I think most faculty would do well to develop their own, more authentic style of self-presentation.

For additional essays on teaching sociology:


I had a student invite me to go skydiving with the UConn Skydiving Club. I went a few times in college, and it would be fun to try again, but this raises a practical question:

Do I wait to see how the student did on the midterm before accepting his offer?