Seriously? Yes, of course Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

I recently became acquainted with the story of Larycia Hawkins, a professor at a Evangelical Protestant college here in the U.S. who was suspended for publicly asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. What I found particularly remarkable about this story wasn’t what it revealed about the current state of free speech on college campuses, currently a red-hot subject of debate. What was more striking was that, apparently, many people somehow believe that Christians and Muslims worship different gods.

Here’s how one particular article about Hawkins kicked off:

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? It’s a question that has bedeviled theologians and everyday believers for centuries.

I almost lost my souvlaki sandwich reading this sentence. Have theologians really been debating this for centuries? If so, then shame on them for such a massive waste of time. Continue reading

Let the mystery be

hubble-new-monkey-head-nebula-1600My wife and I have really gotten into HBO’s The Leftovers, now its second season. The Leftovers is about how people from one particular town deal with the sudden, seemingly random disappearance of millions of people from around the globe into thin air. It’s one giant allegory, tied together with fantastic acting and compelling characters.

This season the producers have picked an interesting choice of music to accompany the opening credits. It’s a song called “Let the mystery be” by Iris Dement, whom I’d never heard of until recently. (Give it a listen here.) The song is about accepting mystery in life, especially when it comes to life after death. As the opening goes:

Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

The song’s tone is light and folksy, but this clearly means something important to the artist. As it turns out, Iris Dement was raised in an ultra-religious Pentecostal family in Arkansas, but lost her faith in the church as a teenager. Continue reading

Is the world getting worse?

holding-earth-1-1414853Frequent readers of this blog know a big chunk of time here is spent discussing the world’s great problems, as well as the moral and spiritual changes we need to make to meet those problems head on. Oftentimes this exercise gets to be a downer, mostly because it serves as a reminder of just how daunting those problems truly are.

What’s particularly difficult is to get a sense of whether or not things are getting better or getting worse. I found some new perspective on this recently in an unexpected place, when, while sorting through a box of old books, I found the comic book V For Vendetta and opened it up to its preface:

My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore. Goodnight England.

That was the author, Alan Moore, writing in 1988. In retrospect the level of hyperbole is almost laughable. But that’s only because it’s hard to look back nearly 30 years and try and understand the things people back then were preoccupied with, even though they were legitimate. Back in the 80s people barely understood how HIV worked — Eddie Murphy’s standup routine famously joked about a lonely housewife contracting AIDS by kissing a gay friend on the cheek — and imagined a world epidemic of potentially bubonic plague-like proportions. The Berlin Wall was still a thing, and though the US and USSR were in a process of detente, people still contemplated the possibility of mass extinction from nuclear war. Here in the US, crack cocaine was exploding, as was violent crime in US cities; New York had more than five times as many murders in 1988 than it had last year.

I bring all this up only to make the point that every generation finds it far too easy to say that the world is hopeless and getting worse. In many ways, in fact, things are getting better. Continue reading

When “get rich quick” goes mainstream

A friend of mine from college tries to get me to join his fantasy football league every year. For the past decade or so I’ve declined. I used to do it when I was younger, and enjoyed it when I did, but it was such a time suck that when I went to grad school (and later, got married and had kids) I wisely elected to sit on the sidelines.

This year, for whatever reason, I succumbed to the pressure and joined the league. (I named my team “McNally’s Revenge”, after the alleged ball deflation equipment guy from my beloved New England Patriots). But pretty soon, I realized that fantasy sports has changed a lot over the past decade since I’ve been out of the game. For one, I’m trying to do the whole thing on my iPhone, which I find dizzyingly confusing, which in turn makes me feel dumb and old. But more significantly, the element of money — always lurking in the shadows of fantasy sports, of course — seems to have been shoved to the forefront. Fantasy sports, apparently, is no longer about talking trash to your friends and ripping eachother off with shady player trades — you know, good wholesome fun. Apparently, It’s now about becoming a millionaire overnight.

How else can I make sense of the fact that Boston’s South Station is completely plastered with Draft Kings advertising? These days one-day fantasy sports ads are inescapable, not only in places — both real and virtual — where young, male sports fans congregate, but places as universal and banal as the city train station. The sudden ubiquity of these ads — seriously, I had never heard of this concept a few months ago — should tell you something about the outrageous profitability of the one-day fantasy sports business, and the rapid ascendancy of Fan Duel and Draft Kings in particular, companies that have rocketed to prominence in the past couple of years. Continue reading

Am I just another dumb consumer?

Sale mannequins

My wife recently passed along a clever Atlantic article entitled “The 11 ways that consumers are horrible at math”, focusing on some of the mental mistakes that we tend to make in our economic decisions and how vulnerable we are to the influence of marketing. In true Atlantic fashion, it introduces no real new insight, but does a good job summarizing and explaining some of the existing research. Here’s a snippet:

(5) We do what we’re told. Behavioral economists love experimenting in schools, where they’ve found that shining a light on fruit and placing a salad bar in the way of the candy makes kids eat more fruit and salad. But adults are equally susceptible to these simple games. Savvy restaurants, for example, design their menus to draw our eyes to the most profitable items by things as simple as pictures and boxes. Good rule of thumb: If you see a course on the menu that’s highlighted, boxed, illustrated, or paired with a really expensive item, it’s probably a high-margin product that the restaurant hopes you’ll see and consider.

As the paragraph above mentions, the influence of “framing” on individuals’ decisions can be powerful. That’s just one of many ways that we fail to even come close to performing rationally in our routine economic decisions (if we were perfectly rational, the framing effect would be nil), a point I’ve made on this blog many times in the past. Yet the passage above also contains another important point: framing and other strategies can be used for things we commonly think of as bad (like pushing restaurant goers towards higher-priced items), or for things we find good (like getting school kids to eat healthier foods).

This is the whole idea behind the recently conceived concept of “libertarian paternalism“, championed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and popularized by their book, Nudge. Thaler and Sunstein are keen to argue that while it’s wrong to force people into a particular decision that would benefit everyone, we can still “nudge” them with certain mental tricks. Organ donation is the classic example; most everyone agrees that the decision on whether or not to donate one’s organs should the individual’s own and never the government’s, yet the evidence suggests a country’s default setting — ie starting everyone out as donors and giving them the freedom to opt out rather than the other way around — has a huge impact on how frequently people actually participate. You can “nudge” people to be organ donors, that is, without forcing them or even providing any real incentives.

I’m a big supporter of libertarian paternalism, even though I think the term is a misnomer (it’s much more paternalistic than libertarian, if you ask me). I think it’s important to acknowledge its limits, though. Proponents of policy-led “nudges” or other public interventions are coming from the angle that since we humans do not behave consistently rationally and that markets are inherently imperfect, public policy can identify and fill in the gaps wherever markets fail.

That second part about the power of public policy is a fantasy. First, it’s technically tricky (figuring out exactly how much to spend on government-led efforts to encourage kids to eat vegetables, for instance). But secondly, government simply doesn’t have the firepower to offset all the purposeful “bad” nudging that private industry pumps out.

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When did we all get so sensitive?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt recently wrote a stirring article in The Atlantic about the alleged culture of oversensitivity and emotional coddling at American universities. They write:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

The authors conclude that this environment could be contributing to higher rates of depression and other emotional disorders in young people. That seemed too big a leap for me to take at face value — really, I need someone with a psychiatry degree to weigh in on that one — but Lukianoff and Haidt’s other points are believable and powerful. The most frightening implication for me is that this cultural movement is at odds with what institutions of higher education are supposed to be: forums for free expression and the open search for truth in whatever form.

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Why I’m so pumped about Andy Grammer

andy_grammer_magazines_or_novels

I recently rode in my boss’s car for the first time, which was kind of a big deal. Somehow when you get in someone’s car, you’re invited into a uniquely personal space, and you’re able to get a glimpse into that person’s life that you probably wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. A car has its own smell, its own little dashboard ornaments, its own leftover Burger King cups. It’s the antithesis of the office, really, a place where we spend hours on end with our coworkers and yet never really seem to get to know them.

So we get in, and on our drive to a conference a couple miles from my office, it turns out my boss is really into pop music. I’m talking about stuff on the radio right now, artists whose names I barely recognize and I presume only teenagers are fans of. Stuff that makes me feel old. He cranks up the volume and is literally dancing behind the wheel.

One of the first songs in his playlist, it turns out, is Andy Grammer’s Honey I’m Good. And there is my boss — a British guy deep into his 40s, whom I’ve never seen without a necktie, singing along delightfully, without missing a single word. Nah nah honey, I’m good, I could have another but I probably should notAnd then a great epiphany hits me: Holy crap, Andy Grammer is blowing up.

I’m probably one of the last people to recognize this, I realize. In fairness, Andy Grammer has been steadily making his way to the top for a while now. I kinda got that impression when, about a year ago when my wife and I were slumped on the couch half-watching the Bachelorette one evening, he randomly appeared on the screen and started serenading a couple of the show contestants.

Why do I care about this? Well, the main thing is that Andy Grammer is a Baha’i, and his stardom now vaults him at least into the top two of famous Baha’is currently in showbiz, along with actor Rainn Wilson. We Baha’is are few in number, but have nonetheless had our fair share of noteworthy artists and celebrities. Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz virtuoso and a much more deeply spiritual and complicated man than most appreciate, is the most famous name, of course, but he was a bit before my time. I do, however, remember Alex Rocco (better known as “Moe Green” to fans of the Godfather movies) emphatically exclaiming “Thank you, Baha’u’llah!” on national TV as he accepted an Emmy in 1990. For a kid already feeling the double-awkwardness of both puberty and a weird ethnic and religious background, it was a powerful moment.

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This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

A couple weekends ago I sat down with my laptop in a Panera where we live. I had a little bit of work to take care of, and Panera is my default choice to get stuff done. The wi-fi is free, the food is decent by casual dining/fast food standards, and you can get your tea or coffee in an actual mug rather than a paper cup (a rare treat). And the one I go to tends to have plenty of seats and never be overcrowded.

In any case, this particular visit got me thinking about something extremely important: fountain sodas. Usually when I visit places like this, I go for tap water instead of something sweet. I love soda and all, but for lunch I don’t really like paying the extra $2-3 for something I probably consume too much of anyway. At Panera, the way this works is that they give you an annoyingly small clear plastic cup that is completely different looking from the cup you get when you buy a fountain drink, and then allow you to fill this cup with water on your own at the fountain soda area.

I find that a lot of these casual chain do this now; that is, they give you a water-specific cup rather than one usually intended for a fountain drink. I suppose part of the reason is to encourage people to buy drinks rather than asking for free water with their meals, given that you can only fit what seems like 0.8 ounces of liquid inside one of those tiny cups.

But another reason, I guess, is the idea that having different-looking cups would make it harder for the soda free loader types, the ones who ask for a free cup only to fill it up with something they were supposed to have paid for, simply because it would be more obvious when someone’s dumping Cherry Coke into a cup that’s clearly intended for water. That seems to be the thought process at Chipotle, which gives the same size cup for water as it does for soda, but slaps an mistakable label on their water cups to make it perfectly clear what’s what.

chipotle_cup2

The Chipotle water cup: yup, pretty clearly for water

The whole point of this is that there’s a clear element of trust involved here. Even with those simple deterrences in place to prevent people from stealing soda from fast food joints, it’s not like doing so is hard. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here. In fact, at that particular Panera that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the fountain drink area is way in the back, where no one at the front counter can see. Really, the only way to get busted is for some employee to pass by your table and spot you, and then of course to decide that, despite being exhausted and probably making just above minimum wage, it’s worth publicly shaming a customer into what cost the Panera shareholders about ten cents. In other words: not gonna happen.

But think to yourself: When was the last time you pulled off this sneaky trick, despite how easy it would be? Continue reading

America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

A couple Saturdays ago, my wife and I hosted a prayer gathering and discussion in our home on the subject of “race, society, and spirituality”. We read some sacred writings together and prayed, watched a short video, and had a discussion over some good food. People shared their personal anecdotes and experiences along with their heartache, their joy, and their concern about where we are going as a nation and as a human race. A friend whose dad is Kenyan, mom is white, and step dad is Persian told of a childhood of conflicted identity growing up in Upstate New York. A Polish immigrant shared her experiences of living in America for the past decade. A black neighbor told us about raising a daughter in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood in Greenwich, CT after growing up in Harlem. A Jew from Brooklyn shared his sadness over the needless suffering currently being felt in Israel and Palestine.

The two of us have hosted these prayer gatherings/discussions sporadically in our home for the past few years, but more recently we’d been contemplating dedicating an evening to the topic of race in particular. One reason is that unity is perhaps the single most important theme in the Baha’i Faith — Baha’u’llah once declared that “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole earth” — and thus opposing racism and prejudice naturally becomes an important component of being Baha’is in America. But this wasn’t the only reason. The other was that the two of us have become tired of listening to friends and colleagues decry racism without an eye towards an actual solution, and in tones that seemed to accomplish nothing more than to fan the flames of suspicion and distrust.

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Does science need religion to be effective?

Sharknado church

The recent outbreak of measles in California and the ensuing debate over vaccines has got me thinking about how we as a society interact with science. As you’ve probably read by now, the fact that an outbreak of measles — a disease that was declared eradicated in the US in 2000 — is even possible is attributable to a low vaccination rate among some communities of parents, many of whom blame vaccines for a variety of diseases and other maladies. Those beliefs have always stood on shaky scientific ground, but were dealt a major blow in particular when a 1998 study purporting to find a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism was found to have been fabricated (after years in which other researchers were unable to reproduce the results). Nonetheless, as the current outbreak reveals, the consensus of the scientific community that vaccines are safe — and, importantly, do not cause or precipitate autism — has, for some parents, fallen on deaf ears.

Even as anti-vaccine parents are at the root of the recent measles outbreak, I still don’t believe they deserve the full measure of vitriol that’s been aimed at them by some in the media in recent weeks. People who elect not to vaccinate their kids are neither dumb nor crazy, even if some of their beliefs are based on flimsy-at-best science. For one, vaccines can in rare cases cause adverse reactions, even though it doesn’t appear that autism is one of them. And plenty of smart people are anti-vaxers. One of them is the birth instructor whose classes my wife and I attended when we were expecting our first child, a woman who was once a university professor and enjoyed a great deal of success in the corporate world before her second career. Those who hold views on vaccine that fall outside of mainstream science, in other words, are often otherwise educated and sensible people.

But never mind that. The main reason I think we need to take it easy on these people is that they are not alone in rejecting the findings of the scientific community. The reality is that the case of vaccines is just one example of our society’s collective lack of respect for science.

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