Millennial Spirituality

I have been saying that the fastest growing religion in the United States is not the non-denominational, evangelical mega-churches, or Mormonism or any other such easily identifiable thing, but the hazy category of “spiritual but not religious.” Today the front page of USA Today brings more grist for the mill (Grossman, Cathy Lynn, “Survey: 72% of Millennials ‘More Spiritual Than Religious’,” 27 April 2010):

Most young adults today don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows.

If the trends continue, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group’s survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.”

Among the 65% who call themselves Christian, “many are either mushy Christians or Christians in name only,” Rainer says. “Most are just indifferent. The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith.”

The line about seeing churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships was a nice gag, but more evocative for me would be to say that if the trend continues, we will soon start to see churches in the U.S. closing as quickly as they are today in Europe. Declining religious sentiment is an aspect of modernization and what’s amazing is that religion has managed to persist with such strength so long into the age of scientific reason.

In addition to the point about “spiritual but not religious”, this survey also makes Daniel Dennett’s point that belief in belief is far more widespread than actual belief. There are a significant number of people who self-identify as “Christian” when asked, but don’t attend church, don’t ever pray, don’t read the Bible, don’t think “what would Jesus do”, or “God’s watching” in their moral considerations, don’t take religious identity into consideration in forming their interpersonal associations and don’t talk about god to other people.

Some sociologists need to get on this “spiritual but not religious” category. What do people who so identify believe? I have no idea. I imagine that being so ill-defined it’s a bewildering hodge-podge of belief.

I always joke that “spiritual but not religious” means you like green tea and yoga. But maybe there’s no accident in these two tropes. The future belongs to Asia and “spiritual but not religious” might be an early manifestation of Asian culture beginning to exert the kind of global influence that Western culture used to enjoy.

Is “spiritual but not religious” a sort of scientific illiteracy? There are all these people for whom religion has no practical consequence in their life, but find the alternative unpalatable? I’ve known a number of people who believe in what I call a “prime mover” god: the whole big bang story sounds too implausible so they invoke god to get the story rolling, but then he drops out as a narratively compelling actor.

I know plenty of people who are essentially atheists but owing to the stigma of the label, simply won’t take the final step of self-identification as such.

Is it a bad faith version of Pascal’s wager, where people think of non-declaration as a hedge: If I don’t say anything, god won’t know and I may still be eligible for the afterlife should I turn out to have been wrong.

Do the “spiritual but not religious” respond to religion in politics? I imagine that to be “spiritual but not religious” means rejection of religion as ideology and dogma in favor of religious sentiment. Political invocations of religion tend to be religion as ideology and dogma at its most strident. But many of these people continue to identify as Christians. Is their identification sufficiently deep for them to respond to the identity group politics of religion?

Strategic Depth and Obama’s Rejuvenation of Global Arms Control

Steve Clemons in his summation of President Obama’s winning streak on nuclear issues invokes the notion of “strategic depth” (“Obama’s Nuclear Wizardry and the Iran Factor“, Politico, 13 April 2010). It’s not an uncommon term, but one rarely given much by way of explication. Fortunately Mr. Clemons isn’t just breaking it out to conceptually pad his article, in that he calls out an element of this week’s accomplishments that serves as an excellent illustration of the idea:

In a quick succession of deals focused on pre-empting a 21st-century nuclear nightmare, Obama has mended the foundation and infrastructure of a global nonproliferation regime that United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Vice President Dick Cheney and others of the pugnacious nationalist wing of the last administration worked hard to tear down.

And, by bringing together 47 key leaders, Obama is signaling to all stakeholders that a nuclear crisis with Iran and other potential breakout states would undermine the global commons.

Yet he is not vilifying Iran or its leaders. He is not making the same “axis of evil” mistake President George W. Bush did.

Instead, Obama is showing the benign and constructive side of U.S. power to other great states like India, China, Brazil and Russia. He is also inviting Iran to get in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and get back into a club that matters — where Iran could be respected for adopting a sensible course.

The Obama administration is restoring the non-proliferation norm to “a club that matters.” For the previous administration, either a state wanted to adopt a certain policy, or they didn’t; there was no context in which they may have preferred to do one thing over another, so there was no need to apply the nation’s diplomatic energies to construction any particular sort of international régime.

That was a strategically thin diplomacy. If it appears that the future of the international system is the gradual breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if the system is lowly regarded, treated with apathy and abandonment on the part of the great powers, if declining compliance and the emergence of a number of new nuclear powers seems the likely future, then there is little to recommend compliance or membership. What incentive is there to join a system one anticipates failing in the near future?

But if the NPT seems the way of the future, if great energies are devoted to shoring up and extending the non-proliferation framework, compliance is the norm among the respectable states, if the nuclear powers are making headway toward their Article VI obligations, if the possibility of new nuclear powers seems increasingly remote, then that’s a strategic context in which an entirely different set of decisions will seem the best means to a country’s objectives of security, prestige, diplomatic latitude and so on.

Further, broadening the circle of compliance and advocacy takes some of the lime light off of the United States. This makes it much more palatable to recalcitrant elements. In the case of Iran, if faced with knuckling under to the hated United States, the answer will certainly be no. If asked to cow to a group of flunkeys subordinate to the United States, the prospects won’t be much improved. But joining the global consensus among nations is something they might do. It allows them to save face among their citizens and their international constituents should they chose to back away from their nuclear program.

By imbuing the present architecture with a sense of a bright future, increasing compliance and broad support, the Obama administration is bringing the weight of a whole international system to bare on Iran. This seems like a program with more potential than just the usual carrots and sticks.

Evolving Technology of the Psyche

The sentiment contained in the chorus of Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” is extremely nice and I want to unreservedly like the song, but crikey!, hippies are some of the most passive-aggressive people you’ll ever meet.

There is an evolving technology of the psyche — I don’t know that we’re building a permanent body of knowledge, or that there’s progress, so much as just a random walk. It is an instance of cultural learning that today even a child would see through the crass manipulations of this song — just as whatever shabby sense of superiority the Sartean existentialist may have derived from such categories as “authenticity” and “the examined life” were already superseded for the generation of the late 1960s and 70s.

Strategic Principles of Arms Control

  1. Arms racing is the suboptimal outcome of a prisoner’s dilemma (all competitors feel compelled to over purchase security).

  2. The prisoner’s dilemma is created by absence of coordination among competitors with a shared interest (states are better off planning for national security according to real rather than systemic considerations [though I’m not sure that the real/systemic distinction is tenable — at some point the system is the real]).

  3. Arms control is the coordination among strategic competitors that allows an escape from the best-bad outcome reasoning of a prisoner’s dilemma.

“Working Around the Problem”

The IT Mentality:

User: “Help there’s an alligator in my cubical!”
IT: “Do you have to place your bum directly in the alligator’s mouth when you work, or can you work around the alligator?”
User: [reluctantly admits] “Well, the alligator isn’t taking up the entire cubical.”
IT: “Okay, well, I’m going to close this help ticket for now. If the alligator takes a limb, you can always reopen it.”

Not the Virtuous Alone

Former Congressman Charlie Wilson died last week (Martin, Douglas, “Charlie Wilson, Texas Congressman Linked to Foreign Intrigue, Dies at 76,” The New York Times, 11 February 2010, p. B19). Rep. Wilson came to national attention through George Crile’s 2003 book, Charlie Wilson’s War and later the film of the same name. Mr. Crile’s book is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s full of stories that illustrate the hurly-burley of how international politics and foreign policy making really happens. But more to the point, it’s one of those “truth is stranger than fiction”-type stories.

My favorite story from the book is Rep. Wilson’s response to a reporter, incredulous at Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s appointment of Rep. Wilson to the House Ethics Committee. Rep. Wilson had already developed a considerable reputation in Washington for boozing and womanizing when he rolled from a minor scandal involving a weekend of jacuzzi hopping at Caesar’s Palace involving copious amounts of cocaine and a number of showgirls into his Congressional Ethics responsibilities. Mr. Crile reports thus:

From today’s perspective, the image of this philandering hedonist climbing out of his Las Vegas hot tub to render judgments on the conduct of his colleagues seems almost perverse. Even without knowing about the Fantasy Suite, a genuinely puzzled reporter had asked Wilson why he, of all people, had been selected for this sober assignment. Without missing a beat, Wilson had cheerfully replied, “It’s because I’m the only one of the committee who likes women and whiskey, and we need to be represented.” (p. 81)

In general it would seem that people’s personal moral conduct and public policy advocacy are inversely related. It would be good if more of us types demanded our representation.

Tyler Durden’s House (cont.)

the hole | the offending pipe | the dirt | the tool

At some point or other in my life my living circumstances are going to reverse course and begin to tack back towards normal, but for now I’m only headed further into Tyler Durden territory (“Tyler Durden’s House,” 15 April 2007). In addition to the failings of most of the other accoutrements of modern living in this domicile, for some time now we have been noticing that the water bill has been climbing. After taking some reasonable steps to reduce water consumption, our water bill spiked to such a level where I’m surprised that DEA agents haven’t kicked in the front door, thinking they were onto our secret hydroponics lab. Last month eight people niagarously tore through 81,532 gallons of water. Next month’s bill will top $1,000. You’d think we were smelting aluminum in here or something.

So two weeks ago we had a plumber out to the house, and after a quick tour of all the places in the house where water might leak, he did the obvious thing: he turned the water off at the house main valve and then checked the meter again. Despite not a drop entering the house, the meter continued to spin like wild. “You’ve got a break between the street and the house.” He confidently reported.

Like most Southern houses, ours sits about ten feet above street level: there is a three or four foot high retaining wall at the sidewalk then a sloping garden up to the house. There is a half-flight of stairs up to a landing, then another half-flight up to the top of the garden level, then another half-flight up to the porch and a half-flight down to the basement. The main water line comes up into the basement unit (where S. and I live) behind an unheated front mud-room. And the piping is three feet below the street level. A traditional excavation was going to require moving a lot of dirt and jack-hammering out a lot of concrete. Fortunately there’s what’s called a directional bore, where they dig a pit at both ends of the pipe and bring in a machine that drills a horizontal hole connecting the two pits. The only disturbance to the surfaces is the two pits.

But the pipe comes up into the house in our basement flat, which means that one of the pits was going to be dug in our living space. But the work would only take two days we were told. The first day they would jack-hammer the concrete and dig the pits. The second day they would perform the bore and replace the pipe. The water would only be off for a few hours when they were actually performing the connections to the city meter and the house plumbing. Oh, contractors and what they tell you.

Despite the fact that by the beginning of this week everyone was aware that there was a big snow storm bearing down on D.C., John C. Flood (yep, that’s the name of the plumbing company) decided to dig on Thursday and replace the pipe in Friday, racing against the pending snow. Somehow I didn’t see a problem with a plumber scheduling a two day job the day before a major regional storm was set to hit. Of course, on Thursday two classical change conditions were revealed once excavation started. First, John C. Flood determined that they couldn’t proceed with the directional bore on Friday owing to proximity of gas and electrical lines. But that wouldn’t be a problem since not having disturbed any of the existing facilities, our water service would remain undisturbed. Except that second, upon digging a pit, it turned out that the break was close enough to the meter that water rushed through the porous substrate like a garden hose, filling the pit. So the water would have to be turned off at the meter.

And then two feet of snow fell over Friday night. I presume the equipment for performing a directional bore either is a large truck, or is mounted on some sort of trailer that is towed to the work site by a large truck. The streets throughout the neighborhood are all covered in about a foot of hard-packed snow-ice. I imagine that it will be at least mid-week before the city gets around to plowing this sector (Mt. Pleasant is a rather secluded part of town). A friend had an eight story tall tree in front of his building fall across the street and crush two cars and the city is telling him that it will be five days before they can get there with the equipment to handle it.

I already haven’t had a shower since Thursday. I don’t know what I’m going to do about work on Monday. I imagine the water is just going to be off until at least Wednesday or Thursday. But there’s talk of more snow midweek, so I have no idea when we’re going to have water service restored. Plus there’s a giant stinking wet pit in the entryway to my flat as well as a pile of the brick dust that came out of the pit. Maybe I should fill the bottom of the pit with a bunch of sharpened wooden stakes and cover it over with a mesh of sticks and some leaf litter — play a round of the most dangerous game.

We’ve filled the bathtub with water, so we’re not entirely without, but it’s amazing how being denied an unlimited supply of a resources changes your perceptions. Usually when preparing a meal I would select a number of specialized tools throughout the process. A pairing knife for some fine work, a large knife for gross reduction, a number of bowls for setting aside the prep work and ground spices, a large spoon for stirring, a small one for shoveling spice or tasting. Now that I am looking at the prospect of panning water from the bathroom tub to the kitchen sink, then boiling a portion on the stove to make it warm enough for dish washing, I suddenly find the inadequate rough chopping job of the pairing knife perfectly acceptable and place a premium on what are referred to in the literature as “one pot recipes.” I would usually wash my hands maybe ten times throughout the preparation of a meal. Since hand washing now entails a trip to the bathroom to ladle water, first over one hand, then over the other, I just have to content myself with my hands and utensils being dirty until the end. It’s like living on Arrakis. I’ve become so paranoid about every drop of water wastage that maybe I should don a Fremen stillsuit.

Anyway, it’s all just par for the course around here. The electricity is already a tangle of improvisation and work-around. Why not rip out the linoleum and concrete in favor of hardpan? Suspicious of the antiquated municipal plumbing we’ve already been having the potable water delivered, why not start carrying in the non-potable water too?

Liberal Astonishment

Between the comments of Senators Webb and Bayh and Representative Frank, the left-wing partisans are shocked right now at how quickly the Democrats are leaping over one another to lie down and play dead.

Josh Marshall calls Representative Frank’s statement the,

embodiment of fecklessness, resignation, defeatism and just plan folly.

And concludes, “Amazing. Just amazing.” Kevin Drum tweets,

WTF? Has Barney Frank gone nuts? http://bit.ly/6554vK Was it really so pressing to say this? Do Dems *enjoy* rolling over and playing dead?

Even indefatigable partisan Ezra Klein is going Leninist on this, writing,

a Democratic Party that would abandon their central initiative this quickly isn’t a Democratic Party that deserves to hold power.

For my part I list Leninist: it would be worth losing some seats, both in the hope of reacquiring it with someone more reliable down the road (I wouldn’t mind seeing Harry Reid go one iota), but also to instill some fear in those that remain. And also with regard to healthcare: we won’t get the right reform so long as it remains the widespread belief among Americans that U.S. healthcare is the best in the world. Another decade of continued crumbling of the current system are apparently required.

The Fourth Generation Warfare Reason to Ditch the “War on Terrorism” Analogy

Gulliver and the Lilliputians

After the underwear bomber incident, all together too many people are talking about how Yemen is now the central front of the war on terrorism and preemptive action is necessary and if Yemen’s dysfunctional government can’t do what needs to be done then the U.S. should step in and do it for them (as usual, Senator Lieberman can be counted on as the go-to guy for idiotic pronouncements here). To me the events of recent days really show what’s wrong with the U.S. reaction being dominated by the notion of a “war on terrorism,” and the superiority of the strategy of treating terrorism as an issue of law enforcement as enunciated by, among others, John Kerry throughout 2004.

What we’re facing is the classic squeezing a balloon problem: the United States can deploy 112,000 solders to Iraq and another 98,000 to Afghanistan, and thousands more throughout Central and Southeast Asia and in the Pacific Islands and the terrorists just pick up their laptops, sell their Range Rovers and relocate their operation to the Horn of Africa, or the outer reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile the U.S. is stuck for the next decade in whatever country owing to the weight of tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tones of heavy metal.

We are engaged in a fourth generation-type struggle with an opponent employing the classical tactics of asymmetric warfare. The object for the opponent on the presumptively disadvantaged side of the asymmetry is to adopt a strategy whereby the seeming advantages of the preponderant power are transformed into weaknesses. The war on terrorism is a contest of strategic dexterity and in this case the very weight, size and overwhelming capability of the U.S. military has become its greatest liability.

The game that has been played by al Qaeda et al. is that of miring the U.S. in regions of declining strategic importance. Terrorists are Lilliputians and the U.S. Gulliver. Only in this story Gulliver ties himself down. The Lilliputians only have to indicate where he should sink the stakes and he applies the lashes to himself.

While I am deeply skeptical of black ops, secret programs, plausible deniability, assassination, et cetera, I generally agree with the idea that the only time counter-terrorist actions should make the news is when something has gone wrong. The Predator drone and special forces operations that are being conducted along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border seems correct in conception, if still problematic in execution, to me. And of course this level of militarization is still awfully high. The FBI is the U.S. government agency with the largest presence abroad after the Pentagon and the State Department. Treasury is quickly following suite. Counter-terrorism should only become subject to special forces means under extreme circumstances. The rest of the time it should be dealt with by the various legal investigative agencies.

Whatever the case, our reaction to terrorism needs to be in kind: nimble, dynamic, human not territory oriented, multifaceted.

A strategic studies acquaintance commented the other day that he can’t wait for the reigning generation of the foreign policy establishment to retire, because they are a bunch of Cold War relics, mired in the mindset of a bygone era. The idea of stateless actors is beyond their comprehension. In this regard one of the most seminal moments in the U.S. reaction to mass-casualty terrorism was Paul Wolfowitz’s 13 September 2001 press conference, where he said the following (DoD News Briefing, The Pentagon, Arlington, VA):

I think one has to say it’s not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. And that’s why it has to be a broad and sustained campaign. It’s not going to stop if a few criminals are taken care of.

I believe that in some ultimate sense Paul Wolfowitz has been right about Islamic extremism: that it is not our war, that we cannot fight it, that it is not a war that can be won in the realm of strictly materialist forces, but that it is a struggle of ideology, that it can only be settled among those most immediately concerned, that the most the U.S. can do is indirectly effect this outcome through the opening of a space where moderate, modernist, liberal Islam can flourish. This was Secretary Wolfowitz’s idea for Iraq: that it would become the Islamic “city on the hill.” That he could simultaneously have been so wrong makes Paul Wolfowitz one of the tragic figures of the post-11 September period.

But this idea, that states and territory are what is important, this was the commanding idea of the early Bush administration. But the strategy of militarily occupying every square mile of lawless territory on the Earth and engaging in nation building in every failed state is beyond our capability. It is how the strength of a great power will be sapped.

To Understand Everything without Moving

For physicists to complete the entire task of physics without ever having set out from Earth to explore the universe — and the ratio of comprehension to capability here isn’t even close — would be like the old ideal of the rationalist philosopher who might deduce the entire system of the world from a sturdy chair in his study, or like Emily Dickinson who might feel a whole life through her Amherst window.  On the other hand, should it be possible, it will be a minor demonstration of the homogeny of the universe: it will have turned out that any given place was as good as any other for the task of comprehending the entirety of the thing.