Micro-Institutions Everywhere: The Meals We Eat

Photo credit: Jer Thorpe

Across the country yesterday, Americans engaged in a massive coordination game. Most people in the US took the opportunity to spend time with friends and family during the one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Expectations about the meal varied from the tried and true (Turkey, pumpkin pie) to the exotic, but most Thanksgiving dinners were high calorie affairs in the late afternoon or evening. This break from the usual three meals a day pattern offers a chance to ask: how long has the breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule been the norm?

Not that long, as it turns out. Eating patterns in history have often been shaped by three factors: politics, economics and religion. Take breakfast, for example. Food historian Caroline Yeldham reports it was not always seen as the most important meal of the day:

“The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day,” she says. “They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.”

Certain religions are known for dictating what you can and cannot eat, but they also influence the time of day that meals are consumed:

In the Middle Ages monastic life largely shaped when people ate, says food historian Ivan Day. Nothing could be eaten before morning Mass and meat could only be eaten for half the days of the year. It’s thought the word breakfast entered the English language during this time and literally meant “break the night’s fast”.

Religious ritual also gave us the full English breakfast. On Collop Monday, the day before Shrove Tuesday, people had to use up meat before the start of Lent. Much of that meat was pork and bacon as pigs were kept by many people. The meat was often eaten with eggs, which also had to be used up, and the precursor of the full English breakfast was born.

Economically speaking, eating patterns often “trickle down” from the wealthy to the poorer classes:

In about the 17th Century it is believed that all social classes started eating breakfast, according to chef Clarissa Dickson Wright. After the restoration of Charles II, coffee, tea and dishes like scrambled eggs started to appear on the tables of the wealthy. By the late 1740s, breakfast rooms also started appearing in the homes of the rich.

Industrialization also shaped the way we think of midday eating:

Middle and lower class eating patterns were defined by working hours. Many were working long hours in factories and to sustain them a noon-time meal was essential….

The ritual of taking lunch became ingrained in the daily routine. In the 19th Century chop houses opened in cities and office workers were given one hour for lunch. But as war broke out in 1939 and rationing took hold, the lunch was forced to evolve. Work-based canteens became the most economical way to feed the masses. It was this model that was adopted by schools after the war.

The last meal of the day, dinner, has a longer pedigree but has been powerfully influenced by two more recent innovations: electric lighting (which made it possible to eat later) and television (which popularized cooking shows). There is more at the BBC, from which the quotes above are taken.

Patterns of daily life that we take for granted are often shaped by much larger factors–more evidence for a politics of everyday life.

Religious Texts as Political Documents

Happy Rosh Hashanah. A couple of posts back, I suggested that professor Shalom Goldman’s interpretation of the Torah in a political sense “is more reflective of the modern flexibility in interpreting Jewish and Christian testaments that does not yet extend–for various and sundry reasons–to the Quran.” Yesterday, Jill Jacobs had a post making her own argument that “The Torah is political, rabbis can be too.”

The Torah is political because it lays out a vision for a just civil society. It is political because it forms the basis for a social contract. It is political because it concerns itself with relations among human beings as much as with relations between human beings and God. It is political because a liberation struggle stands at its core. It is political because it demands that those with more wealth take responsibility for those with less. It is political because it forbids those with more power from taking advantage of those with less. And it is political because it is a document meant to be lived….

Rabbis must bring the thousands of years of accumulated Jewish wisdom to bear on these issues. This is what it means to be a religious leader. A religious leader does not stick to “safe” topics like Jewish unity and ritual practice (though these have their place, too). A religious leader takes ethical stands on the hard issues of the moment — and does so with integrity, with a strong basis in his or her religious tradition, and out of love and a passion for creating a more just world.

I certainly will not deny that there are political accounts and political principles in the Torah, the Old Testament more generally, or even the New Testament. Moses wasn’t just codifying a religion, he was creating the laws for a new nation. Solomon’s proverbs of wisdom often suggested how a king ought to behave. Even Paul had advice about how believers were to regard the ruler and the legal system.

But the fact that these texts make political points does not mean that there is only one political position justifiable under their terms (and Jacobs certainly acknowledges this). Furthermore, while Jacobs is arguing that religious people ought to be able to explain their views to one another in terms of their religious sacred texts, this will not hold in a pluralistic society. If I make the argument that, say, traffic lights are bad and give my reason as “because the Bible tells me so,” this: a) gives you almost no information about what the Bible actually says; b) does not connect the Biblical text to my own view in a coherent way; c) does not explain why others who hold the Bible in the same esteem as myself do not feel the same way with regard to traffic lights; d) does not persuade those with different views of the Bible to advocate my traffic light position. In sum, at best it can persuade those who already agree with me about the Bible to agree with me about traffic lights. This is an important element of rhetoric–connecting with the audience in some way to get them to agree with you on something else.* However, do we really want religious leaders trying to get their parishioners to agree with them politically?

Evidence suggests that the answer is no:

In 1991, about 30 percent of Americans strongly agreed that religious leaders should avoid political involvement; by 2008, 44 percent felt that way.

Rosh Hashanah, or any religious holiday, should be time for unity in a community (sorry for the nursery rhyme), not for advocating political division.


* I leave aside here the argument from Rawlsian liberalism in a pluralistic society, which recommends that we find ways to justify our political views in terms of “public reason” without referring to “comprehensive doctrines,” aka, religions.


Institutions and Behavior

The Duke Political Science Department is not organized around the traditional disciplinary subfields of comparative, international relations, and American. While we do retain political theory, political economy, and political methodology, the three research areas above are re-arranged (with varying levels of correspondence) into security, peace, and conflict studies; political institutions; and political behavior. This has been a positive transformation both for the department and for myself as a new student, but I have had the lingering question, “isn’t it all about behavior?” (And I don’t mean this as a subfield chauvinist–my first field is SPC and the second is methods–but it may reflect my guidance by professors at my previous university.)

Last night in class with Guillermo Trejo we came one step closer to solving this conundrum. We put forth the tentative definition of an institution as “an actor who codifies constraints upon his/her/its own behavior.” This could apply to a state’s constitution, a subnational group’s manifesto, or the UN charter. It may need further refinement to avoid overgeneralization, but for now it seems helpful.

Today I came across this example, which helps point to the role of narrative, theology, and hermeneutics in defining religious institutions:

Goldman grew up in New York City as an orthodox Jew for whom religion was a central focal point of everyday life. He saw religion as a communal force and a public issue, and he has spent a career following those principles.

He teaches through tales. In his courses, he uses the great stories of the Bible and the Quran to illustrate the ways and beliefs of Christians, Jews and Muslims. His master’s thesis compared the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as it appears in the Quran and the Hebrew Bible.

(The Hebrew version is more about power and international relations, Goldman reports. The Quran presents a more strictly religious version of events.)

A religion’s stories — like Moses, and the Garden of Eden — are good teaching tools because they’re well-told and compelling, and thus, broadly influential, Goldman says.

“These texts govern behavior for many people,” he says. “So the way these stories are told influences behavior.

I will leave it to readers to reflect upon and argue for or against any of the points I’m making here (either the definition of an institution as self-restrained behavior, or the role of religious rhetoric in defining its own institutions). It does seem to me, however, that Goldman’s interpretation of the Hebrew account of Solomon and Sheba as political and the Quranic account as religious is more reflective of the modern flexibility in interpreting Jewish and Christian testaments that does not yet extend–for various and sundry reasons–to the Quran. For more on this point, see the poorly-titled writings of Ibn Warraq.

People Have Never Liked Religious Leaders, etc.

Yet another example of an overblown headline based on a relatively anodyne academic study:

Americans have significantly less confidence in their religious leaders than they did a generation ago and more than two-thirds would prefer they not dabble in politics, according to a new book by a Duke University professor.

Chaves’ research found that between 1973 and 2008, the percentage of people with great confidence in religious leaders declined from 35 percent to less than 25 percent….

There is a declining, though still very high, belief in God. In the 1950s, 99 percent of Americans said they believed in God; in 2008, about 92 percent did.

First, this drop isn’t that large, and could be as little as half the size reported given the confidence intervals. Second, it really isn’t surprising. What if they had phrased it this way: “After thirty-five years of constant reports about clerical child abuse, mega-church pastors with mistresses, and reverends with gambling addictions, slightly fewer Americans have high confidence in men that they half-listen to for a few hours a month.” Essentially what the article says is, “Americans have never had a particularly lofty view of religious leaders, but lo and behold, there are some fluctuations in that level over time.” 

I’m not trying to be too hard on Chaves here–Lord knows academics have heavy incentives to make their findings seem more shocking than they really are. Rather, it is the media’s insistence that research must be presented in this way in order to garner attention from the public. This leads to a couple of things that I view as negative. First, the public over time begins to have unrealistic expectations of science, that it should always be novel or exciting and clearly tied to a “useful purpose.” Great discoveries have often been so only in retrospect, whereas most day-to-day science is more like puzzle solving.

The second reason that media portrayals like this hurt science is that researchers are tempted to pursue projects that will lead to such supposedly shocking headlines, rather than work out important puzzles that remain in influential theories. This in turn can lead to temptations to falsify or “adjust data” to make sure that the surprising claim is supported, which are then discovered, which then lowers the publics view of science, which makes us want to surprise them with interesting findings, and so on…

Not to despair too much, though. Chaves actually does have a couple of interesting findings:

— Fewer Americans today approve of their religious leaders getting involved in politics. In 1991, about 30 percent of Americans strongly agreed that religious leaders should avoid political involvement; by 2008, 44 percent felt that way.

— Religion and politics are more closely intertwined than a generation ago.

“Several decades ago there was not a strong correlation between how religiously active you were and whether you voted Republican or Democrat,” Chaves says. “Now, there is. If you’re religiously active, you’re now more likely to vote Republican. That’s a very important development and is part of what leads people to talk about increasing polarization in American society.”

See? Not overblown, just simple statements that correspond to facts. I’d be interested in seeing more details on the second point, but not if it’s couched in language that’s meant to get my blood pressure up.

Persecution and Demographic Size

More from Pew:

Adherents of the world’s two largest religious groups, Christians and Muslims, who together comprise more than half of the global population, were harassed in the largest number of countries. Over the three-year period studied, incidents of either government or social harassment were reported against Christians in 130 countries (66%) and against Muslims in 117 countries (59%). Buddhists and Hindus – who together account for roughly one-fifth of the world’s population and who are more geographically concentrated than Christians or Muslims – faced harassment in fewer places; harassment was reported against Buddhists in 16 countries (8%) and against Hindus in 27 countries (14%).

In proportion to their numbers, some smaller religious groups faced especially widespread harassment. Although Jews comprise less than 1% of the world’s population, government or social harassment of Jews was reported in 75 countries (38%). Incidents of harassment involving members of other world religions – including Sikhs, ancient faiths such as Zoroastrianism, newer faith groups such as Baha’is and Rastafarians, and localized groups that practice tribal or folk religions – were reported in 84 countries (42%).

In addition, the study finds that restrictions on religion are particularly common in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical.

Again, this is surprising–why are the largest religious groups most often the victims of persecution? “Because there is more of them” is not a satisfying answer, since perspectives on harassment and prejudice often suggest that it it works only from the majority toward the minority. I suppose that since Christians comprise about a third of the world’s population it is possible that they are a minority in all 130 of the countries where they faced persecution. But if simple minority status makes one subject to persecution, we would expect to observe this with much greater frequency for groups like Jews, Buddhists, or Sikhs.

This deserves further exploration but I’m not sure exactly what direction to go with it at the moment, so please leave comments with your thoughts. One possibility is that tricky little caveat in the fine print that these counts don’t address how severe the persecution was. Other suggestions or observation are welcome.

What are they afraid of?

From the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

Conflict between religious groups, by contrast, does not loom as a particularly large concern for most of the evangelical leaders surveyed. A majority says that conflict between religious groups is either a small problem (41%) or not a problem at all (14%) in their countries – though a sizeable minority considers it either a moderately big problem (27%) or a very big problem (17%). Those who live in the Middle East and North Africa are especially inclined to see inter-religious conflict as a moderately big (37%) or very big problem (35%). Nine-in-ten evangelical leaders (90%) who live in Muslim-majority countries say the influence of Islam is a major threat, compared with 41% of leaders who live elsewhere.

On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But of those who express an opinion, solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall. 

Step back and think about what’s going on here for a second. How can 90% of respondents in Muslim-majority countries view Islam as a major threat, yet less than two-thirds of them have unfavorable views of Muslims? (So much less than two-thirds, in fact, that it brings down the average. I’ll get more details on this eventually.)

A couple of possible explanations come to mind. The first is simply that people are inconsistent, which is not unusual with polling data. Another possibility is what we might think of as a corollary to the old “my best friend is black” trope. In that expression–which I think was made popular by Chris Rock, but can’t find video confirmation at the moment–white people excuse themselves from charges of racism by claiming a close relationship with a black person. What the Pew data shows is the opposite of this: evangelical leaders are claiming that Islam is a threat, despite the fact that they have favorable views of Muslims, which I take to include at least a few friendships.

This may be because, when asked if they view Islam as a threat, their first thought was of organizations like al-Qaeda or the authoritarian governments they live under, rather than the Muslims they see at the marketplace or across the dinner table. I’m not here to point fingers and say that they should be above this kind of issue salience. Rather, it shows just how difficult it will be to get most Americans who don’t have friendly everyday encounters with Muslims to change their minds about the threat they present. Which means that we have a long and difficult road ahead, simply because we are leaving blinders on.

Of Gods and Men

Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah. (Des Hommes et de Dieux, 2010)

This is probably the best film I’ve seen since The King’s Speech and perhaps longer. It tells the story of eight (later nine) Trappist monks who choose to stay in Algeria despite the encroachment of the civil war on the community where they live peaceably with Muslim villagers. Having read some of Thomas Merton’s writings this summer (himself a Trappist born in France but raised in the US) made it particularly interesting. Highly recommended. More here.


Thinking Like a Scientist

One question has stuck with me recently when thinking about ideas of all sorts: How would you know if you were wrong? (I think Karl Smith posted it a while back–not to me–but I can’t find where now.) This question gets at the core of what it means to “do” science. You can’t have scientific debate with non-falsifiable claims. A falsifiable claim is one that could, in theory or reality, be untrue. A claim that is falsifiable can be tested, either in theory or in practice. Claims like “If the South had won the Civil War then WWI would not have happened.” are testable only in theory, with what we call “counterfactuals,” or thought experiments. The claim that “if you jump off that building you will die” is testable in practice, but messy. Andrew Gelman has four points about thinking like a scientist that get at this principle (and a few others):

  1. What’s your evidence?
  2. How does this fit in with what else you know?
  3. What have you found beyond what people thought before?
  4. How did all those smart people who came before get things wrong?

This comes to mind because of the research I’m doing on Mexican drug violence. Several times I’ve run into politicians or law enforcement officials saying that the increase in violence shows that they are succeeding. Now on one hand this makes sense–if the organizations feel threatened or are turning on each other, sure, violence would go up. On the other hand, though, this is a non-falsifiable claim. I want to ask them, “how would you know if you were wrong? Are you saying that if you were failing then violence would be going down?” That seems absurd and none of them would actually own up to that. But making a non-falsifiable argument means you can never be proven wrong, which is great if that’s what you’re into, but that kind of pride comes with lots of costs for our understanding of the world.

The absence (or at least comparative scarcity) of non-falsifiable claims in religion is why it often butts heads with science. Or at least they seem to butt heads, when really they’re probably talking past each other. The ultimate claim of religion, at least as far as I can tell, is for the existence of God. Now this claim may take on particular forms in certain religions that lead to testability (say, whether Jesus actually walked the earth) but on its own the question cannot be answered in this life. You have people who live as if there were no God and others who live as if there is one. The test comes after this life is over.