Losing Faith

One of the biggest cultural megatrends happening in America today also happens to be the least-reported: American Christianity is collapsing.

While 61% of the white population 65 and older identifies as mainline Protestant or Catholic (and 26% of those as “evangelical”), only 22% of those 18-29 do. There is a steady and sustained shift towards identification as “Nones” – respondents who report no affinity for a given faith, or indeed, any faith at all.

This tracks with a lot of prior research that demonstrates that younger Americans are increasingly turning away from traditionally organized religion. And while many of these people do report being “spiritual” in less traditional ways (professing belief in an abstract higher power and/or praying daily, for example), more than a third do not. In fact, there’s research that suggests that as many as 10-20% of Americans are actually atheists, and simply eschew the term because of stigma.

It’s not axe-grinding to observe that the core of those self-professed Christians who remain are, on the whole, generally more ideological than in the past. Indeed, the term “Christian” itself has taken on a distinct and recognizably political tone in the culture, rather than as primarily a rubric of moral guidance. A perfect example of this is the arc between two generations of leadership in American Christianity: the late reverends Billy Graham (“America’s pastor”) and Jerry Falwell, and their respective sons.

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Cameroon

Note: I’ve written bits and pieces of this post over several weeks. The other day, our President made his “shithole countries” comment, by which he presumably was referring to Cameroon, among others. It saddens and incenses me that our nation is led by such a disgraceful human being.


Back in 2005, I made one of those big choices in my life from which everything else has since flowed: I decided to join the Peace Corps rather than pursue a career in politics (as an operative, not candidate). My old boss, Lt. Governor Tim Kaine, was running for Governor of Virginia, but I’d had enough of the political grind and wanted to plunge into international development instead. I was accepted into the Peace Corps and sent to the Central African nation of Cameroon as a Health and Water Sanitation volunteer.

I think about Cameroon often. Last fall was the ten-year anniversary of my return to the States, and I wrote a little about it then, but I wanted to talk a bit more about the Peace Corps in particular, and how it’s changed my perspective.

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Heuristics

Short one today. This is just about some tools I use for thinking.

The world is a complicated place and constantly presents us with problems that often contain many more layers of complexity than appear on the surface. This has been the human condition since we crawled out of the trees and stuck our heads above the grass on the Serengeti. Yet in the modern age, our lives – our communication, identities and especially livelihoods – are increasingly based on abstract constructions, rather than tangibles. We live in an age of symbols, and symbol manipulation, that require forms of abstract reasoning to really understand competently.

The problem? Abstract reasoning is hard, and it’s not really taught at all. The closest I ever got to it in my schooling was in philosophy classes (which, although ultimately valuable, were also mind-numbingly boring) and, more practically, on the college debate circuit, where it’s weaponized for advantage. Around that time, I realized that I tended to fall back on a list of certain heuristics – basic frameworks for conceptualizing an issue or problem – to understand and communicate about the facts around me. These heuristics aren’t always suited to every situation, but they tend to reveal much more truth than they conceal.

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What people really want

The controversy-du-jour roiling tech this week has been, if you can believe it, how extremely wealthy Silicon Valley tech investors (virtually all white men) feel oppressed. Lots of these guys have been complaining of “censorship” of late, evidently not knowing or caring why that term doesn’t really apply to their situation; but then Sam Altman unburdened himself of his own hurt feelings in a cringe-worthy post in which he explained, evidently without irony, how much freer he felt in the less “restricted” environment of… Beijing.

I don’t mean to dunk on Altman, or the other (wealthy, white) dudes in tech who I’ve heard complain about not being “free” to say whatever they want without consequence. I would only refer them to xkcd, which has, per usual, the most succinct clarification of this issue around, as well as Anil Dash’s excellent rebuttal.

Rather, it’s more interesting to examine the growing popular ennui with the tech-utopian-visionary schtick that I, too, have noticed. It does seem that people are less in thrall to the “crazy, audacious dreaming” thing of late, and are increasingly likely – in the tech press, twitter and elsewhere – to encounter it with frustrated exasperation. I’ve begun doing this more, too.

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How highly productive companies and nations are alike

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the origins of productivity. Specifically, how many of the factors that contribute to it are similar between nations and companies.

The big governance factors behind national productivity are pretty well-understood: the rule of law, contract enforcement, private & intellectual property, investment in human capital, political stability. Big-D Democracy is not necessarily on that list (though hugely important for other reasons), but there are certain cultural factors that are often related as well: social trust, egalitarianism, the free flow of information, and openness to new ideas. More generally, there is a sense that as an individual, it’s in my interest to “follow the rules,” because that’s how I will get ahead.

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When lies aren’t lies

Note: this was originally a digression in my last post, Relevancy and Truth, but I decided it worked better as a standalone piece.


When someone asks your opinion about a topic, do you always answer with completely unvarnished honesty? Do you always give the answer you know or believe to be true?

The answer is no, of course you don’t. We all filter our self-expression through the lenses of what we believe others expect from us and how we think our responses will be received. This distorting effect is widely understood, from research psychology and behavioral economics to opinion polling. In short, people routinely voice opinions they know to be either false, or at least uncertain.

This is not exactly “lying.” It’s not deception; if anything, it’s more like self-deception. It gets to the core of how humans think and present themselves, and I think it’s more important than ever in understanding the mass psychology of the social web.

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Relevancy and Truth

One of the more non-consensus views I hold is that the most venerable institutions of journalism – eg. The New York Times and Washington Post – are more likely to exist in something approximating their existing form in 50 or 100 years than are the big eyeball platforms like Google and Facebook. The recent controversy over “fake news” on both platforms demonstrates why.

The big criticism of these platforms today boils down to their respective services being increasingly gamed to deliver inaccurate, misleading or offensive content. For Google’s part, fraudulent information will occasionally appear at the top of search results for certain queries, serving up content on how Donald Trump really won the popular vote, or Holocaust denial, or crystals that cure cancer or something. At Facebook, fake news spreads like kudzu among and between communities primed to click on the agitprop of the day. In short, the two companies that organized the world’s information and social graph are grappling with how to handle a fundamental dilemma between relevancy and truth, which strikes to the heart of the advertising model that underlies their respective empires.

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Smart and Dumb

About ten years ago, I realized something significant: there really are no innately “smart” and “dumb” people. Or, at least, there are so few of them as to make those labels, at a minimum, inadequate. Realizing this had far-reaching implications for how I understood others that I continue to process.

There are at least two major problems with the concept of “smart/dumb” humans. The first is the idea of intelligence itself. Namely, no one can tell you what it means. Is being smart being able to sound glib, deploying just the right bon mots and being charming? Maybe… but a lot of people mask profound ignorance by being glib. Surely a brilliant engineer or poet or quant or essayist could qualify as “smart” too. There’s nothing natural about any of these skills; they’re simply activities that humans have found a way to direct their mental energies into in a way others find interesting and recognizable.

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Social platforms and responsibility

I’ve been mulling some words on free speech on the internet for a while, but a couple of pieces on Tyler Cowen’s blog finally moved me to write them down.

Recently there have been many, many white men on the internet extremely concerned about “censorship,” and a lot of credulous observers giving these absurd complaints the time of day. Most of them have the issue precisely backwards. The internet, and democratic society itself, would benefit from a much stronger sense of responsibility by those who own and control the platforms that matter, and by more aggressively nixing toxic and abusive behavior.

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A year at the shelter

When we moved to NYC last year, I had a hard time adjusting to life in the big city. Soon after we got here, I discovered a homeless shelter that was reasonably easy to get to (right down the 6 off Canal Street), and began volunteering there for a few hours every week. It’s now been a little over a year since I started, and the New York Rescue Mission has become one of the two or three things besides our little apartment and work that I most associate with NYC. It’s a part of my life here now. I want to say a few things about it.

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