True Stories – a book review


True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford

I recently finished True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford – a collection of real gems by a man who can truly write. A selection of essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction works, this book is divided into the thematic sections “Cold,” “Red,” “Sacred,” “Technical,” and “Printed.” The section “Technical,” for example, includes a piece on British engineering, together with a wide-ranging essay on Babbage’s “Difference Engine No. 2,” reconstructed by the Science Museum, London. Babbage never completed this device, of course, and perhaps could not have done so, given the technological limitations of his time. This leads Spufford into a general reflection on counterfactual history, drawing also on the novel The Difference Engine.

The section “Cold” includes several pieces on polar exploration, such as an introduction written for The Worst Journey in the World (a memoir of the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition), and a piece on Ernest Shackleton. I’ve been fascinated by polar exploration since childhood, so I found these particularly interesting.


Grotto in an iceberg, photographed during the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition (image credit)

The section “Red” deals largely with the former Soviet Union. It includes an explanation of Spufford’s fictional documentary book Red Plenty, and the essay “The Soviet Moment,” which is still online at The Guardian: “It was not the revolutionary country people were thinking of, all red flags and fiery speechmaking, pictured through the iconography of Eisenstein movies; not the Stalinesque Soviet Union of mass mobilisation and mass terror and austere totalitarian fervour. This was, all of a sudden, a frowning but managerial kind of a place, a civil and technological kind of a place, all labs and skyscrapers, which was doing the same kind of things as the west but threatened – while the moment lasted – to be doing them better. American colleges worried that they weren’t turning out engineers in the USSR’s amazing numbers. Bouts of anguished soul-searching filled the op-ed pages of European and American newspapers, as columnists asked how a free society could hope to match the steely strategic determination of the prospering, successful Soviet Union. … The loudest and most important lesson of the Soviet experience should always be: don’t ever do this again. Children, don’t try this at home. … Yet we’d better remember to sympathise with the underlying vision that drove this disastrous history, because it is basically our own.

The section “Sacred,” obviously, deals with religion (Spufford is an English Anglican). It includes a critique of Richard Dawkins, a reflection on C. S. Lewis, and a record of travels in Iran. The New Humanist still has online the essay beginning “Allow me to annoy you with the prospect of mutual respect between believers and atheists. … No? No. Because the idea of atheism as an extravagant faith-driven deviation from the null case goes against one of the most cherished elements in the self-image of polemical unbelief: that atheism is somehow scientific, that it is to be adopted as the counterpart in the realm of meaning to the caution and rigour of the scientific method.


Spufford visited the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran (image credit)

Finally, the section “Printed” includes miscellaneous introductions and book reviews, including an introduction to The Jungle Book, a review of the Mars trilogy, and an obituary of Iain M. Banks. This last section reflects Spufford’s wide-ranging interests in technology, exploration, and imagination. For me, at least, it established a connection of sorts with the author: we read the same things; we are brothers.


The last section of True Stories includes a review of the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

See The New York Times and the New York Journal of Books for other reviews of True Stories. I’m giving it four stars overall, although several of the individual essays deserve five. This book was a delight to read.

* * * *
True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford: 4 stars


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Belief in God in the US

In another fascinating example of social statistics, Pew have just released a survey of US beliefs about God. The study included multiple questions about the nature and attributes of God, but my mosaic plot below only looks at the first one. The composition of each column is based on the recent survey, while the width of each column is based on religious composition data from a 2014 study by Pew.

In dark blue, 62% of the US believes in God “as described in the Bible.” A further 30% (in light blue) believes in some other god or higher power (or would not describe their belief in God in more detail). In red, 7% believe in no God at all, and in grey, 1% gave no response.

Columns correspond to denominations: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Historically Black Protestant (HBP), Catholic, Other Christian (OC), Jewish (J), Other Religion (Oth), “Nothing in Particular,” Agnostic (Ag), and Atheist (Ath). Numbers in the “OC” and “Oth” categories were not directly provided by Pew, and were estimated using totals provided (these two columns should therefore be taken with a grain of salt).

Among Christians, 92% of Historically Black Protestants and 91% of Evangelical Protestants believe in God “as described in the Bible,” but only 72% of Mainline Protestants and 69% of Catholics do. What’s more, 1% of Mainline Protestants, 2% of Catholics, and 10% of Jews say that they believe in no God at all (i.e. they adhere to their religion only culturally, and are actually atheists).

On the other hand, 90% of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” believe in some kind of God or higher power. So do 67% of agnostics and 18% of atheists (clearly, many who claim to be “nothing in particular” are in fact Christians of some form, and many who claim to be atheists are in fact not).

Part of the explanation for this presumably lies in the fact that religion is in flux for many people in the US. Christians switch between the four main groups, some Christians lose their faith, while other people gain faith in Christianity or in another religion. Religious reality is more complex than a handful of numbers might suggest.


Religious knowledge in the United States


Part of the US religious landscape. Clockwise from top left: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Other Christian, Other

Readers of this blog know that I really love social statistics, and among the masters of that field are the people at Pew Forum. Back in 2010, they ran an interesting survey of religious knowledge. A simple 15-question version of the survey can be found online [if you want to try it, do so now, since this post has spoilers]. A total of 3,412 adults were interviewed (in English and Spanish). The focus of the survey was on the religious knowledge of different religious groups in the United States:

I was a little frustrated with the survey, since it mixed religion, history, and politics, with questions at quite different levels – ranging from “Where was Jesus born?” (multiple choice: Bethlehem, Jericho, Jerusalem, or Nazareth) to “What religion was Maimonides?” There was, however, an interesting subset of five easy questions about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), which Christians and Jews have in common, and I decided to do my own analysis of these questions:

  1. What is the first book of the Bible? (Genesis/Bereishit)
  2. Which of the following is NOT one of the Ten Commandments? (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you)
  3. Which Bible figure is most closely associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering? (Job)
  4. Which Bible figure is most closely associated with leading the exodus from Egypt? (Moses)
  5. Which Bible figure is most closely associated with willingness to sacrifice his son for God? (Abraham)

Since these questions are closely related and of similar difficulty, it makes sense to add them together. Notice also that Pew’s interviewers were instructed to accept both English and Hebrew answers to (a). The last four questions were multiple-choice, with “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not steal,” and “Keep the Sabbath holy” the other options for (b), and with Job, Elijah, Moses, and Abraham the options for (c) to (e). I would expect a bright child in Sunday School to get 5 out of 5 on these questions, and just guessing should average around 1 out of 5.


Which Bible figure is most closely associated with leading the exodus from Egypt?

Answers to these questions in fact depended quite substantially on education level, and this complicates analysis, because average education level in the US itself varies between religious groups. I coded education numerically as follows:

  • Level 0: No High School (grades 1 to 8)
  • Level 1: Partial High School (grades 9 to 11)
  • Level 2: High School graduate
  • Level 3: High School Plus: technical, trade, vocational, or college education after High School, but less than a 4-year college degree
  • Level 4: College (university) graduate with 4-year degree
  • Level 5: Post-graduate training

The chart below shows the 11 religious groups I looked at, and their average (mean) education level. Note that Jews are the best-educated (presumably for cultural reasons), followed by Atheists/Agnostics (possibly because many people in the US become Atheists/Agnostics while at university). The lowest average education levels were for Other Protestants (which includes Black Protestants) and for Hispanic Catholics. Each coloured bar has an “error range,” which is the 95% confidence interval (calculated using bootstrapping). Religious groups with overlapping error ranges can’t really be distinguished statistically:

I “chunked” these education levels into two groups: less-educated (0 to 2, everything up to a High School diploma) and more-educated (3 to 5, everything beyond a High School diploma, be it trade school or a PhD). The chart below shows the average number of correct answers for the five questions, by religious group / education group combination. Each religious group has two coloured bars, the first (marked with +) being for the more-educated subgroup, and the second for the less-educated subgroup:

The more-educated group gets more questions right (on average, 3.4 compared to 2.3), and within both education groups, there is a similar ordering of religious groups:

  • Mormons do best (4.5 or 3.4 questions right, depending on education subgroup).
  • White Evangelical Protestants come next (4.0 or 3.1). Both Mormons and Evangelicals put great weight on Bible study, so this makes sense.
  • Then comes a group of three with similar results: Jews, Other Protestants (including Black Protestants), and Atheists/Agnostics. Orthodox Jews put great weight on studying the Torah, but many Jews in the US are in fact fairly secular. More interesting is the high score for Atheists and Agnostics – they do seem to have some knowledge of the beliefs they are rejecting (Atheists and Agnostics also scored highest on the complete survey).
  • Then comes a group of five: Other Christians, Unknown/Other, White (non-Hispanic) Catholics, White Mainline Protestants, and Unaffiliated (“nothing in particular”). Notice that White Mainline Protestants (ABCUSA, UMC, ELCA, PCUSA, UCC, RCA, Episcopal, etc.) get about one question less right (3.1 or 2.1) than their Evangelical counterparts, reflecting less of an emphasis on the Bible in mainline denominations.
  • The lowest scores were for Hispanic Catholics (2.7 or 1.5 questions right, depending on education subgroup). Given that guessing gives an average score of 1, this suggests that many Hispanic Catholics in the US have a rather tenuous link to their faith (many of them appear to strengthen this connection by becoming Protestants).

Thus if the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is a religious meeting place, it is a meeting place between Mormons, Evangelical Protestants, Jews, and (ironically) Atheists and Agnostics.

It is also interesting to see what happens when we add two simple questions about the New Testament – “Where was Jesus born?” and “Tell me the names of the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible, that is the Four Gospels?” Not surprisingly, Jews now do worse, since the New Testament applies specifically to Christianity. Atheists and Agnostics also do a little worse – apparently they know a little less about the New Testament than about the Old. In spite of the interviews being conducted in English and Spanish, Hispanic Catholics continued to do poorly, with less-educated Jews and Hispanic Catholics providing the wrong answer to “Where was Jesus born?” more than half the time.


Religion in the Australian Census

Following up on my earlier post, here is a chart of religion in Australia, by age (as per the 2016 Census, with percentages on the vertical axis relating to the population of Australia as a whole, and excluding people with no religion specified). Coloured areas in this chart indicate the total number of people for each religious group:

The changing religious landscape is revealed by the variation with age. For people aged 65, the population is 25% Catholic, 24% secular, 22% Anglican, 16% other Christian, 7% Uniting Church, 2% Buddhist, 1% other religion, 1% Muslim, and 1% Hindu.

For people aged 25, it’s 47% secular, 21% Catholic, 11% other Christian, 8% Anglican, 4% Muslim, 3% Hindu, 3% Buddhist, 2% Uniting Church, and 2% other religion. The chart below shows these relative percentages, for each age cohort.

Immigration and children are keeping the Catholic Church stable in size, but the Uniting Church is in collapse, and the Anglican Church is not doing much better (other data suggests that it’s in collapse outside of Sydney). The “big three” non-Christian religions (Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) are more than 10% of the age-25 demographic. The chart also shows the impact of student-driven Indian immigration to Australia over the past decade or so – there is a visible peak for Hinduism around age 33.

There seems to be something odd about the religion given for young children up to age 13 or so – some parents (especially Catholics) seem to be listing young children as “no religion.” This might reflect delayed baptism. However, it also seems that many children lose their childhood religion in late teens and early adulthood.

Mean ages for adults within the different groups are Hindu: 37.1, Muslim: 37.7, secular: 42, other religion: 42.6, Buddhist: 43.5, Catholic: 48.6, other Christian: 50.4, Anglican: 54.8, and Uniting Church: 55.8. The last two groups in particular are skewed towards older people.


Earthrise / Christmas


Earthrise, taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders on 24 December 1968 (NASA photo).

With Christmas coming up, it seems appropriate to post this iconic photograph, taken by Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders on 24 December 1968, while orbiting the moon in Apollo 8. The team also did a live television broadcast, in which Anders read from Genesis:

For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell continued: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Commander Frank Borman closed: “And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.

And the same from me.


Democracy, Religion, and Same-Sex Marriage in Australia

The results of the postal survey are in, and Australia has voted 61.6% “Yes” to same-sex marriage. Or rather, it seems that two Australias voted. The official results have been made available by electorate, which means that they can be correlated with demographic factors (and my readers know that I love doing that). The average age of each electorate had no effect, but religious composition certainly did.

According to the 2016 census, Australia’s stated religious composition looks like this (where the 33.3% “Secular” includes Agnostic, Atheist, Humanist, New Age, and Unitarian Universalist):

The chart below shows a strong correlation (0.82) between the percentage of “Secular” people in an electorate, and the size of the “Yes” vote. If all the “Secular” people voted “Yes” (as seems likely), this means that 58% of the religious people voted “No.” Doing some simple multiple linear regression, there was a statistically significant link between religion and voting “No” for every major religious group. This link was strongest for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Orthodox, the Uniting Church, and other non-Anglican Protestants. It was a little weaker for Anglicans and even more for Catholics, although the Anglican link was quite strong in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland. The Catholic link was quite strong in the last three of those states.

Electorates in the chart are coloured according to the largest religious group within them. Sydney is 52.7% Secular, for example (as well as 8.6% Buddhist, 1.7% Muslim, 1.7% Hindu, 1% Jewish, 17.9% Catholic, 2.4% Orthodox, 13.5% Protestant, and 0.5% Other Religion). It voted 83.7% “Yes.”

Blaxland is 32.2% Muslim (as well as 9% Buddhist, 3.3% Hindu, 21.2% Catholic, 5.5% Orthodox, 13.2% Protestant, 0.7% Other Religion, and 14.9% Secular). It voted 73.9% “No.”

McMahon is 39% Catholic (as well as 5.9% Buddhist, 12.4% Muslim, 2.9% Hindu, 6.9% Orthodox, 18.5% Protestant, 1.4% Other Religion, and 13.2% Secular). It voted 64.9% “No.”

Barton is multi-religious with 28.1% Secular being the largest group (as well as 5.6% Buddhist, 8.4% Islam, 5.6% Hindu, 0.2% Jewish, 22.6% Catholic, 15.7% Orthodox, 13.3% Protestant, and 0.5% Other Religion). It voted 56.4% “No.”

It does seem that there is a secular Australia, which voted overwhelmingly “Yes,” and a religious Australia of twice the size, which voted mostly “No.” If the disparate religious communities in Australia realise that they have more in common than they have thought, that could have quite a significant influence on Australian politics in the future.


A (distorted) geographical view of the postal survey results


Guns, education, religion, and suicide

My earlier post indicated that gun laws in the US had little impact on the homicide rate, when demographic factors were taken into account. This makes sense – if I want to kill somebody, the lack of a gun will merely prompt me to choose another weapon. But what about suicide? The impulse to suicide is often brief, and easy access to a gun during a suicidal episode may increase the chance of dying.

To test this, I extended my previous dataset with data on educational attainment, data on religiosity, registered gun ownership data from the ATF, age-adjusted suicide rates from the CDC, poverty rates, unemployment rates, and other demographic data. I ran all that through a regression tree analysis, using R.

Suicide rates in the chart (click to zoom) are indicated by colour, ranging from 8 per 100,000 for New Jersey and New York (yellow) to 23.7 for Montana (black). Having a college degree seems to have a protective effect – states on the right of the chart, with more college degrees, had lower suicide rates. This may relate to the higher employability of college graduates. However, states at the top of the chart, with higher high school graduation rates, had higher suicide rates. I am not sure why this is the case.

Among the states with fewer college graduates, religion had a protective effect (this is consistent with other studies). States where 77% or more of the population said that religion was “somewhat important” or “very important” to them are indicated on the chart by triangles. For the states with fewer college graduates, the suicide rate was 13.6 per 100,000 for religious states, and 17.5 for less religious ones.

Finally, the highest-risk states (fewer college graduates and less religious) split according to gun ownership. States with more than 0.008 registered guns per capita are marked on the chart with an inner dot. Among the highest-risk states, the suicide rate increased from 13.9 per 100,000 to 18.6 when more guns were present. This group included Alaska (23.2 per 100,000), Arizona (17.5), Idaho (19.2), Maine (17), Montana (23.7), Nevada (18.6), North Dakota (17.3), Oregon (16.8), and Utah (21.4). Among the more religious states, registered gun ownership did not seem to have an effect (although, of course, registered gun ownership is a poor indicator of true gun ownership).

Thus the data does seem to suggest a link between gun ownership and suicide risk, but only when other risk factors are present (low religiosity and no college degree). This is exactly what we expected, and it means that suicidal (or potentially suicidal) people need to be kept away from guns.