Tag Archives: religion

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

To begin, it wasn’t just a toy. It debuted in 1890 and it was the next in a long line of devices that had been invented to allow people to communicate with spirits. These weren’t intended to be pretend; they were deadly serious.

According to Lisa Hix, who wrote a lengthy history of such devices for Collector’s Weekly, the mid-1800s was the beginning of the spiritualist movement. People had long believed in spirits, but two sisters by the name of Fox made the claim that they could communicate with them. This was new. There were no longer just spirits; now there were spiritualists.

Amateur historian Brandon Hodge, interviewed by Hix, explains:

Mediums sprang up overnight as word spread. Suddenly, there were mediums everywhere.

At first, spiritualists would communicate with spirits by asking questions and receiving, in return, a series of knocks or raps. They called it “spirit rapping.” There was a rap for yes and a rap for no and soon they started calling out the alphabet, allowing them to spell out words

Eventually they sought out more sophisticated ways to have conversations. Enter, the planchette. This was a small wooden egg-shaped device with two wheels and a hole in which to place a pencil. Participants would all place their fingers on the planchette and the spirit would presumably guide their movements, writing text.

Here is an example of a planchette from 1900 and some pre-1875 spirit scribbling, both courtesy of Hodge’s fantastic website, Mysterious Planchette:2

These were religious tools used with serious intentions. Entrepreneurs, however, saw things differently. They began marketing them as games and they were a huge hit.

Mediums resented this, so they kept innovating new and more legitimate-seeming ways of communicating. In addition, the planchette scribbles were often difficult to read. The idea of using an actual alphabet emerged and various devices were invented to allow spirits to point directly to letters and other answers.

A Telepathic Spirit Communicator and a “spiritoscope” from 1855 (source): 3

Eventually, the concept of the planchette merged with the alphabet board and what we now know as the Ouija board was invented.

An Espirito talking board (1892) and the Mitch Manitou talking board (1920s) (source): 4

Here is an antique Ouija planchette:4

In the 1920s, mediums came under attack from people determined to prove that they were liars. Houdini is the most famous of the anti-spiritualists and Hodge argues that he “ravaged spiritualism.”

He set up little “colleges” in cities like in Chicago for cops to attend to learn how to bust up séances, and there was a concerted national effort to stamp out fraud.

Meanwhile…

The Spiritualist believers never successfully cohesively banded together, because they were torn asunder by their own internal arguments about spirit materialization.

Most mediums ended up humiliated and penniless.

“But the Ouija,” Hodge says, “just came along at the right time.” It was a hit with laypeople, surviving the attacks against spiritualists. And, so, the Ouija board is one of the only widely-recognized artifacts of this time.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Four years ago, twenty-three economists (mostly conservative) signed a letter to Ben Bernanke warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy – adding billions of dollars to the economy – would be disastrous. It would “debase the currency,” create high inflation, distort financial markets, and do nothing to reduce unemployment.

Four years later, it’s clear that they were wrong (as Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us). Have they changed their beliefs?

Of course not.

Bloomberg asked the letter-signers what they now thought about their prophecy.  Here’s the headline: “Fed Critics Say ’10 Letter Warning Inflation Still Right.”
This despite the actual low inflation:

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I don’t know why I assume that high-level economists would be more likely than some ordinary people to change their ideas to adjust for new facts. Fifty years ago, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed that even in areas like chemistry and physics, scientists cling to their paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts. Why should big-shot economists be any different? It also occurs to me that it’s the most eminent in a profession who will be more resistant to change.  After all, it’s the people at the top who have the greatest amount invested in their ideas – publications, reputations, consultantships, and of course ego. Economists call these “sunk costs.”

So how do they maintain their beliefs?

Most of the 23 declined to comment; a few could not be reached (including Ronald McKinnon, who died the previous day).  Of those who responded, only one, Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, came close to saying, “My prediciton was wrong.”

“All of us, I think, who signed the letter have never seen anything like what’s happened here.”

Most of the others preferred denial:

“The letter was correct as stated.” (David Malpass. He worked in Treasury under Reagan and Bush I)

“The letter mentioned several things… and all have happened.” (John Taylor, Stanford)

“I think there’s plenty of inflation — not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.” (Jim Grant of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” Kinda makes you wonder how closely he’s been observing interest rates.)

Then there was equivocation. After Thursday night’s debacle – Giants 8, Pirates 0, knocking Pittsburgh out of the playoffs– someone reminded me, “Hey, didn’t you tell me that the Pirates would win the World Series?”

“Yes, but I didn’t say when.”

Some of the letter-signers used this same tactic, and just about as convincingly.

“Note that word ‘risk.’ And note the absence of a date.” (Niall Ferguson, Harvard)

“Inflation could come…” (Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation)

The 1954 sociology classic When Prophecy Fails describes group built around a prediction that the world would soon be destroyed and that they, the believers, would be saved by flying saucers from outer space.  When it didn’t happen, they too faced the problem of cognitive dissonance – dissonance between belief and fact. But because they had been very specific about what would happen and when it would happen, they could not very well use the  denial and equivocation favored by the economists. Instead, they first by claimed that what had averted the disaster was their own faith. By meeting and planning and believing so strongly in their extraterrestrial rescuers, they had literally saved the world. The economists, by contrast, could not claim that their warnings saved us from inflation, for their warning – their predictions and prescriptions – had been ignored by Fed. So instead they argue that there actually is, or will be, serious inflation.

The other tactic that the millenarian group seized on was to start proselytizing – trying to convert others and to bring new members into the fold.  For the conservative economists, this tactic is practically a given, but it is not necessarily a change.  They had already been spreading their faith, as professors and as advisors (to policy makers, political candidates, wealthy investors, et al.). They haven’t necessarily redoubled their efforts, but the evidence has not given them pause.  They continue to publish their unreconstructed views to as wide an audience as possible.

That’s the curious thing about cognitive dissonance. The goal is to reduce the dissonance, and it really doesn’t matter how.  Of course, you could change your ideas, but letting go of long and deeply held ideas when the facts no longer co-operate is difficult. Apparently it’s easier to change the facts (by denial, equivocation, etc.). Or, equally effective in reducing the dissonance, you can convince others that you are right. That validation is just as effective as a friendly set of facts, especially if it comes from powerful and important people and comes with rewards both social and financial.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Why Don’t Religious People Know More About Religion?

Economist Robin Hanson has an “it isn’t about” list. It begins:

  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort

Also on the list is:

  • Church isn’t about God

Maybe church isn’t about religious ideas either.

I was reminded of this recently when I followed a link to a Pew quiz on religious knowledge. It’s a lite version of the 32-item quiz Pew used with a national sample in 2010.  One of the findings from that survey (the full report is here) was that people who went to church regularly and who said that religion was important in their lives didn’t do much better on the quiz than did those who had a weak attachment to church and religion.

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The strongly committed averaged 17 correct answers out of the 32 questions; the uncommitted, 16.  This same pattern was repeated in the more recent 15-question quiz.

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The committed may derive many things from their church attendance and faith, but knowledge of religion isn’t one of them.

To be fair, the quiz covers many religions, and people do know more about their own religion than they do about others.  “What was Joseph Smith’s religion?” Only about half the population gets that one right, but 93% of the Mormons nailed it. Mormons also knew more about the Ten Commandments. Catholics did better than others on the transubstantiation question.  But when it came to knowing who inspired the Protestant Reformation, Protestants got outscored by Jews and atheists.

Overall, nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons did much better than did Protestants and Catholics.

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One reason for their higher scores might be education – college graduates outscore high school or less by nearly 8 points out of 32.

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It may be that nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons are more likely to have finished college. Unfortunately, the Pew report does not give data that controls for education.

But another reason that these groups scored higher may be their position as religious minorities. Jews and Mormons have to explain to the flock how their ideas are different from those of the majority. Atheists and agnostics too, in their questioning and even rejecting,  have probably devoted more thought to religion, or more accurately, religions. On the questions about Shiva and Nirvana, they leave even the Jews and Mormons far behind.

For Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, learning detailed information about their religion is not as crucial. Just as White people in the US rarely ask what it means to be White, Christians need not worry about their differences from the mainstream. They are the mainstream. So going to church or praying can be much more about feelings – solidarity, transcendence, peace, etc.  That variety of religious experience need not include learning the history or even the tenets of the religion itself. As Durkheim said, the central element in religion is ritual – especially the feelings a ritual generates in the group. Knowing the actual beliefs might be a nice addition, but it’s not crucial.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

New Orleans Voodoo: Before and After Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans and flooded 85% of the city, 100,000 people were left homeless. Disproportionately, these were the poor and black residents of New Orleans. This same population faced more hurdles to returning than their wealthier and whiter counterparts thanks to the effects of poverty, but also choices made by policymakers and politicians — some would say made deliberately — that reduced the black population of the city.

With them went many of the practitioners of voodoo, a faith with its origins in the merging of West African belief systems and Catholicism.  At Newsweek, Stacey Anderson writes that locals claim that the voodoo community was 2,500 to 3,000 people strong before Katrina, but after that number was reduced to around 300.

The result has been a bridging of different voodoo traditions and communities. Prior to the storm, celebrations and ceremonies were race segregated and those who adhered to Haitian- and New Orleans-style voodoo kept their distance.  After the storm, with their numbers decimated, they could no longer sustain the in-groups and out-groups they once had.  Voodoo practitioners forged bonds across prior divides.

Voodoo Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman performs a ceremony at Bayou St. John (photo by Alfonso Bresciani):

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Voodoo Priestess Miriam Chamani performs a ceremony at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple:

3Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Saturday Stat: Wait, WHO Dislikes Atheists?

Last month I posted data showing that, of all the things that might disqualify someone for public office, being an atheist is tops.  I wrote: “Prejudice against those who say there’s no god is stronger than ageism, homophobia, and sexism.” On average, Americans would rather vote for someone who admitted to smoking pot or had an extramarital affair.

We just don’t like atheists.

But who is “we”?

A survey by the Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.  atheists were most disliked by Protestants, especially White evangelicals and Black Protestants (somewhat less so White Mainline Protestants).  Atheists quite liked themselves, and agnostics thought were they were okay. Among other religiously affiliated groups, Jews gave atheists the highest rating.

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For what it’s worth, atheists feel warmish toward Jews in return, preferring them to everyone except Buddhists, and they dislike Evangelical Christians almost as much as the Christians dislike them.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Saturday Stat: Atheists Still Rank as Most Disliked

A new survey ranks the qualities that Americans dislike in a potential leader, discovering that they still give a strong side-eye to atheists.

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Prejudice against those who say there’s no god is stronger than ageism, homophobia, and sexism.  People would also rather vote for people with admitted moral failings (in the eyes of some), such as those who’ve admitted to an extra-marital affair or the use of weed, than those who claim a perfect record guided by some other force than god.

On the plus side for atheists and their allies, the percent of people who say that they are disinclined to vote for an atheist for president has declined from 63% in 2007 to the 53% we see today.

Via Citings and Sightings.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Why Survey Questions Matter: Blasphemy Edition

“How could we get evidence for this?” I often ask students. And the answer, almost always is, “Do a survey.” The word survey has magical power; anything designated by that name wears a cloak of infallibility.

“Survey just means asking a bunch of people a bunch of questions,” I’ll say. “Whether it has any value depends on how good the bunch of people is and how good the questions are.”  My hope is that a few examples of bad sampling and bad questions will demystify.

For example, Variety:

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Here’s the lede:

Despite its Biblical inspiration, Paramount’s upcoming “Noah” may face some rough seas with religious audiences, according to a new survey by Faith Driven Consumers.

The data to confirm that idea:

The religious organization found in a survey that 98% of its supporters were not “satisfied” with Hollywood’s take on religious stories such as “Noah,” which focuses on Biblical figure Noah.

The sample:

Faith Driven Consumers surveyed its supporters over several days and based the results on a collected 5,000+ responses.

And (I’m saving the best till last) here’s the crucial survey question:

As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie — designed to appeal to you — which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood?

As if the part about “replacing the Bible’s core message” weren’t enough, the item reminds the respondent of her or his identity as a Faith Driven Consumer. It does make you wonder about that 2% who either were fine with the Hollywood* message or didn’t know.

You can’t really fault Faith Driven Consumer too much for this shoddy “research.” They’re not in business to find the sociological facts. What’s appalling is that Variety accepts it at face value and without comment.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Are Hipsters to Blame for a Rise in Facial Hair Transplants?

Last month I wrote about how the revival in the popularity of beards was hurting razor sales, causing companies like Proctor & Gamble to ramp up advertising encouraging “manscaping” below the neck.  Here’s another response to the trend: hair plugs for your face.

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According to a facial plastic surgeon interviewed for an article at DNAinfo New York, the rate at which he is asked to do facial hair transplants has skyrocketed from ” just a handful of beard transplants each year a decade ago” to about three a week.  The surgeons mention the hipster beard trend as one cause of the rise in interest, but also cite a wide array of people who might be interested in fuller facial hair:

…clients include men who have struggled since adolescence to grow a beard, those undergoing a gender transition from female to male, men with with facial scarring and Hasidic Jews who hope to achieve denser payot, or sidelocks.

Expense for the procedure ranges from $3,o00 for partial transplants to $7,000 for a full beard.

What a fascinating example of the intersection of race, gender, religion, technology, and capitalism.  Which men’s faces have more power to determine appearance norms for men?  Or, what does masculinity look like?  Men with Asian, American Indian, and African backgrounds are less likely to be able to grow full beards, but a society centered on whiteness can make their faces seem inadequate.  If the situation were reversed, would we see white men, disproportionately, going in for laser hair removal?  Would transmen feel less pressure to be able to grow a beard to feel fully masculine?  Would they feel more if they were part of a Hasidic Jewish community?

Also, is this really about hipsters?  How much power does a young, monied demographic have to set fashion trends?  To send a wide range of people to surgeons — for goodness sake — in the hopes of living up to a more or less fleeting trend?  How do such trends gain purchase across such a wide range of people?  What other forces are at work here?

What can we learn from this about other plastic surgeries that we are more likely to take for granted as the result of natural or universal beauty?  Breast implants for women, breast reductions for men, liposuction, facelifts, labiaplasty, or eyelid surgery?

Lots of interesting conversations to be had.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.