religion

The cartoon added below inspired me to revive this post from 2008.

Many believe that the U.S. is at the pinnacle of social and political evolution. One of the consequences of this belief is the tendency to define whatever holds in the U.S. as ideal and, insofar as other countries deviate from that, define them as problematic. For example, many believe that women in the U.S. are the most liberated in the world. Insofar as women in other societies live differently, they are assumed to be oppressed. Of course, women are oppressed elsewhere, but it is a mistake to assume that “they” are oppressed and “we” are liberated. This false binary makes invisible ways in which women elsewhere are not 100% subordinated and women here also suffer from gendered oppression.

(If you’re interested, I have a paper showing how Americans make these arguments called Defining Gendered Oppression in U.S. Newspapers: The Strategic Value of “Female Genital Mutilation.”)

I offer these thoughts are a preface to a postcard from PostSecret.  The person who sent in the postcard suggests that she’s not sure which is worse: the rigid and extreme standard of beauty in the U.S. and the way that women’s bodies are exposed to scrutiny or the idea of living underneath a burka that disallows certain freedoms, but frees you from evaluative eyes and the consequences of their negative appraisals.

Cartoonist Malcolm Evans drew a similarly compelling illustration of this point, sent along by David B.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Being in the dominant majority allows you that comfort of not thinking.  People in that majority can assume that everyone shares their views, ideas, and even characteristics, and much of the time, they’ll be right.  “Flesh colored” in the U.S., sometimes even today, means the color of white people’s flesh.

White is the default race, the American race.  It’s easy to ignore that African Americans might not see those Band-Aids as flesh colored.  Similarly, Christianity is the default religion, and those who are in the majority can make those same flesh-colored assumptions.  Justice Scalia, for example, seemed unable to understand that the Jewish families of Jews killed in war might not feel “honored” by a cross placed on the grave of their son or daughter. (My post on this is here.)

The latest example:  this Hannukah card sent in South Carolina, presumably to Jews, by Rick Santorum’s local team.  First tweeted by political reporter Hunter Walker, it’s rapidly making the rounds of the Internet.

The Santorum team knew that Jews celebrate Hannukah.  But apparently they either did not know or did not remember that the New Testament is not part of Judaism and that Jews do not believe in the divinity of Jesus.  So those words from John — that those who follow Jesus “will have the light of life” — probably did not convey the intended effect of holiday warmth.

Originally posted at Religion Bulletin.

Now that Denver has fallen out of the playoffs, I want to write an homage to a figure I, like so many others, find fascinating: Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.  Carter Turner over at Religion Dispatches has suggested that the “real reason” for “Tebow fever” was the theological investment that atheists and theists alike had in watching Tebow succeed or fail.  I think that’s absolutely right: Tebow’s body became a sort of theological battleground for broader religious and cultural forces.  But I also think there’s an even more elementary reason, one that becomes apparent when we think about Tebow not just as a proxy for doctrine, but as a particular religious body.

Feminism, poststructuralism, and decolonial studies in the humanities have made scholars more and more aware of the importance of bodies.  Whereas the logocentric western tradition focused on words — the creations of the intellect — 21st century global scholarship sees words as a secondary function of embodiment.  In religious studies, scholars such as Talal Asad, Kimerer LaMothe, and Saba Mahmood have called on us to explore how bodies, through practices, are constituted as religious subjects.  Bodies become religious through performance, through embodied exercises that, through repetition, inscribe us with the modalities of a religious “ethics.”  But embodiment is more than just practices.  I here want to suggest a different direction for understanding the relationship between religion and bodies.

Here’s something I often ask my students to do: Look at this body.  How does religion converge on this body?

Let me tell you what I see, using my own bodily practice, martial arts, as a lens.  This is a body I would not want to fight.  It’s not just about dense muscle lines, the sheer evidence of physical strength, reach, and an intricately arranged posing that suggests bodily self-awareness and sharp muscular intelligence.  This body is compelling.  It draws the eye.  You want to watch it.

This is more dangerous than physical strength — the kind of strength you build on the bench press or the curl.  It’s a “presence.”  The kind of strength that stops bodies in their tracks without landing a punch.  And the kind of strength that draws allies, that rewrites the broader bodily landscape on which conflict happens.  This body has what we might call, following Max Weber, “charisma.”

This way of looking at bodies helps us think again about a fact that has become dramatically apparent in the past two years: Tebow is fascinating.  People love to talk about him, love to love him, love to hate him.  Tebow fever didn’t just happen.  It was and is something is felt–viscerally–by millions of bodies around the world.

On the one hand, Tebow is a leader–an emblematic body — for millions of Christians who see in him a dignification of their faith.  Faith here is not an abstract personal belief.  It is an identity formation, an Us.  Tebow is the champion of a certain Christian Us, an embodiment of values and a leader who rallies the believers.  As a champion, he doesn’t win through debate, he wins through charisma.  He is a hero, resplendent on the battlefield.

At the same time, Tebow is fascinating to other groups — to other bodies — that are frustrated with or skeptical of the Christian Us — and particularly the Christian Us that has managed to insinuate itself into the corridors of power in America through one (but only one) of its instantiations, the Christian Right, a major driver in contemporary Republican politics.  These bodies, as Turner pointed out, are interested in Tebow’s failure, the fall of the enemy’s flag.

My argument, however, is this: this profile of the divergent responses to the nexus of religious and cultural forces that converge on the image of Tebow’s body would be irrelevant and unread if Tim Tebow were a schlub–a homely, uninteresting, modest body, the kind of body that bus drivers drive past at the bus stop.  It is also an open question to me how we would be responding to Tebow if he were not a white body.  Those who want to challenge Tebow, to fight Tebow, to talk about Tebow are drawn in by the seductions of this image–the power of Tebow’s body — no less than those who are so ardently admiring of Tebow that criticism of him becomes a political rallying cry.  Tebow’s body is a magnetic body, a charismatic body.  It bends other bodies towards it–in both positive and critical ways.

This, then, is one of the main ways that religion happens — how identities, beliefs, and affects form and fuse: not through the advance of doctrine, but through the magnetism of religious bodies.

Thanks to William Eric Pedersen for talking this post out with me and pointing me in the direction of the unanswered question on race.

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Donovan O. Schaefer is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at Le Moyne College. His interests involve the relationship between religion, bodies, and emotion. In his dissertation, Animal Religion: Evolution, Affect, and Radical Embodiment, he argues for understanding religion in terms of a set of affective bodily practices that are shared by human and non-human animals.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

While most Americans think of the witch as a possibly evil character associated with Halloween in the U.S., many Italians would see a motherly figure who keeps a clean house (hence the broom) and gives candy or coal to children.  The character’s name is Befana.  Thanks to Katrin for drawing my attention to her.

Italians celebrate the end of the Christmas season today,  January 5th.  Tonight is the night before the Feast of the Epiphany (celebrating the understanding that Jesus was God in human form) (source).  According to Italian mythology, Befana will visit children’s homes, filling their shoes with candy (if they’ve been good) or coal (if they’ve been bad) (source). Epiphany Eve is celebrated throughout Italy.

For more examples of variation in the culture of Christmas, see our posts on Krampus: Santa’s Evil Side KickThe ChristKind, Snegurochka: Santa’s Granddaughter, and Black Pete (trigger warning for blackface).

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Citings and Sightings.

In an interview discussing whether teen sleepovers can actually prevent teen pregnancy, CNN’s Ali Velshi says flatly, “This is a little bit counter-intuitive.” But as his interviewee, UMass sociologist Amy Schalet (who wrote on this subject in Contexts in “Sex, Love, and Autonomy in the Teenage Sleepover” in the Summer of 2010), explains:

Let me clarify: it’s not a situation where everything goes… It’s definitely older teenage couples who have established relationships and whose parents have talked about contraception.

Which is to say, as Velshi puts it, sex and sex education in countries like the Netherlands, in which parents are more permissive—or as Schalet says, “parents are more connected with their kids”—about allowing boyfriends and girlfriends to sleep over, take “a holistic approach.”

Schalet’s research, explored more deeply in her new University of Chicago book Not Under My Roof, takes a look at American parenting practices surrounding teen sex and the practices of parents in other countries. Using in-depth interviews with parents and teens and a host of other data, she finds:

The takeaway for American parents… isn’t necessarily “You must permit sleepovers.” Many parents are going to say, “Not under my roof!” That’s why it’s the title of my book. The takeaway is that you can have more open conversations—you should probably have more open conversations—about what’s a good relationship, sex and contraception should go together, what does it mean to be “ready,” how to get rid of some of these damaging stereotypes (gender stereotypes). Those are all things that are going to help promote teenage health and better relationships between parents and kids.

Schalet is clear that parental approaches are nowhere near the only factor in the stark differences in teen pregnancy rates between the U.S. and the Netherlands, but says they are, in fact, particularly important. “Kids are having sex, clearly,” Velshi says. And that’s precisely the point, no matter whether parents believe their kids should be able to have sex in their own homes, Schalet believes: “I think what you emphasize is that, above all, the conversation is important, and the conversation itself does not make kids have sex.” Ideally, she points out, that conversation will take place at home with parents, but a holistic talk about sexuality, relationships, and health can also take place in schools, with clergy, and in many other locations.

Dr. Schalet on CNN (we apologize for the commercial):

Amy Schalet’s new book is Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex.

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Letta Page is the Associate Editor and Producer of The Society Pages. She has a decade of experience in academic editing across a range of disciplines, including two years as the managing editor of Contexts. Page holds degrees in history and classical studies from Boston University and an art degree from the University of Minnesota.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Katrin sent in an interesting example of an effort to (re)masculinize an occupation. Often when we see these efforts, they’re aimed at attracting men to traditionally-female jobs such as nursing by asserting that only “real men” would be able to handle the demands of the job, or emphasizing compatibility with masculinity.

In this case, the occupation that is being framed as highly masculine isn’t one dominated by women; it is, in fact, open only to men: the Catholic priesthood. The image, originally posted at NYPriest, is taken from Fishers of Men, a video released as part of the Archdiocese of New York’s Office of Vocations “The World Needs Heroes” campaign, meant to attract men to the priesthood:

Usually, a male-dominated occupation wouldn’t be in need of having its masculinized character stressed so openly. However, the child sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in the U.S. and elsewhere have damaged the image of the priesthood. Not only did many priests sexually abuse children, but many of the abused children where boys. Had the abuse involved primarily girls girls in late childhood or their teens, the public may very well have expressed revulsion and disgust, but we also have cultural narratives available, such as the idea of the sexually precocious Lolita who entices men against their better judgement, that are often used to at least partially justify or explain adult men’s sexual attraction to or abuse of even young girls (such as the judge who, in 1982, called a 5-year-old rape victim “unusually sexually promiscuous” and gave the adult man who assaulted her only 90 days in a work-release program).

But the fact that so many victims were boys meant those cultural narratives, which implicitly reinforce assumptions about adult masculine sexuality (men can’t quite control themselves; they’re easily led astray by female temptresses, even inappropriately young ones) didn’t apply. Abusing boys undermines the assumption of heterosexuality that is essential to hegemonic masculinity.

Given this social context, it’s not surprising that the NY Archdiocese felt the need to reassert the priesthood as masculine as one element of their image rehabilitation campaign.

Earlier this month I read an essay that explained to me why I am not married. These reasons included:

  • I’m a bitch.
  • I’m shallow.
  • I’m a slut.
  • I’m a liar.
  • I’m selfish.
  • I don’t think I’m good enough.

I’m not kidding.

Coincidentally, the Pew Research Center released 2010 data showing that just 51% of all American adults were currently married. This is an all time low, down from 72% in 1960.

Comparing this data with the essay above is a nice illustration of the difference between “normative” and “normal.”  Normal is what is typical in a statistical sense; it is what actually holds.  Normative is what is believed to be good and right in an ideological sense; it is what it is believed does or should hold.

If you go by the essay, written by the thrice married and now single Tracy McMillan, marriage is an ideal state that we all should, or do, desire.  In her reality, if you aren’t married, it’s because you’re doing something wrong.  Marriage is normative.  In actual reality, though, the state of being married is not any more normal than the state of being unmarried.

Only if marriage is normative does the non-normality of marriage become something that needs explaining.  McMillan jumps in with hateful stereotypes, but social science has much better explanations.

  • Low-income women often do not take-for-granted (as many middle class people do) that they can sustain a marriage through tough times.  Accordingly, they wait much longer before marrying once they meet someone they like (as long as 10 years or more), so that they can be as sure as possible about the match.  In other words, they take marriage very seriously and are reticent to just jump right in.  They know they’re “good enough,” Tracy; in fact, they value themselves and their relationships enough to really put them to the test.  (Read Promises I Can Keep for more.)
  • Other women get divorced because men don’t do their fair share.  Unresolved conflicts over childcare and housework are one of the top reasons that couples dissolve.  Women struggle to keep up when they’re working a full time job and doing 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the childcare and housework.  They may not see the data, but they may intuit that single mothers do less housework than married ones (it’s true).  So they divorce their husbands.  They’re not “selfish,” they’re just trying to survive. (Read The Second Shift for more.)
  • Other people aren’t married because they’re in love with someone of the same sex.  They’re not “sluts,” they’re discriminated against.

And, just for the record:

  • I’m not married because I don’t want or need the state’s approval of my relationship and  I certainly don’t want it interfering if we decide to part.
  • I’m not married because the history of marriage is ugly and anti-woman; because I don’t like the common meanings of the words “wife” and “husband”; and because even today, and even among couples that call themselves feminist, gender inequality in relationships is known to increase when a couple moves from cohabitation to marriage (and I don’t think I’m so special that I’ll be the anomaly).
  • I’m not married because I’m opposed to the marriage industrial complex. It’s exploitative, stereotypical, and wasteful.
  • I’m not married because I value the fact that my partner and I decide to be together every day, even though we don’t have to jump through legal hoops to do otherwise.
  • I’m not married because I don’t want to support a discriminatory institution that has and continues to bless some relationships, but not others, out of bigotry.
  • I’m not married because I don’t believe in giving social and economic benefits to some kinds of relationships and not others.  I don’t believe that a state- or church-endorsed heterosexual union between two and only two people is superior to other kinds of relationships.

After reading some of the great comments, I’d like to add that I’m not married because of several points of privilege:

  • I’m not married because I live in a society that allows women to work, keep their paychecks, rent an apartment, and have a bank account.  (And, frankly, I think it’s kind of neat to be in the first generation of American women who can realistically choose not to marry. I like the idea of embracing that.)
  • I’m not married because both my partner and I are lucky enough to have  a stable, full-time job that offers benefits, so we don’t need to get married so that one of us can get the other health insurance or some other benefit.
  • I’m not married because we are both U.S. citizens and don’t have to marry in order to live together.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The point is that when the normal and the normative don’t align it often leads to social conflict over the meaning of the gap.  Some people, like McMillan, may jump in to tongue-lash the deviants.  Others may revel in defending non-conformity.  In any case, it will be interesting to see how the conversation about marriage continues, especially if, as the trend suggests, married people become a minority in the near future.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

Things that make you say… “peer review”?

This is the time of year when I expect to read inflated or distorted claims about the benefits of marriage and religion from the National Marriage Project. So I was happy to see the new State of Our Unions report put out by W. Bradford Wilcox’s outfit. My first reading led to a few questions.

First: When they do the “Survey of Marital Generosity” — the privately funded, self-described nationally-representative sample of 18-46-year old Americans, which is the source of this and several other reports, none of them published in any peer-reviewed source I can find — do they introduce themselves to the respondents by saying, “Hello, I’m calling from the Survey of Marital Generosity, and I’d like to ask you a few questions about…” If this were the kind of thing subject to peer review, and I were a reviewer, I would wonder if the respondents were told the name of the survey.

Second: When you see oddly repetitive numbers in a figure showing regression results, don’t you just wonder what’s going on?

Here’s what jumped out at me:

If a student came to my office with these results and said, “Wow, look at the big effect of joint religious practice on marital success,” I’d say, “Those numbers are probably wrong.” I can’t swear they didn’t get exactly the same values for everyone except those couples who both attend religious services regularly — 50 50 50, 13 13 13 , 50 50 50, 21 21 21 — in a regression that adjusts for age, education, income, and race/ethnicity, but that’s only because I don’t swear.*

Of course, the results are beside the point in this report, since the conclusions are so far from the data anyway. From this figure, for example, they conclude:

In all likelihood,  the experience of sharing regular religious attendance — that  is, of enjoying shared rituals that endow one’s marriage with transcendent significance and the support of a community  of family and friends who take one’s marriage seriously— is a solidifying force for marriage in a world in which family life is  increasingly fragile.

OK.

Anyway, whatever presumed error led to that figure seems to reoccur in the next one, at least for happiness:

Just to be clear with the grad student example, I wouldn’t assume the grad student was deliberately cooking the data to get a favorable result, because I like to assume the best about people. Also, people who cook data tend to produce a little more random-looking variation. Also, I would expect the student not to just publish the result online before anyone with a little more expertise had a look at it.

Evidence of a pattern of error is also found in this figure, which also shows predicted percentages that are “very happy,” when age, education, income and race/ethnicity are controlled.

Their point here is that people with lots of kids are happy (which they reasonably suggest may result from a selection effect). But my concern is that the predicted percentages are all between 13% and 26%, while the figures above show percentages that are all between 50% and 76%.

So, in addition to the previous figures probably being wrong, I don’t think this one can be right unless they are wrong. (And I would include “mislabeled” under the heading “wrong,” since the thing is already published and trumpeted to the credulous media.)

Publishing apparently-shoddy work like this without peer review is worse when it happens to support your obvious political agenda. One is tempted to believe that if the error-prone research assistant had produced figures that didn’t conform to the script, someone higher up might have sent the tables back for some error checking. I don’t want to believe that, though, because I like to assume the best about people.

* Just kidding. I do swear.