Security and Religiosity: The Jacksonian Values that Wed American Society to Faith

There is a set of academic literature that suggests there is a negative relationship between existential security and religiosity. As security increases, we become less religious as a society. This is demonstrated across societies. More secure societies in Europe are distinctly less religious than less secure societies in, say, Sub Saharan Africa. The threat of death is a compelling religious motivator, and if you are guaranteed limited salvation from death by the society, then salvation by the church is a cogent alternative. But there is one intriguing outlier: the United States.

The US ranks high on both existential security and religiosity. This disparity between what we expect and what we see—in terms of the US—has always fascinated me. How do we as a society hold onto religious superstitions when every other highly sophisticated society has shaken off such beliefs? Outside of my usual work this problem has always sat on the back burner. But maybe we can answer the question using a philosophical framework, one previously set forth for us by Walter Russell Mead in his piece in The National Interest (Winter 1999/2000) titled “The Jacksonian Tradition: And American Foreign Policy.”

The Jacksonian Tradition

Mead’s “Jacksonian Tradition” explains American foreign policy by framing it in a populist structure. Essentially, America is a “warrior culture” because the people—not generals, political scientists, or political elites—know best. And they want a warrior culture, damnit!

Populism is the idea that representative democracies only work if the representatives have connections with the people. Think of our democracy as a form of mobocracy. We disregard expert testimony. We are skeptical of elites. We feel there is something wrong with the country when we are disconnected from the policymakers. We are stubborn against advice or instruction (no senator is going to tell us what we should do). We value normal people like Joe the Plumber. And we believe Washington is a huge conspiracy against the American people (well, not I, but the average voter).

Populism gives us a sense of identity, of authenticity. Our identity is mired in the values of John Wayne; June, Ward, and Beaver Cleaver; and Andy Griffith. These are the true Americans, the pioneers. The characters had both feet on the ground, and they had values everyone believes in. And their television shows never necessitated fancy, complicated explanations. They were simple to digest, and they left you feeling fulfilled.

Mead underscores American Jacksonian values of self-reliance, equality, individualism, honor, and courage. Self-reliance is the legacy of the frontier movement, a you-gotta-take-care-of-yourself mentality, and the government’s job is to get out of the way. Equality is the aforementioned don’t-tell-me-what-to-do outlook. Elites and the working class are equal, despite outward appearances. Individualism means every American has the right and the duty to seek self-fulfillment. Our honor is one of financial esprit, rejection of government help, and resistance to social welfare (more on honor in a bit). And courage means we stand up for what we believe, and we’re willing to lay down our lives if necessary to protect our kinship, family, and the common morality. And Americans are indeed, as Mead points out, quick to settle scores with violence.

Outside of these values is darkness. And war is a necessary evil in an evil world. And so we go to war regularly—not just war, but all out war. The greatest tragedy of the Gulf War, populists would say, is that we turned around at Baghdad instead of ousting Saddam Hussein. But we also fight wars clean, and we expect the “empires of evil” to fight clean wars as well. Honor means showing your enemy respect, a la WWII German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. If you fight a clean war, we’ll fight a clean war. If you take the gloves off, we feel justified in committing mass-scale civilian slaughter.

Implications on US Religiosity

The United States presently sits at the top of a hierarchy of states in terms of power. And as Robert Kagan would say, power compels the US to violence. We must protect our values, but that leaves us vulnerable. Our power is wielded in an evil world where our values are overshadowed by the darkness of an anarchical, chaotic jungle. Our values are constantly challenged by the encroachment of Communism during the Cold War; of European pacifism, socialism, and cooperation; of Islamic terror regimes with no Code of Honor. Being at the top, surrounded by darkness, and facing a barrage of attacks against our values undermines our existential security. If our values are our identity, and our identity is all we have, then an attack against our identity is an affront to our very existence.

If we are our values, and our values face constant threat, then salvation comes not from the state—which, as mentioned earlier, populists believe is a mass conspiracy against America (just ask any Trump supporter)—then salvation must come from the pulpit.

In America we have low infant mortality, high life expectancy, fairly decent healthcare, a large GDP, a robust middle class, and enough amenities to make Jay Gatsby blush. We work hard, but we value our downtime. Leisurely entertainment dominates the economy—Hollywood cinema, NFL games, Lady Gaga, and entire sectors set up to prepare the outside of your home for the annual arrival of Santa Claus. By this, one should expect our society to resemble Estonia or Sweden in terms of religiosity, not South Africa or Palestine.

I argue that our Jacksonian values wed us to our faiths, due in part to our position as a global hegemon that wields considerable raw power. The threat of death is everywhere, not only literally, but also ontologically. We face attacks by terrorists and threats by Vladimir Putin, and we also face a global market of counter-values that ostentatiously challenge our identity as honorable Americans. How do we protect our physical and spiritual being? The church certainly guarantees they can do both.

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The Alt-Right and Atheism: Overlap and Divide

A small but growing conservative movement is popping up in the US, fueled in part by well-known atheist Youtubers and bloggers. The movement is referred to as the Alt-Right—or alternative right—movement by some. And some atheist are quick to endorse Alt-Right positions and complain about social phenomena regarding race issues, nationalism, reactionary politics, and Trump-entusialist beliefs. Often these Youtube videos or blog posts espouse a special criticism of social justice warriors, or SJW for short, often citing the First Amendment and “free speech.” And to be honest, I agree with a lot of what critics like the Amazing Atheist and Sargon of Akkad say… except, of course, where I don’t.

I’m not going to go down the exhaustive list of usual Alt-Right positions. Rather I’m going to say what I agree with and what I don’t—from the position of a person who watches these videos and read these blog posts. Specifically I will address race issues, free speech, feminism, and immigration policy.

Race Issues

From what I’ve seen and read, many Alt-Righters and Youtube atheists are incredibly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. This criticism is definitely warranted in some areas. For example, the oft-cited BLM belief that you can’t be racist against white people is only true if we develop a brand new definition of racism and jettison the standard definition. This new definition is often forced upon society in order to win the argument by technical knock out. If you change a definition so that your opponent cannot defend him/herself, then winning the argument is not very victorious. And it’s not very honest. It’s actually quite meaningless (unless you’re Kim Jong Un).

BLM activists also live in a world where an acceptable method of submitting its beliefs into the global market of ideas is to obstruct the lives of everyday citizens. Blocking traffic and annoying people just trying to live their lives is not the ideal way to win over converts.

But the BLM movement also exists in a world where perception is key. Whether or not BLM has good ideas, I think we can acknowledge that they have perceptions about the state of the world. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the activists to submit their beliefs to the global market of ideas. And while it’s difficult to test these ideas (for example, police departments will probably not confess to racist practices), we can at least study the factors that lead to such perceptions. I’d be willing to bet many statisticians and social scientists already are.

Free Speech 

Alt-Righters nail free speech. When a university professor physically assaults a student and asks for “muscle” to remove a student reporter from a “safe space,” this is entirely unacceptable. Free speech does not include physical intimidation. From my perspective safe spaces should be forums for open dialog, without fear of personal attack. Spaces that exclude based on race, gender, or sexuality are only safe so long as you a good at covering your ears and shouting “la la la I don’t hear you” for the rest of your life. At some point though you are going to have to reconcile your beliefs with the real world.

But while free speech is usually the domain of the state—and, for example, Sargon of Akkad knows this very well—it doesn’t help their cause when people with Alt-Right beliefs build caricatures of their opponents in 40 minute Youtube videos just to make the finishing blow during the last 30 seconds. The video debate between Thunderf00t and Sargon over Brexit exemplifies the strengths of Sargon’s beliefs when he isn’t able to build straw men (to be fair, this is despite whether or not Sargon makes a compelling point—to me it’s lost in the bias).


From an academic perspective feminism has some really great ideas. I recommend Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics for a good discussion of where feminist theory can make some good contributions to society. From a scholarly position I welcome Enloe’s and J. Ann Tickner’s brand of feminism.

But I agree with the Alt-Right and many atheist thinkers that feminism as a social, economic, or political theory is fine and dandy, but feminism as lens for viewing everything as racist and sexist is a cancer to the global market of ideas. But there’s also some problems.

Is there a pay gap? Absolutely. Is it the product of career choice? Not completely, but yeah, to an extent. Regardless of how we answer those questions (and these are merely my best guesses), I again have to take the more conservative route. Should the system prejudice men in order to close the gap? I don’t think that’s a very good solution, and it smacks in the face of David Hume’s Guillotine. If the pay gap exists in the way feminists believe, how do we logically get to: women should succeed at the expense of men? I don’t think we can do that.

In other words, I agree with Sargon and the Amazing Atheist with this one, with one minor deviation.


This is where I almost completely part ways with the heavy hitting atheist vloggers and bloggers. I think a Facebook post I made in September 2015 sums up my positions pretty well:

One of the things that strikes me most about the migrant crisis in Europe is that many of these people are coming from Afghanistan, meaning they are willing to travel—sometimes on foot—through ISIS controlled territories in Iraq and Syria, facing assault, rape, or death every step of the way, for the mere possibility of a better life in Europe, Turkey, or elsewhere. To us this should say something about their hopelessness and yet resolve; instead we’re focusing on whether or not we can share.

There seems to be a massive reactionary force happening. The fear of Islamic terror in Europe and the US decapitates us from the humanity we slowly strive to achieve[1]. When I lived in Lebanon during the fledgling months of the Syrian Civil War—before the Islamic State rode into Syria—I was often asked my position as a political scientist on Assad and the Free Syrian Army. My answer was always the same:

“I am against all sides because people are fucking dying.” (You can get away with using English profanity in Lebanon—just don’t use Arabic profanity).

My position has not changed with the arrival of the Islamic State. Rather, it has become more pronounced. I am against all sides, including American and European nationalists, because 1) people are dying, and 2) we are actively striving to prevent their salvation from death.

And perhaps the most important point: A refugee denied basic humanity, a refugee denied salvation from Jihadist terror is a potential Jihadist terrorist in the making.

Look, people with different beliefs as ours do not live in a vacuum, and neither do we. And when they cry out for help, if we treat them as unequals because of their beliefs—if we treat them as sub human[2]—we cannot expect refugees from terror to choose between going home and face death, or going home and mitigating death by joining the group trying to kill them. A refugee denied is a terrorist made.

Final thoughts

I’m not sure how the switch came around. Atheism does not naturally lead to a political stance. And, for example, the Amazing Atheist even shifted from supporting Bernie Sanders to (weakly) supporting Donald Trump. This is a remarkable shift (even if TJ says he’s not voting for anyone). And I think it could be an overreaction to the Atheism+ movement (that seems to believe if you’re not a bleeding heart liberal, you’re the literal devil). But these shifts do not necessarily reflect a growing trend in atheist thought towards nationalist and reactionary policy. This post merely stands to discuss a phenomenon I’ve noticed in user-based media.

Are the Amazing Atheist and Sargon of Akkad Alt-Righters? I honestly don’t know. And this post does not claim they are (even if I have used strong language). I don’t think they’ve ever claimed to follow the movement, but it’s forgivable to say there’s some overlap—at least—with their political views and the Alt-Right movement.

And finally, I’m not so hesitant to accept alternate viewpoints and seeing if we can find some common ground for the purposes of debate—as long as the debate is a free and open debate, and not one where I cannot win by default (or skin color). And I’m not afraid of the encroachment of Islam to the point where I will turn my country inward.

[1] For a fantastic article on this process utopian, see Booth, Ken. “Security and Emancipation.” Review of International Studies 17, no. 4 (1991): 313-26.

[2] This is a well-understood method for creating war-driven societies: Campbell, David. Writing Security United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Rev. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

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St. Peter and St. Petersburg Paradox: Faith as a Gamble

This post uses the general idea of the St. Petersburg Paradox to explain faith. The paradox can be summed up like this: How much should a person be willing to wager in a lottery with a potential payout of infinity dollars? The answer is infinity dollars (minus one). Of course this is not the answer people give. Most people would not be willing to wager more than a meager sum because the probability of winning that lottery is essentially zero, despite the actual expected value of the lottery being much, much higher than fathomable.

If this idea is extrapolated to the promises of many religions, this modified version* of the paradox might be settled. How much of your life would you be willing to wager to participate in a lottery with a potential payout of infinite life? The answer is any amount necessary up to infinity minus one.

When we talk to our devoutly religious brother and sisters, I think we can see this line of reasoning. Despite the probability of winning this lottery being essentially zero, many devoutly religious people find no discrepancy between how much they are willing to wager and how much they expect to win. A wager of an entire lifetime is a very low price to pay for an expected value of ∞, and most would be willing to wager as many lifetimes as necessary to achieve the expected payout.

The new paradox—if this is true—is, however, the discrepancy between how much they are willing to pay for this lottery and how much they are willing to pay to play numerous identical lotteries. A Christian is not going to wager anything in the Islamic lottery, despite an identical expected value of playing, and a Muslim is not going to wager anything in a Christian lottery. Etc., etc.

In other words, faith might be seen as a wager in a specific lottery where the longer you play the more likely you can win, despite the odds being almost infinity to one against winning.

So why don’t non-believers play this lottery? Because until someone can show us the money, we’re not going to risk what little we have on a fabled payout.

*This modified version assumes there are only two payouts (0 and ∞). In the real lottery there is an infinite number of possible payouts. My version does not perfectly reflect the logic behind the original lottery.

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The Rise of Secularism and the Fall of Christianity: Google Books N-Gram Analysis

Google Books’ Ngram allows users to search for the frequency of terms appearing in books in Google’s database of printed material. The results show how often those terms have appeared in print over the years. Today I was messing around with the search tool and discovered something rather interesting. First, the word “secularism” appears in print more often than the word “Christianity” each year during the last ~75 years. This is illustrated below.


And second, beginning in the early 1700s “Christianity” appears in numerous books, peaking at about six books in every thousand. This surge and its peak took place during the scientific revolution, which is understandable (see Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsWiki page here). But subsequently Christianity began a rapid decline into obscurity (relatively speaking) to well fewer than one mention per 1,000 books by the American Civil War. This decline took place during the Age of Reflection, a paradigm shift away from reductionism and towards more complex explanations of natural phenomena.

And third, the rise of the appearance of “secularism” began somewhere between the two World Wars, but by the 1950s, when fighting wars the traditional way literally meant human extinction, “secularism” dwarfed “Christianity.” “Secularism” might very well be correlated with the threat of nuclear war. The European response, for example, to the Second Thirty Years’ War and the proliferation of weapons capable of destroying the planet was to break down the walls between states, integrate into a single community, and reveal its own vulnerabilities as confidence building exercises with former enemies. To do any of these while maintaining sectarian differences would have been the suicide of the emerging post-modern system. Religion, particularly Christianity on the European continent, was compelled to shrink and give space to secularism. I imagine the word overtaking Christianity for this precise reason (although I admit there could be a plethora of other reasons).

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Official Non-Secular Songs in the Military

As a veteran of the US Navy, I’ve always respected the secular nature of the branches of the American armed forces. Maintaining a secular position about religious matters is not only compelled by law, it’s also necessary for logistics purposes. An organization made up of people from every religious background would find itself less cohesive and coherent if it picked and promoted one of those religious positions over all the others. But there’s one tiny, insignificant, official, and non-secular position. It’s the official songs of the armed forces.

The Coast Guard’s “Semper Paratus” is the only completely secular song of the bunch. The rest mention god in one way or another. Let’s break it down one by one.

The Air Force sings a song simply titled “The U.S. Air Force.”

God is mentioned in the second verse:

Minds of men fashioned a crate of thunder
Sent it high into the blue
Hands of men blasted the world a-sunder
How they lived God only knew!
Souls of men dreaming of skies to conquer
Gave us wings, ever to soar!
With scouts before And bombers galore.
Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force!

The Army rocks out to “The Army Goes Rolling Along.” 

Faith in God is mentioned in the third chorus:

Men in rags, men who froze,
Still that Army met its foes,
And the Army went rolling along.
Faith in God, then we’re right,
And we’ll fight with all our might,
As the Army keeps rolling along.

The Marines belt out the “Marines Hymn”

Heaven is mentioned in the third verse.

 Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

And the Navy chants “Anchors Aweigh”

Faith and God are mentioned in the third verse.

Blue of the Mighty Deep; Gold of God’s Sun
Let these colors be till all of time be done, done, done,
On seven seas we learn Navy’s stern call:
Faith, Courage, Service true, with Honor, Over Honor, Over All.

While none of these songs are explicitly Christian or other, they do make the assumption that everyone in the military believes in one god or another. This is incredibly frustrating as an atheist, but it’s even more frustrating as a veteran, someone who took an oath to protect the constitution.

But to be honest and perhaps blunt, I don’t think it’s even worth trying to change the lyrics. It would take tremendous effort, and it would probably definitely fail. These songs are so ingrained in military culture that I bet even atheists sing the verses without giving them a second thought.

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Boulding’s “Skeleton of Science”: And What Complexity and God Mean to Knowledge

This post is a quick introduction to a field in engineering management and modeling and simulation called systemic science. The author of this field, a Quaker, captures beautifully how god plays into the way we think about complex problems.

In 1956 Kenneth E. Boulding published “General systems theory: The skeleton of science.” This piece identifies nine levels in the hierarchy of complex systems in the study of systems science. These levels elucidate the level at which empiricism is possible. Each level becomes more complex, reducing the ability to empirically study a phenomenon. Hard science dominates the first four levels; this is followed by less precise sciences, such as social and psychological fields where empiricism is less probable, and eclectic measures are often taken to approach explanation. These levels keep me gainfully employed! At the ninth level empiricism is impossible, but speculation and questions remain. Here’s a quick rundown.

The Hierarchy of Complexity

Level 1: Level of “frameworks,” or “static structure”

  • Stuff the universe is made out of
  • Ex. Crystal structures

Level 2: “Simple dynamic system with predetermined, necessary motions”

  • Clockwork systems
  • Ex. Motion of the solar system

Level 3: Closed loop control mechanisms

  • The maintenance of equilibrium in a system
  • Ex. A thermostat

Level 4: Structural self maintenance in an open system

  • “The level at which life begins to differentiate itself from not-life.”
  • Ex. A biological cell

Level 5: The genetic-societal level

  • Low-level organisms with functional parts, growth, reproduction
  • Ex. A plant

Level 6: Animal level

  • Brain to guide movement, learning, behavior
  • Ex. A cat

Level 7: Human level

  • Self-consciousness, knowledge, symbolic language
  • Ex. A human being

Level 8: Sociocultural systems

  • Norms, values, cultures, roles
  • Ex. The nation

Level 9: Transcendental systems

  • “Inescapable unknowables”
  • Ex. God

Boulding beautifully sums up the ninth level (p. 136):

To complete the structure of the systems we should add a final turret for transcendental systems, even if we may be accused at this point of having built Babel to the clouds. There are however the ultimates and absolutes and the inescapable unknowables, and they also exhibit systematic structure and relationship. It will be a sad day for man when nobody is allowed to ask questions that do not have any answers.

Boulding’s hierarchy provides us with a blueprint to identify where the gaps in our knowledge rest. As empiricism becomes increasingly more unlikely at each level, the gaps should become wider. These continuously fuel the scientific community with deeper questions. The gap in the “God” level is infinitely wide, fueling society with an endless array of unanswerable, but interesting, questions, which might explain why humans are so want to debate what a god is, what its intentions are, and how we should worship one (or many).

Each level becomes more and more complex until, ultimately, complexity is all that remains. The “God” question is therefore rather interesting, despite its relative meaninglessness to all other debates, where empiricism at least maintains a fighting chance.

On the flip side to this I could change Boulding’s assertion: It will be a sad day when nobody is allowed to ask questions because we already have all the answers. Thank God for complexity!

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The Question of Atheist Charity: Less Diffusion of Responsibility?

Checking out the Friendly Atheist’s blog, I’ve come across an absolutely fascinating story. To summarize, an atheist organization wanted to give a charitable donation of $100 to a non-profit with religious ties that helps children. The non-profit refused the money because of the source, so the atheist organization started raising more money to force the non-profit to accept a donation. Ultimately the non-profit refused to accept well over $20,000, strictly because they don’t want to be associated with non-believers. This compelled a Christian man to start his own fundraising campaign to get non-atheist-tainted money to the non-profit. When atheists started donating to that one, the gofundme campaign was cancelled. Holy crap! What a crazy story!

In the end all is well. The money will be donated to a secular organization, and the Christian-linked charity will get a sizable donation anonymously. (The fundraiser is still ongoing. If you’d like to donate click here).

But it got me thinking, and it also reminded me of another story from the Friendly Atheist from five years ago. Basically there was a question about whether or not a secular organization was being discriminated against by the American Cancer Society. I went back to that article, and then something hit me.

Per the article, on the micro lending website Kiva, as of 2011 the group called Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious have donated far more money than any other group, including Kiva Christians. In fact, I just checked and this is still the case. The atheist group has raised almost $28 million, $2.5 million more than Kiva Christians.

The Question

Why is it we hear time and time again that atheists and other secular organizations are really, really good at charity, often outperforming religious institutions? To really exemplify this question, when the Catholic Church turned its back on freezing nuns, refusing to raise the money needed to provide the nuns with heat in the middle of the winter, a group of atheists came to the rescue to replace the nun’s boiler.

In this piece I offer no answer, but rather I seek to offer a hypothesis. That is, during times of charitable need, atheists cannot rely on the diffusion of responsibility through their social structures.

Non-believers, no longer belonging to the religious communities of their childhoods, feel a part of the non-religious community. And because that community is so small, the burden of responsibility is greater on each member, compelling them to do something they might not otherwise do for the greater good. The pressure to give is smaller if we know that millions of others are going to give. The pressure to give is greater if we know there is only a small handful of people capable of giving.

So my hypothesis is:

Atheists and non-believers often outperform religious charity due to a greater feeling of responsibility as part of a smaller social group.

At least, this is my hypothesis, and if I phrase the question differently it’s certainly a scientific question.

But there might be competing hypotheses. Non-believers might feel a need to prove themselves in a world usually hostile to non-belief. That is, some teachings insist that atheists have no moral barometer (to steal a phrase from Steve Harvey), and the non-believer feels compelled to prove those teachings wrong.

Another hypothesis might be that as personal income increases, religiosity decreases. And as personal income increases, charitable giving increases. In this case a single independent variable affects two dependent variables, but religiosity has no effect on charitable giving. Atheists outperform religious people strictly because they have more disposable resources.

Whatever the answer may be, the observation does not change. Although not always, secular charitable giving often outperforms sacred charitable giving (feel free to inundate the comments with instances that contradict this point).

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