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Month: July 2017

Replacing religion with UFOs?

Replacing religion with UFOs?

In my first post on this blog I said that

Religion is an inescapable part of human nature—it has been a part of all human cultures everywhere and at all times. Religion serves important functions by providing, among other things: 1) a way to make parts of our lives sacred and allow us to commune with God (or some higher power); 2) moral guidelines and answers to deep life questions; 3) ceremonies and rites marking major life events; 4) a sense of community and solidarity with our coreligionists; and 5) a signaling mechanism about one’s devotion and trustworthiness.

On July 21 in the New York Times, Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, explained that

People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.

An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

Established religions aren’t doing as good of a job at fulfilling their traditional roles in our lives as they used to. Consequently, more and more people are giving up on religion. But people who give up on traditional religion can’t escape their innate religious natures. And so they turn to UFOs and ghosts.

But why aliens? They don’t seem to be a good substitute for what religion has to offer. Professor Routledge explains:

A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.

And, I would add, the new secularists who don’t believe in UFOs or ghosts almost inevitably end up believing in some kind of new superstition and orthodoxy. The social justice movement is mostly just a new pseudo-religion thst scratches the religious itch of secularists. But such new alternatives are poor replacements for religion. As Professor Routledge points out:

It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.

The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?

We need a better replacement for the old religions than what we have—something that keeps the best parts of the traditional religions, while incorporating our new scientific understanding of the world.

How to avoid dementia, maybe

How to avoid dementia, maybe

The authors of a recent article in The Lancet found nine “potentially modifiable” risk factors that appear to account for 35% of dementia:

Our results suggest that around 35% of dementia is attributable to a combination of the following nine risk factors: education to a maximum of age 11–12 years, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, hearing loss, late-life depression, diabetes, physical inactivity, smoking, and social isolation.

I suspect that genetic factors may affect these risk factors as well, so making behavior changes focused on  these factors may have a limited effect on dementia risk (the authors themselves acknowledge that “[t]he available evidence for the effect of lifestyle changes on cognitive decline is mixed”). But since changing behavior to avoid these nine risk factors is something we should be doing anyway, it’s good to know it might reduce dementia risk too.

Not A Nation of Immigrants

Not A Nation of Immigrants


“We are a nation of pioneers….We have but little room for the timid, the irresolute, and the idle.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

America used to see itself as a nation of pioneers. We need to start seeing ourselves that way again.

A Nation of Pioneers

A Nation of Pioneers

The rhetorical claim that America is a “nation of immigrants” is so common that it is taken for granted. This propagandistic notion is beaten into our heads from childhood. But is this how the American nation traditionally saw itself?

I’ll look at quantitative data from Google engrams in a subsequent post. Here, we look something more qualitative: a speech from Theodore Roosevelt at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901. Roosevelt gave this speech less than two weeks before he became president, following the assassination of President McKinley. The theme of this speech, in which Roosevelt first gave his famous quip to “speak softly and carry a big stick”, argues for a more internationalist and less isolationist foreign policy, something that many in his audience would have found difficult to accept. Before moving to his more controversial theme, Roosevelt builds on common ground with his audience by emphasizing uncontroversial, safe ideas that were nearly universally accepted—that America is a “nation of pioneers”:

In his admirable series of studies of twentieth-century problems, Dr. Lyman Abbott has pointed out that we are a nation of pioneers; that the first colonists to our shores were pioneers, and that pioneers selected out from among the descendants of these early pioneers, mingled with others selected afresh from the Old World, pushed westward into the wilderness and laid the foundations for new commonwealths.

Even though Roosevelt was delivering this speech in Minnesota, a place that in prior decades had just been settled by large numbers of immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany, he barely mentions immigration, and uses assimilationist language, about mingling selected pioneers from the Old World with old stock Americans.

They were men of hope and expectation, of enterprise and energy; for the men of dull content or more dull despair had no part in the great movement into and across the New World. Our country has been populated by pioneers, and therefore it has in it more energy, more enterprise, more expansive power than any other in the wide world.

You whom I am now addressing stand for the most part but one generation removed from these pioneers. You are typical Americans, for you have done the great, the characteristic, the typical work of our American life. In making homes and carving out careers for yourselves and your children, you have built up this state. Throughout our history the success of the homemaker has been but another name for the up-building of the nation. The men who with ax in the forests and pick in the mountains and plow on the prairies pushed to completion the dominion of our people over the American wilderness have given the definite shape to our nation. They have shown the qualities of daring, endurance, and far-sightedness, of eager desire for victory and stubborn refusal to accept defeat, which go to make up the essential manliness of the American character.

How many politicians today talk about the “essential manliness of the American character”? Why not? What have we lost?

Above all, they have recognized in practical form the fundamental law of success in American life—the law of worthy work, the law of high, resolute endeavor. We have but little room among our people for the timid, the irresolute, and the idle; and it is no less true that there is scant room in the world at large for the nation with mighty thews that dares not to be great.

Surely in speaking to the sons of the men who actually did the rough and hard and infinitely glorious work of making the great Northwest what it now is, I need hardly insist upon the righteousness of this doctrine. In your own vigorous lives you show by every act how scant is your patience with those who do not see in the life of effort the life supremely worth living. Sometimes we hear those who do not work spoken of with envy. Surely the willfully idle need arouse in the breast of a healthy man no emotion stronger than that of contempt—at the outside no emotion stronger than angry contempt. The feeling of envy would have in it an admission of inferiority on our part, to which the men who know not the sterner joys of life are not entitled. Poverty is a bitter thing; but it is not as bitter as the existence of restless vacuity and physical, moral, and intellectual flabbiness, to which those doom themselves who elect to spend all their years in that vainest of all vain pursuits—the pursuit of mere pleasure as a sufficient end in itself. The willfully idle man, like the willfully barren woman, has no place in a sane, healthy, and vigorous community. Moreover, the gross and hideous selfishness for which each stands defeats even its own miserable aims. Exactly as infinitely the happiest woman is she who has borne and brought up many healthy children,

CNN wouldn’t dare air a speech with a statement like this without first giving trigger warnings, and then following it with weeks of outraged commentary calling for investigations and apologies.

so infinitely the happiest man is he who has toiled hard and successfully in his life-work. The work may be done in a thousand different ways —with the brain or the hands, in the study, the field, or the workshop—if it is honest work, honestly done and well worth doing, that is all we have a right to ask. Every father and mother here, if they are wise, will bring up their children not to shirk difficulties, but to meet them and overcome them; not to strive after a life of ignoble ease, but to strive to do their duty, first to themselves and their families, and then to the whole state; and this duty must inevitably take the shape of work in some form or other. You, the sons of the pioneers, if you are true to your ancestry, must make your lives as worthy as they made theirs. They sought for true success, and therefore they did not seek ease. They knew that success comes only to those who lead the life of endeavor.

It seems to me that the simple acceptance of this fundamental fact of American life, this acknowledgment that the law of work is the fundamental law of our being, will help us to start aright in facing not a few of the problems that confront us from without and from within. As regards internal affairs, it should teach us the prime need of remembering that, after all has been said and done, the chief factor in any man’s success or failure must be his own character—that is, the sum of his common sense, his courage, his virile energy and capacity. Nothing can take the place of this individual factor.

So, the part of his speech meant to be an uncontroversial recitation of how Americans almost universally saw themselves talked about pioneers and hard work, not about immigrants. It talked about the source of the American nation’s strength being that it was a nation of pioneers who settle and build and who believe in hard work, determination, and courage.

And that’s the way we need to start seeing ourselves again.

First Post

First Post

Welcome to my new blog. In this first post, I explain 13 major themes for the blog (#2 explains the name):

1) Tradition: Our cultural traditions represent the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. They were fine-tuned over generations and lasted, usually, because they served a useful purpose. Rejecting tradition means turning our backs on the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors.

Lasting progress usually comes by making incremental improvement on what came before. When faced with new questions or challenges, it is wise and prudent to respond by making only small, incremental changes, if any at all.

Major changes to complex human social systems are likely to cause more harm than good, and often in ways that are difficult to predict or anticipate. Elites have forced major political, social, cultural, and institutional changes on society since the Great Depression.[1] We should reverse these revolutionary changes in favor of the longer-term traditions that preceded them.

Sometimes, when revolutionary change is forced on us, the only way to defeat it is through more revolutionary change in the opposite direction.

Even if we roll back the negative changes of the last 75 years, some reform of the basic structure of our government is needed to make sure the same problem doesn’t happen again. But where updates are needed (such as to our political and judicial systems), we should make them in an evolutionary way, trying to keep as much as we can of what came before, and with full transparency about what those changes are and that they are being made.

A major theme of my writings will be to propose a new form of government to fix some of problems under the current system. This new type of government, which I’ve named Folkraed (Old English for “people’s counsel”), is an evolution of our current system to 1) give much more direct power over government to voters; 2) impose greater requirements to qualify as a voter (including knowledge and competency tests, a required minimum number of children, military service, and continued unpaid part-time government service to replace most government workers); 3) use of sortition to select leaders and management positions in government; 4) reliance on unpaid voters to fill most rolls within the government bureaucracy; and 5) greater local control over most issues.

2) Western civilization: In light of the first point, for Europe and her descendent settler societies, our guiding traditions and values come from Western Civilization as it developed through Greco-Roman civilization, Christianity, and the scientific revolution, and for the United States specifically, through English culture and then as our own culture developed since the 1600s.

We should honor, defend, and build up the Western Civilization of our ancestors, a sentiment aptly put by Macaulay in his Lays on Ancient Rome, from which I take the blog’s name:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.”

3) Religion: Religion is an inescapable part of human nature—it has been a part of all human cultures everywhere and at all times. Religion serves important functions by providing, among other things: 1) a way to make parts of our lives sacred and allow us to commune with God (or some higher power); 2) moral guidelines and answers to deep life questions; 3) ceremonies and rites marking major life events; 4) a sense of community and solidarity with our coreligionists; and 5) a signaling mechanism about one’s devotion and trustworthiness.

Religion brings tremendous individual and societal benefits. Religiosity and belief in God have been found, over and over, to be positively related to better physical and mental health, greater life satisfaction, longer lifespan, and pro-social behavior.[2]

Even people who reject organized religion or belief in God cannot escape their fundamental religious nature —they’re still human beings, after all. They usually end up unknowingly pouring their religiosity into other things that we don’t normally think of as being associated with organized religion, but that are still just as strongly religious: new kinds of superstitions and strange new modern secular orthodoxies lacking a basis in reality or tradition, and often with unanticipated harmful effects[3].

On the other hand, those who have given up on the old, established religions have a point. The major world religions are pre-modern creations with a lot of baggage that is difficult to accept in light of modern scientific understandings of the world around us (not to mention the textual and historical issues that cast significant doubt on the truthfulness of all the major religions). This is one of the main reasons why religious affiliation and participation is decreasing so significantly in the West.

Western Civilization needs traditional religion to survive, but traditional religion as it currently exists can’t thrive in the modern world and thus cannot serve its historical functions.

The other major theme of this blog will be to record my efforts to create a new kind of religious belief that retains as much of the traditions and wisdom of the past as possible, while being compatible with our modern understandings of cosmology and reality.

4) Morality: Our moral duties to others form concentric circles of obligation. At the heart of those circles is our family, to which we owe the greatest obligation. Our duties move outward from there, with progressively diminishing duties to friends, community, nation, and state, and then finally to the rest of mankind.[4]

5) Science: The scientific method has proved itself a powerful tool for better understanding reality. We should apply it liberally to questions of human knowledge.

6) Nature and nurture: The modern doctrine that all people are born equal in mental abilities and emotional and personality traits—that there is no nature, only nurture—is false. Nature and nurture jointly determine most outcomes; nature’s contribution is usually at least equal to nurture’s; often it is greater. For a variety of major life outcomes and characteristics, genetics determine more than how your parents raised you or on your school or teachers. We are not all born as equivalent, interchangeable blank slates. While each person is equally endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, each person’s intelligence, personality traits, level of grit, propensity to violence, and a host of other things are all significantly determined by genetics and innate biological factors.[5] Any sane public policy must take this fact into account.

7) Evolution: Human evolution did not stop 50,000 years ago. It continues even now.[6]

8) Human nature is good and bad: Human nature includes much that is beautiful and ennobling, but also much that is devious and evil, such as our tendency toward hypocrisy, for seeking wealth and power through immoral means, and to pursue our self-interest at the expense of others and our community. Public policy should always take into account the negative aspects of human nature and build in corresponding safeguards, limitations on power, and checks and balances.

9) Anti-utopian practicality: Because of human nature and because worthy goals are often mutually exclusive, it is unwise to believe that big changes will bring a utopia. Good public policy is about making tradeoffs between competing goals and interests. A more realistic focus should be to incrementally make things better. If a human utopia is ever to come about, it will come gradually through incremental improvements, not through some new wholesale change to everything.

In the rare circumstance when revolutionary change becomes necessary, it should never be seen as a panacea. At best, it may solve the problem of the day, but at the cost of much pain along the way (and often also creating incipient problems that will develop and need future solutions). At worst, it brings chaos and destruction with no corresponding benefit. Revolutionary change should be a last resort. It generally will only succeed if led by reasonable, honorable, and good men (for example, compare the American and French revolutions).

10) Nationalism: A nation is “[a] historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, ethnicity and/or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”[7] We humans are a communal and tribal species. We naturally sort ourselves into groups, and we do best when we live amongst our own. Each nation has an obligation to coexist peacefully with its neighbors, but also the right of self-determination and of self-defense against outsiders trying to control its destiny or enter or take over its homeland.

11) Unity and assimilation: Self-appointed pundits and public intellectuals look to our motto on the Great Seal of the United States, “E pluribus unum”–out of many, one–and say that diversity is our strength. But they misunderstand. Our strength comes not from diversity. It comes from forging unity. It comes from assimilation. It comes from the unifying strength of our institutions and culture that sprouted from English roots and have since grown and developed independently through Americans’ shared experience over the more than 400 years since our forebears first settled the continent.

Even today, for the majority of Americans, those colonial forebears are our actual ancestors—60 percent of Americans have ancestors who were living in the 13 colonies at the time of the Revolution (in fact, about 10 percent of Americans can trace ancestry just to the 135 colonists who came over on the Mayflower).[8] For the other 40 percent, the colonial settlers are their spiritual forebears, responsible for laying the foundations of the culture and institutions of their homeland. Or at least current citizens without roots back to the Founding should deeply revere them as their spiritual ancestors. The fact that many don’t is a symptom of one of our country’s greatest national problems.

Our strength as a country comes from traditions, institutions, and culture built over more than 400 years. Unity, not diversity, is where our strength comes from.

A significant body of academic research confirms that countries and communities with higher levels of ethnic and linguistic diversity have worse outcomes on a variety of measures, such as political stability, violence, strength of democracy, levels of trust between citizens, and civic participation.[9] It will be to our great long term benefit to focus on ensuring that those who live in the United States are strongly and solely assimilated into American culture and identity and that we only allow into the country those who are easily assimilable. It may already be too late to do so. Let’s hope not, because the academic research indicates that the other possible alternatives will not end well.

12) Localism: Better and more legitimate policy is usually made when done as locally as possible.

13) Truth: Truth reigns supreme. It doesn’t care what you want or what makes you happy or feel good. Finding truth is important, even if what you discover is not what you wanted or makes you feel bad. Whether you like it or not, the truth is the truth. Ignoring it won’t change that. And sooner or later it will catch up to you. It’s better to understand as much as you can as soon as you can, and be prepared to face reality, than to live on in blissful ignorance until the truth blindsides you and destroys your world.

[1] Such as the bloated adminstrative state; extreme expansion of the numbers of federal statutes and regulations; expanding control of the federal government over local affairs; activist courts; incorporaton of the Bill of Rights; militarized police forces; the normalization and promotion of sexually irresponsible behavior; ever-more debased and vulgar popular culture; the promotion of nontraditional family structures leading to increased divorce and single parent families and more children not being raised by their biological parents; entitlement programs that encourage single motherhood; policies that benefit the very wealthy at everyone else’s expense; a winner-take-all economy; crony capitlaism; monopolistic/oligopolistic capitalism; and, most recently, new norms opposed to free speech and freedom of association.

[2] See, e.g., Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta, “Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior,” Evolutionary Anthropology, Vol. 12, No. 6, Nov. 2003, pp. 264–274,,; David G. Myers, “Religion and human flourishing,” in Michael Eid and Randy J. Larsen (eds.), The Science of Subjective Well-Being, 2008, pp. 323-46, 330-32; Jesse Preston and Ryan S. Ritter, “Different effects of Religion and God on prosociality with the ingroup and outgroup,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 9, September 2013,,;  Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement of Religion and Spirituality: Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, January 2003, pp. 64-74 at 66,,,%20Conceptualization%20of%2 0spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf; Robert A. Hummer, Richard G. Rogers, Charles B. Nam, and Christopher G. Ellison, “Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality,” Demography, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1999, pp. 273-285,

[3] Such as transplanting Calvinist notions of original sin and predestination to modern conceptions of race, or transplanting religious notions about ritual purity to environmentalism and modern food fads.

[4] Steve Sailer, “The Self-Righteous Hive Mind,”  Taki’s Magazine, April 11, 2012,

[5] Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., “Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits: A Survey,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No. 4, August 2004, pp. 148-51, /content/13/4/148,; G. Davies et. al., “Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic,” Molecular Psychiatry, Vol. 16, No. 10, October 2011, pp. 996-1005,,; John C. Loehlin, Joseph M. Horn, Jody L. Ernst, “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Adult Life Outcomes: Evidence from the Texas Adoption Project,” Behavioral Genetics, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2007, pp. 463-76,, on/6453178_Genetic_and_environmental_influences_on_adult_life_outcomes_evidence_from_the_Texas_Adoption_Project/links/0deec5214e7cbe61ea000000.pdf; Peter J. Loewen, Christopher T. Dawes, Nina Mazar, Magnus Johannesson, Philipp Koellinger, Patrik K.E. Magnusson, “The heritability of moral standards for everyday dishonesty,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Vol. 93, September 2013, pp. 363–366, 672681,

[6] Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion, 2009.

[7] “Nation,”​/wiki/Nation


[9] Robert D. Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century: The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture,” Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2007, pp. 137–174,; Christopher Clague, Suzanne Gleason, and Stephen Knack. “Determinants of Lasting Democracy in Poor Countries: Culture, Development, and Institutions.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences,Vol. 573, No. 1, pp. 17-41, January 2001,,; Curtis Thompson. “Political Stability and Minority Groups in Burma,” Geographical Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, July 1995, pp. 269-285,; James Rogers, Honors Thesis: The Importance of the Middle Class in Political Stability and the Strength of Democracies, Brigham Young University, 2005.