Book Review – Going Clear

You might think you already know a lot about Scientology, what with the amount of celebrities that are part of the church. Trust me, you know nothing unless you read Lawrence Wright‘s Going Clear – Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief.

The book is an expansion of Wright’s New Yorker article on Paul Haggis, who spent decades in Scientology only to be disillusioned and resigning from it over the Proposition 8 issue in California. Scientology was listed as a supporter of the ban on gay marriage, two of Haggis’s daughters are gay. He asked for the spokesperson of the organization to retract the support. This was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. [Although I cannot personally forgive Haggis for being the initiator of that appalling POS that was Walker: Texas Ranger.]

The book, then, goes beyond Haggis although it starts and ends with him. Wright spends quite a bit of book space on Lafayette Ron Hubbard (LRH). He comes across as a highly creative, chronically lying, abusive con man who figured out how to make a ton of money and exploit a lot of people. His entire life seems to be one carefully constructed lie after another. I am not surprised he was friend with other right-wing unpleasant characters like Robert Heinlein. And he was a terrible, controlling and neglectful at the same time, husband and father, and a creepy character, what with the underage Messengers.

“TO MAKE SURE his orders were carried out, Hubbard created the Commodore’s Messengers Organization. In the beginning, the Messengers were four young teenage girls, including Yvonne Gillham’s two daughters, Terri and Janis, who were thirteen and eleven years old; Annie Tidman, twelve; and, briefly, Hubbard’s youngest daughter, Suzette, who was thirteen at the time. Soon, several more teenage girls joined them, and Suzette went to work on the decks. Two of the girls were always posted outside Hubbard’s office, waiting to take his handwritten directives to the mimeograph machine or deliver his orders in person. He instructed them to parrot his exact words and tone of voice when they were delivering one of his directives— to inform the captain what time to set sail, for instance, or to tell a member of the crew he was “a fucking asshole” if he had displeased him. Hubbard allowed them to create their own uniforms, so in warmer climates they attired themselves in white hot pants, halter tops, and platform shoes. When the Commodore moved around the ship, one or more Messengers trailed behind him, carrying his hat and an ashtray, lighting his cigarettes, and quickly moving a chair into place if he started to sit down. People lived in fear of Hubbard’s teenage minions. They had to call the Messenger “sir” even if she was a twelve-year-old girl.


The relationship between Hubbard and these girls was intimate but not overtly sexual. They prepared his bath when he retired and would sit outside his room until he awakened and called out, “Messenger!” They would help him out of bed, light his cigarette, run his shower, prepare his toiletries, and help him dress. Some of the children had parents on the ship, others were there alone, but in either case Hubbard was their primary caretaker— and vice versa. When the girls became old enough to start wearing makeup, Hubbard was the one who showed them how to apply it. He also helped them do their hair.” (107)

What is obvious is that the mistreatment that Hubbard inflicted upon his family are clearly reflected, on a larger scale, in the way the organization leaders treat their own members. As much as Wright takes pain to be objective in his depiction of Scientology – there is no mockery of the doctrine and beliefs – the Church comes off as a terrorist organization, and its leader as a violent bully. Frankly, I had no idea of the extent of the abuse and violence going on in there and it is appalling to me that such an organization still enjoys tax exemptions and is pursued criminally for things such as harassment, kidnapping and other charges. But the book is thoroughly sourced despite denials from Church officials.

Again, at no point does Wright engage in derision of the belief system crafted by LRH. After all, as he points out, if one wants to make fun of beliefs, one can do so of any religion and Scientology has common elements with several of them. And actually, from Wright’s writings, it does look like LHR and the other organization leader truly believe their doctrine. So, it is not entirely a massive con game.

Through and through though, the imprint of Hubbard on everything is obvious:

“The years at sea were critical ones for the future of Scientology. Even as Hubbard was inventing the doctrine, each of his decisions and actions would become enshrined in Scientology lore as something to be emulated— his cigarette smoking, for instance, which is still a feature of the church’s culture at the upper levels, as are his 1950s habits of speech, his casual misogyny, his aversion to perfume and scented deodorants, and his love of cars and motorcycles and Rolex watches. More significant is the legacy of his belittling behavior toward subordinates and his paranoia about the government. Such traits stamped the religion as an extremely secretive and sometimes hostile organization that saw enemies on every corner.” (108)

What LHR also initiated was the practice of punishing people for supposed bad thoughts against him or the organization. From people being thrown overboard one of the Church’s ships to solitary confinement to forced labor and imprisonment, to beatings, there is no end to the way the organization leaders, and especially its current Chairman of the Board (COB, as he is called) will torture, torment, bully, and brutalize. The depictions of the punishment inflicted upon members for the slightest (often arbitrarily defined) offense cannot be described as something other than torture.

And child abuse started under Hubbard himself:

“Hubbard increasingly turned his wrath on children, who were becoming a nuisance on the ship. He thought that they were best raised away from their parents, who were “counter-intention” to their children. As a result, he became their only— stern as well as neglectful— parent. Children who committed minor infractions, such as laughing inappropriately or failing to remember a Scientology term, would be made to climb to the crow’s nest, at the top of the mast, four stories high, and spend the night, or sent to the hold and made to chip rust. A rambunctious four-year-old boy named Derek Greene, an adopted black child, had taken a Rolex watch belonging to a wealthy member of the Sea Org and dropped it overboard. Hubbard ordered him confined in the chain locker, a closed container where the massive anchor chain is stored. It was dark, damp, and cold. There was a danger that the child could be mutilated if the anchor was accidentally lowered or slipped. Although he was fed, he was not given blankets or allowed to go to the bathroom. He stayed sitting on the chain for two days and nights. The crew could hear the boy crying. His mother pleaded with Hubbard to let him out, but Hubbard reminded her of the Scientology axiom that children are actually adults in small bodies, and equally responsible for their behavior. Other young children were sentenced to the locker for infractions— such as chewing up a telex— for as long as three weeks. Hubbard ruled that they were Suppressive Persons. One little girl, a deaf mute, was placed in the locker for a week because Hubbard thought it might cure her deafness.” (112)

Wright follows these trajectories of LHR and Scientology relatively chronologically with certain recurrent themes that define the organization’s attitude towards the government, journalists, critiques and celebrities. The principles that the Church follows were all laid out by LHR himself: the belief in government conspiracies which triggered Operation Snow White. What is Operation snow White? Read and be shocked:

“In Hubbard’s absence, Mary Sue exerted increased control over the church’s operations. Hubbard had already appointed her the head of the Guardian’s Office, a special unit with a broad mandate to protect the religion. Among its other duties, the GO functioned as an intelligence agency, gathering information on critics and government agencies around the world, generating lawsuits to intimidate opponents, and waging an unremitting campaign against mental health professionals. It was the GO that Hubbard tasked with Snow White. Under Mary Sue’s direction, the GO infiltrated government offices around the world, looking for damning files on the church. Within the next few years, as many as five thousand Scientologists were covertly placed in 136 government agencies worldwide. Project Grumpy, for instance, covered Germany, where the Guardian’s Office was set up to infiltrate Interpol as well as German police and immigration authorities. In addition, there was a scheme to accuse German critics of the church of committing genocide. Project Sleepy was to clear files in Austria; Happy was for Denmark, Bashful for Belgium, and Dopey for Italy. There were also Projects Mirror, Apple, Reflection, and so on, all drawn from elements of the fairy tale. Projects Witch and Stepmother both targeted the UK, the source of Scientology’s immigration problems.

Project Hunter was the United States, where Scientologists penetrated the IRS, the Justice, Treasury, and Labor Departments, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as foreign embassies and consulates; private companies and organizations, such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Better Business Bureau; and newspapers— including the St. Petersburg Times, the Clearwater Sun, and the Washington Post— that were critical of the religion. In an evident attempt at blackmail, they stole the Los Angeles IRS intelligence files of celebrities and political figures, including California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and Frank Sinatra. Nothing in American history can compare with the scale of the domestic espionage of Operation Snow White.” (123)

Another principle is the harassment of critiques. Anyone critical of the organization, journalist or former member, will be followed, have their trash searched, their pets disappeared, will be accused of all sorts of “perversions”, and ultimately be buried under an avalanche of lawsuits that will drive them to bankruptcy if they don’t settle or recant. That is actually what happened to the IRS when Scientology’s tax exempt status was in question. In that sense, it is truly a terrorist organization.

But it is not just critiques that are subject to such treatment. Members themselves are subject to blackmail and intimidation. After all, the practice of auditing means that the organization has files on all its members, confessing to their most intimate ideas, fantasies, etc. All things that can be potentially embarrassing if they were not kept confidential. This gives the church tremendous power over its members it they decide to step out of line. And if they do, all sorts of punishments are meted out, from soviet-style confessions, to debasing treatments, to physical punishment. It is actually by punishing many people at the same time that the church gets a lot of free labor.

If church members try to leave, it will be very hard. They will have to “blow”, that is, to escape and disappear because big guys from the church will go after them and intimidate them into returning or use physical force if necessary. And if people do end up leaving, the church will bill them hundreds of thousands of dollars for the “training” they have received (even though people have already paid for that).

Scientology’s interest in Hollywood celebrities was also part of LHR’s big plan:

“When the Church of Scientology was officially founded in Los Angeles, in February 1954, by several of Hubbard’s devoted followers, there was already a history of religious celebrities and celebrity religions. The cultivation of famous people— or people who aspired to be famous— was a feature of Hubbard’s grand design. He foresaw that the best way of promoting Scientology as a ladder to enlightenment was to court celebrities, whom he defined as “any person important enough in his field or an opinion leader or his entourage, business associates, family or friends with particular attention to the arts, sports and management and government.”” (138)

It’s not hard to see why. After all, we know, since Max Weber, that one cannot inherit charisma. Charisma usually disappears when the charismatic leader dies. Any organization faced with this problem can either routinize it and anchor the organization into bureaucratic processes (which the church has done) or, it can “borrow” charisma, something that Hollywood celebrities certainly have. After all, the doctrine of scientology is about saving the entire world, so, one needs big “influencers”. Borrowing celebrity charisma turns out to be especially necessary when an aging LHR disappeared in 1980 (to avoid lawsuits from several countries) and died in 1986 (I didn’t know what had happened in that 6-year period). The importance of celebrities is fairly developed in the book in the chapters dedicated to the church’s treatment of Tom Cruise. It is both fascinating and creepy.

The enlisting of celebrities has helped the church weather bad publicity that comes up on a regular basis, whether it was the IRS suits, the Lisa McPherson suspicious death, to Cruise’s comments on Brooke Shields and psychiatry, and regular scandals that plague the church. At the same time, the church, at least in the US, is relatively protected as it has received support from Bill Clinton to former education secretary Rod Paige who was receptive to Hubbard’s ideas on education and was lobbied by scientology to include some of these ideas in NCLB.

After reading all the accounts of the free or poorly paid labor the church extracts from its members, it is no wonder it is such a wealthy organization that it can bury its enemies in lawsuits. Permanent staff (Sea Org members) are paid $50 a week (minus fees for punishment), are poorly clothed and fed and housed in collective barracks.

“The contrast with the other Sea Org members is stark. They eat in a mess hall, which features a meat-and-potatoes diet and a salad bar, except for occasional extended periods of rice and beans for those who are being punished. The average cost per meal as of 2005 (according to Marc Headley, who participated in the financial planning each week) was about seventy-five cents a head— significantly less than what is spent per inmate in the California prison system. When members join the Sea Org, they are issued two sets of pants, two shirts, and a pair of shoes, which is their lifetime clothing allotment; anything else, they purchase themselves. Although the nominal pay for Sea Org members is fifty dollars a week, many are fined for various infractions, so it’s not unusual to be paid as little as thirteen or fourteen dollars. Married couples at Gold Base share a two-bedroom apartment with two other couples, meaning that one pair sleeps on the couch. In any case, few get more than five or six hours of sleep a night. There are lavish exercise facilities at the base— an Olympic pool, a golf course, basketball courts— but they are rarely used. Few are permitted to have access to computers. Every personal phone call is listened to; every letter is inspected. Bank records are opened and records kept of how much money people have. Cultural touchstones common to most Americans are often lost on Sea Org members at Gold Base. They may not know the name of the president of the United States or be able to tell the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s not as if there is no access to outside information; there is a big-screen television in the dining hall, and people can listen to the radio or subscribe to newspapers and magazines; however, news from the outside world begins to lose its relevance when people are outside of the wider society for extended periods of time. Many Sea Org members have not left the base for a decade.” (273)

That is indeed in contrast with the first class, lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the top if the church’s hierarchy and the celebrities who received indeed star treatment when they stay at the facilities.  And, of course, since many children are born to parents who are in the church, they get to work as well, receive limited education, all in breach of several states’ child labor laws.

Overall, it is a very well-written, well-sourced, and very informative book on this organization. I am curious as to whether Wright will be subject to the same harassment to which other journalists have been subjected when they investigated the church or whether he will be sued into bankruptcy. Because, even though Wright really does not come down hard on the organization, the church still comes off as monstrous. As I mentioned earlier, if you thought you knew all there is to know about scientology, you do not unless you read this book.

From a sociological point of view, it is a fascinating read as a study in the creation of a religious social movement, based on charismatic leadership and the one-man creation of an entire universe of belief.

Hedging Albinos

Because that is what it is, right? A form of hedging.

Again, I have blogged multiple times about the murders of albinos in Tanzania. Here is a more recent example of this, with some connection made to the gold mining business from the excellent Aljazeera:

As noted in the film,

“Over the last five years in Tanzania, however, the situation has become much, much worse, with albinos increasingly subjected to murder and mutilation because of a completely spurious myth that albino body parts are effective in witchcraft rituals. Despite international outrage and repeated attempts by the Tanzanian government to stamp out this truly appalling practice, since it first came to light many albinos have been hunted down and attacked purely for their limbs and organs. Indeed the incidents seem to be increasing. Since 2008, at least 62 albinos have been killed in Tanzania, 16 have been violently assaulted and had their limbs amputated and the bodies of 12 albinos have been exhumed from graves and dismembered.

Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that estimates of the numbers of albinos in Tanzania vary significantly. Officially there are around 5,000 registered, but the country’s Albino Association says the real number is in excess of 150,000. They say that many albinos are still kept hidden by their families because of the stigma some associate with the condition or because of fear that they might be attacked.”

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What a great offer

But I guess that is what you have to do when you are leading an organization with medieval views:

“In offering to lift the threat of excommunication for women who have had abortions, the Vatican is treading sensitive ground. Abortion is a delicate issue in Spain, but with 112,000 legal abortions performed in 2009, it is clearly a choice many Spanish women are prepared to make. A new law came into force last year giving the right to abortion up to 14 weeks’ term.

Another issue the pope is expected to speak out against is same-sex marriage, which became legal in Spain in 2005. However, on this issue as well, public opinion is more liberal than the rest of Europe, with 5.7 in 10 in favour, compared with an EU average of 4.2.”

But what is amusing is this:

“On the other hand, about 1.5 million pilgrims will descend on the Madrid during the World Youth Day celebrations.”

Yeah, I remember when those took place in France years ago: biggest congregation of pot smokers I have ever seen because everybody knew the cops would be hands-off.


Book Review – Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist

Well, it is not often that I dislike a book as much as I did Peter Berger‘s Adventures of An Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore.

Before I even get into the book per se, I should mention I didn’t know much about Peter Berger himself beyond reading the modern classic The Social Construction of Reality, with Thomas Luckmann when I was in college (it was mandatory reading, quite good too). But beyond that, I never read anything else, mostly because of his focus on religion (a topic which by and large bores the stuffing out of me). I tried reading his Invitation to Sociology (because I had read the bit on debunking) but got bored quickly.

This means that I was not prepared for what turned out to be the intellectual autobiography of a right-wing privileged old white man (a characterization he would probably deny since he thinks the whole class / race / gender thing is a really bad thing in sociology) who has been so, so oppressed by these awful lefties and feminists. Hanging out at the Texas ranch of the main organizers of Iran-Contra though, that didn’t bother him too much.

It is quite amazing to read someone who seemed to have had an easy academic career (at least, from what he tells, but things were certainly more relaxed when he started) engage in some non-stop whining about how the lefties are ruining sociology, hanging out with some hard-core right-wingers, and then, adopt a holier-than-thou “reasonable centrist” attitude all the while dismissing anyone outside of his circle of privileged colleagues with concerns about the less privileged. No one seems less aware of privilege, power and conflict than he is.

Let me walk you through some morceaux choisis. At first, the book was quite interesting, going over the early formation of a sociologist through French literature and Weber. And a little detour through debunking:

“Sociology is akin to comedy because it debunks the social fictions. By the same token, it is potentially liberating. It shows up the ‘bad faith’ by which individuals hide behind their roles and forces them to confront the reality of their own freedom. In the same process sociology must debunk the religious legitimations of the social fictions.


Sociology derives its moral justification of its debunking of the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression and cruelty. (…) Sociology liberates by facilitating a standing outside one’s social roles (literally, an “ecstasy” – ekstasis) and thereby a realization of one’s freedom. (…) Sociology suggests that we are puppets of society, but unlike puppets we can look up and discover the strings to which we are attached, and this discovery is a first step toward freedom.” (74-6)

So far so good. I started taking issue with Berger in his assessment of modernity. He still considers that we are living in modern times. Apparently the whole post-modern theoretical developments passed him by. His big idea is that modernity did not lead to secularization but to pluralism (multiplicity of religions and spiritual approaches). Pluralism undermines established religion but offers individuals multiple choices as to how spiritual they wish to be and in what kind of religious organizations. Basically, what he described is Lyotard’s death of the grand narratives and Bauman / Beck’s individualization thesis which mark the end of modernity and the advent of post-modernity or any other such formulation, such as liquid society. To hold on to the modernity frame leads to a lot of category mistakes (including the one regarding, for Berger and his wife – who obviously has never read Stephanie Coontz – that the bourgeois nuclear family is the most functional, something blatantly untrue in the individualized and increasingly mobile society).

The second main issue I had was Berger’s declaration that capitalism is great and good and works everywhere while socialism is an utter failure. While Berger likes to position himself as the reasonable centrist in a world of ideological extremes (although right-wing ideologies don’t much him anywhere near as much as left-wing ideologies, apparently), he does see the world in black and white. For instance, in his ringing endorsement of capitalism over socialism, there is no considerations of the successful social democracies of Scandinavia nor is there any examination of capitalism in totalitarian states (for instance, the Latin and South American dictatorships of the 70s and 80s, fully supported by the US).

Focused as he is on culture (at the expenses of stratification of any kind), his examination of the development model of the Asian tigers revolves around the mushy neo-confucianism without a shred of examination of the role of the developmental state that Manuel Castells has so thoroughly examined. Nor does he take into account the impact of structural adjustment programs imposed on countries of the Global South (an expression he finds confusing) and that led to the debt crisis and the lost decade of the 80s. For someone who claimed to be concerned with the “calculus of pain” (how much pain should people endure in the name of development, and that pain is taken to be only economic, never political, so, capitalism in totalitarian environments is ok), that’s a pretty big shortcoming.

The point at which Berger leaves sociological territory, in the book, to get into the purely political is when he recounts the 60s. As he states, he was in favor of the Civil Rights, was repelled by racism but, basically, the DFHs ruined the whole thing with their radicalism. As a result, he became conservative, started hanging out with such non-ideological people as Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter and writing for Commentary. Berger really has it in for the feminists, depicted as oppressive and doctrinaire and impervious to reason.

A great deal of his discontent with feminists and other non-right-wing people is depicted in a chapter titled “Politically Incorrect Excursions”. In my book, everyone who invokes “political correctness” loses all credibility. Those are usually privileged individuals who disliked having their privileges questioned and that is exactly the case here. And, he pulls one nice little Dawkins as well against feminists, at the same time showing his privilege and his ignorance of feminism:

“Another matter, though, is the continuing definition of women as victims – and that in the Western societies which have accorded to women a degree of privilege unequalled in human history and indeed unequalled in any other contemporary society.” (158)

Well, women were not “accorded” certain rights. They fought for them, won some battles and lost others. And we still live in a patriarchal system. But the whole idea of a privileged white man telling women to STFU because they have it so good in Western societies kinda proves the point of why we need feminism. This sense of privilege (which is never examines and never questioned) is especially displayed in Berger preferred methods: coffee house sociology (hanging out with like-minded academics and coming up with ideas within that small limited circles – Berger keeps mentioning the same people over and over again) and sociological tourism (go hang out with other privileged people in other societies, then, write a book).

Among other politically incorrect excursions? The aforementioned retreat at the Texas ranch of Iran-Contra perpetrators while they were hashing out the whole murderous enterprise (but he didn’t take part because he was more focused on Jamaica. Still, the very fact that he was invited for the occasion is revealing), helping the tobacco industry in fighting back against regulations. And advocating an incremental approach to the dismantlement of apartheid. In all of these cases. Berger relishes in his over version of “if I’m pissing off both sides, then, I’m doing the right thing”:

“A morally sensitive social scientist will, I think, instinctively move toward middle positions (middle between radical change and stubborn preservation) on most issues.” (177)

No, a morally sensitive sociologist would move toward the position of greater social justice. I wonder what Berger would have made of the younger Nelson Mandela and the ANC of the 1960s.

as the book goes on, it feels like Berger is lowering his guard and getting more and more ideological himself. Take his description of BU President John Silber:

“Some on the faculty perceived him as a right-winger, which was certainly a misperception. He was a lifelong Democrat, very much in the pre-1960s tradition of Democratic Party liberalism. But he was also an American patriot, staunchly anti-communist, opposed to abortion on philosophical grounds, and contemptuous of fashionable political correctness.” (183)

Emphasis mine. So, (1) to be a Democrat is to not be a patriot, (2) let me remind everybody that pre-1960s Democrats tended to be pro-segregation, and (3) for Berger, something based on “philosophical grounds” (which is what reasonable men do) is much better than on ideological grounds (which is what evil lefties do).

And, when dealing with conflict, Berger certainly falls into the category of “both sides are doing it”, completely ignoring the power imbalances that may be involved. For instance, regarding his involvement in South Africa, he describes the late apartheid period as a “time of intense political conflict” as if the parties were equal and equivalent. It was not a time of intense political conflict, but a time of intense political repression marked by systematic torture from a white supremacist regimes.

More than that, he later described Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique as a”feminist assault on the conventional family” (discussing his wife’s book on family). He also wrongfully blames Roe v. Wade for the emergence of the religious right (something many times debunked) as well as Jimmy Carter for organizing a conference on families rather than family. And here is how he describes that conflict:

“On one side the pro-family and anti-abortion (“pro-life”) movements merged, while on the other side the pro-abortion (“pro-choice”) movement allied itself with other socially progressive causes. Probably more by accident than by deliberate decisions, the social conservatives became an important constituency of the Republican Party, while the social progressives assumed a dominant role in the Democratic Party. Abortion became a doctrinaire litmus test on both sides.” (200)

How clueless can one be. Seriously, “pro-family” versus “pro-abortion”. And let us not mention the Southern strategy. Oh, and he and his wife are against gay marriage because it would undermine the “bourgeois family” (his phrase, not mine) and because children are, in their view because studies show otherwise, better off raised by their biological parents. I’m guessing he’s against adoption then.

And for my fellow sociologists, enjoy this little bit:

“In sociology the mantra of  ‘class, race, gender’ had come to dominate work in most areas of the discipline; a diffuse left-liberalism had in many placed hardened into a repressive orthodoxy.” (203)

So says the man who has had a very privileged academic career. And not a shred of evidence as to why such a view is wrong. It just does not fit with his privileged-functional, cultural-essentialist perspective, so, it’s ideological and repressive.

And to get a sense of his cluelessness, get this,

“I remember a conversation with some black people in South Africa [he usually mentions names everywhere, but not here apparently]. They expressed strong resentment about the continuing privilege of the white minority despite the demise of the apartheid regime. I said that I could understanding their feelings [how nice of him], but [you knew there was a “but” coming and that there is some white-splaining coming] I suggested a mental experiment: Forget the race of these people for a moment [because, you know, in South Africa, race is not really relevant]. Just look at their economic functions, which the country needs and which blacks especially need. Then look at them as an economic asset to be exploited, not for their sake but for yours. My argument failed to convince [no !@#$].” (217)

I wonder why these black people were not convinced by this little bit of white patronizing.

And that last quote, to me, is perfectly revealing of Peter Berger the man and the sociologist.

And because I needed a brain-cleanser after making through that book:

Patriarchy and Social Control


“A 72-year-old Ghanaian woman [pictured left before she was taken to a hospital] has been burned to death on suspicion of being a witch, prompting condemnation from the country’s human rights groups.

Ama Hemmah was allegedly tortured into confessing she was a witch, doused in kerosene and set alight. She suffered horrific burns and died the following day.

Belief in witchcraft is relatively common in Ghana but there was widespread revulsion at the killing.

Hemmah, from Tema, was allegedly attacked by a group of five people, one of whom is an evangelical pastor, Ghana‘s Daily Graphic reported.

Three women and two men have been arrested. They are Nancy Nana Ama Akrofie, 46, photographer Samuel Ghunney, 50, Emelia Opoku, 37, Mary Sagoe, 52, and pastor Samuel Fletcher Sagoe, 55.

The suspects say the death was an accident and deny committing any crime. They claim they were trying to exorcise an evil spirit from the woman by rubbing anointing oil on her but it accidentally caught fire.

Augustine Gyening, assistant police commissioner, told the Daily Graphic that Sagoe saw Hemmah sitting in his sister’s bedroom on 20 November and raised an alarm, attracting the attention of people in the neighbourhood.

Gyening added that the suspects claimed Hemmah was a known witch and subjected her to severe torture, compelling her to confess. He said Ghunney then asked Opoku for a gallon of kerosene and with the help of his accomplices poured it over the victim and set her ablaze.”

An accusation of witchcraft and the consequences of such accusations (torture and death) are mechanisms of religious and patriarchal power. Religious leaders, mostly men, maintain their power through supposed power to spot witches and exorcise them. They capitalize on superstitious beliefs and social insecurities. Any woman can be a target. It is a stigma that is impossible to avoid or shed.It is a tricky form of deviance because it exists simply by virtue of, not specific actions, but denunciations by others. Therefore, it is impossible to “immunize” oneself against an accusation, since it is not action-based, and it is impossible to fight the accusation either.

See also the video here.

The Visual Du Jour – Religious Conflict

Via The Pew Research Center:

And restrictions by region:

Nice graphs but they lack some crucial information (which would probably have to be plotted differently, for sure) regarding which religion is dominant in which countries and the state of minority religions. The government might not be the most hostile entity to religious minorities, but rather other private religious groups (as in the US, for instance). Or restrictions might be in place as a democratic protection FROM religion in the public sphere. Also, there might be low levels of government restrictions in religion when religion is itself embedded in government. In other words, there are more ways that religious restrictions and social hostilities can be configured.

Durkheimian Social Fact – Comparative Religiosity

Via Gallup,

A 2009 map reveals the same trend:

This is another good example of how social determinants of behavior are more significant than individual traits as well as Durkheimian social fact.

There are a lot of social factors that influence the level of religiosity in a population. The article mentions poverty being a factor that increases religiosity. I would refine that by adding that social insecurity and precarization are also related factors in that respect.

For instance, the United States certainly ranks high in religiosity compared to other wealthy countries. But if one looks more closely at the US states, we find this:

That is, the US is almost as stratified as the world-system. There are core / semi-periphery / periphery regional divisions. And the level of social insecurity correlates definitely with religiosity. I would argue that these peripheral areas, though, exercise disproportionate political and cultural power in the US.

Other social factors that one would look at for their influence on religiosity would be educational levels, the strength of the social safety net (the more of it, the lower religiosity – one could argue that strong social safety nets create more social integration and solidarity, especially the universal programs so that there is less need for religious “glue”), institutional and cultural support (high in the US and Ireland, which is why they rank higher on religiosity than other wealthy countries as well).

After all, individuals are born into a preexisting cultural and institutional reality where religion is more or less important and where religious pressures are more or less significant (social facts again: externality, constraint, and generalization!).

Let Me Rewrite That Headline More Accurately…

The Guardian:

“Atheist doctors ‘more likely to hasten death'”

Let me fix that for you…

“Religious doctors more likely to prolong the suffering of terminally ill patients.”

Oh, and then, there is this little jewel:

Doctors who are atheist or agnostic are twice as likely to take decisions that might shorten the life of somebody who is terminally ill as doctors who are deeply religious – and doctors with strong religious convictions are less likely even to discuss such decisions with the patient, according to Professor Clive Seale, from the centre for health sciences at Barts and the London school of medicine and dentistry.”

Religion in the US – A Sociological Overview (With Lots of Visuals)

First, compared to the rest of the world, the US is more religious than other rich countries but less than poorer countries:

Represented in a scatterplot, it is clear that the US is an outlier compared to other high-income, post-industrial countries:

In a bar chart form, this is how US religiosity compares to other countries:

At the same time, there is a great deal of diversity in religiosity within the United States:

One can establish a definite correlation between wealth and religiosity both between and within countries. In the United States, these differences take place in the context of high religiosity for a wealthy country.

Similarly, there is diversity in the type of denominations to which Americans belong (based on the 2000 census):

This picture illustrates both clustering and diversity. There is a great level of diversity in the number of (mostly) Christian denominations but there is quite a good amount of clustering, that is, of denominational predominance in different parts of the United States.

Similarly, there are major differences along the different dimensions of religiosity:

Here again, the Southern stand out. What could explain such differences by state, beyond economics and wealth? The table below reveals other correlations:

Does religion cause social ills? This graph mostly shows correlations rather than cause and effect. But what research has shown is that social insecurity is strongly correlated with higher religiosity. The Southern US states tend to be economically and socially more insecure, and therefore, more prone to higher religiosity.

Different denominations also attract different kinds of people, for instance, based on wealth (definitely click on the image below for a much larger view):

Here again, there is a strong correlation between wealth and chosen denomination.

What happens to religiosity over time? Have Americans’ religious views and practices changed over the past decades? Have different generations different levels of religiosity?

The following graphs point to a generational decline:

Discussing Religion Tends To Bring Out The Stupid

I mean, seriously:

Here, let me fix that for you:

Churchgoers ‘just as ethical as atheists’

Because, you know what, the last time I checked, the people who

  • pilot planes into building
  • try to blow themselves up on planes in various ways
  • ran a pedophile ring called the Catholic Church
  • insist on the subjugation and oppression of women and girls
  • would love to have us all lived in their imaginary medieval world
  • try to legislate their hatred of women, LGBTs and sex

are not atheists. They’re churchgoers. But somehow, the assumption, explicit in this title, is that, BY DEFAULT, religion = morality.

Oh, and this is interesting too:

Wow, geez, I guess they don’t read Durkheim in psychology classes.

And while it certainly is true that “criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence” (never mind the power it takes to have criticism of what one holds dear cast as “a fundamental threat to our moral existence”… somehow, that is never examined as if religion is simply an individual characteristic rather than an institutional structure as well as a set of groups with various kinds of power and privileges), one could perfectly argue that religion itself IS a fundamental threat to our moral existence.

Precarization and Social Insecurity Keep Religion Alive

Via Epiphenom: How very Durkheimian.

The starting point:

So, how do these factors work when it comes to religiosity:

One look at the overwhelming religiosity in the United States certainly indicates that increased education does not necessarily correlate with overall religiosity. There have been changes in American religiosity (loss of membership for mainstream Protestant denominations and increased membership for evangelical denominations) but the overall religiosity is still very high for a high-income country.

When it comes to being active, I would argue that higher-income individuals have more “resources” to offer to their churches and organizations, such as social and economic capital. At the same time, then, these churches become centers of social networking that has more potential for middle and upper-class people. For poorer people, congregating at a common church promotes close ties and offers social solidarity to the members and support in the absence of strong welfare state.

The study also shows a cumulative effect: being born in a religious family / community makes one more religious and there is greater pressure to at least display signals of religiosity. No surprise here either.

What about the other variables? This is where it gets really Durkheimian:

This is not really surprising. Church attendance thrives on insecurity as a source of support and solidarity. Remove the sources of social insecurity and there is less need for religion. Also, social welfare removes some need for submission to traditional sources of authorities that used to be able to dole out a few favors and charitable donations. And since we also know that social mobility in the United States is more an ideological construct than a reality, it is possible that religion fills the gap that keeps the illusion alive.

Living in the risk society keeps a lot of snake oil salesmen of all types in business.

Book Review – Bright-Sided

No one writes about the American culture like Barbara Ehrenreich. At the same time, Ehrenreich never lets anyone forgets that there is a socially stratified reality out there and that cultural trends are often ideological scaffolding supporting unequal and precarious systemic conditions for most of us. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is no exception.

In this book, Ehrenreich takes on the “positive thinking” industry, tracing its roots back as a reaction to the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of 18th-19th century America and following the movement all the way to the corporate culture of magical thinking that got us where we are today, through the monumental success of garbage like The Secret, positive preaching of the likes of Joel Osteen and positive psychology.

As usual, Eherenreich’s style is a combination of sarcasm and bafflement as to how supposedly smart people can believe such nonsense along with constant reminders that this stuff is all well and good but there is a harsh reality out there that needs to be addressed, no matter how positive one’s outlook is, to the point of self-delusion.

Ehrenreich also relates her own experience with positive thinking when she got cancer dove into the world of support group along with, and there lies the problem, the whole “mind over matter” mentality underlying positive thinking: if you wish something strongly enough and positively enough, it will happen. Similarly, you can “beat” the cancer through positive thinking. And above all, cancer patients are enjoined to not see themselves as “victims”. Getting cancer is reformulated as an opportunity to reexamine one’s life.

Wait, where have we heard that before? Well, in a lot of corporate motivation stuff. Remember “who moved my cheese?” That is part of the same movement. You were laid off? Hey, that may be the best thing that ever happened to you because now, you can go look for new sources of “cheese”! Don’t waste time blaming your boss or the economy. Losers, whiners and pessimists with a victim’s complex do that. Positive thinkers create their own opportunities through a change in their attitudes!

All this is part of the individualizing trend that Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman discussed in the context of neoliberalism and globalization. No more salvation by society, Peter Drucker told us. It is every individual for hirself, with one’s own set of skills (to be managed like assets and periodically updated) AND the right attitude. But the bottom line is that every person is on their own, with their own cancer or medical condition or their own broken career and precarized future. All the positive thinking industry is dedicated to make people accept that without protesting against the structural conditions that promote such insecurities and risks (in Beck’s sense).

So, for all the support groups, online communities of cancer survivors (not patients or victims!), cancer becomes a private experience, a private battle:

“I’m not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking ‘fails’ and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is ‘an additional burden to an already devastated patient,’ as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written.” (42)

After all, positive thinking can never fail, rather people fail at positive thinking.

Nothing better illustrates positive thinking as magical thinking than the best-selling, Oprah-certified piece of garbage that is The Secret. I cannot express how much I loathe the whole The Secret Thing. It is an insult to all people in the world in situation of misery, poverty, war, genocide or deprivation more generally. It is a childish justification for selfish greed and lack of concern for social issues. It is also a form of individualization of social conditions.

All this might feel like harmless “feel good” new agey nonsense but the injunction to cut oneself off from “negative people” (that is, anyone with a realistic grasp of the world) has normative implications that can be pretty nasty, from being ostracized to being laid off. This reminded me of my college where mediocre administrators make stupid decision with predictable negative consequences that we, faculty, are expected to fix. And when we mention they got us into this mess because they didn’t do the analysis or we did it for them but they ignored it, the response is always “well, are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” or various injunctions to let go of the past and be future-oriented (because heaven forbid that we might learn from our mistakes). Actually, academia has become heavy on the administrative side imbued with the positive thinking corporate-think.

But what’s with the all the mystic stuff? According Ehrenreich,

“What attracts the coaching profession to these mystical powers? Well, there’s not much else for them to impart to their coachees. ‘Career coaches’ may teach their clients how to write resumés and deliver the self-advertisements known as ‘elevator speeches,’ but they don’t have anything else by way of concrete skills to offer.” (63)

Well yeah, because, again, once you take out the social context and some generic encouragement to go back to school for some skill upgrading (gotta keep the “me” brand up to snuff), there is nothing else, really.And the same goes for positive psychology (I confess that, as a sociologist, I always get a tingle of schadenfreude when psychology gets knocked around a bit as Ehrenreich does… but then, Ehrenreich is a frequent guest / keynote speaker at ASA meetings, and a very popular one too).

There is a nastier side to this though. The “be positive” mantra, in the context of the “lean and mean” global economy, means not just that people have to what Hochschild long ago called emotional work as part of the service economy. No, being positive is more about working harder for less in a forcibly cheerful manner for fear that the slightest hint of “negativity” (sin of sin in the positive thinking movement) might put one as number 1 on the list of next layoffs. So, the obligatory constant self-monitoring is no longer for any trace of sin (as the old Calvinist religion had it) but relentless persistent self-examination for any trace of pessimism.

“The work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, co-workers, and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure of the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults.” (96)

In other words, employers can now bombard their employees with “motivational” literature and DVDs as a sort of emotional blackmail and social control in the workplace. Out with the old-fashioned clock watching, in with the “right attitude” as mode of Foucauldian discipline. And so, all of a sudden workplace walls are now filled with stupid motivational posters with their stupid clichéd pronouncements.

And of course, in the United States, there is no amount of nonsense that can’t be made more nonsensical by mixing it with dumb religion, hence the success of Osteens and others of their ilk. In this “theology”, one finds the usual “be positive, you’re not a victim” tripe along with “God wants you to be rich” or “God got you laid off so you would embrace all these wonderful opportunities (that have not materialized yet but don whine about that)”. Of course, this makes the pastorpreneurs very very wealthy.

Ehrenreich ends her exploration of the positive thinking movement by showing how it has influenced the corporate world: the housing bubble was never going to burst. House prices were always going to go up forever. The market would continue to grow and self-correct (remember Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God?). Ehrenreich shows how much the overlords of the corporate world, detached from reality as their wealth, lifestyle and power makes them ended up believing the mantras of positive thinking and “laws of attraction”. Heck, such magical beliefs were also held by Alan Greenspan.

Ultimately though, whether it is positive thinking, Christian science, positive psychology or whatever other new age, religious drivel du jour, this all boils down to ideological constructs that blame the victims of structural conditions that block their opportunities, and justify gross social inequalities.

“This victim-blaming approach meshed neatly with the prevailing economic conservatism of the last two decades. Welfare recipients were pushed out into the low-wage jobs, supposedly, in part to boost their self-esteem; laid-off and soon-to-be laid-off workers were subjected to motivational speakers and exercises. But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food include strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed. When and if the economy recovers we can never allow ourselves to forget how widespread our vulnerability is, how easy it is to spiral down towards destitution.” (206)

That’s nice but Ehrenreich forgets one thing- and that is the one GLARING omission of her book – Americans elected for President the ultimate motivation speaker, positive thinkers and religious charismatic. Not a system-changer, as we clearly know now (even though the signs were there before the election). The Hope-and-change theme made a lot of people feel good about themselves, about their ability to happily vote for a black man (“we nominated the black guy” exclaimed Chris Bowers after the Democratic nomination).

A lot of people patted themselves on the back for the positive feeling of being so enlightened and of participating in a collective experiment in positive thinking in action, without affecting the system one damn bit. Obama sold himself as a brand, very successfully. A lot of people embraced Obama, proudly proclaiming they contributed to changing the world (not the universe, mind you but close enough). And one can find in his speeches all the themes of positive thinking that Ehrenreich describes in her book. And yet, somehow, she missed that part.