Peak Religion

The US watches more TV per day than any other nation, and a total of 60 hours of e-media per week. Time devoted to this sort of thing has been increasing for decades. Much of this  media is filled with stories directly, and much of the rest, such as news, is framed to fit story norms. And as I quoted two years ago, stories in effect reinforce a belief in God:

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives. (more)

So in the quite literal sense of direct immersion in a religious world view, we are the most religious people of the most religious generation ever. What unusual features of our place and time in history can be explained by this unusual feature?

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  • http://praxtime.com/ Nathan Taylor (praxtime)

    This brings to mind something Tyler Cowen linked to a while back about unemployed men.

    https://bfi.uchicago.edu/news/scholar-profile/faculty-spotlight-erik-hurst
    Relevant quote:
    The hours that they are not working have been replaced almost one for one with leisure time. Seventy-five percent of this new leisure time falls into one category: video games. The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12, and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week. This change marks a relatively major shift that makes me question its effect on their attachment to the labor market.

    Both TV and Video games have the same moral arc. But in TV you watch the hero. While in video games you do your tasks, which level you up, which lets you *be* the hero. In many ways this makes it almost perfect training for someone to be a corporate employee. Do your tasks, then you level up. The naive outcome is to expect more corporate conformity and diligence in work. Corporate paradise! And yet. Video games are escapist (or at least they are to me, which is why I have to force myself to avoid them at times.) I would argue they are so mechanically perfect in their rewards and moral arc, that the disconnect to reality becomes far harsher. The real world is random. Justice is not served. Or at best is served only with great effort, and partially.

    I guess my point here would be that TV is bad for this. But video games are worse, and especially seductive to those for whom societal status is lowest. Video games aren’t bad because you shoot people in them. That’s oddly no big deal. The damage is far more subtle. They are bad because they make reality seem in contrast too random and chaotic to abide. You work hard at work, and someone else gets the promotion or raise because….randomly your boss missed what went on, or liked how someone looked, or was friends with someone else. Video games don’t have that problem.

    To your question: the obvious expectation (which you imply in your post) is TV, but even more so video games, powerfully train the mind to seek out order to a larger moral arc. It’s an addictive pastime to make one think like a perfect hedgehog. One where a single moral arc and theory explains all. Marxists explained everything with class. Everything. Freud with the unconscious. Who is the new Marx or Freud for our times? If I read the NY Times, what is the thing that most explains and provides a moral arc to the current politics of this election? Whatever you pick, you should expect that this single explanation will be elevated in status and power beyond what events merit. And that explanations saying there’s a complex world with high causal density are less popular than they would be. This is not something new. But you can certainly argue that TV and video game egg on this natural human tendency that’s always been with us.

    Finally. If the world does not conform to the arc, expect the response that the video game of life is rigged. Not fair. Not fair. Not fair! But of course this is yet a deeper claim that reality must conform to the story arc. For when it does not, that’s not because the universe is indifferent. Rather it’s because the villain has been bad. And so we know with certainty that they will be hurt and destroyed. Coming to you in next week’s episode.

  • Daniel Böttger

    The most basic element of story is conflict. The “dictatorship of stories” leads to an emphasis on conflict. Besides the belief in a just world, which stories are indeed wont to foster, their most prominent effect is that if you want publicity today, you have to frame whatever you’re doing as a War On Something.

    Religion has many elements besides the belief in a just world. I believe your labeling the latter as the former adds only confusion.

  • AG

    The danger of too much TV is one reason i feel compelled to visit this website. Currently, it seems TV makes it easy to build a POV that confirms what we already feel. Further, it is a very passive way to build the understanding of the world. Our mind tends to make connections that may not be true from incomplete data sets. TV is good at hi-jacking this tendency (see:Infinite Jest).

    To listen to a story implies passive consumption. To listen to a story and have the video provided for you changes the mental work required of the person watching and listening. Perhaps it is less work, b/c the TV fills in the blanks. Listening to a story on the radio and we may have to assign the race to the individual. Not on TV. The original Star Trek episode with the fighting “races” of white/black and black/white was a clever poke at our passive viewing.

    Thanks to the net and reductions in cost of production and distribution, we have a lot of stories we can pick from but our culture tends to shape what we pick. However, there is a spectrum given a person’s genetics and prior cultural programming. Some more curious and active individuals can hop around and cobble together whatever religion best works for them. Others will sit back and go with whatever happens to work.

    We will have more stories makers and mutations in stories. Perhaps this is in tension with trends we can assign to particular sets of stories that start to rise in popularity (consider the dualistic nature of the religions of the son’s of Abraham vs the Brahman). I don’t have a good reason to think the rise of one culture instead of another isn’t just random. Sticking with that null for now.

    Now days we have ease of access to a greater range of stories. It seems we can easily self-select our own little bubbles to live in. It isn’t TV but for example of self-self of stories consider that I visit this website and not boingboing. We can easily begin to think that the community we choose is more reflective of the world b/c we have giant niche communities. Some worship Kardashians, other’s quote Hayek like some quote the bible, some worship at the altar of reason.

    These tendencies were around before TV. However, when it was first rising in popularity, TV made it easier to form a homogenized culture – limit the channels and censor the content. I’m thinking 1950s leave it to beaver or the idealized North Carolina of the Andy Griffith Show (when in reality NC during the depression was not the show).

    Before standard, TV I think of the rise of Gandhi and Hitler, using mass media to sway nations with particular stories.

    Beyond the traditional definition of God, I would include the stories some atheists tell themselves, ignorant or unaware of the arbitrary moral value given to reason in their “objective” assessments. The attachment of moral value/prescriptions to actions is my working def. of a religion.

    I would also include other atheists who are aware of the arbitrary stories they happen to believe as a result of where they were born (even if they are not fully aware of the precise and accurate coupling of genetics and cultural circumstances that correlates emotional responses to stimuli and thoughts, which feeds back on itself).

    What would the US be doing if it wasn’t watching TV? What did it do before? Perhaps we can trace it all the way back to people listening to each other tell stories about the past. Heck, we are so culturally plastic we can take a baby from the amazon and raise them with our stories (perhaps from Amazon streaming) instead of amazonian stories.

  • kevinsdick

    I watch a wide variety of TV. Given the subject matter and behavior of the average characters/subjects I see, I’m having trouble believing if you ran a controlled experiment increasing and decreasing various subgroups of Americans’ TV consumption, you’d see a significant and large effect size. If such a study preregisters, I would be happy to place a bet against you (subject to an evaluation of the experimental design and the researchers biases). My hypothesis is that the story structure you’re extrapolating from is not strongly present, if at all, in the growing segments of TV. Try watching Survivor, Workaholics, or Walking Dead. In fact, I think there is some chance that the fastest growing segments are the fastest growing precisely because they violate the traditional structure.

    • IMASBA

      I agree. Most media will be reality shows, non-traditional storylines, sports, rants about politics, porn and dating-oriented stuff, not traditional storylines.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      The story structure mentioned isn’t even universal to traditional stories – such as dramatic tragedies.

  • arch1

    Texas?

  • Doug

    > What unusual features of our place and time in history can be explained by this unusual feature?

    Peak narcissism seems like it’s closely related.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-narcissism-epidemic

  • Gunnar Zarncke

    A reinforcement or maybe root cause of the Just World Hypothesis, isn’t it?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just-world_hypothesis

    > What unusual features of our place and time in history can be explained by this unusual feature?

    That most people personally feel unlucky or cheated by these same gods/universal principles. Because though they observe that others (mostly virtual/narrative others though) experience these principles they themselves in all likelihood in their environment personally don’t benefit from these principles – and earlier or later probably notice it.

  • Lord

    It doesn’t seem to fit the financial crisis or political campaigns (but we shall see). Much moralism, but nothing new in that. What I have seen much of late is so great a reluctance of the hero to do anything at all negative that the suffering of innocents is preferred to the punishment of the guilty. The hero must never slay the villain, even if that means they kill scores, they must be saved sparing no sacrifice. The victims are just collateral damage. I also see loyalty as strong as morality as usually what makes the villain seen to be redeemable.

  • Robert Rounthwaite

    I think the key question that arose for me when I read this is how much different this was from the past? It seems obvious to me that a large component of morality is practical — in practice, adhering to the moral code leads to a better life and affects my destiny positively. This is both because it is objectively true that some aspects of morality reflect the choice of a good long-term strategy over a locally good strategy *and* because society itself makes it so — in a society where lying is considered immoral (rather than a sometimes good/sometimes bad thing), those who lie and are caught suffer genuine consequences.

  • Robert Rounthwaite

    I think the key question that arose for me when I read this is how much different this was from the past? It seems obvious to me that a large component of morality is practical — in practice, adhering to some aspects of the moral code leads to a better life, affecting my destiny positively. This is both because it is objectively true that some aspects of morality reflect the choice of a good long-term strategy over a locally good strategy *and* because society itself makes it so — in a society where lying is considered immoral (rather than a sometimes good/sometimes bad thing), those who lie and are caught suffer genuine consequences.

    On consideration, I think you are correct that we are more exposed to these kinds of stories than the world would normally give up absent our potent storytelling channels. However, I don’t think the case is as strong as you make out. One reason is that in the past people imputed virtue to those who were in position of power and told stories to reflect that. You mention frequently the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer values, but, of course, there were others. One of the problems (I think) with the rise of the middle class was the conflict between the old values and the newer bourgeois values; since it was hard to rationalize the things then considered virtuous with success in the new environment. One question is the baseline: as a fraction of stories, perhaps less of them share a common moral fiber today than in the past?

    But the absolutely key factor is that in the past, life was much more arbitrary in outcome. This could have made it less possible to reconcile with the kind of just world that stories require. I would argue this was a force promoting religion to satisfy the need for stories, strengthening religion over a kind of areligious morality — God as the explanation for this problem. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”

    So I would posit that this world of stories you describe would lead to a society with
    – a firmer conviction that morals of some sort matter
    – a less firm conviction that God is necessary to enforce them (since God is not invoked in these stories)
    – a greater desire to enforce them through laws or social pressure (to fix the edge cases)
    and, perhaps,
    – a great divide as to what those morals should be.

    But I could be back-fitting.

  • Seth Ariel Green

    The children’s television show Adventure Time consistently resists this kind of storytelling. it’s one of the things that makes it delightful.

  • JW Ogden

    What do the Swedes spend their time on? Shoveling snow? Talking with friends. Drinking with friends? Is there TV as good as ours?