How would Jesus vote?

The 2008 US presidential election pits Baptist against Mormon, Methodist against evangelical. Who ge

To use a favourite American acronym, WWJD - What Would Jesus Do - in this year's presi dential election? For which candidate would Jesus vote in a country that is supposed to be 83 per cent Christian? For Senator Barack Obama, perhaps, a biracial yuppie who is a member of a self-described "unashamedly black" and "un asham edly Christian" church? Even if the house magazine of that church voted last year to give an award to a man it said "truly epitomised greatness": Louis Farrakhan, leader since 1978 of the Nation of Islam, a veteran anti-Semite who describes white people as "blue-eyed devils" and Jews as "bloodsuckers" who control everything? Would the fact that Obama has now disassociated himself from the award make any difference?

Or might Jesus pull his lever, touch the computer screen or tick his ballot paper beside the name of the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney - a devout believer in a religion which supposedly holds that the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve first got together was actually in, er, Missouri? And that when Jesus returns to reign over the world he will not only do so from Jerusalem, but also reappear in Jackson County?

Maybe Jesus would prefer the former Arkan sas governor Mike Huckabee, also an ordained Southern Baptist minister, who jokes that the 16 people he had executed while governor "would hardly say I'm soft on crime"? Or Senator John McCain, a self-confessed adulterer shot down over Saigon while bombing a city in which he knew that men, women and children were living? Perhaps Senator Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist churchgoer who was once an avid supporter of the extreme right-wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who wanted to nuke Moscow and believed that pov erty was proof of bad character?

I could go on, but won't. This is a complicated presidential election. I have always held that America is an infinitely more complex country than most Britons realise. Its religious attitudes and the inherent contradictions of its professed Christianity are uniquely American; the descriptions above of the 2008 US presidential candidates, for instance, may sound like surrealist musings, but they are all factually based. The only surprise is that while the media have been frantically trying to whip up the issues of racism (Barack) and sexism (Hillary) this year, there have been few of the usual squabbles over God or religion in the campaign so far.

The prime reason for this, I suspect, is that, thanks to the diabolical manoeuvrings of Karl Rove et al, voters in 2000 and 2004 were conned into believing they were voting for a man of strong Christian principles and "values", but instead found themselves landed with George W Bush. The Republicans thus twice hit the jackpot by using Rove's magic formula, repeatedly appropriating godly righteousness and using that mantra "v-word".

But Hillary Clinton, among others, vowed that in 2008 the Democrats would "take back" religion; the result is that we may well be witnessing the beginning of the end of the so-called "Christian right". Symbolically, Reverend Jerry Falwell - far-right king of the televangelists and founder of the hugely influential Moral Majority movement, which was crucial in propelling both Ronald Reagan and George W Bush into the White House - died suddenly last May, and there has been no stampede to fill his shoes.

Most amazingly of all, it is the Democrats who have so far been able to project themselves as evangelicals in the 2008 campaign, while the Republicans come over as secularists: Clinton, Obama and Edwards have each been married only once, to take a simplistic example, but at the start of the campaign the Republican candidates had been married on average 2.7 times.

To the irritation of many Democrats, John Kerry - a practising Catholic in a country where a quarter of the population is also Catholic - was painfully reluctant even to mention his faith in the 2004 campaign, while Bush was shamelessly gathering votes by Bible-thumping away. But Hillary Clinton now freely describes how she was sustained during the Lewinsky saga by "prayer warriors"; John Edwards tells how he "strayed away from the Lord" but his faith "came roaring back" when his 16-year-old son was killed; Obama literally preaches about tearing down the walls of Jericho at Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, his accent and rhetorical flourishes morphing effortlessly into those of King himself.

How times change, then. The only Republican playing the Christian card in this campaign, not surprisingly, is Reverend Huckabee - and he, as a result, has almost certainly put himself out of the running. He won the Republican caucus in Iowa, where 40 per cent of Republican voters describe themselves as evangelicals, and that put a fatal fire in his belly. First, he and his supporters launched nasty attacks on Romney, a Mormon, by putting it about that Mormons are not true Christians. Then he decreed that the US constitution should be amended "so it's up to God's standards" - the arbiter of God's standards presumably being Arkansas's former executioner himself.

To the countless Republicans who regard the holiness of the US constitution as inextricable from the Bible, that has not gone down well. Therein, in fact, lies the central contradiction inherent in the uneasy mix of American politics and religion. The constitution's famous First Amendment, ratified in 1791, forbids Congress from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion" - yet it would be politically suicidal, more than two centuries later, for any presidential aspirant to declare him or herself to be a non-believer. Indeed, 61 per cent of Americans say they would simply not vote for a candidate who does not believe in God.

The unresolved paradox in all this is that trillions of pennies carried in every American pocket and handbag proudly proclaim that "In God We Trust". No presidential speech ever ends with words other than "God bless America". But in whose God are Americans supposed to believe? A Jewish one? An Islamic one? The knee-jerk belief in America's "manifest destiny" - that God made a covenant with its people to lead the rest of the world and it can therefore, literally, do no wrong - remains pervasive, justifying everything from the original extermination of Native Americans and the 19th-century "expansionism" into Mexico to the 21st-century occupation of Iraq. Just as God was an Englishman when Britain was the world's imperial superpower, so He is now, indubitably, an American.

Enter Mitt Romney, and it all becomes much more complicated. Religious freedom, he says, is "fundamental to America's greatness" - but just as John F Kennedy felt compelled to plead with Americans in 1960 that it would be acceptable for their president to be a Catholic, so Romney is being forced in this campaign to argue that a Mormon would also be OK. "No authorities in my church . . . will ever exert influence on presidential decisions," said Romney in December, echoing JFK's reassurances that the Vatican would not take over the US.

But with Huckabee's piety threatening him daily, Romney felt he could not leave it at that. "Americans acknowledge that [religious] liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government," he said, neatly personifying his country's unresolved confusions. "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom," he went on, managing to slip in adverse comparisons between feckless European secularism and redoubtably strong American faith.

But faith in what? There are dangerous people about, Romney ploughed on, who are "intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism". Eh? Finally, he made the unequivocal declaration he clearly feels necessary if he is to be perceived by the American electorate as an acceptable US president 217 years after that constitutional amendment: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the saviour of mankind."

The problem facing Romney in his quest for the White House is that because Mormons were persecuted in the 19th century, they became increasingly secretive and defensive about exactly what they do believe. A very familiar Washington-area landmark is "the Mormon temple" that glistens alongside the city's notorious Beltway - but only Church elders (not even rank-and-file Mormons) have a clue what's inside. Polygamy was banned by the Church in 1890, but the FBI (it's interested in this kind of thing) estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 of America's 5.8 million Mormons still practise it. A USA Today/Gallup poll found that only 72 per cent of Americans would be willing to vote for a qualified candidate who was a Mormon; a black person or a woman was much more acceptable.

All of which, I am beginning to suspect, could make this a landmark election that will put America's religious freedom and tolerance to the test every bit as much as its attitudes towards race and gender. McCain (an Anglican-turned-Baptist, incidentally) is, as I write, the Republican front-runner - but Romney is closing in on him. Should McCain fade in this most unpredictable of elections, we will be left with a 60-year-old female Methodist candidate who has already spent two controversial terms in the White House, a 46-year-old biracial Christian with a Muslim middle name, and a 60-year-old near-billionaire Mormon whose seemingly strange religious beliefs are shrouded in secrecy.

Yet being a Christian in America tends not to mean what it means elsewhere: the poor, the meek, the merciful, the hungry and the pure-hearted don't get much of a look-in, I'm afraid. Huckabee's tally of 16 executions looks pretty pathetic when compared to the 142 kills George W Bush managed to chalk up while he was governor of Texas, and look where that got Bush. And Obama and Romney are committed to increasing the size of the US military. So WWJD, then? Pray for America, I think.

God and me

Philip Pullman, novelist

What does “God” mean? Given that theologians themselves are still debating the matter, it would be presumptuous of an unbeliever to answer. I'll wait until they're all agreed, and then consider the verdict with interest. It still won't bring him into existence. As for whether he exists or not, I don't agree with those who say that any sentence containing the word "God" must be meaningless, because something doesn't have to exist in order to have meaning: mathematicians, for example, make great use of the square root of -1. So I suppose (anticipating the answer of the united theologians) that what the term "God" means is whatever you can make that term do; but that would merely mean that he was useful, not necessarily that he existed.

Has God ever spoken to you? No.

Where would we be without God? In one sense, exactly where we are now. In another sense, many things would be different - including the entire history of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds.

Jon Snow, broadcaster

What does "God" mean? Anything.

Has God ever spoken to you? Not that I know of.

Where would we be without God? In a dreadful state . . . It's a great comfort to have someone to grieve to or blame, or even thank, when things go wrong and right.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge