Yoga versus democracy? What survey data says about spiritual Americans’ political behavior

For some, yoga is a spiritual practice that may substitute for religion. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Evan Stewart, UMass Boston and Jaime Kucinskas, Hamilton College

As the United States gets less religious, is it also getting more selfish?

Historically, religious Americans have been civically engaged. Through churches and other faith-based organizations, congregants volunteer, engage in local and national civic organizations and pursue political goals.

Todaythe rise of a politically potent religious right over the past 50 years notwithstanding – fewer Americans identify with formal religions. Gallup found that 47% of Americans reported church membership in 2020, down from 70% in the 1990s; nearly a quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation.

Meanwhile, other kinds of meaningful practice are on the rise, from meditation and yoga to new secular rituals like Sunday assemblies “without God.” Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of American adults who meditated rose from 4.1% to 14.2%, according to a 2018 CDC report. The number of those who practiced yoga jumped from 9.5% to 14.3%. Not everyone considers these practices “spiritual,” but many do pursue them as an alternative to religious engagement.

Some critics question whether this new focus on mindfulness and self-care is making Americans more self-centered. They suggest religiously disengaged Americans are channeling their energies into themselves and their careers rather than into civic pursuits that may benefit the public.

As sociologists who study religion and public life, we wanted to answer that question. We used survey data to compare how these two groups of spiritual and religious Americans vote, volunteer and otherwise get involved in their communities.

Spiritually selfish or religiously alienated?

Our research began with the assumption that moving from organized religious practices to spiritual practices could have one of two effects on greater American society.

Spiritual practice could lead people to focus on more selfish or self-interested pursuits, such as their own personal development and career progress, to the detriment of U.S. society and democracy.

This is the argument sociologist Carolyn Chen pursues in her new book “Work, Pray, Code,” about how meditators in Silicon Valley are re-imagining Buddhist practices as productivity tools. As one employee described a company mindfulness program, it helped her “self-manage” and “not get triggered.” While these skills made her happier and gave her “the clarity to handle the complex problems of the company,” Chen shows how they also teach employees to put work first, sacrificing other kinds of social connection.

Bringing spiritual practice into the office may give workers deeper purpose and meaning, but Chen says it can have some unintended consequences.

When workplaces fulfill workers’ most personal needs – providing not only meals and laundry but also recreational activities, spiritual coaches and mindfulness sessions – skilled workers end up spending most of their time at work. They invest in their company’s social capital rather than building ties with their neighbors, religious congregations and other civic groups. They are less likely to frequent local businesses.

Chen suggests that this disinvestment in community can ultimately lead to cuts in public services and weaken democracy.

Alternatively, our research posited, spiritual practices may serve as a substitute for religion. This explanation may hold especially true among Americans disaffected by the rightward lurch that now divides many congregations, exacerbating cultural fissures around race, gender and sexual orientation.

“They loved to tell me my sexuality doesn’t define me,” one 25-year-old former evangelical, Christian Ethan Stalker, told the Religion News Service in 2021 in describing his former church. “But they shoved a handful of verses down my throat that completely sexualize me as a gay person and … dismissed who I am as a complex human being. That was a huge problem for me.”

A sign reads 'Catholics vote pro-life', written in red, white and blue.
An anti-abortion message outside St. Anthony Church, in Brooksville, Fla., in 2020. Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Engaged on all fronts

To answer our research question about spirituality and civic engagement, we used a new nationally representative survey of Americans studied in 2020.

We examined the political behaviors of people who engaged in activities such as yoga, meditation, making art, walking in nature, praying and attending religious services. The political activities we measured included voting, volunteering, contacting representatives, protesting and donating to political campaigns.

We then compared those behaviors, distinguishing between people who see these activities as spiritual and those who see the same activities as religious.

Our new study, published in the journal American Sociological Review, finds that spiritual practitioners are just as likely to engage in political activities as the religious.

After we controlled for demographic factors such as age, race and gender, frequent spiritual practitioners were about 30% more likely than nonpractitioners to report doing at least one political activity in the past year. Likewise, devoted religious practitioners were also about 30% more likely to report one of these political behaviors than respondents who do not practice religion.

In other words, we found heightened political engagement among both the religious and spiritual, compared with other people.

Our findings bolster similar conclusions made recently by sociologist Brian Steensland and his colleagues in another study on spiritual people and civic involvement.

Uncovering the spiritual as a political force

The spiritual practitioners we identified seemed particularly likely to be disaffected by the rightward turn in some congregations in recent years. On average, Democrats, women and people who identified as lesbian, gay and bisexual reported more frequent spiritual practices.

A woman wearing a headset microphone leads a class of women, all holding their palms in front of their chests. The instructor has her eyes closed.
A mindfulness-focused weekly dance class at a recreation center in Littleton, Colo., in 2017. Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images

We suspect these groups are engaging in American politics in innovative ways, such as through online groups and retreats that re-imagine spiritual community and democratic engagement.

Our research recognizes progressive spiritual practitioners as a growing but largely unrecognized, underestimated and misunderstood political force.

In his influential book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam suggests American religious disaffiliation is part of a larger trend of overall civic decline. Americans have been disengaging for decades from all kinds of civic groups, from bowling leagues and unions to parent-teacher organizations.

Our study gives good reason to reassess what being an “engaged citizen” means in the 21st century. People may change what they do on a Sunday morning, but checking out of church doesn’t necessarily imply checking out of the political process.

Evan Stewart, Assistant Professor of Sociology, UMass Boston and Jaime Kucinskas, Associate Professor of Sociology, Hamilton College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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What is inflammation? Two immunologists explain how the body responds to everything from stings to vaccination and why it sometimes goes wrong

Insect bites or stings, like the one on this person’s hand, are a manifestation of inflammation. Suthep Wongkhad/EyeEm via Getty Images

Prakash Nagarkatti, University of South Carolina and Mitzi Nagarkatti, University of South Carolina

When your body fights off an infection, you develop a fever. If you have arthritis, your joints will hurt. If a bee stings your hand, your hand will swell up and become stiff. These are all manifestations of inflammation occurring in the body.

We are two immunologists who study how the immune system reacts during infections, vaccination and autoimmune diseases where the body starts attacking itself.

While inflammation is commonly associated with the pain of an injury or the many diseases it can cause, it is an important part of the normal immune response. The problems arise when this normally helpful function overreacts or overstays its welcome.

An image showing many small white cells swarming a larger sphere.
Inflammation is a process in which antibody-producing cells – like the large beige cell on the left of this image – rush to the site of an infection to attack an invader, such as the flu virus in yellow. Juan Gaertner/Science Photo Library via Getty Images

What is inflammation?

Generally speaking, the term inflammation refers to all activities of the immune system that occur where the body is trying to fight off potential or real infections, clear toxic molecules or recover from physical injury. There are five classic physical signs of acute inflammation: heat, pain, redness, swelling and loss of function. Low-grade inflammation might not even produce noticeable symptoms, but the underlying cellular process is the same.

Take a bee sting, for example. The immune system is like a military unit with a wide range of tools in its arsenal. After sensing the toxins, bacteria and physical damage from the sting, the immune system deploys various types of immune cells to the site of the sting. These include T cells, B cells, macrophages and neutrophils, among other cells.

The B cells produce antibodies. Those antibodies can kill any bacteria in the wound and neutralize toxins from the sting. Macrophages and neutrophils engulf bacteria and destroy them. T cells don’t produce antibodies, but kill any virus-infected cell to prevent viral spread.

Additionally, these immune cells produce hundreds of types of molecules called cytokines – otherwise known as mediators – that help fight threats and repair harm to the body. But just like in a military attack, inflammation comes with collateral damage.

The mediators that help kill bacteria also kill some healthy cells. Other similar mediating molecules cause blood vessels to leak, leading to accumulation of fluid and influx of more immune cells.

This collateral damage is the reason you develop swelling, redness and pain around a bee sting or after getting a flu shot. Once the immune system clears an infection or foreign invader – whether the toxin in a bee sting or a chemical from the environment – different parts of the inflammatory response take over and help repair the damaged tissue.

After a few days, your body will neutralize the poison from the sting, eliminate any bacteria that got inside and heal any tissue that was harmed.

A diagram of a man showing two airways, one open and the other more constricted.
Asthma is caused by inflammation that leads to swelling and a narrowing of airways in the lungs, as seen in the right cutaway in this image. BruceBlaus/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Inflammation as a cause of disease

Inflammation is a double-edged sword. It is critical for fighting infections and repairing damaged tissue, but when inflammation occurs for the wrong reasons or becomes chronic, the damage it causes can be harmful.

Allergies, for example, develop when the immune system mistakenly recognizes innocuous substances – like peanuts or pollen – as dangerous. The harm can be minor, like itchy skin, or dangerous if someone’s throat closes up.

Chronic inflammation damages tissues over time and can lead to many noninfectious clinical disorders, including cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, obesity, diabetes and some types of cancers.

The immune system can sometimes mistake one’s own organs and tissues for invaders, leading to inflammation throughout the body or in specific areas. This self-targeted inflammation is what causes the symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as lupus and arthritis.

Another cause of chronic inflammation that researchers like us are currently studying is defects in the mechanisms that curtail inflammation after the body clears an infection.

While inflammation mostly plays out at a cellular level in the body, it is far from a simple mechanism that happens in isolation. Stress, diet and nutrition, as well as genetic and environmental factors, have all been shown to regulate inflammation in some way.

There is still a lot to be learned about what leads to harmful forms of inflammation, but a healthy diet and avoiding stress can go a long way toward helping maintain the delicate balance between a strong immune response and harmful chronic inflammation.

Prakash Nagarkatti, Professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, University of South Carolina and Mitzi Nagarkatti, Professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What is a flash drought? An earth scientist explains

Weeds grow on the dried-out floor of the Hoppin Hill Reservoir in North Attleboro, Mass., on Aug. 3, 2022. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Antonia Hadjimichael, Penn State

Many people are familiar with flash floods – torrents that develop quickly after heavy rainfall. But there’s also such a thing as a flash drought, and these sudden, extreme dry spells are becoming a big concern for farmers and water utilities.

Flash droughts start and intensify quickly, over periods of weeks to months, compared to years or decades for conventional droughts. Still, they can cause substantial economic damage, since communities have less time to prepare for the impacts of a rapidly evolving drought. In 2017, a flash drought in Montana and the Dakotas damaged crops and grasses that served as forage for cattle, causing US$2.6 billion in agricultural losses.

Flash droughts also can increase wildfire risks, cause public water supply shortages and reduce stream flow, which harms fish and other aquatic life. https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/juxtapose/latest/embed/index.html?uid=f2264358-6060-11ed-b5bd-6595d9b17862 These satellite images show the development of a flash drought in the U.S. Southeast in early September 2019. The event began when a stubborn ridge of high-pressure air hung over the region for several weeks, bringing record-breaking temperatures, dry air and very little rain. Evaporative stress is a measure of how ‘thirsty’ the atmosphere is. Move the slider to see the change in moisture. NASA Earth Observatory

Less rain, warmer air

Flash droughts typically result from a combination of lower-then-normal precipitation and higher temperatures. Together, these factors reduce overall land surface moisture.

Water constantly cycles between land and the atmosphere. Under normal conditions, moisture from rainfall or snowfall accumulates in the soil during wet seasons. Plants draw water up through their roots and release water vapor into the air through their leaves, a process called transpiration. Some moisture also evaporates directly from the soil into the air.

Graphic showing precipitation, evaporation and transpiration between soil and the atmosphere
Water constantly circulates between soil and the atmosphere – sometimes directly, sometimes via plants. USGS

Scientists refer to the amount of water that could be transferred from the land to the atmosphere as evaporative demand – a measure of how “thirsty” the atmosphere is. Higher temperatures increase evaporative demand, which makes water evaporate faster. When soil contains enough moisture, it can meet this demand.

But if soil moisture is depleted – for example, if precipitation drops below normal levels for months – then evaporation from the land surface can’t provide all the moisture that a thirsty atmosphere demands. Reduced moisture at the surface increases surface air temperatures, drying out the soil further. These processes amplify each other, making the area increasingly hot and dry.

Moist regions can have flash droughts

Flash droughts started receiving more attention in the U.S. after notable events in 2012, 2016 and 2017 that reduced crop yields and increased wildfire risks. In 2012, areas in the Midwest that had had near-normal precipitation conditions through May fell into severe drought conditions in June and July, causing more than $30 billion in damages.

New England, typically one of the wetter U.S. regions, experienced a flash drought in the summer of 2022, with areas including Boston and Rhode Island receiving only a fraction of their normal rainfall. Across Massachusetts, critically low water levels forced towns to issue mandatory water restrictions for residents.

Planning for flash droughts in a changing climate

Conventional droughts, like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or the current 22-year drought across the southwestern U.S., develop over periods of years. Scientists rely on monitoring and prediction tools, such as measurements of temperature and rainfall, as well as models, to forecast their evolution.

Predicting flash drought events that occur on monthly to weekly time scales is much harder with current data and tools, largely due to the chaotic nature of weather and limitations in weather models. That’s why weather forecasters don’t typically make projections beyond 10 days – there is a lot of variation in what can happen over longer time spans.

And climate patterns can shift from year to year, adding to the challenge. For example, Boston had a very wet summer in 2021 before its very dry summer in 2022.

Scientists expect climate change to make precipitation even more variable, especially in wetter regions like the U.S. Northeast. This will make it more difficult to forecast and prepare for flash droughts well in advance.

But new monitoring tools that measure evaporative demand can provide early warnings for regions experiencing abnormal conditions. Information from these systems can give farmers and utilities sufficient lead time to adjust their operations and minimize their risks.

Antonia Hadjimichael, Assistant Professor of Geosciences, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The White House’s ‘AI Bill of Rights’ outlines five principles to make artificial intelligence safer, more transparent and less discriminatory

Many AI algorithms, like facial recognition software, have been shown to be discriminatory to people of color. Prostock-Studio/iStock via Getty Images

Christopher Dancy, Penn State

Despite the important and ever-increasing role of artificial intelligence in many parts of modern society, there is very little policy or regulation governing the development and use of AI systems in the U.S. Tech companies have largely been left to regulate themselves in this arena, potentially leading to decisions and situations that have garnered criticism.

Google fired an employee who publicly raised concerns over how a certain type of AI can contribute to environmental and social problems. Other AI companies have developed products that are used by organizations like the Los Angeles Police Department where they have been shown to bolster existing racially biased policies.

There are some government recommendations and guidance regarding AI use. But in early October 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy added to federal guidance in a big way by releasing the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights.

The Office of Science and Technology says that the protections outlined in the document should be applied to all automated systems. The blueprint spells out “five principles that should guide the design, use, and deployment of automated systems to protect the American public in the age of artificial intelligence.” The hope is that this document can act as a guide to help prevent AI systems from limiting the rights of U.S. residents.

As a computer scientist who studies the ways people interact with AI systems – and in particular how anti-Blackness mediates those interactions – I find this guide a step in the right direction, even though it has some holes and is not enforceable.

A group of people sitting in chairs with one person raising their hand.
It is critically important to include feedback from the people who are going to to be most affected by an AI system – especially marginalized communities – during development. FilippoBacci/E+ via Getty Images

Improving systems for all

The first two principles aim to address the safety and effectiveness of AI systems as well as the major risk of AI furthering discrimination.

To improve the safety and effectiveness of AI, the first principle suggests that AI systems should be developed not only by experts, but also with direct input from the people and communities who will use and be affected by the systems. Exploited and marginalized communities are often left to deal with the consequences of AI systems without having much say in their development. Research has shown that direct and genuine community involvement in the development process is important for deploying technologies that have a positive and lasting impact on those communities.

The second principle focuses on the known problem of algorithmic discrimination within AI systems. A well-known example of this problem is how mortgage approval algorithms discriminate against minorities. The document asks for companies to develop AI systems that do not treat people differently based on their race, sex or other protected class status. It suggests companies employ tools such as equity assessments that can help assess how an AI system may impact members of exploited and marginalized communities.

These first two principles address big issues of bias and fairness found in AI development and use.

Privacy, transparency and control

The final three principles outline ways to give people more control when interacting with AI systems.

The third principle is on data privacy. It seeks to ensure that people have more say about how their data is used and are protected from abusive data practices. This section aims to address situations where, for example, companies use deceptive design to manipulate users into giving away their data. The blueprint calls for practices like not taking a person’s data unless they consent to it and asking in a way that is understandable to that person.

A speaker sitting on a table.
Smart speakers have been caught collecting and storing conversations without users’ knowledge. Olemedia/E+ via Getty Images

The next principle focuses on “notice and explanation.” It highlights the importance of transparency – people should know how an AI system is being used as well as the ways in which an AI contributes to outcomes that might affect them. Take, for example the New York City Administration for Child Services. Research has shown that the agency uses outsourced AI systems to predict child maltreatment, systems that most people don’t realize are being used, even when they are being investigated.

The AI Bill of Rights provides a guideline that people in New York in this example who are affected by the AI systems in use should be notified that an AI was involved and have access to an explanation of what the AI did. Research has shown that building transparency into AI systems can reduce the risk of errors or misuse.

The last principle of the AI Bill of Rights outlines a framework for human alternatives, consideration and feedback. The section specifies that people should be able to opt out of the use of AI or other automated systems in favor of a human alternative where reasonable.

As an example of how these last two principles might work together, take the case of someone applying for a mortgage. They would be informed if an AI algorithm was used to consider their application and would have the option of opting out of that AI use in favor of an actual person.

Smart guidelines, no enforceability

The five principles laid out in the AI Bill of Rights address many of the issues scholars have raised over the design and use of AI. Nonetheless, this is a nonbinding document and not currently enforceable.

It may be too much to hope that industry and government agencies will put these ideas to use in the exact ways the White House urges. If the ongoing regulatory battle over data privacy offers any guidance, tech companies will continue to push for self-regulation.

One other issue that I see within the AI Bill of Rights is that it fails to directly call out systems of oppression – like racism or sexism – and how they can influence the use and development of AI. For example, studies have shown that inaccurate assumptions built into AI algorithms used in health care have led to worse care for Black patients. I have argued that anti-Black racism should be directly addressed when developing AI systems. While the AI Bill of Rights addresses ideas of bias and fairness, the lack of focus on systems of oppression is a notable hole and a known issue within AI development.

Despite these shortcomings, this blueprint could be a positive step toward better AI systems, and maybe the first step toward regulation. A document such as this one, even if not policy, can be a powerful reference for people advocating for changes in the way an organization develops and uses AI systems.

Christopher Dancy, Associate Professor of Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering and Computer Science & Engineering, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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