Graph: The World’s Most Religious Societies

The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes survey measured the degree to which people around the world value religion in their personal lives.  The results show that poorer and less stable countries tend to be more religious, although there are some interesting outliers to this pattern.

Religious Conviction Around The World

Courtesy of The Telegraph

The above data is drawn from over 45,400 interviews from adults spanning the forty subjection nations. (You can learn more about the methodology here.) Continue reading

By All Accounts, 2015 Was The Best Year In Human History

This might seem like an audacious statement to make in light of the numerous tragedies and disasters that have churned out with shocking regularity (to say nothing of the persistent and shockingly normalized prevalence of poverty, hunger, disease, and political oppression).

But as The Atlantic points out in great detail, by almost every measure — from crime rates to income levels — 2015 was the best year in human history for the average person. Beginning with what was arguably the most high profile problem of 2015, violence, one finds that from gun crime to terrorism, humans are harming one another far less than they historically have.  Continue reading

Most of the World’s Countries Are Progressing

According to the latest Global Development Index conducted annually by the United Nations, the majority of the world’s countries are more developed than they were 25 years ago, with higher incomes, increased life expectancy, and greater education and literacy.

As The Economist highlighted, Rwanda has seen the most impressive growth, with people living 32 years longer than they did in 1990, and spending twice as much time in school. This is all the more remarkable considering the horrific social and economic loss reaped by the 1994 genocide. 20151219_fnc781

Other countries that have witnessed rapid improvement include China (which came in second place for most progress), Singapore (now one of the world’s wealthiest nations), Iran, and Mozambique.

Norway remained at the top of the index for the 12th consecutive time, followed by Australia and Switzerland.  At the bottom were Niger, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Chad, each of which nonetheless made some degree of progress, however small.

Of the countries for which there is complete date, only the small African nation of Swaziland has regressed, due mostly to the devastating impact of AIDS; over a quarter of adults are infected with HIV, with thousands dying of AIDS every year.

Such grim exceptions aside, most of the world is broadly doing better than ever before, albeit at widely different rates and with much more work to be done. All told, around 2 billion people — roughly a quarter of the world’s population — have been lifted from extreme poverty, though some 830 million remain left behind.

Hopefully, it will not be long until that number drastically declines as well. Some major challenges aside, the track record looks encouraging. Given how much has changed in just the past 25 years, who knows where much of the planet will be another 25 years from now (provided we address looming global threats like climate change).

Tokyo Offers Best Quality of Life

Or says Monocle’s magazine’s annual Quality of Life survey, which ranks cities around the world based on metrics like crime rate, infrastructure, health care facilities opportunities, education and more.

This year’s index also added 22 other factors for consideration, from the cost of rent to access to outdoor activity.

So based on this expanded criteria, Japan’s largest city moved from an already respectable second place position last year, to the top of the world. Monocle noted Tokyo’s “defining paradox of heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet” as well as its efficient public transit, great culinary offering, unmatched safety, and polite residents.

Interestingly enough, the magazine also admitted that “by any conventional measure Tokyo should be a disaster”, owing largely to its sheer size, which most cities would struggle to accommodate — it is a testament to the city’s success, and perhaps Japanese culture and society, that one could find safety and serenity in the presence of over 30 million people.  Continue reading

The Crucial Lessons of Traveling

I couldn’t agree more with the following observation by The Atlantic‘s Amanda Machado, whose article “Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t” explores the often-neglected experiential side of education.

During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitoes and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.

But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted”, I now rethought taking at all.

Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world”. Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road”. The other man responded, “No, look at the people”.

Stories like these are what continue to whet my appetite for more travel. Even if it is just exploring a neighboring town I had never visited before, I always find myself learning something new — especially when I take the time to engage with fellow humans.  Continue reading

Brazil’s Difficult Gamble With the Amazon

With most of the world’s largest rainforest located within its borders, Brazil is center stage in global debates and efforts regarding environmental preservation. As an in-depth and visually stimulating NPR photo essay shows Continue reading

Reflections on a Global Community

For most of human history, the average person rarely knew, let alone cared, about what happened beyond his or her little community of mostly interrelated people. Now, something can happen halfway across the world, to strangers of a completely foreign culture and society, and we feel emotionally and politically invested. We mourn, express solidarity, debate, and otherwise get involved in matters that by all accounts should not concern us.

It is easy to take for granted that we live in a global community, in which our social, economic, and even personal lives are impacted by the fate of total strangers thousands of miles away. But this is actually a radically new development in our species’s history, after millennia of living in small tribes, bands, and city-states. (Indeed, civilizations only emerged three to four thousand years ago, whereas modern humans have existed for at least a quarter of a million years.)

Doubtless, we are far from forming a truly cohesive and universal identity — too many things still separates us and undermine our ability to empathize, including our biology (e.g., our minds evolved to prioritize genetic kin — those who look and seem more similar — and can develop only a limited number of deep social connections).

But given the novelty of this globalized world, I am confident that with time, such limitations can be transcended. Just as the city or country — now totally common and accepted social units — was once an alien concept for thousands of years, so too can something as crazy as a global community, in the psychological if not political sense, be a reality.

Día de Muertos

Observed annually from October 31 to November 2, the Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) is one of Mexico’s oldest and most iconic national holidays. People come together to pray for and remember those who have died, supporting the dearly departed through private altars called ofrendas and offerings of calaveras (a.k.a. sugar skulls), marigolds (known as the flower of the dead for its use in traditional funerary ceremonies), candles, incense, favorite foods and beverages, and other gifts. Visitors will often congregate around the graves of loved ones, depositing these items and even celebrating in their company.

The Day of the Dead is reflective of Mexico’s unique fusion of European and Indigenous culture, particularly the Aztec and Catholic faiths. Like most societies around the world, Mesoamericans had been honoring their deceased ancestors for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century; however, the modern holiday is traced back to the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the underworld. The Aztecs were fascinated with death and the transition between the physical and spiritual worlds, and this endured long after the Spanish conquered the region and introduced Christianity.

Originally celebrated in the summer, the holiday — like so many other pre-Christian observances — was syncretized to fall on All Saints’ Day, which commemorates deceased Catholic saints (and itself coincides with a Celtic holiday about the dead called Samhain). Many Mexicans, knowingly or not, continue to combine the symbols and rituals of both cultures in their Day of the Dead celebrations. The holiday was previously only celebrated in the south, where most indigenous and mestizo people live; it only became a truly national holiday in the 1960s, when the Mexican government officially promoted it as a unifying cultural tradition. The holiday is even promoted in schools, making it a firm part of Mexican identity both domestically and abroad (where it is now increasingly celebrated). The U.N. classifies it as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity“.

If anyone is wondering why the Day of the Dead actually spans three days: October 31 is when children make an altar to invite the angelitos — spirits of dead children — to come back for a visit (it is thus sometimes called the “Day of the Innocents” or “Day of the Little Angels”); November 1 honors the adult spirits, while November 2 is when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives.

To see photos of celebrations around the world, click here.

The Power of Stoic Indifference

The truth is, indifference really is a power, selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption of certain attitudes, but facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living. Joy and grief are still there, along with all the other emotions, but they are tempered – and, in their temperance, they are less tyrannical.

— Lary Wallace, “Why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever“, Aeon

If you want to better your understanding of one of the world’s most enduring and influential philosophies, then read the rest of the article here. It dispels the myth that Stoicism is an apathetic and dispassionate mindset, and unveils the versatility of the Stoic approach to almost every circumstance. Even slaves and prisoners of war have been counted among its adherents and promoters.

The real hero of Stoicism, most Stoics agree, is the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

He’d been a slave, which gives his words a credibility that the other Stoics, for all the hardships they endured, can’t quite match. He spoke to his pupils, who later wrote down his words. These are the only words we know today as Epictetus’, consisting of two short works, the Enchiridion and the Discourses, along with some fragments. Among those whom Epictetus taught directly is Marcus Aurelius (another Stoic philosopher who did not necessarily expect to be read; his Meditations were written expressly for private benefit, as a kind of self-instruction).

Among those Epictetus has taught indirectly is a whole cast of the distinguished, in all fields of endeavour. One of these is the late U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale. A prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years during that conflict, he endured broken bones, starvation, solitary confinement, and all other manner of torture. His psychological companion through it all were the teachings of Epictetus, with which he had familiarised himself after graduating from college and joining the Navy, studying philosophy at Stanford University on the side. He kept those teachings close by in Vietnam, never letting them leave his mind even when things were at their most dire. Especially then. He knew what they were about, those lessons, and he came to know their application much better than anyone should have to.

Of course, you do not have to be a POW or human chattel to appreciate the merits of Stoicism. No matter your lifestyle or circumstances, the Stoic response is applicable. Difficult to maintain, yes, but nonetheless beneficial and life affirming.  Continue reading

The Plight of Native Americans

Generations of plague, genocide, and oppression continue to take their toll on America’s indigenous people. The subsequent marginalization has made them the most victimized group when it comes to encounters with law enforcement. As The New York Times reports:

American Indians are more likely than any other racial group to be killed by the police, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which studied police killings from 1999 to 2011 (the rate was determined as a percentage of total population). But apart from media outlets like Indian Country Today, almost no attention is paid to this pattern of violence against already devastated peoples.

When it comes to American Indians, mainstream America suffers from willful blindness. Of all the episodes of police violence listed above, only the killings of Mr. Williams and Mr. Goodblanket received significant news coverage outside Indian circles, the latter only in an article for CNN.com by the Oglala Lakota journalist and activist Simon Moya-Smith. The Williams shooting, which was the subject of public outcry, was covered by a major local news site, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, as well as by The New York Times.

The lack of public outcry towards this problem, and indeed towards pretty much all the issues affecting American Indians, has much to do with their low population and consequent lack of presence. Continue reading