Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence Day 4


One of the most interesting areas of study (and perhaps least researched) is the attitude of the converging middle group towards science. Middle grounders with an intellectual bent evidently love science as much as they love spirituality. In 2014 in the US, representatives of 551 church congregations met for an “evolution weekend” to celebrate hard science32.  In India, scientists successfully launch rockets to Mars and give puja (blessings) for their success.33

Judging by the literature, the science establishment is increasingly non-hostile to views of reality that are not narrowly materialistic. These days, many scientists and science writers, whether atheist or otherwise, appear to have taken to heart Einstein’s dictum that: “All physics is metaphysics.”34 The ultimate non-reality of the physical world around us, the existence of unseen dimensions, the questions that generate discussion of the cosmological anthropic principle—these are all areas of lively, open discussion. While the science community remains as allergic as ever to anything that smacks of “pseudoscience”, we are honest enough to admit that there are numerous aspects of quantum theory that appear to move beyond that which can be explained by purely physical factors (such as the measurement problem, action at a distance, entanglement and so on). Since the confirmation of Bell’s Inequality, there is no doubt there exists a mysterious extra dimension outside our concept of time and space.

Consciousness is another area of open-mindedness, where many scientists say the you-are-your-brain hypothesis required by strict materialism feels inadequate. And there is very little gap between popular scientific hypotheses such as simulationism (the “we live in the matrix” concept)35, or the “alien intelligence designed this universe” discussion36 and ideas of the possible existence of some sort of higher consciousness.

In other words, today we all agree that the story of the development of the universe and organic life reads like an astonishing piece of science fiction. There’s simply no good reason to say that Sir Isaac Newton’s understanding of reality (he believed that the indications showed that a higher consciousness created us and we can call it God) is “wrong”, while the version offered by a respected modern science writer like John Gribbin36 (he says that the indications are that a higher consciousness created us and we can call it alien intelligence) is allowable. 

They do not substantially contradict each other. Indeed, they are not even different.

Some of the world’s most respected scientists, including top astrophysicist Martin Rees, president emeritus of the Royal Society, have led the way to more openness in cosmological discussions. Like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, he promotes non-hostility to spiritual practices. The concept that “matter is made of ideas” comes from discussions in quantum physics rooted in the work of Werner Heisenberg, but could easily come from the spiritual world-view of progressive Christians in New York or Hindu programmers in Chennai. Other scientists who have championed a non-hostile view towards organized spiritual groups include cosmologists John D. Barrow, Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson.


After reviewing a large amount of data on this subject, what can we say about humanity’s main world-views, now and in the future? It’s almost inevitable that the media will continue to take a Western-centric stance and report that atheism is growing and people are falling away from churches. Pollsters will continue to ask people if they are religious or atheist, as if the two terms were opposites, and will continue to get answers that do not bear close examination.

But while the rise of atheism has certainly been a key theme in the development of human culture in the West over the past half-century, the view that atheism will sweep the globe to produce a non-believing utopia is extremely unlikely. The shrinking of the skeptical share of humanity is inevitable, as Welsh geneticist Steve Jones has stated37. The data gives us no reason to believe otherwise than that atheism will continue to be profoundly less popular than a more solidly middle view, characterized by an open spiritual stance combined with a growing respect for the beliefs of others. (This generosity of attitude appears to chime in with other analyses of sociological trends, such as the fall in societal violence described in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.)

As described above, the data suggests that the global proportion of atheists will fall, while the number of pro-spiritual, pro-science middle group will grow, its numbers boosted by a center-ward drift from both sides. They will come from extremely large religious groups which are moving at high speed away from hardline attitudes to liberal ones, and from ostensibly atheist groups such as the fifth of the world’s population which is China, re-opening up to a wider range of spiritual practices. This can be seen as a global convergence.


How should we refer to the central group? Above, we have used terms such as “middle-grounders” and “convergence”.

However, it could be argued that this group already has a name, as mentioned earlier. Christians use the word “universalism”, a name and concept with a long history, to refer to the liberal belief that God ultimately draws all people to himself, not just those who subscribe to a specific set of doctrines. (They quote many Bible verses to back this view, including the words of Jesus as quoted in The Gospel of John 12:32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”) Some historians suggest that the early church took a universalist view for several centuries, from Christ’s death to the fifth or sixth centuries. The modern growth of the current brand of universalism indicates that it is already widespread as a generally accepted mode of belief. Since the chief characteristic of universalism is respect for other world-views, it is already being used to refer to open-minded beliefs in a wider context.

Furthermore, by coincidence or subconscious design, many of the groups we have been calling the “nons”, people who don’t belong to either a religious or atheist world-view cluster, frequently use the term “The Universe” to describe their view of God. While we may associate this use of the word with new age trends, the idea of identifying God and the Universe is very ancient. Pantheism underlies much of the thinking in Hinduism, and Einstein declared himself a follower of Baruch Spinoza, a 17thcentury philosopher identified with the spread of pantheism in the West. (In Spinozan thought, The Universe or nature is God, but God is more than nature.)

In science, too, we talk about universalistic concepts with similar terms. Most famously, we have Charles Darwin’s views on religion as a receptacle of ideas that enabled man to live on a higher moral plane. Darwin noted that while tribes of “savages” did exist with no notion of a specific God or gods, a spiritual view of life was “universal”. He wrote that the God of Western religion was not found in remote climes; “If, however, we include under the term ‘religion’ the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different: for this belief seems to be universal with the less civilized races.”38

This may ultimately imply that humanity itself has a deep need to believe that reality has an extra dimension to it. As in so many things, Darwin appears to have got to this idea before the rest of us. Influenced by his friend, social evolutionist Herbert Spencer, Darwin wrote in 1870 that man was “led through dreams, shadows, and other causes, to look at himself as a double essence, corporeal and spiritual”.38

Although Darwin lost the simple, literal faith that he had in his youth, he later chose to raise his children as universalists (his wife was a Unitarian), sending them to church on Sundays. In his final years, he offered the use of his reading room for Christian gatherings.


Atheism as a proportion of humanity’s belief systems appears to have peaked, while spiritual groups are undergoing convergence, as shown by a review of world-view data which includes a more nuanced examination of belief statistics from Asia, the world’s most populous region. Humanity is entering a post-atheist era featuring a global convergence of people with an open-minded, pro-science, pro-spiritual outlook.

Media suggestions that humanity is turning into an atheist utopia are unfounded. Such beliefs appear to come from an unhelpful understanding of spiritual beliefs as religious at one end and atheistic at the other. A form of universalism, defined as an inclusive spirituality in which all world-views, including skepticism, are respected, may already be the largest cluster.

Poet W. H. Auden would be pleased with the spread of openness and tolerance. Talking of humanity as a whole, he said: “We must love one another or die.”  But in terms of acknowledging the move to converge on what we share rather than what divides us, perhaps a quote variously attributed to Ferenc David, a Unitarian minister, and John Wesley, a Christian preacher, is more appropriate: “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence Day 3


The story so far: interestingly similar data is appearing in surveys to describe world-views in very different regions of the world, and these appear to tell a tale about a large and expanding group with “middle” views, views which are not religious or atheist as defined in surveys organized by Western market research organizations. Let’s go for more numbers.

There is widespread agreement that significant numbers of people are peeling themselves away from traditional belief groups, which explain the reports about drops in church attendance, particularly in North America and Europe. Recent data suggests that while most Americans still consider themselves religious, only about 37% to 40% of US citizens are regular churchgoers. In the UK, numbers of churchgoers are estimated to have fallen to 6% to 10% of the population.17

But the fact that the number of self-described atheists is still small suggests that these “church backsliders”, in general, are not becoming atheistic. The majority of them are forming a third group: they are joining a middle-ground cluster which is arguably humanity’s fastest growing world view group.

For reasons of inoffensiveness, let’s call this cluster of people “the middle grounders”. This group is clearly in expansion mode, and looking at the figures, may be growing faster than any other high profile world-view cluster, including Islam, Christianity and atheism. Pro-secularists often claim ownership of the “nons” group to bolster their arguments about the collapse of theistic beliefs—but, as mentioned above, this is an unsafe assumption. (Nor should they be added to the “regular churchgoers” category.)

Who exactly are these people? It appears safe to assume that members of this group will range from people we might define as “new agers”, to people who have drifted away from traditional religion, but have not drifted particularly far. People who travel frequently or have a wide range of contacts probably meet members of this group on a daily basis. This researcher has a Facebook post in front of him in which a friend writes: “Don't believe in God, but I am praying to the universe today.”


How big is the middle grounders group? Is it just the “nons”, the 16% to 36% who define themselves as “non-religious” or “none of the above” in global surveys of world views? Now here’s where it gets interesting. When we look at detailed findings of world-views, it appears that we may have to add to this group a number of people we list on the religious side—and perhaps a very large number.

For example, going back to the details of the survey of world-views in the “atheistic” 27 European Community countries, we see that 77% are believers in a higher consciousness. Of these, we find that 51% of people “believe in God”, while 26% believe in some sort of force or great spirit.18 Clearly, a large proportion of spiritual people are not conventional believers, but are modern “in-betweenies”.

So another element of our emerging hypothesis could be to say that an unknown proportion of people who are listed as believers may actually also be middle grounders. To see whether this might be true, we need more numbers.

LIGHT DAWNS IN EASTERN EUROPE Let’s start our search in the most unlikely place. Outside East Asia, the three countries often listed as the least religious in the world, the places where (the media tells us) atheists dominate, are Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

In support of this assertion, we usually find the Eurobarometer Poll 2010 quoted, which shows that only 18% of people in Sweden and Estonia believe in God, and only 16% of people in the Czech Republic have that particular belief. That seems clear enough. These are atheist countries, right?

But no. That same poll also asked respondents whether they believe in some sort of ultimate force or great spirit. “Yes” answers came from 44% in the Czech Republic, 45% in Sweden and 50% in Estonia.

So then we do the math: the number of citizens who believe in the existence of some sort of deity-like presence, called God or The Force or something else, is actually 60% in Estonia, 63% in Sweden, and 68% in Estonia, according to the exact same survey. They are certainly not all churchgoers. But contrary to conventional wisdom, in all three countries, atheists were a minority, and the dominant groups were the middle grounders – people whose beliefs are hard to define except for one thing: they don’t think of themselves as atheists.


Broad-ranging reviews of data indicate that even the most solid-seeming traditional religions may be quietly full of middle-grounders, who may even be a majority.

For example, our default assumption may be that Jews are Jewish people belonging to the Jewish faith. We would be wrong. One study of their world-views found that 50% of Jewish people in America admitted to doubts about the existence of God, suggesting one in two are middle grounders or atheists19. The 2012 WIN/Gallup poll found even starker contrasts. Researchers concluded that only 38% of the Jewish population worldwide considered itself religious, while 54% saw itself as non-religious. (And just 2% categorized itself as atheist.)

In other words, it appears that the MAJORITY of Jewish people worldwide should be classified not in the “religious” section of our demographic charts, but in the middle grounders section, people with flexible, shifting, or hard-to-define beliefs.


A similar change appears to have taken place in Christianity, with progressive, liberal Christians drifting away from the hardline values of older generations. In recent decades, it is generally accepted that the faith has been swept by a quiet wave of universalism, in which belief in a literal version of “hell” for non-Christians, has been replaced by a respectful, non-judgmental view of people of other faiths. It is difficult to estimate how many Christians have moved to this position, since the broad, flexible nature of Christianity means that in any individual congregation there may be members from the full spectrum of belief, from conservative to liberal to atheistic.

But what we can say is that Christian movements with very modern views are much in evidence and in growth mode. For example, members of a US movement called Progressive Christianity emphasize their passion for ecology and science (and particularly Big Bang cosmological evolution, a theory which of course came from a church minister, George LeMaitre). Many members of this group are supportive of gay rights.  In Europe, Australia, China and other places, we find fast-growing non-standard groups meeting outside traditional church services: consider the creation of huge networks of house churches, the “Messy Church” movement, the “Fresh Expressions” group of the UK (which meets in offbeat areas such as skateboard parks) and so on. At several locations these groups are growing faster than traditional churches are shrinking.

This appears to be a move by mainstream Christians into the middle ground, or at least positions characterized by generosity and openness of view. Again, we cannot rely on anecdotal evidence but need to look for empirical data.

A 2013 survey on religion and politics in the United States from the Public Religion Research Institute gives us some figures to work with, at least for that country.20 With each generation, the popularity of religious conservatism has clearly declined as people move towards a liberal or progressive attitude, it says. The study indicates that 47% of the generation aged 66 to 88 are religious conservatives. Only 34% of Baby Boomers feel the same. The number for Gen Xers is 23%. And Millennials? Only 17% are conservatives.20 In other words, the majority of US Christians appears to be already moving into the middle ground. They are people who are likely to love orthodox science and spend time fighting for the rights of their gay friends.

In the UK, a movement called Christian Atheists, centred around Oxford, quickly grew into from nothing into a solid movement with several books explaining the details of their faith.21 A similar but separate movement, called Sea of Faith, is reported to have hundreds of members, including up to 50 church ministers.22

A poll released in Canada in 2011 indicated that 53% of respondents said they believe in God. “Interestingly, 28% of those identified as Protestants, 33% of Catholics, and 23% of those who attend weekly religious services do not,” the National Post reported. So the list of people who are churchgoers includes many with religious views which are non-standard to say the least. Walled-off Christianity has been replaced by an open-door version of the faith.

There was also a significant difference between the number of Canadian people who believed in heaven and those who believed in hell, a clear marker that universalism has quietly spread. The survey said that 89% of Canadians were “completely comfortable” with being in the company of individuals with beliefs different to theirs, the defining characteristic of universalists.23

While it is natural to assume that a Christian universalist outlook can be found mainly in the intellectual, non-fundamentalist branches of that faith, there is growing evidence that it also is growing rapidly in mainstream evangelical Christianity. Arguably the best known evangelical leader in the world is Rob Bell, named by Time magazine in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In a 2011 bestseller, he held up Christian universalism as something all Christians should “long for”.24


What about Islam? News reports so often focus on the fact that Muslims are not allowed to convert to other beliefs that one could be forgiven for assuming that all of them must be religious in the most hardline sense. And there have been stories about Muslims in some countries who expressed support for atheism and were jailed.25 But on reviewing reports of actual practices, it appears that in most places, the non-conversion rule is so rarely applied that when action is taken on it, the story makes headlines.  One in four human beings is Muslim, and they do not appear to be the “separate” people that conventional Western wisdom paints them to be.

In this paper, our aim has been to use empirical data at every point. But here we fail. It’s hard to find solid figures for what people in Muslim countries actually believe, compared to what their governments want us to think they believe. In the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, citizens are only allowed to have one of six official faiths. The country may have as many “nons” as other countries, but we would never know. Our suspicion is that when governments (or clerics) try to force their citizens into hardline positions, what they actually do is push them towards the middle ground. There are certainly discussions taking place within Islam about the taking of a tolerant, universalist attitude, as is evidence by the existence of academic papers and on-line discussions of the subject. Furthermore, we’ve all met Muslims with extremely modern, sophisticated views.

But what figures we do have for followers of Islam indicate that that groups falls in line with other groups. The 2012 WIN/Gallop poll found that 74% of Muslims consider themselves religious, 20% do not consider themselves religious and 3% said they were atheists. Even if we just go with these figures, the indication is that the middle ground exists there in numbers almost identical to those in the rest of the world.

Furthermore, there is evidence that a liberal universalist attitude is present within groups of Islamic religious practitioners. It can be seen, as mentioned above, in academic discourse.26 Long before “ISIS” was associated with a murderous group in the Middle East, it was the acronym for the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society. Another example: a Muslim-originated faith group called Subud (originally from Java, Indonesia) has branches all over the world—and is entirely universalistic, with Muslims and people of other faiths engaging in joint acts of spiritual transcendence twice a week.26


As mentioned at the start of this paper, most of the world’s population lives in Asia. What’s the situation with middle-grounders there?

We have already noted that several of the major cultural groups in India, from Buddhism to Jainism to schools of Hinduism, do not have the concept of a monotheistic God that we find in most other world views considered spiritual. Many have no gods. Does this make them non-religious or atheistic in the Western sense of the words? Clearly not. The festivals of these groups feel very religious indeed, with rituals, ceremonies, high priests, and the acknowledgement of the existence of other dimensions. They have complex world views. For example, Jainists are atheists who believe that 63 “illustrious persons” have appeared on earth, and include chakravatins, who are “lords of the material realm” and have golden skin.

A further illustration can be found in a reference to North Korea. Amusingly, during the writing of this paper, an atheist zealot group sent us a meme showing how ridiculous people’s religious beliefs were, using an image showing outrageous supernatural claims made by the country’s leaders, and apparently accepted by the highly gullible population. The distributors of the meme seemed to think they were doing what they normally do, poking fun at religious people, while being unaware that they were discussing an atheist leader in an atheist society.

Which leads us to an observation. It could be argued that members of most Asian world-views havealways been in the middle ground. They have never fitted into the “religious or atheist?” dichotomy pushed by Western pollsters. Both Hinduism (1 billion people) and Buddhism (490 million people) in practice leave copious amounts of space for people to hover flexibly between a more austere, religious style and a more liberal, secular style of practice, to have a belief in an ultimate deity or a belief that no ultimate deity exists. The same flexibility can be seen in Taoism, Zen practices and the world views which are dominant in ostensibly atheist East Asia.


There is yet another area in which we see very large numbers of people moving towards the middle ground, the part that is neither traditional religion nor atheism—although they are approaching from a different direction. China has officially been atheist for more than six decades. But changes are afoot.

As recently as 1997, the number of Christians in China was calculated at being less than 20 million. The Chinese government estimates the number of Christians today at about 90 million (which upsets them, since membership of the Chinese community party is only 87 million).27 (Other surveys indicate it is already well above 100 million.) This rate of growth is astonishing by any measure. One forecast for 2030 is 250 million28. Given their starting point, in a strictly atheist society, it is hard to picture these new Christians adopting the full panoply of elements which go with the most conservative branches of US Christianity. They are more likely to reach the middle ground and stop somewhere along the path, with plenty of unique elements of their own.

One final example: the growth of Christianity in Africa, with a full range of beliefs, from conservative to liberal, is well documented.


“The great convergence has begun,” says Scott Lawson, a former church pastor who now works with a trade-aid organization in Asia. “People everywhere are focusing on what we share, not what divides us.”29

It’s not just individuals who are moving to the middle ground, but organizations too. Major charities, such as Save the Children and Oxfam, started as Christian organizations, but have quietly excised references to religion in their articles of association. The International Red Cross adopted its name and symbol from a famous group of Roman Catholic volunteer healthcare workers, but don’t feel the need to mention this in their paperwork. Groups such as these are still motivated by the same strong humanist convictions they started with, but see the advantages of removing any elements that could be interpreted as walls.

Yet we should ask ourselves, is it right to think of people involved in this convergence as anything like a united group? To answer that, we’d have to know exactly what they are thinking. The simplistic nature of the surveys which have taken place make that difficult.

The present researchers, having pored over documents around this area of study for some months, can offer some general conclusions.

Middle-grounders are a group made up of various elements. Some are not members of a specific church or temple, but are also not atheist. Others have a background that may be thought to be religious, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, but which they consider largely cultural. Still others have a religious background, but choose to interpret their faith in a modern, liberal way.

The over-riding characteristic of the middle grounders is that they have genuine respect for those with other world-views. Whereas both religious fundamentalists and people in “pro-skeptic” groups take a harsh, inflexible view that other people’s beliefs are simply wrong, evil or poisonous to society, middle-grounders are by definition open-minded and tolerant. For example, the US movement called Progressive Christians has “respect for other religions” built into its charter30, and attendance is encouraged from seekers, skeptics and agnostics—who are not preached at, but encouraged to share their views.

“The middle ground rocks,” a Muslim who does a lot of charity work tells a researcher. She tells the story of a group of Muslims who took over a church soup kitchen on Christmas Day, so that the Christian volunteers could take a break. In turn, the Christian volunteers signed up to work at a Muslim charity when the Islamic Eid holiday came around.31

Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence Day 2


Does it matter that one region of the world produces facts which make complete nonsense of the statistics? Actually, yes. There are more individuals in Asia than all the other regions on the planet put together. The people of Asia make up more than 60% of the world’s population6. If we ignore or fudge the data in this region, our global figures are by no measure global figures, but minority ones. This is not just a case of ignoring nuances, but a case of “A equals B” being read as “A equals not B”.

What do we do about this? Clearly, we must look at factors that make up people’s entire world-views as the only way to avoid smashing round pegs into square holes and creating artificial dichotomies. We can also re-examine the available data, and see what we can learn from it by taking a global perspective rather than a Western one. After all, the figures come from expert survey firms with good reputations, and—crucially—we can now compare them with the many additional surveys done within Asia itself.


Clues to solving the mystery can be found by looking at the “nons”. While the majority of researchers agree that at least 16% of the world’s population is non-religious, the number of people who actually call themselves atheists remains a curiously small separate group—at between 2% and 8%, in most surveys, 11% in the WIN/Gallup poll quoted above. (Non-religious people and atheists are usually counted separately.)

Let’s leave this small group of atheists aside for a moment, and look at the “in-betweens”. Who are the “non-religious”, if they are not comfortably to declare themselves as atheists? Are they agnostics, in the sense of people who don’t know or believe you can’t know whether a universal mind exists? They could be, although the most common term for them in the surveys is “unaffiliated”.

They seem to be a rather uniform group in size across different polls. Taking a big picture view of all the surveys, we see we always have a very large number of religious people (59% to 84%, so let’s think of it as about 70%), a smaller but still sizeable number of “nons” (averaging 20%), and a much smaller number of atheists (in single digits or low double digits, so let’s call it 10% to 15%).

The proportions we see in these global figures are roughly reflected in certain country-specific polls, although some have markedly fewer atheists. Some countries organize their census data so as to have none at all (in the Egyptian census, “atheist” is not presented as a belief choice). A less unreasonable example would be the US, where an ARIS report of beliefs in 2008 said 85% of people were religious, while 15% claimed to have no religion.7 Of that 15%, only 0.9% said they were agnostic and 0.7% atheist. So the US believers are believers, and the vast majority of the “nons”, 13% of the 15%, are alsoconvinced believers in something—but what? We’ll hold that question for a while, too. Other surveys, such as the aforementioned BBC one in 2004, put the number of US atheists higher, but rarely does the figure surmount 13%.

The indication is that the vast majority of the planet’s people, the religious and the nons, believe in something non-material as a key part of their world-view.


In all the surveys, the number of atheists is relatively small, perhaps surprisingly so, considering their enormous prominence in media debates and on the internet, where they often feel like the majority. (This may be partly due to a confusion between atheism and secularism, which are not the same thing: people often forget that the separation of church and state, and the spread of secularism were historical movements led by Christians, not atheists.)

When we take a closer look, we find puzzling data that shrinks that small number of atheists further. In one of the most comprehensive US surveys, 38% of atheists and agnostics went on to say that they DID believe in a higher consciousness. And 14% of people who identified themselves as atheists added that they believed specifically in God or a universal spirit. That percentage included 5% who said they were “absolutely certain” that God or a universal spirit existed.8

Confused? Hold on, we’re just getting started. Of the atheists, “a quarter (26%) say they think of themselves as spiritual people, and 3% consider themselves religious people,” says Michael Lipka of the Pew Research Centre.  So a proportion of people listed as atheists are religious people who are more sure of a deity’s existence than some of the people listed as believers! A further puzzle: In that US survey, more people (7%) say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit than say they are atheist (2.4%). So some people listed as believers are also non-believers.

Many media outlets repeatedly group the nons with the atheists to justify headlines on the rise of atheism. This is clearly unsafe. The one thing we know for sure about the unaffiliated is that they have chosen not to tick the box that identifies them as atheists. Other journalists choose to use the word “irreligious”, although this is misleading: the word does not have the same meaning or associations as “unaffiliated”. The Pew Forum’s 2007 US Religious Landscape Survey revealed that 42% of the unaffiliated pray at least once a month, and 41% considered religion to be somewhat or very important in their lives. Those are not small percentages.

It’s clear that to many people, the concepts of atheism and non-belief in God come across as only tangentially connected, if related at all. It is very hard to escape the conclusion that the non-binary, non-opposite system that applies to Asia also applies to the Western world. If you position religion and atheism as opposites, you’re asking the wrong questions. Humanity’s chosen world views are far more complex than the summaries in popular media indicate.


Similar puzzles appear in other well-studied communities. The UK is often painted as an irreligious place, and visitors can see shuttered churches in big cities. Various sociological studies indicate that between 30% and 40% of British people do not believe in God. Yet in a major survey, only 8% identify themselves as “convinced atheists”—again, it appears that in the UK, “not believing in God” and “being an atheist” are not considered the same thing.9 For the majority of people, “not believing in God” actually appears to mean “not believing in God the way grandma does”.

Look at other questions in that country and things blur further. Three out of four adults (77%) and three fifths (61%) of self-declared non-religious people in the UK said they believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”. In other words, the majority of people find the narrow materialistic interpretation of some scientists unappealing. (We are using the word “materialistic” in the scientific sense of holding a belief that reality is entirely explicable in material terms of physics and chemistry).

The statistics specifically of the beliefs of UK atheists found that nearly one in four (23%) believe in the human soul, and 15% in life after death. Fourteen per cent believe in reincarnation. Whoever these atheists are, they are not Richard Dawkins.

ENTER THE EUROZONE Crunch more data and glaring contradictions multiply at high speed. When we move our strictly-by-the-numbers probe across the rest of Europe, we find it is not the atheistic continent it is painted to be. Surveys across the 27 member countries indicate that 77% of people believe in a God-like higher consciousness.10 Only 20% of people said they did not believe in God or any type of over-arching spirit. And again we see the definition gap: alongside these figures, we get a separate number which tells us that only 7% of Europeans said they were atheists.

Not believing in God does not make you an atheist, the public keeps telling us, not just all over Asia (where it’s obvious), but in many places, including Europe. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the word “atheist” is regularly understood to mean “not an active churchgoer”, “not a member of a specific congregation”, or have other similar meanings.

(History-lovers will be reminded of the ancient Roman word for Christian, which was “atheist”. Early Christian leader Justin Martyr happily embraced the term, because he felt that there was a world of difference between the multiple deity ideas of the Romans and the concept of the one great underlying mind that his people had. Justin had surprisingly modern attitudes for a man born circa 100 AD.)


What about the numbers we find in the rest of the world? India, it is often said, has a long tradition of supporting atheism, as the birthplace of Jainism and Buddhism, both of which are thriving Supreme Being-free traditions more than two millennia old. Are Indian results different?

The most widely cited results are those from the WIN/Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism (the uncomfortably binary nature of which is indicated in its title). This tells us that 81% of Indians identified themselves as “religious”. And what of the remaining 19%? By now, you can guess the pattern. The remaining groups were “not religious” at 13% and “convinced atheists” at just 3%.11  So even if we take a largely “either/or” view of the issue, the intriguing middle group is as strongly present in India as it is in the West.

If we take a more nuanced view—recognizing that many Indians are fundamentally atheistic AND religious at the same time, the world’s middle group (i.e., those who are not specifically atheist nor theist) becomes immeasurably larger. There are a lot of people in India! And it isn’t just Buddhism and Jainism that we are talking about. We can also consider the fact that Hindu philosophy has different schools, and some do not include the concept of any type of monotheistic Almighty God or similar supreme power. Some ancient Hindu traditions, such as the Carvaka school, produce views which are atheistic and materialistic in ways which are remarkably similar to those in modern schools of atheism. Many people in hat will soon be the world’s most populous country are technically atheists, yet that doesn’t clash with the fact that in the Indian government census of 2001, the number of people listed as religious was 99.9%, against 0.1% “religion not stated”.


In China, it’s hard to get at the facts, not because they are so few of them, but because there are so many, and they contradict each other. It’s generally assumed that most of the population does not belong to any religion, which is not surprising, given the Chinese communist party’s origins in the strictest forms of Marxist secular humanism, and the resultant hostility to organized worship. Party members are not allowed to join a faith. The WIN/Gallop 2015 poll suggested that 61% of people in China claim to be convinced atheists. Next highest was Hong Kong (34% atheist) and Japan (31% atheist).

Or could this be another case in which the “tick one box ” nature of typical surveys fails to capture complex attitudes? If we turn to more subtle surveys of beliefs by scholars actually based in China and its special administrative region Hong Kong, tests which include detailed questions about ancestor worship and folk-religious practices, we end up with very different figures.

In 2012, researchers in China did a survey of 25 provinces on this basis12, and it indicated that while 90% claimed to belong to no religion, only 6.3% were definable as non-religious, in the sense of people who did not build regular acts of spiritual worship into their lives. Chinese people tend to be classified as non-religious, while clearly this is not the case. An academic study in 2010 concluded that there were 436 million followers of “Chinese folk religion” in China, making it a significantly large group of believers. (Compare the number of Jewish people in the world, which is about 16.5 million.) The various Chinese surveys produce a strong indication that numerous people exist who simultaneously claim to disbelieve in any form of formal faith system while sticking rigidly to schedules of folk-religion and ancestor worship.

Hong Kong is said to be 34% atheist by the poll quoted above and about half “non-religious” by official government measures. But when we look closely at local polls, we find a different, non-binary story. Much of the population is aligned to spiritual organizations (21% Buddhist, 14% Taoist and 12% Christian, adding up to 47%), but it is the ones who are “not religious” who are most strongly associated with traditional Chinese beliefs, such as the burning of spirit money and other folk-religion practices. The city’s population has a surprisingly rich and widespread spiritual life.


What about the “poster-boy” countries for atheism that many of us have all read about? Isn’t Sweden a majority atheist country? And weren’t there big headlines about Australians being 70% atheist? And isn’t the same true for some place in Europe, like Estonia or something?

The answer is: Yes, the popular media do print headlines like this regularly. One of the most widely-quoted surveys on this topic was a Gallup poll which produced outliers, particularly in regard to Australia13. It posed an unusually broad key question: “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” Note the word “daily”. With the question set like this, people could only truthfully answer “yes” if they did something religious every day. Thus it appears possible that folk who went to church or temple every weekend of their lives could end up listed in figures which commentators could take to mean “atheist”.  As for Sweden and Estonia, we’ll travel thence shortly.

Other survey data oft quoted in newspapers and on the internet comes from Phil Zuckerman14, who is an academic, but is also a pro-secular activist.


A simple way to help deal with the anomalies is to fix the critical problems inherent in the terminology. To take a leaf from the books of psychology and the social sciences, we can remove unhelpful terms such as “religion” and “atheism”, used as false opposites, and replace them with “world-views”, defining the term as referring to an individual’s understanding of reality, incorporating both physical and non-tangible aspects. This gives us more scientific, analytical tools to solve the myriad problems in the data above, and equips us with a system that can cope with people who have a mixed view of reality, from Confucianists to quantum physics theorists.

What exactly do we mean by world-view? This can perhaps be best explained using a narrative analogy. Imagine two people: Subject A is an Anglican Church minister and Subject B is a Hindu software engineer. We lazily label both “religious”. Yet a scientific study of the data points which make up their world-views might reveal they have, perhaps, only 1,875 overlapping beliefs in the, say, 3,000 data points we might specify as making up their world views.

At the same time, Subject C, a Parisian economics teacher, tells us he is an atheist. But a scientific study of the data points in his world-view reveals he has identical views to Subject A except for perhaps one single point (“Does a personal God exist?”). Thus instead of A and B being alike, we find that A and C are virtually twin souls, despite one being a church minister and the other an atheist.

By considering world-views instead of the “religious or atheist” false dichotomy, we can cope with the levels of complexity in the real world—and the simplification problems that beset the data above disappear. No longer does the Communist Party official performing ancestor worship rites cause our research to stop making sense. He doesn’t believe in Christianity’s God (he is not allowed to), but heaven and the unseen world are very real to him. He is an atheist, a Confucian, a secular humanist, and deeply religious. He has a complex world-view, as indeed do people everywhere.


A related side-point: One of the world’s most respected theoretical physicists, Lee Smolin, has argued convincingly that anybody who believes in the laws of physics is displaying religious thinking.15 That person is assuming that over-arching principles exist over and above the world of facts explicable by materialist explanations of science. We “modern” people are happy to say that the entire universe erupted out of a miniscule disturbance in quantum foam but we ignore the fact that no one can tell us how to imprint the laws of physics on a quantum particle. Indeed, the very words used in discussions of the laws of nature, such as “fundamental” and “absolute” are identical to those used in philosophical debates about divinity, pantheism and the like. (Ironically, one popular scientist who argues that the laws of physics should not be seen as fundamental and unchanging, Rupert Sheldrake, has been criticized as being too sympathetic to religious ideas.)16

Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence Day 1

The following article is a single article that I've broken up over several days, as it's quite long.

Globalized data shows hardliners on all sides losing, and points to emergence of open-minded pro-science, pro-spiritual outlook

THE WORLD IS TURNING ATHEIST, the media tells us. Europe is already dominated by non-believers and plummeting church attendance figures elsewhere indicate that religion itself could disappear within a generation. Christianity is shrinking fast, extremism has soured Islam, and the fastest growing belief-system is to have no beliefs, which could lead to the world becoming a peaceful, atheist utopia. So says conventional wisdom in some quarters.1

Are there figures to back this up? Actually, no. Indeed, a close examination of empirical data about world-views tells a story that is different in almost every way—and especially in regard to humanity’s next chapter.

Atheism as a belief system has peaked and its share of humanity is shrinking, demographic studies indicate. Win/Gallup’s 2012 global poll on religion and atheism put atheists at 13%, while its 2015 poll saw that category fall to 11%. Other figures suggest the changes have deep, broad roots.

There appear to be at least three reasons for the shrinkage.

First, a community’s possession of atheistic world-views—for whatever reason—correlates with low or negative birth rates. The most significant examples are East Asian and European countries, which are at “below replacement” rates of birth, shrinking at speed.  

Second, “forced” atheism has been disappearing steadily over the past 40 years and we see a corresponding surge of people towards spiritual clusters. In percentage terms, 1970 may be considered the high point for global atheism and agnosticism. As communism weakened, and eventually collapsed in 1989, there was a significant resurgence of religious belief (see chart below). The same thing is now happening in China.    

Third, the surge of popularity for a novel type of “evangelical atheism” which began about a decade ago appears to be losing some of its steam. The movement’s celebrity leaders have fallen out of the bestseller lists, and are often now criticized by their former cheerleaders in newspaper columns. After a high-publicity start in 2013, Sunday Assemblies have plummeted out of the limelight and growth has been glacial.        

And the near future? The latest global data also shows that young people, classified as those under 34, tend to be measurably more religious (66%) than older ones (60%). “With the trend of an increasingly religious youth globally, we can assume that the number of people who consider themselves religious will only continue to increase,” said Jean-Marc Leger, President of WIN/Gallup International Association.


As atheistic countries shrink, religious regions globally are growing: Asia and Africa now make up three out of four members of humanity. Yet there are numerous signs that they are not following the old-fashioned, “walled compounds” model of religion, but a different stance in which adherents often avoid even the word “religion” (they prefer to talk of being “spiritual”). These individuals are flexible in terms of meeting places (often gathering in homes and coffee shops instead of conventional places of worship), and are far more likely to focus on what humanity shares rather than what sets people apart (all the major world view groups now have active interfaith organizations and science-focused offshoots). Revered texts are not seen as “inerrant” law books but as historical documents containing statements that must be seen as “context-specific”, even by devout believers.

Why is there such a contrast between the popular media story of rising atheism and the actual facts on the ground of popular spirituality? (We define spirituality not as simply feeling awe when looking at the stars, but in the classic sense of the inner person having some kind of primacy over outer reality.) There are many reasons for the confusion, but the biggest one is the Western-centric model used by most media-savvy research organizations, plus the related attitudes of the international press. In truth, the statistics of global belief make no sense unless they are examined from a global perspective, in particular, bringing in data and world-views from Asia, the most populous part of the planet.


But first, the numbers. Atheism is growing and church attendance falling, the media has been saying for years, quoting regular research findings. “Atheism is on the rise around the world,” said a BBC news report on 19 December 2014, one of dozens of similar reports.

At the same time, we also find solid statistics that the world’s popular belief systems appear to be growing steadily. Looking at various measures, it appears that Christianity adds about 25 million people a year, giving it a 1.56% growth rate. Islam has been growing at 1.5% to 1.84% but from a smaller base, adding 22 million people a year.2

That’s in terms of absolute numbers. A more scientific question to ask is: are religious populations growing in proportion to the rest of the world population? The answer appears again to be yes. If we blend in figures from the smaller faiths, we find that organized spiritual groups are growing on average at 1.2% a year, while world population growth is about 1.1% a year.3 So religions are growing in absolute and proportional terms, with Islam and Christianity expanding faster than the others.


So how can atheism and religion both be growing? We need to consider people changing their ideas or evolving their belief systems. Such factors are notoriously difficult to measure but will give us a richer image of what is happening. How do we get such facts?

The newspaper reports about shrinking churches tend to come from surveys undertaken by respected research firms headquartered in the Western world, such as WIN/Gallup, the Pew Research Center and others. In general, the surveys show a dramatic contrast between two sides, indicating that some 63% to 84% of the world’s population is religious, while the remaining 27% to 18% isn’t4.

Whichever surveys we go with, we have a pretty clear dichotomy to start with, right? But in fact, we don’t. And that’s where this strange and winding journey really begins.


There’s one huge problem with the statistics favored by the media. They are based on answers to questions which are, at heart, binary: are you a religious person or an atheist? Even in the surveys which allow you to be in-between or neither, those two points are presented as contrasts: and that’s where the major problem lies.

A system in which “religious” and “atheist” are presented as opposites may make sense in 2015 in a pub debate in London or a panel discussion in the United States. But it makes none at all in Asia. The most popular codes of belief in the region lead people to be atheists as a key part of being religious. (We will define “atheist” in the most popular way, as “people who don’t believe in God”5.)

In Asia, we find Buddhists, Taoists, Jainists and Confucians, all representing huge numbers of people, showing up for gatherings to mark World Religion Day—yet ALL these would be counted as atheists under many systems of analysis. For members of groups which follow these world-views, there is no supreme being who goes under names such as God, Allah, or the Force. Some have no deities at all, and are clearly atheistic in tone. Yet are these individuals religious? Look at the Jainist in his robes and beads, or the Confucian, enthusiastically joining in with the group prayer at a World Religion Day meeting, and most people would say: yes, definitely. (The major schools of Hinduism also include groups who specifically consider themselves atheistic, as a key belief of their religious practice.)

Furthermore, much of the analysis for this paper was done in Hong Kong, China: a city and region where large numbers of residents classified as atheist have a very, very long list of what many people would describe as “superstitions” or examples of “magical thinking”, while people listed as religious preach regularly about the harmfulness of superstition.

Also, the researchers live in the (claimed) missile range of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who runs a regime and community that is a textbook example of all that is quoted as being bad about religion—except he and it are atheist.

The situation in East Asia is the direct opposite of what the Western-designed binary model would lead us to believe should be the case.

Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, September 26, 2015

China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers

If modern material comforts are the measure of success, then Gere, a 59-year-old former yak-and-sheep herder in China’s western Qinghai Province, should be a happy man.

In the two years since the Chinese government forced him to sell his livestock and move into a squat concrete house here on the windswept Tibetan plateau, Gere and his family have acquired a washing machine, a refrigerator and a color television that beams Mandarin-language historical dramas into their whitewashed living room.

But Gere, who like many Tibetans uses a single name, is filled with regret. Like hundreds of thousands of pastoralists acrossChina who have been relocated into bleak townships over the past decade, he is jobless, deeply indebted and dependent on shrinking government subsidies to buy the milk, meat and wool he once obtained from his flocks.

“We don’t go hungry, but we have lost the life that our ancestors practiced for thousands of years,” he said.

In what amounts to one of the most ambitious attempts made at social engineering, the Chinese government is in the final stages of a 15-year-old campaign to settle the millions of pastoralists who once roamed China’s vast borderlands. By year’s end, Beijing claims it will have moved the remaining 1.2 million herders into towns that provide access to schools, electricity and modern health care.

Official news accounts of the relocation rapturously depict former nomads as grateful for salvation from primitive lives. “In merely five years, herders in Qinghai who for generations roved in search of water and grass, have transcended a millennium’s distance and taken enormous strides toward modernity,” said a front-page article in the state-run Farmers’ Daily. “The Communist Party’s preferential policies for herders are like the warm spring breeze that brightens the grassland in green and reaches into the herders’ hearts.”

But the policies, based partly on the official view that grazing harms grasslands, are increasingly contentious. Ecologists in China and abroad say the scientific foundations of nomad resettlement are dubious. Anthropologists who have studied government-built relocation centers have documented chronic unemployment, alcoholism and the fraying of millenniums-old traditions.

Chinese economists, citing a yawning income gap between the booming eastern provinces and impoverished far west, say government planners have yet to achieve their stated goal of boosting incomes among former pastoralists.

The government has spent $3.45 billion on the most recent relocation, but most of the newly settled nomads have not fared well. Residents of cities like Beijing and Shanghai on average earn twice as much as counterparts inTibet and Xinjiang, the western expanse that abuts Central Asia. Government figures show that the disparities have widened in recent years.

Rights advocates say the relocations are often accomplished through coercion, leaving former nomads adrift in grim, isolated hamlets. In Inner Mongolia and Tibet, protests by displaced herders occur almost weekly, prompting increasingly harsh crackdowns by security forces.

“The idea that herders destroy the grasslands is just an excuse to displace people that the Chinese government thinks have a backward way of life,” said Enghebatu Togochog, the director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, based in New York. “They promise good jobs and nice houses, but only later do the herders discover these things are untrue.”

In Xilinhot, a coal-rich swath of Inner Mongolia, resettled nomads, many illiterate, say they were deceived into signing contracts they barely understood. Among them is Tsokhochir, 63, whose wife and three daughters were among the first 100 families to move into Xin Kang village, a collection of forlorn brick houses in the shadow of two power plants and a belching steel factory that blankets them in soot.

In 2003, he says, officials forced him to sell his 20 horses and 300 sheep, and they provided him with loans to buy two milk cows imported from Australia. The family’s herd has since grown to 13, but Tsokhochir says falling milk prices and costly store-bought feed means they barely break even.

An ethnic Mongolian with a deeply tanned face, Tsokhochir turns emotional as he recites grievances while his wife looks away. Ill-suited for the Mongolian steppe’s punishing winters, the cows frequently catch pneumonia and their teats freeze. Frequent dust storms leave their mouths filled with grit. The government’s promised feed subsidies never came.

Barred from grazing lands and lacking skills for employment in the steel mill, many Xin Kang youths have left to find work elsewhere in China. “This is not a place fit for human beings,” Tsokhochir said.

Not everyone is dissatisfied. Bater, 34, a sheep merchant raised on the grasslands, lives in one of the new high-rises that line downtown Xilinhot’s broad avenues. Every month or so he drives 380 miles to see customers in Beijing, on smooth highways that have replaced pitted roads. “It used to take a day to travel between my hometown and Xilinhot, and you might get stuck in a ditch,” he said. “Now it takes 40 minutes.” Talkative, college-educated and fluent in Mandarin, Bater criticized neighbors who he said want government subsidies but refuse to embrace the new economy, much of it centered on open-pit coal mines.

He expressed little nostalgia for the Mongolian nomad’s life — foraging in droughts, sleeping in yurts and cooking on fires of dried dung. “Who needs horses now when there are cars?” he said, driving through the bustle of downtown Xilinhot. “Does America still have cowboys?”

Experts say the relocation efforts often have another goal, largely absent from official policy pronouncements: greater Communist Party control over people who have long roamed on the margins of Chinese society.

Nicholas Bequelin, the director of the East Asia division of Amnesty International, said the struggle between farmers and pastoralists is not new, but that the Chinese government had taken it to a new level. “These relocation campaigns are almost Stalinist in their range and ambition, without any regard for what the people in these communities want,” he said. “In a matter of years, the government is wiping out entire indigenous cultures.” A map shows why the Communist Party has long sought to tame the pastoralists. Rangelands cover more than 40 percent of China, from Xinjiang in the far west to the expansive steppe of Inner Mongolia in the north. The lands have been the traditional home to Uighurs, Kazakhs, Manchus and an array of other ethnic minorities who have bristled at Beijing’s heavy-handed rule.

For the Han Chinese majority, the people of the grasslands are a source of fascination and fear. China’s most significant periods of foreign subjugation came at the hands of nomadic invaders, including Kublai Khan, whose Mongolian horseback warriors ruled China for almost a century beginning in 1271.

“These areas have always been hard to know and hard to govern by outsiders, seen as places of banditry or guerrilla warfare and home to peoples who long resisted integration,” said Charlene E. Makley, an anthropologist at Reed College, in Oregon, who studies Tibetan communities in China. “But now the government feels it has the will and the resources to bring these people into the fold.”

Although efforts to tame the borderlands began soon after Mao Zedong took power in 1949, they accelerated in 2000 with a modernization campaign, “Go West,” that sought to rapidly transform Xinjiang and Tibetan-populated areas through enormous infrastructure investment, nomad relocations and Han Chinese migration.

The more recent “Ecological Relocation” program, started in 2003, has focused on reclaiming the region’s fraying grasslands by decreasing animal grazing.

New Madoi Town, where Gere’s family lives, was among the first so-called Socialist Villages constructed in the Amdo region of Qinghai Province, an overwhelmingly Tibetan area more than 13,000 feet above sea level. As resettlement gained momentum a decade ago, the government said that overgrazing was imperiling the vast watershed that nourishes the Yellow, Yangtze and the Mekong rivers, China’s most important waterways. In all, the government says it has moved more than 500,000 nomads and a million animals off ecologically fragile pastureland in Qinghai Province.

Gere said he had scoffed at government claims that his 160 yaks and 400 sheep were destructive, but he had no choice other than to sell them. “Only a fool would disobey the government,” he said. “Grazing our animals wasn’t a problem for thousands of years yet suddenly they say it is.”

Proceeds from the livestock sale and a lump sum of government compensation did not go far. Most of it went for unpaid grazing and water taxes, he said, and about $3,200 was spent building the family’s new two-bedroom home.

Although policies vary from place to place, displaced herders on average pay about 30 percent of the cost of their new government-built homes, according to official figures. Most are given living subsidies, with a condition that recipients quit their nomadic ways. Gere said the family’s $965 annual stipend — good for five years — was $300 less than promised. “Once the subsidies stop, I’m not sure what we will do,” he said.

Many of the new homes in Madoi lack toilets or running water. Residents complain of cracked walls, leaky roofs and unfinished sidewalks. But the anger also reflects their loss of independence, the demands of a cash economy and a belief that they were displaced with false assurances that they would one day be allowed to return.

Jarmila Ptackova, an anthropologist at the Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic who studies Tibetan resettlement communities, said the government’s relocation programs had improved access to medical care and education. Some entrepreneurial Tibetans had even become wealthy, she said, but many people resent the speed and coercive aspects of the relocations. “All of these things have been decided without their participation,” she said.

Such grievances play a role in social unrest, especially in Inner Mongolia and Tibet. Since 2009, more than 140 Tibetans, two dozen of them nomads, have self-immolated to protest intrusive policies, among them restrictions on religious practices and mining on environmentally delicate land. The most recent one took place on Thursday, in a city not far from Madoi.

Over the past few years, the authorities in Inner Mongolia have arrested scores of former herders, including 17 last month in Tongliao municipality who were protesting the confiscation of 10,000 acres.

This year, dozens of people from Xin Kang village, some carrying banners that read “We want to return home” and “We want survival,” marched on government offices and clashed with riot police, according to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.

Chinese scientists whose research once provided the official rationale for relocation have become increasingly critical of the government. Some, like Li Wenjun, a professor of environmental management at Peking University, have found that resettling large numbers of pastoralists into towns exacerbates poverty and worsens water scarcity.

Professor Li declined an interview request, citing political sensitivities. But in published studies, she has said that traditional grazing practices benefit the land. “We argue that a system of food production such as the nomadic pastoralism that was sustainable for centuries using very little water is the best choice,” according to a recent article she wrote in the journal Land Use Policy.

Gere recently pitched his former home, a black yak-hide tent, on the side of a highway as a pit stop for Chinese tourists. “We’ll serve milk tea and yak jerky,” he said hopefully. Then he turned maudlin as he fiddled with a set of keys tied to his waist.

“We used to carry knives,” he said. “Now we have to carry keys.”

Jacobs, Andrew. 2015. “China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers”. New York Times. Posted: July 11, 2015. Available online:

Friday, September 25, 2015

Mesolithic hunters moved through Cairngorm glens 8,000 years ago

Archaeologists working on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire have uncovered evidence that people were active in this mountainous landscape thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Excavations at sites deep in the Cairngorm glens have produced radiocarbon dates which demonstrate a human presence as far back as 8,100 BC, with some places being revisited over many thousands of years. The first evidence that hunter-gatherer groups were living in the Cairngorms was discovered on the Mar Lodge Estate in 2003, when a major footpath repair programme turned up prehistoric worked stone artefacts. Without radiocarbon dates only an approximate date for the artefacts was possible at the time, with initial estimates of around 5,000 BC.

A partnership among the National Trust for Scotland and archaeologists and environmental scientists from Aberdeen University, University College Dublin and Stirling University established the Upper Dee Tributaries Project in 2013 to develop our understanding of the Estate’s prehistory. Now entering its third season, the project is casting fascinating light on how early people used these upland landscapes after the retreat of the last glaciers – something about which very little is known in Scotland.

Challenging conditions

Radiocarbon dates of 6,200 – 6,100 BC from a site in Glen Geldie are remarkable because they coincide with the most dramatic climatic deterioration seen since the last ice age, in which permanent snow fields would have been a feature of the Cairngorms, and glaciers may have started reforming. The site is being excavated by a team from University College Dublin.

Trust Archaeologist Dr Shannon Fraser said. “It is incredible to think that what we have discovered at this one spot in a vast landscape may represent a small group of people stopping for only a night or two, repairing their hunting equipment and then moving on. Glen Geldie is a very chilly place today, even with all our modern outdoor clothing – it is hard to imagine what it must have been like in the much harsher climate 8,000 years ago.”

The earliest dates come from a site in Glen Dee, at a key stopping point for travellers moving through mountain passes between Deeside and Speyside, with links both to north west Scotland and the North Sea coast. Excavations by Aberdeen University are revealing a complex history of settlement, with people gathering by the riverside as early as c8,100 BC – perhaps only a few hundred years after communities begin to move back into Scotland as the ice retreated. The sandy beach at this ideal salmon-fishing ground continued to attract people for thousands of years, until at least c900 BC – the late Bronze Age.

Aberdeenshire Council is a strong supporter of the project. Council Archaeologist Bruce Mann said “Not so many years ago we thought we understood the glens of the Cairngorms, as a landscape largely empty of people in prehistory. Now this work has turned such thinking on its head, and shows the importance of why we support these projects. In the future we’ll be better informed about how we manage that land, while providing an amazing story for visitors to the area.”

Past Horizons. 2015. “Mesolithic hunters moved through Cairngorm glens 8,000 years ago”. Past Horizons. Posted: July 11, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Romani distrust of government lives on

More Romani people in Norway value the importance of education. But the historical distrust and fear of authority haven’t disappeared.

Many Romani people in Norway who grew up under the government’s policy of Norwegianisation in the last century tell tragic stories of bullying and discrimination both in school and in society at large. Many of their children still struggle with the repercussions.

Researchers find variations in education, health and living conditions, but recent studies of living conditions among the Tater/Romani people in Norway indicate that that many still face challenges in their lives.

The new research, conducted by researchers from the Work Research Institute (WRI), is based on interviews and national records data, and was presented to the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation in a Norwegian Official Report (NOU) on 1 June.

Survey records data is incomplete

In 1897, the government gave responsibility for the Romani/Tater to the Norwegian Mission for the Homeless (the Mission) to handle the “drifter problem.” The register-based part of the research used the Mission's client records, since Norway does not have a registry based on ethnicity.

However, the range of living conditions in the survey is not representative of all Romani people. A large percentage of Romani never had contact with the Mission, so the client archive does not provide a comprehensive picture.

The Romani/Tater are not an easy group to research because they hold differing views among themselves about what place they have as a minority group in society. Some have and want to have an established place in Norwegian society. Others feel peripheralised by the larger community.

The Romani/Tater population in Norway is estimated to be anywhere from 3000 to 10 000 people. Many people of Romani origin fear making their identity public, and many have Romani relatives without knowing it and so do not define themselves as part of that population.

Fear of child welfare continues

Monica Five Aarset collaborated with Ragnhild Nordvik to interview 40 people who define themselves as Romani. She is a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo, and serves as an advisor and researcher for the Tater/Romani Committee.

Aarset found wide variations in the group. Some people try to get into mainstream society. Others choose — more or less voluntarily — to stay separate.

Interviewees expressed a consistent distrust of Norwegian authorities and society in general. Distrust is also passed on to generations who have not directly been affected by the government's Norwegianisation policy.

“Many of the people I interviewed are extremely afraid of child protection services. The stories of children who were taken from their parents are still told, and so the distrust lives on,” says Aarset.

Never felt safe

A man in his 50s tells the researchers about many psychological problems he has that stem from a childhood where he never felt safe. Children that he knew suddenly disappeared, and the adults said they had been taken. He grew up with two kinds of horrors, he says:

One was the fear we saw in the adults, that we didn’t fully understand — the constant fear of standing out, that something would happen. The other was the more concrete fear that came from kids I knew suddenly being "taken" and that I never saw again.

Even today many Romani people are too afraid to register in the public records.

“Distrust can be limiting in that Romani avoid or distance themselves from public services, such as the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV). Some are also fearful of school,” says Aarset.

A number of interviewees have little or no education and minimal knowledge about how to find information on various welfare programs, so many do not get access to equal public services.

Terrified of identity being disclosed

Aarset heard from survey participants that some Norwegians think that Tater/Romani people no longer exist. This lack of knowledge perpetuates many negative attitudes. Some adults are terrified that their colleagues will discover their Romani ethnicity.

A girl in her teens told researchers about several episodes of bullying at school:

I've just moved because I was being bothered by kids and adults at the last place I lived, where everybody knows everybody. The teacher talked about Traveller people and said that in the old days they were real dirt that one should stay away from.

Need diplomas and certificates

Romani people live throughout most of Norway, with the exception of the northernmost parts of the country.

Most of the adults in the survey collect disability benefits combined with part-time work. Many men work as craftsmen, but few hold permanent positions.

Few Romani over 40 years old have completed secondary school. But nowadays various trades require a certificate of competence, and so more Romani consider education to be important.

“Family loyalty is strong. Some boys choose to help their fathers in the family business instead of pursuing an education. But young people are generally keen to stay in school to get a trade certificate that shows what they know. A high absence rate in primary schools makes this more demanding for some Romani.

Many more individuals than before marry non-Romani, but many are still closely linked to the family and their identity. “Family ties extend beyond the nuclear family. The music and the Romani language are still alive in many families,” Aarset says.

Not much travelling

In higher-density Romani areas, Aarset also interviewed teachers and principals at schools, who often mentioned frequent absences, but not particularly long-term absences.

She says that parents taking their children out on lengthy trips has been an issue. Some groups are pushing for schools to facilitate distance learning so that the Romani can maintain a travelling culture. But the schools that were interviewed say that short-term absences far outweigh the families who apply for travel permission. Some families also move frequently due to work or bullying.

A Romani man in his 60s thinks there is less travel outside of vacation times, and says, “I certainly think it’s declining. I have a son who doesn’t take his kids out of school. He would see that as uncultured, actually. And the kids are part of soccer teams and all that."

Recognizes himself in survey

Kai Samuel Vigardt (28) is from a Romani family and recognizes himself in the results of this survey.

“Many of us have a strong distrust of the authorities left over from the repressive policies enacted against us. Many Romani parents still teach their children to watch out for the authorities. They’re strongly affected by discrimination and pass it on to their children.

Vigardt nevertheless believes that the younger generation has less prejudice. Many are now in school and realize that teachers do not represent all the evils of the past.

Increasing numbers are completing lower secondary school, and Vigardt has completed his upper secondary education.

“I did two years of secondary in the sales and service line and got my practical training in the Norwegian Armed Forces,” says Vigardt. “My boss in the military helped me a lot and customized the apprenticeship for me. Opportunities like this would help more students finish secondary school. When they travel a lot in elementary school, it’s difficult to conform to Norwegian mainstream life. Although people are more settled now than before.”

Still pleading for rights

“The European Convention on Human Rights established our rights as a minority. And yet, we still have to plead and ask for our rights,” says Vigardt. He is clear that the Norwegian authorities have to safeguard Romani culture on Romani terms.

The survey revealed startling mortality figures. Among people born between 1941 and 1955 the mortality rate is more than three times higher than the average for the rest of the population born in this period, and for those born between 1951 and 1955 the rate is four times as high.

Vigardt believes that the high mortality rate among Travellers says something about the longstanding discrimination they have suffered. “Just recently three of my close relatives under the age of 50 have died. People are simply exhausted. I think that’s pretty sad,” he says.

The Norwegian government report includes articles about the history of the Travellers’ work for redress and the recognition. Vigardt co-authored two of the attachments.

He points out that it is important for the government to craft a minority policy that shifts from a top-down perspective of protection and participation to an emphasis on collaboration and empowerment among Travellers themselves.

Nuse, Ingrid P. And Siw Ellen Jakobsen. 2015. “Romani distrust of government lives on”. Science Nordic. Posted: July 11, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bizarre Behaviors From Around the World

How much of a role can culture play on mental health? Apparently enough that many societies have their own unique mental disorders.

“Hikikomori,” which translates to “withdrawn,” describes young people with a disorder characterized by extreme social isolation, in which sufferers lock themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to come out, even for years at a time. This disorder afflicts as many as one million Japanese citizens, overwhelmingly men in their 20s and 30s.

Hikikomori typically isolate themselves following a setback, such as failure in school or a bad breakup, that triggers a deep sense of shame. Hikikomori often exhibit symptoms of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder during periods of withdrawal.

Takahiro Kato, a psychiatrist specializing in hikikomori, explains that the root cause of the condition is cultural, citing “a strong sense of embarrassment and an emotional dependence on the mother” in an interview with ABC News (Australia).

An Illustrated History of the Mental Asylum

While a handful of isolated cases of hikikomori have been found in South Korea, Hong Kong, and even Italy, the condition is considered a Japanese phenomenon, a kind of culture-bound syndrome.

A culture-bound syndrome is an affective, behavioral or cognitive disorder unique to a specific culture or group. Various cultural and social factors can contribute to the development of this condition. In the case of hikikomori, one contributor in Japanese society is “sekentei,” a person’s reputation in the community and the pressure to impress others, as explained by BBC News.

This same pressure can lead to a more prolonged period of withdrawal, as the isolation itself compounds the sense of embarrassment, and may delay relatives from seeking treatment for hikikomori.

One similar culture-bound syndrome linked to Japan is “taijin kyofusho,” a condition in which people suffer from extreme social anxiety as a result of often imagined physical shortcomings.

The American Academy of Family Physicians in 2010 reported the case of a 24-year-old graduate student from Japan, who was convinced his body odor offended other students. Despite the fact that no student ever complained of any odor, and the researchers themselves were unable to detect any offensive scent, the student was so anxious about his smell that he barely left his room and fell into depression.

Is the United States Mentally Unstable?

Not all culture-bound syndromes originate in Japan of course. The book, “The Culture-Bound Syndromes,” by Charles C. Hughes listed nearly 200 folk illnesses upon its publication in 1986. Some of the more unusual conditions identified as culture-bound syndromes include:

Amok: The expression “running amok” comes from the condition of the same name, first introduced to the West in the journals of Captain Cook. Cook described how affected individuals among Malay tribesmen would behave violently, going on homicidal rampages that involved an average of 10 victims. The killer has complete amnesia of the event once it’s over, assuming he or she doesn’t commit suicide or isn’t killed in the process, as is often the case. In addition to Malaysia, this behavior has also been observed in indigenous tribes in the Phillippines, Laos and Papua New Guinea.

Ataque de nervios: Similar to a nervous breakdown, this condition is a panic disorder reported among Latino and Caribbean populations. Symptoms include uncontrollable shouting, crying and aggression. This syndrome is most often caused by family-related stress.

Dhat syndrome: This condition is prevalent in the Indian subcontinent, but has been identified in China, the Americas, Europe and Russia and well. Individuals coping with dhat, described as “semen-loss anxiety,” often show symptoms of sexual dysfunction and loss of virility. Seminal fluid is considered the “elixir of life” in these cultures, so losing it is often linked to fear of irreversible physical damage or even death.

Ghost sickness: This condition is linked with Native American tribes in the American Southwest and Southern Plains and marked by an overwhelming preoccupation with the deceased. Symptoms of this syndrome include weakness, hallucinations, anxiety and feelings of terror.

Koro: This term describes a panic-like anxiety among men that their penises will withdraw into the abdomen and kill them. Symptoms include overwhelming concern about genitalia and fears of impotence or imminent death. This syndrome has been linked to men in China, although the koro phenomenon has manifested in a variety of cultures in Asia and Africa, so there is some debate as to whether koro is a universal condition.

Because so many of these disorders are unique to a specific population, and because there is considerable debate among psychiatry experts about whether these conditions are unique or are simply variations of Western diagnoses, treatment options are limited for those afflicted with culture-bound syndromes.

Undoubtedly when psychiatrists treat a patient for depression or anxiety or other symptoms that manifest as a result of these syndromes, culture is an important consideration for how to approach any potential treatment plan.

Al-Khatib, Talal. 2015. “Bizarre Behaviors From Around the World”. Discovery News. Posted: July 9, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Yamagata University team discovers 24 ancient geoglyphs in Peru

Anthropologists have discovered 24 examples of the mysterious Nazca Lines in the arid region near Nazca of southern Peru, a Yamagata University institute researching the geoglyphs announced July 7.

The discovery was made by a team of about 10 researchers, including Masato Sakai, a professor of cultural anthropology at the university who is also the deputy director of the university's Nazca research institute. The team began investigating the northern slopes of the urban areas of Nazca, Peru, from autumn 2013 and discovered 17 geoglyphs depicting llamas before the end of fiscal 2013.

The newest announcement is based on the team's findings in fiscal 2014. They discovered five new examples near the area where they found geoglyphs the previous fiscal year and 19 more on the slopes of a nearby mountain. Discovered in the 1920s, the geoglyphs and line drawings of Nazca and Pampas de Jumana are designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are etched into the dusty soil and cover some 450 square kilometers.

The 24 newly discovered geoglyphs are believed to date to around 400 B.C.-200 B.C., making them older than the iconic Nazca Line drawing known as the hummingbird. They range from 5 to 20 meters in length. Most of the lines are heavily eroded, making them difficult to make out with the naked eye, but the researchers used equipment including a 3-D scanner to sketch out the pattern. Most of the drawings seem to depict llamas, the team said. "We have found 41 geoglyphs in fiscal 2013 and 2014 combined," Sakai said. "There are no other areas concentrated with this many examples. Yet with both urban areas and farmland encroaching on the drawings, they are under the threat of being destroyed without being recognized as geoglyphs."

The university plans to provide information to the Peruvian government's Culture Ministry, which it is partnered with, along with the city government of Nazca in the hopes of preserving the geoglyphs.

Yonezawa, Nobuyoshi. 2015. “Yamagata University team discovers 24 ancient geoglyphs in Peru”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: July 8, 2015. Available online:

Monday, September 21, 2015

Only when I laugh: the science of laughter

Laughter overrides our usual vocal and physical control to make sounds we never normally hear in any other context

The human voice is the most complex instrument in nature. When we talk, we shape sounds in the way no other animal can. This reflects the very precise evolutionary adaptation that means, for example, our tongues are short and fat and nimble, rather than long and hard to maneuver. It also reflects the very fine voluntary motor control that we have over our mouth and our rib cage, which enables us to control the act of talking, and also the fact that unlike many other animals, we learn new patterns of vocal behaviour. And of course, this is only the start of our abilities – we can do vocal impressions, sing, beatbox – when it comes to the human voice, the sheer range of abilities is extraordinary. However, these voluntary motor acts can be derailed quite efficiently by a different vocal behaviour – laughter.

When we laugh, the muscles between our ribs start to perform large, strong contractions. This squeezes air out of us, and makes a noise – each ‘ha ha ha’ in a laugh reflects one of these contractions. We don’t do much else to shape the noise of laughter – it’s a very basic way of making a sound. When these contractions start to run into one another, people just start to make wheezing sounds. As we force air out under much stronger pressure than when we are speaking normally, we also start to produce sounds with much higher pitches than we find during normal speech. And we can even start to make a whistling sounds (a ‘Muttley’ laugh for people old enough to recall Dick Darstadly’s sidekick).

This means that when people start to laugh hard, they start to make sounds that we never normally hear in any other context – when I laugh hard, the pitch of my voice goes much higher than my speech. And if we are speaking, or trying to speak, the effect of the laughter will be immediately apparent, as we start to lose control over the muscles in our rib cage, that normally work with such precision during speech.

There are some very famous recorded examples of this loss of control – for example Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew, doing a piece on live radio discussing that day’s cricket, and getting completely hijacked by laughter. Agnew makes a terrible joke about Ian Botham not quite getting his ‘leg over’, and starts to laugh: Johnston keeps talking but the pitch of his voice has already been affected – although he is not yet laughing, his voice control has altered. After a few seconds further talking, during which he asks Agnew to stop laughing (Aggers, do stop it!), Johnson finally succumbs to the laughter and the pitch of his voice soars, and he becomes unable to actually speak. Agnew tries to take over, and fails completely; Johnson completes to the report “He hit a four over the wing keeper’s head” at an incredibly high pitch, and the starts to get the control of his voice back “England were all out for 419, I’ve stopped laughing now”. You can actually see the pitch of his voice subsiding as Johnston gets control back over his speech (I made a very short video about the acoustics of their laughter here).

But the really striking thing is that they were laughing at all. These were broadcasting professionals, and they were not supposed to laugh while on air – but they still did. And we have all had that experience of finding ourselves starting to laugh, sometimes in terribly inappropriate situations. A really powerful effect of laughter is that if we start to laugh it can be excessively difficult to not go through with the laughter – it will come out one way or the other. And when we do start to laugh, it stops us breathing, and it stops us talking, and it just squeezes air out of us – effectively, laughter is trying to kill us. We are making big developments in understanding the perception of laughter, but I’m also really interested to know more about why we can be overwhelmed by laughter in this way – what is the brain basis for this? A study from Germanyhas found differences in the hypothalamus when people are laughing because they are tickled as opposed to forcing themselves to laugh – but are there any other differences? Why, for example, do we become weak and floppy when we start to laugh? The evidence suggests that this only happens when we are laughing hard – polite social laughter doesn’t render us helpless. It’s the emotion, which is incapacitating us, not just the action, and I would really like to know why.

Scott, Sophie. 2015. “Only when I laugh: the science of laughter”. The Guardian – Blogs. Posted: July 6, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Poles discovered a unique 6.5 thousand years old burial in Egypt

Traces of intentional injury in the form of cuts on the femur have been discovered on the remains of one of the dead found during this year's excavations carried out in the Western Desert in Egypt. It is the first known case of such treatment from the Neolithic period in this part of Africa.

Discovery has been made by the expedition led by Prof. Jacek Kabaciński from the Poznań branch of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology PAS. Polish research area in the desert, called Gebel Ramlah, is located near the southern border of Egypt with Sudan, about 140 km west of Abu Simbel. Poles have been working there since 2009 and making important discoveries from the beginning, including an unusual cemetery of newborns.

This year, they discovered a further part of the cemetery and investigated 60 new burials, this time belonging to adults. In the grave marked with number 11, which contained the remains of two dead, one bearing traces of deliberate damage to the body in the form of cuts on the femur - yet such treatments were unknown to scientists who study the Neolithic in North Africa and Eastern Europe. In another grave they discovered the remains of unprecedented in this area tomb structures, consisting of stone slabs which lined the interior of the cavity, in which the deceased had been buried.

Another interesting find, according to Prof. Kabaciński, is also the burial of a man whose body, after the burial, was showered with fragments of broken pottery, stone products and lumps of red dye. The remains of the deceased were also unusual - anthropologists noticed the pathology of numerous bones in the form of overgrowth of femoral bone, fractures and abnormal bone adhesions. Above his head archaeologists found a fragment of Dorcas gazelle skull with horns, which probably served as a headdress, worn during a ceremony. Similar finds known from European Paleolithic and Mesolithic sites suggest that it is a grave of a person who performed magical rites, perhaps associated with hunting - the researchers suggest.

Research project at Gebel Ramlah is carried out as part of the activities of the Combined Prehistoric Expedition IAE PAS, in collaboration with the Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of University of Warsaw. The work is financed by the National Science Centre.

Science in Poland. 2015. “Poles discovered a unique 6.5 thousand years old burial in Egypt”. Science in Poland. Posted: July 6, 2015. Available online:,405679,poles-discovered-a-unique-65-thousand-years-old-burial-in-egypt.html

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mass Grave Reveals Ottoman Soldiers Fought To The Death In 16th Century Romania

On November 13, 1594, Michael the Brave summoned his subjects in the client state of Wallachia to rise up against the Ottoman Empire. As part of a series of land wars between the OttomanEmpire and various powers in Europe, Michael led his troops to conquer several castles along theDanube River and forts deep within Ottoman territory, turning back just miles from the Ottoman capital at Constantinople. But while Michael was away fighting, the men who lent him money to fund his bid to be prince were killed in the Wallachian capital of Bucharest (Romania).  Archaeologists believe they may have found these historic figures in a mass grave discovered in Bucharest’s University Square, and their bones reveal a very violent death.

During an excavation of the Saint Sava church cemetery, 688 graves dating to the 16th-19th centuries were uncovered.  Not far from the consecrated ground, though, archaeologists found three skeletons of people who had been tossed unceremoniously into the bottom of a circular pit. Animal bones, bricks, pottery fragments, and other debris had then been heaped on top of them to fill the pit. The inclusion of all this trash was fortuitous for the archaeologists, though, because the artifacts along with carbon dating of the bones allowed them to date the mass grave to the end of the 16th or early 17th century.

Mihai Constantinescu and colleagues carefully disentangled the jumbled remains and pored over the bones looking for clues about who they were and how they died.  Writing in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, they note that all three skeletons were male, and young to middle-age adults.  The men all had poor dental health as well as early evidence of osteoarthritis throughout their bodies. Based on muscle attachment sites on bone, they were also engaging in similar repetitive activities: lifting, throwing, moving heavy objects, walking long distances, and sitting in a crouched position.  It is highly likely these men shared an occupation that required them to perform the same activities over and over again.

But the injuries the archaeologists found—both those that had healed and those inflicted at death—are shockingly numerous and gruesome.  At some point in his life, Skeleton 1 fractured his collarbone, ribs, left wrist, kneecap, hip, lumbar spine, nose, and right middle toes.  Skeleton 2 appears to have taken an arrow to the back, with a penetrating fracture in his left shoulder blade, and had injured both knees.  Surprisingly, Skeleton 3 was unscathed, but possibly because he was a bit younger than the other two men.

Two dozen more injuries were found on the three bodies, but these were inflicted around the time of death. While Skeletons 1 and 3 had just a few injuries, Skeleton 2 suffered 18 wounds before he died. Most of the wounds were inflicted on these men’s heads by an attack from the front, and most injuries were caused by sharp objects like swords and arrows.

There was a musket ball lodged in the neck vertebrae of Skeleton 2, in addition to an arrowhead still stuck in a rib, a hacking wound that shattered the facial skeleton, and indication on the vertebrae that someone attempted to behead him.

Skeleton 3 also showed evidence of beheading with a blade wound—possibly from a broadsword—through a neck vertebra. Skeleton 1 suffered a massive cranial fracture, likely caused by a mace. Since soldiers at that time could only physically carry and use a musket, a bow, or a mace, and not a combination of those, this means that at least three different individuals set upon this group of men.

The exact names of these men are unknown, but Constantinescu and colleagues think they were either military commanders or janissaries (elite Ottoman infantry soldiers), quite possibly the very ones who had lent Michael the Brave money so that he could rule Wallachia.  If they were Romanians, “they would have been buried in a cemetery by the locals,” they write.  Based on the time period, the injuries inflicted, and the location of the burial, they conclude that “the tensions caused by the creditors on the princely court of Michael the Brave might have contributed to the excessive violence and to the lack of interest for their remains.”

Did Michael the Brave’s subjects violently attack the Ottomans in their midst while he was out fighting the Long Turkish War? It is impossible to answer this question definitively, but Constantinescu and colleagues’ work on this mystery grave demonstrates how putting together historical records, military paraphernalia, and human bones can lead us closer to a solution.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Mass Grave Reveals Ottoman Soldiers Fought To The Death In 16th Century Romania”. Forbes. Posted: July 5, 2015. Available online: