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A few quick points on the post below. When it comes to some of the natural science related posts on this weblog I put a lot of effort quite often into them. On the other hand, when I present some quantitative social science data, it’s all preliminary and exploratory. I stopped presenting regressions a while back because it took too much time to do it right, since it’s so easy to manipulate the variables into the appropriate configuration of p-value significance, even unconsciously. I provide the link to the GSS and the variables in the hope that others with some time on their hands will follow up. Together we can aggregate into a lot of labor input, if we so choose.

Now, in terms of controls for the results below, I did look into that, and I came to the conclusion (supported by some logits I ran) that the biggest influence on the patterns is BIBLE. This is the question from the GSS:

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about teh Bible?

1. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.

2. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.

3. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.

In other words, the variable is an index of Protestant Fundamentalism. As you can see below, separating out this category into its classes reduces a lot of the variance. A few notes. SEI = “socioeconomix index.” It runs from 17 to 97, and I combined it into three categories. On Wordsum I also combined at the extremes, since the N was small there. I also took the Census Divisions and combined them so that all the Southern regions are together, and so forth. Here’s what I input into the GSS browser:

Row: drink

Column: region(r:1-2″Northeast”;3-4″Midwest”;5-7″South”;8-9″West”) wordsum(r:0-3;4;5;6;7;8;9-10) degree region sex sei(r:17-30″Low SEI”;30.1-70″Middle SEI”;70.1-98″High SEI”)






As for the title, I don’t really get it. Does the Bible really place a ban on alcohol? I thought on the contrary, even taking into account Noah’s lapse into drunkenness. Instead I’m pointing here to the importance of cultural evolution in shaping norms. You can’t just necessarily take a Fundamentalist Christian who claims that the Bible is the Word of God, and therefore to be followed, at his word, so to speak.* I’m sure that some of the books that John Emerson highlighted below will explain the regional variations, though most are probably aware of the nationwide temperance movements which swept the United States in the 19th century, with the locus of energy being amongst those who we would later term Evangelical Protestants.

* Conservative American Christians like to refer to a “Biblically based society.” But really their model of society isn’t that Biblically based because the Bible’s explicit references are to an early Iron Age culture!

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Alcohol, Culture, Data Analysis, GSS 
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  1. With the twist that many evangelical Protestants 1860-1920 were what we’d call left of center.

  2. I think there is a proverb warning against “strong drink”, but the Bible definitely does NOT place a ban on alcohol. In fact the first miracle Christ is said to have performed was turning water into wine at a wedding at Cana. Wine is traditionally served at communion (just a tiny sip).

    I think that the early Methodists and Presbyterians may have been among the first Christians to reject alcohol. (I’m not sure about the Lutherans). Many of the early Protestants were, as John Emerson says, interested in social justice issues and they saw the misery that alcohol was causing in many families, and that turned them against it. The quintessential example of this is the Salvation Army, which is still mainly interested in rescuing people from addiction.

    Many Protestant churches today still serve grape juice instead of wine at communion. The Anglicans serve wine–they have always been a bit Popish.

    Here is a quote from a historical document describing a small town in the north of Scotland. It is written by a Presbyterian clergyman. I came across this while doing genealogical research, since I have grandparents from the town described here:

    NEW REAY, Caithness, Scotland

    “The inhabitants are in general industrious, temperate, economical, and very hospitable…They are in general intelligent, moral, and religious…
    …Formerly, smuggling or illicit distillation prevailed very much,–which was attended with very pernicious consequences in regard to health and morals….
    …There are four inns or public-houses; but we are happy to state, that the people are now so far alive to the evils of whisky-drinking, and the poverty and misery attendant on intemperance, as to frequent them but very seldom.” Account of 1834-45 vol.15 p.18 : Reay, County of Caithness

  3. I would like to point out that there really *was* (and still is) a great deal of poverty and misery attendant on intemperance in Scotland and in Great Britain in general. There seems to be a higher prevalence of alcoholism than in southern Europe. My theory is that they were more recently descended from hunter gatherers and haven’t had as long to evolve protections against alcoholism.

    By the way, most of the main-line Protestant churches still tend to be left of centre. And there is also a social gospel movement alive even today among some evangelicals. For example, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and of course a lot of the black Protestant churches.

  4. One perspective is that what fundamentalists are engaged in is ‘costly signalling’ to increase group solidarity. Costly behaviours (giving up drink, going to church) help to screen out less committed group members, as well as increasing the perceived value of membership due to a kind of reverse psychology (I am spending [or giving up] a lot to have this, therefore it must be worth a lot). They also help to mark out group members from non-members. It’s a bit like initiation rites for gang membership.

  5. Thanks Tom (#4)

    At last a sensible and illuminating comment about these data, although I did quite like the crackpottery the last thread attracted.

    Is this costly signalling a psychological borrowing from evolutionary biology or is it the other way around?

  6. Lutherans used 0.5% wine when I was a kid.

  7. The Jewish Bible tends to take libations rather seriously. They’re not proscribed (in fact they appear to be mandated) when celebrating religious events but they’re certainly taken seriously enough that a dedicated servant of God (a “Nazir”, like Samson) is forbidden from partaking, and entering the Temple while intoxicated calls for a capital response.

    Wanton levity is not common among Biblical injunctions.

  8. As I’ve said elsewhere: making occasional light drinking part of religion, as in Judaism and Chinese religion (or a part of family life, as in Italy) , seems to reduce alcoholism. I’ve joked that the way to take the fun out of something is to make it an obligation, but a better way to look at it is to say that in these culture drinking has a defined place and is kept within that place, not as a way to reduce drinking but as a way to dedicate the powers of intoxication to a worthy purpose.

    The contrary pattern leading to excessive drinking is when women and children are forbidden to drink, or discouraged from drinking, but the men go off by themselves to drinking bouts which are their exclusive privilege and their escape from the burdens of life. (The American custom of setting a minimum drinking age actually reinforces this pattern.)

    I have also been told by a Jewish friend that if a member of a Jewish family shows evidence of excessive drinking, in the course of not too long every relative he has will have a word with him. In other words, “intervention” is customary for Jews, not something they learn from therapy groups or counselors. In my ethnic culture (Scandinavian / German-American) excessive drunkenness is something you politely pretend didn’t happen. Gossip will still circulate, but the drunkard’s friends will minimize or euphemize what happened if they talk about it at all.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Speaking as an ex-Catholic and a current (though only sort-of observant) Lutheran, I can say that ELCA Lutherans as a group have little or no problem with alcohol (one of the senior members of my old congregation–twice-widowed and an eagle scout–used to run a winemaking store). Now, the Missouri Synod types are a whole ‘nother story…

  10. “As I’ve said elsewhere: making occasional light drinking part of religion, as in Judaism and Chinese religion (or a part of family life, as in Italy) , seems to reduce alcoholism.”

    Chinese, Jews, and Italians have greater genetic resistance to alcoholism, including greater ability to metabolize alcohol. Northern Europeans, and more so, most indigenous groups, are much more biologically vulnerable to alcoholism.

    In one study, differences in a single gene explained about 90% of the difference between East Asian and white drinking patterns.

  11. Is that why Japanese are not alcoholics? And aren’t Jews stupid for watching out for alcoholism in their families, when they’re at such low risk?

  12. What your friend is observing is probably just that Jews have more extended family structures, and are more comfortable with social confrontation more generally (Indeed, this social boldness is probably itself an important biological reason they don’t rely on excessive amounts of alcohol like Northern Europeans), rather than some special cultural concern about alcoholism. Which is not to say this kind of social dynamic doesn’t influence Jewish behavior.

    Northern Europeans, on the other hand, exhibit special concerns about alcohol because they are more vulnerable. As I stated in the last thread, cultural explanations are probably often backwards. The standard approach is to attribute some group success to a successful culture. But success is more often due to genetic advantage, and less successful groups are often the ones with more elaborated cultural responses to the same problems. So for example, N. Europeans resort to more extreme, and more varied cultural responses like teetotalism, temperance movements, and Mormonism.

  13. Jason, there’s no theoretical difficulty in there being both social and genetic factors. People with exposure to alcohol might genetically adapt to it, or they might develop cultural safeguards such as the Jewish safeguards I mentioned. (I should have said: peoples for whom alcohol is a necessary component of meals, such as the Italians and French, often disapprove of the use of alcohol all by itself.

    We know that the Chinese developed cultural safeguards: one of the oldest extended Chinese texts, from before 800 BC and probably from around 1000-1100 BC is a warning against drunkenness from the founder of the Chou dynasty. (A similar warning was made by Genghis Khan around 1200 AD.) The benefit of the doubt should be with cultural factors, however, since their advantage is that they can act quickly, whereas genetic change is much slower.

    Likewise, Arabs (of old Middle Eastern descent) may be genetically less susceptible to alcoholism than northern Europeans, but the fact that abstention from alcohol is one of the main organizing principles of Islam probably had some effect too (Understatement). Drunkenness was a problem that Muhammed had to deal with, however.

    As far as Northern Europe goes, I’m not aware that there was any period since 200 AD when German culture discouraged alcohol use. Germans have very strong sanctions against those who can’t hold their liquor, but to my knowledge almost no history at all of prohibition and very little history of temperance. Scandinavians, British, and Dutch are like the Germans but less so.

    Regular use of alcohol, heavy use of alcohol, and problems arising from excessive alcohol use were characteristic of Northwestern Europe during its rise to world domination. Except for Calvinists (and not all of them) alcohol was scarcely even regarded as a social problem except when it started excessively affecting the commoner labor force. So one reason why Northern Europeans drank more was that they weren’t trying not to drink.

    On the genetic front, I’d like to see a comparative study of Native Americans, Mongols, Japanese, and Chinese. They have four different drinking patterns while being genetically not far apart as of (say) 2000 BC. It would be too much to hope for a statistically significant population of Chinese raised in Mongol families, Jews raise din Irish families, etc., but it certainly would be an interesting study.

  14. “Jason, there’s no theoretical difficulty in there being both social and genetic factors.”

    Hence my comment. The takeaway point was that successful social factors may often go unrecognized because they are practiced more by groups that do comparatively worse. (This is also why counter-intuitive findings in epidemiology are actually more convincing.)

    “Germans have… to my knowledge almost no history at all of prohibition and very little history of temperance. Scandinavians, British, and Dutch are like the Germans but less so.”

    Scandinavians and the British are high temperance cultures. Germany had a “moderate-sized, influential” temperance movement during the 19th century. But this is neither here nor there.

  15. No, the successful social factor is the Chinese-Jewish one. The combination of escapist drinking by male-only groups, absttinence by children and most children, and intermittent temperance crusades is the unsuccessful social factor. (Society-wide abstinence is probably the most successful, but it’s hard to attain.)

    Yes, it’s true that if you already know that the genetic factors are dominant, lots of things are neither here nor there. and if anyone did know that, you would be right.

    Where do you get “The difference between between white and East Asian drinking patterns”? Japanese and Chinese drinking patterns are wildly different, and white drinking patterns also vary widely. 90% of which difference? Are Jews and Italians white again in this case?

  16. “by children and most women”

  17. The German temperance movement mostly was against distilled spirits and was, as in England and America, mostly concerned with the debilitating effects on the lower classes. Even though it mostly just wanted to switch people to beer and wine it was not very successful.…-a017612957

  18. Melykin, mainline Protestants are slightly right of center, according to Gelman’s “Red State, Blue State”.

  19. diana says:


    OK, so it’s all genes?

    You’ll admit that there is (are?) more than one Jewish ethnic group, or ethny? (Not sure of the plural.) That Ashkenazim are somewhat ethnically different from Sephardim, who are different from Berber Jews, who are different from Arab Jews, etc.

    Let’s concede that, according to our current limited knowledge (see Razib’s latest post about African-American genes) Ashkenazim have some genetic affinities with the Northern Europeans you say are afflicted with a susceptibility to alcoholism.

    Yet they do not have a “culture of drunkenness.” I believe Ashkenazim have more drunks than Mizrahi Jews, but not a culture of drunkenness.


    “I’ve joked that the way to take the fun out of something is to make it an obligation, but a better way”

    My first reaction to that is to say that getting drunk at Passover is incredible fun but then I realized that this was mos true for me as a kid. And it was! Huge uproarious fun. But the fun part passed the older I got, and although I still enjoy Passover it isn’t because I can get to drink wine, it’s other things.

    So John I think this tells us something. Initiate both boy and girl children into a wine drinking culture and it becomes deeply embedded but loses a forbidden aura. Keep liquor from children and turn it into a male initiation rite and the inevitable happens: HAVOC.

    I also think that wine is different from hard alcohol. The rabbis sure think so.

    According to laws of kashrut, wine is a form of food and therefore regulated as such. In fact, more so – the laws of kashrut regarding wine and its production are stricter than that of food. The white nationalists would have a field day about Jewish laws on wine production – only Jews can be involved in its production. It’s very sacred, very deep. (Did Jewish viticulture start under the Romans? Tell us, John!!)

    Guess what – no such thing as kosher spirits. it’s not considered a food, even though it’s ingested. I found out about this years ago when there was some scam about koshering hard liquor in Poland. Eventually the rabbis stamped down on it because since hard liquor isn’t a food it needs no rabbinical supervision.

    Now, you could take this two ways: you could say that Jews are such lushes they don’t care what they drink. But obviously that isn’t the case, so the alternative explanation is that hard liquor is not really a part of Jewish culture so needs no policing. But wine is.

  20. PS : a pretty good article about Kashrut & alcohol:

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