Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wild Wild Country

I highly recommend the documentary Wild Wild Country.  (available on Netflix).  Here's how the six-part series is described on imbd:
When a controversial guru builds a utopian city in the Oregon desert, it causes a massive conflict with local ranchers. This docuseries chronicles the conflict, which leads to the first bioterror attack in the United States and a massive case of illegal wiretapping. It is a pivotal, but largely forgotten, time in American cultural history that tested the country's tolerance for the separation of church and state.
Just watching the first two episodes alone provide a terrific insight into many of the ideas and topics from class.  You will get fresh insight into why people are drawn to new religious movements and how those movements encounter tension with their surrounding environments.  The creators of the documentary do an excellent job of letting both members of the group and members of the surrounding community provide their sides of the story.

Watching the series is not required for the class, but it is a great opportunity for you to see how many of the ideas we have discussed come to life in the real world.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Should the Government Collect Donations on the Church's Behalf?

Monetary donations to churches in the USA are made voluntarily and directly to the churches.  As a consequence, if a member of a church wants to skimp on her donations, she can easily do so, and it is difficult for a religious leader to know if the person donated a fair or proper amount.  Our economic senses should be tingling here.  There's a clear free-rider problem, and we should expect there to be quite a bit of free riding (or easy riding) as people hold back on contributing proper amounts.

Hence, the "church tax."  Under a church tax, the government works in tandem with religious groups in the collection of donations.  The proper donation amount (e.g., a particular percentage of income) is taken directly out of the person's paycheck, given to the government, and then passed from the government to the church.  The government already acts as a tax collection agency for itself because it removes regular government taxes from paychecks, but with a church tax, the government also becomes, in effect, a tax collection agency for the church.

By having the government collect the donations straight from paychecks, the church is able, in theory, to receive much larger donations from those persons that are skimping in their donations.  For one, the government can just take the donation directly, bypassing altogether the individuals' temptation to free ride.  But if a Catholic individual claims to not be Catholic to become exempt from the tax, then the government can report that claim to the church, and then the church can without religious services from that individual.  Read an earlier post about the church tax in Germany here.

Why bring this up?  Two reasons.

First, this is a form of government intervention in religion, and we will soon be discuss government interventions in religion in lecture.  So this is a opportunity for you to learn about actual church-state religions around the world.

Second, just last month, Catholic Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga of Kampala, Uganda, asked the Ugandan government to institute a church tax for Ugandan Catholics.  Read the story here.  The Archbishop had the German church tax in mind when making this request.  Identify the reasoning for the Archbishop's request for the church tax, but also identify the reasoning used by those who dislike the request.

Do you think that instituting a church tax in Uganda is a good idea?  Why or why not?  Will instituting help the Catholic Church in Uganda?  Or will it hurt?  What might be the effects of a church tax in the short run?  What might be the effects in the long run?

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Faith Groups and Election Turnout

There's a nice article yesterday at the Religion News Service about the efforts that religious groups are making to increase voter turnout.  See article here.  These efforts come from religious groups on both sides of the political spectrum.

Religious groups and political activism have gone together for centuries in the USA.  This should not be too surprising when you remember that religious groups in the USA are collective action machines.  In theory, once they have solved their own collective action problems associated with religious production, they can branch out into other forms of collective action, including political activism.

Monday, October 15, 2018

An Argument for Blue Laws

"Blue laws" is the nickname for laws that prevent certain forms of commerce for religious reasons.  In the U.S.A., a common type of blue law is a law that forbids certain commercial or recreational activities on Sundays, but there are a variety of these laws.  Many of these laws were abolished during the mid-to-late twentieth century.  However, they were not abolished because they were deemed unconstitutional but rather because they were unwanted.  So that raises the question of whether the laws should be unwanted or should be brought back.

This article published at argues that they should be brought back because they improve overall well-being.  Here's a key part of the argument:
[W[hile the very secularly minded may celebrate the end of blue laws, seeing them as a violation of church-state separation, the result of blue law repeals may be distinctly non-progressive. To begin with, the Supreme Court has repeatedly, and fairly recently, ruled that blue laws are constitutional: The state can prohibit commercial activities on certain days, even if the days are selected for apparently religious reasons. The reasoning is that the state may have an interest in people spending social time away from work or commerce in a coordinated way, and it is reasonable for the state to accommodate existing social forms, such as religion.
While this may seem like a back door to the establishment of religion, it’s actually a distinctively progressive view of how the law functions. Implicitly, by approving blue laws, the Supreme Court is admitting the view that the state may implement very specific, apparently arbitrary rules to achieve non-economic, general well-being-related goals like “leisure time for workers."
In other words, blue laws are also a way that the state enshrines a special time for citizens to exercise rights to assembly, religious and secular. Assembly requires that people have time off together, so it doesn’t work to simply mandate that businesses close for any random 24-hour period, because that doesn’t ensure that people have time off together. The state cannot force you to go to church or a community meeting or spend time with loved ones, but it can force your employer to close up shop, raising the odds that you’ll invest in social and civic capital instead of paid labor. 
This compelling interest in togetherness is vital, as it suggests the state may have a valid legal interest in supporting the formation of strong communities and social bonds outside of taxpaying employment.
In short, blue laws can help communities for purely secular reasons in addition to religious reasons, and they do this by enhancing communities' abilities to thrive.

Read the entire article and try to answer a few questions.  What are other examples of blue laws?  What are examples of blue laws that are not religiously based?  Do you think that communities are better off with blue laws?  How convincing is the author of this article?

Friday, October 5, 2018

Managing Religion in the Workplace: A Business-School Perspective

Yesterday, Forbes Magazine published an article about trickiness in handling religious matters in the workplace.
How to handle religion in the workplace is a contentious and litigious issue that many business leaders struggle with. The subject is so third-rail hot that even Harvard Business School has devoted relatively few courses and case studies to it. 
“Religion and business is considered one of the last taboos,” says Senior Lecturer Derek van Bever. “Our students have been asking for it because they see very clearly that they will be in positions of global leadership where they will have to deal with it.” 
To fill that need, van Bever wrote the case study Managing Religion in the Workplace, using two high-profile cases of religious discrimination that were argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years: one about a young Muslim woman who battled Abercrombie & Fitch for rejecting her job application because she wore a hijab for religious reasons; and the second about a baker whose religious beliefs compelled him to refuse to design a cake for a gay couple’s wedding reception.
These two legal cases received substantial attention in the news media, not surprisingly given both reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  Both the Muslim woman and the Christian baker won in the U.S. Supreme Court, though saying they "won" misses the many subtleties.

In the first case, the Supreme Court ruled that Abercrombie mistreated the Muslim woman, but it did not rule that businesses have to agree to all religion-related requests from employees.  The issue is whether the business makes "reasonable accommodation" for the request.  It was deemed that Abercrombie did not in this instance.

In the second case, the Supreme Court ruled that there was inappropriate hostility toward the baker by the state of Colorado's employment commission, but it did not clarify whether or not bakers can refuse service to gay couples.  Confusion remains.

Read the entire article.  What do you think of the court rulings?  What lessons do you learn from these two cases?

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Jewish Summer Camp

How do you best transmit your religious values to your children?  According to this Religion News Service article, sending your children to a Jewish summer camp might be one of the best ways to transmit Reform Jewish values.  Specifically, a survey conducted by the Reform Jewish movement:
...found that those who participated in overnight summer camps or immersive weekend-long getaways through the Reform youth movement were far more likely to be engaged in Jewish life in college and beyond and more committed to “doing good.”
Read the article and think about how attending a summer camp or weekend getaway would help in the transmission of religious values.  Do you believe the conclusion that attending a summer camp contributes to the transmission of values?

Note that the survey finds a statistical correlation.  It might be that the face-value interpretation -- namely, that attending a Jewish summer camp contributes to the transmission of Jewish values -- is correct. Yet, there is a second interpretation.  It might instead be that individuals who attend Jewish camps are not your average Reform Jews but are already committed to Jewish values.  So the correlation found in the study might merely reflect the alternative possibility that committed Jews are more likely to attend a Jewish summer camp, and that attending the camp does not actually enhance commitment.

Which interpretation do you think is correct?  Could both be true to a degree?

Friday, August 31, 2018

Pew's New Religious Typology

The Pew Forum has released a new report, The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans by Religion (pdf here), that classifies Americans into three categories:  highly religious, somewhat religious, and non-religious.  Those categories are further broken down as shown in this table into the seven key groups that comprise the typology.

Broad categories
The seven groups
Highly religious
Sunday Stalwarts
Traditional, actively involved in congregation.
God-and-country Believers
Less active at church, socially and politically conservative, anti-immigrant
Diversely Devout
Traditional plus belief in psychics, reincarnation, and spiritual energy
Somewhat religious
Relaxed Religious
Religion important personally but not necessary to be moral, not engaged in traditional practices
Spiritually Awake
Believe in heaven, hell, and New Age belief, but do not engage in traditional practices
Religion Resisters
Believe organized religious more bad than good, politically liberal and Democratic
Solidly Secular
Virtually no religious beliefs, reject New Age beliefs

Because the seven groups are constructed based on religious behaviors and beliefs, they will cut across the denominational identities often used to classify individuals.  For example, 13% of the Sunday Stalwarts are Catholic, but 25% of the Relaxed Religious are Catholic, as are 9% of the Religious Resisters.  Also, the Sunday Stalwart group includes individuals from non-Christian faiths (even though the do not technically worship on Sunday).

A primary merit of this seven-group classification is that it highlights some of the diversity in the American religious marketplace.  The challenge, of course, is to find the right number of groups.  To many and the classifications become meaningless, but too few and the classifications are also meaningless.  For this report, Pew used a statistical procedure called cluster analysis to let the data reveal what appear to be statistically coherent subgroupings in the data.  Doing this does involve making assumptions, such as what are the crucial data to include in the analysis.  Here, Pew included data from 16 particular survey questions about religious practices and broad beliefs.

Of course, this procedure ignores other forms of diversity, such as more particular theological beliefs, that are not captured in those 16 questions.  But this is the nature of social scientific inquiry:  some data are privileged over others, wisdom and care should be used in deciding on what is privileged;  and honesty about the pros and cons  and strengths and weaknesses of the analysis and results should be maintained.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016

That is the title of a new publication by the Pew Research Center just released today.  See here.  The complete report in pdf is here.  Here are the first few paragraphs of the overview:

Restrictions on religion around the world continued to climb in 2016, according to Pew Research Center’s ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion. This marks the second year in a row of increases in the overall level of restrictions imposed either by governments or by private actors (groups and individuals) in the 198 countries examined in the study. 
The share of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions – that is, laws, policies and actions by officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices – rose from 25% in 2015 to 28% in 2016. This is the largest percentage of countries to have high or very high levels of government restrictions since 2013, and falls just below the 10-year peak of 29% in 2012. 
Meanwhile, the share of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities involving religion – that is, acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society – remained stable in 2016 at 27%. Like government restrictions, social hostilities also peaked in 2012, particularly in the Middle East-North Africa region, which was still feeling the effects of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The number of countries with high or very high levels of social hostilities declined in 2013 and has remained at about the same level since, but it is higher than it was during the baseline year of this study (2007). 
In total in 2016, 83 countries (42%) had high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion – whether resulting from government actions or from hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups – up from 80 (40%) in 2015 and 58 (29%) in 2007.
At the same time, most countries in the world continued to have low to moderate levels of religious restrictions. Looking separately at the global median scores on the Government Restrictions Index (a 10-point scale based on 20 indicators of government restrictions on religion) and the Social Hostilities Index (a 10-point scale based on 13 measures of social hostilities involving religion) offers a mixed picture of how religious restrictions are changing. In 2016, the global median score on the Government Restrictions Index ticked upward, from 2.7 to 2.8, while the median score on the Social Hostilities Index fell slightly, from 2.0 to 1.8.
The report provides a rich amount of information about religious restrictions.  It is a good start for a person or student that wants to understand the state of religious regulation around the world today.