Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Religion news from around the world

There has been a large number of class-relevant religion news items. I will not include all of them; here are just a few of them. I will restrain myself from making extensive comments and let you peruse the stories that interest you.
  • "Kazakhstan Passes Restrictive Religion Measure" - The new law restricts certain missionary activities, increases fines for unregistered religious groups, restricts the right to publish certain religious materials, and requires parents to give consent for their children to attend religious services.
  • "Religion May Help Extend Your Life" - According to a published study, the benefits of church attendance may go beyond the experiential and may extend to your health. There is what economists call an endogeneity problem here (does religion improve your health or are healthy people more likely to be religious), but you can read the story and judge for yourself.
  • "Hindus Find New Faiths in Marriage" - This article discusses the increase in number of Hindus entering interfaith marriages.
  • "Malaysia Leader: Yoga for Muslims OK without Chant" - We see here a religious population confronting the importation of a practice common frequently associated with a rival religious group.
  • On license plates, atheist billboards, and a split in the Presbyterian Church - See the AP's Religion news in brief.
  • "Religion - What is it Good for?" - This article summarizes some explanations for how religious inclinations may result from evolutionary pressures. These explanations are used by some to challenge a belief in the supernatural.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Adapting to change

In the last week of class, we will discuss how religious groups adapt to their changing environments. This news article (via Associate Press) describes how one religious sect has undergone tremendous changes in the last few decades. The Church Universal and Triumphant, once an assault rifle amassing, armored vehicle driving, apocalyptic group, has transformed itself into a publisher and online distributor.

The group's adaptation is described in the article. They no longer hoard guns, in part a result of pressure from the federal government. They no longer teach of an immediate end of the world, although that basic idea still permeates the teachings. After an earlier prediction of the world's end did not materialize, many people left the group while others stayed, and the earlier claims have been reinterpreted to maintain the credibility of the group's leaders.

We can interpret these changes as the group responding and adapting to the tension, trying to find the optimum. Pressure from the federal government meant tension was too high, for example. But the group is also trying to use online resources to expand their presence. And recent economic and political events are interpreted as evidence of the leaders' claims.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving... but don't eat too much

In case you do eat too much, you can turn to faith-based dieting, according to the USA Today.

"Germany drops attempt to ban Scientology"

Read the AP story (via Yahoo News). The title is clear: Germany is dropping pursuit of a ban on Scientology. Yet, things are not all in the clear because surveillance of Scientologists continues.

The rhetoric is stark on both sides. On the one hand, many activists consider this a violation of Scientologists' basic "human rights." On the other hand, German officials consider Scientology inconsistent with the German constitution because, they claim, it mistreats people. This official's words are telling:
"This organization pursues goals — through its writings, its concept and its disrespect for minorities — that we cannot tolerate and that we consider in violation of the constitution. But they put very little of this into practice," Erhart Koerting, Berlin's top security official, told reporters. "The appraisal of the government at the moment is that (Scientology) is a lousy organization, but it is not an organization that we have to take a hammer to."
Oddly, the above quote seems unwarranted given something said by a different official:
"Before we open preliminary proceedings (leading to a ban), we need concrete evidence of unconstitutional activity," August Hanning, a Schaeuble deputy, said. "The security agencies are predominantly of the opinion that there is not sufficient evidence of this."
If the security agencies are predominantly of the opinion that there is not sufficient evidence of unconstitutional activity, then how can they logically justify the continued monitoring? Whatever the case, the cost of being a Scientologist remains quite high in Germany.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A new sect forming as we speak

TA Wesley found this article from Reuters about a big development in the Episcopal Church (mentioned briefly in this earlier post). More conservative members of the Episcopal Church are not happy with the direction much of the Episcopal Church has taken, particular with the ordination of gay members to positions in the clergy. The more conservative members see this as a violation of important teachings. As the main body of the Church accommodates such ordinations, the more conservative members see breaking apart from the Church as the only way to continue practicing the religion in the manner they deem best. In general, this is the motivation for new sect formation.

Having a new church arise out of an older one is quite common. Some people in the church see the church going astray from their original teachings and conclude that the best option is to form a new church that more closely matches what they perceive to be an older, more correct version of the church. One interesting aspect of this Episcopal case is that the break-off group still wants to retain a particular official status within the larger Anglican community. That is, they do not want to leave Anglicanism; they just want to form their own version of it in the U.S.

There is a particular logic to this. By retaining certain ties to the original community, they can receive certain benefits that come from inclusion in that community. Put differently, it reduces the costs of separation because members are able to retain more of their religious capital. Receiving that recognition is not automatic, however. A presiding body will vote on whether to accept this new church in the community. If they do not vote in favor, this could potentially affect the success of this new church as some Episcopalians might not be less interested in joining the new group. In the minds of many, this is a risk worth taking.

Clergy lobby schools to eliminate a secular substitute

From today's AP Religion News in Brief: Clergy in St. Cloud, Minnesota, are trying to limit secular competition for some of their religious services. They are not asking for a specific change in law, which could in principle be done but would also probably not be very well received. Instead, they must resort to moral suasion and hope that the schools eliminate the substitute on their own.
St. Cloud pastors want Wednesday nights reserved for church

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Clergy in the St. Cloud area are asking coaches and school activity directors to maintain the longtime tradition of keeping Wednesday nights free for church.

That's the night traditionally reserved for confirmation, youth group and other religious programs. But some clergy say sports and other activities have recently been causing a conflict.

Nearly 50 religious leaders, including St. Cloud Roman Catholic Bishop John Kinney of the Diocese of St. Cloud, signed a letter reminding schools of church events on Wednesday nights.

"It puts our children in a bad spot," said Ginny Duschner, faith formation director at the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit in St. Cloud. "They have to choose between two things that are important."

Duschner said many church leaders are running into more competition for Wednesday programs, which she said have "always been a high priority around here."

Andrea Swanberg, activities director at Technical High School, said that last spring bad weather that postponed games led to more Wednesday scheduling. Playoffs have also been scheduled on Wednesdays, she said.

"We still try to keep Wednesday open. We don't want the students and parents to feel this conflict," Swanberg said.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Following up on Islamic law in Britain

This NY Times article revisits the recent developments in Britain about the legal recognition for Islamic Sharia courts. See this earlier post for some of the economics.

Monday, November 17, 2008

More faces of religious competition

I am keeping my comments short here because there are so many.
  • A college fraternity or sorority is a club by almost any definition let alone our economic one. It should not be surprising then that they provide a forum for people to promote and foster religious ideals in college students. See this Chicago Tribune article about religious fraternities.
  • The Salvation Army is now accepting credit cards according to this Associated Press release. This should not decrease contributions, but will it increase them? By how much? Many people do not want to take time out of their hurried shopping to make a contribution even though they often use the "I don't have any change" excuse. If it is the opportunity cost of time that prevents contributions, then accepting credit cards will not help much as it does not increase the number of people contributing. On the other hand, if people are constrained by the number of bills in their wallet, then the people who already contribute may now be willing to contribute more than before because they can charge it.
  • The Mandaeans practice one of the world's oldest religions, but they are nearing extinction according to this Chicago Tribune article. The religious marketplace, like other marketplaces, experiences exit as well as entry.
  • Finally, here's a Wall Street Journal article about atheists' increased attempts to compete with religion. The very end of the article gets to the relevant economics. One issue is whether atheists can compete with the variety of goods and services offered by religious groups, including the many club goods. The writer seems to question their ability to compete, though it would have been nice if the writer explored this in more detail:
    Still, leading activists say nonbelievers tend to be just as wary of organized atheism as they are of organized religion -- making it tough to pull together a cohesive movement. "A pastor can say to his flock, 'All rise,' and everyone rises. But try that in an atheist meeting," said Marvin Straus, co-founder of an atheist group in Boulder, Colo. "A third of the people will rise. A third will tell you to go to hell. And a third will start arguing....That's why it's hard to say where we're going as a movement."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The various faces of religious competition

Some recent news articles and items illustrate the various dimensions of religious competition. Sorry I don't have time to say more about them.

From the recent AP Religion News in Brief:
  • Hindu militants in India have attacked and even killed Christians and destroyed churches. This is an example of "social regulation" by citizens not government, which we will discuss next week in class.
  • Churches must also find ways to innovate in producing their religious goods and services. An Episcopal Church in NY removed two dozen pews to improve the "feel" of the religious meetings. You can apparently get one of those pews for "only" $300 on Craigslist.
  • As religious organizations adapt in order to compete in the religious marketplace, some members may not like the adaptation, and this can lead to the break-up of a Church. The Episcopal Church has faced such internal pressures recently.
Also from the AP, see this article about secular humanists using advertisements on buses as a way to compete with religion as the holiday season approaches. Humanists argue that they provide a good substitute for religious belief and activity.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ten-year anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act

October 27, 2008, just last week, marked the ten-year anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (also see wikipedia). In short, the IRFA made it a matter of U.S. foreign policy to promote religious freedom around the world. On H.W. 7, you will read more about this act and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In honor of this tenth anniversary, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a Q&A with Allen Hertzke, a close observer of the creation of the IRFA.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tidbits from today's AP "Religion news in brief"

Want a Christian-themed license plate for your car? You can get one in South Carolina... at least, that is, until and unless the courts decide it violates church-state separation laws.

Want to read your Hebrew prayers on your BlackBerry? For $30 you can download the JewBerry software. Yeshiva University President said, "I love it, because now I can not only look how the market is doing, but I can also say my evening prayers."

See the full AP news brief here. You can read about the 8th-grader sent home for dressing like Jesus on Halloween, about a ruling that keeps crosses on a city's logo, or, on a more serious note, about the Dalai Lama's deteriorating hopes for Tibet.

New religious regulations in Krygyzstan

As reported here, government officials in Krygystan, a small central Asian country, yesterday passed a bill that places new restrictions on the operations of religious groups. If President Bakiyev signs the bill, which is expected, certain types of proselytizing will be outlawed and religious teaching in private schools will be forbidden.

Critics say the bill curtains fundamental human rights. Supporters say the bill promotes better oversight and reduces religious tensions. Economists of religion say that the regulations are an attempt to curtail religious competition that will benefit religious groups already entrenched in the society by reducing religious consumers' viable religious alternatives.

I do not know the background of the bill or what are the particular interests of those who promoted it. A student could look more into this and write up what they found, using economics to talk about the incentives of the different relevant actors.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Religion and the election

The Pew Forum has a web site dedicated to assessing the election. Check this site soon for all sorts of facts and figures about how people of different religious groups voted in the election.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Surfing the world wide church

This Newsweek article mentions attempts to use the Internet to replicate (or replace) the traditional community component of religion. Instead of going to church, just log in online. At some Christian sites, you can even participate in the communion online, which is a different kind of openness in communion than that mentioned in an earlier post.

Many religious groups use advances in technology to either provide their religious services more effectively or to provide new types of religious goods. We sometimes think that religious groups abhor new technology, but this attitude is more the exception than the rule. Throughout history, religious groups and individuals have incorporated new technologies just as other groups and individuals. Think of printing presses used centuries ago to produce religious tracts and holy writings. Today, most churches have some presence online even though most do not actually hold religious services online. Another article from today even describes a new Catholic television station that is only available online.

Providing religious services such as communion online is just another example of religious entrepreneurship. One interesting question for us is how good a substitute the online church is for in-person church. The article mentions how some aspects of community can be replicated online while others cannot. This matches our club theory; some of the goods that are produced collectively at an in-person church service cannot be closely replicated online. Thus, online church for many people will be an imperfect substitute for church in person. However, there are some who will prefer the online experience. The interesting thing will be to see how large this particular market becomes. Given that young people, in particular, enjoy networking online, I would not be surprised to see this type of market survive in some form, though it will not likely have a large market share.