Tuesday, December 20, 2011

UN Human Rights Council Drops Condemnation of Defamation of Religion

From this Reuters article:
For the first time in more than a decade, the U.N. General Assembly on Monday condemned religious intolerance without urging states to outlaw "defamation of religions," an appeal critics said opened the door to abusive "blasphemy" laws...

Earlier this year Western countries and their Latin American allies joined Muslim and African states in backing a new approach that switched the focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers. That new approach led to Monday's resolution.

Since 1998, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) had won majority approval in U.N. rights bodies in Geneva and at the U.N. General Assembly for annual resolutions on "combating defamation of religions."

Critics said the concept ran against international law and free speech and left the way open for tough "blasphemy" laws like those in Pakistan that have been invoked this year by the killers of two moderate politicians there.

They argued that it also allowed states where one religion predominates to keep religious minorities under tight control or even leave them open to forced conversion or oppression.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

USCIRF Reauthorized for Three Years

This is good news for our class because we use USCIRF produced materials. You can read about the Congressional bill here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

USCIRF Taking Steps to Shut Down

You can read about it here. This is sad news for our class because we used the information collected and disseminated by the USCIRF in learning about religious freedom around the world. Fortunately, the Commission is taking steps to archive all of its records.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Religion Related Lobbying on the Rise in the U.S.

The Pew Forum just released a very interesting study of religious lobbying in the U.S. The complete report is long (here), but definitely read the executive summary found here. Here are two paragraphs from the executive summary:
The number of organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C., has increased roughly fivefold in the past four decades, from fewer than 40 in 1970 to more than 200 today. These groups collectively employ at least 1,000 people in the greater Washington area and spend at least $390 million a year on efforts to influence national public policy. As a whole, religious advocacy organizations work on about 300 policy issues. For most of the past century, religious advocacy groups in Washington focused mainly on domestic affairs. Today, however, roughly as many groups work only on international issues as work only on domestic issues, and nearly two-thirds of the groups work on both. These are among the key findings of a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life that examines a total of 212 religion-related advocacy groups operating in the nation’s capital.
Previous studies indicate that lobbying in general has increased rapidly in recent decades. But the growth in the number of religion-related advocacy organizations appears to have kept pace with – or even exceeded – the growth in some other common types of advocacy organizations...
The dollars expended on this lobbying is large -- over $390 million -- but the expenditures did decline during the recession. The lobbying groups represent a wide range of religious groups, including Catholic, Protestant, other Christian, Jewish, Baha'i, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and more. And the lobbying is aimed at a wide range of issues, from inherently religious ones such as the promotion of religious freedom to social and political issues such as HIV-AIDS.

Why do religious groups expend so much on lobbying? And why has it grown over time?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Club - God is Back #4 & #5 - Fall 2011

One of the most interesting chapters in God is Back is the chapter on the "The Bible versus the Koran." From p. 282:
[T]he plain fact is that the Islamic world is a long way behind the Christian one in its engagement with modernity. Islam is coming to a succession of epochal religious debates--particularly about the relationship between faith and authority--much later than Christianity. Christianity, particularly in its American version, has resolved those debates in a way that has rendered it well equipped to thrive along with modernity.
For this and other reasons, the authors see Christianity as still ahead in the competition between Christianity and Islam.

In prior posts on the blog, I have raised doubts about this conclusion. Definitely check out these earlier posts here and here to see my doubts. Stephen Prothero, in his 2010 book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World--and Why their Differences Matter, gives the nod to Islam in terms of impact on society today:
The case for Christianity's preeminence is compelling. In the United States, the most powerful country in the world, Christianity is the religion par excellence. . . . Nonetheless, Islam is the Muhammed Ali of the world's religions. Statistically, it is second to Christianity, but its numbers are growing far more rapidly. . . . Numbers aside, Islam is the leader of the pack in terms of contemporary impact.
So which is it? Is Christianity winning the battle? Does Islam have the bigger impact? Is it possible to have both?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Religion and the Rise of Civilization

Jean-Paul Carvalho, another UCI Department of Economics faculty member, sent me this great article from the National Geographic. It's too long for me to make it a required reading for the class, but it may be of interest to you.

Here's the basic story. Archaeologists have long understood that human society took a dramatic change when it developed agriculture. They have thought that it was the development of agriculture that allowed for more complex human societies to form. Yet they are now beginning to understand that it may have happened the other way around: agriculture arose as a response to humans settling first.

And why did settlement occur? Religion, according to the article. Read the article for the details. It is a fascinating piece on how religion may have been tightly integrated with the very origins of our modern human society.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Doing Church on Facebook

That's what a pastor at Liberty University did last night. They usually meet in the on-campus arena, but because of a scheduling conflict, the pastor decided to just use Facebook.

I'd like to find out if it was successful. Of course, that begs the question of what would be considered a success. But assuming it was successful, would it be in the interest of the involved parties to just do church on Facebook everytime? Why even use the arena?

A Difficult-to-enforce Religious Regulation

Today's Reuters religion blog FaithWorld has a short piece about a particular religious regulation in Saudi Arabia that is associated with the Hajj.

Here are the brief facts. The Saudi monarchy enforces a strict Wahhabi school of Islam. Praying at historic Islamic sites is, according to Wahhabi thought, a problematic practice that goes against the spirit of Islamic teachings. During the Hajj, many people come to Saudi Arabia to visit various sacred Islamic sites in the country. Religious police try to enforce a ban on praying at sites. Religious police patrol selected areas and warn visitors against certain practices.

The short blog post does not explain what punishment results from violating the rule. But it strikes me as a very difficult rule to enforce. Although the presence of the police may prohibit certain overt forms of prayer common, the police cannot stop more discreet forms of prayer. Moreover, the blog post mentions that even the belief that a site is sacred is something the police try to stop, and this strikes me as impossible.

Clearly, the religious police are confronted with a cost-benefit calculation. They could put police at every location and interrogate every visitor to ensure no praying happens. But doing so would involve a tremendous amount of resources, and it seems clear from the blog-post that the police are not committing the resources necessary for such an endeavor. Is this an indication that the Wahhabi scholars care only a limited amount about the rule, or is it more the cold hard reality about the cost of resources for enforcement?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Decline in Episcopal Church Membership

Here's the news story mentioned in class today about the decline in membership in the Episcopal Church. As you read this story, look for clues about how the level of strictness (or lack thereof) of the Episcopal Church may be related to the decrease in membership.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Comic Strip Syncretism

Some syncretism humor from xkcd.com.

Book Club - God is Back #2 & #3 - Fall 2011

In Part I (Chapters 1-4) of their book, Micklethwait and Wooldrige contrast religion in the United States and Europe. They argue that the commitment by government to maintain a separation from church actually helped enhance religiosity in the United States. This claim is not intuitive for some people because it is thought that religion is in part a public good, and standard economic logic says that governments ought to provide public goods.

In Part II (Chapters 5-7), the authors look more closely at religion in the U.S. The go so far as to claim that
The American religious marketplace is almost a study in perfect competition: there are no real barriers to entry, the domestic market is big enough to support a mind-boggling variety of religious producers, and new religious entrepreneurs are always rising up to challenge incumbents. (P. 174)
Think of this quote in light of my comments about Part I of the book. Remember from class that a public good is defined as a good that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable (a club good is non-rivalrous and excludable). If religion is a public good, why is it provided in such high supply by private suppliers? How can we have such a competitive religious marketplace for a public good? Is religion a public good? If so, how might religion be different from typical public goods that we think ought to be provided by government? If not, why not?

Hajj 2011

The Hajj is the largest pilgrimage in the world. As one of the five pillars of Islam, it is a religious duty for each Muslim to undertake at least once in his or her lifetime given financial means and health. The Hajj will occur in the first or second week of November this year, so it is only weeks away.

Undertaking this pilgrimage involves traveling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Some people must save their whole lives to pay for the trip, while others are able to do it multiple times. For more information, see this brief entry at CNN and this longer entry in wikipedia.

I think it is good for us to think of the Hajj in terms of our notion of religious capital. Notice how it is described in the CNN entry. One person refers to it is "spiritual boot camp," which suggests it is an enterprise that builds a person's religious capital. Yet, due to the high cost of going, we expect that participants are individuals with already fairly high religious capital. This is a great example of the chicken-and-egg problem mentioned in class. Oftentimes, religious participation results from religious capital and builds it at the same time.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kazakhstan's President Signs the Restrictive Religion Law

As reported by Forum 18. I have mentioned this before, most recently here. This is most strident law of its kind passed since I have been teaching this course.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Book Club - God is Back #1 - Fall 2011

Micklethwait and Wooldridge open their book by presenting China as a surprising place for religious resurgence. The Marxist agenda in the mid-twentieth century took great measures to stamp religion out, yet "By 2050, China could well be the world's biggest Muslim nation as well as its biggest Christian one" (p. 5).

One of the main questions this book seeks to answer is how and why such a resurgence is happening. Part of the authors' answer is that modernity and religion are not as antithetical as many people have claimed. As you read, look for clues that support their claim.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A New Jewish News App

Designed with the iPad in mind, the Jewish Journal app provides up-to-date news and other content. See the story here. According to Rob Eshman, who is affiliated with the company that produced the app:
The first Jewish news came down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets. ... We believe the digital tablet will be the most important news delivery system of the future, so we committed to developing the best and first Jewish news app for it.
The app is available for free. A question for you: is this app an economic good?

Friday, September 23, 2011

More in Information on Kazakhstan's New Religious Restrictions

As has been mentioned in earlier posts, a law has been proposed in Kazakhstan that would dramatically affect the operations of many religious groups. Among other things, the law would:
  • De-register all currently existing religious organizations and require a costly re-registration.
  • Require religious groups to have their religious writing and documents to be evaluated by the state.
  • Ban all religious activity for non-registered groups.
  • Impose censorship of religious literature.
  • Restrict distribution of religious literature to religious buildings...
  • But also require religious groups to obtain state approval to build or open religious buildings.
The Institute on Religion and Public Policy has recently released their own legislative analysis of the proposed law. The law is still under consideration by the Kazakhstan Parliament, but it was passed by the Parliament's Lower House on September 21.

This unfolding event is a great example for us of how religious markets exist within legal and institutional settings and that the nature of religion in a religious market can change due to changes in that setting. This will be a recurring theme in our course.

13th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

On September 13, the US State Department issued its 13th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. This report, which is required by an act of Congress:

documents major developments with respect to religious freedom in 198 countries and territories from July-December 2010. The report reflects a broad understanding of universal religious freedom, one that includes the rights to hold private beliefs, including agnosticism or atheism, as well as the right to communal religious expression and education (quoted from the Executive Summary).

One of the most interesting things to look for whenever the report comes out is its identification of the most egregious violators of religious freedom. They are named in the Executive Summary, which is a good section to read to get a good sense of the entire report.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Drive-in Church

As reported at WFAA.com out of Dallas:

Without ever getting outside of their cars, parishioners drive to their favorite spot and sit behind the wheel for a worship service that includes all the familiar music, prayers and a full sermon.
This is the third such church set up by the pastor.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Examples of the Ongoing Adjustments in Religious Regulations

One theme of our class is that religious regulations vary widely around the world. It is also true that these regulations are in a continual process of adjustment. Here is a recent sampling.
  • The Pew Foundation recently released an important report showing that restrictions on religious practice have increased for a third of the world's population.
  • The Chinese government and Catholic leaders in the Vatican are currently disputing who has the right to ordain Catholic bishops.
  • A woman challenges Belgium's new burqa ban in court.
  • A woman in India is tortured after being branded a witch.
  • The USCIRF asked Secretary of State Clinton to identify Pakistan as a "country of particular concern."
  • Hungary adopted what one author called "Europe's Most Restrictive Religious Law" that strips three hundred religious organizations of their religious status. Only fourteen groups retained their status; all others must undertake a costly re-register process without guarantee of success.
  • A proposed law in Tajikistan would prevent many children from participating in religious activities until they are eighteen years of age.
  • Even the U.S. is not immune to the adjustment: a lawsuit alleges that a Dallas Church is really a sex club, causes the courts to determine just what sorts of organizations can claim to be religious.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Apple: A Twenty-first Century Religion?

From the CNN Write-up (read the lengthier story at the BBC web site):

The neuroscientists ran a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test on an Apple fanatic and discovered that images of the technology company's gadgets lit up the same parts of the brain as images of a deity do for religious people...
Question: Does this finding improve the credibility of our economic approach to religion?

The Department of Secular Studies

The formation of a Department of Secular Studies at Pitzer College shows how the very study of secularization can become institutionalized.

Friday, April 22, 2011

James Richardson on the Word "Cult"

Professor Richardson has long studied new religious movements and offers some perspective on the word "cult."

France's Burka Ban Takes Effect

France's new ban on Muslim women wearing the full body covering burka and the face covering niqab took effect earlier this month. Some women wearing veils in protest were arrested. The penalty is to pay up to $215 (US) or attend special citizenship classes. Here's a write-up on the first woman arrested.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Not so Long Ago in Our Own Galaxy...

Glen Watson, the Director for the 2011 Census in England and Wales, just said that it was "not acceptable" to give joke answers on the census but that people who want to declare themselves Jedis are free to do so. See here.

In fact, it was the British census ten years ago that led to the formation of the Church of Jediism. From the Church of Jediism's website:
An email petition was sent round in 2001 asking people to put 'Jedi' as their religion on the census. This petition saw some 390,000 people in Britain do just that. Yes, some may have done this as a joke, however the main outcome was it brought people together.
There are now eight chapters of the Church. The only U.S. chapter is in Florida, though the first marriage performed by an ordained Jedi minister took place in Utah in 2008.

The wikipedia entry lists a four examples of how Jedis have faced challenges in finding acceptance as a religious group.
  • In the drafting of the UK Racial and Religious Hatred Act, an amendment was proposed which specifically excluded Jedi Knights from any protection.
  • In September 17, 2009, Church of Jediism founder, Daniel Jones, was banned from a Tesco Supermarket in Bangor, North Wales for refusing to remove his hood on a religious basis.
  • On March 7, 2010, Jediism was excluded in a U.K. act protecting organizations such as the Church of Scientology from discrimination. A Times report referring to the decision said "beliefs had to be heartfelt."
  • On March 17, 2010, Chris Jarvis, a member of the Church of Jediism was thrown out of a Jobcentre in Southend, Essex, for refusing to remove his hood. He later received a formal apology from the Jobcentre. Story here.
UPDATE: Lest there be any confusion, there are different strands of Jediism. The Church of Jediism is just one of many. See the Jediism wikipedia entry for others.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Club - God is Back #5 Winter 2011

Let's end our online book club with the final words of the conclusion:
Secularists need to recognize that the enemy that "poisons everything" is not religion but the union of religion and power--and believers need to recognize that religion flourishes best where it operates in a world of free choice...
This conclusion is surprising to many people. Secularists often want to suppress religion as a whole, while believers want to suppress religions other than their own. It turns out that either form of suppression causes problems.

Without that suppression, we see that religious markets are becoming more and more like other markets in that religion more so than ever is becoming a matter of choice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Do Churches and Charities Compete for Dollars?

A recent study summarized here (also reported here) says "no." The study finds that individuals who contribute more to churches also contribute more to other charities, and this result is robust to different ways of slicing up the data. The interpretation given is that churches and charities do not compete for money but instead help foster more spending in the other.

My first complaint is that this interpretation misuses the word "competition." Any dollar given to church rather than charity is, at the margin, a dollar not given to charity. There is an opportunity cost, which connotes a kind of competition. Saying that they do not compete is problematic.

My second concern is more substantive. Suppose a person decides to donate $X of her income to what she perceives as good causes. Then the decision of interest is how she should allocate those $X. She might give $X/2 to church and $X/2 to charity, $X/4 to church and $3X/4 to charity, and so on. Also suppose that there is diminishing returns to donating to more than one organization so each person wants to spread out donations, and that there is a cost, e.g., due to increased time writing checks or filing a tax return, to donating to too many organizations. Then the observed pattern is due to different people have different Xs, and not due to a donation to one causing a donation in another. In true, then there is a strict competition between organizations for a portion of people's donations due to a strong substitution effect.

However, other plausible complications can exist, and these are more subtle. Suppose churches teach their adherents to donate to non-church charities. If committed churchgoers, who happen to donate a lot to their churches because of their high commitment, also internalize the message to donate to non-church charities, then they could also donate more to charities than less committed types. We then see people who donate more to church also donate more to charity, but it is not the donations to one that cause the other. Rather, it is a third facto--in this case commitment--that causes high donations to both churches and charities. Sorting this out will require additional study.

What do you think? Does donating to church cause donations in charities? Vice versa? Neither?

Recent Growth Trends in American Churches

Every year the National Council of Churches produces their Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches. This publication includes various facts and figures about many different religious groups, and its release always leads to news stories about how different churches in the U.S. are growing at different rates.

This year is no different. See here and here, for example, concerning the very recent release of the 2011 yearbook (and you can save $5 when buying it from Amazon.com). Continuing the trend of recent years, the largest mainline churches continue to shrink while Pentecostal churches are growing fast. Here are the recent numbers for the ten largest Christian groups:
  1. The Catholic Church: 68.5 million, up 0.57 percent.
  2. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.1 million, down .42 percent.
  3. The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million, down 1 percent.
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 6 million, up 1.42 percent.
  5. The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million, no membership updates reported.
  6. National Baptist Convention, USA: 5 million, no membership updates reported.
  7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.5 million, down 1.96 percent.
  8. National Baptist Convention of America, 3.5 million, no membership updates reported.
  9. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million, up .52 percent.
  10. Presbyterian Church (USA): 2.7 million, down 2.61 percent.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Club - God is Back #4 Winter 2011

Chapters 10-12 of God is Back are in a section called God's Wars. The authors consider various forms of religious conflict or competition, some of it violent and some of it non-violent.

Ch. 10 explores the "Battle of the Book." I expressed doubts about the authors' assessment of this "battle" in last year's post on this topic (here). In the last few weeks there has been some news about new growth projections of Muslim populations worldwide (here). In short, Muslims are growing at a much faster rate worldwide than non-Muslims. And if you're really interested, you can see the many resources here, though this last page would not be required reading.

I want to draw your attention to "The Great Clash" mentioned in Ch. 11. As the authors state:
[T]here is nothing inevitable about a clash between Islam and Christianity. ... As for the idea that Islam is stuck in a clash of civilizations with the West, this too seems unconvincing. Put simply, most of the fighting is not taking place in that arena. One great irony of the war on terror is that many of the people on George Bush's "enemies list" have devoted themselves to fighting people other than Americans. The jihadis' most important war is not against the West but against apostate Muslim regimes, notably Saudi Arabia; where they do battle with outsiders, it is mainly against what they regard as occupying powers. (pp. 305-306)
Here I think authors have more support for their claim. That we see practitioners of Islam coexist with non-Muslims in many Western countries suggests that any clash, should it exist, is not inevitable. Rather, many of the harshest clashes are in non-Western countries.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Do Religious Groups Compete in Canada?

Canadian sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby says that they do not, at least not as much as their American counterparts. See this National Post article.

His soon-to-be-released book (mentioned in the article) must surely elaborate on this claim, but the article does provides a glimpse of his reasoning. According to Bibby, Canadians are less inclined than Americans to make bold truth claims, and this hampers competition between groups. I think the implication we are supposed to infer is that if the groups are not distinguishing themselves according to their truth claims, then there is less product differentiation or less enthusiasm for religious services.

By my own application of the economic approach to religion, I find this logic incomplete. If all that is needed for religious competition is to have more religious entrepreneurs offering bold truth claims, then why are those entrepreneurs not entering the religious market? The article mentions the possibly that demand for religion is low in Canada. This is possible to be sure, but it is not clear why Canada would be so different in this regard from the United States. Is there another explanation?

Another place to look would be the supply side of Canadian religious markets. A quick visit to the ARDA reveals that the Canadian religious markets have a degree of unbalanced religious favoritism. Perhaps this favoritism hinders religious competition to some degree. (We will discuss the impact of religious regulations on religiosity in a couple lectures later in the course.) Can you think of a better explanation?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Links for HW 5 Question 4

The links originally intended for use for question 4 are not working well, so let's just go with the wikipedia entries:
Please use these links to obtain information necessary to answer question 4. Pay particular attention to beliefs and practices.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Club - God is Back #3 Winter 2011

In Ch. 8-9 of God is Back, the authors focus on the exporting of American religion, and Pentecostalism is identified in Ch. 8 as one prime example:
Pentecostalism is the great religious story of the twentieth century. (P. 217)

The success of Pentecostalism is a strange mixture of unflinching belief and pragmatism, raw emotion and self-improvement, improvisation and organization: it is as if somebody had distilled American-style religion down to its basic elements and the set about marketing it globally. (P. 218).
Many scholars trace the origins of Pentecostalism to early 20th Century Los Angeles (pp. 81-84), but its reach is now global. It is particularly successful in Latin America where it is challenging the long-standing religious monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church (p. 215).

The authors identify many reasons for Pentecostalism's success, and you should review what those are. One of those may be surprising to you:
Indeed, one of the things that attracts people around the world to Pentecostalism is its very Americanness. (p. 219)
If that is true, it would not be the first time that a highly influential nation or empire helped cause the spread, either deliberately or inadvertently, of a particular religious group. The existence of the Roman Empire helped Christianity spread, for example. In fact, you could ask if there has ever been a case of a religious group going global that did not have behind it some helpful connection to an influential nation.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Churches and Social Media

As explained in this story and also here, churches are very active in online social media. About half of all churches actively use Facebook, and the percent is larger for larger congregations and for congregations in cities and suburbs. Online social media are used to do many things, including distributing news and fostering interaction among members. Nearly half of all pastors surveyed use Facebook.

Online social media enhance interpersonal connections, and in our terminology constitute a form of social capital. Because social capital is an important component of religious capital, it is no surprise, then, that churches would want to be engaged in social media. It does, however, raise questions about what is the proper way for churches and adherents to use social media. The Pope, for example, recently called for those participating online to adopt what he called a "Christian style presence" of honesty and responsibility and warned against false online profiles. See here and here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Club - God is Back #2 Winter 2011

In Part Two of the book (ch. 5-7), the authors look at religion in the United States. Here they see blending of other-worldly and this-worldly, and this is nowhere more evident in the competition between churches.
Across America churches now compete to provide "total service excellence." These pastorpreneurs don't just preach on Sundays. They don't just provide services for the great rituals of birth, death and marriage. They keep their buildings open seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, and provide a mind-boggling array of services: some megachurch complexes even contain banks, pharmacies, and schools. Counseling and guidance groups are routine. So are children's ministries. .... All this emphasis on customer service is producing a predictable result: growth. (pp. 185-186)
The trends identified by the authors can be viewed in many lights. Is it the secularization of churches? Or the sacralization of the secular? Yet, the authors claim that the rapid growth is "forcing churches to become yet more business-like and management-obsessed" (p. 187).

Overall, the authors identify how market forces are at play in many aspects of religious life, from the variety of religious choices available for religious consumers to the practices of religious leaders. Can you think of other ways that market forces are influencing religious life?

Interfaith Marriages

The story that you must read as part of Homework 4.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We've Made it to Twitter!

The first Twitter reference to our class is here! Many more to come, right? (Just don't tweet them in class.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

When is a Fee also a Tax?

According to this story on the St. Louis Today web site, the city of Mission, Kansas, is now requiring churches to pay "transportation utility fees" to help pay for crumbling roads, and the churches are challenging the fees in court. Churches are non-profit organizations and usually have tax exempt status. City officials claim that these fees are not a form of taxation, but the churches filing suit disagree. When is a fee also a tax?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Club - God is Back #1 Winter 2011

Micklethwait and Wooldridge end the introductory chapter of God is Back with the following thoughts:
The Founding Fathers' clever compromise over religion not only allowed God to survive and prosper in America, it also provided a way of living with religion--of ensuring that different faiths can coexist, and of taming a passion that so often turns the religious beast to savagery. This was one of the Founders' greatest gifts to man: getting rid of the established church, establishing a firm distinction between public reason and private faith, and consigning theocracy to the past along with monarchy and aristocracy.
But later, in Chapter 3, they write:
By 2000, the country was split just as dramatically over religion as it had been in 1900--but this time the split was not between different denominations (Protestants for the Republican Party and Catholics for the Democrats) but between people who were hot for religion, whether they were Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, and people who were cooler, whether they were atheists, modernists, or infrequent church attendees.
Understanding how these quotes can be reconciled will get you a good way to understanding the authors' main arguments. The key is understanding the connection between religious vitality. What is that connection?

You may also want to review my book club posts for the Introduction and Chapters 1-4 from last year.

President Obama Declares Religious Freedom Day

Last week, President Barack Obama declared January 16, 2011 (last Sunday), to be Religious Freedom Day. You can read the entire Presidential Proclamation at the White House's web site.

Promoting religious freedom both in and outside the country is an official goal of the American government, a fact we will read about later in the quarter. For now, I am interested in knowing if you think these declarations amount to much. At the least, the press attention they get reminds the American public that religious freedom is a policy goal. It is also true that religious freedom is a goal for which people of all political persuasions agree, so it is good press for anyone. Any other benefits you see?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Larry Witham Podcast on the Economics of Religion

The latest Research on Religion podcast is an interview with Larry Witham, author of a new book called Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion. I will not require you to listen to the podcast (approx. 60 minutes), but I recommend it as a way to review some key ideas. Maybe you could listen to it as part of your study for a midterm or the final exam. Yours truly even gets a shout out around minute 16.

For the record, I was asked to review this book for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (UCI access may be required). My review, which identifies both strengths and weaknesses of the book, will hopefully be published before the end of the quarter. Personally, I would have answered some of the questions asked in the podcast differently than Witham. But that is fine; getting a different perspective is a good thing.

Taxing Witches in Romania

The Romanian government has identified a new source of revenue: taxing witches. Read this short BBC news story for some details.

Tax policy is also a way to regulate religion. Imposing taxes on witches, assuming that they pay them, will raise the cost of their operations. Basic supply and demand analysis from introductory economics suggests that this negative supply shock should lead to an increase in the prices of witches' services and a decline in the quantity of witches' services traded in the market. Of course, some witches could decide to not pay and move their services underground. Doing so is costly as well, so again the prediction is a drop in witches' services traded, all else equal. Whether reducing the consumption of witches' services is part of the government's motive is not addressed in the story.

But others see a positive angle to the development. By taxing the witches, the government is implicitly recognizing them as being engaged in a legitimate business activity. Should the government's earlier classification reduce any stigma associated with paying a witch, then this acts to decrease the cost of the the witch's services. This effect would obviously work in the opposite direction of the supply shock mentioned in the earlier paragraph.

Which effect will dominate? Will the quantity of witches' services sold in the market go up or down?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Roger Finke Podcast on Religious Persecution

This week's Research on Religion podcast is an interview with Roger Finke about religious persecution. This topic is especially timely given the troubles Christians faced in Iraq this past holiday season (see this story). Later this quarter we will discuss and use the Grim-Finke religious regulation indices, as well as the ARDA website (link in sidebar).