Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Zuism and Tax Rebates in Iceland

During the last week there has been wide interest in the rise of Zuism in and its connection to church-state relations in Iceland.  From the Guardian here:
Icelanders opposed to the state funding of religion have flocked to register as Zuists, a movement that worships ancient Sumerian gods and – perhaps more importantly – promises its followers a tax rebate.
More than 3,100 people – almost 1% of Iceland’s population – have joined the Zuist movement in the past two weeks in protest at paying part of their taxes to the state church and other religious bodies. Followers of Zuism will be refunded the tax element earmarked for religion.
Icelanders are required by law to register their religious status with the state, and then some of their tax money is sent to their religious group by the state to be used to fund religious activities.  This is one way to get around the free-rider problem because members are essentially forced by the state to contribute to their religious group.

However, those who do not want to support religion do not have any of their tax money diverted to religious groups so that they are effectively paying a higher tax rate to the state.  As explained in the article, the Zuist group was at risk of being de-registered as an official religion in Iceland, and thus ineligible for money to be sent by the government, due to low numbers.  Then a group opposed to this role of the state in religion took control of the group and promised to refund money given to the group by the government back to the members.  The group has now grown to almost 1% of Iceland's population.  By comparison, in the U.S. the Seventh-day Adventist Church is about 1.4% of the population.

This development is controversial because the money is being refunded by the group to its members rather than providing religious services, clearly against the intent of the law.  However, there are tricky issues about what is a religious group and what it considers its legitimate operations.  If someone says that this group is violating the law, then someone else says, "Who are you to say what my religious group considers religion?"

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why Big Societies Need Big Gods

That is the title of a feature article in Science Magazine.  The key idea is belief in moralizing gods -- i.e., gods that encourage virtue and punish selfishness in the afterlife -- have helped to foster cooperation and the growth of large-scale civilization.
To crack the mystery of why and how people around the world came to believe in moralizing gods, researchers are using a novel tool in religious studies: the scientific method. By combining laboratory experiments, cross-cultural fieldwork, and analysis of the historical record, an interdisciplinary team has put forward a hypothesis that has the small community of researchers who study the evolution of religion abuzz. A culture like ancient Egypt didn’t just stumble on the idea of moralizing gods, says psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, in Canada, who synthesized the new idea in his 2013 book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Instead, belief in those judgmental deities, or “big gods,” was key to the cooperation needed to build and sustain Egyptians’ large, complex society.
In this view, without supernatural enforcement of cooperative, “moral” behavior, ancient Egypt—as well as nearly every other large-scale society in history—wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground. All-knowing big gods are “crazily effective” at enforcing social norms, says Norenzayan’s collaborator Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver. “Not only can they see you everywhere you are, but they can actually look inside your mind.” And once big gods and big societies existed, the moralizing gods helped religions as dissimilar as Islam and Mormonism spread by making groups of the faithful more cooperative, and therefore more successful.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Monopoly Power in the Gravestone Business

See this short article from the Economist magazine.  The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Newark, NJ, started selling headstones to parishioners. This was quite profitable for the church, and, presumably, convenient for the parishioners.  But soon some local businesses sued the church accusing it of unfair monopoly practices.  It had a natural vertical monopoly position because it could bundle multiple goods and services associated with burial (religious services, gravestones, plots, etc.) and tax-exempt status that allowed it to undercut grave stone prices of other makers.  The plaintiffs lost the case, but in March Governor Christie signed a law that breaks some of the monopoly power by forbidding religious cemeteries from operating funeral homes or selling memorials.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Will the iPad Replace the Bible?

That is the title of this article that is very relevant given our discussion of religious apps and products in today's lecture.
"There are different churches for different people," says Josh Burns, marketing manager and blogger for Social Church. "There are churches that are going to invest heavily in the arts and music and technology, and they're going to reach a certain demographic of people that another church who may intentionally decide not to invest in those things may not reach. [Technology] has definitely changed the dynamic of the church and the people inside the church, but I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing. It's a tight line to walk."
Why is this is a tight line to walk?  What trade-offs exist for a church that is considering how it adopts technology?  Can you imagine how the printing press changed religion 500 years ago?

Religious Apps Winter 2015

Here is a list of the religious apps and other products submitted by class members.  Non-app products are denoted by *.

Bible Study
3D Salah Guide
ChristianMingle Singles Dating
Daily Bible Devotion
Free Bible Trivia Quiz Game
Religious Quotes
Christian Radio+
GCSE Religious Studies
Smart Church
Gospel Library
Bible Trivia
Church Castor Lite
Pray God's Will
The Bible Game*
My First Bible Stories
Children's Bible Games & Activities
Learn Iqra
Cavalry Chapel Costa Mesa
Bible Quiz - Christian & Religion Trivia
Saddleback Church
Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism
Alive Festival*
Christian Filipina

Monday, June 1, 2015

How Churches Can Attract the 'Nones"

That is the title of this Deseret News article. from yesterday.  Some quotes from the Rev. Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest and church consultant, are particularly interesting.

Here are some good quotes about :
Ehrich, who is based in New York City, said church leaders need to consider ways to meet the needs of newer generations. Today, he said, many congregations have become stuck in a rut accommodating older members.
"The average age (of members) in a mainline church is somewhere between 62 and 66; 20 years ago it was between 42 and 46," Ehrich explained. "We've missed two successive generations of young adults, and the same people who stuck around are getting older. We can't go on much longer before the 66-year-olds are 76 and 86. That's why the (churches) are closing."
... "Churches that are growing have small groups, high mission activities, mission teams, lots of people engaging with each other, and digital dialogues," he said. "The mainline churches and many churches are resisting it because people don't want" those changes, preferring traditional routines.
...Church consultant Ehrich said congregations also need to position themselves as providing answers to the questions those seekers eventually will bring.
"What the churches have to communicate is this is what they're about and not keeping up tradition," he said.
Some questions:  Why have some churches become stuck accommodating older members rather than younger members?  What challenges will a group face in changing how it accommodates the desires of different members?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Economist's Analysis of United Methodist Church

Economist Don House, a life-long member of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and chair of that church's Economic Advisory Committee, has projected long-run decline in the UMC in the United States.  His projections help shape denominational budgets, but they are also sparking discussion within the denomination about its future more generally.  This article summarizes some of the issues.  I recommend that you also browse the full report of his analysis here, but do not read it very closely unless you are interested.  Just get a sense of the kind of analysis done.

Some questions for you to think about as you read the article:
  • Why is it useful for churches to have these kinds of projections when planning church operations?
  • What has happened to UMC average worship attendance recently?
  • Why did House say that the UMC is gracefully closing its doors?
  • What does House mean when he said that "the denomination has church buildings that were in the right locations in 1952 but not for today?"

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Churches Using Public School Buildings

A recent article in the Boston Review discusses "church planting" by evangelicals in Boston.  Church planting involves creating small, low-cost congregations, often using underused buildings.  A new approach is using public school buildings for church meetings, which can be rented at little-to-no cost.  Read the article.  Why is church planing an effective strategy?  What challenges, legal or otherwise, do these churches face?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pew Research Center Study on America's Changing Religious Landscape

The Pew Research Center has conducted a new survey on religion in America.  Their complete report is quite long, so you can just browse it.  But everyone should read the summary.

Here are some of the findings from the summary:
  • Christians have declined in overall percentage share and in absolute numbers.
  • Religious intermarriage is on the rise.
  • Switching religion is a common occurrence.
  • Evangelical Protestantism is the only major Christian group that has gained more members than lost via religious switching.
The overview chapter has some nice charts and tables showing changes from 2007 to 2014.
  • The Protestant and Catholic shares have both declined.
  • Orthodox Christian, Mormon, and Jehovah's Witnesses, and Jewish shares have remained steady.
  • Muslim and Hindu shares have both increased, yet the shares are quite low (each less than 1%).
  • Atheist and Agnostic have both increased.

Monday, May 4, 2015

USCIRF Annual Report 2015

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.  Press release here and full report (200+ pages pdf) here.  You will learn more about the USCIRF later in the quarter, but for now you should read the brief Introduction and Overview found in the full report.  You do not need to read the full report, but  you should browse it and pick a few countries to read about the types of religious freedom violations occurring around the world.

The USCIRF recommends that the following countries be redesignated as "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPCs) where severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated by the government:  Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

It also recommends the the following be added to the list of CPCs:  Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.

Still other countries are noted as ones with governments that engage in or tolerate violations of religious rights of individuals.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rajdeep Singh Podcast on Sikhism

The lastest Research on Religion Podcast is an interview with Rajdeep Singh about Sikhism and religious liberty.  Listen and enjoy .. and be sure to do the homework question.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Religious Themes in Star Wars

Read this article from the Washington Post about religious themes in Star Wars.  Written by a theology lecturer, the article identifies a number of religious images and concepts found in the popular sci-fi trilogy.  What are some of those religious themes?  To what extent did George Lucas intentionally insert religious themes into the trilogy?  Had you viewed them as religious before reading this article?  Does reading this article alter your appreciation of the films?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Cost of Being Jewish in America

The latest Research on Religion Podcast is an interview with economist Carmel Chiswick.  She discusses her book that uses economics to understand patterns in Judaism.  The entire podcast  is about an hour and very worthwhile, but everyone should especially listen to the last half.  The part beginning around the 29:40 mark is particularly relevant given our recent class discussion on church attendance.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Surf Chapel

In some circles, religion has the reputation of being old, dusty, and creaky, but in the American religious marketplace, we see lots of innovation.  One way to innovate is to take a long-known message but repackage it in an appealing way.  We see this Surf Chapel at Pepperdine University.  Students meet early in the morning at Zuma Beach to first listen to Bible passages, then break up into small groups for discussion about life events, and then hit the waves in their wet suits.  Read this L.A. Times article.

Why is this packaging appealing?  Who are the intended "customers?"  Why does the university provide funds to pay for beach permits and a lifeguard?  Why does attendance vary based on the weather?

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Future of the Religiously Unaffiliated

The Pew Research Center just released some new projections of the growth of the religiously unaffiliated.  Read their summary here.  The first two paragraphs give the basic picture (italics added):
During the next few decades, the number of religiously unaffiliated people around the world is projected to grow modestly, rising from about 1.1 billion in 2010 to a peak of more than 1.2 billion in 2040 and then dropping back slightly.42 Over the same 40-year period, however, the overall global population is expected to increase at a much faster pace. As a result, the percentage of the world’s population that is unaffiliated is expected to drop, from 16% of the world’s total population in 2010 to 13% in 2050.

This decline is largely due to the advanced age and low fertility of religiously unaffiliated people globally relative to other religious groups. The three largest unaffiliated populations live in China, Japan and the United States; there also are significant numbers of religiously unaffiliated people in many European countries. All of these areas have older populations and lower fertility rates than the global population overall.

Some questions for you to consider:  Why is the Asia-Pacific region the region with the highest proportion of religiously unaffiliated population?  In which few countries are the religiously unaffiliated are heavily concentrated?  How do different fertility rates between the religiously affiliated and the religiously unaffiliated factor into the projections?  Does accounting for religious switching have a large impact on the projections?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Pew Releases Latest Study of Religious Restrictions and Hostilities

According to a new study by the Pew Forum, social hostilities involving religion around the world declined during the past year, breaking a recent trend of increased hostilities.  The 86-page full report is found here.  But you can see a brief overview here.