Friday, December 30, 2016

Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016

On December 16, 2016, President Obama signed into law a new version of the International Religious Freedom Act from 1998.  The older law established the USCIRF, a government commission we will learn about in class, in an effort to protect religious freedom.  The interesting thing about this new version of the law is that it explicitly accords the same protection to atheists and other non-religious persons.  The new law can be found here.  An RNS article can be found here.

That the new language has been included is not surprising if you have been following trends in religion and church-state relations.  In fact, the new language reflects two larger trends that have been going on for some time in the U.S.  First, there is growing acceptance of atheists and non-religious persons more generally in the U.S.  Though still a small percentage of Americans, their numbers are growing and with lots of public attention.  Second, for some time legal rulings have used functional rather than substantive definitions of religion.  It is not a belief in god or gods that has merited legal protections but rather any sort of belief system that a person claims, even if that belief system is explicitly atheistic.

What will be interesting is to see how this change in the law is reflected in future USCIRF annual reports on religious freedom around the world.  Will future reports give increased attention to persecution of atheists?

UK Commission Rules Jediism not a Religious Charity

The Charity Commission for England and Wales officially ruled earlier this month that Jediism is not a religious charity.  The official report can be found here, and this article provides a useful summary.  The difficult path for acceptance for Jediism goes back years (see this earlier post from 2011), and this ruling gives a sense of finality to the matter... at least temporarily until more efforts are made for wider acceptance of Jediism.

The Commission is tasked with identifying which organizations be given official charity status.  Despite the headlines for some news articles, this ruling does not declare that Jediism is not a religion.  It instead ruled that the particular group that applied for recognition as a religious charity -- the Temple of the Jedi Order -- does not merit that recognition because they determined that the group was not organized for "exclusively charitable purposes for the advancement of religion and/or the promotion of moral and ethical improvement for the benefit of the public."  Those that associate themselves with this group may consider their beliefs and practices to be religion, but they will not receive the legal benefits accorded to other recognized religious groups in the U.K.

Although the origins of Jediism in the U.K. are actually tied to a joke answer given on the government census, this latest event illustrates the complexity of defining religion.  See the official report in particular.  Using case law as a guide, the Commission only considers a group to have religious status if it has a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion, and importance.  The report lays out how Jediism fails to meet this standard.  At one level, the report reflects common sense that ideas taken from a fictional movie should not be given the same status as those from historical religious figures.  Yet, the argument laid out in the report makes numerous suppositions of a very subjective nature.  For example, it gives credit to a similar New Zealand ruling that Jediism is a set of interconnected ideas rather than a structured coherent religion.  Exactly where is the line drawn between set of interconnected ideas and structured coherent religion?

This story is not over.  The British Jedis will continue the fight, and if they do so long enough I suspect they will get that recognition.  It always takes new groups time and effort to achieve recognition.  The Jedis just need to stick around long enough, act sufficiently like other religious groups (have meetings, be seen in public doing good deeds, codify their teachings, etc.) in the meantime, and they will then get the recognition they want.  Will they last that long, or is their future bleak and their peak limited to a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away?

Gallup's Five Key Findings on Religion in the U.S.

Gallup recently released a summary of key findings on religion in the U.S.  Below I list the five key findings word-for-word but without explanation;  for explanation see their site here.
  1. America remains largely a Christian nation, although less so than in the past.
  2. The trend away from formal religion continues.
  3. A majority still say religion is important in their eyes.
  4. Americans continue to say that religion is losing its influence in American society.
  5. Religion remains intertwined with political self-identification.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Probably No Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church

Just months ago Pope Francis said that the possibility of ordination of women in the Catholic Church should be investigated (see here).  But just yesterday he said that the issue was settled by Pope John Paul II in 1994.  According to this article:
Francis was referring to a 1994 document by Pope John Paul that closed the door on a female priesthood. The Vatican says this teaching is an infallible part of Catholic tradition. 
The reporter then pressed the pope, asking: “But forever, forever? Never, never? 
Francis responded: "If we read carefully the declaration by St. John Paul II, it is going in that direction."
Pope Francis's recent remarks were made while speaking in a somewhat informal news conference on a plane headed from Sweden to Rome, so they do not constitute a formal statement.  It was also not clear whether he has made the careful investigation that he proposed be done.  However, it does signal that he considers the matter mostly closed and so may be less likely to pursue the matter.  There is also the matter of women's roles in other forms of leadership (e.g., as deacons), but this was apparently not discussed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Increase in Percent of Americans Raised in Inter-faith Homes

The Pew Research Center has just released the results of a study on inter-faith homes here:

[T]he number of Americans raised in interfaith homes appears to be growing. Fully one-quarter of young adults in the Millennial generation (27%) say they were raised in a religiously mixed family. Fewer Generation Xers (20%), Baby Boomers (19%) and adults from the Silent and Greatest generations (13%) say they were raised in such a household.

A number of other findings are also reported, such as those from an inter-faith home are much more likely to adopt the mother's religious affiliation than the father's.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Income Distributions of Different US Denominations' Members

The Pew Research Center recently released the following graphic in this article.

The graph is generated using 2014 data, and it reports patterns that have been in place for quite some time.  Jewish and mainline Protestant denominations have the highest income profiles; they also have the highest education rates on average.  Stricter churches tend to be closer to the bottom.

Reducing the Frequency of Regular Worship Services in the Church of England

A committee tasked with identifying and recommending possible changes to make in the Church of England is considering a change in a church requirement on the regularity of church services.  A few facts provide the context.  First, there are official church policies requiring that certain worship services be held on certain days and times of the year (Canons B11 and B14), irrespective of how many people are in attendance.  Second, the Church of England has experienced tremendous decline in attendance during the last decades.  Third, in many rural areas these worship services are held even when only one or two people are in attendance.  This results in an inefficient allocation of church resources because a lot of resources are required to produce those worship services.  Relaxing the requirement would allow parishes to adapt their worship services to the local conditions.  This article summarizes the situation.

Enabling the parishes to better adapt to local conditions sounds like a perfectly reasonable change to make.  It frees up clergy and church resources for other ministering activities.  However, what those other activities should be is less clear.  The Church of England's long-run decline will not be stopped by this change, and holding fewer services does not seem like a spark that will ignite growth.

Perhaps the Church of England can learn from other denominations that consolidate congregations when membership shrinks in an area.  For example, parishes could be closed or combined, e.g., combining two small, struggling parishes into one larger, thriving one.  The Church of England is congregationally based, so having thriving congregations will be the key to success because it is in the congregations that most religious production and consumption occurs.

This story also highlights a tension that can exist between congregation and denomination.  The denomination's policies require the congregations to undertake certain very costly activities that yield relatively low value due to the poor attendance.  Relaxing denomination policies to grant more autonomy to the parishes would allow the parishes better latitude in adapting their activities.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

USCIRF 2016 Annual Report

The USCIRF recently released its 2016 Annual Report on religious freedom.  Find the full report here in pdf format.  The overview in pdf can be found here.  See here for a page with links to other parts of the report.

The USCIRF recommends that nine countries be redesignated as countries of particular concern: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  It also recommends that eight other countries be designated as CPCs:  Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.  Ten other countries have been identified as having serious violations of religious freedom, though not to the point of deserving the CPC designation:  Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.

Choosing a New Place to Worship

The Pew Forum recently reported survey results from asking Americans about the factors that influence a change in place of worship.  See the overview here.  Not surprisingly, moving residences figures prominently in why people change the place of worship.

But when searching, the most commonly cited factor in choosing the new place of worship is quality of service.  Style of service is the third most cited factor.  Both of these relate to what we in our class call the ideal strictness of the individual.  Having friends or family in the congregation is also important, which matches the notion of religious capital.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Is Installing Solar Panels a Form of Religious Activity?

A Unitarian Universalist Church in Bedford, Massachusetts is claiming that it is, see here.  Because their church building, which was built in 1817, is located within the town's historic district, it is subject to certain construction regulations.  The town's Historic District Commission denied the church's request to install solar panels, presumably because it would negatively affect the historic look of the building.  The church has now sued the Commission claiming that denying their request violates the free exercise of their religion.  They claim that their members have a religious calling to undertake energy-conscious activities.

How courts have ruled in such matters has shifted over the decades, and it is unclear what will happen here.  One issue that could be relevant is the degree to which installing solar panels can be depicted as something that is tied to fundamental tenets of the church.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Age Profiles of Different U.S.Church Memberships

The Pew Research Center has a short article on the age profiles of different U.S. churches.  Mainline churches tend to have the older memberships, while Muslim and the religious "nones" tend to be the youngest.  Keep in mind that the ranking may change over time depending fertility rates.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Religious Accommodations

This week's Research on Religion Podcast discusses religious accommodations to laws.  Mark David discusses the history of such accommodations, including accommodations to not fight in war, not go to school, and not say the pledge of allegiance.  This is an excellent introduction to one aspect of church-state relations.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Pascal's Wager

Last week's Research on Religion podcast has an interview with philosopher Michael Rota on Taking Pascal's Wager.  He tackles the rationality of choosing a religious life, including the philosophical challenges to choosing a religious life.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Quakerism's Future and Kenya

Kenya currently has one-third of the world's Quakers, and their share is increasing as the number of Quakers in the west continues to decline.  This article discusses the success of Quakerism in Kenya.  Interestingly, the author links the success of Quakerism in Kenya to innovations in worship.  Quakers in the west are known for low-key religious meetings that are dominated by long periods of meditation.  Kenyan Quakers, however, have incorporated many of the exciting features of innovative Christianity, such as musical bands, dancing, and lots of exuberance.

Two lessons stand out.  Firsts, the low-key Quakerism, though preferred by some, is not the most successful in the religious marketplace.  Second, when a religious group adapts, it can thrive.

Some critics may argue that this exuberant form of Kenyan Quakerism is not real Quakerism, but I think this is a matter of perspective.  What seems true from the historical record is that religious groups that do not adapt eventually die out.  If real Quakerism is dying, then perhaps this young upstart is its best chance for any form of Quakerism to continue to be relevant in the world.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Possible Ordination of Women as Catholic Deacons

This is a big story out of the Vatican:  Pope Francis will consider allowing women be ordained deacons.  Read about it here.

A few details:
  •  Current policy allows only men to be ordained deacons.
  • The Bible speaks of female deacons, so this change would not be without scriptural precedent.
  • A commission will examine the matter, but their conclusion is difficult to predict.  It is just as possible for them to reconfirm the current policy as change it.
The change, should it happen, comes when there is ever-worsening shortage of priests in the Catholic Church.  More and more responsibilities have shifted from priests to other clergy such as deacons.  This policy change would help alleviate this shortage not by increasing the number of priests but by increasing the number of non-priest clergy to help shoulder the load.

Monday, May 2, 2016

USCIRF 2016 Annual Report

The USCIRF has published online its 2016 annual report.  The full pdf is here.

The USCIRF recommends that the following countries be redesignated as "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPCs):  Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The USCIRF also recommends that the following should now be designated as CPCs:  Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.

A number of other countries and regions experienced serious religious freedom violations:  Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, the Horn of Africa, and Western Europe.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Michael McConnell RonR Podcast on Church Property Disputes

The role of the courts in settling church property disputes is the topic of the most recent Research on Religion podcast.  Michael McConnell discusses how courts have based court rulings in the distant and more recent past.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pew Study on Religious in Everyday Life

The Pew Research Center has released a report on a new study on religion and Americans' lives.  The overview is here, and the complete report in pdf is here.

Several findings are reported.  For example, religious adults report higher levels of happiness, volunteer and donate more money, time, and goods to the poor.  Higher religious persons do differ very much from other Americans when it comes to losing their tempers, being satisfied with their health, and recycling.

Many other findings are also reported, and the overview cited above provides a nice review.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pew Study on the Gender Gap in Religion

The Pew Research Center has just published on its website a 100+ page report titled "The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World."  You can download the complete report in pdf here and also view the overview here.

Some of the findings include:
  1. In general around the world, women are more likely than men to affiliate with a religion.  Around the world, 83.4% of women report religious affiliation, while 79.9% of men report affiliation.  There are no countries in which men are more religiously affiliated than women.
  2. Gender differences in worship attendance vary across religious groups.  Among Christians, women attend more often, but men attend more often among Muslims and Orthodox Jews.
  3. In general, women report praying daily at higher rates than men.  Only in Israel does a higher proportion of men than women report praying daily.
  4. Religion is equally or more important to women than men in most countries.  Only in Israel and Mozambique do men report higher rates of religion being important.
  5. Women and men about equally likely to believe in heaven, hell, and angels.  There are some differences across countries.
  6. The gender gap is wide in the United States, and it is wider in the U.S. than in Canada and the U.K.  Religiosity is also higher on average for both men and women in the U.S. than in Canada and the U.K.
  7. The gender gap in religion appears to be correlated with labor force participation.  Women that work report lower levels of religiosity than women that do not work, and the gender gap is smaller in countries where the labor force participation gap between men and women is also smaller.
  8. However, even after controlling for labor force participation, there is still a gender gap.  Combining this point with point 7 above lends support to the conclusion that the gender gap in religion is due to both "nature" and "nurture."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Blue Laws for Alcohol in Minnesota

A guest post from TA Cody Nehiba:

Blue laws restrict various activities on certain days of the week.  Generally, they restrict secular activities on a particular religions day of worship.  As previously discussed in sections, Minnesota is one of twelve states that restrict the sale of alcohol on Sundays.  This ban on Sunday sales attempts to reduce the value of secular activities, and increase the number of people attending churches on Sunday.  Many in Minnesota want these blue laws to be repealed, but they're finding the strongest supporters of the law aren't religious leaders, they're actually liquor store owners.  These business owners believe if they are open seven days a week they will end up losing money as the demand for alcohol would remain relatively unchanged.    See this article from 2014.

Do you think that blue laws should be repealed?  They may have been created with favoritism towards a particular religion in mind, but they have actually helped some secular businesses.

Do you think these blue laws increase church attendance in Minnesota? 

Note that the article is a couple years old.  A law was more recently passed in MN that partially repealed the ban on Sunday alcohol sales.  Craft breweries are now allowed to sell "Growlers" on Sundays.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Economics of Celibate Catholic Priesthood

With few exceptions, Catholic priests are to live (unmarried) celibate lives, however Pope Francis is interested in changing this policy.  See this article here.  Although this celibacy restriction has been enforced for over a thousand years, he considers it not a part of official church doctrine.

We can consider this policy from an economics perspective, i.e., we can consider how the policy affects the decisions made by clergy and non-clergy.  Indeed, there are many dimensions to this policy that influence the effectiveness of clergy and the operations of the Catholic Church.  Here are a few.

1.  Opportunity cost of time.  Being a good spouse and parent requires time and energy, thus increasing the opportunity cost of other activities.  A priest without such family obligations thus has a lower opportunity cost of devoting more time and attention to religious responsibilities.  The celibacy restriction thus enables the priest to carry out more and a larger number of clergy responsibilities in the service of church members.

Conclusion:  good for the church.

2.  Screening into the priesthood.  Because having a family is highly desirable for many people, the celibacy restriction imposes a high cost for priests, thus acting as a screening mechanism into the priesthood.  Only those who are exceptionally committed a life of priestly service are likely to be willing to voluntarily accept the restriction.  The restriction should thus lead to relatively more committed clergy than otherwise as less committed persons would not enter the priesthood.  Presumably, having highly committed clergy is good for the church.

However, there are many men who might be quite effective priests as well as effective husbands and fathers.  These men will not be allowed to be priests, and their services will be missed.  While the commitment of the those that enter the priesthood will be high, there are some with high commitment who also tremendously value the experience of family life that will not enter the priesthood.  If being an effective priest depends not just on commitment but on having other character traits that might be correlated with a desire to have a family (e.g., compassion, trust, etc.), then many men who would excellent priests--even better than the average actual priest--might never become priests.

The above discussion clearly applies to heterosexual men considering the priesthood, but it is more complicated for gay men.  Because gay marriage has not been a legal option until only until recently (and only in some parts of the world), the cost of the celibacy restriction would have been relatively lower for gays considering the priesthood than for straights considering the priesthood because the value of heterosexual marriage was lower for them.  This suggests that the proportion of men choosing the priesthood that are gay might be higher than the proportion of gay men in the rest of the population.  Data on this matter are difficult to obtain, but some people have claimed this to be true.  If you think having gay clergy is bad given the church's opposition to homosexuality, then differential screening on sexual preferences would be bad.  However, you might instead believe that the priesthood may be a noble lifestyle for religiously committed gay men who seek to abide the church's teachings against homosexuality while still making a contribution in their religious communities.

Conclusion:  unclear, opinions may differ.

3.  Priestly human capital.  As stated in #1 above, unmarried priests will devote more time to clergy responsibilities, and they can also develop more time developing the skills and talents that would enable them to be effective clergy.  For example, they can develop more scriptural knowledge, spend more time on directed learning for effective pastoral care, and so on.  This is true for many years after they first became priests.  However, it is also reasonable to suppose that marriage and parenting provide experiences and the development of other character traits that can make clergy more effective.  If some of these are only obtainable via the intense social relationships found inside families, then unmarried priests will have diminished capabilities relative to married priests because the unmarried priests will not develop those traits that could have only been developed within family settings.

Conclusion;  unclear.

4.  Credible signals of commitment.  As stated in #2 above, celibacy is extremely costly for many men.  Moreover, this cost is publicly known because the celibacy restriction is publicly known.  Those that enter the priesthood are, by their decision, sending a public signal to others that their commitment is very high.  This public signal enhances the credibility of priests because church members can be confident in the priests' commitment. Church members may be more inclined to trust priests when they are confident in their priests' commitment.  This may lead them to participate more at church or be more willing to engage their local priests.

Conclusion:  good.

As we should expect from an economic perspective, the celibacy restriction is neither unambiguously good nor unambiguously bad.  Even if the policy is considered by the church to be more good than bad overall, it is a policy that still comes with a cost.

Notice as well that the costs and benefits of the celibacy policy change over time.  For example, the ability for gay men to legally marry will raise the cost of entering the priesthood for religiously committed gay men, which should decrease the proportion of gay men that enter the priesthood.  Of course, celibacy is costly for all men, and it might not be surprising to learn that the Catholic church has experienced a decline in the number of priests over the last many decades despite growth in the number of Catholics. The church has adapted by having an increasing amount of ecclesiastical duties undertaken by deacons and other lay ministers that can be married.  Whether Pope Francis will remove or modify the policy is yet to be determined, but if he does we may reasonably infer that he does so because he believes the costs of the policy have become too high.

Religious Views on High School Athletic Uniforms

Religion appears in many places, including government and the courts.  Legislation in the state of Georgia provides an interesting example--see here.  High school athletes are typically not allowed to personalize their uniforms, however, should they be allowed to do so, a new bill under consideration by the state legislature would ensure that students would not be discriminated against for personalizing their uniforms in religious ways.  We see how religion and religious expression is not allowed without any type of constraint.  Religious persons and groups frequently use legal means to assert rights or deny the rights of others.  Much of this occurs without a lot of media attention, but it nonetheless is out there and impacts the way people live their religious lives.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Pope's Twitter Account Revisited

Back in December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI was the first pope to open a Twitter account.  See my original post on this here.

Pope Francis, not to be outdone, also created a Twitter account.  Take a look at it here;  scroll down and look at his last posts of the last few months.  What do you notice?  Why would Pope Francis take the time out of his busy schedule to maintain an active Twitter account?  Can you use our economic approach to religion to think meaningfully about the pope's Twitter usage?  Does the notion of religious capital provide any insight?

(OK, it is possible that one of the pope's assistants does the actual posting with some input from the pope, but let us just assume that the pope is actually choosing the content).

Is Belief in the Supernatural Natural?

Evolutionary biologist/political scientist Dominic Johnson argues that the answer is yes, as explained in this article in the New Statesman.
Johnson believes that the need to find a more-than-natural meaning in natural events is universal – “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” – and performs a vital role in maintaining order in society. Extending far beyond cultures shaped by monotheism, it “spans cultures across the globe and every historical period, from indigenous tribal societies . . . to modern world religions – and includes atheists, too”.
[S]ome kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.
Johnson is not the first but rather just the latest to make this argument.  Read the article to understand how belief in the supernatural may provide evolutionary advantages.  The argument is interesting in its own right, but it is also relevant to our class discussion on secularization later in the quarter.  If belief in the supernatural is, well, natural, then perhaps there will be limits to the secularization that has been predicted for centuries.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Exorcising Computer Virus

That is one of the services offered by Wiccan witch Joey Talley.  Read this article at the Worldwide Religious News site to learn of her techniques.  Here is an excerpt from the article.
"When I go into the room where somebody’s computer is, I go in fresh, I step in like a fresh sheet, and I’m open to feel what’s going on with the computer."
Then I performed a vanishing ceremony. I used a black bowl with a magnet and water to draw [the virus] out. Then I saged the whole computer to chase the negativity back into the bowl, and then I flushed that down the toilet. After this I did a purification ceremony. Then I made a protection spell out of chloride, amethyst, and jet. I left these on the computer at the base where she works.
Did the virus clear out immediately once you were finished?
Yes, it cleared out immediately. They usually do.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Dowsing for Gold

Here is a scene from the reality show Bearing Sea Gold on the Discovery channel in which one of the characters in the show dowses to find gold.  Dowsing is done to find water, gold or other minerals, and more.  In this video the person use two metal rods.

A few things stand out.  First, deckhand Robbi Wade said, "People might think I'm crazy for doing this, but it don't bother me one way or another if they think I'm crazy or not as long as I get some gold."  He also said "I believe in it."  This is a rational chooser who is clearly results oriented.

Second, he also gave an explanation that it works via magnetism but did not provide much more details.  He does not believe it is working through the power of a supernatural being, so it is not religion according to Stark and Finke's definition in Acts of Faith.  Stark and Finke might call it magic, but his reference to magnetism suggests that he thinks dowsing works via natural rather than supernatural means.  It is not clear that the supernatural term applies very well here.

Third, that there is clear Christian imagery (a Christian cross at minute 3:03) on the ship suggests that they have no problem mixing religion with the practice of dowsing.  This may not be surprising given that they seem to view dowsing as working through natural means.  It is just a means of finding gold that they believe works for them.  It is also relatively inexpensive as you just need the two metal rods and some practice.  They do it themselves rather than hiring a professional dowser.  In their minds it is merely a cost-effect way to find the gold.

And in case you were wondering, yes, you can hire dowsers.  Maybe someone from the American Society of Dowsers.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bible and Brew in Minneapolis

That's the title of one of the regular monthly events hosted at the home of Nicholas and Kristin Tangen, members of the Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in northeast Minneapolis.  See this article or this new link.  The event brings together those that enjoy discussing the Bible while having a beer.  There are many such events around the Minneapolis-St.Paul area, each targeting a specific group.

Questions for you to consider:
  • Why are these gatherings organized?
  • What are the kinds of economic good that are produced at these gatherings?
  • Who are the likely attendees at these gatherings?
  • How integral is beer to these gatherings?
  • Why might it be appropriate to call these "religious" gatherings?