Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nevada Court Says Humanism is Not a Religion

Earlier this week a Nevada federal district court ruled that Humanism does not qualify as a religion for the purpose of the Free Exercise or Establishment Clause (see here).  The main concern of the court was that if religion is defined as any symbol or belief to which an individual ascribes serious significance, then so many things will fall under that umbrella that virtually any action by the government could be seen as favoring one religion over another.  In other words, attributing special status to religion requires that religion be narrowly enough defined to prevent the second amendment from paralyzing the government.

It is unclear what the long-term effects of this ruling will be.  It does go against the long-run trend of including more and more systems of belief under the protections afforded to religion.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Europe's Growing Muslim Population

That's the title of a new report issued by the Pew Forum.  Europe has experienced large inflows of Muslims and the growth of the Muslim will continue.  The report considers different growth trajectories, one with no migration, one with medium migration, and one with high migration.  Because the Muslims in Europe have higher fertility rates than non-Muslims, high growth is expected no matter the scenario.  Full pdf here.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Church-state Relationships Around the World

The Pew Forum has released a report on church-state relationships around the world.  The complete report is here.  The report is nicely conceived and has several useful graphics and appendices.

They partition nations into four categories:  (i) those with official state religions, (ii) those with a preferred or favored religion, (iii) those with no official or preferred religion, and (iv) those that are hostile to religion, with the distribution of countries in these categories being 22%, 20%, 53%, and 5%, respectively.

Countries from the Middle East and North Africa are common in category (i), with Islam the most common official state religion in those countries.  European countries are prominent in category (ii), with Christianity the most common favored religion.

This is a nice resource for researchers and students alike.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Impact of ATMs on Churches

James Hudnet-Beumler, Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University, wrote an article at Real Clear Religion that describes how ATMs impacted church fundraising in the U.S.  Here is an extended quote:

There are two interesting dimensions of this appearance of ATMs and churches to consider. One is the strong affinity between cash and conservative evangelicals. For many evangelicals debt is a form of bondage – a message conveyed through conservative radio financial guru Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University to tens of millions of his followers on AM radio each week in his call-in programs. Ramsey teaches how to “dump debt, budget, build wealth and give like never before!” The building of wealth is a corollary to eschewing debt and it makes Christians free, in Ramsey’s view to be godly. 
The point is, money isn’t just a fungible means to various ends, it is sacred to these believers.
The second dimension for consideration in the appearance of ATMs in the lobbies of evangelical churches is that they signaled something by their very presence: America was in fact becoming a cashless society. The debit card that people carried in their wallet could be just as good as cash anywhere else, but in the sanctuary, cash was the appropriate offering.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

500th Anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 Theses

Martin Luther penned his 95 theses five hundred years ago--though there's actually no contemporary historical evidence that he nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  The Research on Religion podcast has another episode on Luther and his 95 theses, this one on Luther's historical setting and impact with Emily Fisher Gray.  The Pew Forum also has done a survey of American Protestantism 500 years after Luther.  The results suggest that Protestants are still fairly split on various ideas including the role of works and the role of the Bible, see here and here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Religious Digital Currencies

BitCoen is set to launch next month as the first ever international Jewish currency.  A Buddhist currency, Karma Tokens, is also in the works.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

How Much do Catholic Priests Make?

According to a new national study, the median total taxable income for Catholic priests in the U.S. is $45,593.  This amount has risen about 9% during over the last two decades.  The taxable income includes salary, housing allowances, Mass stipends, stole fees, and bonuses.

Interestingly, this average taxable income is much less than $75,355 median income for full-time Episcopal priests, though of course the component parts of Episcopal priests' income differ from those of Catholic priests.  Episcopal priests can be married, but Catholic priests are unmarried except for rare cases of when a married priest from another denomination switches to Catholicism.

See more details here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why New Religious Movements Fail

There is a very accessibly and nicely written article in the Atlantic on the difficulties faced by new religious movements.  Here are some excerpts.
State persecution, aided by religious authorities, is in fact a major reason why new faiths fail in parts of the world where government polices religious doctrine. . .
[P]erhaps the biggest reason that new faiths like Scientology, Raƫlism or Millah Abraham have failed to take off is the lack of state sponsorship. . .
Today, though, it is difficult to imagine that any new faith movement will get the boost of having a powerful state patronize the religion and fund its spread. In large part that’s because global norms have changed and—with the exception of a country like Saudi Arabia—few powerful states see it as their role to sponsor any faith, let alone a new faith. It’s also because there’s much less conquest today, meaning it would be unlikely that even a powerful country that adopted a new faith would be able to spread it by force.
The state and religious regulations are prominent in the article.  The article actually begins with the ongoing account of a new religious movement in Indonesia that is facing stiff persecution as it attempts to grow and thrive.  So religious regulations can stamp out new religious movements that might otherwise grow into new religious traditions.  Ironically, however, the state also has played a role in fostering that transition into a religious tradition.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Church of CrossFit seen through the eyes of a pastor.  See here for the write-up.  Some quotes from the article:
While The New York Times has interpreted CrossFit’s desire to prepare its athletes for the “unknowable” as some kind of warped preparation for Armageddon, I see its goal more charitably. Life is filled with unknowns. Any activity that helps prepare us for those unknowns, either physically or psychologically, can be good. Even the risk and extreme physical exertion that CrossFit is so often castigated for can be good. How else do you become a more capable person apart from pushing yourself; even if it hurts? And who of us hasn’t grown through past painful experiences? 
Perhaps this is why CrossFit has attracted so many souls; people inherently know that in order to find more life you’ve got to give something up. 
Watching CrossFit athletes that day, I was struck by how their modus operandi was very much like mine; as a spiritual leader and pastor, only they seemed to be doing it better. Their community was strong, real and filled with encouragement and openness; I saw a 15-year-old young woman tossing a medicine ball back and forth with a 62-year-old man. At the end of the workout there was applause and high-fives all around. These people really cared for each other … often in the most trying physiological circumstances.
So is CrossFit a religion?  Is it a substitute for religion?  A complement?  Something else entirely?

Change in Clothing for Anglican Priests

As reported at Religion News Service here:
After centuries of wearing flowing robes, cassocks and other vestments, Anglican priests can finally dress down.
Under canon law, clergy have to wear traditional robes when holding Communion services, baptisms, weddings or funerals. But following a vote this week at a gathering in York of the General Synod, the Church of England’s ruling body, Anglican priests can now wear lay garments such as a suit instead, so long as their parochial church council agrees.
The reasons given for the change included a more informal outlook in British society as a whole, but there is particular concern about young people being alienated by ornate accoutrements.
The reasons stated in the article are interesting, i.e., this change is an explicit attempt to change with the times and appeal more to younger people.  In other words, the church is intentionally adapting to face changing social conditions.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Aftermath of the Russian Supreme Court Ruling on Jehovah's Witnesses

The aftermath of the recent Russian Supreme Court ruling on the Jehovah's Witnesses (mentioned earlier on the blog here) is beginning.  There have been several reports of increased persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, including -- as reported here -- children as targets.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have themselves released a document that lists abuses since the ban (here).  Some of the events include police raids on in-home private religious gatherings, arson, and loss of jobs.

We would classify these developments as increases in government regulation, social regulation, and religious violence.  They demonstrate how a change in government rules go beyond the strict confines of the new laws but can also lead to other increased tensions with society.  The new laws have created an environment where educational leaders and community members have the confidence that their own punishing of Jehovah's witnesses will not be punished.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Church of England Investment Returns

One advantage of being a large church with many members and congregations is that you can pool certain resources to leverage your scale of operations.  Such is the case for many large denominations that pool financial resources when making investments.  Many churches have endowment of funds that they invest and that earns a return each year.  Those return can then be used as additional income for the church.

The Church of England made news this week because its investment fund had huge returns during the 2016 year, incredibly earning more than 17%.  The £7.9 billion fund is managed by a church commission, and it's 2016 earnings more than doubled the earnings from 2015.  The investments are in global equities, private equity, residential property, and timberland, and the high return allowed the investment fund to contribute over £230 billion towards church operations and activities, a robust 15% of the church's income that year.

Of course, discussion of money of this scale often raises other questions and even controversy.  As a reward for a job well done, the Church of England gave out very large yearly bonuses to a small number of fund managers.  Critics claimed that these large bonuses are hypocritical and not in line with what should be church priorities, while Church leaders claim that good fund managers should be rewarded to prevent them from leaving.  What do you think?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reforming the U.S. Tax Code on Religious Giving

Congress and the Trump Administration have proposed a number of significant changes to American tax policy.  The effects of these new policies on religious giving is now being reported in a new study by personnel of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.  Read the summary here (mandatory).  The full report is too long to read in detail but can be found here.

The finding can be summarized as follows:
  • The combination of lowering the top tax rate and raising the standard deduction will reduce donations by about $13.1 billion.
  • The reduction can be offset by adding a non-itemizer deduction.
To understand what this means, you must first understand what are deductions and what it means to itemize.  Consider a taxpayer that donates $C total to various charitable organizations (including churches).  When calculating how much to pay in taxes, the taxpayer decides whether to use $C for the amount to deduce from her taxes or whether to use another amount $S which is called the standard deduction.

For those persons that donate a lot, including many that donate large amounts to churches, C is greater than S.  To deduct $C, they must give an item-by-item account of all the donations that added to $C when filing their taxes, and so they are called itemizers.  The person that uses S does not need to provide the item-by-item accounting, so that person is called a non-itemizer.  Currently, only itemizers are able to deduct their actual charitable giving.  Non-itemizers can still give to charity, but they just cannot deduct it from their taxes.

Notice that if you are an itemizer, then every additional dollar you give increases the amount you can deduct.  That is, the additional dollar you donate costs you less than a dollar because you get some of it back in the form of lower taxes.  However, if you are a non-itemizer, then every additional dollar costs you a full dollar because you are just using the standard deduction of $S.  So giving the extra dollar costs more to the non-itemizer than it does to the itemizer.

If the standard deduction amount S is increased, then more people will find themselves in the position where the additional dollar donated costs the full dollar instead of less than a dollar.  This in turn will lead to several people reducing the amounts they donate.  It might not sound like a big deal, but when millions of people each donate a little bit less, it can add up to billions of dollars -- $13.1 billion in the example the study provides.

One way to counter the drop in donations is to allow non-itemizers to deduct their charitable donations in addition to using the standard deduction.  In fact, the drop in donations from raising S can be fully offset if non-itemizers are allowed to deduct their donations.

There is no consensus on what is best.  Some people think that the deductions are good because they think religion creates many positive externalities.  Some people think that the deductions are bad because they essentially allow people to shift money that could go the government and into their own individually-preferred activities.  There are still other opinions.  What do you think?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Religion in Central and Eastern Europe

The Pew Research Center has released a lengthy report on religion in central and eastern Europe.  The report is much too long to require students in the class to read.  However, everyone should skim the overview page here.

Here are a few things that caught my eye.  First, religion is strong again despite decades of official atheism under communism.  Second, state-affiliated religious groups remain the most prominent groups in those countries.  Third, religiosity in central and eastern Europe appears can be described as "believing and belonging without behaving."  This last pattern is quite different from "believing without belonging" in western Europe and "behaving without believing or belonging" in east Asia.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The U.S. Military's Definition of Religion is Expanding

As stated in class, how we define religion is not merely an arcane academic matter;  it has real consequences for people's behavior and well-being.  This announcement reported by the Religion News Service provides a nice case in point.
The Department of Defense announced a near doubling of its list of recognized religions. It will now formally recognize humanism and other minority faiths among members of the armed forces.
The move, which came at the end of March but was made public this week, means servicemen and women who are adherents of small faith groups are now guaranteed the same rights, privileges and protections granted to their peers who are members of larger faith groups.
The move was lauded by humanist organizations, which have been pushing for full recognition, including their own chaplains, for 10 years.
Supports applaud the move as it extends benefits to people previously prevented from those benefits, but critics argue that the definition of religion is too broad.  Is secular humanism a religion?  Well, it depends on your definition, and the military is now using a broader definition than before.

Also of interest is that the military is now allowing soldiers to choose from a much wider selection of options when reporting their religious affiliation.  So when will they allow someone to choose more than one option...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Russian Supreme Court Ruling on Jehovah's Witnesses

Remember the recent post from a couple week ago (here).  Well, the Russian Supreme Court has just ruled that the Jehovah's Witnesses are an extremist group that must hand over all of its property to the state.  See a short article here.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which you will learn about later in this course, has issued a statement condemning the decision (here).  The chair of the commission calls it "harassment."  The USCIRF notes that the Russian law in question enables Russia to label groups as extremist even when those groups do not advocate or engage in violence.

What do you expect will happen to Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia?  How might this ruling affect other religious groups?  Will it hurt or hinder their success?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pew Research Center Report on Global Restrictions on Religion

Earlier today, the Pew Research Center released a special report on global restrictions on religion around the world.  The Pew Research Center is a non-partisan organization that conducts public opinion polling and demographic research around the world.

The entire report (pdf here) is about 80 pages, so it is too much to ask you to read all of it.  However, do read the summary page here (hint: that means reading the summary page is required for the class).

Let me point out a few things that stood out to me.

First, "Government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion increased in 2015 for the first time in three years, according to Pew Research Center’s latest annual study on global restrictions on religion."  We should expect slight upticks and downticks from year to year, so it is not the slight uptick that is so important but rather that there has been a more noticeable increase in religious restrictions and hostility over the last decade.

Second, "The global rise in social hostilities reflected a number of factors, including increases in mob violence related to religion, individuals being assaulted or displaced due to their faith, and incidents where violence was used to enforce religious norms."  The increases were around the world:  Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere.

Third, Europe had the largest increase in measures of government harassment of religious groups.  "Two countries in Europe, France and Russia, each had more than 200 cases of government force against religious groups – mostly cases of individuals being punished for violating the ban on face coverings in public spaces and government buildings in France, and groups being prosecuted in Russia for publicly exercising their religion."

Fourth, "Jews and Muslims remain victims of social hostilities in most European countries," and "Muslims and Christians – who together make up more than half of the global population – continued to be harassed in the highest number of countries."

These trends in global hostility of religion constitute one of the most important trends in religion today.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia

Last month the Russian Justice Ministry suspended the operations of Jehovah's Witnesses, claiming that their activities violate Russian laws meant to combat extremism.  See the NY Times article here.  There are almost 200,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, so many people are affected by the action.  Various groups have criticized the move, including the USCIRF here (you will learn more about the USCIRF later this quarter).

Just yesterday, the Russian Supreme Court began hearings on the action by the Justice Ministry.  They will have to determine whether or not the suspension is constitutional.  Stay tuned to see the outcome.

These events in Russia illustrate the importance of the "rules of the game" discussed in our first lecture.  By changing the rules of the game for Jehovah's Witnesses, the success of that religious group is dramatically affected.  If they must cease operations, current adherents will lose religious support, and fewer people may be exposed--and possibly convert--to the group.  Moreover, if the suspension stands, then more religious groups could be targeted for similar sanctions.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Collective Production and Aging Women in the Church of England

This Christian Today article describes a serious issue in the Church of England.
The Church of England is facing a demographic time bomb as an entire generation of active lay women is starting to pass away, according to new research.
The research found that the unpaid work in cleaning, furnishing, catering, fundraising, and supporting midweek services by 70,000 older women effectively keeps the church from collapse.
There is no evidence that younger people are coming up to replace them.
In religious congregations that rely heavily on volunteers to contribute towards the production of services, there is an ever-present challenge to replace in the future those individuals that contribute a lot in the present.  We will discuss this particular challenge later in the course when discussing the free-rider problem.  Just what can a religious group do to solve this problem?  And what might have the religious group done incorrectly to put itself in this position?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pizza Competition and the Rabbinical Court

Two Orthodox Jewish pizza parlor owners in New York City have been engaged in a legal battle over fair business practices.  The catch is that the legal battle occurs in a rabbinical court rather than a city courthouse.

The second owner opened up a new pizza parlor close to the first's parlor, and the first saw the competition as against rabbinical teachings because it threatened the first's livelihood.  The second claimed that the style of pizza was sufficiently different so that there was not direct competition, but the first disagreed.  Read the article to find how the rabbinical court ruled.

Again we see how religion can appear in seemingly unexpected places.  In this case, it is a religious court that is settling a matter of contention.  Religious courts like the rabbinical court provide a non-violent and less-expensive way to peacefully resolve disputes, and city and state courts often respect their rulings.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Selling Judaism, Religion Not Included

That's the title of this fun piece on  There is too much to comment on about this article that it is hard to even begin.  So I will just make one comment:  this article nicely describes the fuzzy boundaries between religion and non-religion.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Little More Church-state Separation for the Church of Norway

The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Norway, which has been Norway's official state church, has cut one -- but not all -- ties to the state.  The national constitution now refers to it as the "national church" rather than the "state's public religion."  Yet the key change is that the state will no longer appoint clergy for the church.

However, many other church-state ties remain in place, e.g., clergy are still considered civil servants, and the state will still fund the church.  So this change is not an overly dramatic one.  The state will still have a lot of influence in the church by being its primary source of funds.  See this short article here.