Category Archive for: Religion [Return to Main]

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"The Difference Between Private and Public Morality"

I don't have Robert Reich's flair as a writer, but this is exactly what I was trying to say in "The Real Moral Problem" which was written in response to a column from David Brooks about the supposed moral decay in the middle class:

The Difference Between Private and Public Morality, by Robert Reich: Republicans have morality upside down. Santorum, Gingrich, and even Romney are barnstorming across the land condemning gay marriage, abortion, out-of-wedlock births, and access to contraception, and the wall separating church and state.
But America’s problem isn’t a breakdown in private morality. It’s a breakdown in public morality. What Americans do in their bedrooms is their own business. What corporate executives and Wall Street financiers do in boardrooms and executive suites affects all of us.
There is moral rot in America but it’s not found in the private behavior of ordinary people. It’s located in the public behavior of people who control our economy and are turning our democracy into a financial slush pump. It’s found in Wall Street fraud, exorbitant pay of top executives, financial conflicts of interest, insider trading, and the outright bribery of public officials through unlimited campaign “donations.” ...
Americans are entitled to their own religious views about gay marriage, contraception, out-of-wedlock births, abortion, and God. We can be truly free only if we’re confident we can go about our private lives without being monitored or intruded upon by government, and can practice whatever faith (or lack of faith) we wish regardless of the religious beliefs of others. A society where one set of religious views is imposed on a large number of citizens who disagree with them is not a democracy. It’s a theocracy.
But abuses of public trust such as we’ve witnessed for years on the Street and in the executive suites of our largest corporations are not matters of private morality. They undermine the integrity of our economy and democracy. They’ve led millions of Americans to conclude the game is rigged. ...
An economy is built on a foundation of shared morality. Adam Smith never called himself an economist. The separate field of economics didn’t exist in the eighteenth century. He called himself a moral philosopher. And the book he was proudest of wasn’t “The Wealth of Nations,” but his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” – about the ties that bind people together into societies.
Twice before progressive have saved capitalism from its own excesses by appealing to public morality and common sense. First in the early 1900s, when the captains for American industry had monopolized the economy into giant trusts, American politics had sunk into a swamp of patronage and corruption, and many factory jobs were unsafe – entailing long hours of work at meager pay and often exploiting children. In response, we enacted antitrust, civil service reforms, and labor protections.
And then again in 1930s after the stock market collapsed and a large portion of American workforce was unemployed. Then we regulated banks and insured deposits, cleaned up stock market, and provided social insurance to the destitute.
We must do so again.

I put it this way just before the Occupy Wall Street protests broke out:

... Many of the policies enacted during and after the Great Depression not only addressed economic problems but also directly or indirectly reduced the ability of special interests to capture the political process. Some of the change was due to the effects of the Depression itself, but polices that imposed regulations on the financial sector, broke up monopolies, reduced inequality through highly progressive taxes, and accorded new powers to unions were important factors in shifting the balance of power toward the typical household.
But since the 1970s many of these changes have been reversed. Inequality has reverted to levels unseen since the Gilded Age, financial regulation has waned, monopoly power has increased, union power has been lost, and much of the disgust with the political process revolves around the feeling that politicians are out of touch with the interests of the working class.
We need a serious discussion of this issue, followed by changes that shift political power toward the working class. But who will start the conversation? Congress has no interest in doing so; things are quite lucrative as they are. Unions used to have a voice, but they have been all but eliminated as a political force. The press could serve as the gatekeeper, but too many news outlets are controlled by the very interests that the press needs to confront. Presidential leadership could make a difference, but this president does not seem inclined to take a strong stand on behalf of the working class despite the surprising boldness of his job-creation speech.
Another option is that the working class will say enough is enough and demand change. There was a time when I would have scoffed at the idea of a mass revolt against entrenched political interests and the incivility that comes with it. We aren’t there yet – there’s still time for change – but the signs of unrest are growing, and if we continue along a two-tiered path that ignores the needs of such a large proportion of society, it can no longer be ruled out.

Despite the fact that things are calmer now in terms of OWS and other visible signs of protest, and the fact that the outlook for the economy is improving, the underlying tensions are still there, and still building. If recovery means a whole bunch of people with worse jobs than before, reduced social protection in the name of deficit reduction, and a continuation of the trend toward an increasingly two-tiered society, the dissatisfaction won't end.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Less Educated Americans Turning Their Backs on Religion"

This is not what I would have predicted:

Less educated Americans turning their backs on religion, EurekAlert: While religious service attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for those without college degrees compared to those who graduated from college...
"Our study suggests that the less educated are dropping out of the American religious sector, similarly to the way in which they have dropped out of the American labor market," said lead researcher W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.
The study focuses on whites because black and Latino religiosity is less divided by education and income. Most whites who report a religious affiliation are Catholics, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Mormons, or Jews. ...
In the 1970s, among those aged 25-44, 51 percent of college-educated whites attended religious services monthly or more, compared to 50 percent of moderately educated whites, and 38 percent of the least educated whites. In the 2000s, among those aged 25-44, 46 percent of college-educated whites attended monthly or more, compared to 37 percent of moderately educated whites, and 23 percent of the least educated whites.
Wilcox views this disengagement among the less educated as troubling because religious institutions typically provide their members with benefits—such as improved physical and psychological health, social networks, and civic skills—that may be particularly important for the less educated, who often lack the degree of access to social networks and civic skills that the college-educated have.
"Today, the market and the state provide less financial security to the less educated than they once did, and this is particularly true for the moderately educated—those who have high school degrees, but didn't graduate from a 4-year college," Wilcox said. "Religious congregations may be one of the few institutional sectors less educated Americans can turn to for social, economic, and emotional support in the face of today's tough times, yet it appears that increasingly few of them are choosing to do so." ...
Indeed, the study points out that modern religious institutions tend to promote a family-centered morality that valorizes marriage and parenthood, and they embrace traditional middle-class virtues such as self-control, delayed gratification, and a focus on education.
Over the past 40 years, however, the moderately educated have become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults. During the same period, wages have fallen and rates of unemployment have risen markedly for moderately educated men, while wages have remained stagnant for moderately educated women. For the least educated—those without high school degrees—the economic situation has been even worse, and they have also become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults.
Because less educated whites are now less likely to be stably employed, to earn a decent income, to be married with children, and to hold familistic views, it makes sense that they also do not as often attend services at religious institutions that continue to uphold conventional norms, Wilcox said. ...

There's more to this, I think, it says something about how virtues are increasingly being assigned and emphasized in a way that allows people to blame others for their misfortune -- they don't have the "traditional middle-class virtues" like us, if they did they'd be fine -- but I can't quite put my finger on it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"In Finance We Distrust"

One more before I hit the road to my high school class reunion (35 years):

In Finance We Distrust, by Michael Spence, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Around the world,, the debate about financial regulation is coming to a head. ...
It now seems universally accepted (often implicitly) that government should establish the structure and rules for the financial system, with participants then pursuing their self-interest within that framework. If the framework is right, the system will perform well. The rules bear the burden of ensuring the collective social interest in the system’s stability, efficiency, and fairness.
But in a complex system in which expertise, insight, and real-time information are not concentrated in one place, and certainly not in government and regulatory circles, reliance on such a framework seems deficient and unwise. Moreover, it ignores the importance of trust. A better starting point, I believe, is the notion of shared responsibility for the stability of the system and its social benefits – shared, that is, by participants and regulators.
It is striking that no senior executive of whom I am aware has laid out in any detail how his or her institution’s expertise could be deployed in pursuit of the collective goal of stability. The suspicion that underlies much of today’s public anger is that these institutions, having influenced the formulation of the legal and ethical rules, could do more to contribute to stability than just obey them.
The finance industry, regulators, and political leaders need to create a shared sense of collective responsibility for the system as a whole and its impact on the rest of the economy. This set of values should be deeply embedded in the industry – and thus should transcend haggling over regulation. It should take precedence over narrow self-interest or the potential profit opportunities associated with exploiting an informational advantage. And it should be thought of as an addition to the guiding norms, rules, and ethics associated with “normal” times.
Some will object that this idea won’t work because it runs counter to greedy human nature. Yet such values shape other professions. In medicine, there is a huge and unbridgeable gap in expertise and information between doctors and patients. The potential for abuse is enormous. It is limited by professional values that are inculcated throughout doctors’ training, and which are bolstered by a quiet form of peer review.
By itself, such a shift in values and the implicit model that defines roles certainly will not solve the challenge of systemic risk. Neither will fiddling with the rules. Taken seriously, however, it could help provide an ongoing reminder of the importance of the financial sector to the broader well-being of the economy. It might even help start rebuilding trust.

In medicine, I think it's regulation, not professional ethics that prevents the most blatant types of snake oil treatments and other means of exploiting consumers. If there is lots and lots of money to be made selling the latest cure for baldness, acne, wrinkles, whatever, some doctor will step in and sell the treatment whether it works or not. And ethical standards do not seem to stop conflicts of interest such as doctors owning testing centers, and then having a tendency to order more tests than necessary at those facilities. To the extent that this has been prevented, it's been due to government intervention, not shared ethics.

In general, it's the threat of loss of license and lawsuits, not condemnation from peers, that is the real constraint on behavior for those lacking the conscience that might stop them from engaging in such practices. If there were no regulations to prevent it, then any snake oil treatment that proved highly profitable would be quickly adopted and mimicked by others with a medical license but lacking the ethics that are supposed to come with it. In the end, it's the government's ability to take away a medical license that prevents doctors from, say, charging $250 for an office visit that is all but guaranteed to result in a medical marijuana card (and even with such a threat, such doctors exist, at least in Oregon). Without that fear, ethics alone would not be enough. The ethical standards must be backed by a hammer, and for doctors that is their license to practice. I don't mean to condemn all doctors as lacking such ethics, or even most, not at all. This isn't needed in most cases. But it only takes a few who are willing to ignore ethical standards to undermine the system.

That is the problem with this approach. If there is a way to make a profit and no penalty for pursuing it other than peers shaking a finger at you and saying what a rotten person you are, then somebody will step in and take the opportunity to get wealthy. If there are millions to be made, the shaking fingers are tolerable and others will surely follow suit. If there is no hammer that comes down and imposes a penalty when people engage in such behavior, then there will always be those who are wiling to take the money over their reputations.

With that said, however, I still think there is something to be gained by having such ethical standards in place. Norms for appropriate behavior are important, and they can constrain some behavior. But we shouldn't rely too much upon them, or hope that they can somehow substitute for regulation with teeth. Because ethics without strong penalties for violating them won't do much to constrain highly profitable schemes that separate people from their money, and government is best suited to enforce these types of rules and regulations, i.e. to provide the teeth. We can hope the private sector will do this on its own through professional societies and the like, and that when these societies condemn a person or practice it will have an effect. But these organizations often turn into ways for the industry to protect itself against new entrants -- it becomes a way for industry insiders to protect themselves rather than a way of protecting the public -- and the penalties they impose don't mean much if there is no law or regulation to prevent the behavior they condemn. So I hope we don't make the mistake of thinking that we can rely upon the private sector to suddenly find ethics that weren't there before and fix these kinds of problems on its own. Again, ethics are useful and they should go as far as they can, but I think a strong set of rules and regulators who are ready and willing to enforce them are the real key to fixing these kinds of problems.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Jeffrey Sachs says anti-intellectualism "could end up getting us all killed":

The American anti-intellectual threat, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Commentary, Project Syndicate: In recent years, the United States has been more a source of global instability than a source of global problem-solving.

Examples include the war in Iraq, launched by the US on false premises, obstructionism on efforts to curb climate change, meager development assistance and the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. While many factors contributed to America’s destabilizing actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism...

By anti-intellectualism, I mean especially an aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence. The challenges faced by a major power like the US require rigorous analysis of information according to the best scientific principles.

Climate change, for example, poses dire threats... that must be assessed according to prevailing scientific norms... We need scientifically literate politicians adept at evidence-based critical thinking to translate these findings and recommendations into policy and international agreements.

In the US, however, the attitudes of President Bush, [and] leading Republicans ... have been the opposite of scientific. The White House did all it could for eight years to hide the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are contributing to climate change. It tried to prevent government scientists from speaking honestly to the public. The Wall Street Journal has similarly peddled anti-science and pseudo-science to oppose policies to fight human-induced climate change.

These anti-scientific approaches affected not only climate policy, but also foreign policy. The US went to war in Iraq on the basis of Bush’s gut instincts and religious convictions, not rigorous evidence. ...

These are ... powerful individuals out of touch with reality. They reflect the fact that a significant portion of American society, which currently votes mainly Republican, rejects or is simply unaware of basic scientific evidence regarding climate change, biological evolution, human health and other fields. ...

Recent survey data by the Pew Foundation found that while 58 percent of Democrats believe that human beings are causing global warming, only 28 percent of Republicans do. Similarly, a 2005 survey found that 59 percent of self-professed conservative Republicans rejected any theory of evolution, while 67 percent of liberal Democrats accepted some version of evolutionary theory.

To be sure, some of these deniers are simply scientifically ignorant, having been failed by the poor quality of science education in America. But others are biblical fundamentalists... They reject geological evidence of climate change because they reject the science of geology itself.

The issue here is not religion versus science. All of the great religions have traditions of fruitful interchange with -- and, indeed, support for -- scientific inquiry. ...

The problem is an aggressive fundamentalism that denies modern science, and an aggressive anti-intellectualism that views experts and scientists as the enemy. It is those views that could end up getting us all killed. ...

It is difficult to know for sure what is giving rise to fundamentalism in so many parts of the world. ... Fundamentalism seems to emerge in times of far-reaching change, when traditional social arrangements come under threat. The surge of modern American fundamentalism in politics dates to the civil rights era of the 1960s, and at least partly reflects a backlash among whites against the growing political and economic strength of non-white and immigrant minority groups in US society.

Humanity’s only hope is that the vicious circle of extremism can be replaced by a shared global understanding of the massive challenges of climate change, food supplies, sustainable energy, water scarcity and poverty. ...

The US must return to the global consensus based on shared science rather than anti-intellectualism. That is the urgent challenge at the heart of American society today.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

"The Church versus the Mall"

What happens when the opportunity cost of church attendance goes up? Just what you'd expect:

The cost of repealing blue laws, by Sarah H. Wright, News Office: Blue laws, or Sunday closing laws, refer to statutes that restrict certain activities on the Christian Sabbath. By the end of the 19th century, nearly every state had at least some law prohibiting certain activities on Sunday. The 1960s saw the beginning of push to repeal these laws in favor of commerce, although a few still remain on the books.

In their study, which appears in the May 2008 edition of The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Gruber and Hungerman show what happens when religious services must compete with shopping, hobbies and other activities.

To measure that competition, they studied the large number of states that repealed their blue laws over the past 50 years. ...

The economists used data from the General Social Survey on religious attendance and from the Consumer Expenditure Survey to show a very strong reduction in religious attendance and a decline in religious contributions once the blue laws were repealed. They found no change in other charitable activity, Gruber notes.

To confirm their findings and to complete the economic portrait, the authors also analyzed budget data for four major Christian denominations over the past 40 years. Church expenditures declined significantly since the repeal of the blue laws, they found.

Gruber and Hungerman did more than track how individuals chose to allocate their resources on Sunday once the malls were opened...

They considered the negative consequences for individuals or society from loosening secular constraints and they found those consequences in behaviors associated more with Saturday night than Sunday morning.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) on consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, the economists found that repealing the blue laws did lead to an increase in drinking and drug use.

What's more, they found that individuals who had attended church and stopped after the blue laws were repealed showed the greatest increase in substance abuse, Gruber notes.

Those effects have significant economic and social implications, the authors say.

The study, "The Church vs. the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?" can be accessed online here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Economic Conditions and Religiosity"

Andrew Gelman discusses a paper that finds a link between religiosity and the state of the economy:

Praying for a Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States In Economics, by Andrew Gelman: In the course of commenting on our article on religion, income, and voting, David Beckworth links to this interesting paper on religiosity and the business cycle:

Mainline Protestant denominations--which tend to have higher income earners--do well in terms of growth during economic booms while evangelical Protestants denominations--which tend to have lower income earners--actually struggle. (During economic downturns the outcomes are reversed--evangelicals Protestant denominations thrive.) In general, I [Beckworth] find mainline Protestants to have a strong procyclical component to their religiosity while evangelicals have a strong countercyclical component. These findings can be explained by again appealing to the labor-leisure choice explained by economic theory.

David Beckworth follows up:

Economic Conditions and Religiosity, by David Beckworth: Andrew Gelman graciously takes note of my research on the business cycle and religiosity over at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. One of his blog readers emailed me and requested I explain more thoroughly how macroeconomic shocks could affect religiosity. Below is an excerpt from a forthcoming article where I attempt to explain the relationship in less technical terms :

The first thing economic theory says is that the cost of being religious can change over the business cycle. During an economic boom individuals may find increased opportunities for higher earnings. The potential for higher earnings, in turn, make time-intensive religious activities like church attendance costly for these individuals. Consider, for example, a Southern Baptist from a low-income family being offered the opportunity of getting overtime pay to work at a retail store on Sunday morning. For this Southern Baptist, going to church suddenly becomes a lot more costly and thus, increases the likelihood of him opting for work instead of church. On the other hand, during an economic downturn, time-intensive religious activities become less costly as opportunities for earnings decline. Here, the overtime opportunity for the Southern Baptist disappears and church attendance suddenly becomes more affordable. This idea that higher earnings lead individuals to substitute out of leisure activities, like going to church, into more work and vice versa is called the substitution effect. It implies there should be a countercyclical component to religiosity.

There are, however, two countervailing forces against the substitution effect. The first one is called the income effect and says that the higher earnings also mean individuals can work fewer hours than before and still get the same pay. They, therefore, have more time for leisure activities, like church attendance, without a loss of income. Consider, for example, an Episcopalian whose consulting business was able to increase its fees because of the increased demand for its services during an economic boom. The Episcopalian can now afford to take on fewer consulting projects, without a loss of income, and enjoy more time at church. During an economic downturn, however, the consulting fees would drop. The Episcopalian would now have to work more hours to maintain his income, leaving less time for church. The second countervailing force is something called the wealth effect. The wealth effect says that as individuals’ wealth increases from valuations gains in their homes, stocks, and other assets they have less need to save and thus less need to work. In turn, there should be more time for church attendance and vice versa. Imagine now that the Episcopalian had a large amount of funds in the stock market during a stock market boom. His wealth would increase dramatically and make leisure activities like church attendance more affordable. Both of these effects imply there could be a procyclical component to religious activities.

Economic theory is generally silent on which of these effects dominates the decision to work. Research has shown, however, that evangelicals Protestants typically fall into a lower socioeconomic grouping than mainline Protestants (Pyle, 2006). This suggests that the substitution effect should be more important for evangelical Protestants. In other words, since evangelical Protestants are starting from a lower income level, like the Southern Baptist above, they should be eager to take advantage of higher earning opportunities, whereas mainline Protestants, like the Episcopal above, who already have relatively high income levels may see less need to do so. Moreover, mainline Protestants have more wealth and should therefore be more sensitive to the wealth effect compared to their poorer evangelical Protestant brethren. A priori, then, the changing cost of being religious perspective points to evangelical Protestants being more countercyclical in their religiosity than mainline Protestants.

The second thing economic theory had to say about this issue is that individuals generally desire to have a steady stream of housing, clothes, food, and other consumption over the business cycle. During a recession individuals may become unemployed or find their earnings fall. To prevent these developments from being disruptive, individuals may turn to churches for consumption needs such as shelter and groceries. Individuals may also turn to churches for less tangible consumption needs such as a sense of certainty and divine guidance in a job search. Such a response implies there should be a countercyclical component to religiosity. Note, however, that the wealthier mainline Protestants are in far less need of churches to provide consumption for them. In addition, mainline Protestant denominations often place less emphasis on absolute truths than evangelical ones and, as a result, are not able to create the same sense of certainty or appeal to an all powerful, job-providing God. Individuals, therefore, may choose to join an evangelical Protestant denomination rather a mainline one during a recession.[1] Consequently, the consumption smoothing ability of churches also points to a stronger countercyclical component for evangelical Protestants.

[1] Conversely, these same individuals may find a mainline Protestant denomination more appealing than an evangelical one during an economic upturn when the need for certainty and employment are less pressing concerns.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Adam Smith On Religious Institutions

This is from Gavin Kennedy at Adam Smith's Lost Legacy:

Adam Smith On Religious Institutions, by Gavin Kennedy: Walter Russell Meade writes an interesting article, ‘Born Againin The (March) on religious movements in the USA and goes back to Adam Smith’s Wealth Of Nations for his theme:

“In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a sly and subversive classic of secular humanism too often mistaken today for a mere lecture on the benefits of capitalism. In it, Smith said relatively little about religion and even less about the United States. Yet he managed to put his finger on the forces that are still shaping the role of religion in American politics today. His analysis is a better guide to the future of the evangelical movement than are most contemporary accounts.

Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values of a free society. They favored absolute moral codes, conservative interpretations of religious doctrines, and political activism to enact their values into law.

Smith observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization. Young people, arriving in cities in search of work, faced new opportunities and temptations without the structure that village life—with its communities of relatives and others that watched and guided young people—had provided. “A single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever,” wrote Smith about life in London. But the city’s small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code that could keep them on the straight and narrow as they built new lives. These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity; there was no reason to expect them to fade away.

Yet in the teeming religious marketplace of Britain’s cities, Smith also saw pressures that would limit the political impact of religious beliefs and prevent theocracy. With so many competing denominations, he noted, religious leaders could acquire political influence only by finding allies outside their own version of the faith—and the process of forming those alliances would drive them toward agendas that could appeal to a wider, multi-faith audience. To be politically significant, he wrote, religious extremists had to move toward broader and necessarily more-moderate coalitions. Their entry into politics would, itself, moderate them.”

...A small quibble first:

“In it, Smith said relatively little about religion and even less about the United States.”

The United States were created after Wealth Of Nations was published in 1776, but Adam Smith had plenty to say about the British colonies in America. At a rough estimate the American colonies, feature across 109 pages in Book IV, his major and ‘violent attack’ on mercantile political economy, while his discussion on how religions are organized, plus his recommendations discussed by Walter Russell Meade, take up 26 pages...

I would imagine Adam Smith would admit to paying a great deal of attention to the colonies and ex-colonies of North America, reflecting his close interest in the institutional changes brought about by the rebellion. So much so, that his close friends, David Hume and the Duke of Buccleuch, cautioned him against becoming too ‘zealous’ about American affairs (Corr. 149: p 185-6).

It was also fairly risky for him too, because if he was to influence legislatures and British cabinets on the broader issues of changing British policies towards the economy, it did not help his case by being seen to be ‘indulgent’ towards the King’s ‘enemies’. I believe that among his papers burnt just before he died, he included his unfinished manuscript for his oft promised (since 1759) book on Jurisprudence – ‘an account of the general principles of law and government’ and ‘the theory of the rules by which civil governments ought to be directed’. The key word here is ‘ought’ because this would involve him in taking a stand, I believe in favour, of the principles of the US Constitutional provisions and this would have compromised his influence with the King’s Ministers. Hence, he arranged to become ‘too busy’ to write by taking the post of a Scottish Commissioner of Customs from 1778-1790.

Briefly, Adam Smith favoured the promotion (or the State refraining from curbing) the spread of splinter religious factions and small churches at the behest of the Established Churches of England and Scotland. This was to help create favourable conditions for integrating families uprooted from rural areas into urban environments and fill needs that the Established Churches were less capable of meeting. Proliferation would also prevent any one version of religion from being oppressive, which was one step short of disestablishing to Churches of England and Scotland from their monopolies of social patronage in the United Kingdom. ...

PS: I have been reading several academic papers on Adam Smith and religion, such as Brendon Long's 'Adam Smith's natural theology of society'... I am toying with the idea of doing some serious work on whether Adam Smith was a Christian, or even a deist. Any literature references from readers would be welcomed.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"Rediscovering Intelligent Design"

Interesting question. Does anyone know the answer?:

Rediscovering Intelligent Design Posted, by Kieran Healy: Here is a likely poorly-specified question for biologists... The premise is unlikely (something that kills people—all people—but leaves the rest of the world standing) but intriguing. ...

I wondered, what if, long, long after our disappearance, some other species arose on earth at least as intelligent as us and eventually started doing evolutionary and molecular biology. Let’s say they have a working theory of evolution much like our own. Now say for the sake of argument that a bunch of transgenic organisms produced by humans have survived and prospered in the interim. So our future biologists find things like a bacteria that produces insulin, or a plant that secretes insecticide, or rice that is high in beta carotene, or more exotic stuff as needed.[1]

I’m wondering, would such organisms even present themselves as empirical anomalies? (That is, how much would you have to know about genomes and evolution for them to seem odd?) And if they did seem odd, how would they be explained? That is, would the evidence of their intelligent design by a previous, now-extinct species be clear? ... Would some Arthropod-staffed functional-equivalent of the Discovery Institute point its claw at some of these organisms, saying they were anomalies that could only be explained by the intervention of a divine intelligence? Would Charles Crustacean find a story that could account for their evolution by natural selection? I’m particularly interested in whether the artificial provenance of transgenic organisms would be clear on internal evidence alone. I don’t know anything about this stuff, so probably the answer is “Yes” for reasons obvious to experts. But if it weren’t …

Here's the uninformed answer of an economist. I don't think they could tell because if the organism had anomalous traits, they would be genetically selected out over time and thus would not even be observable in the future. Making insulin is a waste of energy if it provides no benefit to the organism.

If they weren't anomalous and provided some sort of competitive advantage, then it would appear to be an evolved trait. The key is that the organism's genetic structure would not be static over time, but instead would evolve in response to its environment. If such evolution wipes out all traces of anything that looks (and is) anomalous in the environment the organism lives, then there will be no way to detect prior design. A counter argument is that there may be dependence on initial conditions, i.e. even though the organism evolves over time, the paths it can follow are set by its initial genetic structure and hence anomalies can still be identified later (traces of insulin making are still evident). Which means all I've done is re-ask the question - are initial conditions detectable later - not answer it.

Okay, I've thrashed around enough. Anyone know the real answer?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Church Attendance and Supply-Side Economics

When did supply-side economics come to mean breaking up monopolies to increase competition? I don't know whether increasing competition among churches increases membership or not, and the fact that religion is involved here is coincidental, but this is not supply-side economics as claimed in the article. This is nothing more than the standard result that increasing competition improves market outcomes:

In Europe, God Is (Not) Dead, by Andrew Higgins, WSJ (free): ...After decades of secularization, religion in Europe has slowed its slide toward what had seemed inevitable oblivion. There are even nascent signs of a modest comeback. Most church pews are still empty. But belief in heaven, hell and concepts such as the soul has risen in parts of Europe, especially among the young...

God's tentative return to Europe has scholars and theologians debating a hot question: Why? Part of the reason, pretty much everyone agrees, is an influx of devout immigrants. ... At the same time, anxiety over immigration, globalization and cutbacks to social-welfare systems has eroded people's contentment in the here-and-now, prodding some to seek firmer ground in the spiritual.

Some scholars and Christian activists, however, are pushing a more controversial explanation: the laws of economics. As centuries-old churches long favored by the state lose their monopoly grip, Europe's highly regulated market for religion is opening up to leaner, more-aggressive religious "firms." The result, they say, is a supply-side stimulus to faith.

"Monopoly churches get lazy," says Eva Hamberg, a professor at Lund University's Centre for Theology and Religious Studies and co-author of academic articles that, based on Swedish data, suggest a correlation between an increase in religious competition and a rise in church-going..."

Upstarts are now plugging new spiritual services across Europe, from U.S.-influenced evangelical churches to a Christian sect that uses a hallucinogenic herbal brew as a stand-in for sacramental wine. Niklas Piensoho, chief preacher at Stockholm's biggest Pentecostal church, says even sometimes oddball, quasi-religious fads "tell me you can sell spirituality." His own career suggests that a free market in faith is taking root. ...

The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition. In America, where church and state stand apart, more than 50% of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported -- but also controlled -- the church with money and favors, the rate in many countries is 20% or less.

Continue reading "Church Attendance and Supply-Side Economics" »

Friday, June 22, 2007

Evolution and Altruism

Continuing with a recent theme, here's more on altruism from Tom Bozzo and Robert Waldmann:

A Fishy Case Against the 'New Atheists', by Tom Bozzo: Brad DeLong points to Adam Kotsko, who not only liked Stanley Fish's "Atheism and Evidence," but indeed lamented that the Times Select paywall keeps it from a broader audience. So let me expand on my previous reaction to Fish.

Fish criticizes Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for their confidence that natural explanations will be found for currently not-well-understood phenomena of human behavior and consciousness. He invokes Francis S. Collins to name a scientist who would

argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic [i.e., evolutionary] explanation of that?

Fish, let alone Collins, shouldn't need an economist to answer, "easy." Behaviors that don't seem to maximize individual fitness but may improve the population fitness aren't a problem for evolutionary explanations. (Elaboration of this concept, I gather, is Dawkins's major contribution to evolutionary theory.) ...

The Darwinian explanation is that the behavior makes the group better off despite (maybe) having cost to some individuals, which frankly doesn't sound facially absurd under, say, a Divine Selection Hypothesis where "good works" facilitate more pleasant after-lives. (An economist might argue that it's not necessarily true that altruism necessarily is "costly" to the individual; at a minimum, I would argue specifically that it narrows the real scope of source-of-moral-behavior conundrums.) More to the point, Dawkins makes no claims that obviously can't be explained in terms of neuron interconnections and brain chemistry...

Robert Waldmann follows with:

Aunts, Fish, Ants, by Robert Waldmann: ATBozzo links to me here... Thanks for link. Fish is, well fish. The possible evolutionary explanation of altruism is quite different from the selection of sickle trait. The generally favored view is called kin selection". The argument is that if we help a random person (more generally organism in our species which we meet) we do something very different from helping a random organism in our species, since we are more likely to meet our kin than our non relations.

Continue reading "Evolution and Altruism" »

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Religion and Capitalism

This follows up on a recent post "Economic Prosperity: Human Capital or Protestant Work Ethic?":

Religion: prop or antidote to capitalism?, by Harold James. Project Syndicate: A provocative book written by a Japanese mathematician has reignited the debate about whether there are specifically "Asian" values.

As yet untranslated ..., "The Dignity of a State" by Masahiko Fujiwara is an emotional plea for a Japanese "special path." In particular, it argues that liberal democracy is a Western invention that does not fit well with the Japanese or Asian character.

The reasoning is peculiar, and seems to revive a 19th-century critique, usually associated with Nietzsche, that Christianity (and Islam) produces an acquiescent or even subservient mentality, in contrast to the heroic virtues of classical antiquity or of warrior societies, such as the world of the Japanese samurai. Likewise, according to Fujiwara, democracy overemphasizes reason, another Western construct. ...

Many non-Japanese Asians will dislike most or all of Fujiwara's message, for they will hear unpleasant historical echoes. ... But Fujiwara's book has also revived an old debate about capitalism and the values that are needed to sustain it. ...

Some thinkers, most notably Max Weber, floated the idea that capitalism must be sustained by a value system... Almost every modern analyst, however, has come to the conclusion that Weber's attempt to link that capitalist spirit historically to a form of Christianity, namely Protestantism, is fatally flawed.

To begin with, the founders of Protestantism, Martin Luther and John Calvin, were, as Weber recognized, more hostile to the dynamic capitalistic world of the Renaissance than was the Catholic Church. Indeed, pious Catholic Italian city-states were the cradle of early modern capitalism.

But there are two crucial aspects of the debate on religious values that should not be overlooked:

First, the core of Weber's argument was that religious values that emphasize restraint and a sense of duty may support dependability and reliability in business relations, which is especially vital in societies that are just opening up market relations. Where there is a legacy of violence and suspicion, it is hard for people to feel secure enough to enter into long-term contracts. ...

Second, religious values that emphasize social solidarity are an important corrective to the tendency of markets to polarize society by rewarding success. Periods of globalization have been eras of considerable economic advance; but they have also increased inequality..., thus fueling powerful political backlashes that endangered the continuation of trade and financial integration.

The debate about the contribution of religious values parallels the debate over the relationship of freedom to economic development — a central issue in the work of Nobel laureate economists Friedrich Hayek and Amartya Sen. It is clearly tempting for critics of authoritarian regimes to argue that freedom is good because it promotes economic growth. But a deeper view of freedom regards it as having intrinsic value.

So, too, with religious values. Backed by evidence from large empirical studies, some claim that belief in religion is good because it boosts economic performance. That may be the case, and it may be a tempting argument to make in authoritarian societies that are unsympathetic to beliefs that challenge their own legitimacy. But is it possible to imagine the pope whispering such a message to the Chinese leadership?

In the 18th century, Voltaire constructed an analogous argument, claiming that religion's major virtue was its social usefulness. He thus sought to subvert religion by making it purely instrumental. But to do that is to destroy the true character of religious belief. By reviving the debate over "Asian" values, Fujiwara's book may contribute to a similar mistake.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Paul Krugman: For God’s Sake

Paul Krugman looks at "one of the most important stories of the last six years," the administration's attempt to place people with a religious agenda into positions of power within the federal government:

For God’s Sake, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: In 1981, Gary North, a leader of the Christian Reconstructionist movement — the openly theocratic wing of the Christian right — suggested that the movement could achieve power by stealth. “Christians must begin to organize politically within the present party structure,” he wrote, “and they must begin to infiltrate the existing institutional order.”

Today, Regent University, founded by the televangelist Pat Robertson to provide “Christian leadership to change the world,” boasts that it has 150 graduates working in the Bush administration.

Unfortunately for the image of the school, ... the most famous of those graduates is Monica Goodling a product of the university’s law school... who appears central to the scandal of the fired U.S. attorneys...

The infiltration of the federal government by large numbers of people seeking to impose a religious agenda — which is very different from simply being people of faith — is one of the most important [and underreported] stories of the last six years...

The official platform of the Texas Republican Party pledges to “dispel the myth of the separation of church and state.” And the Texas Republicans now running the country are doing their best to fulfill that pledge.

Kay Cole James, who had extensive connections to the religious right and was the dean of Regent’s government school, was the federal government’s chief personnel officer from 2001 to 2005. ... And it’s clear that unqualified people were hired ... because of their religious connections.

For example, ... one Regent law school graduate ... was interviewed by the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Asked what Supreme Court decision of the past 20 years he most disagreed with, he named the decision to strike down a Texas anti-sodomy law. When he was hired, it was his only job offer. ...

One measure of just how many Bushies were appointed to promote a religious agenda is how often a Christian right connection surfaces when we learn about a Bush administration scandal.

There’s Ms. Goodling, of course. But did you know that Rachel Paulose, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota — three of whose deputies recently stepped down, reportedly in protest over her management style — ... quot[es] Bible verses in the office?

Or there’s the case of Claude Allen, the presidential aide and former deputy secretary of health and human services, who stepped down after being investigated for petty theft. ...[H]e built his career as a man of the hard-line Christian right.

And there’s another thing most reporting fails to convey: the sheer extremism of these people.

You see, Regent isn’t a religious university the way Loyola or Yeshiva are religious universities. It’s run by someone whose first reaction to 9/11 was to brand it God’s punishment for America’s sins.

Two days after the terrorist attacks, ... on Mr. Robertson’s ... “The 700 Club.” Mr. Falwell laid blame for the attack at the feet of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” not to mention the A.C.L.U. and People for the American Way. “Well, I totally concur,” said Mr. Robertson.

The Bush administration’s implosion clearly represents a setback for the Christian right’s strategy of infiltration. But it would be wildly premature to declare the danger over. This is a movement that has shown great resilience over the years. It will surely find new champions.

Next week Rudy Giuliani will be speaking at Regent’s Executive Leadership Series.

Previous (4/9) column: Paul Krugman: Sweet Little Lies
Next (4/16) column: Paul Krugman: Way Off base

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Church and State

This discusses John Ashcroft's "profound" changes to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department with the help of Monica Goodling and others:

Justice's Holy Hires, by Dahlia Lithwick, Commentary. Washington Post: Monica Goodling had a problem. As senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Justice Department liaison to the White House, she no longer seemed to know what the truth was. ...

Continue reading "Church and State" »

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Religion in Government

Like him or hate him, Bruce Bartlett says what he thinks:

God and Government, by Bruce Bartlett: When future historians try to explain the presidency of George W. Bush, his religious fundamentalism unquestionably will be a central focus. It has made him certain about the correctness of his policies, especially the Iraq invasion...

Few writers feel comfortable discussing this aspect of Bush... Implicitly, we are ... led to accept that we cannot judge others on the basis of their religious beliefs, no matter how crazy they may be...

As someone who is not at all religious, it is particularly hard for me to interpret or even comprehend those with deep religious beliefs... I have no frame of reference upon which to base an analysis that makes any sense to me.

Continue reading "Religion in Government" »

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Professors and God

"Even at elite, doctoral universities, a majority of professors are neither atheistic nor agnostic":

Survey finds belief in God in the halls of academe, The Associated Press: Contrary to stereotype, most college professors are not atheists or agnostics, according to new research. In fact, only about one-quarter of professors deny God exists or claim it is impossible to know, according to survey results analyzed by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University. The rest say they believe in God at least part of the time, or some kind of higher power.

College professors are less religious than the general population, the authors report. For example, about 40 percent of professors frequently attend religious services, compared to 47 percent for the general population. But the authors say religious commitment levels are higher than previous surveys, which did not include professors at community colleges, who are more religious.

But even at elite, doctoral universities, a majority of professors are neither atheistic nor agnostic, and 20 percent say they have no doubt God exists.

Maybe a professor is God. Perhaps there's this all-powerful, all-knowing scientist out there somewhere, and we along with beings on other planets in the universe are experiments in the equivalent of the scientist's Petri dishes. The scientist sets up a dish, seeds it with creatively designed self-replicating biological processes, then watches to see what happens over time as evolution unfolds in response to the external shocks built into the dynamic system. All day long, twenty-four hours a day every day, the scientist records everything we do in one huge data set, a data set that is bigger and more complete than we can understand (well, maybe this guy gets it). When we die, our data are reviewed at a gateway. The data from the good observations in the dish are retained (their spirits go to heaven) while the unsuccessful experimental outcomes are discarded (they go to hell and burn). Events like great floods are a sterilization of the Petri dish due to the emergence of unstable trajectories (and, before sterilizing you need to retain the best outcomes in each class in an "ark" to use to reseed the next experiment). Thus, we are the outcome of creatively designed and creatively destructed experiments on evolutionary processes.

Or maybe not.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Science and Religion

To me, this isn't that controversial, but apparently this editorial is generating a large response at Scientific American:

Science and Religion, Editorial, Scientific American, October, 2006: It is practically a rite of passage that scientists who reach a certain level of eminence feel compelled to publicly announce and explain their religious beliefs. The new books by Owen Gingerich and Francis Collins, reviewed this month on page 94, follow in the footsteps of Arthur Eddington and Max Planck. Yes, these authors say, they believe in God, and no, they see no contradiction between their faith and their research— indeed, they see each as confirming the other.

Why this enduring fascination? Doubtless it is partly a reaction to the tensions that always seem to arise between science and religion: the recurring war over the teaching of evolution and creationism, the statements by physicists that they are plumbing the instant of “creation” or searching for a “God particle,” the reassurances of some evangelicals that a Second Coming will make global warming irrelevant. In writing books about their own faith, religious scientists may be hoping to point the way to reconciliations for the rest of society.

Yet the tension may be greatly exaggerated. Americans are famously religious, but according to studies by the National Science Foundation, they say that they hold science in higher regard than do the people of any other industrial country. Surveys indicate that scientists are only half as likely as the general public to describe themselves as religious, but 40 percent still do. As Albert Einstein wrote, it takes fortitude to be a scientist—to persevere despite the frustrations and the long lonely hours—and religious inspiration can sometimes provide that strength.

Unquestionably, the findings of science conflict with certain religious tenets. Cosmology, geology and evolutionary biology flatly contradict the literal truths of creation myths from around the world. Yet the overthrow of religion is not a part of the scientific agenda. Scientific research deals in what is measurable and definable; it cannot begin to study what might lie beyond the physical realm or to offer a comprehensive moral philosophy. Some scientists (and some nonscientists) are led to atheism in part by contemplation of the success of science in accounting for observable phenomena.

Some find support for their spiritual beliefs in the majesty of the reality revealed by science. Others are unmoved from agnosticism. Which philosophy an individual embraces is a personal choice, not a dictate of science. Science is fundamentally agnostic, yet it does not force agnosticism even on its practitioners.

No matter how earnest their testimonies, when researchers write about their faith in God, they are not expressing a strictly scientific perspective. Rather they are struggling, as people always have, to reconcile their knowledge of a dispassionate universe with a heartfelt conviction in a more meaningful design.

As for healing a social rift, most of the debates that are commonly depicted as religion versus science are really not questions of science at all; they are disagreements among various systems of beliefs and morals. The policy fight over embryonic stem cells, for example, centers on when and how one segment of a pluralistic society should curtail the behaviors of those who hold different values. Our attention should focus not on the illusory fault line between science and religion but on a political system that too often fails to engage with the real issues.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Florida's "Biblical Use" Exemption

This is from the blog A Taxing Matter written by Linda Beale, a "law professor at the University of Illinois College of law who teaches various courses in the area of federal income tax--statutory construction (tax), introduction to federal income tax, corporate taxation, and introduction to international taxation":

Florida's "Biblical Use" Exemption, by Linda M Beale: A new Florida statute (L. 2006, H 7183 (c. 164)) takes effect on the first of July. It provides an exemption from ad valorem tax for the use of property owned by a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization to "exhibit, illustrate, and interpret Biblical manuscripts, codices, stone tablets, and other Biblical archives, provide live and recorded demonstrations, explanations, reenactments, and illustrations of Biblical history and worship; and exhibit times, places, and events of Biblical history and significance." Id.

Now, this is clearly not a federal tax issue (the State is merely using the federal tax-exempt organization category as a part of its definition for the tax expenditure). But is it a constitutional one? Is it really cricket for a state to single out events and exhibits related to the Bible for a tax exemption? Yes, parts of the Bible are sacred to both Jews and Christians, but isn't this providing the imprimatur of the state selectively to the Judeo-Christian heritage over all other religious heritages (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.)? Maybe the legislators who passed this law, and Jeb Bush who signed it into law on June 9, would argue that it is merely a form of support for a particular type of historical scholarship/experience that just happens to be closely connected to fundamentalist Christian views.

But the facts, as always, are telling. This legislation was passed to aid a specific entity--a Christian theme park in Orlando, Florida called the Holy Land Experience. See this discussion in the St. Petersburg Times. The park is quite profitable, and the local county in which it is located tried to tax it (about $300,000 a year). The park argued that the profits financed its Christian ministry and so it was entitled to a property exemption. The park won the first round in court, but the county appealed. Then the legislature decided to step in and make sure that the institution couldn't be taxed. The county has now conceded defeat on the issue and dropped its suit for back taxes. See Holy Land Experience Wins Final Round. The Republican state senator who sponsored the bill said it was intended to cover only the Christian theme park and that it had been "stiffly worded" to ensure that object. Id. But, of course, there are always loopholes that can be exploited. Apparently a creationist group that runs a dinosaur park is trying to become eligible for the exemption now. Id.

Even conceding arguendo the constitutional concern (i.e., a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause because the state is selectively endorsing a particular religion), I wonder about the wisdom of this kind of preferential treatment for activities so closely associated with evangelical Christians today. We are a pluralistic society with people whose roots lie in many different cultural and religious heritages. Where is the state regard for the Koran, the Vedas and the history of religious societies and worship that those documents represent? Our basic notion of respect for individuals depends on respectful treatment of each person's core beliefs and values, even though they may differ from our own. Florida seems to have missed the boat here.

Continue reading "Florida's "Biblical Use" Exemption" »

Monday, May 22, 2006

Oil, Religion, and Debt

An email (thank you) says to take a look at this review of Kevin Phillip's book outlining three perils facing the U.S., oil, religion, and debt:

The US in Peril?, by Jeff Madrick, The New York Review of Books, June 8, 2006: Review of  American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips:

1. ...In Kevin Phillips's view, the Bush energy policy is a prime example of America's failure to confront its most difficult challenges. Phillips, once a member of the Nixon administration, ... argues that America is very different from the independent and omnipotent nation portrayed by President Bush and his administration. Dependency on oil is one of three major tendencies that will seriously undermine America's future, he writes, the other two being the influence of radical religion and the growing reliance on debt to support the economy. For Phillips, these constitute "the three major perils to the United States of the twenty-first century," and he offers little hope that the US will avoid the consequences...

Continue reading "Oil, Religion, and Debt" »

Friday, April 14, 2006

"With Malice Toward None, with Charity for All"

Interesting account of the religious interpretation of Lincoln's assassination:

The President Who Died for Us,  by Richard Wightman Fox, Op-Ed, NY Times: This year, Good Friday ... falls on April 14, as it did in 1865. On that evening, in the balcony box of Ford's Theater in Washington, John Wilkes Booth fired a handmade .41-caliber derringer ball into the back of Abraham Lincoln's head. In the days that followed Lincoln's death, his mourning compatriots rushed to compare him to Jesus, Moses and George Washington.

Despite the Good Friday coincidence, the Jesus parallel was not an obvious one... The Protestant population, then as now, included a vigilant evangelical minority who thought that Jesus, sinless on earth, was defamed every time ordinary sinners presumed to imitate him. No mere mortal could be put beside Jesus on a moral balance scale.

But Honest Abe overwhelmed the usual evangelical reticence — by April 1865 the majority of Northerners and Southern blacks took him as no ordinary person. He had been offering his body and soul all through the war and his final sacrifice, providentially appointed for Good Friday, showed that God had surely marked him for sacred service.

Continue reading ""With Malice Toward None, with Charity for All"" »

Monday, April 10, 2006

Pulling Up the Grass Roots

According to this report, the Christian Coalition is in disarray with mounting debts and falling membership:

Christian Coalition Shrinks as Debt Grows, by Alan Cooperman and Thomas B. Edsall, Washington Post: In an era when conservative Christians enjoy access and influence throughout the federal government, the organization that fueled their rise has fallen on hard times. The once-mighty Christian Coalition, founded 17 years ago by the Rev. Pat Robertson as the political fundraising and lobbying engine of the Christian right, is more than $2 million in debt, beset by creditors' lawsuits and struggling to hold on to some of its state chapters.

Continue reading "Pulling Up the Grass Roots" »

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Should Democrats Adopt "Christian Politics"?

I'm a bit shy on this topic, on a Sunday no less, but here goes. The current issue of The Nation has a series of articles on whether the Democrats ought to be using religious doctrine as a weapon against the ideas of the right:

  • Taking Back the Faith Dan Wakefield | The message of Christianity has been hijacked by neocon Republicans and their henchmen on the religious right. But after years in the wilderness, religious progressives are making a comeback.
  • Looking for Salvation in All the Wrong Places Frances Kissling | Progressive religious leaders should be sensitive to the danger that unexamined God-based public policy presents, whether it comes from the right or the left.
  • Bringing God Into It Rabbi Michael Lerner | The secular left consistently disarms itself of what could be its most powerful weapon against the religious right: a spiritual vision of the world.

This Op-Ed from the New York Times follows the middle article and warns against the temptation to adopt such a strategy. The warning is not based upon a political calculation designed to maximize votes, but with an eye towards being faithful to the true message of Christianity. This is from Garry Wills, a professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University:

Christ Among the Partisans, by Garry Wills, Op-Ed, NY Times: There is no such thing as a "Christian politics." If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian... This is a truth that needs emphasis at a time when some Democrats, fearing that the Republicans have advanced over them by the use of religion, want to respond with a claim that Jesus is really on their side. He is not. He avoided those who would trap him into taking sides for or against the Roman occupation of Judea. He paid his taxes to the occupying power but said only, "Let Caesar have what belongs to him, and God have what belongs to him" (Matthew 22:21). He was the original proponent of a separation of church and state.

Continue reading "Should Democrats Adopt "Christian Politics"?" »

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Do Fortuitous Economic Outcomes Cause People to Go to Church?

Or is it the other way around? The first thing that came to mind as I started reading this was whether a causal relationship had been established. Just because there are a lot of churches in Nevada does not necessarily mean that churches cause gambling and prostitution. Similarly, going to church may not raise income as this research finds, income and going to church may simply be correlated through a common response to a third variable, or causality could run in the other direction. However, causality is a focal point of the discussion:

Wealth from worship, The Economist: At Christmas, many people do things they would never dream of the rest of the year... Some even go to church. Attendance soars, as millions of once-a-year worshippers fill the pews. ... Some of the occasional churchgoers must wonder whether they might benefit from turning up more often. If they did so, they could gain more than spiritual nourishment. Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that regular religious participation leads to better education, higher income and a lower chance of divorce. His results ... imply that doubling church attendance raises someone's income by almost 10%.

The idea that religion can bring material advantages has a distinguished history. A century ago Max Weber argued that the Protestant work ethic lay behind Europe's prosperity. More recently Robert Barro, a professor at Harvard, has been examining the links between religion and economic growth ... At the microeconomic level, several studies have concluded that religious participation is associated with lower rates of crime, drug use and so forth. ...

Until recently, however, there was little quantitative research on whether religion affects income directly and if so, by how much. A big obstacle is the difficulty of disentangling cause and effect. That frequent churchgoers have higher incomes than non-churchgoers does not prove that religion made them richer. It might be that richer people are likelier to go to church. Or unrelated traits, such as greater ambition or personal discipline, could lead people both to go to church and also to succeed in their work.

To distinguish cause from coincidence, Mr Gruber uses information on the ethnic mix of neighbourhoods and congregations. ... Measuring the density of nationalities that share a religion in a particular city can ... be a good predictor of church attendance. But ... [s]tudies have found that people who live with lots of others of the same ethnic origin tend to be worse off than those who are not “ghettoised”. So Mr Gruber excludes an individual's own group from the measures, and instead calculates the density of “co-religionists”, the proportion of the population that shares your religion but not your race. According to Mr Gruber's calculations, a[n]... increase in the density of co-religionists leads to a... rise in churchgoing. Once he has controlled for other inter-city differences, Mr Gruber finds that a[n]... increase in the density of co-religionists leads to a ... rise in income...

Other economists, though they think Mr Gruber's approach is clever, are not sure that he has established a causal link between religious attendance and wealth. So how might churchgoing make you richer? Mr Gruber offers several possibilities. One plausible idea is that going to church yields “social capital”, a web of relationships that fosters trust. Economists think such ties can be valuable... Churchgoing may simply be an efficient way of creating them. Another possibility is that a church's members enjoy mutual emotional and (maybe) financial insurance. That allows them to recover more quickly from setbacks, such as the loss of a job... Or perhaps religion and wealth are linked through education. Mr Gruber's results suggest that higher church attendance leads to more years at school and less chance of dropping out of college. A vibrant church might also boost the number of religious schools, which in turn could raise academic achievement. Finally, religious faith itself might be the channel through which churchgoers become richer. Perhaps, Mr Gruber muses, the faithful may be “less stressed out” about life's daily travails and thus better equipped for success...