Religion

*Exodus: Gods and Kings*

by on December 12, 2014 at 8:49 pm in Film, Religion | Permalink

Call me strange, but if I were casting for the character of Moses, I would not have selected Christian Bale.  He looks like an Idaho mountain man throughout.  This film manages to take from the Jews the one thing the Egyptians did not, namely their Judaism; the word “Hebrews” is muttered occasionally but the rest is swept under the carpet in favor of periodic Christian references.  The emotional tenor of Moses’ self-confidence is closer to the Koran than the Torah.  The movie itself offers gnosticism, namely that the ten-year old boy with a British accent is not God but rather a messenger or perhaps the demiurge, don’t forget the subtitle of the movie or Scott’s own comments in interviews.  Embedded in the narrative are visual references to the Holocaust, a critique of the military policies of the state of Israel, and a slam on Western (American?) bombing and firebombing techniques and the killing of children.  The city, visuals, water scenes, and sense of scale are spectacular and worth the price of admission.  María Valverde is beautiful as Zipporah.  But to enjoy it — which I did — you must go expecting dreck because that is what you get.

I enjoyed this LRB piece, here is one excerpt:

All Jerusalemites pay taxes, but the proportion of the municipal budget allocated to the roughly 300,000 Palestinian residents of a city with a population of 815,000 doesn’t exceed 10 per cent. Service provision is grossly unequal. In the East, there are five benefit offices compared to the West’s 18; four health centres for mothers and babies compared to the West’s 25; and 11 mail carriers compared to the West’s 133. Roads are mostly in disrepair and often too narrow to accommodate garbage trucks, forcing Palestinians to burn rubbish outside their homes. A shortage of sewage pipes means that Palestinian residents have to use septic tanks which often overflow. Students are stuffed into overcrowded schools or converted apartments; 2200 additional classrooms are needed. More than three-quarters of the city’s Palestinians live below the poverty line.

Since 1967 no new Palestinian neighbourhoods have been established in the city, while Jewish settlements surrounding existing Palestinian areas have mushroomed. Restrictive zoning prevents Palestinians from building legally. Israel has designated 52 per cent of land in East Jerusalem as unavailable for development and 35 per cent for Jewish settlements, leaving the Palestinian population with only 13 per cent, most of which is already built on. Those with growing families are forced to choose between building illegally and leaving the city. Roughly a third of them decide to build, meaning that 93,000 residents are under constant threat of their homes being demolished.

And this:

The crucial difference between the mid-1980s and today is that Palestinian civil society is now much weaker, and so, too, is the likelihood of coherent political organisation of the kind that emerged soon after the First Intifada began. The groups that then channelled political activity have been supplanted, either by the institutions of a technocratic PA whose existence is premised on close co-operation with Israel, or by NGOs whose foreign funders make assistance conditional on the pursuit of apolitical development projects or vague peace-building strategies that explicitly rule out non-violent confrontation with Israel and any initiative likely to drive up the costs of military occupation. Palestinian society is afflicted with dependency, and it is dependent on forces that wish to preserve the status quo.

It is interesting (and controversial) throughout.

While cruising the internet I ran into this recent working paper (pdf) by Daniel Benjamin, James J. Choi, and Geoffrey Fisher:

We randomly vary religious identity salience in laboratory subjects to test how identity effects contribute to the impact of religion on economic behavior. We find that religious identity salience causes Protestants to increase contributions to public goods. Catholics decrease contributions to public goods, expect others to contribute less to public goods, and become less risk averse. Jews more strongly reciprocate as an employee in a bilateral labor market gift-exchange game. Atheists and agnostics become less risk averse. We find no evidence of religious identity-salience effects on disutility of work effort, discount rates, or generosity in a dictator game.

In the recent hullaballoo, it has been forgotten that perhaps the best paper on whether religion is good for you was written by Jonathan Gruber.

The story is here, his book is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.  Previous MR coverage is here, it was one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year.

There are already more speakers of Aramaic in metropolitan Detroit (around a hundred thousand) than in Baghdad…

That is from Christian Caryl in the 4 December 2014 New York Review of Books, reviewing Gerald Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

China ghost markets in everything

by on November 6, 2014 at 1:03 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

Two officials in China’s southern Guangdong province were arrested after it emerged that they had bought corpses from local grave-robbers and had them cremated in a bid to fulfill state-mandated quotas for such funeral practices. The incident is yet another reminder of the awkward tension between Beijing’s edicts and entrenched traditions in parts of rural China.

The arrested duo were officials responsible for local funerary practices, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. One allegedly paid a grave-robber $489 each for 10 exhumed corpses. The officials needed to meet expected quotas for cremations reported in their jurisdictions (towns that state media has not specified). Many locals entomb their kin in secret to skirt state laws regarding burial, which probably made the officials’ job rather difficult.

“Pushed to meet their quota, the two officials sought to purchase the corpses and send them to funeral parlour for cremation,” Xinhua reported.

And here is a rather vivid two paragraphs:

Body-snatching is, therefore, a lucrative, illicit business, involving bribe-taking local officials who look the other way, specialists capable of dressing up cadavers, and middlemen willing to connect desperate families to organized rings of grave-robbers and body-snatchers.

The practice of burying “ghost brides” also remains very much in the headlines. The old ritual involves burying a deceased young female alongside a dead bachelor, so the male will not be without a companion in the afterlife.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.

Religion in China.  That was the topic of a recent excellent Economist article.  Here is one good excerpt:

It is hard even to guess at the number of Christians in China. Official surveys seek to play down the figures, ignoring the large number who worship in house churches. By contrast, overseas Christian groups often inflate them. There were perhaps 3m Catholics and 1m Protestants when the party came to power in 1949. Officials now say there are between 23m and 40m, all told. In 2010 the Pew Research Centre, an American polling organisation, estimated there were 58m Protestants and 9m Catholics. Many experts, foreign and Chinese, now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87m-strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants.

Predicting Christianity’s growth is even harder. Yang Fenggang of Purdue University, in Indiana, says the Christian church in China has grown by an average of 10% a year since 1980. He reckons that on current trends there will be 250m Christians by around 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world. Mr Yang says this speed of growth is similar to that seen in fourth-century Rome just before the conversion of Constantine, which paved the way for Christianity to become the religion of his empire.

In the 1980s the faith grew most quickly in the countryside, stimulated by the collapse of local health care and a belief that Christianity could heal instead. In recent years it has been burgeoning in cities.

Read the whole thing.  You will note that when individuals engage in a “portfolio” approach to religion, social evolution can occur much more rapidly.  Not everyone has to fully convert to Christianity, or to embrace Confucianism wholeheartedly, for those approaches to suddenly acquire much more influence.

A new paper (pdf) by Benjamin A. Brooks, Karla Hoff, Priyanka Pandey runs at least one set of tests suggesting the answer is yes:

In an experiment in India, high-caste and low-caste men repeatedly played the Stag Hunt coordination game. This game has two equilibria, only one of which is efficient. Compared to low-caste men, high-caste men were significantly less likely to coordinate on the efficient equilibrium, and they were also 29 percentage points less likely to keep trying for efficient coordination after getting the “loser’s payoff”—the payoff to a player who attempts efficient coordination when his partner does not. We explain both findings in a model of learning where high-caste, but not low-caste men, see the loser’s payoff as an insult rather than an accident. These findings provide evidence that cultural construals can impede efficient coordination, which is a key component of economic development.

I find the distinction here between “low payoffs as insult” and “low payoffs as accident” to be especially interesting and in the broader literature underexplored.

Sentences to ponder

by on October 26, 2014 at 3:54 pm in Data Source, Religion, Uncategorized | Permalink

In “A More Perfect Union,” Mr. DuBois downloaded 19 million profiles from 21 online dating sites. He then wrote software to sort them by ZIP code, and determine the words most frequently used in each location. In the resulting maps, the top-ranked words replace city names. New York is “Now.” Atlanta is “God.”

That is from Steve Lohr at The New York Times.

Heilman, the expert in Hasidic succession, told me that one reason so many dynastic fights emerged in the past decade is that the grand rabbis are living longer, sometimes too long to have the vigor to conclusively determine whom their successors will be or so long that their increasingly entrenched institutional court refuses to cede power.  In Hasidic Europe before World War II, a contender to the throne unhappy with a chosen successor could set up his seat in a neighboring village, Heilman said.  But since the war, with the consolidation of Hasidim into relatively few sects, each sect’s brand name has been enshrined so that successors want to become, say, the Satmar Rebbe, not the Kiryas Joel Rebbe.

That is from the new Joseph Berger book, The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America.

A US-based cryonics company that stores people’s bodies at ultra-low temperatures in the hope that one day technology will be able to bring them back to life says it has attracted customers from China.

The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, in Arizona, said it had held discussions about setting up a team in China.

Another firm, the Cryonics Institute in the state of Michigan, said it had held similar discussions about operating in China.

Observers said the interest from wealthy Chinese may be because they are worried about bans on burial in favour of cremation in many places.

Traditional Chinese culture rules that the body must be intact to prepare for the afterlife.

Professor Huang Wei , a historian at Sichuan University in Chengdu , said: “Chinese people have always been interested in body preservation and life extension. Cryonics is a new option from the West which will certainly interest those who can afford it.”

There is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

This is the new and fantastic book by Arthur M. Melzer and the subtitle is The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.  It is the best book I know on esoteric writing and its history and furthermore it is clear and to the point!  (I think)

Melzer starts his chapter eight with this quotation from John Toland’s eighteenth century Pantheisticon:

[Esotericism is] practiced not by the Ancients alone; for to declare the Truth, it is more in Use among the Moderns.

Here is another bit from the book:

To begin with, we need an author who, in his interpretations, is willing to follow the very un-Straussian injunction — often found on mathematics exams — “show all work.”  We need to see, once or twice, how the sausage is made.  The best writing for this purpose that I am familiar with comes from an appropriately un-Straussian source: Stanley Fish.  His “Georgics of the Mind: The Experience of Bacon’s Essays” is a brilliant and nuanced exercise in textual analysis that openly displays, at every stage of Fish’s encounter with the text, what he thinks and why he thinks it.

…Another excellent and highly communicative reader…is Robert Connor.  His Thucydides is a very sensitive reading of Thucydides’s great history, a reading openly arrived at and clearly conveyed.  In conjunction with this, one should also read Clifford Orwin’s superb The Humanity of Thucydides.

Recommended.

Very good sentences

by on September 6, 2014 at 9:39 pm in Current Affairs, Philosophy, Religion | Permalink

The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Don’t expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.

Because your assumptions and pieties are evil’s best opportunity, and your conventional wisdom is what’s most likely to condemn victims to their fate.

That is from Ross Douthat, on the general lessons of Rotherham.

The actual title is Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography.  I enjoyed this book and learned a good deal from it, here is one excerpt:

…understanding the Summa as based on the cycle of emanation and return helps tie much of Thomas’s theological work together, from the Writing on the Sentences to the Summa.  In his earliest synthesis Thomas had already referred to the coming forth from and return of all things to God as a key theological principle…

For Thomas this circular motion reveals god’s sapiential ordering on the most universal level.  To think of the exitus-reditus model as primarily philosophical and Neoplatonic, as some have argued, is a modern view that Thomas would not have shared.  What else does scripture teach but how all things were created by God and are directed back to him as their final goal?

You can order the book here.

A North Carolina diner that offers discounts to praying customers has ignited an internet firestorm across the US.

For the past four years, Mary’s Gourmet Restaurant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had been surprising customers with a 15% discount if they prayed or meditated before meals.

“It could be anything – just taking a moment to push away the world,” says Mary Haglund, the owner. “I never asked anyone who they were praying to – that would be silly. I just recognised it as an act of gratitude.”

However, it wasn’t until customer Jordan Smith shared her receipt with a Christian radio station on 30 July that the diner and its discount went viral.

“There was no signage anywhere that promoted the prayer discount. We just ordered our food and prayed over it once it arrived,” says Smith. “It wasn’t until the end when they brought the bill over and it said 15% discount for praying in public.”

The story is here, and for the pointer I thank Felix Morency-Lavoie.  By the way, the discount may violate the 1965 Civil Rights Act.