Religion

Markets in everything?

by on August 18, 2017 at 7:10 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

I cannot tell whether this tale should count as confirmed:

As awful as that may sound, a number of religious scholars are offering themselves up for one-night stands with divorced Muslim women trying to save their marriages under a disputable Islamic law, an India Today investigation has found.

They charge anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh to participate in nikah halala, a controversial practice that requires a woman to marry someone else, sleep with him and get a divorce again in order to be able to remarry her first husband under personal laws, the probe discovered.

India Today’s investigative team has blown the lid off the taboo tradition that has remained largely unnoticed amid intense debates over triple talaq on the media and in the country’s top court.

The probe found many Islamic scholars putting themselves up on sale for women desperate to restore their broken marriages.

Here is the full article, via Raj.  I am surprised that the equilibrium price is that high.

Not from The Onion

by on August 11, 2017 at 2:27 pm in Economics, Religion | Permalink

‘BitCoen’ to become first electronic currency specifically for Jews

And this:

While anyone can purchase tokens, the company will be managed by a ‘Council of Six’ made up solely of Jewish representatives. The representatives will likely be prominent leaders in both public and private sectors, though there is no word yet as to the planned demography of the leaders.

As the currency is aimed specifically at Jewish communities, there will be an automation option so that trading operations may take place on Shabbat, when the handling of money is prohibited by Jewish law.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that all or even most of these new coins are viable entities…

Hat tip goes to Irrelevant Investor.

Theme-based restaurants and parks are passé. A theme-based crematorium is the latest talk of the hour, both online and offline. Antim Udan Moksha Airport in Gujarat, the first of its kind in India, puts the departing souls of the dead cremated here on international flights to the heaven for ultimate salvation or moksha: freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

Located in Gujarat’s Bardoli on the banks of Mindhola River, the crematorium is modeled on an airport and equipped with two giant replicas of aircraft. The airplane replicas at Antim Udan Moksha Airport in Gujarat are named Moksha (salvation) airlines and Swarga (heaven) airlines which seem to transport the souls from the earth to the heaven on cremation of dead bodies here.

What’s the most interesting about Antim Udan Moksha Airport in Gujarat is the airport-like announcement which is made to guide funeral parties on entry into the crematorium and instruct them where to keep the body, how to proceed for cremation, etc. There is very little difference between the announcement made at the crematorium and that at airports as well as in planes.

What makes the crematorium more like an airport is the typical noise that an aircraft makes while taking off. A similar noise is created when dead bodies are placed in furnace at Antim Udan Moksha Airport in Gujarat. The atmosphere of the airport-themed crematorium is intended to soothe the mourning family members under the impression that the dead depart for salvation in the heaven.

Here is more, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Adam Ozimek asks me:

How should we think about this in a meta-rational sense? https://www.theverge.com/2017/7/20/16003766/elon-musk-boring-company-hyperloop-nyc-philadelphia-baltimore-dc

…What should we make of it?

To be clear, I have never had interaction with Elon Musk, so I intend these as general possibilities, rather than as commentary on his individual personality:

1. There are some people who on Twitter will just “fuck with us.”  Precisely because they have done a lot in the so-called “real world,” they just don’t take Twitter that seriously.

2. Some very successful people are programmed to rhetorically overreach.  This makes them the center of attention and furthermore keeps them motivated.  They don’t apply the same kind of “reality filter” to their rhetoric that a scientist might.

3. Sometimes exaggeration is used to distract from pending failures, a’la Trump, and this process may include self-distraction.  (Tesla?)

4. Exaggeration is a way to keep the hyperloop on the agenda and in the mindset of the nerdy public.  Eventually that will help make the hyperloop possible.  Speakers with this motive often think of themselves as bootstrapping the reality, rather than “making stuff up.”

Most of talk isn’t about reporting the truth! In this sense the tweet isn’t surprising at all.

And what the heck is “verbal government approval” in a world with federalism, multiple layers of environmental review, NIMBY homeowners, and courts of varying jurisdictions? I like to think the tweet might be an act of sarcastic protest, or Straussian meta-commentary born out of frustration, but somehow I suspect neither of those is the case.

Here is the abstract of a new paper by Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar, and Noam Yuchtman:

The Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517, was both a shock to the market for religion and a first-order economic shock. We study its impact on the allocation of resources between the religious and secular sectors in Germany, collecting data on the allocation of human and physical capital. While Protestant reformers aimed to elevate the role of religion, we find that the Reformation produced rapid economic secularization. The interaction between religious competition and political economy explains the shift in investments in human and fixed capital away from the religious sector. Large numbers of monasteries were expropriated during the Reformation, particularly in Protestant regions. This transfer of resources shifted the demand for labor between religious and secular sectors: graduates from Protestant universities increasingly entered secular occupations. Consistent with forward-looking behavior, students at Protestant universities shifted from the study of theology toward secular degrees. The appropriation of resources by secular rulers is also reflected in construction: during the Reformation, religious construction declined, particularly in Protestant regions, while secular construction increased,especially for administrative purposes. Reallocation was not driven by pre-existing economic or cultural differences.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

And what a pile it is, after a while in China.  I l have started pawing through:

Francis Spufford, True Stories & Other Essays.  I have browsed this only selectively, but the essay on C.S. Lewis and the dangers of apologetics is superb.  He quotes Lewis:

…nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist.  No doctrine of the Faith seems to me as spectral, so unreal as the one that I have just described in a public debate.  For a moment, you see it, it has seemed to rest on oneself; as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar…

I also can recommend Spufford’s essay on what science fiction call tell us about God, and on Francis Bacon and the idolatry of the market.  I look forward to the rest.

Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice from the Silence of Autism, by Naoki Higashida, is a good autism memoir from Japan.

Scott E. Page, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy.

Peter Brannen, The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions.

*Paths of the Soul*

by on July 10, 2017 at 5:07 am in Film, Religion, Travel | Permalink

That is the title of an extraordinary Chinese-Tibetan film (with English subtitles, even in Kunming), here is one description:

A birth, a death, a pilgrimage. A film about the 1,200-mile journey of a pregnant woman, a butcher who wants to atone for his sins and a rag-tag band of villagers who go on foot from their small village in Tibet to the sacred Mt. Kailash has become a surprise winner at the Chinese box office.

It is doing better here per screen than Transformers 5 (or is that 6?).  Here is more about the plot premise;

They travel wearing thick aprons made of yak hide and wooden planks tied to their palms. Every few feet, they raise their hands high above their heads in respect for the Buddha, then lower their worshipping hands to their forehead and then to their chest before diving into the ground, touching the earth with their foreheads. To an outsider, the ritual looks like bodysurfing on solid ground. While they chant a simple mantra, devotees lie flat on their stomachs with their hands bent at their elbows, pointing toward the heavens in a sign of prayer. Then they stand up and repeat these steps as the summer’s scorching asphalt roads turn into slippery ice-covered tracks in the winter.

It turns out this is a real thing, as they say back in The Great NJ, and they keep it up for 1200 km over the course of a year (really).  Strapped babies and small children partake as well.  And this isn’t a pure outlier, as my Yunnanese friend Jimi tells me he has seen it many times in Tibet on the open road.

You may think it all sounds silly, but by the end of the film you realize that what you are doing with your own life isn’t actually so different and is perhaps in some ways less valuable.

 

I’m calling this as one of the two or three best movies of the year, or indeed of any year.  Highly recommended on the big screen, though here you can find it on Amazon.  It goes without saying that the film is full of social science.

He has written a…dare I call it awesomelong dialogue, based on my earlier post on why I do not believe in God.  Any paragraph would make an excellent excerpt, it is hard to choose, here is just one set of observations:

Instead, what I think you are looking for is a kind of black swan among revelations…

And, no surprise here, I think the combination of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is the darkest swan in the sea of religious stories — the compendium of stories, histories, poems and prophecies and parables and eyewitness accounts that most suggests an actual unfolding of divine revelation, and whose unlikely but overwhelming role as a history-shaping force endures even in what is supposed to be our oh-so-disenchanted world.

Ross also considers that if he were to play a kind of Bayesian game on reported personal revelations, treating all revelations equally (please read his whole discussion and don’t quote him out of context, as he is not actually advocating treating all revelations equally), he comes up with 45 percent for classical theism, “the pantheistic big tent” at 40 percent, gnosticism (hurrah!) at 6 percent, hard “no supernatural” deism at 4 percent, dualism at 3 percent, and finally “Which still leaves that two percent chance that Daniel Dennett has it right.”

There is much much more at the link, self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

P.s. Ross says yes, I should believe in God.

Ben was wildly charming and charismatic before the crowd.  My questions tried to get at how he thinks rather than the hot button issues of the day.  Here is the transcript, audio, and video.  We covered Kansas vs. Nebraska, famous Nebraskans, Chaucer and Luther, unicameral legislatures, the decline of small towns, Ben’s prize-winning Yale Ph.d thesis on the origins of conservatism,  what he learned as a university president, Stephen Curry, Chevy Chase, Margaret Chase Smith, and much more.

Here is one bit from Ben:

Neverland and Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. Neverland is not a good place. You don’t want to get to the place where you’re physically an adult and you have no moral sense, you have no awareness of history, you have no interest in the future. Peter Pan is killing people, and he doesn’t really care; he doesn’t remember their names. It’s a really dystopian thing. Perpetual adolescence is the bad thing.

Adolescence is special. We need to figure out how to use adolescence; it’s a means to an end. So that’s what the book’s about.

I am an Augustinian in my anthropology, but Rousseau is a romantic. I think he’s wrong about lots and lots and lots of things, but I think he’s really, really smart. You have to engage him, and you have to engage people who have ideas that are different than yours because you may ultimately be converted to their view, and you need to encounter things that are big and challenging and threatening to your worldview. Or you may sometimes come to believe you’re right and be able to respond to the counterarguments, while your argument will be better. You’ll grow through it, and you’ll become more persuasive to others through it.

So I think Rousseau’s fundamental anthropological understanding of why we feel that things are broken in our soul is, he’s got a reason to blame society for everything we feel is wrong in the world, and I think there’s a lot of brokenness deep inside all of us, and so, that’s the Augustinian versus Rousseauvian sense of what’s wrong.

But I think the Emile is brilliant, both because it forces me to wrestle with ideas that I don’t agree with, or mostly don’t agree with, but I think it’s also just an incredibly good read.

Then there was this:

COWEN: …Might one argue that the more one thinks and writes about sex, the more you’re led to Rousseauian conclusions that a certain kind of constraint will prove impossible, and then one is pulled away further from Ben Sasse–like conclusions.

SASSE: That’s a really fair question. I wanted to stay away from sex 100 percent, and then ultimately I couldn’t do it.

COWEN: There’s three pages in your book about sex.

SASSE: Yeah.

COWEN: And page 33 mentions it once.

You’ll have to read the whole thing to see where Ben took that line of inquiry, his answer was excellent.

The true Thomas Bayes

by on June 20, 2017 at 12:12 am in History, Religion, Science | Permalink

Rational or irrational?

Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian minister.

Bayes’s first publication was a theological work, entitled Divine Benevolence ([Bayes], 1731). Since no author appears on the title page of the book, or anywhere else, it is sometimes considered to be of doubtful authorship. For example, the National Union Catalog of the United States ascribes authorship to Joshua Bayes. However, Thomas Bayes was the author of this work. Bayes’s friend, Richard Price refers to the book in his own work A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (Price, 1948, p. 248) and says that it was written by Thomas Bayes. In Divine Benevolence Bayes was trying to answer the question of the motivating source of God’s actions in the world.

The essay dealt with how to handle the problem of evil in the world.  It is also believed that Bayes was an Arian.

That is from a D.R. Bellhouse paper (pdf), with a relevant pointer from Asher Meir.

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.

COWEN: Yes.

LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.

And:

LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

Recommended…

One of his main points is that secular nationalism and Islamism have never been so separate in Turkey:

Tactical and transient, the new regime’s [Kemal’s] use of Islam, when no longer required, was easily reversed. But at a deeper level, a much tighter knot tied it to the very religion it proceeded on the surface to mortify. For even when at apparent fever pitch, Turkish secularism has never been truly secular. This is in part because, as often noted, Kemalism did not so much separate religion from the state as subordinate it to the state, creating ‘directorates’ that took over the ownership of all mosques, appointment of imams, administration of pious foundations – in effect, turning the faith into a branch of the bureaucracy. A much more profound reason, however, is that religion was never detached from the nation, becoming instead an unspoken definition of it. It was this that allowed Kemalism to become more than just a cult of the elites, leaving a durable imprint on the masses themselves. Secularism failed to take at village level: nationalism sank deeper popular roots. It is possible – such is the argument of Carter Findley in his Turks in World History – that in doing so it drew on a long Turkish cultural tradition, born in Central Asia and predating conversion to Islam, that figured a sacralisation of the state, which has vested its modern signifier, devlet, with an aura of unusual potency. However that may be, the ambiguity of Kemalism was to construct an ideological code in two registers. One was secular and appealed to the elite. The other was crypto-religious and accessible to the masses. Common to both was the integrity of the nation, as supreme political value.

Here is the full LRB essay, via Alex Xenopoulos.  The comments after the essay are worth reading too.

R., a Catholic and loyal MR reader, emails me:

I would be interested in a post explaining why you *don’t* believe in (some form of) God.

Not long ago I outlined what I considered to be the best argument for God, and how origin accounts inevitably seem strange to us; I also argued against some of the presumptive force behind scientific atheism.  Yet still I do not believe, so why not?  I have a few reasons:

1. We can distinguish between “strange and remain truly strange” possibilities for origins, and “strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized” origin stories.  Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions.  I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information (just look at how worked up they get over social media), so I stick with the “strange and remain truly strange” options.  I don’t see those as ruling out theism, but at the end of the day it is more descriptively apt to say I do not believe, rather than asserting belief.

2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings.  That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief.  I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

2b. In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.”  It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs.  I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated.  Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.

3. Religious belief has a significant heritable aspect, as does atheism.  That should make us all more skeptical about what we think we know about religious truth (the same is true for politics, by the way).  I am not sure this perspective favors “atheist” over “theist,” but I do think it favors “I don’t believe” over “I believe.”  At the very least, it whittles down the specificity of what I might say I believe in.

4. I am struck by the frequency with which people believe in the dominant religions of their society or the religion of their family upbringing, perhaps with some modification.  (If you meet a Wiccan, don’t you jump to the conclusion that they are strange?  Or how about a person who believes in an older religion that doesn’t have any modern cult presence at all?  How many such people are there?)

This narrows my confidence in the judgment of those who believe, since I see them as social conformists to a considerable extent.  Again, I am not sure this helps “atheism” either (contemporary atheists also slot into some pretty standard categories, and are not generally “free thinkers”), but it is yet another net nudge away from “I believe” and toward “I do not believe.”  I’m just not that swayed by a phenomenon based on social conformity so strongly.

That all said I do accept that religion has net practical benefits for both individuals and societies, albeit with some variance.  That is partly where the pressures for social conformity come from.  I am a strong Straussian when it comes to religion, and overall wish to stick up for the presence of religion in social debate, thus some of my affinities with say Ross Douthat and David Brooks on many issues.

5. I am frustrated by the lack of Bayesianism in most of the religious belief I observe.  I’ve never met a believer who asserted: “I’m really not sure here.  But I think Lutheranism is true with p = .018, and the next strongest contender comes in only at .014, so call me Lutheran.”  The religious people I’ve known rebel against that manner of framing, even though during times of conversion they may act on such a basis.

I don’t expect all or even most religious believers to present their views this way, but hardly any of them do.  That in turn inclines me to think they are using belief for psychological, self-support, and social functions.  Nothing wrong with that, says the strong Straussian!  But again, it won’t get me to belief.

6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature to everybody — it’s one of the best books period.  But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong.  Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other.

7. I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!”  We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims.  In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that.

Add all that up and I just don’t believe.  Furthermore, I find it easy not to believe.  It doesn’t stress me, and I don’t feel a resulting gap or absence in my life.  That I strongly suspect is for genetic reasons, not because of some intellectual argument I or others have come up with.  But there you go, the deconstruction of my own belief actually pushes me somewhat further into it.

To sum it all up, agnosticism is pretty easy to argue for, and it gets you a lot closer to “not believing” than “believing.”

To be clear, I am a non-believer, but it is often worth trying to figure out versions of alternative views.

I am struck by those believers who find the “multiverse” or “we live in a simulation” to be absurd positions, presumably in their minds more absurd than theism.

My thoughts wander back to David Hume’s classic discussion of stumbling upon a watch in the wilderness.  Is it a “strange” watch?  We have an answer to this question only because we’ve already seen other watches.  We cannot with similar facility judge whether this is a “strange” universe/multiverse, nor can we readily judge a particular origin story for that universe as strange, or not.  We have no point of comparison, and furthermore I am not sure we can appeal to the physical laws that operate inside of this universe.

To many people, the branching multiverse seems bizarre, but “steady state matter” theories do not (even if they are false).  I am suggesting that distinction cannot be upheld.  You haven’t seen a multiverse in Cleveland before, and so you scratch your head and call that science fiction.  But you have seen stuff just sitting around on the sofa.  I submit that is a cosmological bias, not the grounds for an insight into origin stories.

If we cannot judge the strangeness of the universe, or judge the strangeness of an origin story for the universe, that is itself strange.  So we are always in the realm of the strange, it seems.

One major objection to theism is already taken off the table, namely the view of many non-believers that it is somehow absurd, mystical, Santa Claus-like, and so on.

So it’s “strangeness all the way down.”

What then is the most focal “strange” view on origins that we have?

To be sure, you might side against “focality” as a standard for choosing amongst very strange views about origins.  But now it seems we are on a turf where all kinds of doctrines stand a fighting chance.

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, June 14, Arlington, 6:30 p.m., register here.

Here is Wikipedia on Ben Sasse.  In addition to being a Senator from Nebraska, he has extensive experience in government, was an assistant professor, president of Midland University, and he has a Ph.d. in history from Yale University, with a prize-winning dissertation on religious liberty and the origins of the conservative movement as it relates to the battle over school prayer.  He also now has the #1 best-selling book, on raising kids.

Just to be clear, I will not be making what you might call “very current events” the focus of this discussion.  So what should I ask him?

Update: rsvp link corrected.