Is Jesus cheaper than a buffalo? (ZMP gods)

It would seem:

At upwards of US$500, the cost of slaughtering a buffalo to revive a relative condemned to ill-health by the spirits has pushed the Jarai indigenous minority residents of Somkul village in Ratanakkiri to a more affordable religious option: Christianity.

In the village in O’Yadav district’s Som Thom commune, about 80 per cent of the community have given up on spirits and ghosts in favour of Sunday sermons and modern medicine.

Sev Chel, 38, said she made the switch because when she used to get sick, it could cost her hundreds of dollars to appease the gods with a sacrificial package that might include a cow or buffalo, a chicken, bananas, incense and rice wine.

“So if I sold that buffalo and took the money to pay for medicine, it is about 30,000 riel to 40,000 riel [for them to] get better, so we are strong believers in Jesus,” she said. “If I did not believe in Jesus, maybe at this time I would still be poor and not know anything besides my community.”

A small wooden church has emerged in Somkul commune where the word of Jesus Christ, or “Yesu Yang” to the Jarai, is preached instead of the mixture of animism and Theravada Buddhism they have traditionally followed.

Kralan Don, 60, said he and the four other members of his family began attending the church about five years ago because of their poor standard of living.

“We believe in Christianity because we are poor; we don’t have money to buy buffaloes, chickens and pigs to pray for the spirits of the god of land or the god of water when those gods make us get sick,” he said.

Klan Ly, 56, said she had completely abandoned her fears of black magic after making the conversion.

For the pointer I thank WK.


This seems like a modern parallel to the argument that Christianity spread in antiquity in part because it provided similar services to mystery cults but at a lower cost.

May be part of what happened at the Reformation too - the new Protestants avoided the huge shakedown operation that was the Roman church.

The next great awakening will happen when folks realize confession and absolution is cheaper than therapy.

But less effective---these are not substitutable goods

It would be interesting to see some evidence on that.

Yeah it would be pretty tough to prove the confession and absolution do more harm then therapy does.

Was it Bertrand Russell in the History of Western Philosophy that said that the adoption of Christianity sped up because it offered an afterlife without a circumcision?
Early Christianity is a fascinating marketing phenomenon and the strategy of the early Christians should be taught in Business Schools.

Perhaps Christianity spreads in the modern day through association with western medicine. Western medical techniques may be indistinguishable from Christian rites to these village residents. Missionaries probably present both as a packaged good to aid in conversion.

"Western medical techniques may be indistinguishable from Christian rites to these village residents."

I wonder why this is? Where are all the Jeremyists reaching out with inexpensive medical help in order to prevent this association?

In practice, access to modern medical techniques to some of the poorest regions of the world might actually be inseparable from the Christian practice of charity and compassion.

Not just "similar services", but superior services. Christianity cared for its poor and its sick. Charity was noticeably absent from the ancient world. A very few eccentric individuals, like Queen Phila of Macedonia (the first woman to be formally deified in the Greco-Roman world) busied themselves with the poor. And some governments handed out food to prevent riots and paid public doctors as a way to keep epidemics in check. The pagan cults however did little or nothing for social welfare. When Julian the Apostate sought to restore paganism he ordered the cults to copy Christian charitable work, seeing correctly that this was what had gained Christianity so many converts in fairly short order. Rice Christians were not a modern phenomenon.

They should try Jeremyism. I'll give them a real good discount at low monthly instalments of just $9.99! Call now and I'll include a free blessing! That's not all! I'll ALSO send a magical jellybean which will bring them good fortune in the next life to come!

That's right, you get full membership to the church of Jeremyism, a blessing, and a magic jellybean for just 9.99$ per month! Wow!

Call now, 1-800-BULL-SHT. That's 1-800-285-5448.

The full article mentions converts save money by relying on Western medicine. Most missionaries (I know a couple in the region) also can teach on health — clean water, vaccinations, basic medicine, prophylactic bed nets, etc.

Oddly enough, the most visible strains of Christianity in the West reject such health teachings while they are embraced in the poorest areas of the world.

The most visible strains [sects?] of Western Christianity reject clean water and vaccinations? This is quite a statement.

Well, Will did include the word "prophylactic"... how many mainstream Christians have been on a doctrinal rampage about birth control recently?

Otherwise, yeah, it's quite the overstatement.

"Prophylactic" in this context has nothing to do with birth control. It means "preventive" or, more specifically, "prevents diseases".

Perhaps I was too tongue-in-cheek, but religious exemptions from vaccinations are well-established in the United States. (I realize on all commentators on the blog are in the U.S.) There are a number of churches in my area (the Pacific Northwest) that urge parents not to vaccinate their children for communicable diseases. These are often rapidly growing independent churches.

Other churches, including mainstream churches, oppose the vaccine for cervical cancer.

More anecdotally, I've spoken to people who feel that fluoridation, the Clean Water Act, city-owned water systems, etc. are an erosion of liberties that that will lead to godlessness and that such things should be left to the free market. Perhaps an overstatement, but I've never seen someone reciting the Lord's Prayer in front of City Hall to draw attention to reducing the ppm of arsenic in the city water supply.

While most mainstream churches accept vaccinations and the importance of clean water, smaller and more radical groups tend to grab headlines set the agenda. The Westboro Baptist Church gets far more attention in the media than, say, the Methodists.

But I may well see the worst and not the quiet middle.

It's a statistical certainty that in a country as large, and as heavily Christian, as the U.S., you can find Christians holding almost any belief you name, but it's fatuous to call those oddball sects "the most visible strains" of Christianity. I don't recall Rick Warren or T.D. Jakes--much less the Catholic bishops--rejecting clean water or vaccination.

......what about condoms, though?

No mainstream protestant church is against birth control (and by that I do not mean the dying mainline churches, but the protestant churches that the majority of American Christians go to). Even if you want to separate out conservative Christians (or fundamentalist, or Orthodox, or whatever label you prefer) being against birth control is mainly a Catholic/Amish/Mennonite thing.

You confuse oppositions to what is called fornication by conservative Christians and called healthy teenagers doing what comes natural by the rest of the world with opposition to a particular birth control device.

Actually the 19th century popes anathemized (if that's the right word) smallpox inoculations for much the same reason the Church bans contraception: because it is counter to nature. One pope even pronounced railroads to be sins against the order of nature.

Does not surprise me if true. But which ones and what is your source?

I have read a lot crazy teachings (or what I would consider crazy teachings) that came out of the catholic church in the catholic churches own sources. But I have also read a lot of flat out lies and distortions about what the Catholic have historical taught by people who liked a good story when they heard one and passed it on without finding out if it was true.

Incentives mat... oh for God's sake.

Scientology wouldn't get any traction among these people.

I see I was right after all...

Jesus saves you money!

Needs an ellipsis for best effect.

you money

And yet, the fastest growing religions are all very expensive, both in money and time. See Mormonism, the Amish, and orthodox Jews.

Expensive is fine if it gets you a strong community. I'm guessing animism is like mainline Protestantism - less a community than a form of cultural wallpaper. And nobody *really* cares about wallpaper.

I was going to disagree with you, because I consider myself a mainline Protestant. Then I remembered that I don't actually go to Sunday service.

"Expensive" is relative. More expensive than other mainline Western religions maybe but not if you compare them with the stuff described in the article.

expensive? maybe you just have to invest more. what about the dividends?

One of the advantages to being a Christian or Muslim in the Cambodian highland communities is steadier work. Companies want to clear land, for example, but local animists won't chop down a tree until they have literally slept on the matter and had a dream assuring them the resident spirits approve.

Christians and Muslims are not so concerned with such matters and will chop down trees promptly.


Some religions really are philosophically more advanced than others. This in turn gives people confidence to "[give] up on spirits and ghosts in favour of Sunday sermons and modern medicine."

Or take the quote:

Klan Ly, 56, said she had completely abandoned her fears of black magic after making the conversion.

The philosphical basis of this might just be "my God is bigger than your daemon". But it works! Indeed you don't want to be too sophisticated. The article says local religion is a mixture of "animism and Theravaddha Buddhism". The latter is about as philosophically sophisticated as it gets, and would be as cheap as Christianity if it didn't always have to import the local version of magic. Christianity imports its own, clean, efficient, low cost, modern superstition.

More proof that health care has never been cheap anywhere no matter how it's dispensed.

The accounting is off. Christianity still requires a 10% tithe on all income and a tax-free subsidy from the government (at least in the States). There are even cheaper forms of religion.

Well 10 percent on $2,000 a year isn't bad compared to the cost of a couple of buffalo and a chicken or two. Most Christian churches I'm aware of will still let you attend even if you pay less than 10 percent, too.

Dunno. I listened to a priest, who was an accountant by training, go over the 10% concept. He went through all the services the Church provided in history to the population - health care, welfare, education - that the state now provides. Based on his math, he said that if each family gave 2-3% of their income the parish would be in really good shape. This was a working-class parish in NOVA.

Well, consider this:

What is the price of modern medicine versus Christianity.

Could you offer your doctor: " hundreds of dollars ... of a sacrificial package that might include a cow or buffalo, a chicken, bananas, incense and rice wine."\

Looks like Christianity beats out modern medicine as well.

On the other side of the coin, expensive religious goods and services can serve as signalling devices. For example, in Orthodox Judaism, expensive super-Kosher foods have become the norm. Dissenters don't want to seem religiously lax or, even worse, impecunious. Similarly, capital intensive education options have supplanted the free education offered by the state. This allows for the formation of a cohort of like minded, similarly socialized Orthodox Jews and signals one's blessedness by the ability to pay $20000+ for a year of High School.

I really appreciated this post. I wrote my own post trying to work out the origin of the biases we exhibit towards this behavior as well as re-framing it vis a vis Judaism. I hope its not presumptuous to link
Thanks to Tyler for pointing me in this direction.

The link text ("idiotpaysretail") and the first and last sentences made me think this was a spam post but seeing the one above made me realize it is not.

I'm a Catholic because my wife told me I had to be. :)

A few comments based on the little I know of the Jarai people and the situation in Ratanakiri. (I spent two months of 2006 in Ratanakiri doing linguistic research with the Jarai, and I have spent the last few years continuing that research, but with Jarai from Vietnam who now live in the U.S. Many of the Jarai I've worked with are Protestants. I am also friends with a number of missionaries in Cambodia.)

(1) The article gives the impression that in Ratanakiri, the primary (only?) motive for conversion is financial. But there are many Jarai who have converted to Christianity at great personal loss to themselves. When I was doing linguistic research in Ratanakiri, I visited a village that was composed of families who had been expelled from their own villages because of their conversions. In a clan society with communal land, saving money on a water buffalo is probably insufficient motivation to risk such a massive personal loss.

(2) Nevertheless, in some villages and for some people, the risk of being shunned is not significant and the potential benefits are quite attractive. Perhaps this is the case in Saom Trat. And in fact, conversion for the hope of financial gain is common in Cambodia, as it is even in developed countries like the U.S. (someone else here mentioned TD Jakes). So the phenomenon described in the article is a genuine one, but it's only part of a complex movement in Cambodia that includes, among many other factors, the desire of many people to convert because they are convinced that the claims of Christianity are true.

(3) Among the Protestant missionaries I know in Ratanakiri, there has been a long-term sustained effort to work against presenting Christianity in a light that would induce people to convert for financial reasons. Such conversions are generally deemed to be spurious, and they frequently prove ephemeral when hard times come.

(4) I suspect that the present analysis of the Christian movement among the Jarai suffers at least a bit from some post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking. The world over, conversion to Christianity has tended to lead to various benefits. Christians tend not to burn widows, practice infanticide, encourage ritual prostitution, require exorbitantly expensive sacrifices, etc. Additionally, Christianity has a work and family ethic that tends to produce more stability than one finds in some other religions. Sometimes this tendency incentivizes conversions. But people enjoy many of these benefits whether they converted for the sake of them or not. To assume that everyone who enjoys benefits from their conversion must therefore have converted for the sake of those benefits is demeaning to the convert.

Your last paragraph raises an excellent point, but economists are constitutionally incapable of thinking in anything other than purely materialistic and consequentialist terms.

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