Category: Religion

More Transhumanism

In his excellent post yesterday on identity and transhumanism Tyler asked:

Now let’s say
your children could be one percent happier throughout their lives, but
this would mean they were totally unlike you, the parent… How many of us would choose this option?

I think the answer is more than Tyler imagines.  Many poor immigrants have made exactly this choice.  They come from the old country for a better life for their children and in the process their children become something strange and different from themselves, namely American.  The tension between the immigrant parents, never quite learning to speak English properly or to adopt the new ways and mores, and their American children can be hearbreaking.

Transhumanism will never make as large a difference between a single generation as does immigration.

Tyler also writes "Isn’t there a collective action problem here?  Everyone wants a more competitive kid but at the end humanity is very different."

True, but I think the collective action problem is actually a solution to the externality problem.  Consider a slight modification of Tyler’s example.

Suppose that your children could be much happier throughout
their lives, but this would mean they were totally unlike you, the

Why would parents say no to this offer?  Only because they discount the happiness of their children relative to their own – even if the children gain much more than the parents, the parents lose and they say no.  And yet isn’t this monstrous?

Fortunately, change across a single generation is likely to be small so parents will say yes even though 5 or 6 or 10 generations down the line the changes will be dramatic.  It’s because of this wedge effect that Fukuyama is so worried about relatively small changes today and it’s precisely for this reason that his opposition has no hope of success in a free society.

Bring on the velociraptors.

Should theists accept higher risks of death?

The ever-provocative Will Wilkinson opines:

In a fit of Beckerite rational choice reasoning, I decided that
theists ought to have higher rates of death by accident. If I believe
that heaven is infinite bliss, then I should be quite eager to join my
maker. Suicide is a disqualification for paradise, but dying in a car
accident isn’t. So, one should expect that theists who believe in
perpetual Miami would take more risks than those who do not so believe,
and that thus, death-by-accident ought to be higher among believer than

My guess is that there is no difference in rates of
death-by-accident among believers and non-believers. If my guess is
correct, then there’s another reason to believe that many people don’t
really believe in God, even though they think they do. Or, at least, there’s a reason for rational choice economists to believe meta-atheism.

My take: Most of all, theists should have stronger reasons to live.  They have their own selfish reasons, plus whatever role they think they are supposed to be playing in God’s plan.  So they ought to take fewer chances; indeed the data suggest that both religious belief and religious participation are correlated with longer lifespans.  And even if theists believe death is paradise, that will come sooner or later in any case.  In other words, heaven brings an "income effect," not a "substitution effect."  We need of course two auxiliary assumptions.  First, theists, given their perceived roles in God’s plan, do not feel a strong impatience to arrive in heaven.  Second, the method of death under consideration should not affect the probability of heaven vs. hell.

That all being said, we don’t have a good theory of how to rank-order infinities (e.g., "infinity plus three" is not mathematically larger than "infinity").  So how can anyone who sees any chance of infinite utility satisfy standard choice axioms?  Even Nick Bostrom can’t answer this question.  (And should theists accept Tabarrok’s Offer?)  But I won’t blame this problem on theism per se.  As Nick argues, atheistic cosmologies can easily have problems with infinite expected values.  And arguably theism could be used to define limits on time, physical space, or the scope of possible worlds.  So both empirics and theory suggest that theists should be more eager to live, and less willing to die (now).

Pay or pray?

Many people give money to their churches and then go less often. Jonathan Gruber writes:

I find strong evidence that religious giving and religious attendance are substitutes: larger subsidies to charitable giving lead to more religious giving, but less religious attendance, with an implied elasticity of substitution with respect to religious giving of -0.92. [TC: If your giving goes up by one precent, your expected attendance goes down by about 1.1 percent.] These results have important implications for the debate over charitable subsidies. They also serve to validate economic models of religious participation.

Here is the abstract; you can buy the paper there for $5. Here is Jonathan Gruber’s home page.

The question for policy is whether you want churches to be wealthier or fuller. I’ll vote for wealthier, so I have no trouble endorsing the tax break for church giving. It spurs donation but apparently keeps some people at home as well. The irregular attendees are the ones whose behavior tends to vary with dollar donations.

One story is that the irregulars are guilted into going and that we should give them an easy way out, namely a donation. A cash transfer substitutes for a real time investment, which is efficient. Let’s also not forget the intra-family externality on the kids; many would rather play than hear a sermon. An alternative story is that getting these people into church, in the bodily sense, will create a positive social externality. If that’s your view, stop doing fundraising for your church. Perhaps you should stop giving money as well.

Speaking of the economics of religion, this site, put together by my colleague Larry Iannaccone, offers systematic links to the field and its scholars.

What are economists learning about religion?

Harvard economist Robert Barro has been engaged in a major project on economics and religion. Here is an interview, outlining what he has learned. Here are some results:

1. Religious participation is negatively correlated with economic growth.

2. For the most part religious belief (as opposed to participation) is not correlated with economic growth. Belief in hell is positively correlated with growth, however.

3. Religious pluralism makes people more religious. In other words, the more options available, the more likely that religion will be found appealing.

4. As a country becomes wealthier, its people tend to become less religious (the U.S. is an outlier here; we are remarkably religious for our level of wealth).

Here is the part that surprised me most:

We look at the consequences of having an established state religion. On net, we find that that is actually positive, both for church attendance and for religious beliefs. To some extent, that goes against what Adam Smith said. Smith stressed that established religion would promote monopoly, poor service, and decreased service attendance. He particularly inferred that from looking at the Anglican Church in England.

We find, however, that the net relationship is actually positive, and we think that is basically because state religion tends to be accompanied by the state subsidizing religious activity in various ways. I think an economist, particularly Adam Smith, would generally accept the idea that something that is subsidized will tend to occur more often than something that isn’t. It’s the same as saying that something that is taxed will tend to occur less often.

Here is Barro’s home page, with links to many of his writings. Here is a plug for my colleague, Laurence Iannaccone, who works on related issues and has been conferring with Barro.

Thanks to the ever-excellent for the link.

Addendum: Here is a recent Barro lecture, thanks to Andrew Grossman for the tip.

Markets in everything: outsourcing prayer

With Roman Catholic clergy in short supply in the United States, Indian priests are picking up some of their work, saying Mass for special intentions, in a sacred if unusual version of outsourcing.

American, as well as Canadian and European churches, are sending Mass intentions, or requests for services like those to remember deceased relatives and thanksgiving prayers, to clergy in India.

Here is some more detail:

In Kerala, a state on the southwestern coast with one of the largest concentrations of Christians in India, churches often receive intentions from overseas. The Masses are conducted in Malayalam, the native language. The intention – often a prayer for the repose of the soul of a deceased relative, or for a sick family member, thanksgiving for a favor received, or a prayer offering for a newborn – is announced at Mass.

The requests are mostly routed to Kerala’s churches through the Vatican, the bishops or through religious bodies. Rarely, prayer requests come directly to individual priests.

While most requests are made via mail or personally through traveling clergymen, a significant number arrive via e-mail, a sign that technology is expediting this practice.

In Kerala’s churches, memorial and thanksgiving prayers conducted for local residents are said for a donation of 40 rupees (90 cents), whereas a prayer request from the United States typically comes with $5, the Indian priests say.

Bishop Sebastian Adayanthrath, the auxiliary bishop of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese in Cochin, a port town in Kerala, said his diocese received an average of 350 Mass intentions a month from overseas. Most were passed to needy priests.

In Kerala, where priests earn $45 a month, the money is a welcome supplement, Bishop Adayanthrath said.

Here is the full story, from The New York Times.

Thanks to the ever-wise David Nishimura for the pointer.

Addendum: We are also told that “unit of account equivalence” holds:

The Rev. Paul Thelakkat, a Cochin-based spokesman for the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, said, “The prayer is heartfelt, and every prayer is treated as the same whether it is paid for in dollars, euros or in rupees.”

A new religion of mankind?

Not the usual MR fare, but I found the following Richard Rorty essay interesting reading. Rorty appears to have moved away from his anti-foundationalism — (roughly) the belief that truths cannot be proven from first principles — and is calling for a new pluralistic religion of humanity:

Rorty believes that we in the West are all polytheists now because we think that there are various goods and no overarching good. He chooses this term “polytheism” carefully–and not altogether ironically–because he believes that the idea can bring together John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William James in the belief that “there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs.” If gods and goods are plural and serve different people in different ways, why should we feel the need to rank them? In fact, it may be the pursuit of such divergent human ends that benefits us all in the long run…

So far I am close to agreeing…although I recognize the possible use of a “stolen concept” of general well-being at the end. If you can’t rank goods, don’t tell me at the end that recognizing this fact will make us all better off. There is more:

Rorty is convinced that such an inexorable transition from traditional monotheism to this secular civil religion is already under way: “I think that the religion of love has gradually moved out of the churches and into the political arena. That religion is in the process of being transfigured into democratic politics. What is left in the churches is the fear that human beings may not be able to save themselves without help–that social cooperation is not enough.” Rorty hopes that the American civil religion of democracy will be enough for most people, so that those left over will be an inconsequential minority.

I agree with much of this point, though I do not approve as Rorty does. Now how about this part:

…Rorty describes the role of college professors in almost fundamentalist terms: professors should see their work in the classroom as nothing less than an exercise in conversion. They ought “to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” With no hint of his usual irony, Rorty writes that “students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.”

As this point I will offer no further comment.

Why is Western Europe so secular?

If you have lived abroad, it is obvious that the United States is very religious for a wealthy country. Here are some explanations why:

One theory involves the different histories of religious marketing over the last two centuries. Because religion has a long history of state sponsorship in Europe, religious bodies there have perhaps grown lazy. State-supported congregations need not aggressively recruit parishioners to “stay in business.” In the United States, however, religions must support themselves and therefore are more aggressive “marketers,” going to much greater lengths to attract congregants than their European counterparts. In other words, American religious organizations spend a great deal of time and energy advertising, and their advertising nets results (Stark and Finke 2000).

A second theory involves the ethnic, racial, immigrant, and national diversity that typifies American society. Unlike certain European nations that are made up of relatively homogenous populations (Iceland, for instance), the United States is permeated by an enormous array of different cultural groups, whose members may find solidarity and community in religious involvement (Warner and Wittner 1998; Herberg 1955). For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, the first American sociologist of religion, observed the unparalleled importance of the church to black Americans, noting that, beyond promulgating theology, the black churches provided a social space and communal refuge in an often hostile world (Zuckerman 2002). In sum, it is possible that a significant level of ethnic/ cultural/racial heterogeneity, as typified by American society, spurs greater religious participation as people seek a sense of belonging or communal support.

A third consideration involves the possible impact of different social welfare systems. Perhaps when the government takes a greater role in providing social services, religion wanes, and when the government fails to provide extensive social services, religion thrives. For instance, religious belief and participation is the absolute lowest level in Scandinavia, whose countries are characterized by generous social support and extensive welfare systems. In contrast, the United States government offers far fewer social services and welfare programs than any European nation.

A fourth possibility may have to do with differing elementary and secondary educational systems. Perhaps the Europeans have done a better job of conveying rational thinking, scientific methodology, and skeptical inquiry to their children than have American educators.

Here is the full story.

My take: I don’t believe the fourth possibility of greater rationality. A big chunk of Germany, for instance, thinks that 9/11 was an American conspiracy. The first three all ring true. I would add that America is a more rural country with lower population density. This encourages religion over urban entertainments. Furthermore the European churches are identified with aristocratic landholding, taxation, and state privileges. That being said, I do not expect the low religiosity of Western Europe to last. Europe has gone through waves of greater and lesser secularization. Furthermore people may be biologically programmed to believe in myths and religions. The real puzzle is why religious suppliers have been so slow to offer products that suit the new European mentalities.

The pledge of allegiance

Yesterday at the Supreme Court, Michael Newdow argued his own case against the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance and apparently he did very well – managing to elicit a rare round of applause from the audience and ending gracefully on time and on point. Personally, although I am not religious, the phrase “under God” doesn’t raise my hackles. It’s the rest of the pledge that I hate.

Cato’s Gene Healy says it well:

From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.” Bellamy was devoted to the ideas of his more-famous cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Looking Backward describes the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes, and men are drafted into the country’s “industrial army” at the age of 21, serving in the jobs assigned them by the state…Bellamy’s book inspired a movement of “Nationalist Clubs,” whose members campaigned for a government takeover of the economy. A few years before he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy became a founding member of Boston’s first Nationalist Club….

Bellamy’s ritual for honoring the flag was right in step with those other National Socialists. Here’s a picture, dug up by Bob Wallace, illustrating the recommended salute (which later was to became politically incorrect).


The salute may be gone but the message remains.

Addendum: Hat tip to Walter in Denver who links to these even creepier photos of kids pledging allegiance.

Markets in everything, the ongoing saga

St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Conn., in a bid to fill empty pews, has introduced a monthly Sunday service for pet owners who wish to take their dogs and cats (and presumably birds, ferrets, and boa constrictors) to the altar to receive the host or a special benediction. Other houses of worship around the country, the paper noted, are also offering everything from pet-friendly services and prayers for the animals to pet funerals and “bark mitzvahs.”

Here is Kasha’s Bark Mitzvah. By the way, “All of Beth Shir Shalom’s Bark Mitzvahs are held in the parking lot, to avoid any “accidents” in the sanctuary.”

Here is a photo of the Episcopal version of a pet-friendly service (no fear of accidents, apparently; see also the attached comments, such as “It looks like that black dog in the picture has some sort of mind control over that old lady. It gives me the creeps.”). Here is the full story, add your own commentary, you don’t want to hear “My Take” on this one.

A Federal Marriage Amendment

Press release from a universe just parsecs from our own:

President Bush today announced support for the Federal Marriage Amendment to the constitution. “Marriage is a sacred institution” said the President “If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America…Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society.”

Bush called on Congress “to promptly pass and to send to the states for ratification” an amendment to define marriage as a sacred union. Liberal courts, said the President, have undermined the institution of marriage by not taking seriously the damage done by those who violate their covenant with God and spouse. Calling for a return to family values, the President said the Federal Marriage Amendment will bring back the traditional penalties for those who violate their unions thereby restoring marriage to its rightful place at the center of a civilized nation.

North Korea on the Web

Check out the website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. From the opening image of electrification to the leader worship and slogans (“The Great Leader Kim Il Sung Will Be Always With Us!”) the website looks and feels like an ironic museum piece. The fact that it is not, is an eerie if useful reminder of things too often taken for granted.

Thanks to Curtis Melvin for the link.