Category: Religion

Why you should read more about religion

So many religious facts have a very long half-life for their relevance.  Say you learn about how the four Gospels differ — that’s still relevant for understanding Christian divisions or Christian theology today.  Reading about the Reformation?  The chance of that still being relevant is much higher than if you were reading about purely secular divisions in internal German or Swiss politics in those same centuries.

Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, or Muslims?  Facts from many centuries ago still might matter.  And the odds are that people a few centuries from now still ought to read about the origins of Mormonism.

In few other areas do past facts stand such a high chance of remaining relevant for so long.

As an empirical matter, “rationalists” tend not to read so much about religion, but that is precisely the unreasonable thing to do.

If you’d like to see a potential counter, here is some poll evidence that many people don’t care so much about the divisions of the Reformation any more.  It still matters a great deal whether you are in Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or “mixed” Europe.

I am indebted to a conversation with Bryan Caplan for the main point, though he is not liable for my formulation.

That was then, this is now — churchyard burial edition

Although all church fees were wrong, argued Francis Sadler in a much-reprinted 1738 tract, “selling” one part of the churchyard for three times the price of another “to keep Rich and Poor asunder as if there were a difference in their dust” was especially ridiculous.

Within the courtyard, “the chancel was a better address than the center aisle, which was, in turn, preferred to the side aisles.”  And lead coffins cost ten times more than coffins of wood.

That is from the excellent The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas Laqueur.  Here is a truly splendid Marina Warner review of the book.

Markets in everything?

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

‘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 crematorium markets in everything

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.

What to make of Elon Musk’s hyperloop announcement?

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.

The economics of the Protestant Reformation

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.

Arrived in my pile and pawed on my sofa

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*

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.

Ross Douthat on whether I should believe in God

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.

My Conversation with Ben Sasse

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

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.

My Conversation with Jill Lepore

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…

Perry Anderson on Kemalism

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.