Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

A letter-to-the-editor in this past week’s Economist:

SIR – Far from being the odd man out, France’s attitude to religion is spot-on (“The war on French dressing”, January 16th). Religion is a private matter and should be kept that way. Countless millions have died in religion’s ongoing campaign to force its beliefs on its victims. Religion is socially divisive by design and is mostly about the desire of competing religious hierarchies to control people’s minds, just like communism or fascism. Religion seems to have an amazing immunity from normal laws. If anyone advertised that by taking a certain medicine one would live for ever and go to heaven, the product would be banned under the trades description act. Yet religion can publicly make its totally unprovable claims and get away with it.

We owe it to ourselves to push back against this tide of intolerance. The problem lies not with someone obtaining quiet comfort from their belief, but with vehement modern crusaders who would have us live by 10th-century standards or teach our children that Earth was created a ridiculous 6,000 years ago. The same goes for those Jews who think they have a god-given right to grab Palestine and the Catholic church with its policy of indoctrinating children when they’re most young.

Brian Smale
Hoeilaart, Belgium

This a popular category error made with religion. People make dumb decisions all the time: for love, for marriage, for career, etc. They can even do great harm to themselves or others in the process. But we don’t condemn love or marriage or career because of it. We condemn the bad decision.

If you’re willing to propose restrictions on religion because it can lead people to make bad decisions, then to be consistent you must also be willing to advocate restrictions on love, marriage, career, and anything else that leads people to make bad decisions. And we all know where that would end: everyone drinking Sam Adams.

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As far as I can tell, the standard lodging for an expat of any financial means in Kigali is much the same as mine: a room rented in a 3-4 bedroom house on a gated property with a couple housestaff. For most the living arrangement is a sharp departure from home, and ironically, it is in particular ways posher.

My living situation is a bit peculiar because I rent a room from American couple who live several hours away in southwest Rwanda where they are country directors for an NGO. The Kigali house serves, inter alia, as a traveler’s rest for any of the NGO staff who are in town. Thus, even when I’m the only tenant (as was the case for the past few weeks), the house is often not mine alone.

Much like a good conversationalist, every house in Rwanda has its idiosyncrasies, and it takes some time to figure out what they are. Overnight guests by their nature don’t know about nor have the incentive to deal with the house’s vagaries, which can be frustrating for longer lodgers like me. In an attempt to correct this problem, I blew the dust off my copy of The Transient Bible and posted a few relevant passages around the house. The text is an amalgam of the King James, Spurgeon, and a touch of The Music Man:

Insodus 4:12-14

In this house are many rooms: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a bathroom for you, at the other end of the hall.

And if I go and prepare a bathroom for you, I will use mine, and thou thine; that where I am, ye are not there.

Man’s law thou mayest break, and bear the penalty; but if thou breakest this the penalty is too heavy for thy soul to endure; it will sink thee like a mill-stone lower than the lowest hell. Take heed of this command above every other, to tremble at it and obey it, for it is “the first commandment.”

Phileakians 3:4

Thy curtain thou shalt use, lest thy tub runneth over.

Phileakians 9:12

I the LORD thy God didst cleave the fountain and the flood: I driedst up mighty rivers. Thou wilt do the same, if thou dost not take care tightly to turn off the kitchen faucet’s flow.

Loomentations 8:7

My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and have forsaken to jiggle the toilet handle, leaving the cleansing waters ceaselessly to drain and the cistern empty on a Saturday night.

Ephreesians 18:11

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert hot.

The same goeth for thy bath water: if thou desireth that thy water warmeth thy soul, as is my command, then thou shalt plug in the pump underneath the water tank outside.

If my commandment thou dost not obey, and becometh lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Many of these passages do lose their relevance if your water goes out for the weekend, he added grumpily.

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Via Lexington, I find the claim in a WSJ op-ed that, contra Newsweek’s cover story, the end of Christianity in America is not nigh, ergo….uh…well, ergo nothing except that I felt I needed a Latin triumvirate in this sentence–oh drat, that made four. Caveat lector, and all that.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah:

Betting against American religion has always proved to be a fool’s game. In 1880, Robert Ingersoll, the leading atheist of his day, claimed that “the churches are dying out all over the land.” In its Easter issue in 1966, Time asked “Is God Dead?” on its cover. East Coast intellectuals have repeatedly assumed that the European model of progress, where modernity equals secularization, would come to the U.S. They have always been wrong.

Claims about the death of American Christianity are as frequent and fervent as a prisoner’s prayers on the eve of execution, so why is religion so robust?

[I]n Salem, Mass., the setting for “The Crucible,” 83% of taxpayers by 1683 confessed to no religious identification.

America became religious after the Constitution separated church from state, thus ensuring that religious denominations could only survive if they got souls into pews. While state-sponsored religion withered in Europe, American faith has been a hive of activity: from the Methodists, who converted close to an eighth of the country in the half century after the Revolution, to the modern megachurches.

In other words, it’s the economics stupid!

I’ve had the chin-stroking suspicion for a few years that pastors were the most overlooked entrepreneurs, but apparently it’s recognized enough to have a portmanteau:

Meanwhile, the supply seems as plentiful as ever. Religion, no less than software or politics, is a competitive business, where organization and entrepreneurship count. Religious America is led by a series of highly inventive “pastorpreneurs” — men like Bill Hybels of Willow Creek or Rick Warren of Saddleback. These are far more sober, thoughtful characters than the schlock-and-scandal televangelists of the 1970s, but they are not afraid to use modern business methods to get God’s message across.

The church-as-business doesn’t give me any moral queasiness, but–bless me, Father–I must confess there’s much to it I don’t prefer. Why should a church need a slick logo emblazoned on interstate billboards; shouldn’t being the purveyor of the meaning of life sell itself? In truth, I often feel the same way about well-marketed businesses. I have some training in graphic design and love a well done corporate identity, but many times the designs feel too good by half, as if compensating for some core deficiency. With churches, clever business-style marketing signals to me they are there not to give me the truth, but to flatter me and make me feel good.

But it’s just a preference, and at least in the American system that counts for a lot.

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I spent the first 12 years of my education in a private, religious school (a term that might very well be redundant). As a result, a substantial portion of the history curriculum was devoted to events and people who altered the evolution of Western religion. One of these figures was John Wycliffe, whose lyrical designation as the “The Morning Star of the Reformation” has had the effect of perhaps forever lodging his name in my brain. He acquired this designation by being among the first prominent theologians to argue against pervasive papal power and for the increased empowerment of the laity. In line with this, he is also credited for the first full translation of the Bible into English.

My benevolent religious educators did not, however, inform me that Wycliffe made the first arguments for the common ownership of property—communism, in other words. No, that inconvenient truth was first made manifest to me just a few day ago as I was reading Anthony Kenny’s A Brief History of Western Philosophy.

According to Dr. Kenny, Wycliffe’s conclusion was drawn from two main theses. The first was that since a man can only justly own property if he can use it justly, no sinful man can justly own property because all the actions of a sinner are unjust. The second can be elucidated by Wycliffe himself in On Civil Dominion:

All the goods of God should be common. This is proved thus. Every man should be in a state of grace, and if he is in a state of grace, he is lord of the world and all it contains. So every man should be lord of the universe. But this is not consistent with there being many men, unless they ought to have everything in common. Therefore all things should be in common.

Given that the rise of capitalism has been viewed as part and parcel to the rise of Protestantism by Max Weber and others, it’s interesting to discover a communal root from which the individualized growth stems. One wonders if Wycliffe might be more aptly relabelled “The Morningstar of the Revolution.”

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Today’s A-Hed in the WSJ tells the story of twenty-six Trappist monks at St. Sixtus Abbey in Belgium who have found themselves cursed by the trappings of success. Since 1839, the bald-headed brewers have been selling Westvleteren beer in order to cover the basic expenses of the monastic lifestyle. Problem is, the beers they brew are so good, with one being perhaps the best in the world, that beer drinkers the world over are willing to pay top-dollar for the heavenly concoction–far more, in fact, than would be required to fund the simple life of the Trappists.

To the good Christian monks, who eschew profits as immoral and irrelevant and who do not want increased production to take time away from their spiritual duties, the solution has been to keep production at the same level for over sixty years, to devote no money to advertising or even to label the bottles, to limit the number of cases that any one person can buy (two per month), and to charge about$1.50 per bottle, which is probably less than 1/10th of the market-clearing price. The results have been predictable: there is far too little supply to satisfy demand, and online gray markets have emerged in order to satisfy thirsting consumers the world over.

Now, in my opinion, the gray markets are simply doing what the monks should be doing themselves–that is, charging a price that rations the scarce beer to those who value it most. But because the monks don’t do this themselves (instead trying to ration the beer rather awkwardly with purchase limits), it’s only natural that arbiters elsewhere would. To me, this seems a decent reconciliation: the beer flows to the most demanding mouths, and the monks needn’t taint their piety with profits. The monks, however, are indignant at the emergence of the gray markets and browse the internet daily in order to ask the online vendors to desist.

Religion and commerce have long been uneasy bedfellows because of the distrust surrounding profit. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, wrote in Summa Theologica that it was immoral to charge more for a product than the costs of producing it plus a reasonable fee. The implication has always been and continues to be that if one earns a large profit, one must somehow be gouging the consumer. Unless coerced, however, no consumer will ever pay more for something than he thinks it is worth. Thus, profits can only result from a creation of value, and the larger the profit, the more value that has been created. Profits are nothing to be ashamed of–they’re a mark of a need or desire well met.

The Trappists monks would no doubt agree with the old aphorism that “virtue is its own reward.” The economist’s immediate retort would be, “Au contraire, my friend–reward is its own virtue.”

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Follow-up to Kebabs, Creole, Gumbo, Pan-Fried, Deep-Fried, Stir-Fried:

Loyal TRZ readers may recall two posts I wrote some time ago attempting to present the economic case for why Europe has such lousy religious participation especially in comparison to the United States. The heart of my explanation, though not explicitly articulated as such, was that Europe has a supply-side problem with respect to religion–namely, that European governments have policies in place which actively discourage those who would wish to “supply” Europe with more religion. Competition would align the interest of the producer with the consumer, but because entry on the supply-side has been barricaded and a government-sponsored oligopoly allowed to operate largely free of competition, European religion has not concerned itself with the needs and desires of its parishioners as has been the case in America, where religion has to compete for converts (and their money) in order to survive. As a result, religion has become increasingly less relevant for new generations of Europeans, who view religion as a sort of impersonal public service.

Happily I can now report that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI (blessings and peace be upon his name) agrees with me:

The optimists point out that Europe’s churches are roughly as full as America’s were before the First Amendment separated church from state. Hence the importance of the current pope. One rumour is that Benedict XVI would prefer a smaller but more vibrant Catholic church in Europe. In Germany he is said to have argued privately against the churches’ lavish state funding.

Given that the Pope is the infallible intercessor of Almighty God, I think we can consider the matter settled, can we not?

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A German author and journalist recently lamented the lack of attention given to the important historical contributions of Thuringia and Saxony despite Prussia having been recently elevated in the collective German conscience:

If you drive two hundred kilometers south [of Berlin], you come to a region where a lot more was going on. Here the history is so intricate and divided that it can’t be made to suit the purposes of nostalgic identification although this is where, quite literally, everything German that had a positive influence on the world, began. Between Wittenberg on the Elbe and Weimar on the Ilm are regions that get hillier to the south, in whose little cities creative production developed over three centuries with an intensity comparable only to Tuscany in the Renaissance or Greece in Antiquity. Thuringia and what used to be the regions of Anhalt are to the Germany what Umbria is to the Italians: the heart of our country. But this never acknowledged by those caught up praising Prussia.

Yet a simple listing of events reveals this to be an anomaly. This region – between Erfurt and Wittenberg – is where Luther’s Reformation began, and spread around the world, making among other things, the United States what it is today. Here – between Weimar and Dessau – the Bauhaus style was developed, and continues to shape metropolises the world over. And here Bach and Goethe got to work, here Luther wrote his translation of the Bible in the German language we still write with today.

I know regrettably little about much of the substance of the article, but that which I do know seems congruent with the author’s thesis. It is quite amazing that a city like Wittenberg (and yes, I did actually go there for Reformation Day–in fact I lived there for a month almost four years ago) has not become a locus for both domestic and foreign tourism and the city’s name not a metonym for Germany’s cultural importance in the world.

Birkenstocks and BMWs are one thing, but the Protestant ethic is simply unparalleled as the most important German export, and one incidentally that not even the strongest of euros can hope to diminish.

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