Friday, November 30, 2012

The Triumph of Christianity

To the chagrin of some and the delight of others, Christianity continues to thrive here in the U.S. and around the world. Indeed, as the table below indicates, both in terms of raw and active membership (active membership is defined as attending a place of worship in the last 7 days -- a very strict measure of membership) numbers (and %'s) for religions around the world, Christianity remains, by a large margin (and contrary to much conventional wisdom), the largest religion in the world. The statistics come from the sociologist Rodney Stark's recent book (with the politically incorrect title), "The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion."

Active Membership

Politically incorrect or not, in his book Rod identifies a number of factors that help explain Christianity's appeal. Many of the factors (e.g., better treatment of women, higher demands it placed on members, care for the sick, etc.) he covered in his earlier, Pulitzer-prize nominated book, "The Rise of Christianity." Indeed, in many ways Stark's more recent book could be seen as an expanded, second edition of the first.

Of course, most of you don't have time to read Rod's book, but it just so happens that Tony Gill has interviewed Rod as part of his "Research on Religion" podcast (Gill is a professor of political science at the University of Washington in Seattle), which you can find a link for below. In fact, Gill interviewed Rod three times about his book and all are available at the Research on Religion website:
  1. The Triumph of Christianity, Part I (Jesus to Constantine)
  2. The Triumph of Christianity, Part II (Constantine to the Protestant Reformation)
  3. The Triumph of Christianity, Part III (Protestant Reformation to Present)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

You've Got to See This: One Amazing Bicycle Kick

Pelé is the first person I ever saw perform a bicycle kick. It is also known as a scissor kick and is done by throwing the body up into the air, and then kicking the ball back over one's head. It was one of Pelé's signature moves -- see the picture at right), but a few days ago (November 14th) Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulled off one of the most amazing bicycle kick's ever in his country's 4-2 victory over England (Ibrahimovic scored all four goals). Thanks to the folks at YouTube, anyone can see it below:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The First Thanksgiving

Last year I argued that Thanksgiving is the American Exodus story ("Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"). Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom didn't descend from those who fled from Pharaoh but later joined with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims but they have adopted the Thanksgiving story as their story. On the 4th Thursday of November, most of us join family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the first Thanksgiving.

Of course, how we recall the first Thanksgiving may not be entirely accurate. In fact, it is almost certain that we don't. How we recall it and what may have actually happened is the subject of the latest podcast on Tony Gill's "Research on Religion" ("Tracy McKenzie on the 'First' Thanksgiving"). Here's a brief description of the podcast from the Research on Religion website:
Just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States, Prof. Tracy McKenzie (Wheaton College) takes us on a tour of the world of the Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth. We discover who they were, how they worshipped and the interesting (not commonly known) history of The “First” Thanksgiving. More than just a “grade school” understanding of this American tradition, Prof. McKenzie challenges Christians to engage in a deeper understanding of their own history. This interview will make for great conversational tidbits around the dinner table!
This is a very interesting and highly recommended podcast.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Homeland and Religious Faith & Behavior

Homeland has become one of my favorite television shows. Briefly, it is the story of a Marine (Nicholas Brody) who is rescued after 8 years of being held captive in Iraq. He's immediately hailed as a hero and is tapped as a possible candidate for Congress. Not everyone thinks so highly of him, however. In particular, one CIA operative (Carrie Mathison) is convinced that he was turned while in captivity and is now working on behalf of a notorious Islamic terrorist (Abu Nazir). We do learn early on that Brody has converted to Islam, but it isn't until much later in the first season when we learn whether or not he has been turned (I'm not telling).

The series and the acting are compelling. Damian Lewis, who plays Nicholas Brody, is excellent as a former POW trying to reintegrate himself into society and reacquaint himself with a wife and two kids who had given him up for dead (indeed, his wife was about to marry Brody's best friend). And Claire Daniels is convincing as Carrie Mathison, a brilliant CIA operative who suffers from bipolar disorder and you are constantly wondering what she's going to do next. The show also features one of my favorite actors, Mandy Patinkin, who is probably best known for his role as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride ("Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die"). (In addition to being an actor, Patinkin is also an accomplished pianist and tenor vocalist.)

There is one thing that bothers me about the series, however. It doesn't seem to take religious belief seriously. To be sure, the show makes it abundantly clear that Brody's conversion to Islam is genuine. For example, he steals away whenever he can to fulfill his duty to pray daily (he doesn't tell anyone that he has converted to Islam), and when a Qur'an is damaged, he takes great care to dispose of it properly. However, Brody also drinks to excess regularly, and he cheats on his wife more than once -- not exactly behavior one associates with being a devout Muslim. I suppose one could explain his behavior away by saying he's not quite right in the head because of the time he spent in captivity, but I get the sense that the show's writers really don't think religious belief really matters, that faith is more of a hobby than a way of life, and it doesn't have much impact on peoples' behavior. This is not to suggest that people of faith always follow the tenets of their faith, but there's overwhelming evidence that they are far less likely to engage in what most people consider to be inappropriate or deviant behavior. Unfortunately, not everyone seems to have figured this out.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sherlock Holmes, Steve Jobs, and Winston Churchill

I'm fairly certain that I've read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I typically watch the various interpretations of the Holmes character that repeatedly show up on TV or at the movies. The recent "Sherlock" series out of Britain, which is set in 21st century London, is excellent (but most fans, including myself, are mystified as to how Holmes faked his death in the last episode -- ), but it was while watching "Elementary," which is set in New York (and in which Watson is a woman), that I realized who Holmes reminds me of: Steve Jobs.

I've just finished reading (actually listening) Walter Isaacson's fascinating biography on Steve Jobs. Not only is Isaacson a great story teller, but he captures both the bright and dark sides of Jobs. Jobs was almost certainly a genius, and he could, at times, be a good friend and colleague, but he could also be childlike, cruel, and mean-spirited: much like Sherlock Holmes. The book, of course, is about more than Jobs. It also tells the story of the emergence of Silicon Valley, the birth of the personal computer, the rivalry between Jobs and Bill Gates, the development of the iPod, iPhone, and iTunes (one of the greatest ideas ever!), and how great design and great technology can be brought together in a single package. I commend the book to anyone. It's a remarkable read. 

Jobs actually reminds me of one other person: Winston Churchill. I recently re-picked up the first volume of William Manchester's 3-volume masterpiece on Churchill (The Last Lion) and was immediately struck by the similarities between the two. Like Jobs, Churchill's career passed through three stages: (1) his meteoric rise to fame and fortune (1900 to 1915), (2) his fall from grace "when he achieved little and failed often" (1915-1940), and (3) his vindication when he helped save England from the Nazis (1940- ) and became a legend (Jobs's career can be marked out in three stages as well: (1) the rise of Apple, (2) Jobs's fallout from Apple, and (3) his return and Apple's resurrection.) Like Jobs, Churchill was remarkably bright, and he did not suffer fools lightly. And during his fall from grace, he (like Jobs) was seen by others as being a "genius without judgment," and then he proved them wrong, much like Steve Jobs would do 60 years later.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mass Transit is Good for the Environment, Right?

Mass transit is good for the environment, right? Well, sometimes. Not always. In big cities, such as New York and Chicago, it helps to reduce the per capita carbon footprint. In smaller cities, such Pittsburg and Memphis, however, it often isn't because ridership is too low. Rather than reduce the per capita carbon footprint, it increases it. Thus, smaller cities that are thinking of building a mass transit system may want to think twice about it (if they care about the environment, that is), and those that already have one, need to explore ways to increase ridership.

This disturbing (but somewhat unsurprising) fact is covered in the latest Freakonomics podcast, "Mass Transit Hysteria." It is also covered in a Freakonomics blog post by Eric Morris ("Can Mass Transit Save the Environment? Right Wing or Left Wing, Here's a Post Everybody Can Hate."), a regular Freakonomics contributor, who is also featured in the podcast.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bultmann, Berger, and the New Testament

Rudolph Bultmann, the great New Testament scholar of the early 20th century, was probably best known for his project of demythologizing which attempted to reinterpret the New Testament's mythological elements in light of contemporary knowledge. He argued that that only faith in the kerygma (i.e., the New Testament's core message or proclamation) was necessary for Christian faith and not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus. He believed his demythologizing project was necessary because in the modern world, people simply can't (and won't) believe in things like miracles:
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.
As the sociologist Peter Berger recently noted (First Things, November 2012, pp. 45-46), however, Bultmann was horribly mistaken:
Bultmann was a very pleasant individual. I met him many years ago and was impressed by his unpretentious and open demeanor (also, by the way, by the discovery that this apostle of modernity was afraid of flying). I am hopeful that he now resides in a heaven that modern man supposedly cannot believe in. But if even in this mythological residence, he somehow still holds on to his assumption, I would love to take him on a tour of global Christianity today. He would meet millions of electricity consumers who not only believe in the miracles of the New Testament, but, much more interestingly, in the miracles that supposedly occur in their churches every week.
I think Bultmann was wrong on at least one other account. He appears to have assumed that his demythologizing project could be undertaken in a vacuum where the reinterpretation of the New Testament would be unaffected by modern (and often unconsciously held) "mythologies." In many ways, Bultmann reminds me of many contemporary moral philosophers who seek to derive ethical principles independent of any particular moral community (secular or religious). However, just as moral philosophers are not "free and independent selves" who are unconstrained by the communities in which they move and live and have their being, biblical scholars are not unbiased interpreters of the New Testament text. They bring their own world views to the interpretive task, and Bultmann was no exception. He was influenced heavily by the existentialist philosophy of his day (as were many theologians, such as Paul Tillich), and his understanding of the kerygma reflects this. Indeed, one could argue that his project engaged in as much remythologizing as it did demythologizing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

No One Likes an "I Told You So," But...

No likes an "I told you so," but since March, I've been predicting that President Obama would be re-elected, which (as another site puts it) may have "struck many people as absurd... [since] there were [still] nine months of campaigning left, [including] two conventions, several billion dollars worth of advertising, four debates, and untold bumps in the road for both sides" ("Forecast Goes 50-50 with Florida Outstanding").

Such sentiments ignore the remarkable accuracy of prediction markets, which are speculative markets where players bet on a particular outcome (e.g., Presidential elections, American Idol winners), and current market prices are interpreted as the probability of the outcome occurring. The two graphs above are graphs from two prediction markets, Intrade (top) and the Iowa Electronic Market (IEM) (bottom). Note that the Intrade market began predicting an Obama win in February (where the line rises above the 50% threshold), and the IEM began predicting an Obama win (blue line) as far back as November 2011.

The moral of the story? There are at least two. One is that whoever the Republican nominee was, he (or she) never had much of a chance. The Romney campaign will inevitably be the target of a number of criticisms. Some will argue that he was too conservative; others will argue that he wasn't conservative enough. Both conservative and moderate Republicans will argue they now have a mandate to move the part in their desired direction. My sense, however, is that Romney did as well as could have been expected. That is, a more conservative or more moderate candidate would probably not have faired any better. The reason why is that for the past year, the election has been Obama's to lose, and he didn't.

Second, four years from now, don't listen to the pundits (they typically focus on unimportant details), don't be swayed by the opinion polls (too much variation), and don't pay attention to who wins the debates (they seldom matter). Instead, follow the prediction markets. Personally, I recommend PredictWise, which culls information from other sites, such as Intrade and IEM. Indeed, in February of this year PredictWise predicted that Obama would win 303 electoral votes, and Romney would win 235. If Romney manages to win Florida, that is exactly how it will turn out. Even if he doesn't, PredictWise will have correctly predicted the outcome of 50 out of 51 states (51 if you include Washington DC). Not bad, considering that at the time, we didn't know who the Republican candidate was going to be.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Are the Rich Taxed Enough?

Here's a good debate, courtesy of the folks at Intelligence Squared US. The motion being debated was, "The Rich Are Taxed Enough," and it features four excellent panelists: Glenn Hubbard (Dean, Colombia Business School), Arthur Laffer (Member, President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board), Robert Reich (President Clinton's Secretary of Labor), and Mark Zandi (Chief Economist of Moody's Analytics). Hubbard and Laffer argue on behalf of the motion, while Reich and Zandi argue against it. More detailed biographies of the debaters appear below: Here's a description of the debate (from the Intelligence Squared US website):
How do we fix the economy? The U.S. government's budget deficit is nearing a trillion dollars for the fourth straight year and unemployment remains high. With the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of 2012, what is the best move for continued economic recovery? President Obama says we should raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 to reduce the deficit. Others say that the richest 1% already pay more than a quarter of all federal taxes and higher taxes for job creators would slow economic growth. Are the nation's wealthiest not paying their "fair share," or should tax breaks be extended for everyone in the name of job creation?
As with all Intelligence Squared debates, those in attendance vote before and after the debate, and the winning team is decided by how many minds were changed and in what direction. Not only can you listen to or watch the debate at the Intelligence Squared website ("The Rich Are Taxed Enough"), but you can access transcripts of the debate as well. The debate can also be downloaded from iTunes. Here are the extended biographies of the debaters (from the Intelligence Squared US):

Glenn Hubbard is Dean of Columbia Business School and the Russell L. Carson Professor of Finance and Economics. Hubbard is the author of two leading textbooks on money and financial markets and principles of economics, as well as co-author of The Aid Trap: Hard Truths About Ending Poverty and Healthy (2009), and Wealthy, and Wise: Five Steps to a Better Health Care System (2006). He previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of the Treasury from 1991 to 1993, and Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors from 2001 to 2003. He is also an advisor to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (and most likely will be a part of Romney's cabinet if Romney is elected).

Arthur Laffer is the Founder and Chairman of Laffer Associates, an economic research and consulting firm, and Laffer Investments, an investment management firm. In the 1980s, his economic acumen and influence in triggering a tax-cutting movement earned him the distinction as “The Father of Supply-Side Economics.” Laffer was a member of President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board from 1981 to 1989 and served as Chief Economist in the Office of Management and Budget from 1970 to 1972. He is also known for his "Laffer Curve."

Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration from 1993-1997. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock (2011) and The Work of Nations (1992). His latest is an e-book, Beyond Outrage (2012). He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and Chairman of Common Cause. He writes his own blog about the political economy at

Mark Zandi is the Chief Economist of Moody’s Analytics where he directs the company’s research and consulting activities. Zandi’s recent research has studied the determinants of mortgage foreclosure and personal bankruptcy, analyzed the economic impact of various tax and government spending policies, and assessed the appropriate policy response to bubbles in asset markets. Frequently testifying before Congress, Zandi is a trusted adviser to policy makers on topics including the economic outlook, the merits of fiscal stimulus, financial regulatory reform, and foreclosure mitigation. Zandi received his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, where he did his research with Gerard Adams and Nobel laureate Lawrence Klein.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Election Update (One Last Time)

With just under a week to go, it seems fitting to offer (one last time) predictions for the upcoming Presidential and Congressional elections. This, of course, isn't the first time I've done so. In fact, I've explored the 2012 election at least five times in the past year, and the links to these earlier posts appear below:

  1. The Democrats Might Retain the Senate After All - September 30, 2012
  2. Election Update (One More Time) - September 2, 2012
  3. Election Update - June 16, 2012
  4. Election (Not Weekend) Update - March 6, 2012
  5. Will President Obama Be Reelected? - November 5, 2011
To briefly recap the content of those posts, last November I wrote that if the economy didn't improve, the Republicans could take control of both the White House and Congress. As I noted in March, however, the economy had picked up (not much, but probably enough), and thus it was highly likely that President Obama would be reelected. My opinion on this has not changed. Obama will almost certainly be reelected (although there's an outside possibility he could lose the popular vote but win the majority of electoral college votes). It will be close. Obama may only get 51% of the vote. Nevertheless, he still should win unless he does something really stupid between now and next Tuesday.

What is perhaps more interesting is whether the Democrats will retain control of the Senate. For most of this year, I've argued that they wouldn't, but the tide began to change when Maine's Republican Senator, Olympia Snow, chose not to run, and Missouri's Republican nominee for the Senate, Todd Akin, remarked that some forms of rape were legitimate ("What did Rep. Akin mean by ‘legitimate rape’?") and then refused to drop out of the race when it became clear that he had become a liability. Now, it appears that the Democrats have a genuine chance at holding on to the Senate, a scenario that many people didn't believe possible just a year ago.

P.S. While I rely heavily on prediction markets for making my own predictions, the first place I look is the Dow Jones Industrial Average. I've developed a working "theory," which I have yet to establish empirically, that if the Dow crosses a certain psychological threshold, a President will be reelected. In this election year, I believe that threshold is 13,000. That it will probably be above 13,000 when people on election day (but not by much) is one of the reasons that I think President Obama will win (but not by much).