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The Economist International News
Jul 27, 2018

New Canadians are injecting vigour into the country's religious life
Religions gather strength as they cross the ocean

The Economist International News
Jul 27, 2018

Sam Brownback makes the right noises about religious liberty
A gathering in Washington, DC this week carried a message of hope

The Economist International News
Jul 26, 2018

"Sin" taxes—eg, on tobacco—are less efficient than they look
But they do help improve public health

The Economist International News
Jul 20, 2018

A cacophony of views on what to teach children about God

IT IS becoming a commonplace that in matters of belief and religion, Western societies are disintegrating into micro-communities that struggle to understand each other. A Babel-like array of introverted faith groups and a secular majority struggle to co-exist, without knowing or even wanting to know much about one another.

Awareness of that danger underlies a report published this week by two influential figures in the field of religious education in England: Charles Clarke, a former education secretary, and Linda Woodhead, a sociology professor. As they put it,

The Economist International News
Jul 19, 2018

Concern about "sexualised" children often misses the point

IN JAPAN it is hard to avoid the disturbing spectacle of young girls being treated as sex objects. Rorikon, an abbreviation of "Lolita complex", is ubiquitous. In M's Pop Life, a sex shop in Tokyo's Akihabara district, known for its pop subculture, life-size models of girls, their breasts at various stages of puberty, are openly on sale. Elsewhere big-bosomed cartoon girls are splashed across posters; children (or grown-ups made to look like children) pose in magazines in bikinis.

Rorikon is a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon. But across the world there are growing concerns about children being portrayed sexually, and the effects on the children themselves. This comes in two forms. The first, "direct" sexualisation, includes advertising, television programmes and magazine content that portray children, especially girls, as sexually aware or active. It also includes goods aimed at children who are seen as trying to make...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jul 17, 2018

The commemoration of an act of regicide falls short of expectations

THE COMMEMORATION could have been a great and solemn moment of truth, a time to reflect on the passage from one era of Russia's tragic history to another. 

As it was, the proceedings were impressive enough: tens of thousands people gathered in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains for a nocturnal act of worship to recall the killings which had taken place there exactly 100 years ago. The victims were Tsar Nicholas, the Empress Alexandra and their five children, along with their doctor and three servants. Many worshippers trudged for miles between the spot where the killings took place and the mineshaft where the bodies, doused in acid, were thrown.

But in one important respect, this was a flawed act of remembrance which disappointed some people, including quite a few surviving relatives of the Romanov family. In defiance of overwhelming scientific evidence, the Russian Orthodox church is still refusing to accept as genuine the remains of the royal family, most of whom were solemnly buried in St Petersburg in...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jul 14, 2018

Belgium struggles to manage its burgeoning Islamic scene

As Donald Trump stormed through Brussels this week, alternatively dishing out anti-European tirades and paeans of fawning praise, he had little time to mingle with the city's residents or take in its cultural and architectural landscape. If the president had attempted any of that, he might have been quite confused.

The city, like Belgium as a whole, has long been split between French-speakers and Dutch-speaking Flemings. These days, a still more obvious social gap divides people of loosely Catholic heritage and the more introvert parts of a Muslim community which now accounts for a quarter of the city's population, and could be in the majority by mid-century, on present trends. And within the Muslim cohort, there is rivalry between the two main elements, Moroccans and Turks. It is not uncommon, for example, for Belgo-Moroccans to marry Belgians of Christian background, but very rare for Moroccans to marry Turks. 

To get a sense of how things are changing, consider the latest figures on the religious instruction which is...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jul 12, 2018

The welfare state needs updating

IN JUNE 1941 William Beveridge left the office of Arthur Greenwood, a British cabinet minister, with tears in his eyes. A well-known academic and civil servant, Beveridge had sought a big job in the war effort. The 62-year-old was brilliant, but also obsessive, vainglorious and prim. To sideline him, Greenwood proposed what seemed a thankless task: reviewing Britain's social-insurance schemes.

What emerged was a blueprint for the modern welfare state. In December 1942, having stretched his brief to the point of bursting, Beveridge published his account of the "Five Giants": disease, idleness, ignorance, squalor and want. He proposed new benefits for the retired, disabled and unemployed, a universal allowance for children and a nationwide health service.

On the night before publication a long queue formed outside the publishers. Polls found majorities of all social classes backed its proposals. It was translated into 22 languages and the Royal Air Force dropped summaries on Allied...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jul 09, 2018

Jean-Louis Tauran opposed the Gulf war and mended fences with Islam

THE months leading up to the Anglo-American assault on Saddam Hussein in 2003 produced some tense moments in diplomacy of the religious, as well as the secular, sort. To the dismay of American conservatives, especially Catholic ones, the ailing Pope John Paul II was unequivocal in his opposition to any recourse to war. By one count, the pontiff made this point at least 56 times.

Among those leading the Vatican's diplomatic charge was a French prelate, then styled as Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the holy see's secretary for relations with states. At one point, he told 174 foreign envoys accredited to the Vatican that "a war of aggression would be a crime against peace."

Since Iraq had not (at least since the 1991 ceasefire) perpetrated an armed attack against anyone, any invasion of that country by one or more states would amount in legal and moral terms to a campaign of aggression, the archbishop added. The use of force should only be a last resort, undertaken in strict conformity with the rules of the United Nations; and it...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jul 06, 2018

Ukraine wants a national church that is not beholden to Moscow

THE row is over points of ecclesiastical history and procedure that most people, including ordinary folk who belong to the relevant churches, find utterly obscure. But the geopolitical stakes are enormous. That is one way to describe the escalating dispute over religious authority in Ukraine, a devout and divided country, where 70% of people identify as Orthodox Christians.

At the root of the argument is a fact that would surprise many people. Although Ukraine is in a state of barely frozen conflict with Russia, the most widely organised Christian church on Ukrainian territory (and the only one which enjoys real international legitimacy) owes allegiance to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Its adherents deny being pawns of Moscow, but they are obliged to offer public prayers for Kirill, Moscow's powerful patriarch.

Many Ukrainians feel that as a country battling to preserve its political independence, Ukraine should have a fully independent national church. As of now, there are two Orthodox bodies which operate on Ukrainian soil, but (in...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jul 05, 2018

North Korea presents nuclear disarmament's biggest challenge yet

SIEGFRIED HECKER, a professor who used to run America's nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos, recalls the most recent of the seven trips he has made to North Korea, in 2010. His hosts were showing off their sprawling Yongbyon atomic-energy complex. With a blend of shyness and defiance, they displayed an astonishing spectacle: a hall with 2,000 brand-new centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium, either for electricity or nuclear bombs.

Apparently assembled in another, unsuspected site, they had appeared in Yongbyon since Mr Hecker's previous trip in 2008. This implied that, besides its existing plutonium-based technology, the country could make nuclear bombs from uranium. He was also shown the beginnings of a light-water reactor that could produce more plutonium. The message: "We have more nuclear capacity than you think, and you'll never know how much…"

North Korea's arsenal has since grown. Estimates range from 20 to 60 warheads, and its latest test was apparently of a...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jul 05, 2018

How Iraq was deprived of its weapons of mass destruction

ROLF EKEUS, a Swedish diplomat, once personified the most sustained effort ever undertaken to deprive a country of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He was the leading figure in a programme to enforce peace terms on Saddam Hussein, Iraq's dictator, in 1991, forcing him to renounce nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and long-range rockets.

His United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) had powers to inspect any building, to confiscate documents and to seize and destroy weapons and equipment. Its monitors scored an early success by grabbing documents pertaining to Iraq's nuclear ambitions. And it forced Saddam to admit dabbling with germ warfare and to stop. By 1998, when UNSCOM was stood down, it had exposed Saddam's efforts to develop all manner of deadly weapons and missiles, and largely put a stop to them.

So Mr Ekeus had a told-you-so...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 29, 2018

Britain's future king faces up to Jerusalem's religious politics

THE tortured relationships between two royal families, Jerusalem, Israel and the Jews came to a head this week as Britain's future king (and unless something changes, the future head of the Church of England) toured the city, which is held dear by three monotheistic religions.

His itinerary included the Western Wall, where he stood in prayerful silence, wearing a Jewish head-covering, and the peak known as both the Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif, which is revered by Jews and Muslims. He also visited the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Jesus Christ where six Christian confessions exercise joint stewardship, but a Muslim dynasty holds the keys.

For Prince William, the emotional high point may have been a visit to the tomb of his great-grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, in an awesomely beautiful Russian Orthodox convent on the Mount of Olives. The princess, who became a Greek Orthodox nun and battled with mental-health problems, is honoured in Israel as a "righteous Gentile" because of the help she gave a Jewish...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 28, 2018

On June 20th, at the Medical Journalists' Association annual awards for health-care journalism, John McDermott, our global public-policy editor, and Natasha Loder, our health-care correspondent, both won prizes—for writing about trauma medicine and cancer, respectively.

The Economist International News
Jun 28, 2018

Hospitals are learning from industry how to cut medical errors

AFTER a brain aneurysm in 2004, Mary McClinton was admitted to Virginia Mason Medical Centre in Seattle. Preparing for an x-ray, the 69-year-old was injected not, as she should have been, with a dye that highlights blood vessels, but with chlorhexidine, an antiseptic. Both are colourless liquids. The dye is harmless; the antiseptic proved lethal. After kidney failure, a stroke and two cardiac arrests McClinton died 19 days later.

In response, Virginia Mason committed itself to improving safety. It used an unlikely model: the Toyota Production System (TPS), the Japanese carmaker's "lean" manufacturing techniques. Nearly every part of the hospital, from radiology to recruitment, was analysed and standardised. Staff were trained to raise safety concerns. Today Virginia Mason prides itself on its safety record—and sells its take on Toyota to hospitals across the world.

Among its recent customers are five in England's National Health Service (NHS), including University Hospitals...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 27, 2018

A Muslim monarch and religious diplomat wins some overdue recognition

ONE of the world's most lucrative prizes for spiritual endeavour,  bequeathed by an American-British billionaire who was a fervent Christian, has been awarded this year to one of the luminaries of the Muslim world, King Abdullah of Jordan.

The Jordanian monarch, whose dynasty claims descent from the prophet Muhammad, is only the second Muslim to receive the Templeton Prize, worth £1.1m, since it was instituted in 1973. Its stated aim is to honour, every year, an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to "affirming life's spiritual dimension".

The prize, and the Templeton Foundation which administers it, were established by Sir John Templeton, an American-born investor who was a devoted Presbyterian Christian but also saw value in learning about other religions. Previous recipients have included South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lord Jonathan Sacks (former chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth), and Charles Colson, a member of Richard...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 22, 2018

For those who fight sex-trafficking, dark rituals compound the problem

PEOPLE who campaign against the ghastly phenomenon of human trafficking and sex slavery soon become aware that they are contending not only with flesh-and-blood wrongdoers but also with invisible forces which, if nothing else, are very much alive inside people's heads.

One of the most notorious North-South rackets involves transporting young women, often minors, for sex work in Italy and beyond from Nigeria, in particular the southern area around Benin City. That part of the country has a powerful Christian presence, from Catholic to Pentecostal, but it is also a stronghold of traditional animist practices, including witchcraft. Its sex-slave trade has existed for three decades but it seems to have burgeoned recently. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that in 2016, some 11,100 Nigerian women landed in Sicily, and 80% entered a life of forced prostitution.

Before she...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 21, 2018

Public transport is in decline in many wealthy cities

JUANA, who came to America from Guatemala, used to take the bus to and from cleaning jobs. It wore on her. Walking to the bus stop after a long day at work was exhausting, especially when it rained, as it occasionally does in Los Angeles. Now Juana drives everywhere, even to her local supermarket, a few blocks away. She had two aspirations: to learn English and to get a car. She has accomplished both.

Although Los Angeles has organised itself around the car since the second world war, it has tried harder than many other American cities to change this. Since 1990 voters have approved three tax rises to pay for public transport. A railway and rapid-bus network has been built quickly—by rich-world standards, if not Chinese ones. Public-transport users, however, are dwindling. In the past five years the number of trips taken in metropolitan Los Angeles has dropped by 19%.

The City of Angels is leading a broad decline. The American Public Transportation Association's figures show that the...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 17, 2018

Scripture offers much material for arguments about dividing families

AMERICAN commentators both religious and secular have been digging deep into the Bible over the past week. They have been searching for answers to the claim by Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general, that a new practice of separating parents and children at the Mexican border is founded in holy writ. Mr Sessions defended the policy of placing minors and their parents in separate detention facilities by referring to a passage in Saint Paul's letter to the Romans. As he put it, this verse gave the "clear and wise command" that people should obey the law. The passage he mentioned reads:

Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, backed up Mr Sessions when she was challenged to say how taking children from their mothers could possibly be biblical. "I can say it...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 14, 2018

After decades of triumph, democracy is losing ground

IN A glass case at the Diyarbakir Bar Association are a striped shirt, dark coat and coiled belt. They belonged to the former chairman, Tahir Elci, a lawyer who was murdered in 2015 amid clashes between the Turkish army and Kurdish separatists. He was standing by the Four-Legged Minaret, a 500-year-old landmark in the ancient city, calling for peace. Someone shot him in the head. No one knows who killed him. The government blames Kurdish terrorists. Many Kurds blame the government. After Elci's death, the army pounded the rebel-held part of Diyarbakir to rubble. The debris, including body parts, was heaped onto trucks and dumped by a river. Locals are scared to talk about any of this.

Barely a decade ago, Turkey was a budding democracy and aspired to join the European Union. Now it is galloping towards dictatorship. In 2016 army officers tried to mount a coup, putting tanks in the streets, bombing parliament and nearly assassinating the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was quickly...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 13, 2018

Faith and higher education can intersect in many different ways

THE PRESIDENT of one of America's best-known Catholic places of learning came this week to his alma mater, Oxford University, and with some fanfare delivered a lecture on the future of higher education. His hosts included Chris Patten, the eminent Conservative politician who is now Chancellor of Oxford University and happens to be a fellow Catholic. 

So did the visitor, whose academic interests include medieval theology, deliver a lament over the weakening Christian connections of places like Oxford, which emerged in a 12th-century world where learning and public activity of any kind were almost inseparable from religion?  Did he deplore the fact that Oxford had incubated the "new atheist" movement? No, Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame University (pictured), did nothing of the kind. Instead, he emphasised the spirit of inquiry, dispute and interrogation that characterised Oxford from its earliest days and argued that the same spirit could and should guarantee the future of universities as physical places, as opposed...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 08, 2018

Oil executives seek atonement at the Vatican

AMONG radical environmentalists, it has often been said that carbon trading and carbon offsets (which allow emitters of greenhouse gases to "redeem" their sins by countervailing actions) are comparable to the medieval practice of selling indulgences. In those days, believers were encouraged to improve their prospects in the after-life through a monetary transaction with the Church. Reaction against this practice helped to inspire the Protestant Reformation. 

The parallel is not perfect. Buying indulgences had few earthly consequences, besides making the Church richer. Whereas carbon markets, if they work as they are supposed to, could have the effect of helping to save the planet. In both cases, however, critics feel that moral integrity is compromised.

In any case, visitors converging on the Vatican today are unlikely to be given a free pass as easily as the fee-paying transgressors of the Middle Ages. Chief executives of leading oil companies are due to meet Pope Francis, whose green encyclical, "Laudato Si", calls for...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 07, 2018

What makes a country good at football?

ON A sunny Saturday afternoon, within kicking distance of Uruguay's national football stadium, 14 seven-year-olds walk onto a bumpy pitch. They are cheered by their parents, who are also the coaches, kit-washers and caterers. The match is one of hundreds played every weekend as part of Baby Football, a national scheme for children aged four to 13. Among the graduates are Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, two of the world's best strikers.

Messrs Suárez and Cavani are Uruguay's spearheads at the World Cup, which kicks off in Russia on June 14th. Bookmakers reckon La Celeste are ninth-favourites to win, for what would be the third time. Only Brazil, Germany and Italy have won more, even though Uruguay's population of 3.4m is less than Berlin's. Though it is no longer the giant that it was in the early 20th century, Uruguay still punches well above its weight. Messrs Suárez and Cavani reached the semi-finals in 2010 and secured a record 15th South American championship...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Jun 04, 2018

Europe and America part ways when it comes to "religious freedom"

RELIGION and human rights have always had an intense, tortured relationship. On one hand, liberty of conscience and belief is one of the first and most fundamental principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and other documents that lay out humanity's minimum entitlements. On the other hand, secular campaigners often blame oppressive forms of religion for a high proportion of the worst assaults on human welfare: from religiously inspired ethnic cleansing to female genital mutilation to the nihilist jihadism which treats every form of faith but its own as a legitimate target. 

At this year's tenth-anniversary session of the Oslo Freedom Forum, an ever-expanding international festival for campaigners against tyranny, victims of religion were more obviously in evidence than practitioners. Speakers included Fatemah Qaderyan, 16, an Afghan teenager who led an award-wining female robotics team but lost her father in a jihadist bomb attack; and Omar Mohammed, an Iraqi...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 31, 2018

In lands where "Christian civilisation" emerged, faith still shapes identity

AMONG conservative Americans, a school of conventional wisdom holds that Christianity in Europe is rapidly heading for extinction, as the historic faith is supplanted by secularism, Islam or just a lazy-minded lack of concern for all things metaphysical. Yet a new survey by Pew Research, a polling organisation based in Washington, DC, suggests that Christianity still matters to a plurality of west Europeans, as a marker of identity and a shaper of attitudes, even if active churchgoers and committed believers are a small minority.

After an investigation including 24,000 telephone interviews in a total of 15 countries, Pew concluded that:

The Economist International News
May 31, 2018

Can "effective altruism" maximise the bang for each charitable buck?

DONORS to charities rarely make the sort of cost-benefit calculations investors, for example, would think obligatory. So charities attract donations with pictures of smiling gap-toothed children, rather than spreadsheets showing how they actually spend their money. Tugging at the heartstrings, however, does little to allay the doubts of economists sceptical about the efficacy of charity. Who is to say whether donating to a homeless shelter is a better use of money than donating to a school?

Yet advances in social science, particularly in development economics, mean donors can now have a reasonably good idea of how far each dollar will go. Empirically minded do-gooders, members of the nascent "effective altruism" movement, argue that it is at last possible to put into practice a "fundamental axiom" of utilitarianism, first invoked in 1776 by Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher: "It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."

The...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 31, 2018

To help save the world, become a banker not a doctor

WHEN Kit Harris was a student at Oxford University, he was not sure what he wanted to do later. He thought about becoming an actuary—decent pay and hours and the chance to use his training in probability theory. But, though Mr Harris enjoyed solving maths puzzles, he also wanted to help the less fortunate. Dilemma resolved! Naturally, he took a job as a derivatives trader.

He reasoned that, though plenty of do-gooders can grab entry-level jobs at non-profit groups, few have the quantitative skills to earn six-figure salaries at a bank. So he could make more of a difference by taking a lucrative job and donating large chunks of salary than by working for a charity directly.

Shunning his own advice, Mr Harris has since left finance to work for the Centre for Effective Altruism in Oxford. One of its initiatives, 80,000 Hours, advises people on careers they should pick to maximise their impact on the world. It argues such decisions should be based not on how much good a profession does...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 27, 2018

Where Islam flourishes despite being half-underground

ON A baking-hot Friday afternoon in the dusty Athenian district of Neos Kosmos, a cheerful assortment of (mostly male) worshippers greet one another in Arabic, Greek and other languages, and enter a nondescript building in a side-street. They descend a steep set of stairs, perform their ablutions, and make their way into a large undergound space, pleasantly carpeted, but with ventilation pipes half-hiding the low ceiling. Soon the imam is leading them in prayer and prostration, and pronouncing a khutba or sermon. Despite the makeshift premises, this has the feeling of a well-organised and confident community. Worshippers include sportsmen from well-known clubs and businessmen using nearby hotels. 

This slice of Athenian reality is a reminder that, although theory and practice are both words with Greek roots, they do not always march in step in this part of the world. In constitutional theory, Greece is a country whose prevailing religion, followed by an overwhelming majority, is Orthodox Christianity. With an important exception...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 25, 2018

The difficulties with crowning King Charles III

THE AMERICAN political system, despite its formal separation of church of state, still finds room for a sort of civic religion which lends dignity to military funerals and presidential inaugurations. In Britain, by contrast, a quirky unwritten constitution gives a central place to what might be called royal religion. This reflects the twin role of the monarch as the apex of secular governance and guardian of the Christian faith. That royal faith was on spectacular display on May 19th when an African-American prelate, Michael Curry, dazzled some and perplexed others with an exuberant hymn to love delivered at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

But any constitutional law buff will can tell you that royal faith has its sombre moments too. As is argued by a couple of newly published studies by University College London, thought needs to be given now to the ceremonies which will take place when Harry's...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 24, 2018

Government data are ever more important to economic research

BESIDES brains, the only tools an economist used to need were a pen and notebook. But massive improvements in computing power have turned the dismal science into an increasingly empirical one. Research by Daniel Hamermesh at Royal Holloway, University of London, finds the share of economics papers in leading journals focused on pure theory fell from 58% in 1983 to 19% in 2011.

Three types of empirical papers have taken their place. The first sort feeds on publicly available data, such as household surveys. The second relies on data from experiments, such as randomised controlled trials. Most leading empirical papers, however, now rely on other data, often administrative and acquired through extensive negotiation with government officials. Analysis by The Economist of work from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that at least 28 papers it released last year featured the use of administrative data. Before 2000 hardly any did (see...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 24, 2018

Plunging response rates to household surveys worry policymakers

ON A nippy January evening, Clare walks the streets of north London, armed with a file of addresses and maps. She wants to interview people for Britain's Labour Force Survey (LFS), which is the basis for a host of important economic statistics including the unemployment rate. Her job, like that of many surveyors across the rich world, has been getting harder.

Corralling interviewees has always been tough, particularly in London. Clare sometimes feels like a private detective as she befriends porters to enter gated communities. "It was the rule to be welcomed in, whereas now you can't count on it," she says. Of the five doorbells she rings, the most positive answer is that now is "not a good time". Clare is hopeful about the phone call arranged for the following day.

Response rates to surveys are plummeting all across the rich world. Last year only around 43% of households contacted by the British government responded to the LFS, down from 70% in 2001 (see chart). In America...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 18, 2018

Followers of Jesus fail to agree about his homeland

HUNDREDS of millions of followers of Jesus Christ are about to celebrate the annual feast of Pentecost, which celebrates an event in Jerusalem roughly 2,000 years ago, when it is believed that cultural and ethnic barriers were miraculously overcome. The festival, which falls on May 20th in this year's western Christian calendar and a week later in the Orthodox one, commemorates what many regard as the establishment of the Christian church. A new kind of divine inspiration, including the ability to communicate with speakers of any language, is said to have come over the disciples who had gathered in the holy city for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which falls seven weeks after Passover.

So there is sad irony in the fact that people who cherish that sacred story seem more divided than ever, with some rejoicing in Jerusalem's rising earthly status and others expressing the very  opposite view.

The divisions are especially pronounced among Christians who live in, or feel strongly attached to, the land they call sacred....Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 17, 2018

How global university rankings are changing higher education

EARLIER this month Peking University played host to perhaps the grandest global gathering ever of the higher-education business. Senior figures from the world's most famous universities—Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge among them—enjoyed or endured a two-hour opening ceremony followed by a packed programme of mandatory cultural events interspersed with speeches lauding "Xi Jinping thought". The party was thrown to celebrate Peking University's 120th birthday—and, less explicitly, China's success in a race that started 20 years ago.

In May 1998 Jiang Zemin, China's president at the time, announced Project 985, named for the year and the month. Its purpose was to create world-class universities. Nian Cai Liu, a professor of polymeric materials science and engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, got swept up in this initiative. "I asked myself many questions, including: what is the definition of and criteria for a world-class university? What are the positions...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 16, 2018

The elusive phenomenon of churches without God

ONE recent Sunday, about 40 people turned up at their regular gathering place, a community centre in Seattle, and soon found themselves pondering an ethical dilemma: would it ever be right to punch a Nazi? The dicussion was led by a husband-and-wife team, who pointed out that hurting people was usually a bad idea, but that it might sometimes be the only way to protect the innocent. "In a world as imperfect as this one, sometimes the choice is between a number of terrible ideas," suggested the husband, Mickey Phoenix.

Other recent topics for debate at the Seattle Atheist Church have included the difference  between compassion and empathy, and whether or not reparations should be paid to the descendants of American slaves, as argued by the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in a recent story for Atlantic magazine. Once they have exhausted their discussion, participants can get to know each other over juice and snacks.

Like many similar clubs across the Western...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 11, 2018

Bavaria is the latest place where the church and Christian politicians are at odds

AS ERASMUS has already noted, there are places all over Europe where right-of-centre politicians are sounding a clarion call of Christian nativism while progressive Christian clerics are pulling in the other direction, urging tolerance and respect for diversity. The latest locus of this surreal standoff is the German region of Bavaria, which has for centuries been a bastion of Teutonic Catholicism.

Markus Söder, the newish Bavarian premier, has decreed that from June 1st a crucifix must be displayed in all offices of the regional government. He described the decision as a "commitment to Bavarian identity and culture" which was not explicitly doctrinal. Given that in this context the "cross is not a sign of religion" its display did not amount to a "violation of the principle of neutrality" by state authorities. As might have been expected, the decision was immediately welcomed by politicians who stand to the right of Mr...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 10, 2018

Bans on paying for human blood distort a vital global market

A WILLING buyer in a market with plenty of willing sellers, Barzin Bahardoust is finding life surprisingly hard. For years he has been trying to pay Canadians for their blood plasma—the viscous straw-coloured liquid in blood that has remarkable therapeutic powers. When his firm, Canadian Plasma Resources (CPR), tried to open clinics in Ontario in 2014, a campaign by local activists led to a ban by the provincial government on paid plasma collection. Undeterred, he tried another province, Alberta—which also banned the practice last year. Then, on April 26th, when CPR announced a planned centre in British Columbia, its government said it too was considering similar legislation. CPR has managed to open two centres, in far-flung Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Even these have faced opposition.

The global demand for plasma is growing, and cannot be met through altruistic donations alone. Global plasma exports were worth $126bn in 2016—more than exports of aeroplanes. But paid plasma raises ethical,...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 10, 2018

America's booming blood-plasma industry

TODAY Derek From is a successful lawyer in Canada. Twelve years ago, he was roughing it in Arizona, trying to break into the recording industry. So he started selling his blood plasma. Twice a week, he sat for an hour in a Grifols Biomat centre, as an apheresis machine whirled, siphoning the plasma out of his blood. For this, he took home $45. "As a poor person" at the time, he found that "a huge economic benefit".

It was also part of a thriving industry. Blood products made up a remarkable 1.6% of American exports in 2016. Since 2005 blood-plasma collections have nearly quadrupled. To critics, this is evidence of a rapacious industry coercing the poor to auction bits of themselves to make ends meet. In fact, plasma, 90% of which is water, is quickly replenished. Giving it has no obvious negative health effects—though the long-term consequences of repeated siphoning have not been fully studied. Strict testing (and later heat-treating) of the extracted plasma ensures that those with communicable...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 04, 2018

In religion and economics, cause and effect are very hard to prove

RELIGIOUS determinism, or the idea that particular forms of belief and worship lead to particular forms of political and economic behaviour, is always a fascinating field for dabbling. Indeed one might even say that such determinism is itself a form of religion, if that is defined as a system of thought which offers compelling answers to questions that might otherwise be shadowy and elusive. Recently there has been a little wave of discussion about religious determinism in the e-commentariat.

It began with a working paper for the World Bank by two economists with Bulgarian roots: the country's former finance minister, Simeon Djankov, and Elena Nikolova of University College London. They crunched some of the results of two transnational investigations into social attitudes: the World Values Survey and a probe by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Their conclusion was that something about Eastern Orthodox Christianity had made its...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 03, 2018

Many countries suffer from shrinking working-age populations

MANY developed countries have anti-immigration political parties, which terrify the incumbents and sometimes break into government. Lithuania is unusual in having an anti-emigration party. The small Baltic country, with a population of 2.8m (and falling), voted heavily in 2016 for the Lithuanian Farmer and Greens' Union, which pledged to do something to stem the outward tide. As with some promises made elsewhere to cut immigration, not much has happened as a result.

"Lithuanians are gypsies, like the Dutch," says Andrius Francas of the Alliance for Recruitment, a jobs agency in Vilnius, the capital. Workers began to drift away almost as soon as Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. The exodus picked up in the new century, when Lithuanians became eligible to work normally in the EU. For many, Britain is the promised land. In the Pegasas bookshop just north of the Neris river in Vilnius, four shelves are devoted to English-language tuition. No other language—not even...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 29, 2018

The pope's role in the plight of Alfie Evans was regrettable

IT CANNOT happen very often that, in an agonising saga that concerns a desperately sick little child, the Catholic bishops of the boy's home city and country line up on one side of an argument, with the pope, apparently, on the other, along with two other European governments.

Nor does it often occur that a British judge, adjudicating on such a delicate and painful case, becomes so exasperated with the self-appointed advocates of the child that he calls one of them "fanatical and deluded."   

Yet these were among the many bizarre and distressing features of the story of Alfie Evans, a little boy of 23 months who died early on April 28th in a hospital in his native Liverpool.

Alfie was suffering from an undiagnosed brain disorder and was described by his doctors as being in a semi-vegetative state. The medical team at the Alder Hey hospital were of the firm opinion that keeping him alive on a ventilator was not "in his best interest" and that further treatment would be pointless and possibly cruel. His life-support...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 26, 2018

When death is not the end

SHALOM OUANOUNOU was declared dead in September. The 25-year-old Canadian had suffered an asthma attack so severe that he was taken to hospital in Ontario where he was put on a ventilator. After carrying out tests, doctors found that his brain lacked functions such as consciousness and respiratory reflexes. They issued a death certificate and prepared to disconnect the medical equipment.

But Mr Ouanounou's family said that he and they, as Orthodox Jews, believe that life ends only when breath and heartbeat cease. They won a court injunction to keep him on artificial ventilation; his heart stopped of its own accord in March, five months later. "It just doesn't make any sense to us to say he wasn't alive throughout that period," says Max Ouanounou, his father.

Mr Ouanounou would have been declared dead in the same way in almost all rich countries. They tend to treat irreversible loss of all of the brain's function as constituting death. American states typically demand evidence...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 26, 2018

A court ruling makes it harder for faith-based employers to discriminate

IT IS a problem that arises in every liberal democracy that upholds liberty of belief (and hence, the freedom of religious bodies to manage their own affairs) while also aiming to defend citizens, including job-seekers, from unfair discrimination. As part of their entitlement to run their own show, faith groups often claim some exemption from equality laws when they are recruiting people.

To take an extreme case, it would run counter to common sense if a church were judicially obliged to appoint a militant atheist as a priest, even if that candidate was well qualified on paper. But how generous should those exceptions be? 

In recent years some decisions by the American Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have been pretty kind, as many people would see things, to religious employers. In 2012 a teacher laid off from a school linked to a Lutheran church in Michigan lost her unfair dismissal case on the grounds that she was technically a minister and her bosses were therefore exempt from equality laws....Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 21, 2018

The West's bombing of Syria meets some approval from Muslims

ON THE streets of west European cities, secular leftists, politically active Muslims and radically minded Christians (a rarefied constituency, but they do exist) have often found themselves marching and chanting together. It happened in the run-up to the Anglo-American attack on Saddam Hussein in 2003, when the core organisers of some of the largest street demonstrations seen in Britain included the Socialist Workers Party and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), both small groups with a gift for mobilising huge crowds. Similar alliances came into play in protests over Israeli military action in Lebanon and Gaza, and over the perceived willingness of Western governments to condone or encourage Israel. 

But reactions to the ongoing misery in Syria, and to Western intervention in that country, have been entirely different. Secular leftists in the West, who in general oppose any use of force by their governments, were instinctively horrified by the assault on Syria unleashed on April 14th by America, Britain and France. Many Christian...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 19, 2018

European countries should make it easier for refugees to work
German lessons

MOUHANAD SALHA would like nothing better than to work. But since arriving in the Netherlands in late 2014, he has managed to do so for just one week. Like more than 80% of Syrian refugees in Europe, he is unemployed.

He was studying information technology when he fled Syria in 2012, and worked as an apprentice electrician in Lebanon, where "you can just go in and fix everything." Not so in the Netherlands. Becoming an electrician requires elaborate certification, and jobs usually need proficiency in Dutch. Such rules, intended to shield native workers, deter asylum-seekers from looking for jobs. Refugees who do find work lose their government-paid benefits.

Asylum-seekers in the Netherlands are housed in government-run centres and not allowed to work until six months after they arrive. If they then find a job, the government withholds 75% of their wages to cover room and board. (Unsurprisingly, few do.) Once granted refugee status, as Mr...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 19, 2018

Refugees need not be a burden, if they are allowed to work

TWO years ago, a group of elders in this village in north-western Uganda agreed to lend their land to refugees from South Sudan. About 120,000 are now in the surrounding area. Here they live in tarpaulin shelters and mud-brick huts on a patch of scrub where cows once grazed. Kemis Butele, a gravel-voiced Ugandan elder, explains that hosting refugees is a way for a remote place, long neglected by the central government, to get noticed. He hopes for new schools, clinics and a decent road—and "that our children can get jobs".

There are more than 20m refugees in the world today, more than at any time since the end of the second world war. Nearly 90% reside in poor countries. In many, to preserve jobs for natives, governments bar refugees from working in the formal economy. Uganda has shown how a different approach can reap dividends. The government gives refugees land plots and lets them work. In some places, the refugees boost local businesses and act as a magnet for foreign aid. Mr Butele and many...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 13, 2018

An Asian religion gains popularity in the New World

Chris Nyambura was raised Catholic but over the past six months he has started calling himself Buddhist. Aged 23, he is a graduate student in chemical engineering. Like many of his generation, especially on the American West Coast, he appreciates the emphasis on mental development and self-help   in the spiritual practice he has chosen.

He belongs to a group of people who turn up every Sunday evening for guided meditation sessions in a small, brightly lit studio in downtown Seattle. This is one of 38 centres across the United States (and 679 around the world) affiliated to the Diamond Way movement, which has popularised a modern form of Tibetan Buddhist practice, that emphasises the practical over the arcane. Their teacher coaches them in techniques like visualisation and chanting as well as explaining some basics of the religion to any newcomers.

Mr Nyambura eagerly lists the ways in which, he feels, this practice benefits him. First, training the mental faculties. "A lot of people take refuge in relationships, food,...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 12, 2018

Why undertakers are worried

EVERY minute more than 100 people die. Most of these deaths bring not just grief to some, but also profit to others. America's 2.7m-odd deaths a year underpin an industry worth $16bn in 2017, encompassing over 19,000 funeral homes and over 120,000 employees. In France the sector is worth an estimated €2.5bn ($3.1bn). The German market was worth €1.5bn in 2014 and employed nearly 27,000 people, a sixth of them undertakers. In Britain the industry, estimated to be worth around £2bn ($2.8bn), employs over 20,000 people, a fifth of them undertakers.

In the coming decades, as baby-boomers hit old age, the annual death rate will climb from 8.3 per 1,000 people today to 10.2 by 2050 in America, from 10.6 to 13.7 in Italy and from 9.1 to 12.8 in Spain. Spotting the steady rise in clientele, money managers—from risk-seeking venture capitalists to boring old pension funds—have been getting into the death business. Last year the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund bought one of Spain's largest funeral...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 06, 2018

A good Russian is vindicated on the Orthodox church's holy day

TODAY is Good Friday in the Orthodox Christian calendar. All over the eastern Christian world, from villages in Greece and Romania to cathedrals in Moscow, it is a day of haunting ceremonies that re-enact the death and burial of Jesus. There are chants of deep lamentation, interlaced with quietly confident declarations that mortality has been conquered and life will prevail. This builds up to the noisy, exuberant Resurrection festivities which take place on the night from Saturday to Sunday.  This year, for some rank-and-file Russian Orthodox believers, the story of a just man unfairly accused but ultimately vindicated has even greater poignancy.

To the relief of human-rights campaigners inside and outside Russia, a brave historian who has devoted his life to uncovering, literally and metaphorically, the crimes of the Stalin era was largely acquitted this week of the surreal charges which had been laid against him. Prosecutors  were demanding a nine-year prison term. A court in northwestern Russia cleared Yuri Dimitriyev (pictured) of...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 05, 2018

Household smoke may be the world's deadliest environmental hazard

IMAGINE building a small pile of wood and kindling in the smallest room in your house, and setting fire to it. You can keep the door open, to let out some smoke, but cannot switch on an extractor fan. You must tend the fire for an hour. Repeat the process three times a day.

This is how Fatou N'Dour lives. Her kitchen, separate from her home and built of mud bricks, measures roughly two metres by two. She usually cooks indoors because of the winds that whip across Lambayene, the village where she lives in central Senegal. Asked about ventilation, she points to a hole in one wall, which is about ten centimetres square. Other women in the village cook rice, couscous and meaty sauces in similar conditions, using wood from a nearby forest.

Wood and charcoal in Africa; coal in East Asia; wood and animal dung in South Asia—in much of the world, food is heated by burning primitive solid fuels. Each fire is tiny, but the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based research group,...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 05, 2018

Wood-burning stoves are in fashion but cause serious pollution
Toasty toes, wheezing lungs

CHRISTMAS 2016 was hygge's moment in Britain. A crush of books appeared seeking to explain how Danes—for the word is theirs—achieve hygge, which means comfort or convivial ease. An important ingredient, say the books, is a wood fire, around which one is supposed to sit, sipping something warming. British readers ought to have been prepared for that. A surprise publishing hit of 2015 had been "Norwegian Wood", a book that teaches how to chop and dry firewood.

About 175,000 new wood-burning stoves are sold in Britain each year. In 2015 an official survey found that 7.5% of Britons burn wood at home, usually to provide a little extra heat (most wood-burning households have central heating) or because they like looking at flames. Wood-burning is fashionable and seemingly environmentally friendly, since trees can be replanted. It is also, unfortunately, a big contributor to air pollution in...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Mar 30, 2018

Why a papal comment about hell triggered a misunderstanding

ON TUESDAY, two distinguished, elderly gentlemen who live in Rome (one aged 81, the other 93) had a warm meeting at the younger one's residence. It was the latest in a series of pleasant and stimulating conversations they have enjoyed in recent years. A few days later they seemed to be having a public misunderstanding about hell, or rather about what exactly one of them had said on that subject.

The interlocutors were Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica who is an avowed non-believer. In keeping with Mr Scalfari's well-established style, he avoided using notebooks or tape-recorders during his papal chat. However on March 29th, he published his own impressions of the meeting, complete with some lengthy direct "quotes" that reflected his memory of what the pontiff had said.

The most controversial bit was an answer the journalist apparently received to his question on the fate of unrepentant sinners. Francis is quoted as saying something like:

The Economist International News
Mar 28, 2018

The deal that curtails Iran's nuclear ambitions seems doomed

EVER since Donald Trump's election, he has had in his sights the "worst deal ever"—the one reached in 2015 that sought to circumscribe Iran's nuclear ambitions. For a while the threat to the survival of the agreement looked more rhetorical than real. No longer. On January 12th the president signed the waiver that prevents the reimposition of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran for a further 120 days. But, against the advice of his national-security team at the time, he warned that this would be the last such waiver unless the European parties to the deal—Britain, France and Germany—worked with America to fix what he regards as the fatal flaws in the agreement.

The prospects for the deal became even bleaker on March 13th, when Mr Trump announced the sacking of Rex Tillerson. His replacement as secretary of state is Mike Pompeo, a fierce critic of the agreement, known more formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The replacement of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser nine days later by John Bolton almost...Continue reading

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