A fascinating survey of religious attitudes in sub-Saharan Africa, undertaken by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, confirms what many already knew. Religion is alive in Africa. Indeed, in the past 100 years, the number of Christians has grown from seven million to 450 million, the largest growth ever in the history of Christianity.
Yet conversion figures may indicate not a change from one religion to another, but the addition of a new religious tradition to an old one. “Overbelief” is a concern as traditional African religious practices continue to flourish. Thus 94 percent of Tanzanian Christians believe in witchcraft and 56 percent believe that sacrifices to ancestors can protect them from evil.
Based upon 25,000 face-to-face interviews in 19 sub-Saharan nations, the survey results document a marked contrast with the religious attitudes of Americans and Europeans. Almost nine of 10 persons surveyed say that religion is not simply “important,” but “very important” in their lives. Only 57 percent in the United States, 29 percent of Canadians and 20 percent in Western Europe would say that. In Africa 80 percent of Christians attend church at least once a week, and over 50 percent believe that Jesus Christ will return to earth in their lifetime.
Will these attitudes continue, or will a more secular and pessimistic outlook invade Africa? That remains to be seen; but at least for the present, the rapid growth of religion and religious practices in sub-Saharan Africa is reason for celebration.
Beating Back the Squid
One indication of the absurdity of the derivative markets is that one of the bills designed to curb excesses in the financial markets, by regulating derivatives, was proposed by the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Why agriculture? Because derivatives originated in the commodities futures markets, where farmers and other agricultural businesses sell contracts to ensure that if the price of their products falls, they will not suffer severe losses. The original aim of derivatives was thus to reduce risk caused by the vagaries of nature. In recent decades, however, untethered from anything as mundane as corn, wheat or oat harvests, Wall Street began using derivatives as little more than a means to gamble, actually increasing risk. In another proposal, Senator Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who is chair of the Banking Committee, offered a bill that besides regulating the banks’ activity in the derivatives market would give the government the power to close failing financial institutions if their health imperiled the overall economy.
The possibility of real reform gathered steam in the wake of charges against—who else?—Goldman Sachs. The firm was accused of creating a dummy hedge fund designed to lose money so that Goldman could bet against it, and then selling shares in the fund to unsuspecting investors. The Securities and Exchange Commission, having roused itself like Rip van Winkle from its decades-long regulatory nap, charged the firm with fraud. Matt Taibbi’s memorable description of Goldman in Rolling Stone magazine as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” may be less of an exaggeration than it first appeared to be. The financial markets have moved far from the days when stocks, bonds and futures were tied to real-life products, and they need prompt regulation. Bring back pork bellies.
New Eyes on the Prize
Press leaks suggest the Obama administration has turned its symposium-style policymaking toward what has been the Middle East’s most intractable challenge: how to achieve security and peace for Israel while recognizing the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people. A new U.S. peace initiative may be ready for public consumption by the fall.
The administration’s last few frustrating months grappling with the Netanyahu government may have convinced the president that the United States has little choice but to forge ahead on its own—even if that suggests a government change in Israel might be a precondition for peace. The conflict has already been cited by U.S. military planners as a strategic vulnerability in U.S. efforts to contain Islamic extremism, but the Netanyahu government has made little effort to alter the dangerous trajectory of its policy, which relies on grudging lip service to a two-state solution coupled with far-from-subtle support of illegal settlements on the West Bank. The president’s plan will attempt a geopolitical high-wire walk, balancing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against efforts to neutralize Iranian nuclear ambitions. The plan may include a proposal for a regional nuclear free zone, an addendum that would include commitments from Israel on reducing its undeclared stockpile.
There is little time to waste. Israeli political leaders who have over the years batted the Oslo Accords around as a useful election device may come to regret their insincerity when long-frustrated Palestinian national aspirations, as recent polls already indicate, return to the idea of a one-state solution.