God is naughtier than sex

As a followup to my recent post about how Americans feel a need to exaggerate their religiousness while Europeans are ashamed of their religiousness, I ran across this article from the Danish national broadcast network's website. The original article is in Danish, although you can run it through Google Translate to get an English translation, albeit with some awkward constructions here and there. The title of the article is "God is naughtier than sex", and it describes a Danish man who wrote a children's Bible. Here a cleaned up text of the Google Translate version of the article:

"If I had said something about my marriage or my sex life to the reporter from a newspaper, then it would almost be less taboo than my disclosure that I believed in God." Such is what Sigurd Barrett experienced, when once during an interview he answered "yes" that he believed in God. The day after he could read in a double spread in the newspaper : "Sigurd believes in God!"

Sigurd Barrett finds that Danes are reluctant, almost afraid of the Christian faith, even though 80.9 percent of us are still members of the Church. This is partly why he agreed to make a children's bible. Not because he wants to proselytize or moralize, but because he wants it to be possible to talk about God without people responding nonsensically.

Not least, the kids need to be able to talk about God. Sigurd Barrett believes that it is our duty to speak with them about what faith is. And they should not be scared about wanting to talk with and about God:

"If we as parents put a lid on this impulse of fear to indoctrinate or brainwash our children, I mean really, we deprive them of the opportunity to found a spiritual dimension to their understanding of themselves. Praying a prayer is not an extreme or fanatical action. It is a natural desire to communicate with a higher power," he says.
I think that this once again illustrates the point that just as there is a kind of cultural stigma in the US against not being religious, there is an opposite stigma against being religious in many parts of Europe. By calling attention to this, I am not implying anything about whether being religious is good or bad--but I do think the cultural difference is interesting, and it says less about whether the people in a country as a whole are actually more or less religious than it does about how people in a given country want to present themselves. This also once again raises the question--why do Americans frequently want to make themselves out to be more religious than they are, and why Europeans frequently want to make themselves out to be less religious than they are?

Prayer for victory in war

I ran across this article in the LA Times about a prayer that General Patton asked his chaplain to come up with. The prayer asked God to help give Patton favorable weather during the waning months of World War II, just prior to the Battle of the Bulge. The prayer that the chaplain came up with was this:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.
The article points out,
Throughout history, soldiers have called upon their gods for protection and victory over their enemies. But Patton's now legendary prayer was extraordinary in its presumption and audacity, said Hymel. "There were four other American commanders in the European Theater during that time, and none of them were asking God to fix the weather."
I am reminded of Mark Twain's famous "War Prayer" story, a brilliant anti-war spoof of the very idea of praying for God to help "our" side win. (If anyone is not familiar with this short work of Twain's, I highly recommend it.)

If one assumes that God can control the weather to enable one's own side to win in battle, then the inevitable question is why God is limited to working his magic in that way. After all, why was the horror of World War II, with its millions of senseless deaths, even necessary in first place if a simple prayer to God could have fixed it. If God can determine the fate of battles by clearing up the skies, then surely God could have prevented Hitler from ever taking power, and surely God could have prevented massive horror of the Holocaust.

It is interesting how divine intervention, supposedly a manifestation of God's omnipotence, is actually conceived in rather limited terms. Why appeal to God to help fix the mess that an omnipotent God could have prevented in the first place?

Americans, Europeans, and claiming to be religious

Three years ago, I posted an entry to my blog titled "Europe and the Failure of Orthodox Christianity" in which, among other things, I quoted from a researcher from a New York Times article who pointed out that Americans claim to be more religious than they actually are, while Europeans claim to be less religious than they actually are. The researcher, a Spanish sociologist named José Casanova, said

The interesting fact is that people responding to questions about religion lie in both directions. In America, people exaggerate how religious they are, and in Europe, it’s the other way around. That has to do with the situation of religion in both places. Americans think religion is a good thing and tend to feel guilty that they aren’t religious enough. In Europe, they think being religious is bad, and they actually feel guilty about being too religious.
This is borne out a recent study that was highlighted in an article in Slate magazine, which poses the question: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?" It seems that Americans report going to church much more often than they actually do. Which then leads to this question:
Why do Americans and Canadians feel the need to overreport their religious attendance? You could say that religiosity for Americans is tied to their identity in a way that it is not for the Germans, the French, and the British. But that only restates the mystery. Why is religiosity tied to American identity?
The author of the Slate article, Shankar Vedantam, offers no definitive answer to that question. It does reinforce the notion that Americans are not really as different from Europeans on the subject of religion as people often assume.

Taking the Christmas story seriously, but not literally.

Susan Strouse, a blogger who is the pastor of a small, progressive Lutheran church in San Francisco, writes about her personal odyssey in learning to take the Christmas story seriously, but not literally. Her entry begins:

About ten years ago, at a December gathering of a women’s clergy support group, someone brought a beautiful Nativity story book. As we passed it around, I found myself growing more and more uncomfortable. Finally I dared to say the unthinkable: “But I don’t believe that this ever really happened.”

They all laughed and said, “Well, neither do we. It’s a story; it’s not literal history.”

She wonders how many people, not just clergy, but those in the pews, also feel the same way. I like this comment:

I had the wonderful experience of an 80-something woman in my previous congregation, after reading Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong, exclaiming to me, “I wish I’d read this 70 years ago!”

The fatal implications of religious dogma

The leadership of the Catholic Church in the US was very upset when a Catholic Hospital in Arizona performed an emergency abortion to save a mother's life. Now it is being reported that Bishop Thomas Olmstead

is not only castigating Catholic Healthcare West, the group that runs St. Joseph's Hospital, for saving her life but threatening them in order to force them to promise that doctors will never save a woman's life if it requires an emergency abortion ever again...Bishop Olmstead calls the life-saving procedure "morally wrong" even though he doesn't deny that it almost certainly saved her life.
The irony is, of course, that the Catholic Church defines itself as a "pro-life" church and considers its position on abortion to be a "pro-life" stance. I guess saving the life of a mother is less important than letting her (and her fetus) die, all for the sake of a rigid and morally incomprehensible religious dogma.

A mature faith and an immature faith

I found this interesting article about the religious faith of Elizabeth Edwards. In her farewell statement, she said, "You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope." Because she made no mention of God in that statement, people of a certain sensibility were offended. For example, blogger Donald Douglas attacked her for having the temerity of not holding Douglas's own theological views, and then went off half cocked with the ridiculous statement, "Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards' non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists."

How one can draw sweeping conclusions about another person's theology based on what they didn't say in a single sentence is a little odd, but based on other information in the above cited article, it is clear that what she believed about God was anything but simplistic. Any deviation from conservative orthodoxy is not, of course, a "non-theological theology", and the "neo-communists" remark by Douglas is laughable. But what particularly caught my eye in this article about Edwards was the following view that Edwards once expressed on divine intervention:

"I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God," Edwards explained to an audience of women bloggers when asked how her beliefs inform her politics. "I do not have an intervening God. I don't think I can pray to him -- or her -- to cure me of cancer."

Edwards, according to Stan, laughed after describing God as "her" -- hardly a heresy and certainly understandable given her audience -- and continued on:

"I appreciate other people's prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don't believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that's what's right. We should do those things because that's what's right."
Wise words indeed. In fact, I would argue that there is nothing odd at all about not believing that God will cure her of cancer if she prays for it. This, to me, is the hallmark of a more mature faith.

Charitable motives and ulterior motives

I recently returned from a trip to Nicaragua where I was involved in a project to help build latrines in a remote and extremely impoverished community. Spending time with people who are so poor and yet so warm and welcoming can be a life changing experience.

On the plane trip to Managua, a fair number of the passengers were all wearing the same t-shirt that indicated that they were part of some sort of American based religious based mission trip. Similarly, on the return trip, a different group of people were all wearing a different t-shirt that indicated that they were also participants on a religious mission trip.

There is no question that helping the poor is often a religious imperative. Certainly the Bible talks about this. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable that states, "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." But they question I had was whether the people on these mission trips had ulterior motives in whatever it was they were doing. Were they building schools for its own sake, or were they also "saving souls" on the side?

In talking with some other people who were on the same project that I was, and who had some familiarity with these sorts of religious based mission trip, the answer appears to be in most cases that that these service trips have a component of proselytization.

If this is true, then I find this particularly offensive. I think that proselytizing is bad enough under any circumstances, but to do so as part of a mission directed at helping those who are disadvantaged, I it is doubly offensive. If one is going to help the poor, by all means I think they should. But if there is an ulterior motive, if proselytizing is part of the same mission as well, then it seems to me that one is essentially holding those one helps hostage to one's good graces. "Sure, I'll help build your school, but only if you'll listen to me tell you why my religion is better than whatever you currently believe."

I have this silly idea that helping others in need should serve as its own reward, should be done for its own sake. I have no problem with demonstrating that acts of charity and social justice are performed as an expression of one's religious faith. But there is a difference between saying, "I help you because my faith says I should," and saying, "I am going to use this opportunity to help you in your time of need as a means of trying to convert you to my faith."

Even the wearing of identical t-shirts on the plane seemed like a way of advertising their religious faith. I am reminded of what Jesus said about prayer in Matthew 6: "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I can't help but wonder if a group of people all wearing a t-shirt on the airplane boldly advertising their religious mission trip is a little bit like praying in public to make a show of what you are doing.

Knowing everything you need to know

This satirical article from the Onion, titled "Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims", is so successful as a work of satire precisely because there is so much truth in what it says. It could easily describe people like Terry Jones, the Koran-burning pastor, or about lots of other people who would rather not let little things like knowledge get in the way of their prejudices.

Of course, the same thing could be said about many others sorts of prejudices as well. For example (and I have written about this before), when noted atheist blogger PZ Myers says that he already knows everything he needs to know about religion (and even coined an argument known as "The Courtier's Reply" to justify willful ignorance), he is illustrating this "I already know everything I need to so don't confuse me with the facts" phenomenon very well. Certainly, this sort of ignorance has resided at the heart of many sorts of prejudices. However, it does seem lately that the prejudice that has become so prevalent, at least in American society, is that which is directed at Muslims. That is probably why I have been writing about Muslims a lot lately in my blog. I think I feel like we who care about inclusion have a responsibility to stand up for those who are marginalized in society, and it does seem like the prejudice du jour seems to be directed at Muslims.

Nicholas Kristof wrote an excellent column in the New York Times recently about the history of prejudice against marginalized groups in American society. He chronicles the various groups in American history who have been subjected to intolerance, over the years, including Catholics and Jews. So there is nothing new in this. Although Kristof ultimately expresses some optimism about the ability of Americans to overcome prejudice, he makes at one point an interesting comment: "Suspicion of outsiders, of people who behave or worship differently, may be an ingrained element of the human condition, a survival instinct from our cave-man days."

Perhaps it goes back even further than cave-man days. I can't help but wonder if our primate genes do lie behind our tribalism. I recently read a book by Vanessa Woods, Bonobo Handshake, that contrasted the personalities of our species' two closest relative: chimps and bonobos. Chimps seem to be plagued by a terribly violent tribalistic impulse. They are not fond of chimps who aren't from their group to say the least. They (or at least the males) will often attack chimps from outside their own group in horrible and bloodthirsty ways that mirror humanity's own warrior brutality. According to the author, this violent chimp tribalism can even take place if you take a group of chimps and divide them up into two separate groupings; after six months or so, the former group kinship will be forgotten and chimps from one of the recently separated groups may attack chimps from the other, even though they all used to belong to the same group.

Knowing this, part of me does despair that we have a little bit of the violent chimp within us. Vanessa Woods writes in her book about chimps and bonobos while also providing background stories about the horrific genocidal wars taking place in the areas near where she researched the bonobos, in Rwanda and Congo. And yet, we humans, violent as we often are, are also more than that. Bonobos, who choose a peaceful, highly sexualized, and matriarchal social arrangement, are also close to us genetically. And what about human altruism? Where does it fit into the evolutionary story, and if tribalism and violence is a part of what we are, can it not also be said that altruism is also part of what defines us? We are often proud of our altruism and even consider it part of what makes us unique. Apparently many scientists had thought that humans were essentially the only species capable of altruism, but Vanessa Woods argues that she has witnessed examples of altruism among bonobos. For that matter, she cites a researcher who claims that chimps, violent though they so often are, are capable of altruism as well. So maybe altruism is also rooted in our primate past.

The upshot of all of this is that it does seem that humans are capable of being inclusive as well as intolerant and bigoted. When prejudices are justified by people insisting that they already know everything that they need to know about those they stigmatize, they are expressing something other than the best that humans can be. That is not to their credit. And yet, while humans have shown themselves repeatedly to be tribalistic and to turn their bigotry against those they consider outsiders from their group, humans have also shown time and again that they are capable of reaching out with compassion and a moral sense of inclusion to those who are different.

What is essential to religion?

Tim Crane (who is an atheist but not militantly anti-religion) writes in the New York Times that "it is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims,"

Really? Is this true? What are the historical claims that are essential to Buddhism, for example? (If Buddha had not existed, would not the same eightfold path of Buddhism still hold true?) What are the historical claims that progressive Christians who do not believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead are making? Sure, they do assert that someone named Jesus lived a long time ago, but a lot of non-Christians also believe that.

Isn't Crane offering a narrow definition of religion that is informed by Christian orthodoxy?

The poor widow's offering

The New York Times reported on a Berkeley study that showed that rich people are less altruistic than the poor are. The study found that

lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.
The article goes on to say that
Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients in the greater generosity of those with lower incomes. And these two traits proved to be in increasingly short supply as people moved up the income spectrum.
When reading about this phenomenon, I am reminded of the story of the poor widow in Luke 21:1-4:
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on."

America needs more Muslims

I thought this article, titled "Why America Needs More Muslims", makes a very good point, namely that part of what feeds the anti-Islamic prejudice going on right now is that a lot of Americans don't know any Muslims and thus hold views about Islam based on stereotypes rather than reality. I often wonder how many of those who are so vehemently anti-Muslim, who oppose the building of mosques throughout the US as well as the building of a Muslim cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero, are actually acquainted with even a single Muslim in their personal lives. Familiarity doesn't always erase prejudice, of course, but I can't help but think that it might help to humanize people who are so easily demonized as "the Other".

Reza Aslan on atheist fundamentalism

Reza Aslan (who wrote an excellent history of Islam titled "No god but God") has penned a very nice article for the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" website about the relationship between the New Atheists and religious fundamentalists. He points out that many of the New Atheists are so zealous in their intolerance of religion (thus resembling religious fundamentalists) that in their zeal they have shown themselves to have little in common prior strain of serious philosophical atheism:

It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism--an atheist fundamentalism. The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.This is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche (I am not the first to think that the new atheists give atheism a bad name). Neither is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer. This is, rather, a caricature of atheism: shallow scholarship mixed with evangelical fervor.
He goes on to point out that a willful and disdainful ignorance of religion seems to be a consistent characteristic of this movement:
The principle error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism--and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism--is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence--by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented--and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god.
The comment about not writing books about biology without knowing something about the topic is particularly apropos. Many of the New Atheists seem to make a virtue out of not knowing anything about that which they condemn so vehemently; the so-called "Courtier's Reply" argument advanced by PZ Myers is an example of this claim that you don't need to know anything about religion to be able to dismiss it out of hand--and the interesting point is that Myers himself is a biologist who does not take kindly to people ignorant of biology making pronouncements about evolution.

Aslan also points out the fallacy of scientism--the belief that science can step out of its own domain and make pronouncements about subjects that do not fall within the scientific purview--which is to say, the human quest for meaning through religious myth and metaphor:
What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims--be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth--are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science. That may not be a slogan easily pasted on the side of a bus. But it is the hallmark of the scientific intellect.

What it means to be a Christian, part II

God will punish the United States if we do not vote the way God wants us to in the 2010 elections, according to Cindy Jacobs. Who is Cindy Jacobs, you might ask? Well, according to her website, she is a prophet, so I guess it must be true.

The voices of bigotry are getting shriller

It appears that right wing hatemongers have upped the ante in their smear campaign against Muslims:

Self-described “anti-jihadist” and conservative blogger Pamela Geller — the executive director of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) — has joined the chorus of right-wing paranoia. Earlier this month on MSNBC, Geller suggested the Islamic center is a “triumphal mosque” on “conquered lands.” Now her organization has recently launched a series of bus ads reading, “Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got questions? Get answers!” in major cities, including San Francisco, Miami, and New York
The fact that this kind of hatred is so openly prevalent is a sad testimony to the state of American society. I am reminded of the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in the US during 1920s, or the anti-semitic radio broadcasts of Charles Coughlin in the 1930s. We like to think that we have moved beyond that sort of bigotry in this country, but clearly we have not.

What it means to be a Christian, part I

Author Ann Rice has announced on her Facebook page that she has quit being a Christian. Her reasoning is as follows:

I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.
Understandable objections, although perhaps the problem may be that she is just hanging around with the wrong bunch of Christians. I personally know many Christians who are not anti-gay, anti-feminist, or anti-science. It is interesting to hear this announcement from Rice just days after the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the US, formally and publicly welcomed gay pastors into the denomination. Of course, what it really boils down to is that "Christian" is a label, and like a lot of labels you can still be a person of faith whether you call yourself a "Christian" or not. She apparently hasn't given up on her faith, stating that she "remain[s] committed to Christ as always."

Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal church has, meanwhile, presented a different vision of what it means to be a Christian than the one that Ann Rice describes, in a sermon published in the UK newspaper The Guardian. Schori states that "We must challenge the human tendency to insist that dignity doesn't apply to the poor, or to immigrants, or to women, or Muslims, or gay and lesbian people."

That's a vision of Christianity that I can live with.

The seeds of justice

David Brooks has written a column for the New York Times in which he discusses the idea that morality is a product of our evolutionary past. According to this view, our ancestors developed a sense of what successfully facilitated social cooperation, and that therein lies the basis of an innate moral sense that all of us have (and which even small infants show some expression of). Interestingly enough, Brooks makes a connection in his article between morality and justice; he quotes a researcher who says that "people have a rudimentary sense of justice from a very early age."

He also discusses the relationship between morality and empathy:

People who behave morally don’t generally do it because they have greater knowledge; they do it because they have a greater sensitivity to other people’s points of view. Hauser reported on research showing that bullies are surprisingly sophisticated at reading other people’s intentions, but they’re not good at anticipating and feeling other people’s pain.
The very existence of bullies points to the fact that not everyone has an equally developed sense of morality--bullies seem to express less moral sense than compassionate people, at least when they bully others--which ultimately implies that not everyone has an equally developed sense of empathy. Even if there is an innate moral sense within us as humans, it is still something that needs to be cultivated to be fully manifest. And this struggle to cultivate our morality has been played out in human history. Oppressive human social structures and ideologies--the list is long, but could include such things as slavery, sexism, racism, oligarchy, torture, economic exploitation--can all be seen as examples of an institutionalized lack of empathy. It has been a historical struggle to cultivate greater empathy at a societal level in order that people might understand that, for example, sexism is a bad thing, and further that society should reflect this understanding at an institutional level. Achieving this understanding has meant appealing to people's innate moral sense, their sense of justice, to inspire them to alter societal structures to make them more just.

When we stand up for society's victims--the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant, the religious minority, the excluded--we are expanding upon that innate moral sense and that innate sense of justice. But that innate sense will be stunted unless it is nourished. The seeds of justice may lie within us, but we have to cultivate them to make them grow.

More on the rising tide of intolerance

Newt Gingrich has weighed in on the Ground Zero mosque issue, and (I'm sure this comes as no surprise) it turns out that he's against the building of that mosque. His reasoning? He argues that since there isn't freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia, we shouldn't have freedom of religion in New York City either:

...There are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia. In fact no Christian or Jew can even enter Mecca...If the people behind the Cordoba House were serious about religious toleration, they would be imploring the Saudis, as fellow Muslims, to immediately open up Mecca to all and immediately announce their intention to allow non-Muslim houses of worship in the Kingdom.
I think it is fair to say that if you follow the convoluted logic behind that argument, you have a bright future ahead of you as an upstanding member of the conservative movement. I wish I were making all of this up, because it shows just how wacko the wacko right really has become, and it also shows to what degree hatred has become part of mainstream American politics.

Meanwhile, Yahoo News has published a story on the rise in protests against the erection of mosques everywhere, not just New York City. The article refers to "the site of a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee, that had been burned down and vandalized with painted swastikas in 2008."

"The local tiny Muslim community was in a state of shock because most of them were born in America and had lived very happily in the small community," he says. "People say, 'Go back home,' and they say, 'Where do we go? This is our home.' "

The painting of swastikas as part of the vandalism summarizes pretty well what is going on here. The headline for the Yahoo article reads, "Anti-mosque protests on the rise, say Muslim advocates." Now imagine if the headline had read, "Anti-synagogue protests on the rise, say Jewish advocates." It's funny what sounds like a horrible expression of bigotry suddenly becomes acceptable to a certain element in our society once they aim their bigotry at a different religious group.

The article also reports that

Of course, opponents of mosques do not consider themselves bigots, and many are genuinely concerned that mosques may help produce homegrown terrorists.

Of course, few people care to label themselves as bigots--just as few apologists for torture by the US ever actually use the word "torture" to describe what they advocate. Labels are like that. But the whole "terrorist" connection is rather interesting. I have cited, in earlier blog postings, the example of Christian-based terrorism in Mexico that is derived from the teachings of an American evangelist named John Eldredge. Of course, Eldredge disavows any responsibility for how his teachings are being used, but the point is that these terrorists are using Christianity to justify their violence--just as those who commit acts of terrorism in the name of Islam use the Muslim religion to justify their own violence. Interestingly enough, you don't hear too many of the Islamophobes using the example of Eldredge to justify the prevention of churches being built.

And speaking of terrorism, a right wing terrorist just the other day got into a shootout with the California Highway Patrol. He is said to have been "angry with "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items, and as a result "he traveled to San Francisco and planned to attack two nonprofit groups there 'to start a revolution'".

But I somehow don't expect that Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin will have much to say about that.

The Onion reports that God is retiring

The satirical website The Onion reports that God is considering retirement.

The article reports:

He Who Commanded Light to Shine Out of Darkness told reporters that his biggest regret was putting his job above spending more time with his son. In particular, God mentioned that he deeply lamented missing his only child's once-in-a-lifetime crucifixion.

"Your son's down there being martyred in front of all these people, but you can't be there for it," said God, his voice cracking slightly. "He thought I'd forsaken him. Of course, I was tied up working on something that seemed important at the time but that I can't even remember now. And I'll never get that moment back."

Many worry that God's retirement could create a void at the helm of creation that no omnipotent deity would be available to fill. However, sources close to the Heavenly Father pointed out that he has been gradually delegating key responsibilities to respected subordinates, such as the Holy Ghost, for at least an eon.

Attempting to downplay such concerns, God told reporters that he wasn't "going anywhere just yet" and that, in any case, the universe was largely self-sustaining these days.

You see, that's the whole problem with omnipotence!

"Refudiating" hatred--a tall order, apparently

It seems that Sarah Palin has weighed in on the question of building a Mosque near Ground Zero, and you can guess which side of the issue she had taken. The story of how she used the non-existent word "refudiate" when she wrote on Twitter about the issue, then deleted the Tweet out of apparent embarrassment while at the same time claiming that she is just being creative like Shakespeare was, definitely makes for entertaining reading.

Meanwhile, in other news, down in Southern California in a place called Temecula Valley, which funnily enough is pretty darned far from Ground Zero, a vocal group of people have objected to the building of a mosque. According to the LA Times, one of the leaders of the opposition is Bill Rench, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, who (and I wish I were making this up, but unfortunately I am not) said "the two religions 'mix like oil and water' and predicted a 'confrontational atmosphere' if the project moves forward.

I hate to break it to Pastor Bill Rench, but the only people doing the confronting are he and his ilk.

All of which illustrates the point that the objection to the building of a mosque at Ground Zero really has nothing to do with any alleged sensitivity to the victims (but you knew that, since Muslims were counted among the victims of that act of terrorism), but rather are part of a pattern of bigotry that extends across the country.

On not wanting that kind of religion

Today's New York Times book review section features a review by Lauren Winner in which she writes about Eric Lax's book Faith Interrupted. Winner notes that Lax, who writes of his lost faith, seems unable to handle the idea of a faith imbued with ambiguity and doubt:

Yet Lax does not seem interested in cultivating a spiritual life shot through with doubt. He doesn’t want an ambivalent (or, one might say, mature) faith; rather, he writes, recalling the aftermath of his parents’ deaths, “what I wanted to have was what I’d always had, but the faith I had accepted without question and could articulate with catechismal rote could not be recaptured.” Of course, many of us come to a place where such faith is neither possible nor even desirable; I suspect my own small Episcopal church would be largely empty on Sundays if anyone who ever questioned the Creed, anyone whose faith life included seasons of aridity, stayed home.
Based on those comments, Lax comes across as someone who Marcus Borg would describe as having made the transition from "pre-critical naivete" to "critical thinking" without ever found a way towards what Borg calls "postcritical naivete". I think it might be worth asking why it is that a lot of people make the first transition but not the second (and there are many people with religious upbringings for whom this is the case--Bart Ehrman comes to mind as famous example). Lax, as described in the above quote, wistfully longs for the dogmatic certainty of his upbringing, and so perhaps the answer in his case is that he would find a religion of ambiguity and uncertainty to be unfulfilling because it would not address this desire to return to a childlike sense of certainty. On the other hand, I often tend to think that people often stop at the "critical thinking" phase not so much because of what they want but because of their own limitations in defining religion--their conception of what religion necessarily is encapsulated in that childlike conception and in some sense it just doesn't occur to them that a religion can be anything else. Certainly a lot of the New Atheists subscribe to this simplistic notion of religion.

Perhaps there is a little of both going on. When many atheists are confronted with progressive or non-theistic forms of religion that don't conform to their stereotypes about religion, two common responses are either to deride such religious ideas for being vague or ill-defined (thus indicating a strong attachment to a dogmatic certainty that resembles the childlike religion that Lax was attached to), or to simply pose the question, "What's the point of such a religion?" While the former objection is rooted in an attachment to the notion of dogmatic certainty as a religious virtue, I think the latter question in particular expresses the problem that a religion of ambiguity or uncertainty doesn't seem to be particularly attractive to some people.

I wonder how much of this is all interrelated. Maybe sometimes, if you are attached to the idea of a religion offering childlike certainty--whether you reject that religion or not--then maybe the reason that a religion of ambiguity and uncertainty can in some sense be so under the radar that is that there are many who, like Eric Lax, find any themselves wistfully attached at some level to a religious certainty that their thinking minds know is not a valid option. Any other kind of religion is thus out of the question. The result is that they are left with no sense of faith at all.

The truth of a work of art--or a religious doctrine

Today's New York Times op-ed page contained an essay by someone who spent considerable effort to try to find the actual diner depicted in Edward Hopper's famous painting "Nighthawks". The story makes for a good read, and yet there is a an almost plainly self-evident revelation late in the column. The author turns to a book about Hopper and reads that

the diner was “based partly on an all-night coffee stand Hopper saw on Greenwich Avenue ... ‘only more so,’” and that Hopper himself said: “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Partly. More so. Simplified. The hidden truth became clearer. The diner began to fade. And then I saw it — on every triangular corner, in the candy shop’s cornice and the newsstand’s advertisement for 5-cent cigars, in the bakery’s curved window and the liquor store’s ghostly wedge, in the dark bricks that loom in the background of every Village street.
Here we see the expression of an essential point about art--that it is not just a literal depiction of objective reality, but rather speaks deeper truths that spring from the imagination of the artist.

This same thing could also be said about religious doctrines and scriptures, could it not?

Christianity and violence

A while ago I wrote about a violent drug gang in Mexico using John Eldredge's form of American fundamentalist Christianity as inspiration. Naturally, Eldredge disavows any responsibility for the impact of his views on Mexican drug terror, but here's an article that quotes extensively from Eldredge and shows how violent his language really is.

Of course, one can certainly point out that Eldredge's theology, or those who commit violence or terror in the name of the sort of faith that he advocates, in no way represents Christianity as a whole--just as one can point out that Muslim terrorists in no way represent Islam as a whole. That is really the point, isn't it? We shouldn't be stigmatizing any religion based on its extremist elements. The problem seems to be that terrorism by certain religions gets lots of media play while Christian terrorism gets little attention. Maybe it is time to recognize that any religion, especially a major world religion with sufficient critical mass to produce its own diversity of thought, can have its extremists or violent elements; and it is a mistake to paint a picture of any religion with too broad a brush.

God hears children's prayers better?

In the midst of a tragic story in the New York Times of a soldier who lost both his arms and his legs comes this quote from his mother:

“That was one of the worst experiences of my life without a doubt,” she said. “I went back to my room and called one of my best friends, whose son is a youth minister, to get the children to pray. God hears children’s prayers better. I said, ‘Get the prayer chain going. I’m losing him. I’m losing him.’

“If I hadn’t been there,” she added, “I feel I would have lost him.”

I feel great sympathy for this woman and the pain she was going through, and given her experience I certainly give her a lot of leeway to express her pain in ways that may not make sense to me. But at the same time I also think it is really sad to hear anyone say something like that. It does make me wonder if there is a common belief out that that somehow "God hears children's prayers better," or that the only thing standing between someone living an dying is a loved one who prays hard enough or who enlists an army of children to pray on their behalf. And what does that say to the people whose loved ones don't pull through? Are we supposed to tell them that they didn't pray hard enough or make use of their local youth minister that the death of their loved one is somehow their fault?

Against omnipotence

The Tikkun web site has published an article by Be Scofield that lays out many arguments against the notion of an omnipotent, interventionist deity. Much of what he says about the problem of God playing favorites in response to prayer echoes what John Shelby Spong has written on the subject of prayer (and his use of non-theistic in describing God suggests a possible connection to Spong.) Scofield writes this:

If one abandons the notion that God can intervene in the world to answer prayer God all of a sudden looks much different. Gone is the notion that the Holocaust could have been prevented and was part of God’s divine and “awesome” plan. Gone is the immense power for God to take sides in war as illustrated in the Hebrew Bible. Gone is a God that plays favorites. No longer can God be omnipotent as previously understood because God lacks the power to act in the world. For many who begin to interpret the divine in this non-theistic new light, God then becomes synonymous with love, creative energy and relatedness. Just because the theology of yesterday is insufficient for our modern standards doesn’t mean we need to abandon God, religion or appreciation for the divine.
Well stated, and I couldn't agree more.

Steven Colbert interviews Father Guido Sarducci

Father Guido Sarducci (one of the regular characters from the early days of SNL) appears on the Steven Colbert show to talk about Glen Beck. In the process, he explains, among other things, what makes one a good prophet:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Prophet Glenn Beck - Father Guido Sarducci
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

Faith against capital punishment

Deseret News reports that a Catholic bishop is among the founding members of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty:

"We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes, but for how it affects society," says Bishop John C. Wester, of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Halal meals for the hungry

From the San Jose Mercury comes this story:

This summer, a group of Silicon Valley-based Muslims will serve all-halal meals to the hungry from a roving food truck — an effort that's the first of its kind in the Bay Area, perhaps in the nation.
Although meals are halal, they are freely given to anyone regardless of faith:

The Muslim group doesn't ask for any credentials or references before handing out the food and doesn't know how many Muslims or non-Muslims it feeds.

"Frankly, we don't ask, and we don't care," Ashraf said.

Differences shall not be tolerated

Arizona is clearly not the only place in the world where hatred rears its ugly head. In the Netherlands, a party that calls for a ban on Muslims immigrating into the country has gained seats in parliament, from nine to 24.

Naturally, the usual band of right wing bloggers are celebrating this election outcome.

The headline in the Washington Post blog entry on this subject reads, "Anti-Islam Party Surges in Netherlands." If you imagine for a moment substituting the word "Jew" for Islam in that headline it would become just a little more clear just what is going on here. Some things just never change, do they?

Meanwhile, Great Britain has enacted a new law requiring that all spouses of legal British residents be able to speak English before they can enter the country. The Telegraph points out that Queen Victoria would never have been born if that law had been effect in the nineteenth century. The AP article on this suggests that "such a move would likely go against the grain of even the more conservative elements of American society, where the diversity of languages has widely been seen as a sign of cultural vibrancy."

Well, maybe not in Arizona.

Apologizing for being a Christian

I was amused by this blog entry that describes liberal Christians who are ashamed to be associated with those other Christians.

Which reminds of the following video that was made at a Vancouver poetry slam, and that begins with the words, "I am a Christian. I'm sorry." It is too bad that certain strains of conservative Christianity have so poisoned the popular conception of what Christianity is that liberal Christians have to go out of their way to make it clear that they aren't like that. But there you have it.

Is justice irrational?

I found this quote from an article in the Sunday New York Times book review section interesting because of its the implicit bias that it reveals:

Consider an experiment economists call “the ultimatum game”: The experimenter gives one player, the sender, $20 to distribute between himself and another player, the receiver. An egalitarian sender might propose a split of $10 each. A more selfish sender might propose to give the receiver only $1, keeping $19 for himself. If the receiver accepts the deal, the two players collect their shares. If the receiver rejects the deal, both walk away with nothing. Were humans perfectly rational, the receiver would accept whatever is offered: even a dollar is better than nothing, right? Instead, researchers find, receivers will reject an overly lopsided deal, gladly giving up their shares just to punish the stingy senders.
But wait. Why is it more "rational" to accept whatever money is offered to you even if someone else gets more money out of the deal? Why is acceptance of an unequal transaction "rational"? There is a sort of implicit libertarian sort of logic embedded in that statement that would make Rand Paul proud. Without even questioning this assumption, the reviewer in this article takes for granted the notion (also apparently expressed by the author of the book she is reviewing) that it is more "rational" to accept a greater amount money in an unequal transaction than the zero dollars that would be accepted were one to reject the transaction altogether. Behind that assumption lies a further one--that concern for maximizing whatever one can acquire for one's self is the only truly rational basis for human behavior. But in fact there is simply no reason to assume this. Humans, and in fact other primates as well, are social animals who often adhere to concepts of justice and fairness:

According to research due to be published in the journal Animal Behaviour, fairness is not only essential to the human social contract, it also plays an important role in the lives of nonhuman primates more generally. Sarah F. Brosnan and colleagues conducted a series of behavioral tests with a colony of chimpanzees housed at the University of Texas in order to find out how they would respond when faced with an unfair distribution of resources. A previous study in the journal Nature by Brosnan and Frans de Waal found that capuchin monkeys would refuse a food item when they saw that another member of their group had received a more desired item at the same time (a grape instead of a slice of cucumber). Some individuals not only rejected the food, they even threw it back into the researchers face. The monkeys seemed to recognize that something was unfair and they responded accordingly. This raised the provocative question: can the basis of the social contract be found in our evolutionary cousins?
The upshot of this is that for us primates, transactions have a social character, and one could just as easily argue that it is perfectly rational for humans to take into consideration how a transaction affects other people besides themselves in evaluating whether to participate in the transaction or not. The answer that you give to that question may say more about your own biases than it does about what rationality really means.

I would argue that "rational" doesn't just have to translate to "how something will benefit me personally the most". It is possible to conceive of a rationality that accounts for how others besides one's self will benefit or be harmed by it, or how equitably a transaction treats all the parties involved. This understanding lies at the basis of many concepts of justice--and I happen to think that justice is actually a perfectly rational concept.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose
And sometimes the blues get hold of you
Just when you thought you had made it

-- Carole King, "Sweet Seasons"
When I was younger and more optimistic than I am today, I thought that I saw in the sweep of history the still voice of God operating through the struggles and pains of developments of ideas that coursed through world events. No, I didn't see God as guiding or controlling the what happened, but rather as offering us at all times the opportunity to be better people, both as individuals and as a societies. To the extent that we listened to God, I felt, we could move beyond our tribalism and into a more inclusive and tolerant society. The inclusive developments against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other sins of tribalism seemed like ways in which people were listening to the voice of God.

The problem was this: when you are in the midst of world history rather than standing outside of it, it is sometimes hard to see where the progress is being made.

Are we keeping a scorecard? Are things getting better or worse in the struggle for greater inclusiveness?

I take some comfort in reading that a community board in New York voted by a whopping 29-1 to allow the building of the mosque near Ground Zero. Score one for reason, tolerance, and common sense.

Yet, meanwhile, the fight continues in Arizona against SB 1070, which was signed into law a little over a month ago. Score one for bigotry, hate, and intolerance.

Of course, the legal and moral battle against SB 1070 isn't over yet, but the fact that such a law was passed in the first place shows that we have a long way to go in this country. Sometimes it just seems like every step forward towards tolerance and inclusion is matched with just as many steps back.

Of course, there is nothing new in American society about anti-immigrant bigotry. The Know-Nothing Party of the nineteenth century was a precursor to what is happening in Arizona today. As the Wikipedia article on the Know-Nothing movement describes it,
The Know Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon values...
Sound familiar? Change the ethnic groups and it does seem like nothing has changed. Movements like these, which opposed those who are different in some way from the perceived cultural norm, have been rampant in the not just in the US, but in Europe as well, for a long time. In Europe, there is of course a long and sordid history of anti-Semitism, but these days it is more fashionable to spew hatred against Muslims, as demonstrated by the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim parties of the far right (such as the Danish People's Party in Denmark), or by the recent law in Switzerland banning minarets.

In an essay in the Sunday New York Times book review, Geoff Nicholson writes of the cultural biases found in books of "facts" printed in the 19th century:
books of facts always display localized preferences, cultural values, sometimes straightforward prejudices. My “New American Cyclopaedia” (1872) tells me that in 1855 there were 25,858 people in New York who could neither read nor write, and 21,378 of them were Irish. This may well have been true, but why exactly did it need to be emphasized? Well, I think we might hazard a guess.
Nowadays, people toss around supposed statistics about the alleged percentage of terrorist acts committed today by Muslims. This need to categorize The Other by statistical means thus has a long and rich history. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I happened to be passing through Arizona when SB 1070 was first hitting the national news. The infamously bigoted sheriff Joe Arpaio was asked on the TV news what would be an example of a reasonable suspicion that someone might be an illegal immigrant. His answer--and this priceless but typical--was that speaking another language, or English with an accent, could be used as indicators that someone was an illegal immigrant. You could almost laugh at the absurdity of that statement if it were not so tragic. But you can see what this is really about--people who talk differently from us must be viewed with suspicion.

Yes, it is about fear of others, fear of the stranger--and yes, fear of people who talk or look differently from the way you do--that lies at the heart of so much tribalism. And it is tribalism that the world has struggled to overcome since the dawn of time.

There has always been that other strain, a strain of universalism and of tolerance. Religion has often been all about tribalism, and yet within religion there has always been the flip side. After all, Exodus 23:9 says, "You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt." Meanwhile, within the Christian tradition, Jesus was quite the poster child for inclusiveness. He was the guy who ate and drank with the excluded and outcasts of his society, and it pissed people off. And yet, so much of modern Christianity is stuck on its own forms of exclusionary practices. Sherry of "A Feather Adrift" recently linked to another blog that in turn cited an article on the Beliefnet website that criticized the trend towards open communion in many churches, complaining that "nothing is expected of those who receive Communion." Horror of horrors! The idea that something must be expected of you before you can be included in God's grace--well, I can see why the author of that article was so offended.

At the heart of tolerance and inclusion, I think, lies empathy. To the extent that we can cultivate empathy, tolerance and inclusion naturally follow. Maybe it helps if you have been excluded from something at some point in your life. Maybe it helps to know what the pain feels like of being excluded before you want to reach out and extend the hand of friendship to those who are excluded. If you always live safely and comfortably in your tribe, maybe you don't know what it is like to be excluded. Or maybe some people just don't care about such issues and would rather not think about them at all. In any case, it seems that the need to preserve the integrity of the tribe at all costs leads directly to intolerance, exclusion, racism, and bigotry. Those who are different threaten this integrity, or so it is felt.

Groucho Marx once said that he would not want to join a club that would have him as a member. I think that if it is a club spent its time deciding who was worthy and not worthy of being part of the select included few, I wouldn't want to join that club either.

But some days I wonder if we will ever see a world in which the tribal impulse is gone from our midst.

"Muscular Christianity" and Mexican terrorism

I have an interest in Mexico, having done volunteer work there, and so the cover story of the May 31 New Yorker caught my eye. The article, by William Finnegan, is titled "Silver or Lead: The drug cartel La Familia gives local officials a choice: Take a bribe or a bullet." (Unfortunately, this article is unavailable online unless you are a subscriber). The article describes the reign of terror committed by a crime syndicate in Mexico:

On the morning before his arrival, the dismembered body of a young man was left in the middle of the main intersection. It was an instance of what people call corpse messaging. Usually it involves a mutilated body and a handwritten sign. “Talked too much.” “You get what you deserve.” The corpse’s message—terror—was clear enough and everybody knew who left it: La Familia Michoacana, a crime syndicate whose depredations pervade the life of the region.
This use of terror to enforce control over that region is horrific but effective. What caught my eye, though, was a passing reference in the article to the relationship between the group that commits these acts and evangelical Christianity:
La Familia's corpse messaging often mentions divine justice. Its soldiers are said to be required to carry Bibles or, alternatively, a self-published volume of epigrams by the gang's leaders, who is also known as El Chayo, or El Más Loco (the Craziest). El Chayo is inspired, in turn, it has been reported, by the muscular Christianity of John Eldredge, an American evangelist whose self-help best-seller "Wild at Heart" is reportedly studied, in Spanish translation, at La Familia training camps.
The author of the article moves on to other topics after making that comment. A good description of the use of Eldredge's "muscular Christianity" as a basis for the terrorism of La Familia can be found in this blog entry from last year, who in turn quotes from another blogger who explains what "muscular Christianity" is:
Eldredge’s books are targeted primarily at men and his writings have great appeal for men, many of whom feel that society has forced them to be like Mr. Rogers – harmless and just a little effeminate. Eldredge encourages men to be real men – to head to the wilderness and be the rugged warriors we all want to be if we look deep inside ourselves. Eldredge continually writes about William Wallace of Braveheart or Maximus, the main character in Gladiator – real manly men.”
La Familia has also been tied to a Christian extremist group called the New Jerusalem movement.

One of the messages left behind with a group of severed heads was the following: "La Familia doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocent people. It only kills those who deserve to die. Everyone should know this: Divine justice."

Is a boycott the best way to oppose SB 1070?

Eleanor Goldberg of the Religion News Service reports that many faith leaders who have opposed the new anti-immigration law in Arizona are hesitant to endorse a boycott of the state:

Yet a central feature of the apartheid fight — a church-led boycott against South Africa — hasn’t been fully embraced by religious groups who are treading carefully on whether to withhold spending in the Grand Canyon State.
I am somewhat torn on this question myself. While I am as outraged over this racist piece of legislation as anyone else, and thus am sympathetic towards the idea of a boycott (and I find myself rooting for Major League Baseball to pull its All-Star game out of the state next year), at the same time, I am also sympathetic to the argument that an economic boycott would hurt many of the very people who we want to be supporting--since many Hispanics in Arizona work in the hospitality industry. I am also a little unclear as to whether those who advocate a blanket boycott would extend it to the many Native American tribes who live in the state, including the Navajo Nation and the Hopi and Apache reservations.

So what do you think? Is a blanket economic boycott the best way to oppose this law or not?

More news on the terrorism front

Amanda Robb has written an investigative report into the murder of George Tiller by Scott Roeder. While Roeder has been depicted as a "lone wolf", it appears that he is well connected with extremist Christian groups that advocate similar acts of terrorism against doctors who perform abortions.

And in other news, a right wing radio host has said that he "hopes" that a mosque in New York City that is to be built near the World Trade Center site will be blown up.

God and prayer

Here is a cartoon from the blogger NakedPastor that I think nicely summarizes the problem with the idea that God somehow intervenes with miraculous acts of omnipotent power to answer our prayers--but only sometimes.

When things go the way we prayed them, people often see that as some sort of proof that God answers prayers. But how can that be any "proof" of anything, when there are so many clear counterexamples? Sometimes I think that more people need to study statistics in school, so they would better understand that no proof lies in selectively picking the desired outcomes of predicted events after the fact.

H/T James McGrath.

Muslim terrorism versus anti-Muslim terrorism

I found an interesting article about the double standard in media coverage between the coverage of terrorism committed by Muslims and terrorism committed against Muslims. Guess which of the two gets the big coverage and which is virtually ignored by the US national news media?

Should I care about who wins the Miss USA pageant?

I have to admit that I really don't care about beauty pageants. They don't interest me, I find them pointless, and I am not really sure what purpose they are supposed to serve in the twenty first century world. Still, the brouhaha last year about Carrie Prejean's homophobic comments showed that what transpires in those pageants can sometimes reflect issues in the real world; and now this year, something truly controversial has happened--a Muslim American won the contest!

You can of course imagine that the usual crowd of anti-Muslim bigots are foaming at the mouth over this, and you would be right.

Religious intolerance in NYC

Some people in New York are offended by the building of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center bombings. Clearly these objections to the mosque are rooted in bigotry rather than common sense. Obviously, the people who committed those acts of terrorism do not speak for Islam any more than the man who gunned down abortion doctor George Tiller speaks for Christianity, but you wouldn't hear people suggesting that it would be insensitive to have Christian church services located near the site of George Tiller's killing.

Columnist Andrea Peyser of the New York Post betrays her own prejudice in a column about this issue in which she characterizes a group with an explicit agenda of hostility towards Islam as a "human rights group". The name of the group? "Stop Islamicization of America" 'Nuff said.

It is clear that we have a long way to go towards interfaith dialogue. Fortunately, the press report that I cited above does indicate that not everyone looks at it in the same way:

Marvin Bethea, a paramedic who survived the toxic collapse of the twin towers and suffers from a range of afflictions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and asthma, said he supports the mosque.

"Not all Muslims are terrorists," Bethea said. "Muslims died on 9/11, as well. This is a tremendous gesture to show that we're not all full of hatred and bigotry."

Quote of the Day

From Drew Tatusko:

Jesus became a heretic to the religion of his day. Perhaps part of what he revealed is that we are all heretics in the eyes of God. This is why faith is the ground of religion, not some puppet human authority that has the gall to claim sole possession of the Truth.

God's involvement

An article was published on Yahoo's website today about a survey on American religious attitudes. The article begins by stating that "most Americans believe God is involved in their everyday lives and concerned with their personal well-being."

Four highlights were mentioned in the study:

  • 82 percent of participants reported that they depend on God for help and guidance in making decisions.
  • 71 percent said they believe that when good or bad things happen, these occurrences are simply part of God's plan for them.
  • 61 percent indicated they believe God has determined the direction and course of their lives.
  • 32 percent agreed with the statement: "There is no sense in planning a lot because ultimately my fate is in God's hands."
Of those four, I would categorically disagree with the last three, since all of them presuppose not just that God intervenes omnipotently in the world, but that God does so in such an overwhelmingly pervasive fashion that there is no room whatsoever for free will.

The first one, though, is more interesting. Maybe it is the old Quaker mystic in me, or maybe it is the influence of process theology in my thinking, but in any case, even as I reject the idea of divine omnipotence, the idea that the Divine is in some sense "speaking" to us is not a concept that I have a problem with. I think that many people, when they describe divine intervention, may tend to conflate omnipotent coercion with divine communication and describe both of those as "divine intervention". But in my view, they are quite different activities. "Speaking" to us, or offering us possibilities, or luring us towards greater creative and loving possibilities--that represents one way of describing the expression of divine activity in the world. But to say that God is actively involved in the world is not the same as saying that God coercively intervenes, or has some "plan" that ensures that everything will work out a certain way. The former describes the creative and open-ended potential of the universe; the latter describes an omnipotent force that controls the universe. I lean towards the first; I do not accept the idea of the latter.

A Church for People Like Us

A nice column by Norman Lear on religious faith appeared on the "On Faith" web site recently.

A lot of people may associate Norman Lear with certain edgy and politically charged 1970s sitcoms such as "All in the Family" or "Maude". He is probably less well known for his religious faith, but in fact he was the producer of a very short lived 1991 sitcom with a religious element called "Sunday Dinner" (unfortunately, the reason for its short duration is that it actually wasn't very funny). One feature of "Sunday Dinner" was that one of the main characters sometimes held conversations with God.

In the "On Faith" column, Lear says:

I like the metaphor of the thousand-mile river. It passes through time zones and climate changes occur along its path. Responding to the changing climate, the trees, shrubbery and vegetation along the riverbank changes also. But it is the same water responsible for nourishing every bit of growth. There are spiritual waters, call it the River of Reverence, that nourishes all of us who grope for understanding on a journey that will last all our lives and beyond.

There should be a Church For People Like Us.
I agree with that sentiment, although, alas, I have come to the conclusion that there is no church for People Like Me.

Not dogmatic enough!

By way of A Feather Adrift I found this entry by an atheist blogger who said that he respected fundamentalists more than liberal Christians because fundamentalists have a "coherent worldview" while liberal Christians are guilty of "picking various bits they like while ignoring the parts they don't care for."

This is a familiar refrain from many atheists and I have harped on this topic before ad nauseum. What some call a "coherent worldview" others would term a dogmatic, rigid, and close-minded way of viewing things. (Imagine that--developing a viewpoint based on picking what you agree with and rejecting what you disagree with! Evaluating ideas based on their merit! How reprehensible!) Some of us actually find dogmatic, rigid, and close-minded thinking to be something less than the best way of approaching the complexities of the world. Others, on the other hand, "respect" such outlooks. To each their own, I guess.

Religious tribalism

A quote from It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, by Samir Selmanovic:

If God created all humanity but gave life-giving knowledge--usually referred to as "revelation"--to only some of humanity, could God in any meaningful sense be thought of as the One God and not only as a god?

Wouldn't such a god be historically or geographically local and therefore either disinterested, powerless, or in some other way incapable of giving lifesaving knowledge to all humanity? To say that God has decided to visit all humanity through only one particular religion is a deeply unsatisfying assertion about God.

Oh, those god-denying religious atheists!

I ran across another militant atheist blogger, Mano Singham, who is as misinformed as he is strident--in this case, attacking theologian John Haught as a "religious atheist" and as one who "denies god" (sic)--thus illustrating once again that those who defy misinformed stereotypes always seem to provoke the greatest outrage, and also illustrating for about the millionth time that militant atheists have pretty much the same views of religion that religious fundamentalists do.

The Onion explains intercessory prayer

The Onion uses satire to explain the theology of intercessory prayer.

Quizzes and nuance

I started to take a "Test Your Faith" quiz posted on the NPR web site that is supposed to measure how much of a doubter your are, but I found the categories and assumptions that lie behind those questions too difficult for me to relate to.

The first question, for example, asks: "Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?" To which I can only respond with questions of my own, such as: what is meant by "accurate knowledge"? Is a glimpse into some aspect of the ultimate reality the same as accurate knowledge? If two blind men have accurate knowledge of some part of an elephant, are they both right? Are they both wrong?

The second question asks, "Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?" I may not be very knowledgeable about Tillich, but even I can see a problem with that question right off the bat, since I for one don't think of God as "a" being. If I think that God as a concept belongs to a different ontological category than you or I, then the assumption behind this question falls apart, as far as I'm concerned. I notice that a lot of argumentative atheists often dismissively refer to God as "a" being whose existence cannot be proven, and I always feel that they are missing the point when they put it that way.

Question 3 asks, "Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?" What do they mean by "force"? For example, is a creative principle the same as a force?

Question 4 asks, "Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?" Since I couldn't even accept the premises behind the earlier "being" or "force" questions, that makes things a bit difficult, and furthermore, what does the question mean by "effective" and "responsive"? Setting that objection aside, there seems to be a hidden assumption that this posited "being " or "force" might "respond" in some coercive fashion, by effecting some result that one asked for through the exercise of its power. But "response" can mean many things; after all, if I tell a friend about a tragic event in my life, my friend might respond by crying. A sympathetic response is a response, after all.

Question 12 asks "Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?" Again, the question I have is, what do you mean by "knowable"?

Question 13 asks, "If someone were to say "The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered," would you say, "Now that's going a bit far, that's a bit wrongheaded?" I wouldn't say "wrongheaded". I can understand why people might feel that way, and I sometimes feel that way myself. That being said, I generally don't see the universe that way.

Amazingly cool video

HT to Ms. Kitty:

An atheist doesn't believe in an omnipotent deity

Susan Jacoby, an atheist columnist at the "On Faith" web site, describes an atheist in this way:

Today, as in the past, atheists can say only that on the basis of the available evidence, we don't think an omnipotent deity has anything to do with either the ultimate origins of the universe or the ethical dilemmas that human beings confront every day.
According to that definition, a fair number of people of faith who don't believe in a omnipotent deity, ranging from bishop John Shelby Spong to process theologians, are actually atheists. Apparently they just don't know that they are atheists.

Christopher Hitchens decides who gets to be called a Christian

...and, naturally, he gets it wrong. Here is what Hitchens says in an interview:

I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.
He sure sounds like a fundamentalist Christian at this point, doesn't he? The funny thing is that he is being interviewed here by a UU Christian, who of course doesn't fit into that stereotype at all, and when she points that out, Hitchens then responds by dismissing her faith as a "waste of time"

I think it is this arrogant pomposity--the notion that what's good for Christopher Hitchens is what is good for everyone else--that I find so annoying about him and others like him. I have always been a believer in religious pluralism and in the notion that when it comes to religion, whatever works for other people is probably okay, as long as it doesn't encourage them to do bad things to other people, and as long as they don't impose their beliefs on me or anyone else. When he says that religion just adds a superfluous layer to what could simply be people's raw convictions about right and wrong, he clearly misses the point that myth and metaphor and the language of the sacred speaks to people in ways that inspire them. Just because none of that inspires him, he somehow infers that it should not inspire anyone else either.

Whip It

According to a new book, the previous pope used to whip himself "to get closer to Jesus".

If you ask me, I think that if those who engaged in self-flagellation instead spent a little more that time improving social justice for the poor and disenfranchised, they'd find themselves a lot closer to Jesus than whipping themselves would ever accomplish.

In a way, I think kind of activity is a product of the perverse notion, exemplified by such films as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, that Jesus's suffering was in and of itself some kind of a virtue, rather than a terrible and unfortunate consequence of the power of his life and message. Perhaps one can draw a straight line from the doctrine of substitutionary atonement to people whipping themselves. Sure, I wholeheartedly agree that it was virtuous that Jesus was willing to suffer and become a martyr for what he believed in; but in no way can I see that it was a good thing that these things happened to him. The idea that God wants anyone to suffer or thinks that torture is in any way desirable--be it inflicted by Empires or by one's own hand--makes a mockery of Divine compassion.

I can see that there is value to be found in developing self-discipline and even in certain forms of self-denial. Self-denial as a growth exercise is one thing; glorifying self-torture and ritualized suffering as some kind of saintly virtue or is another thing altogether. Given all the negativity about the human body found in certain forms of Christianity to begin with, maybe this isn't surprising. Equating Mary's supposed virginity with saintliness gives the message that the human body's natural urges take us away from the Divine ideal. If you really hate the human body enough to claim that virginity is saintly, then perhaps it is a small step from that to whipping one's self and thinking that this somehow makes one holier.

God and Haiti

The disaster in Haiti is the latest in a long line of human tragedies that have led people to question what it means to believe in God. James Wood's op-ed column in today's New York Times suggests that there are only two possible responses to tragedies like these:

either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view).
Essentially Wood assumes that God can be conceived of only in two ways--as either the omnipotent interventionist deity of Christian orthodoxy, or as the God of deism. As anyone who has read my blog would expect, I find Wood's argument to be based on a false dichotomy that ignores theologies that posit God as an active but non-omnipotent presence in our lives.

What matters to me less than theology about God's nature, though, is the practical way that God is found in way we live our lives. As the hymn says, "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est." (where there is charity and love, God is). Which is to say, when we help others, I think we are responding to God's call and God--whatever we define "God" to be--is in a sense acting through us.

I have been thinking more and more about this as I passed a recent birthday milestone and find myself as I am getting older wanting to make more of a difference in the world. I spent some time over Christmas and New Year's working on a volunteer project with a group of indigenous people in Latin America. This was the first time I have ever done this, and I found that it gave me a sense of purpose and meaning makes my own mundane life here at home seem rather empty by comparison. Even if organized religion is not a good match for me, I think there is a spirituality to be found in the love we express for humanity in concrete ways.

The Haiti tragedy is a reminder to me that it makes no sense for me to turn to divine omnipotence as our salvation in the face of human suffering. But it also reminds me all the more that the world is full of injustice, of people who are poor or otherwise suffering, and that when we are inspired to do something about these problems we are responding to something higher and greater than ourselves. I choose to call that something God, but whatever we choose to call it, the thing that matters the most is that we act.