In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion's "DNA."
Before John Lennon imagined "living life in peace," he conjured "no heaven .. / no hell below us ../ and no religion too."
No religion: What was Lennon summoning? For starters, a world without "divine" messengers, like Osama bin Laden, sparking violence. A world where mistakes, like the avoidable loss of life in Hurricane Katrina, would be rectified rather than chalked up to "God's will." Where politicians no longer compete to prove who believes more strongly in the irrational and untenable. Where critical thinking is an ideal. In short, a world that makes sense.
In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion's "DNA." They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including "imaging" studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to "no heaven .. no hell .. and no religion too."
Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.
For example, we are born with a powerful need for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance.
Scientists have so far identified about 20 hard-wired, evolved "adaptations" as the building blocks of religion. Like attachment, they are mechanisms that underlie human interactions: Brain-imaging studies at the National Institutes of Health showed that when test subjects were read statements about religion and asked to agree or disagree, the same brain networks that process human social behavior - our ability to negotiate relationships with others - were engaged.
Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce "out-group" hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example, or the doctrinal battles between Protestant and Catholic reflect our "groupish" tendencies.
In addition to these adaptations, humans have developed the remarkable ability to think about what goes on in other people's minds and create and rehearse complex interactions with an unseen other. In our minds we can de-couple cognition from time, place and circumstance. We consider what someone else might do in our place; we project future scenarios; we replay past events. It's an easy jump to say, conversing with the dead or to conjuring gods and praying to them.
Morality, which some see as imposed by gods or religion on savage humans, science sees as yet another adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection.
Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom notes that "it is often beneficial for humans to work together ... which means it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals." In groundbreaking research, he and his team found that infants in their first year of life demonstrate aspects of an innate sense of right and wrong, good and bad, even fair and unfair. When shown a puppet climbing a mountain, either helped or hindered by a second puppet, the babies oriented toward the helpful puppet. They were able to make an evaluative social judgment, in a sense a moral response.
Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist who co-directs the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has also done work related to morality and very young children. He and his colleagues have produced a wealth of research that demonstrates children's capacities for altruism. He argues that we are born altruists who then have to learn strategic self-interest.
Beyond psychological adaptations and mechanisms, scientists have discovered neurological explanations for what many interpret as evidence of divine existence. Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger, who developed what he calls a "god helmet" that blocks sight and sound but stimulates the brain's temporal lobe, notes that many of his helmeted research subjects reported feeling the presence of "another." Depending on their personal and cultural history, they then interpreted the sensed presence as either a supernatural or religious figure. It is conceivable that St. Paul's dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was, in reality, a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.
The better we understand human psychology and neurology, the more we will uncover the underpinnings of religion. Some of them, like the attachment system, push us toward a belief in gods and make departing from it extraordinarily difficult. But it is possible.
We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind's greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.
The Church of Copy and Paste
The First Church of Pirate Bay
The city of Uppsala has seen its share of religious congregations. In ancient times, it was the main pagan center of Sweden, famed for its temple to the Old Norse gods. In the Middle Ages, it became a Christian stronghold. Today, Uppsala is home to Isak Gerson, a bright, polite, twenty-year-old philosophy student and the spiritual leader of the Missionary Church of Kopimism, which last week became Sweden's newest registered religion.
Modern Sweden isn't known as a particularly religious place: in a recent poll, only seventeen per cent of Swedes said that faith is an important part of their lives. But Sweden is known, in recent years, as a hotbed of online piracy and anti-copyright activism. That's the tradition from which Kopimism arises.
The religion's history goes something like this: In 2001, a lobby group called the Antipiratbyran - the Anti-Piracy Bureau - was formed in Sweden to combat copyright infringement. In 2003, members of a growing free-information movement copied the lobby group's name, but removed the 'anti,' calling themselves Piratbyran - the Piracy Bureau. Later that same year, Piratbyran created a Web site called The Pirate Bay, which quickly became the world's most notorious source for downloading feature films, TV shows, and software.
In 2005, Ibrahim Botani, a Kurdish immigrant to Sweden and a central figure in Piratbyran, designed a kind of un-copyright logo called 'kopimi' (pronounced 'copy me'). Adding the kopimi mark to a work of intellectual property indicates that you not only give permission for it to be copied but actively encourage it.
After Botani died unexpectedly, in 2010, Piratbyran decided to disband. But The Pirate Bay still thrives, despite an ongoing criminal case against its operators. And in 2006, Rick Falkvinge founded Sweden's Pirate Party, a political party that runs on a pro-Internet platform, with special emphasis on copyright and patent reform. Gerson is an active member: "I've been managing local campaigns for the election," he told me. "And I've been working a lot with the Young Pirates Association - the youth wing of the Party."
The Missionary Church of Kopimism picks up where Piratbyran left off: it has taken the values of Swedish Pirate movement and codified them into a religion. They call their central sacrament 'kopyacting,' wherein believers copy information in communion with each other, most always online, and especially via file-sharing. Ibi Botani's kopimi mark - a stylized 'k' inside a pyramid - is their religious symbol, as are CTRL+C and CTRL+V. Where Christian clergy might sign a letter "yours in Christ," Kopimists write, "Copy and seed." They have no god.
"We see the world as built on copies," Gerson told me. "We often talk about originality; we don't believe there's any such thing. It's certainly that way with life - most parts of the world, from DNA to manufacturing, are built by copying." The highest form of worship, he said, is the remix: "You use other people's works to make something better."
Fittingly, it was exactly this kind of collaborative spirit that led to the founding of the Missionary Church of Kopimism. In a blog post last week, Peter Sunde, one of the founders of The Pirate Bay, suggested that Kopimism as a religion had originated from a comment made by one of its opponents. Several years ago, he wrote, a Swedish lawyer for the M.P.A.A. was asked about file-sharing advocates. She replied, "It's just a few people, very loud. They're a cult. They call themselves Kopimists." Sunde thought this cult business sounded like a good idea, and looked into registering Kopimism as a religion, but never followed through. Gerson did. "This is one of the essential things with how the internet and kopimism works," Sunde wrote. "If you don't do it, someone else will."
In Sweden, the separation of church and state became law on January 1, 2000, the day that the Lutheran Church of Sweden stopped being the official state church. Since then, a government agency called the Kammarkollegiet has accepted applications for the legal recognition of religions. "They don't make any kind of assessment of what the beliefs are, and the association is not sanctioned by the state," Anders Backstrom, a professor of the sociology of religion at Uppsala University, told me. But the recognition of Kopimism, he said, is "a new situation. We haven't seen anything of its kind before."
The most comparable previous effort was in 2008, when Carlos Bebeacua, a Uruguayan artist living in Sweden, attempted to register the Church of the Madonna of the Orgasm. The Kammarkollegiet refused his application, and in 2010 the Administrative Court of Appeal upheld the rejection, arguing that the 'madonna' (but not the 'orgasm') part of the church's name would "cause offense not only in the broad groups of the population that have Christian roots, but also in society as a whole."
Kopimism apparently raised no such qualms. Or maybe the Kopimists are just better than the Orgasmists at filling out government paperwork. "It's exactly the same process as registering a business company," Professor Backstrom said. But he thinks it's unlikely that Kopimism's success will inspire a flood of new applications. "In Sweden, we have many small New Age groups, but most of them have made no effort to be recognized," he said. "Being recognized might mean they are opened to government scrutiny."
For the Missionary Church of Kopimism, which holds up privacy as one of its chief values, such scrutiny could be a big problem, and it's not clear what they'll gain from registration. "We don't really get any formal rights or benefits," Gerson said. "We can apply for the right to marry people. There is government aid we can apply for, but we have no such plans today. I don't, at least." Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate Party founder, speculated that if the Church incorporated the seal of confession into its rites, members could take advantage of the confidentiality that comes with certain privileged conversations. Generally, though, Sweden offers few legal exemptions for religious practice. No one, Gerson included, has any expectation that registration will exempt Church members from copyright law. "What the registration has done mostly is strengthen our identity," Gerson said. "I think it will be easier to find new members now that we're recognized."
I asked him if he'd seen a boost in converts since the news broke. "I actually haven't checked," he said. "If you want I could do it right now." There was a pause while he logged on to the registry: to join the Missionary Church of Kopimism simply requires filling out an online form, as easy as signing up for a mailing list. "Right now we have a little more than four thousand," he said, with no particular enthusiasm. "We got twelve hundred new members in the last week."
Gerson told me that religious persecution is a 'big concern' for the church's adherents. "We all fear going to court for copyright infringement," he said. This, of course, has been a worry for file-sharers long before it was formalized as a religion. What the Missionary Church of Kopimism has done is almost a reverse of how religious persecution usually works: whereas religions have often turned to protest because they feel persecuted, Gerson and his followers, feeling persecuted, turned to religion, in order to reframe and get attention for their protest. (It may sound silly to speak of file-sharing in terms of persecution, but when you think of the case of Thomas Drake, or of Bradley Manning, it seems a little less silly.) And Kopimism is hardly the only faith to have been inspired or shaped by a particular political cause. The Rastafari movement, for example, is as much an anti-colonial resistance movement as it is a religion.
When Gerson talks about Kopimism as a religion, his tone is good-humored, but he also comes off as disarmingly sincere. Even if this religious-registration business is just a bit of political theatre, there's no doubt that there’s an honestly and deeply held conviction at its core: the free exchange of information as a fundamental right. But is that enough to make it a genuine religion? When I asked Professor Backstrom, he hesitated. "Today you can believe in anything, so I suppose the idea of belief is a minor issue in a Northern European setting," he said. "Belief can be a very wide concept." He admitted, though, that he suspects that Kopimism is primarily an activist prank.
"I don't think it's a joke at all," Gerson told me. "I think that many religions have been ridiculed over the years. I don't think we're the first to experience it." The pirate movement's political arm, the Pirate Party, provides one possible future path for Kopimism. People didn't take the Pirate Party seriously at first, either. Then its membership exceeded that of the Green Party, and then the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, and then the Centre Party, and then the Young Pirates Association became the largest youth organization of any Swedish political party, and then several other parties and a number of prominent politicians shifted their stances on piracy in a more pirate-friendly direction, and then the Party spread to forty countries. Now the Pirate Party actually holds two seats in the European Parliament. These are early days for the Missionary Church of Kopimism. Who can say how far its gospel will spread?
Keep Religion Out of Public Life
It takes only a small spark to relight a smouldering fire. Such a spark was struck recently in Bideford town hall in north Devon: a few days ago a High Court judge ruled that it was unlawful for local councils to include Christian prayers in their formal meetings.
This was in response to a legal challenge from a former councillor and atheist, Clive Bone, in association with the campaigning National Secular Society. Bone had objected to the intrusion of Christianity into the corridors of power, humble though they might seem in Bideford.
This unimportant ruling was enough to rekindle the embers of Britain's faith wars. Eric Pickles, secretary of state for local government, blustered on the radio about this country's Christian heritage and how illiberal and intolerant this was and how the government would soon be changing it all.
Bishops and archbishops protested, predictably. Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, during a quasi official visit to the Pope, called on British society to resist the rising tide of 'militant secularism' and to fight for faith to have a place in public life. Quoting the Pope's fears regarding 'the increasing marginalisation of religion', she urged us to feel stronger in our religious identities, not least in Christianity.
The prime minister made his usual pro-faith noises. As the crackling of the fire grew louder, the Queen herself spoke out at Lambeth Palace in defence of all faiths, which would have surprised her forebear Henry VIII. She also said - with what anguish one can imagine - that Anglicanism has been commonly underappreciated and occasionally misunderstood.
Not only occasionally, according to Britain's most famous militant secularist, Richard Dawkins, who appeared again on the field of battle, or rather on the Today programme, arguing that most people who think they're Christians are wrong. Of those questioned in his Ipsos Mori poll, 54% said they considered themselves to be Christian but, when asked why, fewer than three in 10 said it was because they believed in the teachings of Christianity.
Rather than personal belief, the reasons of 72% were much more likely to be social, to do with the customs of their tribe - not that the poll used that phrase - surrounding birth, marriage, death and charity. Most hadn't looked at the Bible for a year or more and never prayed outside church at all. Predictably this caused an uproar.
Generations of unbelievers have not found it necessary to trash Christianity aggressively You get the impression, as usual, that Dawkins and the militant secularists all enjoy it hugely, although he himself was infuriated to be wrong-footed on air about the full title of Darwin's The Origin of Species.
All this is nasty and alarming. For generations in this tolerant country people of Christian background who are themselves unbelievers have not usually found it necessary, or polite, to trash Christianity aggressively in the inflammatory way of Dawkins and his supporters. I sense something mean-spirited in the extremes of his attacks, even though I agree with his views: he lacks something important that most people have or at least understand in others; 19th-century phrenologists would have called it the bump of religiosity.
A sense of the numinous, a longing for ceremony, a love of the religious punctuation of the year, a need for a regular time to examine one's conscience, a passion for church music - these are all things that appeal to Anglican unbelievers such as me and to unbelievers of all traditions. That is what lies behind Alain de Botton's grand schemes of cathedrals for the faithless, impossibly rational though they are.
Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, once expressed these feelings particularly well. An unbeliever who nonetheless goes to church, he said in an interview: "I share with religious people a concept of the mystery and wonder of the universe and even more of human life and therefore participate in religious services. Of course those I participate in are, as it were, the 'customs of my tribe' which happens to be the Church of England."
It is my tribe, too, and in many ways I have loved it, fearful of real religious faith though I am. Anglicanism is the tribe from which the highest ideals of modern, secular morality have evolved. So until recently I have been strongly against aggressive secularists in spirit, although I largely share their opinions. But things have changed rapidly. The terms of the conflict are quite different now. It is hardly an exaggeration to speak of faith wars.
It is a mystery to me why so many people in public life keep saying that faith is a good thing and we'd all be better off if we had more of it. That seems to me a very flabby-minded and sentimental assumption, arising from the limp-wristed Anglican tradition in which faith rarely amounted to anything remotely challenging to anyone.
Faith is not necessarily a good thing. Some faiths hold views that are repellent to most people and certainly to the indigenous Christian tribe. More importantly, faith itself is the problem. No one can argue with faith. If God or scripture says gays are wicked, or if someone believes her faith insists on a chador (even if she is mistaken), that is that.
Most faiths in Britain are actively competing for an acknowledged place in the public arena within the Establishment. If Anglicanism is an established part of the state, if this country is technically speaking a theocracy, why in the name of equality should not all other religions have a piece of the action too? That's the urgent but unspoken question. It is hard, however much one might fear the tenets of certain other faiths here, to think of any good reason why not.
That is what we are seeing. The growing number of sharia courts in this country is alarming. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury has defended them. I can’t help suspecting his reason is that he is so anxious to insist that faith has a place in public life and so aware of the unfairness to other faiths of the status quo, that in logic he cannot help himself. Understandably this enrages the secularists and also the more moderate observers, who are alarmed by the incontrovertible tenets of certain faiths.
That is why, however obtuse and unattractive they may seem, the militant secularists are on the right side in the faith wars. It is why, however reluctantly, the polite and tolerant secularists will have to join them and win the war. There can be no place for faith anywhere at all within the political establishment, no privileged space within the public arena.
An Atheist Manifesto
In recent years, we atheists have become more confident and outspoken in articulating and defending our godlessness in the public square. Much has been gained by this. There is now wider awareness of the reasonableness of a naturalist world view, and some of the unjustified deference to religion has been removed, exposing them to much needed critical scrutiny.
Unfortunately, however, in a culture that tends to focus on the widest distinctions, the most extreme positions and the most strident advocates, the "moderate middle" has been sidelined by this debate. There is a perception of unbridgeable polarisation, and a sense that the debates have sunk into a stale impasse, with the same tired old arguments being rehearsed time and again by protagonists who are getting more and more entrenched.
It is time, therefore, for those of us who are tired of the status quo to try to shift the focus of our public discussions of atheism into areas where more progress and genuine dialogue is possible. To achieve this, we need to rethink what atheism stands for and how to present it. The so-called "new atheism" may have put us on the map, but in the public imagination it amounts to little more than a caricature of Richard Dawkins, which is not an accurate representation of the terrain many of us occupy. We now need something else.
This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism's involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.
1 Why we are heathens
It has long been recognised that the term "atheist" has unhelpful connotations. It has too many dark associations and also defines itself negatively, against what it opposes, not what it stands for. "Humanist" is one alternative, but humanists are a subset of atheists who have a formal organisation and set of beliefs many atheists do not share. Whatever the intentions of those who adopt the labels, "rationalist" and "bright" both suffer from sounding too self-satisfied, too confident, implying that others are irrationalists or dim.
If we want an alternative, we should look to other groups who have reclaimed mocking nicknames, such as gays, Methodists and Quakers. We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves. This is no trivial point: atheism faces the human condition with honesty, and that requires acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion. "Heathen" fulfils this ambition. We are heathens because we have not been saved by God and because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.
2 Heathens are naturalists
Heathens are not merely unbelievers: we believe many things too. Most importantly, we believe in naturalism: the natural world is all there is and there is no purposive, conscious agency that created or guides it. This natural world may contain many mysteries and even unseen dimensions, but we have no reason to believe that they are anything like the heavens, spirit worlds and deities that have characterised supernatural religious beliefs over history. Many religious believers deny the "supernatural" label, but unless they are willing to disavow such beliefs as in the reality of a divine person, miracles, resurrections or life after death, they are not naturalists.
3 Our first commitment is to the truth
Although we believe many things about what does and does not exist, these are the conclusions we come to, not the basis of our worldview. That basis is a commitment to see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have. That is where our primary commitment lies, not the conclusions we reach. Hence we are prepared to accept the possibility that we are wrong. It also means that we respect and have much in common with people who come to very different conclusions but have an equal respect for truth, reason and evidence. A heathen has more in common with a sincere, rational, religious truth-seeker than an atheist whose lack of belief is unquestioned, or has become unquestionable.
4 We respect science, not scientism
Heathens place science in high regard, being the most successful means humans have devised to come to a true understanding of the real nature of the world on the basis of reason and evidence. If a belief conflicts with science, then no matter how much we cherish it, science should prevail. That is why the religious beliefs we most oppose are those that defy scientific knowledge, such as young earth creationism.
Nonetheless, this does not make us scientistic. Scientism is the belief that science provides the only means of gaining true knowledge of the world, and that everything has to be understood through the lens of science or not at all. There are scientistic atheists but heathens are not among them. Science is limited in what it can contribute to our understanding of who we are and how we should live because many of the most important facts of human life only emerge at a level of description on which science remains silent. History, for example, may ultimately depend on nothing more than the movements of atoms, but you cannot understand the battle of Hastings by examining interactions of fermions and bosons. Love may depend on nothing more than the physical firing of neurons, but anyone who tries to understand it solely in those terms just does not know what love means.
Science may also make life uncomfortable for us. For example, it may undermine certain beliefs about free will that many atheists have relied on to give dignity and autonomy to our species.
Heathens are therefore properly respectful of science but also mindful of its limits. Science is not our Bible: the last word on everything.
5 We value reason as precious but fragile
Heathens have a commitment to reason that fully acknowledges the limits of reason. Reason is itself a multi-faceted thing that cannot be reduced to pure logic. We use reason whenever we try to form true beliefs on the basis of the clearest thinking, using the best evidence. But reason almost always leaves us short of certain knowledge and very often leaves us with a need to make a judgment in order to come to a conclusion. We also need to accept that human beings are very imperfect users of reason, susceptible to biases, distortions and prejudices that lead even the most intelligent astray. In short, if we understand what reason is and how it works, we have very good reason to doubt those who claim rationality solely for those who accept their worldview and who deny the rationality of those who disagree.
6 We are convinced, not dogmatic
The heathen's modesty about the power of reason and the certainty of her conclusions should not be mistaken for a shoulder-shrugging agnosticism. We have a very high degree of confidence in the truth of our naturalistic worldview. But we do not dogmatically assert it. Being open to being wrong and to changing our minds does not mean we lack conviction that we are right. Strength of belief is not the same as rigidity of dogma.
7 We have no illusions about life as a heathen
Many people do not understand that it is possible to lead a meaningful, happy life as a heathen, but we maintain that it is and can point to any number of atheist philosophers and thinkers who have explained why this is so. But such meaning and contentment does not inevitably follow from becoming a heathen. Ours is a universe without guarantees of redemption or salvation and sometimes people have terrible lives or do terrible things and thrive. On such occasions, we have no consolation. That is the dark side of accepting the truth, and we are prepared to acknowledge it. We are heathens because we value living in the truth. But that does not mean that we pretend that always makes life easy or us happy. If the evidence were to show that religious people are happier and healthier than us, we would not see that as any reason to give up our convictions.
8 We are secularists
We support a state that is neutral as regards people's fundamental worldviews. It is not neutral when it comes to the shared values necessary for people of different conviction to live and thrive together. But it should not give any special privilege to any particular sect or group, or use their creeds as a basis for policy. Politics requires a coming together of people of different fundamental convictions to formulate and justify policy in terms that all understand, on the basis of principles that as many as possible can share.
This secularism does not require that religion is banished from public life or that people may not be open as to how their faiths, or lack of one, motivate their values. As long as the core of the business of state is neutral as regards to comprehensive worldviews, we can be relaxed about expressions of these commitments in society at large. We want to maintain the state's neutrality on fundamental worldviews, not purge religion from society.
9 Heathens can be religious
There are a small minority of forms of religion that are entirely compatible with the heathen position. These are forms of religion that reject the real existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts, accept that science trumps dogma, and who see the essential core of religion in its values and practices. We have very little evidence that anything more than a small fraction of actual existent religion is like this, but when it does conform to this description, heathens have no reason to dismiss it as false.
10 Religion is often our friend
We believe in not being tone-deaf to religion and to understand it in the most charitable way possible. So we support religions when they work to promote values we share, including those of social justice and compassion. We are respectful and sympathetic to the religious when they arrive at their different conclusions on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry as us, without in any way denying that we believe them to be false and misguided. We are also sympathetic to religion when its effects are more benign than malign. We appreciate that commitment to truth is but one value and that a commitment to compassion and kindness to others is also of supreme importance. We are not prepared to insist that it is indubitably better to live guided by such values allied with false beliefs than it is to live without such values but also without false belief.
11 We are critical of religion when necessary
Our willingness to accept what is good in religion is balanced by an equally honest commitment to be critical of it when necessary. We object when religion invokes mystery to avoid difficult questions or to obfuscate when clarity is needed. We do not like the way in which "people of faith" tend to huddle together in an unprincipled coalition of self-interest, even when that means liberals getting into bed with homophobes and misogynists. We think it is disingenuous for religious people to talk about the reasonableness of their beliefs and the importance of values and practice, while drawing a veil over their embrace of superstitious beliefs. In these and other areas, we assert the right and need to make civil but acute criticisms.
And although our general stance is not one of hostility towards religion, there are some occasions when this is exactly what is called for. When religions promote prejudice, division or discrimination, suppress truth or stand in the way of medical or social progress, a hostile response is an appropriate, principled one, just as it is when atheists are guilty of the same crimes.
12 This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others
Our commitment to independent thought and the provisionality of belief means that few heathens are likely to agree completely with this manifesto. It is therefore almost a precondition of supporting it that you do not entirely support it. At the same time, although very few people of faith can be heathens, many will find themselves in agreement with much of what heathens belief. This is what provides the common ground to make fruitful dialogue possible: we need to accept what we share in order to accept with civility and understanding what we most certainly do not. This is what the heathen manifesto is really about.
Christianity In Crisis
Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists.
If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., you'll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was a mere 27 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out? He told us: "We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus." He removed what he felt were the 'misconceptions' of Jesus' followers, "expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves." And it wasn't hard for him. He described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists' embellishments as 'diamonds' in a 'dunghill,' glittering as "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man." Yes, he was calling vast parts of the Bible religious manure.
When we think of Jefferson as the great architect of the separation of church and state, this, perhaps, was what he meant by 'church': the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus' death. If Jefferson's greatest political legacy was the Declaration of Independence, this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy. "I am a real Christian," Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. "That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."
What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus' doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus' teaching. That's why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.
Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus' divinity and resurrection - and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday - Jefferson's point is crucially important. Because it was Jesus' point. What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself? If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be - rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was - he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.
And more intensely relevant to our times. Jefferson's vision of a simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity couldn't be further from the 21st-century American reality. We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care. The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word 'secular.' It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.
Organized Religion in Decline
Meanwhile, organized religion itself is in trouble. The Catholic Church's hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI. But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don't know what greater indictment of a church's authority there can be - except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead, they obsess about others' sex lives, about who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance. Inequality, poverty, even the torture institutionalized by the government after 9/11: these issues attract far less of their public attention.
For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years. Evangelical Protestantism has stepped into the vacuum, but it has serious defects of its own. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explores in his unsparing new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, many suburban evangelicals embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus' ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old - something we now know by the light of reason and science is simply untrue. And what group of Americans have pollsters found to be most supportive of torturing terror suspects? Evangelical Christians. Something has gone very wrong. These are impulses born of panic in the face of modernity, and fear before an amorphous 'other.' This version of Christianity could not contrast more strongly with Jesus' constant refrain: "Be not afraid." It would make Jefferson shudder.
It would also, one imagines, baffle Jesus of Nazareth. The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear in either Jefferson's or the original New Testament. Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce (now commonplace among American Christians) and forgiveness for adultery. The family? He disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him. Sex? He was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant.
The Crisis of Our Time
All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial - or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward 'spirituality,' co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions - Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death? - remain as pressing and mysterious as they've always been?
That's why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning - of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.
The Jerusalem Syndrome
Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah
Shortly after his 40th birthday, the life of a man we'll call Ronald Hodge took a strange turn. He still looked pretty good for his age. He had a well-paying job and a devoted wife. Or so he thought. Then, one morning, Hodge's wife told him she no longer loved him. She moved out the next day. A few weeks later, he was informed that his company was downsizing and that he would be let go. Not knowing where to turn, Hodge started going to church again.
Even though he'd been raised in an evangelical household, it had been years since Hodge had thought much about God. But now that everything seemed to be falling apart around him, he began attending services every week. Then every day. One night, while lying in bed, he opened the Bible and began reading. He'd been doing this every night since his wife left. And every time he did, he would see the same word staring back at him - the same four syllables that seemed to jump off the page as if they were printed in buzzing neon: Jerusalem. Hodge wasn't a superstitious man, he didn't believe in signs, but the frequency of it certainly felt like ... something. A week later, he was 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on an El Al jet to Israel.
When Hodge arrived in Jerusalem, he told the taxi driver to drop him off at the entrance to the Old City. He walked through the ancient, labyrinthine streets until he found a cheap hostel near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He had a feeling that this was important. Supposedly built on top of the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified and three days later rose from the dead, the domed cathedral is the holiest site in Christendom. And Hodge knew that whatever called him to the Holy Land was emanating from there.
During his first few days in Jerusalem, Hodge rose early and headed straight to the church to pray. He got so lost in meditation that morning would slip into afternoon, afternoon into evening, until one of the bearded priests tapped him on the shoulder and told him it was time to go home. When he returned to his hostel, he would lie in bed unable to sleep. Thoughts raced through his head. Holy thoughts. That's when Hodge first heard the Voice.
Actually, heard is the wrong word. He felt it, resonating in his chest. It was like his body had become a giant tuning fork or a dowsing rod. Taking a cue from the sign of the cross that Catholics make when they pray, Hodge decided that if the vibrations came from the right side of his chest, it was the Holy Ghost communicating with him. If he felt them farther down, near the base of his sternum, it was the voice of Jesus. And if he felt the voice humming inside his head, it was the Holy Father, God himself, calling.
Soon, the vibrations turned into words, commanding him to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. None of this scared him. If anything, he felt a warm, soothing peace wash over him because he was finally being guided.
Not eating or drinking came easily at first. But after a week or so, the other backpackers at his hostel began to grow concerned. With good reason: Hodge's clothes were dirty and falling off of him. He had begun to emit a pungent, off-putting funk. He was acting erratically, hallucinating and singing the word Jesus over and over in a high-pitched chirp.
"Jesus ... Jesus ... Jesus ..."
Hodge camped out in the hostel's lobby and began introducing himself to one and all as the Messiah. Eventually, the manager of the hostel couldn't take it anymore. He didn't think the American calling himself Jesus was dangerous, but the guy was scaring away customers. Plus, he'd seen this kind of thing before. And he knew there was a man who could help.
Herzog Hospital sits on a steep, sun-baked hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Its sprawling grounds are dotted with tall cedars and aromatic olive trees. Five floors below the main level is the office of Pesach Lichtenberg, head of the men's division of psychiatry at Herzog.
Lichtenberg is 52 years old and thin, with glasses and a neatly trimmed beard. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he moved to Israel in 1986 after graduating from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and has worked at Herzog more or less ever since. It's here that he has become one of the world's leading experts on the peculiar form of madness that struck Ronald Hodge - a psychiatric phenomenon known as Jerusalem syndrome.
On a bright, late summer morning, Lichtenberg greets me in the chaotic lobby of the hospital, smiling and extending his hand. "You missed it!" he says. "We had a new Chosen One brought into the ward this morning." We go down to Lichtenberg's office; on top of a bookcase is a giant shofar, a curved ram's horn that religious Jews sound on the high holidays. A middle-aged British man under the doctor's care had used it to trumpet the Messiah's - that is to say, his own - coming. Lichtenberg explains that allowing me to meet his latest patient would violate hospital policy, and he can't discuss ongoing cases. He'll talk about past patients as long as I agree to de-identify them, as I did with Hodge. "But," he adds, "that doesn't mean we can't try to find a messiah of our own. In a few days, we'll take a walk around the Old City and maybe we'll find one for you there."
There's a joke in psychiatry: If you talk to God, it's called praying; if God talks to you, you're nuts. In Jerusalem, God seems to be particularly chatty around Easter, Passover, and Christmas - the peak seasons for the syndrome. It affects an estimated 50 to 100 tourists each year, the overwhelming majority of whom are evangelical Christians. Some of these cases simply involve tourists becoming momentarily overwhelmed by the religious history of the Holy City, finding themselves discombobulated after an afternoon at the Wailing Wall or experiencing a tsunami of obsessive thoughts after walking the Stations of the Cross. But more severe cases can lead otherwise normal housewives from Dallas or healthy tool-and-die manufacturers from Toledo to hear the voices of angels or fashion the bedsheets of their hotel rooms into makeshift togas and disappear into the Old City babbling prophecy.
Lichtenberg estimates that, in two decades at Herzog, the number of false prophets and self-appointed redeemers he has treated is in the low three figures. In other words, if and when the true Messiah does return (or show up for the first time, depending on what you believe), Lichtenberg is in an ideal spot to be the guy who greets Him.
"Jerusalem is an insane place," one anthropologist says. "It overwhelms people."
While it's tempting to blame the syndrome on Israel's holiest city, that wouldn't be fair. At least, not completely. "It's just the trigger," says Yoram Bilu, an Israeli psychological anthropologist at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "The majority of people who suffer from Jerusalem syndrome have some psychiatric history before they get here." The syndrome doesn't show up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it and its kissing cousins are well-known to clinicians. For example, there's Stendhal syndrome, in which visitors to Florence are overwhelmed by powerful works of art. First described in the early 19th century in Stendhal's Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, the disorder can lead to spontaneous fainting, confusion, and hallucinations. Paris syndrome, first described in 1986, is characterized by acute delusions in visitors to the City of Light and for some reason seems to preferentially affect Japanese tourists. Place, it seems, can have a profound effect on the mind.
What's actually happening in the brain, though, isn't completely clear. Faith isn't easy to categorize or study. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, has conducted several brain-imaging studies of people in moments of extreme devotion. The limbic system, the center for our emotions, begins to show much higher activity, while the frontal lobes, which might ordinarily calm people, start to shut down. "In extreme cases, that can lead to hallucinations, where someone might believe they're seeing the face of God or hearing voices," Newberg says. "Your frontal lobe isn't there to say, 'Hey, this doesn't sound like a good idea.' And the person winds up engaging in behaviors that are not their norm."
The psychosis typical of Jerusalem syndrome develops gradually. At first the victim may begin to feel symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia. The next day, there may be a compulsive urge to break away from the rest of the tour group and visit holy places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Sufferers might follow this with a series of purification rituals such as shaving all of their body hair, clipping their nails, or washing themselves free of earthly impurities. The afflicted may then venture into the Old City to shout confused sermons claiming that redemption is at hand. In some cases, victims believe they are merely a cog in an ineffable process, helping to set the stage for the Messiah's return with some small task they've been given. In more extreme cases, they can be swept up by psychotic delusions so intense, so ornate, that they become convinced they are Jesus Christ. "Jerusalem is an insane place in some ways. It overwhelms people, and it has for centuries," Bilu says. "The city is seductive, and people who are highly suggestible can succumb to this seduction. I'm always envious of people who live in San Diego, where history barely exists."
In other words, what you can blame Jerusalem for is looking like, well, Jerusalem. The Old City is a mosaic of sacred spaces, from the al-Aqsa Mosque to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to the well-trodden stones on which Jesus supposedly walked. Like every city, it's the combination of architecture and storytelling that makes Jerusalem more than just a crossroads. Great cities, the places that feel significant and important when you walk their streets, always rely on stagecraft - a deftly curving road, finely wrought facades, or a high concentration of light-up signage can all impart a sense of place, of significance. This architectural trickery can even instill a feeling of the sacred. The colonnades around St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, the rock garden at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, and the pillars at the Jamarat Bridge near Mecca all shoot laser beams of transcendence into the brain of a properly primed visitor. "Part of the experience of going to these places is the interweaving of past and present," says Karla Britton, an architectural historian at the Yale School of Architecture. "There's a collapse of time. And for some people who visit these sacred sights and spaces, this collapse can be psychologically disorienting. The whole act of pilgrimage is deliberately intended as a kind of disorientation."
That in and of itself doesn't make someone crazy. "There are a lot of people who come to Israel and feel God's presence, and there's nothing wrong with that," Lichtenberg says. "That's called, at the very least, a good vacation. God forbid a psychiatrist sticks his nose into something like that." He smiles and rubs his beard. "But the question is, at what point is belief OK and at what point is it not OK? If someone says, 'I believe in God,' OK. And if they say, 'I believe the Messiah will come,' fine. And if they say, 'I believe His coming is imminent,' you think, well, that's a man of real faith. But if they then say, 'And I know who it is! I can name names!' you go, wait a second - hold on!"
When people with Jerusalem syndrome show up at the hospital, doctors often just let them unspool their stories, however strange the narratives may seem. If the people aren't dangerous, they are usually discharged. Violent patients might be medicated and kept under observation pending contact with their family or consulate. After all, the most effective treatment when it comes to Jerusalem syndrome is often pretty simple: Get the person the hell out of Jerusalem. "The syndrome is a brief but intense break with reality that is place-related," Bilu says. "When the person leaves Jerusalem, the symptoms subside."
Lichtenberg didn't know any of this when he started at Herzog. Then, shortly after he began his residency in the late 1980s, he met a 35-year-old Christian woman from Germany. She was single and traveling alone in Israel. He remembers her as being gaunt, prematurely gray, and highly educated. The police had picked her up in the Old City for badgering tourists about the Lord's return. "She arrived in a state of bliss because she believed the Messiah was coming," Lichtenberg says. "I probably thought, she's just meshuggeneh."
Over the next few days, Lichtenberg underwent a transformation of his own. He became obsessed with the German woman's case. He thought about how she would ricochet from periods of giddy rapture to moments of outright hostility and confusion. During her more manic moments, she wanted to share the Good News with the doctor. In her more depressive ones, she wandered the psychiatric ward desperately trying to hear the voices in her head that had gone momentarily silent. She would rub her temples as if she could dial in the voice of God, like someone trying to tune in a far-off radio station.
The woman stayed at the hospital for a month, until the doctor could arrange for her to be sent home. Lichtenberg has no idea what happened to her after she returned to Germany, but more than 20 years later he can still recall the smallest details of her case. "It was so interesting talking to her, but I was also a little embarrassed because there was no one at the hospital to encourage that sort of thing back then. At the time, the thinking here was more like, OK, what dosage is she getting? Should we increase it?"
This way of thinking is more sympathetic than many psychiatrists would call for. Actually, it wasn't that long ago that one respected Israeli physician put two patients who both claimed to be the Messiah in a room together just to see what would happen. Each rabidly accused the other of being an impostor, barking fire-and-brimstone threats.
Self-styled prophets have been journeying to Jerusalem on messianic vision quests for centuries. A certain Nazarene carpenter was merely the most charismatic and most written about. But it wasn't until the 1930s that an Israeli psychiatrist named Heinz Herman clinically described Jerusalem syndrome for the first time. One of his early cases involved an Englishwoman who was so convinced the Second Coming was at hand that she climbed to the top of Jerusalem's Mt. Scopus every morning with a cup of tea to welcome the Lord.
Most cases are harmless, but there have been disturbing exceptions. In 1969 an Australian tourist named Denis Michael Rohan was so overwhelmed by what he believed to be his God-given mission that he set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's most sacred sites, which sits atop the Temple Mount directly above the Wailing Wall. The blaze led to rioting throughout the city. Rohan later said that he had to clear the site of "abominations" so it would be cleansed for the Second Coming. (The mosque was rebuilt by a Saudi construction company owned by Osama bin Laden's father.)
More recently, an American man became so convinced he was Samson that he tried - and failed - to move a block of the Wailing Wall. An American woman came to believe she was the Virgin Mary and went to nearby Bethlehem to search for her baby, Jesus. And a few years ago, the Israeli press reported on a 38-year-old American tourist who, after spending 10 days in Israel, began roaming the surrounding hills muttering about Jesus. Shortly after being hospitalized, he jumped off a 13-foot-high walkway near the emergency room, breaking several ribs and puncturing his lung.
Lichtenberg says that during times of uncertainty and conflict (not infrequent in Israel), admissions to his ward spike. For example, in late 1999, when the rest of the world quaintly panicked about the Y2K bug and whether they'd be able to use their ATMs on January 1, Israel was on high alert, afraid that deranged religious crazies would flock to Jerusalem in anticipation of a millennial apocalypse. At the peak, five patients a week were brought into Lichtenberg's ward. The country's defense forces were concerned that someone would try to blow up the al-Aqsa Mosque, finishing the job Rohan started 30 years earlier.
What The Daily Show Teaches About Religion
As difficult as it is to find good writing about religion, it is harder still to find good television about religion. Most televangelists do not do good (challenging, nuanced) religious television: one of their goals may be to educate, or win converts, but they have to raise money, and offering sophisticated portraits of religion is as likely to close people's wallets as open them. Religious television series tend to be unwatchable: no Touched by an Angel for me. And talk-show hosts are rarely any better when it comes to religion. The skepticism of Bill Maher can be as simplistic as the basest prosperity gospel, and we should all be glad that the eager gullibility of Oprah is now quarantined on her own network. Except for public television's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, it is hard to find intelligent talk about religion on TV.
Except for Jon Stewart, that is. The secular Jewish comedian, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, covers religion often, but more important, he covers it well. Stewart seems to genuinely enjoy interviewing religious figures, whether of the left (like Sojourners magazine's Jim Wallis) or the right (like pseudo-historian, political advisor and textbook consultant David Barton). Some of The Daily Show's best sketches deal with religion, and his writers and multi-ethnic cast - including one of the few recognizable Muslim comedians in America, Aasif Mandvi - frequently move beyond satire. They are often funny, but just as often smart.
Above all, however, Stewart and his writers do two things that make them unique on popular television. First, they cover - and yes, I would say "cover," not just satirize or mock - a wide range of religions. If you watched only The Daily Show, you would nonetheless learn, in time, about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and a whole spectrum of smaller faiths, a category that I would argue includes atheism. And second, they pay attention to points of theology that more traditional news and talk shows skip over. Using chunks of time that would be unthinkable on a network newscast - six minutes for a segment on Mormonism! - The Daily Show teaches the finer points of belief, mining them for humor but at the same time serving a real educational function.
Stewart comes at religion with buckets of derision, but I do not find him offensive, nor should anyone who enjoys comedy. Like so many of the best comedians, he is an equal-opportunity hater. Sometimes it's atheists he cannot stand, as in his bit about the beams in a shape of the cross that survived the Ground Zero wreckage, which the American Atheists did not want displayed. Sometimes it's the Catholic church, which last November proved a useful point of comparison for the football culture at Penn State: "I get that it's probably hard for you to believe that this guy you think is infallible, and this program you think is sacred, could hide such heinous activities, but there is some precedent for that," Stewart said, referring to coach Joe Paterno and the sex-abuse scandal. "Yeah, and just like with the Catholic Church, no one is trying to take away your religion, in this case football. They're just trying to bring some accountability to a pope, and some of his cardinals." In both cases, it was the culture of certainty that Stewart was mocking, not the belief system itself. It was the human tendency toward hubris.
But of course belief systems are fair game, too. In fact, Stewart and his writers have realized that good theology - getting people's beliefs right - happens to make for good humor. Consider a bit that aired last October, in which Stewart interviewed cast members Samantha Bee and Wyatt Cenac on the differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity. Bee, a fair-complected Canadian, was playing a Mormon, wearing a shirt that said "Team Mormon"; and Cenac, a black man of Haitian ancestry, was wearing a shirt that said "Team Normal." Bee began by complaining about the tee shirts they were made to wear: "Why is Wyatt 'Team Normal'? That implies that Mormons aren't normal ... We are not a cult. Mormonism is a proud religion founded by a great man who was guided by the Angel Moroni to golden plates buried in upstate New York that he placed in the bottom of a hat where he read them using a seer stone."
Matters devolved from there. Team Mormon and Team Normal began arguing about which group is crazier: the one that believes Jesus was born of a virgin and the Holy Ghost, and that he rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven, or the one that believes all that plus the story that he then returned to Missouri. Jon Stewart intercedes, saying that both Bee and Cenac seem happy to suspend disbelief when it comes to the basic tenets of the New Testament. Both Bee and Cenac then take license to turn on Stewart, for being an adherent to a religion in which "it's normal to hang out in someone's living room and watch a guy with a beard cut off a baby's penis while everyone eats pound cake!" (as Bee puts it). The bit is as comedically deft as it is religiously shrewd: how often do we catch ourselves rolling our eyes at someone else's belief system, only to realize at the last second that we believe some crazy things ourselves? In that regard, Stewart is a stand-in for all of us, enjoying some fun at the expense of other religions until the gods of dramatic irony hold a mirror to his face.
And except for the fact that circumcision doesn't involve the whole penis ("In my defense," Stewart says, "it's just the tip, and the cake is incredibly moist"), the dialogue is exceptionally accurate about all three religions: traditional Christianity, Latter-day Saint practices, and Judaism. The Mormons' special underwear is played for laughs, it's true - but the point is that Stewart and his writers convey more specifics about religious practice in less than four minutes than any documentary or nightly-news segment I've ever seen.
And the implicit message is one that religion scholars are always trying to convey: all religions have beliefs that seem bizarre to outsiders, and “cult” is often just a word to describe the other guy’s religion. The Daily Show approaches American religion in the spirit of tolerance, but not with the wimpy, eager-to-please hand-wringing that characterizes so much liberal dialogue in this country. Rather, religions are shown to be strange and possibly cringe-inducing: our job is to take an honest look, then tolerate them anyway. It’s a call to rigorous citizenship.
At some point, every one of Stewart’s regulars is called upon to represent a different religious group — Mandvi is often the Muslim, Cenac the Christian, and in one episode the Englishman John Oliver tries to claim Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a new holy site for Jews (“Challahfax” — although according to Mandvi, who is trying to claim the site for Muslims, it is pronounced “Halalifax”). The cast is like a merry band of religious satirists, with a joke for every faith playing in their repertory.
Stewart himself has said very little about his own Judaism, although he is clearly non-practicing by most any definition: he has gone to work, and recorded shows, on the High Holidays, for example. The writer Marty Kaplan tells the story of moderating a forum about why Jews who don’t believe go to synagogue on the holidays: “At one point, a congregant, without prompting, told the room that Stewart didn’t take the High Holy Days off,” Kaplan writes. “His tone was a mixture of anger and disappointment, the kind of sentiment someone might feel about a misguided family member.” And it so happens that I think Stewart’s humor might even be stronger, more durable, if it weren’t all quite so frivolous to him. For example, the writer Shalom Auslander, who was raised very religiously, is capable of a kind of enduring, deeply poignant satire that is beyond Stewart. Similarly, I suspect that Stephen Colbert, erstwhile Daily Show cast member and now host of The Colbert Report, has comedic hues that come from his Catholic religiosity, which he speaks openly about.
But if Stewart is himself indifferent to religion, he is clearly not bitter about it. There is no apparent ideology, either religious or skeptical, animating Stewart’s treatment of religion. More than anything, he and his writers have the scrupulosity of objective journalists. They win laughs without deforming, or even exaggerating, the religion’s actual beliefs. This is an extraordinary feat. Most religious humor, especially on television or in the movies, depends on stereotypes, which are by definition crude and reductive. Stewart’s writers, by contrast, find humor in the specifics of each faith. They would rather laugh at the finer points of belief than stick pins in some caricature. When they are especially fortunate, they can describe a faith through its antagonists — while making those antagonists look ridiculous. Here I am thinking of a segment from 2010, in which Wyatt Cenac interviewed a Muslim woman whose application to be a foster mother was rejected because she would not allow pork products in her house. He made the foster agency look absurd and bigoted, and he helped explain Muslim dietary practices to the audience.
Especially when taken out of context, disembedded from the civilizations and cultures in which they make sense, religious claims are frequently of the bizarre sort that no sane person ought to believe. Humor actually proves to be one of the best devices to help skeptics or the uninitiated talk about religion. And it offers a great litmus test for believers: how confident are you in your beliefs? After all, no confident believer should be afraid to chuckle about religion’s seeming absurdities — just as no mirthful human being should pass up the chance to laugh along with the unbeliever. The Daily Show has more fun with religion than any show on television — more fun, in fact, than many religious people have in their own observance. Jon Stewart may not be a believer —he did boast that he had a bacon croissanwich for Passover — but he is one hell of a teacher.
When President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage last week, he revealed a stance that had “evolved.” Those who oppose his position - usually on religious grounds - often insist that same-sex marriage is immoral, an affront to absolute, unchanging principles that simply don’t “evolve.” Marriage is between man and woman, period.
Thus, once again we find a culture-war issue with social conservatives postured as defending moral absolutes, while liberals wander the treacherous landscape of relativism with a seemingly fluid sense of right and wrong. In a political environment - where "traditional values" have currency and complex ideas don't - the notion of moral absolutism often resonates, and “moral relativism” can be easily demonized by fear-mongering opportunists. If liberals have a problem with political posturing, few issues illustrate it better than the absolutism vs. relativism debate.
As modernity moves forward, there are constant tensions over challenges to traditional morality. The most obvious area is sex, where the advance of science and technology (especially birth control) has prompted reconsideration of many longstanding norms and taboos, revolutionizing society and transforming life in numerous ways. Not surprisingly, despite much progress, we see frequent hesitation and even fierce resistance to change, especially from pockets of deep religious conservatism.
When that resistance to modernity is vocalized, the rhetoric will often include references to moral absolutism, to unchanging dictates from God. In fact, religious conservatives exalt absolutism even when they fall far short of its standards. Caught in an adulterous affair in 2009, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford apologized by reflexively acknowledging, “I’ve been a person of faith all my life. There are moral absolutes.”
For practical purposes in everyday life, the idea of moral absolutes can have understandable appeal. As we go about our business within a certain framework of place and time, there are actions and ideas that must be seen as good and evil, right and wrong. Politically, religious conservatives seize upon this need for certainty and exploit it for advantage, claiming that what seems certain in their lives today must be seen as eternally so, everywhere. This message can be powerful, especially in a society that is leaping forward technogically and thereby experiencing rapid social changes that many find troubling.
Nevertheless, since racism, slavery, forced marriages, and the oppression of women - just a few examples of concepts that were once considered moral - are no longer acceptable in civilized society, there is really no debate about whether morality evolves: It most certainly does! But religious conservatives nevertheless recognize that many feel threatened by change and find great comfort in tradition and absolutes, so they get much mileage from touting old-time (and often outdated) values.
Because of this, to argue against absolute morality in America can be political suicide. In an environment where the media and the public will entertain nothing but sound bites and simplistic thinking, there is little interest in complex philosophical analysis of right and wrong. Traditional, absolutist moral rhetoric will usually go unquestioned, while news coverage instead focuses on other critical issues, like which candidate we’d want to have a beer with.
This is why Obama’s “evolved” view of same-sex marriage is not without risk: to succeed, he must convince the public that the idea of evolving morality is not sacrilege. And this is where we see the high cost of America's vilification of the secular demographic, which adamantly advocates for a naturalistic outlook that seriously and effectively challenges conservative religious moral absolutism.
To the extent the public accepts that morality was not dictated by God to ancient men, the progressive (and secular) position will prevail; but because seculars are too often considered political outcasts, you probably won't see Obama reaching out to the secular community for support on this issue. Instead, he looks for allies who happen to agree with him on the issue, without challenging the underlying assumptions of absolutism emanating from conservative circles. Clearly, visible inclusion of seculars in politics would introduce a vociferous opponent to the righteous religious absolutists, but nobody seems interested in welcoming them to the table.
Though a majority of Americans identify as at least marginally religious, the secular view of morality is hardly radical. After all, the most conservative Christian must concede that morality does change, that notions of right and wrong – even those that seem vitally important to the very fabric of society – will differ from place to place and from time to time.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Steven Pinker points out that evolving notions of morality, often arising from the Enlightenment humanism of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, have been the catalyst for much of the civility and nonviolence that has become more prevalent in modern society. (If you think society is more violent now than ever, by the way, Pinker will prove you wrong.)
A few centuries ago, for example, typical Europeans would entertain themselves by torturing cats, public executions were festive events for the whole family, and wife beating, child beating, and racism were normal, hardly a sign of deep moral flaws. Even in modern America, until a generation ago, police would rarely intervene in matters of domestic violence.
From a progressive, humanistic standpoint, it is important to recognize the public’s need for some degree of moral certainty and absolutism, of its general aversion to wishy-washy notions of relativism. But it is also important to circulate the idea that standards of morality can and often do change – and that this can be a good thing. After all, biblical morality would prohibit eating shellfish, touching a menstruating woman, or wearing clothes made from the mixed fabrics. Thank goodness we’ve evolved!
By understanding that a changing social and technological environment can justify a rethinking of moral standards – and that this does not necessarily shake society at its foundations – we allow ourselves to “evolve” into a more humane, free, and decent culture. Such an evolution may threaten conservative theology, but it is no threat to the rest of us.
Nuns on the Frontier
THE recent Vatican edict that reproached American nuns for their liberal views on social and political issues has put a spotlight on the practices of these Roman Catholic sisters. While the current debate has focused on the nuns’ progressive stances on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, the all-male priesthood and economic injustice, tension between American nuns and the church’s male hierarchy reaches much further back.
In the 19th century, Catholic nuns literally built the church in the American West, braving hardship and grueling circumstances to establish missions, set up classrooms and lead lives of calm in a chaotic world marked by corruption, criminality and illness. Their determination in the face of a male hierarchy that, then as now, frequently exploited and disdained them was a demonstration of their resilient faith in a church struggling to adapt itself to change.
Like other settlers in the West, Catholic nuns were mostly migrants from Europe or the American East; the church had turned to them to create a Catholic presence across a seemingly limitless frontier. The region’s rocky mining camps, grassy plains and arid deserts did not appeal to many ordained men. As one disenchanted European priest, lamenting the lack of a good cook and the discomfort of frontier travel, grumbled, “I hate the long, dreary winters of Iowa.”
Bishops relentlessly recruited sisters for Western missions, enticing them with images of Christian conversions, helpful local clergymen and charming convent cottages. If the sisters hesitated, the bishops mocked their timidity, scorned their selfishness and threatened heavenly retribution.
The sisters proved them wrong. By steamboat, train, stagecoach and canoe, on foot and on horseback, the nuns answered the call. In the 1840s, a half-dozen sisters from Notre Dame de Namur, a Belgian order, braved stormy seas and dense fog to reach Oregon. In 1852, seven Daughters of Charity struggled on the backs of donkeys across the rain-soaked Isthmus of Panama toward California. In 1884, six Ursuline nuns stepped from a train in Montana, only to be left by the bishop at a raucous public rooming house, its unheated loft furnished only with wind and drifting snow.
These nuns lived in filthy dugouts, barns and stables, hoped for donations of furniture, and survived on a daily ration of one slice of bread or a bowl of onion soup along with a cup of tea. They made their own way, worked endless hours, often walked miles to a Catholic chapel for services, and endured daunting privations in housing and nutrition.
There appeared to be no end to what was expected of the sisters. In 1874, two Sisters of the Holy Cross, at the direction of Edward Sorin, the founder of the University of Notre Dame, opened a Texas school and orphanage in a two-room shack with a leaky dormitory garret that the nuns affectionately labeled “The Ark.” The brother who managed the congregation’s large farm informed the sisters, who were barely able to feed and clothe the 80 boarders, that he could not give the school free produce — though they could buy it at a discount. The sisters also did 18 years of unpaid housekeeping work on a farm run by the men.
Sisters adapted to these physical, spiritual and fiscal exploitations with amazingly good humor. Still, they chafed against their male superiors’ unreasonable restrictions and harsh dictates. When they directly questioned policy, bishops and priests moved to silence them. A single protest could draw draconian reprisals on an entire congregation.
In 1886, four Texas priests demanded that Bishop John C. Néraz replace a superior, Mother St. Andrew Feltin, saying that she had “spread gossip” and warned her sisters “to beware of priests.”
Bishop Néraz threatened the sisterhood with disbandment and removed Mother St. Andrew from office. He hounded her for years, disciplined other nuns she had befriended, suspended her right to the sacraments, warned other bishops not to grant her sanctuary, undercut her efforts to enter a California convent and even urged her deportation to Europe. Finally, Mother St. Andrew laid aside her religious clothing, returned to secular dress and cared for her widowed brother’s children.
Six years after Bishop Néraz died, Mother St. Andrew petitioned her congregation for readmission. Donning her habit, she renewed her vows amid a warm welcome from sisters who understood too well what she had suffered.
Then as now, not all priests and bishops treated sisters badly, though the priests who reached out to nuns in a spirit of appreciation, friendship and equality could not alter the church’s institutional commitment to gender discrimination. And, as now, some bishops, dismissive of the laity, underestimated the loyalty secular Catholics felt for their nuns.
In the case of Mother St. Andrew, tenacity and spirituality triumphed over arrogance and misogyny. The Vatican would do well to bear this history in mind as it thinks through the consequences of its unjust attack on American sisters.
Church opponents of gay marriage live in a weird theme park divorced from real Anglicans.
So “the Church of England cannot support the proposal to enable all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony”. That’s odd, I thought that I was part of the Church of England and I can and do support the proposal. And I know quite a few other people who thought that they were part of the Church of England and they support it too.
So what is this Church of England that doesn’t? It doesn’t actually sign its name to the 13-page public submission it has just made to the Government’s consultation on marriage equality, but it is not difficult to ferret out what it is.
It is a curious theme park called Bishop World. This is a collection of middle-aged to elderly males, some gay (though they don’t like to say so in public), some heterosexual (and they remind us of that all the time in public). They have a penchant for wearing mitres, sitting on committees and talking to each other. They are ably assisted by a small group of lawyers and civil servants, again for the most part remarkably male. A high fence protects the environs of Bishop World, so none of the inmates are troubled by opinions from the distressing wilderness beyond its bounds. Within their defences, nevertheless, they are anxious, insecure creatures, who worry incessantly about the breakdown of society.
Isn’t it odd? Some of these men must be part of families in which there are teenagers and other symptoms of everyday reality, yet none of that comes across in a Bishop World statement such as this. The present document is part of a wider pattern. Not so long ago, Bishop World tried to impose a peculiar doctrinal straitjacket on the Church of England called the “Anglican Covenant”. The good folk of the C of E saw through it: it failed to achieve even a simple majority in the English dioceses, despite all the emotional blackmail exerted by Bishop World.
Then Bishop World tinkered with legislation for women bishops, after it had been approved by an emphatic 42 of 44 dioceses, so that there could be bishops for any chosen opinion, never tainted by contact with any other sort of bishop. In perpetuity we can have bishops exclusively for vegetarians or flat-Earthers (or more likely, for those not liking gays or women clergy). We will see what the Church of England, Reality Variety, makes of that.
And now this submission on gay marriage. It tells downright fibs: for instance, that the majority of bishops in the Lords backed civil partnerships in 2004. The reverse is true: in the main debate, a majority spoke and voted in support of an amendment that would have wrecked the Civil Partnership Bill — and does anyone seriously think the UK would have an equal age of consent, let alone civil partnerships, if it had been left to the bishops?
The submission makes much of “biological complementarity”: marriage is for a man and a woman, for the procreation of children. Evidently biology isn’t taught beyond the age of Aristotle in Bishop World.
The bishops are rather evasive about the many things that marriage has been in its history and its present: between a man and several women, for instance. Marriage has been what human beings have made it to fit the reality of their lives, and express their deepest longings. Any deep relationship involves complementarity, whether or not sex is attached. There are medieval Orthodox liturgies to celebrate same-sex unions, complete with bridal crowns. Ancient tombs in Anglican churches commemorate two people of the same sex who couldn’t bear to be separated in death — several Oxford dons, of course, but even a gravestone for two Stuart gentlewomen in what is now the cathedral at Suffolk’s answer to Sodom and Gomorrah, Bury St Edmunds. I am unaware of any social breakdown in 17th-century East Anglia.
More than half of Bishop World’s submission is taken up with legal complications to allowing same-sex marriage. None of these would be real if Bishop World wasn’t so opposed to the idea, but the document talks them up into a potential crisis for an established church. Perhaps Bishop World didn’t notice that last week, the Danish Parliament enabled another established church, the Lutheran Church of Denmark, to celebrate same-sex marriages in church, with suitable provisions for clergy who don’t want to do so. Apparently this doesn’t affect church establishment in Denmark at all. The Church of Denmark also has women bishops, another thing Bishop World finds very troublesome.
Is Free Will An Illusion
Are you really in control, or is your every decision predetermined? Who's at the steering wheel: you, your genes, your upbringing, fate, karma, God?
A hot topic for several thousand years, the question of whether free will exists may never be settled to everyone's satisfaction. But in a series of new articles for the Chronicles of Higher Education, six academics from diverse fields offer fresh perspectives from the standpoints of modern neuroscience and philosophy. Ultimately, they voted 4-2 in favor of the position that free will is merely an illusion.
The four scientists on the panel denied the existence of free will, arguing that human behavior is governed by the brain, which is itself controlled by each person's genetic blueprint built upon by his or her life experiences. Meanwhile, the two philosophers cast the dissenting votes, arguing that free will is perfectly compatible with the discoveries of neuroscience.
Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, defined free will as the possibility that, after making a decision, you could have chosen otherwise. But a "decision," Coyne argues, is merely a series of electrical and chemical impulses between molecules in the brain — molecules whose configuration is predetermined by genes and environment. Though each decision is the outcome of an immensely complicated series of chemical reactions, those reactions are governed by the laws of physics and could not possibly turn out differently. "Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made," Coyne wrote.
The three other scientists concurred with Coyne's viewpoint. As Owen Jones, a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, put it in his essay: "Will is as free as lunch. (If you doubt, just try willing yourself out of love, lust, anger, or jealousy)."
Though everyone must be held accountable for his or her actions, neuroscience and the nonexistence of free will should be factored into some criminal cases, the scholars argued.
A counterargument came from Hilary Bok, a philosopher at the Johns Hopkins University, who said scientists misunderstand the question of free will when they argue that decisions are governed by the activity of brain cells. Free will, in her opinion, is being capable of stepping back from one's existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among various alternatives. "The claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it," she wrote.
Alfred Mele, another philosopher at Florida State University, also believes the concept of free will is compatible with the findings of neuroscience. He cited a 2008 study in which volunteers were asked to push either of two buttons. According to the study, brain activity up to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously reached revealed which button the volunteer was more likely to press.
Though the study is widely viewed as evidence against free will, Mele pointed out that the study participants' brain activity accurately predicted their eventual decision only 60 percent of the time. In his view, this suggests people can consciously choose to override their brains' predispositions.
Therefore, he wrote, "I do not recommend betting the farm on the nonexistence of free will."
Why Cults Are Mindless
Whenever some cult clashes with the law, the public is fascinated, and horrified, by the capacity of leaders to control members. Perhaps the members surrender all of their property. Or they are sworn to celibacy so that the leader has sexual access to all of the women after the manner of the David Koresh cult destroyed in a Waco, Texas, fire (1). Or they drink poison on command as in the Jonesboro, Guyana, tragedy.
The secret recipe of all such cults may be in the members rather than the leaders. Social psychologists discovered that members get very attached to cults that ask a great deal of them.
When a lot is asked …
Research on U.S. communes suggests that organizations need to be quite demanding to get their members committed enough to stay the distance. When sociologists Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler (2) studied 83 19th-Century communes in the U.S they found two intriguing patterns. The first was that more demanding communes lasted longer. Bigger sacrifices engendered greater emotional commitment to the group.
The communes could be extreme. Some required vegetarianism, or celibacy, or surrender of all worldly possessions to the collective. The more demanding a religious commune was, the greater the level of cooperation it elicited from members and the longer the community survived. Groups with fewer than two costly requirements lasted less than ten years, on average. Communes that had between 6 and 8 burdensome costs lasted for over 50 years and those with more than 11 were still in business after 60 years.
Costly commitment helped groups stick together only in religious communities which offers a fascinating glimpse into the socially cohesive function of supernatural beliefs.
Secular communities were particularly unstable, generally lasting less than ten years. Contrary to the pattern for religious communities, the more demanding secular communities folded more quickly. Indeed, the most demanding secular community closed its doors after only a year.
Why was there such a difference between religious and non religious communes? Evidently, sacrifices made for the community are interpreted differently for members of religious communes compared to secular ones.
Ratcheting up the costs of membership works well only for religious communities. A supernatural belief system can justify heavy membership costs in terms of a higher purpose. Without supernatural justification members might ask themselves why they are paying so much to be in the commune. Lacking a religious justification, they may conclude that they are being exploited, by the leadership. The logical solution is to leave.
When they are backed up by a religious belief system, communes can tolerate considerable inequality. This may be illustrated by differences in permissible sexual behavior.
A secular commune requiring celibacy from all male initiates would be destabilized by the free sexual expression of the leader.
Yet, that sort of inequality may work if members believe that the leader is a divine incarnation. Something close to this scenario played out in the David Koresh cult (the Branch Davidians), that was wiped out in a fire following a standoff with federal authorities near Waco, Texas, in 1993 (1). Evidently, Koresh had free sexual access to female members consistent with his divine status whereas other men were expected to be celibate (3).
So religious cults that survive for more than a few years are characterized by blind obedience. The really difficult question for relatives, clinical psychologists, and researchers is why inductees are so willing to surrender their autonomy in the first place.
Yet, cults are not unusual in this respect. Mindless obedience to authority figures is evident in many other settings. These include the army; Greek societies; sports organizations with their Byzantine rules; business corporations with their company men (and women); and the groupthink of political life. World religions can also be included, of course.
Mindless obedience is good for the cult but it is generally not good for the member. The same principle applies to entire countries. The less inequality there is, the better the quality of life experienced by everyone (4).
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...
2. Sosis, R., & Bressler, E. (2003). Cooperation and commune longevity: A test of the costly signaling theory of religion. Cross-Cultural Research, 37, 211-239.
3. Newport, K. G. C. (2006). The branch Davidians of Waco: The history and beliefs of an apolalyptic sect. New York: Oxford University Press.
4. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
The Catholic Church and Money
OF ALL the organisations that serve America’s poor, few do more good work than the Catholic church: its schools and hospitals provide a lifeline for millions. Yet even taking these virtues into account, the finances of the Catholic church in America are an unholy mess. The sins involved in its book-keeping are not as vivid or grotesque as those on display in the various sexual-abuse cases that have cost the American church more than $3 billion so far; but the financial mismanagement and questionable business practices would have seen widespread resignations at the top of any other public institution.
The sexual-abuse scandals of the past 20 years have brought shame to the church around the world. In America they have also brought financial strains. By studying court documents in bankruptcy cases, examining public records, requesting documents from local, state and federal governments, as well as talking to priests and bishops confidentially, The Economist has sought to quantify the damage.
The picture that emerges is not flattering. The church’s finances look poorly co-ordinated considering (or perhaps because of) their complexity. The management of money is often sloppy. And some parts of the church have indulged in ungainly financial contortions in some cases—it is alleged—both to divert funds away from uses intended by donors and to frustrate creditors with legitimate claims, including its own nuns and priests. The dioceses that have filed for bankruptcy may not be typical of the church as a whole. But given the overall lack of openness there is no way of knowing to what extent they are outliers.
Thousands of claims for damages following sexual-abuse cases, which typically cost the church over $1m per victim, according to lawyers involved, have led to a liquidity crisis. This seems to have encouraged a pre-existing trend towards replacing dollars from the faithful with publicly raised debt as a way of financing church business. The church is also increasingly keen to defend its access to public health-care subsidies while claiming a right not to provide certain medical services to which it objects, such as contraception. This increased reliance on taxpayers has not been matched by increased openness and accountability. The church, like other religious groups in America, is not subject to the same disclosure requirements as other non-profits or private entities.
Little is known about the Catholic church’s finances outside America. JPMorgan Chase recently closed the Vatican Bank’s accounts under pressure from the US Treasury. The Holy See has also struggled to get itself placed on lists of jurisdictions that are deemed to have strong anti-money laundering controls. This may reflect bad organisation rather than a concerted attempt to hide anything, though documents leaked by Pope Benedict XVI’s former butler to an Italian journalist suggest that maladministration in the Vatican goes beyond mere negligence. But America, not least thanks to its bankruptcy procedures, provides a slightly clearer window on the church’s finances. And America is so important to the church that it merits particular examination.
Only three countries—Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines—have larger Catholic populations than America, and nowhere has a larger Catholic minority. Almost 100m Americans, a third of the nation, have been baptised into the faith and 74m identify themselves as Catholic. Discrimination against the Catholic minority, and strong leadership from Rome, encouraged American Catholics to create a sort of parallel society in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the result that there are now over 6,800 Catholic schools (5% of the national total); 630 hospitals (11%) plus a similar number of smaller health facilities; and 244 colleges and universities. Many of these institutions are known for excellence: seven of the leading 25 part-time law school programmes in America are Catholic (five are run by Jesuits). A quarter of the 100 top-ranked hospitals are Catholic. All these institutions are subject to the oversight of a bishop or a religious order.
The Economist estimates that annual spending by the church and entities owned by the church was around $170 billion in 2010 (the church does not release such figures). We think 57% of this goes on health-care networks, followed by 28% on colleges, with parish and diocesan day-to-day operations accounting for just 6% and national charitable activities just 2.7% (see chart). In total, Catholic institutions employ over 1m people, reckons Fred Gluck, a former McKinsey managing partner and co-founder of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a lay organisation seeking to improve the way the church is run. For purposes of secular comparison, in 2010 General Electric’s revenue was $150 billion and Walmart employed roughly 2m people.
The church is the largest single charitable organisation in the country. Catholic Charities USA, its main charity, and its subsidiaries employ over 65,000 paid staff and serve over 10m people. These organisations distributed $4.7 billion to the poor in 2010, of which 62% came from local, state and federal government agencies.
The American church may account for as much as 60% of the global institution’s wealth. Little surprise, then, that it is the biggest contributor to head office (ahead of Germany, Italy and France). Everything from renovations to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to the Pontifical Gregorian University, the church’s version of West Point, is largely paid for with American money.
Where that money comes from is hard to say (the church does not release numbers on this either). Some of it is from the offerings of the faithful. Anecdotal evidence suggests that America’s Catholics give about $10 per week on average. Assuming that one-third attend church regularly, that would put the annual offertory income at around $13 billion. More comes from elite groups of large donors such as the Papal Foundation, based in Pennsylvania, whose 138 members pledge to donate at least $1m annually, and Legatus, a group of more than 2,000 Catholic business leaders that was founded by Tom Monaghan of Domino’s Pizza.
There is also income from investments. Timothy Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Cardinal-Archbishop of New York (a “corporation sole”, meaning a legal entity consisting of a single incorporated office, occupied by a single person), is believed to be Manhattan’s largest landowner, if one includes the parishes and organisations that come under his jurisdiction. Another source of revenue is local and federal government, which bankroll the Medicare and Medicaid of patients in Catholic hospitals, the cost of educating pupils in Catholic schools and loans to students attending Catholic universities.
Wages and sin
The molestation and rape of children by priests in America has resulted in more than $3.3 billion of settlements over the past 15 years, $1.3 billion of that in California. The total is likely to increase as more states follow California and Delaware in relaxing the statute of limitations on these crimes, most of which were reported long after they happened. For an organisation with revenues of $170 billion that might seem manageable. But settlements are made by individual dioceses and religious orders, whose pockets are less deep than those of the church as a whole.
The fact that far fewer Catholics are answering the call to become nuns, monks and priests (the minor seminaries, once the first step of the recruitment process, are almost empty) adds to the pressure. It saves some current costs, but reduces in perpetuity the pool of very cheap labour that the church has relied on. Dioceses increasingly need to pay people market rates to get jobs done that were previously assigned to clergy and members of religious orders. This pushes running costs up.
On the revenue side, donations from the faithful are thought to have declined by as much as 20%. The scandals probably played a part in this: few people want to donate money that will go to clearing up the damage done by predatory priests. But many in the church also feel that competition for charitable dollars has increased.
Over the past eight years, a combination of these stresses has driven eight dioceses (including San Diego, Tucson and Milwaukee) to declare bankruptcy, as well as the American arm of the Irish Christian Brothers and a regional branch of the Jesuits. More of America’s 196 dioceses could be forced to do the same. Efforts are under way in the legislatures of Arizona, Illinois, New York, Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio and California (again) to extend statutes of limitations, according to Jeff Anderson, a lawyer who represents many victims of abuse. If any of these efforts succeeds, the expectation among lawyers like Mr Anderson is that some of the affected dioceses would seek Chapter 11 protection while they attempt to settle the cases. (Troubled dioceses generally settle suits just before the bishop is due in court.) The diocese of Honolulu could be the next to go bankrupt. In May it was hit by a pair of new lawsuits after the extension of Hawaii’s statute of limitations for victims of abuse.
Various sources say that Cardinal Dolan and other New York bishops are spending a substantial amount—estimates range from $100,000 a year to well over $1m—on lobbying the state assembly to keep the current statute of limitations in place. His office will not comment on these estimates. This is in addition to the soft lobbying of lawmakers by those with pulpits at their disposal. The USCCB, the highest Catholic body in America, also lobbies the federal government on the issue. In April the California Catholic Conference, an organisation that brings the state’s bishops together, sent a letter to California’s Assembly opposing a bill that would extend the statute and require more rigorous background checks on church workers.
Some dioceses have, in effect, raided priests’ pension funds to cover settlements and other losses. The church regularly collects money in the name of priests’ retirement. But in the dioceses that have gone bust lawyers and judges confirm that those funds are commingled with other investments, which makes them easily diverted to other uses. Under Cardinal Bernard Law, the archdiocese of Boston contributed nothing to its clergy retirement fund between 1986 and 2002, despite receiving an estimated $70m-90m in Easter and Christmas offerings that many parishioners believed would benefit retired priests.
Church officials denied the money it had collected was improperly diverted. By 2008 the unfunded liability had reached $114m. Joseph D’Arrigo, a benefits specialist, was brought in to turn things round. In 2010 the retirement fund was turned into an independent trust to ensure it could not be used for other purposes—a first for an American diocese, reckons Mr D’Arrigo.
An uncertain route to financial salvation
The retirement funds for Wilmington, Delaware, were largely lost when it settled sex-abuse claims for $77m in February 2011. Those funds had been tossed into a pooled investment account that also contained parish investments and funds for cemeteries and the education of seminarians. The Eastern United States province of the Passionists, a missionary order, has diverted retirement funds to cover operating expenses. In a bid to stave off bankruptcy it has sold off property, including a 14-acre piece of New York waterfront, and made an unorthodox investment in a Broadway show, “Leap of Faith”. It flopped.
In a public company, this type of thing would attract regulatory scrutiny. In the church, retirement is still largely in the gift of the bishop. Retirement plans for priests are typically set up as diocesan trusts rather than proper pension funds with structured benefits. They do not fall under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, the law that establishes standards for plan trustees and remedies for beneficiaries, including access to federal courts. Priests thus have no recourse to law if they are hard done by. Nor, as a matter of course, can they take their pensions with them if they leave for another diocese.
Richard Vega, who recently stepped down as president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, estimates that 75-80% of clergy pension schemes in America are underfunded. He says that only a small minority of priests will have set aside enough of their net average salary of $25,000 a year to cover themselves. Others will be less fortunate.
The clergy and its creditors
The principle of separation between church and state in America means that religious groups are not required to file tax returns, list their assets or disclose basic facts about their finances. Some dioceses do publish accounts, but these tend to provide an incomplete picture. Though lawyers for dioceses facing bankruptcy have fought to keep most financially sensitive documents sealed, the process has forced the church to let in unaccustomed light.
The documents that have been disclosed reveal that some bishops in the bankrupt dioceses presented the diocesan funds of parishes, schools, hospitals and retirement accounts as separate when they were really simply book-keeping entries in the same pooled investment account. The diocese of San Diego, for instance, reported to the bankruptcy court that it had over 500 accounts. But these were merely entries in a “Parish, School Diocese Loan Trust Account”, maintained in a single bank account at Union Bank of California.
Such pooling saves on administrative costs and allows dioceses to use a surplus in one area to cover shortfalls in another, often a legitimate course of action. But it has presented problems when it comes to working out which assets belong to whom in bankruptcy proceedings.
The vast majority of parishes that commingled their funds with those dioceses now in bankruptcy lost all their investments. In some cases they were misled into believing that the money would be kept separate from the main diocesan funds, and thus safe in the event of bankruptcy. The judge in the Wilmington bankruptcy, Christopher Sontchi, said parishes that had suffered this fate had grounds to sue the diocese for breach of fiduciary duty. None has—but that is hardly surprising, given that the bishop and the chancellor of the diocese sit on the five-member board of trustees of each parish.
Some parishes were more careful than others in ensuring their funds were handled properly. According to a document in The Economist’s possession, a parish priest in Wilmington wrote to the diocese: “Find enclosed a cheque for $1,000,000 to be invested in [the parish of] St Thomas’s name in the diocesan account. It is my understanding that if the need arises, this is and always will be available for parish use. If this is not the case, please return it and I will put it under my mattress for safe keeping.” The diocese cashed the cheque, apparently depositing it in a general cash account. The parish lost the money when the diocese struck a sexual-abuse settlement. By contrast St Ann’s parish, also in the Wilmington diocese, wired its deposits directly into a segregated investment account at Mellon Bank rather than to the diocesan cash account at Citizen’s Bank. Its trustees also insisted on drafting a special agreement stipulating that funds provided to the diocese were held in trust.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers have raised questions about financial transfers in dioceses threatened with bankruptcy. These tend to go the other way—moving money out of diocesan accounts and into parish accounts, trusts of various sorts and any other receptacle at hand. According to an independent report commissioned by a bankruptcy judge, at one point priests in San Diego were taking cash out of accounts and putting it in safes in the rectories because they wanted to keep it out of reach of plaintiffs. Nobody becomes a priest, monk or nun in order to spend their professional life as a financial manager, so no doubt part of this money shuffling is down to innocent incompetence. But the church does shift between considering all assets as part of a single pool when that suits, and claiming that funds have always been separate and ring-fenced when they are exposed to claims.
Creditors in the Milwaukee bankruptcy case, which is still in progress, have questioned the motives behind a $35m transfer to a trust and a $55.6m transfer from archdiocese coffers to a fund for cemeteries. Cardinal Dolan, who was Archbishop of Milwaukee at the time, authorised both transactions. The creditors think the movement of such large amounts had more to do with shielding cash from sexual-abuse victims than with the maintenance of graves, calling the manoeuvre fraudulent. Cardinal Dolan’s office responded to questions about these allegations by pointing to blog posts in which he described them as “baloney” and defended the transfers as “virtuous, open and in accord with the clear directives of the professionals on our finance council and outside auditors”.
As “debtors in possession”—entities that have filed for bankruptcy yet retain their assets—bust dioceses have an obligation to enlarge their assets to satisfy their creditors. On the contrary, “we have seen a consistent tactic of Catholic bishops to shrink the size of their assets, which is not only wrong morally but in violation of state and federal law,” says Ken Brown of Pachulski Stang, a California law firm that has represented creditors in eight of the ten Catholic bankruptcy cases.
In a particularly striking example, the diocese of San Diego listed the value of a whole city block in downtown San Diego at $40,000, the price at which it had been acquired in the 1940s, rather than trying to estimate the current market value, as required. Worse, it altered the forms in which assets had to be listed. The judge in the case, Louise Adler, was so vexed by this and other shenanigans on the part of the diocese that she ordered a special investigation into church finances which was led by Todd Neilson, a former FBI agent and renowned forensic accountant. The diocese ended up settling its sexual-abuse cases for almost $200m. If it had not done so, the bankruptcy would have been thrown out of court and the bishop and chancellor of the diocese and its lawyers might have faced contempt charges.
Some assets are not listed at all. In a corporate bankruptcy, if insurance is relevant to the reason for the company’s failure then its insurance policy has to be listed as an asset. Not so those of the Catholic Mutual Group (CMG), which stepped up its help for Catholic dioceses in the mid-1980s—a time when liability insurance became too expensive as a result of the increase in sexual-abuse claims. Since the CMG is technically not an insurance company but a voluntary religious “mutual benefit society”, its policies do not have to be disclosed as assets in a bankruptcy proceeding, even though it contributes substantial funds towards settlements.
One way to reduce costs is to reduce the number of parishes. There are two ways to do this. The first is to merge one parish with another parish and combine their buildings, congregations and finances. The second, more controversial way is to “suppress” the parish, which involves the transfer of all of the assets to the bishop, who reassigns parish priests as he sees fit. The funds in the parish bank accounts are placed in the general treasury of the diocese, as are the proceeds of land sales, none of which is subject to disclosure. Faced with shortfalls in Boston (where he was a temporary administrator) and later in Cleveland, Bishop Richard Lennon suppressed dozens of parishes as part of reorganisation plans for each of the two archdioceses; given the pervasive commingling of accounts, some of the money thus accumulated could have gone to pay operating expenses and, at least in Boston, court settlements.
The parishioners were unimpressed. Some heckled the bishop when he visited their parish to celebrate mass. One of the Boston parishes, St Frances Cabrini in Scituate, Massachusetts, has been occupied for the past eight years by parishioners who have refused to accept its closure. They have a roster chart to ensure at least one person is at the church at any time, so that the archdiocese can’t change the locks. Some parishes have filed appeals to Rome. In an unusual move in March, the Vatican reversed the closing of 13 of the parishes that Bishop Lennon had suppressed.
As well as questionable financial management, the church also suffers from fraud and embezzlement, according to Jason Berry, an expert in Catholic finance and author of “Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church”. In March the former chief financial officer of the archdiocese of Philadelphia was arrested and charged with embezzling more than $900,000 between 2005 and 2011. Hundreds of priests have been disciplined for taking more than a little “walking around money” from the collection basket.
In the corporate world, those who witnessed such malfeasance might alert a higher authority. But priests make unlikely whistle-blowers. It is often hard for them to imagine a life outside holy orders, which could be their fate if they alienated the bishop who has a hold over their salary, pension and private life. Would-be whistle-blowers will also be aware that local and federal authorities are loth to investigate mainstream religious groups for fear of the political consequences. Assistant United States attorneys in two different federal districts have pushed the FBI to investigate concealment, coercion and financial mismanagement in parts of the church but have got nowhere.
The taxpayer as good Samaritan
Growing financial pressures have encouraged the church to replace donations from the faithful with debt. According to figures from the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board over the past decade, state and local authorities have issued municipal bonds for the benefit of at least 50 dioceses in almost 30 states to pay for the expansion and renovation of facilities that would previously have been largely paid for through donations. Overall church muni debt has increased by an estimated 80% over that period. At least 736 bond issues are currently outstanding.
California is the biggest borrower. Although funding for religious groups is prohibited under the state’s constitution, a series of court rulings has opened the door to bond issues. Catholic groups there have raised at least $12 billion through muni bonds over the past decade. Of that, some $9 billion went to hospitals. In one case, in San Jose, the money went to buy chancery offices for the bishop.
The dioceses back their bonds with letters of credit from banks. Among the most active guarantors are Allied Irish Banks (AIB), US Bancorp and Wells Fargo. None of the banks was prepared to discuss the financial terms of these contracts.
Muni bonds are generally tax-free for investors, so the cost of borrowing is lower than it would be for a taxable investment. In other words, the church enjoys a subsidy more commonly associated with local governments and public-sector projects. If the church has issued more debt in part to meet the financial strains caused by the scandals, then the American taxpayer has indirectly helped mitigate the church’s losses from its settlements. Taxpayers may end up on the hook for other costs, too. For example, settlement of the hundreds of possible abuse cases in New York might cause the closure of Catholic schools across the city.
Manhattan’s largest landowner
It is not wrong for churches to issue bonds. But, like many other aspects of the Catholic church’s finances, this should be more transparent. It is quite possible that church finances are, taken as a whole, not as bad as the details coming out in bankruptcy cases suggest. Dioceses and religious orders that go bankrupt cannot be assumed to be representative. If so, then showing better management in the rest of the church would do a lot to allay concern. And increased openness might have the added benefit of bringing in the acumen of a knowledgeable and concerned laity.
Some influential Catholics are keen to see better management and more openness and accountability. Leon Panetta, America’s defence secretary, called for outside oversight of church finances when he was a director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a position he relinquished in 2009 to become director of the CIA. Faced with competition from other churches and disgrace from the behaviour of some of its priests, there has never been a more important time to listen to such calls, and to invite in the help and scrutiny that the church’s finances seem so clearly to need.
God Loves Misery
God's Fanatics Are Back
Eleven years to the day after the September 11 atrocities of 2001, religious fundamentalism showed its ugly face again. In Libya angry crowds killed four American diplomats, including the ambassador, Christopher Stevens. In Egypt, they contented themselves with laying siege to the embassy. The protests have spread in a great arc across the Muslim world. Everywhere they are accompanied by the same disconcerting chant — “Allahu akbar”, or “God is great”.
The return of God to international affairs is one of the most astonishing developments of the past decades.
In Europe we decided to put restrictions on God in the 17th century. The wars of religion proved to be so bloody, killing perhaps 10% of the European population, that the continent’s leaders devised rules to keep faith out of politics. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia announced the principle of cuius regio eius religio — essentially, the king decided what his country’s faith would be — and the alliances that had once united fellow believers across borders and torn nation states apart became things of the past.
What followed was the secularisation of European life. A succession of thinkers said religion was dying. Marx dismissed it as a tool of class oppression. Max Weber, one of the fathers of sociology, announced the “disenchantment of the world”. Freud dismissed religion as a collective neurosis. People followed these advanced thinkers with unseemly haste. The masses abandoned the churches for the music hall and the cinema. The churches abandoned fire and brimstone for social work. Politicians gave up on God.
Today most Europeans regard a taste for religion rather like a taste for outré sex acts — something that should be practised only in private between consenting adults. I grew up as a militant secularist and remain a non- militant atheist. But 13 years of living in the United States and numerous visits to the Middle East, Latin America and Africa have convinced me the European secular mindset is hopelessly parochial. Religion is on display across the non-European world — in the overflowing mega-churches of American suburbs, in the millions who perform the hajj every year, in daily headlines in every newspaper.
The return of God to international affairs is one of the most astonishing developments of the past decades Scott Thomas, a religious writer, remarks that “we live in a world that is not supposed to exist”. Modernity has had an astonishing effect — astonishing, that is, if you regard secular Europe as the measure of all things — of stimulating religion rather than smothering it. Modern communication tools such as television and the internet have given people high-tech megaphones. The Sturm und Drang of modern life — the whirlwind of new products and ideas — has reinforced old certainties. People regard religion not as a constraint on their freedom but as a storm shelter in a hostile world.
There is every reason to believe the trend is gathering pace. The armies of God have fortified their territories. The Islamic republic of Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
The Muslim Brotherhood has completed its slow motion coup d’état in Egypt. Hamas and its Hasidic opposite numbers have succeeded in turning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a secular battle over land into a religious battle over God’s kingdom. The Pentecostal churches have put down deep roots across Latin America and Africa.
Look closely at the most unstable regions of the world and you can see hot religions competing for people’s souls. Nigeria is one of many African countries in which dozens of Christians have been slaughtered at the hands of Muslim mobs. Look closely at China and you can see a religious revival teeming just under the surface. By 2050 the People’s Republic will be the world’s largest Christian country and the largest Muslim country. What can we do about the return of these turbulent priests to the public square?
We need to avoid three errors. The first is the idea that the religious revival is an illusion, that religious anger is a distorted expression of something deeper or just a passing madness. Secular-minded people like to look for the “real” causes of religious riots in lack of opportunities or injustice. But “reality” lies in the eye of the believer. Many religious fanatics come from the most privileged, educated strata of society — Al-Qaeda was so deadly because it had many engineers in its ranks. Holy warriors do not blow themselves up because they worry that the Arab world’s GDP is lower than Sweden’s but because they are exercised about ultimate things.
Secular-minded people are always hoping that religion is about to resume its “natural” place in the scheme of things. The western media’s response to the Egyptian spring was an egregious example. Reporters focused exclusively on the twitterati in Tahrir Square while ignoring the chador-wearing crowds elsewhere. They rushed to tell us the Muslim Brothers were no more Muslim than the Christian Democrats were Christian. Even after 9/11 had supposedly shaken us out of our complacency we succeeded in getting the Arab spring completely wrong.
The second error is the reducing of religion to a caricature. The caricaturists can be found on all sides of the political divide. American conservatives reduce Muslims to a bunch of weird-beard fanatics. European liberals reduce American Christians to warmongering, homophobic anthropoids. But the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims span five continents — only one in five Muslims lives in the Arab world. They are deeply divided between Shi’ites and Sunnis, the vast majority, who are in turn subdivided by ethnicity, sect and language. There is a world of difference between fierce Wahhabi fundamentalists and languid Indonesian fellow travellers.
It is not only bigoted to think of believers in terms of stereotypes. It is also counter- productive. The best way to defeat militant Islam is to recognise that it represents a tiny minority — most Muslims regard the protests as embarrassing and repulsive. The best way to strengthen militancy is to tar all Muslims with the same brush.
The third error is to compromise our core values to appease the fanatics. It is one thing to be considerate about reasonable people’s feelings about God. The Obama administration was right to express its disapproval of the anti-Islamic film that sparked last week’s riots — a film that is, in reality, nothing more than a poorly made trailer — and to reaffirm its belief that Islam is a religion of peace.
It is quite another to allow unreasonable people to compromise our most basic values. Issuing apologies will not appease fanatics who harbour visions of converting the entire world to their narrow view of Islam. It will also imply we share the mob’s belief that western governments are responsible for what is being said about religion within their borders. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, needs to tell the Islamic world that western politicians have no jurisdiction over what free people say about God.
The revival of religion should force liberals to take a look at their core beliefs and revise some while reinforcing others. They need to recognise that religion is a vital force in the world, rather than a mere epiphenomenon.
At the same time they need to strengthen their belief in core liberal doctrines such as the separation of church, or mosque, and state and the inviolability of free speech. The West has prospered because it has embraced those principles. It is time to stop apologising for our values and start telling the Islamic world that if it also wants to prosper, then it needs to embrace the same values.
The Problem With Hell
Is it any coincidence that the latest war of religion that started on September 11, 2001, is being fought primarily between the United States and the Islamic world? It just so happens that no subgroups of humanity are more ingrained with the doctrine of hell than conservative Muslims and conservative Christians.
And nowhere on earth have conservative Christians been closer to controlling foreign policy than here in the United States. And nowhere on earth have conservative Muslims been more dominant than in the countries from which the 9/11 extremists originated – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
What a pair George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden made! On the one hand, an American president who was a born-again evangelical with a special "heart" for the state of Israel and its importance to the so-called end times, and on the other hand a terrorist leader who believed that he was serving God by ridding the Arabian Peninsula of an American presence and cleansing the "defiled" land of Palestine of what he believed were “invader Jews.”
So whether you're an atheist or not, the issue of who's going to hell or not matters because there are a lot of folks on this planet – many of them extraordinarily well-armed - from born-again American military personnel to Muslim fanatics, who seriously believe that God smiles upon them when they send their enemies to hell.
And so my view of "hell" encompasses two things: First, the theological question about whether a land of eternal suffering exists as God's "great plan" for most of humanity.
Second, the question of the political implications of having a huge chunk of humanity believe in damnation for those who disagree with their theology, politics and culture, as if somehow simply killing one's enemies is not enough.
What most people don't know is that there's another thread running through both Christianity and Islam that is far more merciful than the fundamentalists’ take on salvation, judgment and damnation.
Paradise, which Muslims believe is the final destination of the society of God’s choice, is referred to in the Quran as "the home of peace". “Our God,” Muslims are asked to recite, “You are peace, and peace is from You.”
Since Christianity is my tradition, I can say more about it. One view of God - the more fundamentalist view - is of a retributive God just itching to punish those who "stray."
The other equally ancient view, going right back into the New Testament era, is of an all-forgiving God who in the person of Jesus Christ ended the era of scapegoat sacrifice, retribution and punishment forever.
As Jesus said on the cross: "Forgive them for they know not what they do."
That redemptive view holds that far from God being a retributive God seeking justice, God is a merciful father who loves all his children equally. This is the less-known view today because fundamentalists - through televangelists and others - have been so loud and dominant in North American culture.
But for all that, this redemptive view is no less real.
Why does our view of hell matter? Because believers in hell believe in revenge. And according to brain chemistry studies, taking revenge and nurturing resentment is a major source of life-destroying stress.
For a profound exploration of the madness caused by embracing the “justice” of “godly” revenge and retribution, watch the film “Hellbound?” The film shows how the "hell" of revenge thinking, and the resulting unhinging of some people’s brains through their denial of human empathy, leads them to relish the violent future of suffering that they predict awaits the “lost” in hell.
Do we really want to go back to a time of literalistic religion. Wasn’t 9/11 enough of an argument against retributive religion? We need “hell” like a hole in the head. It’s time for the alternative of empathetic merciful religion to be understood.
WHAT can it be like inside the heads of creationists? They want to believe that their deity made all the species at once and kept them that way, yet Earth is teeming with fossils of extinct species. So what gives?
If the deity's a trickster, the answer is easy: she, he or it put the fossils there to cause interminable arguments. But it appears that the authors of the US Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme, designed for parents who want their children to believe in a literal reading of the Bible, insist that their deity did not waste all that creative effort.
According to Scotland-based newspaper The Herald on 24 June, the ACE textbook Biology 1099 asks "are dinosaurs alive today?" and claims that "scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence" (bit.ly/HeraldNessie). It asks students whether they have heard of the "Loch Ness Monster" in Scotland. "Nessie," it asserts, "has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses and photographed by others... Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur." (Yes, we know, plesiosaurs weren't dinosaurs.)
Reader John Toner, who alerted us to the article in The Herald and who hails from Scotland himself, says: "The good citizens of Brigadoon remember dinosaurs very well." But we are obliged to point out that Brigadoon was a Hollywood rendering of an utterly fictitious Scottish past.
RESEARCHING this Nessie nonsense, Feedback wondered why it has popped up again now. The story appeared in July 2009 in a Times Educational Supplement article about ACE materials being used in faith schools in the UK (bit.ly/TESACE). We found more in a video made in June 2011 by Rachel Tabachnick and Thomas Vinciguerra (bit.ly/textbookvid). Then, even while we were drafting a sentence about this video, we saw the August issue of the San Francisco-based news magazine Mother Jones and a piece entitled "14 wacky 'facts' kids will learn in Louisiana's voucher schools" (bit.ly/MJtextbooks). It's about fundamentalist school textbooks that Tabachnick and Vinciguerra "have thankfully pored over so the rest of world doesn't have to".
These books come from the Bob Jones University (BJU) Press and from a publisher called A Beka Book. They are used in faith schools, which Mother Jones says are funded from taxes under "voucher schemes" in several US states.
The Nessie weirdness, it seems, goes right through the curriculum. United States History (BJU Press) gives us a flavour of the world view the books promote. Apparently, "the [Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality". And, according to America: Land I Love, an A Beka Book: "God used the 'Trail of Tears' to bring many Indians to Christ" - presumably the tears were mostly among the thousands who died on the long marches west.
Even mathematics has its ideology, it seems. An A Beka Book promises "traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory". This, apparently, is because "the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute".
It's a sobering thought that faith schools are putting this kind of stuff into children's heads.
When it comes to the Bible, modern Americans are at a distinct disadvantage. They know both too much and too little.
They know too much because they live in a society in which references to the Bible -- positive and negative -- are frequent, creating a false sense of familiarity. They know too little because they have not read it, or have read only selected portions of it, or have allowed others to read it for them through the filtering lens of later theological doctrines or political opportunism. And that's a pity because the Bible, by which I mean the 24 basic books common to all Bibles (equivalent to the Jewish Tanakh or Hebrew Bible and to the Protestant Old Testament) is deserving of the same careful attention and close reading that we regularly bestow upon other classic texts.
It has been my experience teaching a university course on the Bible, that a close reading of the Bible is often hampered by several misconceptions. I ask my students -- as I ask readers of the book based on the course -- to correct five common misconceptions in order to encounter the Bible as if for the first time.
The Hebrew Bible is not a book. It was not produced by a single author in one time and place. It is a small library of books composed and edited over nearly a millennium by people responding to a wide range of issues and historical circumstances. Because it is not a book (the name "Bible" derives from the plural Greek form ta biblia, meaning "the books") it does not have a uniform style or message.
From narrative texts to legal texts, from cultic instruction to erotic love poetry, this library contains works of diverse genres each of which sounds its own distinctive note in the symphony of reflection that we call the Bible. As is true of any collection of books by different authors in different centuries, the books in this collection contradict one another. Indeed, they sometimes contradict themselves because multiple strands of tradition were woven together in the creation of some of the books. The compiler of Genesis placed, side by side, two creation stories that differ dramatically in vocabulary, literary style and detail (who is created first -- humans or animals?). A few chapters later, two flood stories are interwoven into a single story despite their many contradictions and tensions (does Noah really take the animals on board two by two?). Proverbs extols wisdom, but Ecclesiastes scoffs at its folly and urges existential pleasure. Deuteronomy harps on God's retributive justice, but Job arrives at the bittersweet conclusion that despite the lack of divine justice (in this world or any other), we are not excused from the thankless and perhaps ultimately meaningless task of moral living. That such dissonant voices were preserved in the canon of the Bible, their tensions and contradictions unresolved, says something important about the conception of canon in antiquity. Ancient readers viewed this anthology as a collection of culturally significant writings worthy of preservation without the expectation or requirement that they agree with one another. Just as an attempt to impose harmony and consistency on the short stories collected in the Norton Anthology of English Literature would do great violence to those stories, any attempt to impose harmony and consistency on the diverse books collected in the Bible -- to extract a single message or truth -- does great violence to those books.
The Hebrew Bible is not a book of systematic theology (i.e., an account of the divine) delivering eternally true pronouncements on theological issues, despite the fact that at a much later time, complex systems of theology would be spun from particular interpretations of biblical passages. Its narrative materials provide an account of the odyssey of a people, the ancient Israelites, as they struggled to make sense of their history and their relationship to their deity. Certainly the Bible sometimes addresses moral and existential questions that would become central to the later discipline of theology but then so do Shakespeare and Frost and that doesn't make them theologians. The Bible's treatment of these questions is often indirect and implicit, conducted in the language of story and song, poetry, paradox and metaphor quite distinct from the language and tenets of the post-biblical discipline of theology. To impose the theological doctrines of a later time that not only do not appear in the Bible but are contradicted by it -- creation ex nihilo, the doctrine of original sin, the belief in life after death -- does another kind of violence to the text.
The Hebrew Bible is not a timeless or eternal work that stands outside the normal processes of literary production. Its books emerged from specific times and places. Reading the Bible alongside parallel materials from the many cultures of the Ancient Near East shows the deep indebtedness of the biblical authors to the literary heritage of the Ancient Near East. The ancient Israelites borrowed and adapted literary motifs and conventions from their larger cultural context and an awareness of those motifs and conventions produces richer, more coherent readings of the biblical text than are otherwise possible.
The narratives of the Hebrew Bible are not pious parables about saints, nor are they G-rated tales easily understood by children. Biblical narratives are psychologically real stories about very human beings whose behavior can be scandalous, violent, rebellious, outrageous, lewd and vicious. At the same time, like real people, biblical characters can change and act with justice and compassion. Nevertheless, many readers are shocked and disgusted to discover that Jacob is a deceiver, Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat and Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law when she is disguised as a prostitute!
The unfounded expectation that biblical characters are perfectly pious models for our own conduct causes many readers to work to vindicate biblical characters, just because they are biblical characters. But if we attribute to these characters the reputation for piety manufactured by later religious traditions, if we whitewash their flaws, then we miss the moral complexities and the deep psychological insights that have made these (often R-rated) stories of timeless interest. Biblical narratives place serious demands on their readers. The stories rarely moralize. They explore moral issues and situations by placing biblical characters in moral dilemmas -- but they usually leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
The character "Yahweh" in the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation (generally referred to as "God"). The attributes assigned to "God" by post-biblical theologians -- such as omniscience and immutability -- are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives. Indeed, on several occasions Yahweh is explicitly described as changing his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and he must change tack and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category "God."
Setting aside these misconceptions enables readers to encounter and struggle with the biblical text in all its rich complexity -- its grandeur and its banality, its sophistication and its self-contradiction, its pathos and its humor -- and to arrive at a more profound appreciation of its multi-faceted and multi-vocal messiness.
With the end of the world behind us and another soon to come this October 21st, I thought it would be fun to write about dear old Harold Camping and his erroneous end-of-the-world theories. This topic fascinates me as I am a Biology and Religious Studies double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. However, even I have to wonder how so many people could be fooled into thinking that the world was going to end back in May when the Bible does not even so much as hint toward an exact date. Quite to the contrary, the book itself clearly states that “only God in heaven knows” Matthew 24:36 and “let no one deceive you, for that day will not come” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). It is my humble opinion that the “Camping Incident” was the result of a mass brainwashing performed by an affluent speaker who happened to be in a position of authority, like the average politician.
As much as one would like to write the whole thing off as an obvious scam, in that Camping accumulated a substantial amount of money from his followers, there may be more to the story. What happened last spring was most likely a cult following of a religious fanatic who sincerely believed in his own theories. A large portion of the money was used to advertise the rapture and petition people to repent. In other words, the money collected was being recycled back into the group in order to expand the following and spread its propaganda. History shows no shortage of misguided leaders that sincerely believed their own lies, and Mr. Camping appears to be one of them. On the other hand, what about the rest of the bunch? What kind of person would readily accept an apocalypse message without any scientific cause or evidence?
Many neurologists have proposed the existence of a “God Spot”, a region of the brain linked to belief in the supernatural. Even though no such neural pathways were found that differed from those of non-believers, there is still much debate as to the origin of religion and its evolutionary significance. Several studies designed to determine the parts of the brain responsible for spirituality have had interesting results. In one such study, researchers scanned the brains of a group of devout nuns. The nuns were asked to recall an intense religious experience while their brains were monitored for any special activity (Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns, Belief and the Brain’s ‘God Spot’). It was discovered that thinking about religious experiences and God activates several areas in the brain, instead of just one. Even more fascinating, one of the many areas activated was a section that is typically associated with happiness and love. This could be why many people feel that they can enter into a “relationship” with God.
In addition to determining the source of religious belief in the present day, there is also a debate among scientists as to the evolutionary origin of belief. One hypothesis is that faith in God could have acted as a coping mechanism which enabled the primitive human to endure hardships that non-believers could not. Another theory posits that religion provided a way for our ancestors to explain natural phenomenon (Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief, No ‘God Spot’ in the Human Brain). Still a third possibility is that spirituality is a form of evolutionary baggage. It could have been the result of biochemical pathways that were once used in the primitive brain to establish rules and customs of early culture, but wreak havoc on society when their resulting ideas are taken too far.
Is it possible that religious individuals have developed their beliefs throughout life as a way to fulfill some psychological necessity? Spirituality is thus the manifestation of one’s need for a parental figure, guidance, hope, preservation of consciousness, and so on. With this in mind, a stunt like that of Mr. Camping would shock its victims on a much deeper, more personal level, unlike a pyramid scheme or email scam. In a sense, this is a manipulation of peoples’ hope and faith, intentional or otherwise.
It is easy to see why so many people sincerely believed that the world would end in May, but it is just as important to realize that the vast number of Christian believers do not accept apocalypse theories. Judaism, the foundation for Christianity, does not even have an afterlife in its doctrine. Consequently, it was really only the outliers of the religion that followed the false prophet; they may have been very desperate.
So what does the future really hold? Every generation of Jesus’s followers has claimed that they would be the last generation on Earth, and they have all been wrong. As for our own generation, we are facing environmental catastrophe, population increase, and potential epidemics the likes of which this planet has never seen before. Are we dooming ourselves into extinction by our own destructive habits? Or is this another example of the human tendency to only see the worst possible scenario?
Humankind has been obsessed with the end times for thousands of years, and it possibly began when we originally realized our own mortality. I can imagine the first thinking human to be asking himself “I will eventually die, does that mean everything around me will eventually die?” And the more advanced we become, the more we are able to postulate the exact methods employed by our bodies, our planet, and the universe around us to eventually decay into nothingness. But when will it happen? God only knows!
The Decline of Evangelical America
IT hasn’t been a good year for evangelicals. I should know. I’m one of them.
In 2012 we witnessed a collapse in American evangelicalism. The old religious right largely failed to affect the Republican primaries, much less the presidential election. Last month, Americans voted in favor of same-sex marriage in four states, while Florida voters rejected an amendment to restrict abortion.
Much has been said about conservative Christians and their need to retool politically. But that is a smaller story, riding on the back of a larger reality: Evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating.
In 2011 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life polled church leaders from around the world. Evangelical ministers from the United States reported a greater loss of influence than church leaders from any other country — with some 82 percent indicating that their movement was losing ground.
I grew up hearing tales of my grandfather, a pastor, praying with President Ronald Reagan at the White House. My father, also a pastor, prayed with George W. Bush in 2000. I now minister to my own congregation, which has grown to about 500, a tenfold increase, in the last four years (by God’s favor and grace, I believe). But, like most young evangelical ministers, I am less concerned with politics than with the exodus of my generation from the church.
Studies from established evangelical polling organizations — LifeWay Research, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Barna Group — have found that a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting church, and often the faith, entirely.
As a contemporary of this generation (I’m 30), I embarked three years ago on a project to document the health of evangelical Christianity in the United States. I did this research not only as an insider, but also as a former investigative journalist for an alt weekly.
I found that the structural supports of evangelicalism are quivering as a result of ground-shaking changes in American culture. Strategies that served evangelicals well just 15 years ago are now self- destructive. The more that evangelicals attempt to correct course, the more they splinter their movement. In coming years we will see the old evangelicalism whimper and wane.
First, evangelicals, while still perceived as a majority, have become a shrinking minority in the United States. In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7 percent of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.) Dr. Smith’s findings are derived from a three-year national study of evangelical identity and influence, financed by the Pew Research Center. They suggest that American evangelicals now number around 20 million, about the population of New York State. The global outlook is more optimistic, as evangelical congregations flourish in places like China, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.
But while America’s population grows by roughly two million a year, attendance across evangelical churches — from the Southern Baptists to Assembles of God and nondenominational churches — has gradually declined, according to surveys of more than 200,000 congregations by the American Church Research Project.
The movement also faces a donation crisis as older evangelicals, who give a disproportionately large share, age. Unless younger evangelicals radically increase their giving, the movement will be further strained.
Evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture — including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage. The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots. In 2007, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in a survey of 1,300 college professors, found that 3 percent held “unfavorable feelings” toward Jews, 22 percent toward Muslims and 53 percent toward evangelical Christians.
To be sure, college professors are not representative of the population, and, despite national trends of decline, evangelicals have many exceptional ministries. Most metropolitan areas in the United States have at least one thriving megachurch. In New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian and the Brooklyn Tabernacle pack multiple services every weekend. A handful of other churches, like North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., see more than 20,000 worshipers each weekend. Savvy ministers like the Rev. Craig Groeschel, founder of LifeChurch.tv, are using new technologies to deliver the “good news.”
The pulse of evangelicalism is also shifting, in many ways for the good, from American politics to aid for the global poor, as evidenced in books by the Rev. David Platt, the Rev. Max Lucado and the Rev. Timothy Keller. Evangelicals are still a sophisticated lot, with billions in assets, millions of adherents and a constellation of congregations, radio stations, universities and international aid groups. But all this machinery distracts from the historical vital signs of evangelicalism: to make converts and point to Jesus Christ. By those measures this former juggernaut is coasting, at best, if not stalled or in reverse.
How can evangelicalism right itself? I don’t believe it can — at least, not back to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election. Evangelicals can, however, use the economic, social and spiritual crises facing America to refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates (“euangelion” is a Greek word meaning “glad tidings” or “good news”). Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.
I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture. The Scripture calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), but American evangelicals have not acted with the humility and homesickness of aliens. The proper response to our sexualized and hedonistic culture is not to chastise, but to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).
This does not mean we whitewash unpopular doctrines like the belief that we are all sinners but that we re-emphasize the free forgiveness available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
Some evangelical leaders are embarrassed by our movement’s present paralysis. I am not. Weakness is a potent purifier. As Paul wrote, “I am content with weaknesses ... for the sake of Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:10). For me, the deterioration and disarray of the movement is a source of hope: hope that churches will stop angling for human power and start proclaiming the power of Christ.
Simple faith in Christ’s sacrifice will march on, unchallenged by empires and eras. As the English writer G. K. Chesterton put it, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
(and letters to NYT in response)
Re “The Decline of Evangelical America” (Sunday Review, Dec. 16):
The declining political influence of evangelicals as lamented by John S. Dickerson is not surprising. As the Republican Party promoted its image of opposing abortion and supporting fundamentalist Christian practices, it naturally attracted the overwhelming majority of evangelicals.
But by also embracing Republican policies that support the very wealthy, oppose health care reform, deny evolution and global warming, and oppose gay rights, evangelicals are increasingly seen by many as proponents of greed, ignorance and bigotry. In their quest for political power, evangelicals seem to have abandoned Jesus’ admonition to help the poor and the downtrodden, and their claim to moral leadership has suffered accordingly.
To the Editor:
John S. Dickerson rightly observes the decline in cultural and political influence of evangelicals in America and the lack of interest among younger evangelicals in their religious heritage. Yet his measures of bright spots for evangelicalism — megachurches, large ministries and the “billions” of dollars evangelicals purportedly have — are precisely the things that lead to indifference.
Our research has consistently shown that younger Christians, including evangelicals, seek faith communities where they can be known and where they can serve one another and the broader community. If evangelicalism is to have a future, it must examine why younger people are leaving and construct congregations and ministries within which they can be active participants.
If Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the other forefathers of the evangelical right have done anything for evangelicals, they have made large segments of a generation embarrassed to call themselves evangelicals, leading many to head out the church doors.
To the Editor:
John S. Dickerson would have us believe that the decline of evangelicalism is primarily due to the obscurantism of its social and political agenda. This may be true superficially, but a deeper cause of the decline of what must accurately be called fundamentalism has to do with the fact that it is tone deaf to science, and as a result, it refuses to engage modern culture on credible intellectual, let alone moral, grounds.
Hearty evangelicals of a century ago would have joined this engagement, even relished it, but the current pale imitation has chosen to shun the main event.
To the Editor:
I am an atheist. But I was profoundly moved by John S. Dickerson’s thoughtful understanding of the value religion brings to humanity and how it must move with us through time.
I have a deep respect for people who have a deep faith, but not for scolds or bigots. This teacher says his faith need not be either. Bless him.
Why Priests Quit
Tomorrow, 115 cardinals will begin formal talks in Rome about the election of the next pope.
While they make one of the most momentous decisions in the recent history of the Catholic church, back in their dioceses some clerical colleagues are grappling with a more basic dilemma: belief in God.
Atheist clergy are not a phenomenon only within the Catholic church — they are found in other big religions too.
The difficulty arises when they keep on ministering, usually because they feel trapped: financially, personally and professionally.
Typical is Adam, an atheist clergyman interviewed for an American television documentary using a pseudonym, a disguised voice and being shown on film in heavy shadow lest he be identified.
These measures emphasised the huge risks atheist clergy take in going public: job, livelihood, security, home, community, friends and even marriage can be at stake.
A long-time cleric untrained for any secular job, Adam doesn’t want to risk his family’s financial security. “I wear a mask every day,” he said. “I am trapped. My greatest fear is doing nothing and pretending to be someone I am not for the rest of my life.”
He is one of the founders of the Clergy Project, an online community of more than 400 atheist clergy, Catholic and Protestant, a quarter of whom remain in active ministry. Several of its members live in Ireland.
IN HIS bestselling 1980s book Help My Unbelief, Michael Paul Gallagher, a Jesuit priest, included a chapter entitled Saying Mass an Atheist. “Perhaps I would choose a different term now, because ‘atheism’ usually implies a steady stance of denial and I was talking about a temporary mood of doubt, an eclipse that did not last,” Gallagher said. “I have never become an atheist but I have run into times where God seems painfully unreal. I don’t think this is surprising.” As proof, Gallagher even cites the former Pope Benedict, who once admitted to having been threatened by the “oppressive strength of unbelief”.
Too often, priests give the impression that faith is a fortress of security, Gallagher believes. “That’s not the usual personal experience,” he said.“There are many big reasons for unbelief: the suffering of the world; the painful silence of God — God’s strange shyness, one might say. A priest runs into all these.”
Kevin Hegarty, sacked as editor of church magazine Intercom in 1994 after publishing an article about clerical child abuse, also admits to doubt. “I’ve had an experience of saying mass when my faith was very fragile. It can be very fragile,” he said. “Faith ebbs and flows. At times I preach something and wonder, is it really true? I don’t expect exactitude. I’m prepared to work through doubt, bit by bit. There are times when I have my doubts about the doctrinal teachings of the church — but they’ve never been overwhelming.”
For Tom Rastrelli, a US-based member of the Clergy Project who was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 2002, the doubts were overwhelming. “As the abuse scandal worsened and more bishops denied the crimes they’d committed, my belief in church as a divine institution faded,” he said.“In the confessional, I saw the damage that abusive priests and bullying bishops had done to people. There was nothing of divine inspiration in that. In the trenches of ministry, I saw how harmful particular teachings and actions of the church were to people.” During the final months of his ministry, Rastrelli said, he no longer believed in the authority of the Catholic church, the Pope or the bishops. “I didn’t believe in the Marian teachings — the virgin birth, the preservation of Mary’s hymen during childbirth, the immaculate conception, and the assumption.” He even stopped believing in the “real presence” of the eucharist and could no longer say the creed in good conscience.
He questioned everything he’d been taught. “Your life and sexuality are a gift, but since you’re gay, if you act on that gift you’re sinning,” he said. “The god in which I’d been taught to believe was vindictive not loving, a human construct to justify atrocious human behaviour, prejudices, and fears. “No longer believing in the inspiration of the scriptures, I became a fully-fledged agnostic. Within another few months, I was comfortable saying that I didn’t believe in a god. “I was no longer afraid of what people thought of me, of the negative stigma surrounding the word ‘atheist’. I felt free to be a fully realised human being. Thousands of years of canonised fear, loathing, shame, and distrust vanished. I owned being an atheist.” Rastrelli would say he didn’t “lose” his faith. “I evolved beyond it,” he said. “Having witnessed first-hand the damage that people do in the names of their gods, I’m thankful I did evolve beyond it. Now I’m free to be who I am. I’ve seen how disgustingly judgmental people can be when armed with their gods. I wouldn’t give my integrity in exchange for the coddled security of priestly life.”
UNLIKE most atheist clergy, John Shuck, a Presbyterian clergyman in good standing in America, is openly atheistic. He doesn’t believe in the existence of God, the divinity of Christ or the resurrection of Jesus — all of which he regards as useful metaphors created by the human imagination. Asked how fellow ministers see him, Shuck said: “Many appreciate what I am doing, as they have many of the same convictions. Others think I represent everything that is wrong with my denomination.”
He rejects the charge of hypocrisy. “I am about the most open person I know with regard to what I believe and don’t believe. I have publicly blogged about this for seven years and preached openly for 20. “The real charge of hypocrisy should be levelled at those who confuse truth with power; self-appointed gate-keepers of traditional belief who say they are about affirming the truth on one hand, then put up fences of dogma around their cherished beliefs on the other. They are unwilling to look at truth and then threaten with excommunication and loss of employment those who do. That is hypocrisy.”
Shuck does not now believe in an afterlife. “The core belief has been, in the words of the catechism, ‘to love God and to enjoy God forever’. If you take the supernaturalism out of that and substitute ‘life’ for ‘God’ and ‘my whole life long’ for ‘forever’ you get the real point of religion.“It is about how to live a good life. The supernatural elements are excess baggage of an age that is fading away.”
Iain and Kyle — not their real names — are two members of the Clergy Project, both atheist ministers within a mainstream Protestant denomination in Ireland. They envy Shuck’s “coming out” as an atheist and his congregation’s acceptance. Iain and Kyle say their whole worlds would fall apart if their atheism became known.
“I knew I was an atheist from the early 1990s,” said Iain. “My wife knows. She finds it hard to accept. I don’t look at her while I’m preaching.”
His dilemma is that if he told people, his income would stop immediately. “I don’t think I’d be eligible for a pension. I’d have no job. I’d lose my home,” he said. He has worked in the church all his life, but finds it increasingly difficult to keep up the pretence. “I don’t see how I can keep going to retirement.” Iain feels worst about deluding children because he agrees with Richard Dawkins, the biologist and atheist campaigner, that inculcating religious faith in minors is a form of child abuse.
“I’d love to stand up and tell my congregation the truth,” he said. “But I don’t have the courage, even though many of them know there is no God. My call is just like anyone else’s, [it’s] total and absolute nonsense. A delusion.” Kyle says he is torn over his unbelief. He tries to carry out all his religious duties without the supernatural background. Funerals can be especially difficult, however, since he is expected to preach about an afterlife.
Although a Protestant minister, Kyle’s atheism was triggered by Catholic clerical child abuse. “I couldn’t believe a god could permit child abuse. It’s impossible,” he said. “The systematic concealing of it doesn’t get God off the hook. Prayers for the sick are never answered. So for me there’s no way I could believe in God any more.”
Iain feels trapped and would like to leave the ministry. “I feel guilty. I’m taking their money. I’m living in their house,” he said. But Kyle doesn’t want to leave. “I can influence people for the good as a minister. [The church] is a place where the community gathers and has a sing. We support each other and children are safeguarded against drugs. We don’t take religion too seriously. It’s like inventing our own surreal world.”
Matthew (not his real name) is a Roman Catholic priest affiliated to a diocese in America. He became troubled by the theology that a newborn child carried the stain of original sin and needed baptism. When he realised he didn’t believe this, saying mass became a chore he dreaded. “I felt like a fraud and wondered how long before someone found me out. I worried that I might slip and reveal my lack of belief,” he said. “I felt sorry for the people who came to mass, which I considered empty and meaningless. I wondered, couldn’t their time be better spent?”
He became disgusted by the theological undertones of the eucharist. “The notion of a god demanding a blood sacrifice — from his own son no less — repelled me. I could not believe in a god who would demand a violent death as reparation for the supposed wrongs of humans.
“The sanctuary’s large crucifix with its bloodied and bruised Jesus became a horrible and disgusting sight. Each morning, as I put on my clerical band collar, it felt like I was putting a heavy metal shackle around my neck.
“I realised that my doubts about every line in the creed, including the very existence of God, were not going away, no matter how much I tried. Once I accepted my unbelief, I was not nearly as bothered by it as I had imagined. Unbelief felt natural in a way religion never had.”
For Patrick Semple, a former Church of Ireland rector, being an atheist is simply a way of trying to make sense of the mystery around us. “People are genuinely atheist. It’s not a badness or a perversity,” he said.As a priest Semple accepted doctrines rather than believed them, and was never convinced about life after death. He sees a lot of religious security as a regression to childhood. “I abhor the expression ‘lost the faith’ — it sounds like culpable negligence,” he said. “It was a positive decision that I no longer believed. I realised I was not a Christian agnostic — I was atheist.”
Upon realising his atheism, Semple talked to his bishop, who was not shocked and simply told him to get back to work. When Semple told another Church of Ireland clergyman about his atheism, his fellow cleric replied: “Join the gang.”
Echoing with joyful song and with a congregation bent on leading better lives, this London church is like any other -- except there's no mention of God.
Britain's atheist church is barely three months old but it already has more "worshippers" than can fit into its services, while more than 200 non-believers worldwide have contacted organisers to ask how they can set up their own branch.
Officially named The Sunday Assembly, the church was the brainchild of Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, two comedians who suspected there might be an appetite for atheist gatherings that borrowed a few aspects of religious worship.
Held in an airy, ramshackle former church in north London, their quirky monthly meetings combine music, speeches and moral pondering with large doses of humour.
"There's so much about Church that has nothing to do with God -- it's about meeting people, it's about thinking about improving your life," said Jones, a gregarious 32-year-old with a bushy beard and a laugh like a thunderclap.
The Sunday Assembly's central tenets are to "help often, live better and wonder more" -- themes that would not be out of keeping with the teachings of any major world religion.
At last Sunday's service, which had a volunteering theme, songs included "Help" by the Beatles and "Holding Out For A Hero" by Bonnie Tyler.
The "sermon" was given by the founder of an education charity, while in a section called Pippa Is Trying Her Best, Evans had the congregation in stitches as she reported on her attempts at voluntary work. The service ended with big cheers and -- this is Britain, after all -- shouts of "Who would like a cup of tea?"
Like many Western countries, Britain is becoming an increasingly faithless nation.
While a majority still consider themselves Christians, census data revealed in December that their numbers plummeted from 72 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2011.
The proportion of Britons with no religion, meanwhile, shot up from 15 percent to 25 percent over the same period.
But the Sunday Assembly's success -- 400 Londoners packed into last week's two services, while 60 had to be turned away at the door -- suggests many urban atheists crave the sense of community that comes with joining a church.
"You can spend all day in London not talking to anyone," said Evans. "I think people really want somewhere they can go and meet other people, which doesn't involve drinking and which you don't have to pay to get into."
It's an idea that is catching the attention of atheists further field.
Jones reels off the locations of would-be atheist "vicars" who have asked to set up new branches.
"Colombia, Bali, Mexico, Houston, Silicon Valley, Philadelphia, Ohio, Calgary, all across Britain, The Hague, Vienna... It's so ludicrously exciting that my head occasionally -- literally -- spins round."
The pair cheerfully admit that they have "ripped off" many elements of their services from the Christian Church. "You're asking people to do new things, so it makes sense for it to be familiar," said Jones.
Religious people have been broadly supportive of the aims of the atheist church. "The only thing is, they've said they'll have to think about what to do if it gets bigger," Evans laughed.
"Actually, the biggest aggression towards us has probably been from atheists saying that we're ruining atheism and not not believing in God properly. So that's quite funny."
The assembly met the approval of local vicar Dave Tomlinson, who came from his church two miles away to see what his new rivals were up to.
"Being here, I felt there was as much of what I call 'God' as there was in my own church this morning," he said. "Everything we've said here would be completely at home in my church. I hope it grows and sustains."
The second Sunday Assembly launches in the Scottish city of Glasgow at the end of March, while Evans will open an Australian branch in April.
She and Jones say they don't want to exert too much control over any new assemblies -- but they will keep a watchful eye over them.
"We only need one child sacrifice at a Sunday Assembly to spoil it for everyone," Jones joked.
As for how far the idea could eventually spread, the pair are in the dark.
"Who knows?" said Evans. "We have no idea. We're just enjoying finding out what it is."
What Atheists Can Learn From Religion
Jonathan Derbyshire writes: Jeremy Bentham, his disciple John Stuart Mill once wrote, would always ask of a proposition or belief, “Is it true?” By contrast, Bentham’s contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mill observed, thought “What is the meaning of it?” was a much more interesting question.
Today’s New Atheists –Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens principal among them – are the heirs of Bentham, rather than Coleridge. For them, religion – or the great monotheistic faiths, at any rate – are bundles of beliefs (about the existence of a supernatural being, the origins of the universe and so on) whose claims to truth don’t stand up to rational scrutiny. And once the falsity of those beliefs has been established, they imply, there is nothing much left to say.
The New Atheists remind one of Edward Gibbon, who said of a visit to the cathedral at Chartres: “I paused only to dart a look at the stately pile of superstition and passed on.” They glance at the stately pile of story and myth bequeathed to humanity by religion and quickly move on, pausing only to ask of the benighted millions who continue to profess one faith or another that they keep their beliefs to themselves and don’t demand that they be heard in the public square.
Lately, however, we have begun to hear from atheists or non-believers who strike a rather different, less belligerent tone. These “New, New Atheists”, to borrow the physicist Jim Al-Khalili’s phrase, are the inheritors of Coleridge. They separate their atheism from their secularism and argue that a secular state need not demand of the religious that they put their most cherished beliefs to one side when they enter public debate; only that they shouldn’t expect those beliefs to be accepted without scepticism.
They treat religious stories differently, too – as a treasure trove to be plundered, in the case of Alain de Botton, or, in the case of the self-described “after-religionist” Richard Holloway, as myths that continue to speak to the human condition.
We have too often secularised badly
Alain de Botton
There is so much talk of the god-shaped hole, it is easy to forget that the challenge of our times is not to measure it, but to try to fill it – by which I mean, to import a range of ideas and practices from religion into the secular realm. Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true. What is good within the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be reabsorbed selectively by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.
There are three elements of religion in particular that I believe we should “steal” from religion and reinvent for our times:
1. New priest
For centuries in the west, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to secular ears. The priest didn’t fulfil any material need; he was there to take care of that part of you called, rather unusually, “the soul”, by which we would understand the seat of our emotions and of our deep self.
Where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with the material we used to go to a priest for? The deep self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the five loaves and two fishes.
The most sophisticated response we have yet come up with is psychotherapy. It is to psychotherapists that we bring the same kind of problems as we would previously have directed at a priest: emotional confusion, loss of meaning, temptations of one kind or another and anxiety about mortality.
From a distance, psychotherapists look like they are already well settled in priestlike roles and that there is nothing further to be done or asked for. Yet there are a number of ways in which contemporary psychotherapy has failed to learn the right lessons from the priesthood and might benefit from a more direct comparison with it. For a start, therapy remains a minority activity, out of reach of most people: too expensive or simply not available. There have been laudable efforts to introduce therapy into the medical system, but progress is slow and vulnerable. The issue isn’t just economic. It is one of attitudes. Whereas Christian societies would imagine there was something wrong with you if you didn’t visit a priest, we usually assume that therapists are there solely for moments of extreme crisis – and are a sign that the visiting client might be a little unbalanced, rather than just human.
There is also, in a serious sense, an issue of branding. Therapy is hidden, unbranded, depressing in its outward appearance. The priests had far better clothes, and infinitely better architecture.
Modern psychotherapists’ understanding of how human beings work is immensely more sophisticated than that of priests. Nevertheless, religions have been expert at creating a proper role for the priest, as a person to talk to at all important moments of life, without this seeming like an unhinged minority activity. There is a long way to go before therapy fully plugs the gap opened up by the decline in the priesthood.
2. New gospels
When religious belief began to fracture in Europe in the early 19th century, the hope was that culture could replace religion as a tool to guide, humanise and console.
Claims that culture could stand in for scripture – that Middlemarch could take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms, or the essays of Schopenhauer satisfy needs once catered to by Saint Augustine’s City of God – still have a way of sounding eccentric or insane in their combination of impiety and ambition.
Nevertheless, the proposition is not so much absurd as it is unfamiliar. The very qualities that the religious locate in their holy texts can often just as well be discovered in works of culture. Novels and historical narratives can adeptly impart moral instruction and edification. Great paintings do make suggestions about our requirements for happiness. Philosophy can usefully probe our anxieties and offer consolation. Literature can change our lives. Equivalents to the ethical lessons of religion lie scattered across the cultural canon.
So, why does the notion of replacing religion with culture, of living according to the lessons of literature and art as believers live according to the lessons of faith, continue to sound so peculiar to us? The fault lies with academia. Universities are entirely uninterested in training students to use culture as a repertoire of wisdom – a source that can prove of solace to us when confronted by the infinite challenges of existence, from a tyrannical employer to a fatal lesion on our liver.
We are by no means lacking in material that we might call into service to replace the holy texts; we are simply treating the material in a non-instrumental way. In other words, we are unwilling to consider secular culture religiously enough, in this sense, as a source of guidance.
3. New churches
You sometimes hear it said that art museums are our new churches. But, in practice, art museums abdicate much of their potential to function as new churches (places of consolation, meaning, community and redemption) through the way they handle the collections entrusted to them. While exposing us to objects of importance, they nevertheless seem unable to frame these in a way that links them powerfully to our inner needs.
What if modern museums of art kept in mind the example of the didactic function of Christian art? A walk through a museum of art should amount to a structured encounter with the ideas that it is easiest for us to forget but which are most essential and life-enhancing to remember. The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as they served those of theology, for centuries. Curators should attempt to put aside their deepseated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life. Only then would museums be able to claim that they had fulfilled completely the excellent but as yet elusive ambition of becoming substitutes for churches in a secularising society.
The challenge facing atheists is how to separate many ideas and rituals from the religious institutions that have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them. Many of our soul-related needs are ready to be freed from the particular tint given to them by religions – even if, paradoxically, it is the study of religions which often holds the key to their rediscovery and rearticulation. Secularism is not wrong. It is just that we have too often secularised badly – inasmuch as, in the course of ridding ourselves of unfeasible ideas, we have surrendered unnecessarily many of the most useful and attractive parts of the faiths.
Our age has properly defined what the godshaped hole is. We now need to fill it. This means no longer adding to the already daunting pile of books about atheism, but starting instead to try to make some practical things happen in the world.
Alain de Botton is the author of “Religion for Atheists” (Penguin, £9.99)
The world cannot be disenchanted
When Thomas Paine was dying in Greenwich Village in June 1809, two Presbyterian ministers popped by to suggest that he would be damned if he didn’t affirm his faith in Jesus Christ. “Let me have none of your popish stuff,” he said firmly. “Good morning.” Score one to Paine for exiting the world without compromising his convictions, yet what he said had made, on the face of it, no sense.
Faith in Christ as the path to salvation isn’t “popish” in the sense of being particular to Roman Catholicism. Paine was speaking to a pair of impeccable Protestants. What he was doing here was to act as a very early adopter of a perception that would influence later atheist understandings of the world enormously. He was suggesting, in one charged and revealing insult, that the original Protestant critique of Catholicism should be extended to the whole of historic Christianity. All of it should be reformed away; all of it, absolutely all of it, deserved the contempt that zealous Puritans had once felt for indulgences and prayer beads and “priestcraft”.
This post-Christian puritanism, largely oblivious now of its history, is highly visible in the New Atheism of the 1990s and 2000s, and especially in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Strange indifference (except at the margins) to all religions except Christianity? Check. Sense of being locked in righteous combat with the powers of darkness? Check. Puritanism, it turns out, can float free of faith and still preserve a vehement world-view, a core of characteristic judgements. The world, it says, is afflicted by a layer of corrupting gunk, a gluey mass of lies and mistakes that purports to offer mediation between us and meaning but actually obscures it and hides the plain outlines of that truth we so urgently need. Moreover, this hiding, this obscuring, is wilful and culpable, maintained on purpose for the benefit of hierarchs, bullies, men in golden hats everywhere. It is our duty to take up the wire wool of reason and to scrub, scrub, scrub the lies away. For no mediation is necessary. We may have –we must have – a direct vision of the essential state of things. We must see the world as if through pure, clear water, or empty air.
It is reassuring, in a way, to find this ancient continuity at work in the sensibility of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne. It kind of makes up for their willed ignorance of all the emotional and intellectual structures of faith (as opposed to the will-o’-the-wisp “popery” in their heads). Dawkins may be showing indifference to every word ever written about the differences between polytheism and monotheism when he declares that Yahweh is the same as Odin, and that all he wants “is one god less” – but he is also keeping up a 400-year-old campaign against idolatry. That distant sound you hear is Oliver Cromwell applauding.
However, the project is impossible – as impossible for the New Atheists as for every previous builder of a purified New Jerusalem. Direct, unmediated apprehension of truth is not available, except in the effortful special case of science. That gunk the New Atheists scrub at so assiduously is the inevitable matter of human culture, of imagination. People secrete it, necessarily, faster than it can be removed. Metaphors solidify into stories wherever the reformers’ backs are turned. We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain. The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.
I think our recent, tentative turn away from the burning simplicities of The God Delusion (and the like) represents a recognition of this. Alain de Botton’s discovery in religion of virtues and beauties that an atheist might want is an anti-puritan move, a reconciliation of unbelief with the sprouting, curling, twining fecundity of culture. I don’t expect the puritan call will lose its appeal to the young and the zealous, but maybe we are entering a phase of greater tolerance in which, having abandoned the impossible task of trying to abolish religion, atheists might be able to apply themselves to the rather more useful task of distinguishing between kinds that want to damn you and kinds that don’t.
Francis Spufford is the author of “Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense” (Faber & Faber, £8.99)
Believing in a god is fine by me
As a scientist, I have an unshakeable rationalist conviction that our universe is comprehensible; that mysteries are mysteries only because we have yet to figure them out. There is no need for a supernatural being to occupy the gaps in our understanding, because we will eventually fill them with new knowledge based on objective scientific truths: answers that are not based on mythologies, or cultural/historical whims, or personal biases, but arrived at by examining hypotheses, testing our theories to destruction and being prepared to abandon them if they conflict with empirical data. Scientists are constantly subjecting our world-view to scrutiny. This is the opposite of blind faith.
Such a sweeping statement is a little unfair, given that not all scientists are so prepared to abandon a dogmatic stance when proved wrong, and not everyone with religious faith follows it blindly – to think that they do is naive and insulting to the many people who constantly question their faith. If you hold a strong conviction that there is some deeper significance to the universe or a spiritual meaning to your life that is important to you, who am I to try to convince you otherwise?
Believing in a god is fine by me, if it is important to you. If you firmly believe this as an ontological truth, then it is rather pointless having a theological debate about it. But what I, and many other atheists, take issue with is the arrogant attitude that religious faith is the only means of providing us with a moral compass – that society dissolves without faith into a hedonistic, anarchic, amoral, self-gratifying decadence. This is not only nonsense, but intellectually lazy.
We still have a long way to go if we are to rid the world of the bigoted attitudes held and injustices carried out in the name of religion. But the tide is turning. I would argue that to be an atheist in Britain today is so mainstream that we can afford to become less strident in our criticism and more tolerant of those with a faith. I say this not because I am less committed to my secular views or because I have weaker conviction than others, but because I believe we are winning the argument. We should not have to defend our atheism any longer.
Don’t get the impression that I am arguing for complacency. It is just that here in the west we are now in a stronger position to change attitudes, to correct discriminatory laws and to make for a fairer society in which religion does not give one group an advantage or special privileges.
Our society is no longer predominantly religious. Atheists are the mainstream. This is precisely why we should set out our stall to be more tolerant and inclusive. There are many issues on which we cannot afford to be complacent or conciliatory, such as the evil intent of religious fanatics, the wrong-headedness of creationists or the many injustices carried out against women or minority groups in the name of barbaric medieval laws, but we can often be more effective in getting our message across with a softer approach. The New Atheists have laid the foundations; maybe it is time now for the “New, New Atheists”.
I am well aware that some other atheists would call me an accommodationist. However, this patronising term needs to be replaced, so I have thought long and hard in search of an alternative – a more appropriate one to define my brand of atheism – until I realised it has been under my nose all the time: it is called being a humanist.
Jim Al-Khalili is the president of theHumanist Association and the author of “Quantum: a Guide for the Perplexed” (Phoenix, £10.99)
The biblical God is a starter kit
Most of us are introduced to God at about the same time as we hear about Santa Claus, but over the years our views of Santa mature and change, while our notion of God often gets stuck at an infantile level.
As a result, “God” becomes incredible. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking in the west is often remarkably undeveloped, even primitive, and would make Maimonides and Aquinas turn in their graves. They both insisted that God was not another being and that you could not even say that He (ridiculous pronoun!) existed, because our experience of existence is too limited. God, said Aquinas, is Being itself (esse se ipsum).
The biblical God is a “starter kit”; if we have the inclination and ability, we are meant to move on. Throughout history, however, many people have been content with a personalized deity, yet not because they “believed” in it but because they learned to behave – ritually and ethically – in a way that made it a reality. Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing. You cannot learn to drive by reading the car manual or the Highway Code; you have to get into the vehicle and learn to manipulate the brakes. The rules of a board game sound obscure and dull until you start to play, and then everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice. You may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible or to dance with unearthly beauty. Some of these activities bring indescribable joy –what the Greeks called ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the norm.
Religion, too, is a practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart. Like premodern philosophy, it was not the quest for an abstract truth but a practical way of life. Usually religion is about doing things and it is hard work. Classical yoga was not an aerobic exercise but a full-time job, in which a practitioner learned to transcend the ego that impeded the ekstasis of enlightenment. The five “pillars” or essential practices of Islam are all activities: prayer, pilgrimage, almsgiving, fasting and a continual giving of “witness” (shahada) in everything you do that God (not the “gods” of ambition and selfishness) is your chief priority.
The same was once true of Christianity. The Trinity was not a “mystery” because it was irrational mumbo-jumbo. It was an “initiation” (musterion), which introduced Greek-speaking early Christians to a new way of thinking about the divine, a meditative exercise in which the mind swung in a disciplined way from what you thought you knew about God to the ineffable reality. If performed correctly it led to ekstasis. As Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90) explained to his Christian initiates: “My eyes are filled and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.” Trinity was, therefore, an activity rather than a metaphysical truth in which one credulously “believed”. It is probably because most western Christians have not been instructed in this exercise that the Trinity remains pointless, incomprehensible, and even absurd.
If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it. In the modern period, however, we have turned faith into a head-trip. Originally, the English word “belief”, like the Greek pistis and the Latin credo, meant “commitment”. When Jesus asked his followers to have “faith”, he was not asking them to accept him blindly as the Second Person of the Trinity (an idea he would have found puzzling). Instead, he was asking his disciples to give all they had to the poor, live rough and work selflessly for the coming of a kingdom in which rich and poor would sit together at the same table.
“Credo ut intellegam – I commit myself in order that I may understand,” said Saint Anselm (1033-1109). In the late 17th century, the English word “belief” changed its meaning and became the intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition. Religious people now think that they have to “believe” a set of incomprehensible doctrines before embarking on a religious way of life. This makes no sense. On the contrary, faith demands a disciplined and practical transcendence of egotism, a “stepping outside” the self which brings intimations of transcendent meaning that makes sense of our flawed and tragic world.
Karen Armstrong is the author of “The Case for God: What Religion Really Means” (Vintage, £9.99)
The word to grasp here is myth
No matter how they answer the God question, generous-minded people could profit from adopting an attitude of critical sympathy towards religion and maybe even taking the odd dip into it – provided they heed Canon William Vanstone’s warning that the Church is like a public swimming pool, where most of the noise comes from the shallow end.
Most religions have two main departments of thought. The first calls itself “natural” theology because it recognises that it is in the nature of human beings to ask ultimate questions about the universe in which they find themselves.
Apart from being more hopeful about finding positive answers to these questions than less committed searchers, natural theologians go over the same ground as philosophers and are no better at arriving at absolutely convincing conclusions than the philosophers are, which is why the exercise usually ends up at a kind of graded agnosticism that stretches from almost-atheism to almost-theism but never absolutely nails down either.
If you need personalities to define the gradations, Richard Dawkins fits the almostatheism end and Roger Scruton fits the almost-theism end. Incidentally, it is worth remembering that both of these thinkers are subtler in the positions they hold on these complex matters than most people give them credit for.
So far, so inconclusive. It is the next move in the religious enterprise that gets interesting. This is where theologians introduce the idea of revelation. “Revealed” theology is the department where we try not to figure out whether there is a god, but to work out the meaning of the messages that the god has sent us from beyond to answer the questions we are unable to answer. This is where sacred texts come into play, as well as the institutions that accrete round them to protect and promote them. Revelation is what you get when you go to the synagogue or church or the mosque – all those instructions from God to do this or abjure that – and it is where things can get both frustrating and interesting for unbelievers.
The big frustration is how to deal with the circularity of the claims that are made by the exponents of revealed theology. If you ask them how they know that the words they quote came from God and not just another human being, the answer comes back, “Because the Bible or the Quran or the Whatever tells us so” – and we are no further on.
A good approach here is not to try to stop the revelation argument from going round and round but to ask a different question, thus: given that there probably is no God, where did all this stuff come from? To which the obvious answer is that it came from us. All these sacred texts are creations of the human imagination, works of art crafted by us to convey meaning through story.
So it’s a mistake to do what most unbelievers usually do at this point, which is to dismiss them as fairy tales and thereby deprive themselves of a rich resource for exploring the heights and depths of the human condition. The word to grasp here is myth: a myth is a story that encodes but does not necessarily explain a universal human experience.
The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition. That is why, among all the true believers in church this Easter, there will be thousands of others who are there because they need, yet again, to express the hope that good need not always be defeated by evil.
Richard Holloway was the bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 to 2000. He is the author of “Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt”
Organ Donors and Religion
We should end our irrational reverence for dead bodies. It would free our spirits and help the sick to live.
The day my father died was cold, grey and wet. We and our mother sat by his bed as rain dripped from trees outside. We could tell it was over even before Dad’s hands grew cold. A doctor came in to ask (in Catalan) if they could have his eyes, which were healthy and might be useful. The hospital would supply glass replacements for the corpse.
There was no need for family consultation. None of us looked inquiringly around to gauge the others’ response. I can’t recall we’d even bothered discussing this with him. “Why are you even asking me?” he would have said: “Obviously, anything that might be useful — take it. It won’t be me.” Dad would have attached no significance, no sanctity and no further purpose to a corpse.
I think of him now, smiling at how un-Dad-like his body looked with glass eyes (as if he would have cared!) now that debate returns this week on the status of bodily organs. The news on Wednesday was that good progress is being made expanding the national organ donor list. Numbers of those donating organs have risen by 50 per cent in the past five years.
Nevertheless, three people a day are dying for want of a donor and the figures came with a disturbing footnote: the UK’s “family refusal rate” remains among the highest in Europe. Surviving relatives may override the express wishes of the deceased and withdraw permission; and often do. I don’t myself see why, if I can bequeath my house to a donkey sanctuary without fear of countermand, I cannot bequeath my kidneys to a hospital; but that’s for lawyers. No, what baffles me is that in the 21st century so many modern, educated people should still attach this mysterious reverence to what the Bible itself variously calls dust, ashes and grass. So why the remarkable, irrational persistence of primitive ideas of the sacrosanct nature of human remains? Why the reverence for dead flesh?
Why (and only relatively recently, since 2003) have we started bringing back the bodies of all service personnel killed in conflicts abroad? We never used to. Have we become more pious as a people? Or more pagan?
It was cool and wet, too, on the day I descended an open shaft to visit one of the (probably) thousands of underground chambers in the Tierradentro region of Colombia. Rain dripped from the trees on to the fearsome man-bird stone sculptures that guard these funeral halls. In the first eight centuries AD there existed a civilisation of which little survives except the extraordinary preparations it made (as with the Ancient Egyptians) for the next life of the dead. Only skin and bones now remain in these richly decorated giant burrows, surrounded by pots, pans, jewellery ... everything necessary for the world to come.
The day I went to see the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was just as cold and grey. Not as a pilgrim but as a curious journalist I took my place early in the morning in the queue outside Westminster Cathedral. Then, to what I suspect was our mutual horror, I saw Tony Blair. He must have preceded me and was leaving the forecourt carrying the rose that pilgrims bought for £1 to be blessed (I suppose) by being touched against the glass case surrounding the elaborate closed casket containing (it was said) bits of the thigh and foot of the deceased Catholic saint. It was a sort of holy roadshow, touring Britain.
I am still reeling from the experience: not of seeing a box containing a few old bones, but of seeing a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and one of the leaders of the Western world, whose beliefs have helped to shape our age, as the captive of something for which I can find no word but “superstition”. Having no belief in God I cannot be a Christian so it will sound perverse to say this: but the sanctification of relics offends me as a Christian.
I hope you’re interested — I am — in the roots of a belief that, even in godless Britain, stubbornly refuses to succumb to science, common sense and reason, and is now killing three of our fellow citizens a day. Is reverence for human remains the fault of religion?
Over the past two millennia, the Church has been profoundly confused about its attitude. The story of the Resurrection, of course, and of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, point unambiguously towards a literal belief that we die with our bodies and will live again with our bodies.
Judaism is not so sure. Islam is very sure: the body is from Allah and cremation is, therefore, haraam (sinful); though some Muslims believe there is an indestructible bone from which even a cremated body will be reassembled at Judgment Day. An English nurse working in a Baghdad hospital where the uncle of Saddam Hussein had had his leg amputated told me of the doctors’ terror when the severed leg was temporarily mislaid: they knew that the family would want it preserved so the uncle could be buried in one piece, ready for the resurrection. The early Christians preached burial rather than cremation for the same reason: the Greeks and Romans were cremating commoners, believing that eternal life was only for gods and the top brass.
Jesus’s own utterances are ambiguous. The New Testament says that He told an astonished audience that “at the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven”. This account, more spirit-based than flesh-based, is most uncompromisingly expressed by St Paul, chastising the Corinthians: “Some will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! ... it is sown a physical body, [but] it is raised a spiritual body.”
St Paul’s view is reflected in the approach of most nonconformist and Protestant churches: among the first to accept cremation, having rationalised that if God can resurrect the dead, He can surely do it from ash or grave. But Roman Catholicism banned cremation until 1963; and even in Britain it was a crime until 1884, when a court had refused to convict poor, eccentric Dr Price, almost lynched by a Welsh mob because he had tried to cremate his dead infant son.
I have concluded that, with the massive exception of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, the world’s modern religions have not led, but been led by, primitive beliefs in the essential inseparability of body and soul. These beliefs are far older than, for instance, Christianity. The suspicion lingers, and has lingered right down from prehistory, that in some deep, mysterious manner, a corpse is inextricably tied to the human spirit that once animated it. So long as you believe, therefore, that the person persists in some way, on some plane, after death, his or her actual remains become sacred for you, special, without price.
The irony is that it is Christianity that contains within itself (as that quote from St Paul suggests) the seeds of thinking that could break those chains, releasing the spirit from the flesh and consigning the corpse to insignificance and corpse-reverence to paganism. But the Church has not been brave enough to follow through. As we shall be reminded next week, an awful lot has been invested in funeral rites.
America has an infection. Whether it is terminal remains to be seen. The infection is that of anti-intellectualism, a steadfast refusal to acknowledge that one’s worldview is mutable, a worldview in which facts are only facts if they fit that worldview, and that anyone who disagrees with a Christian fundamentalist worldview is an “enemy” of God. The infection has taken hold in conservative politics, where it has spread to a significant portion of the American population, and even into a significant amount of the Canadian population. In Katherine Stewart’s article in the Guardian entitled “How Christian Fundamentalism Feeds Into the Toxic Partisanship of US Politics,” Stewart notes:
I don’t believe for a moment that this hysterical voice [Christian fundamentalism] that screeches in America’s political sphere is the authentic voice of religion in America. Most religious Americans want to mix it up at lunch! They want to make friends across party lines, and they want to help people who are less fortunate. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute, released on 24 October, reveals that 60% of Catholics believe the Church should place a greater emphasis on social justice issues and their obligation to the poor, even if that means focusing less on culture war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, in response to the Ryan budget, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops joined other Christian leaders in insisting that a “circle of protection” be drawn around “essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people”.
So why is it that the so-called “values voters” are urged to vote against the politician who supports choice, not the politician who wants to shred that “circle of protection” for the poor and vulnerable? Why is it that when politicians want to demonstrate just how religiously righteous they are, they talk about banning same-sex marriage and making contraceptives hard to get, instead of showing what they have done to protect the weak?
There is an obvious answer, and it is, in a sense, staring you in the face every time you watch a political debate or read about the latest antics of Focus on the Family and the AFA. The kind of religion that succeeds in politics tends to focus on the divisive element of religion. If you want to use religion to advance a partisan political agenda, the main objective you use it for is to divide people between us and them, between the in-group and the out-group, the believers and the infidels.
The result is a reduction of religion to a small handful of wedge issues. According to the religious leaders and policy organizations urging Americans to vote with their “Biblical values”, to be Christian now means to support one or, at most, a small handful of policy positions. And it means voting for the Republican party.
Christian fundamentalists are not to be confused with mainstream evangelical Christians. While Christian fundamentalists may be evangelical, not every evangelical Christian is necessarily a fundamentalist. The symptoms of the infection of anti-intellectualism are as follows:
1. Erosion of education — escalating attacks on teachers as bad citizens, teachers’ unions as greedy “takers”, the evolution vs. creationism debate, resistance to stem cell research (or any kind of scientific research that conflicts with their Biblical worldview), fundamentalist emphasis on voucher system to create taxpayer funded fundamentalist schools, fear of a changing, increasingly pluralistic society (the current face of which is the extraordinary power fundamentalists give to the LGBT community as the force eroding American morality and bringing down the entire nation), and a negative economy which is generating public support by those who consider themselves members of the Religious Right by demonizing public education as a “liberal conspiracy” to take their children away from God.
2. Biblical Literalism: The Bible is the foundation of “truth,” from science to social interactions, and anything that disagrees with a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is a product of Satanic manipulation, of which the by-product of Satan is secularism.
3. Oversimplification: The idea that there is a clear right and wrong (based on Biblical laws, or cherry-picked verses), the universe is either moral or immoral, and that so-called “assaults” on religious “freedom” of fundamentalists signify an invisible war between the forces of God (or “good”) and the forces of Satan (or “evil”).
4. Assertion of the patriarchal right to control women: To fundamentalists, women are second-class citizens, subject to a strict social hierarchy. This hierarchy can be observed in every stripe of fundamentalism, from Islamic fundamentalism to Christian fundamentalism and it goes like this:
God/Jesus is the head of the man
Man is the head of the woman, subject only to God
Woman is subjugated to a status which is wholly reliant on having “faith” that her husband will do the right thing because he is specially influenced by God by special decree of the Bible. Fundamentalist website after website counsels women that if her husband does wrong that the only thing she can do is pray that God will guide him to a different decision, that she is not to disagree with him publicly (or in front of children). She is free (sometimes) to give an opinion, but the ultimate decision is the man’s, because he has special dispensation by God to be in that position. The equal status of women is a threat to this hierarchy, and thus, a threat to God.
This is why America is seeing so many attacks on women, from trying to pass laws that undermine Roe v. Wade (personhood laws, restrictions on abortions, waiting periods, attempts to push laws to punish abortion doctors, restrictions on being able to get birth control, etc), to going to the trouble of redefining rape as being the woman’s fault, even part of God’s plan, while pushing to give rapists parental rights, to the unfortunate proclamations of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, et. Al, that babies born of rape are blessings from God, that the female body shuts down its reproductive system when a woman is being raped, etc.). Controlling women’s bodies while at the same time denouncing “big government” is the popular meme of the fundamentalist mind. Women are simply not meant to destroy that Godly hierarchy set up by the Bible, and in their minds if you can control women, you’ve got half the populace conquered for God.
Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism often manifests itself in a sort of “pseudo-intellectualism” by which those with little or no educational background read a few articles or watch a few videos about a particular subject (usually published by their own religious compatriots, particularly about what a scientific theory is and evolution), and consider themselves “educated” because what they read agreed with their worldview, or, if being highly educated, usually get that education in a fundamentalist educational setting. They will then take that “evidence” and proceed to use it against empirical evidence that directly contests and even eviscerates the arguments they have carefully set up around what they have read or seen, and the argument invariably ends with ad hominem attacks against reason, facts, and education — because they have no actual evidence outside of the Bible to use to “win” the argument. A favorite tactic is to call the opposition an “atheist” (or a “liberal”) if someone disagrees with their worldview.
Education is then “demonized” as being a covert movement to “indoctrinate” the masses in the secular worldview, and thus, part of the forces of Satan. Rick Santorum demonstrates this principle admirably. Although he himself is highly educated, with a bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and JD from Penn State, his Biblical worldview clearly trumps his empirical education and allows him to disregard it as a fly in the ointment in the “light of Biblical truth,” which is, of course, only empirical in that it is in print, in black and white, not empirical that it can actually be proven. Faith is evidence enough, and reason becomes a threat to faith, thus, reason is from Satan, not God. A good case in point is the persecution of Copernicus and Galileo by the Catholic Church, regarding the revolution of the Earth around the sun. This old argument, which has been proven in favor of Copernicus and Galileo, has arisen once again to haunt us.
According to a recent National Science Foundation survey, over twenty percent of the respondents believed in the geocentric model popular during the 1500s, that the sun revolves around the earth instead of the other way around. This is old, disproven thinking that comes from the idea that since humanity is God’s creation, naturally, everything revolves around humanity, with humanity at the center of creation. Humanity is thus, special. Anything that challenges the idea that humanity is special is thus a threat against God. After all, you can’t feel the earth move, so it must be stationary. You can’t see the stars move (well, you can with a telescope, something called parallax), but you can’t see it with the naked eye, so thus, the earth must be stationary with the sun moving around it. This is an example of pseudo-intellectualism. You know what you see, but you don’t investigate to see if your assertions are valid under close scrutiny. Fundamentalists cannot afford to indulge in close scrutiny of their ideas, because close scrutiny would most certainly disprove most of what they believe, and they fear, more than anything else, of the erosion of their own faith.
In 1982, forty-four per cent of Americans held strictly creationist views, a statistically insignificant difference from 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans that believe in biological evolution has only increased by four percentage points over the last twenty years.
Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason” and “Freethinkers” sums up the problem of fundamentalist anti-intellectualism succintly:
This mindless tolerance, which places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy, has played a major role in the resurgence of both anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism.
Copernicus and Galileo were persecuted by the Catholic Church for suggesting that humanity on earth was indeed not the center of the universe. Copernicus did not suffer much persecution while he was alive, but after he was dead, his hypothesis that the earth revolved around the sun certainly did. Galileo dared to revive Copernicus’ idea, and packaged it in a mock debate between characters in a book he wrote called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo) in 1632. The Catholic Church’s militaristic arm, the Inquisition, caught wind of what he had written, and banned his book, and placed Galileo under house arrest.
Now, the Catholic Church’s disagreement with Galileo and Copernicus did not make their ideas less true, which the idea certainly was, and revealed to be true through empirical scientific investigation over a period of years. Instead, the Church deflected the facts as “heresy,” which is something fundamentalists are particularly adept at doing. Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is a testament to this deflection of scientific facts as heresy. By dismissing evolution as nothing more than a “theory,” (which goes to show pure, deliberate ignorance of what exactly a scientific theory is), we see again the application of the ad hominem attack Christian fundamentalists so love to employ when inconvenient facts get in the way.
The fundamentalists of today are a hardy lot, and they will use anything to win this battle for God — the Bible, which is the ultimate authority, the Constitution, revisionist science textbooks, and revisionist American history (a la David Barton) that “proves” America was a nation founded to be their brand of a “Christian nation.” Never mind they are not Constitutional scholars. The Constitutional scholars are a threat to them because even though scholars have differing opinions about interpretation of the Constitution, any opinion that differs from the fundamentalist worldview is a direct attack on God. Never mind that the fundamentalist that lives in the general population is not a scientist. They know better, because Ken Ham and the Bible tell them that there is NO WAY God would use evolution to create (even though the Bible says nothing on the subject of evolution. The Bible is black and white. God created the world as it is now in six days, and rested on the seventh.
You will rarely see a fundamentalist in a secular college or university because secular universities and colleges do not agree with their worldview. This is why for the most part they are homeschooled, and go straight from homeschool to fundamentalist universities that teach their worldview. These universities and colleges churn out fundamentalists who are schooled in law, but only an interpretation of law that fits their Biblical worldview. Lawyers or judges who disagree with them, particularly in Supreme Court cases are dismissed ad hominem as “activist lawyers” and “activist judges” (i.e. enemies of God). This lack of empirical education is changing American society into one that has eroded science education, particularly with their attempts to force the school voucher issue, which is nothing but a bid to get taxpayers to fund fundamentalist education, yet they object to taxpayer funded public education because “secularism” is persecuting them for their beliefs by simply disagreeing with them (because again, nothing they believe is based on empirical evidence).
The lack of empirical education is eroding American society in favor of a “faith based” education that has nothing whatsoever to do with facts that threaten their worldview. Liberty is something they interpret as the freedom to live in a society based solely on their Biblical worldview. Freedom of religion for others in an inclusive society is anathema to them, because such freedom threatens to sideline them to the fringes. Individual liberty does not exist except for them, because they have an inherent distrust of the individual to make reasonable decisions, unless those decisions are based on their interpretation of Scripture. Thus, mainstream Christians are not their brethren; mainstream Christians are simply misinformed individuals who have deluded themselves into believing they are of the family of Christ, and only the clear lens of fundamentalism can see that mainstream Christians have been deceived by the enemy of God which is secular society.
The sole aim of fundamentalists is to “obey” God in creating conditions favorable to the return of Christ–and this one thought, this one design drives American foreign policy with Israel (they believe that when the Jews all return to Israel and the 3rd temple is rebuilt that Christ will return, (but not without sacrificing 2/3 of the Jewish people in the process), then all the remaining Jews will become Christians. American fundamentalists are only interested in Jewish people and Israel insofar as it furthers the return of Jesus Christ. That is all.
Because fundamentalists are engaged in the idea that they are warriors in a fight for God, (something Christian fundamentalists hold in common with Islamic fundamentalists), they have the sort of mindset that if it came to it (which it has not yet, I do not think), they would not afraid to die for their faith. Proof of this idea was given a disturbing form by a video game “Left Behind: Eternal Forces,” which advocates killing anyone who doesn’t agree with them (i.e. can’t be converted to their idea of Christ):
Aimed at conservative Christians, the game’s story line begins in a time after the “rapture”, when fundamentalist dogma contends that Christians will go to heaven. The remaining population on earth must then choose between surrendering to or resisting “the Antichrist”, which the game describes as the “Global Community Peacekeepers” whose objective is the imposition of “one-world government”.
“Part of the object is to kill or convert the opposing forces,” Simpson said. This is “antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said, adding that he was dismayed by the concept in “Eternal Forces” of using prayer to restore a player’s “spirit points” after killing the enemy. In the game, combatants on one side pause for prayer, intoning, “Praise the Lord”. A player can lose points for “unnecessary killing” but regain them through prayer.
But Simpson counters, “The idea that you could pray, and the deleterious effects of one’s foul deeds would simply be wiped away, is a horrible thing to be teaching Christian young people here at Christmas time.”
Troy Lyndon, CEO of Left Behind Games Inc., which is promoting the new video, has defended the game as “inspirational entertainment” and said its critics were exaggerating. The game is based on the popular “Left Behind” novels, a Bible-based end-of-the-world-saga that has sold more than 63 million copies.
Now, while this is a disturbing element, and the Left Behind books have genocidal scenes that seem to justify killing masses of unbelievers because they are incorrigible (not ever going to convert to the fundamentalist mindset), it should be reiterated that fundamentalists are not yet at the point in the US where they want to kill people, so let us not be alarmist. However, that being said, the way some fundamentalists are choosing to portray institutional racism and genocide (as punishment for sin and disbelief) to school age children is disturbing, and it is the belief of this scholar that the elements for radical action portrayed in the video game are there–but would need utter desperation in order to explode into being. It is the opinion of this writer that fundamentalists are not yet this desperate, but attempts to normalize killing for God are disturbing, to say the least. The Guardian had this to say about the subject in May of 2012:
The story of the Amalekites has been used to justify genocide throughout the ages. According to Pennsylvania State University Professor Philip Jenkins, a contributing editor for the American Conservative, the Puritans used this passage when they wanted to get rid of the Native American tribes. Catholics used it against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics. “In Rwanda in 1994, Hutu preachers invoked King Saul’s memory to justify the total slaughter of their Tutsi neighbors,” writes Jenkins in his 2011 book, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (HarperCollins).
This fall, more than 100,000 American public school children, ranging in age from four to 12, are scheduled to receive instruction in the lessons of Saul and the Amalekites in the comfort of their own public school classrooms. The instruction, which features in the second week of a weekly “Bible study” course, will come from the Good News Club, an after-school program sponsored by a group called the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF). The aim of the CEF is to convert young children to a fundamentalist form of the Christian faith and recruit their peers to the club.
There are now over 3,200 clubs in public elementary schools, up more than sevenfold since the 2001 supreme court decision, Good News Club v Milford Central School, effectively required schools to include such clubs in their after-school programing.
The CEF has been teaching the story of the Amalekites at least since 1973. In its earlier curriculum materials, CEF was euphemistic about the bloodshed, saying simply that “the Amalekites were completely defeated.” In the most recent version of the curriculum, however, the group is quite eager to drive the message home to its elementary school students. The first thing the curriculum makes clear is that if God gives instructions to kill a group of people, you must kill every last one:
“You are to go and completely destroy the Amalekites (AM-uh-leck-ites) – people, animals, every living thing. Nothing shall be left.”
“That was pretty clear, wasn’t it?” the manual tells the teachers to say to the kids.
Even more important, the Good News Club wants the children to know, the Amalakites were targeted for destruction on account of their religion, or lack of it. The instruction manual reads:
“The Amalekites had heard about Israel’s true and living God many years before, but they refused to believe in him. The Amalekites refused to believe in God and God had promised punishment.”
The instruction manual goes on to champion obedience in all things. In fact, pretty much every lesson that the Good News Club gives involves reminding children that they must, at all costs, obey. If God tells you to kill nonbelievers, he really wants you to kill them all. No questions asked, no exceptions allowed.
Educating Christian fundamentalists simply doesn’t work. They do not accept any education that is in direct conflict with their worldview. What remains is to educate the rest of the American populace about Christian fundamentalism and dominionism, educating the American populace about the David Bartons of the world, so that when elections occur, an educated populace can reject the infiltration of fundamentalism on the rest of American society, which will, given the right opportunity (usually in a climate of fear like 9/11), erode American democracy entirely and push our nation into the fringes of the world into irrelevance.
Heaven or Hallucinations?
In Eben Alexander's best-selling book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster), he recounts his near-death experience (NDE) during a meningitis-induced coma. When I first read that Alexander's heaven includes “a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes” who offered him unconditional love, I thought, “Yeah, sure, dude. I've had that fantasy, too.” Yet when I met him on the set of Larry King's new streaming-live talk show on Hulu, I realized that he genuinely believes he went to heaven. Did he?
Not likely. First, Alexander claims that his “cortex was completely shut down” and that his “near-death experience ... took place not while [his] cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off.” In King's green room, I asked him how, if his brain was really nonfunctional, he could have any memory of these experiences, given that memories are a product of neural activity? He responded that he believes the mind can exist separately from the brain. How, where, I inquired? That we don't yet know, he rejoined. The fact that mind and consciousness are not fully explained by natural forces, however, is not proof of the supernatural. In any case, there is a reason they are called near-death experiences: the people who have them are not actually dead.
Second, we now know of a number of factors that produce such fantastical hallucinations, which are masterfully explained by the great neurologist Oliver Sacks in his 2012 book Hallucinations (Knopf). For example, Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke and his colleagues produced a “shadow person” in a patient by electrically stimulating her left temporoparietal junction. “When the woman was lying down,” Sacks reports, “a mild stimulation of this area gave her the impression that someone was behind her; a stronger stimulation allowed her to define the ‘someone’ as young but of indeterminate sex.”
Sacks recalls his experience treating 80 deeply parkinsonian postencephalitic patients (as seen in the 1990 film Awakenings, which starred Robin Williams in a role based on Sacks), and notes, “I found that perhaps a third of them had experienced visual hallucinations for years before l-dopa was introduced—hallucinations of a predominantly benign and sociable sort.” He speculates that “it might be related to their isolation and social deprivation, their longing for the world—an attempt to provide a virtual reality, a hallucinatory substitute for the real world which had been taken from them.”
Migraine headaches also produce hallucinations, which Sacks himself has experienced as a longtime sufferer, including a “shimmering light” that was “dazzlingly bright”: “It expanded, becoming an enormous arc stretching from the ground to the sky, with sharp, glittering, zigazgging borders and brilliant blue and orange colors.” Compare Sacks's experience with that of Alexander's trip to heaven, where he was “in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky. Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.”
In an article in the Atlantic last December, Sacks explains that the reason hallucinations seem so real “is that they deploy the very same systems in the brain that actual perceptions do. When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated.” Sacks concludes that “the one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander's case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.”
The reason people turn to supernatural explanations is that the mind abhors a vacuum of explanation. Because we do not yet have a fully natural explanation for mind and consciousness, people turn to supernatural explanations to fill the void. But what is more likely: That Alexander's NDE was a real trip to heaven and all these other hallucinations are the product of neural activity only? Or that all such experiences are mediated by the brain but seem real to each experiencer? To me, this evidence is proof of hallucination, not heaven.
There are several things we cannot confidently say about the motives of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in bombing the crowd at the finish of the Boston marathon.
We do not know all the details of his psychological profile; we do not know the identity of a figure called Misha, who was apparently instrumental in Tsarnaev’s radicalisation; we do not know why he chose the marathon as his target; we do not fully know the role of his younger brother or his wife, who claims total surprise at the events.
Any act as violent as his is “multi-determined”, as my shrink unhelpfully puts it. Every individual is a unique blend of DNA, experience and psychological complexity. It’s worth keeping that in mind before we reduce someone to a caricature.
But we do know this: Tsarnaev was a fanatical, extremist Muslim — and his brother has testified that “defending Islam” was the motive. Tsarnaev’s YouTube page is crammed with Islamist conspiracy theories, apocalyptic myths and violent Islamist imagery. He disrupted his own mosque’s services by ranting that it was wrong to honour Martin Luther King Jr because he wasn’t a Muslim.
The Russian intelligence services alerted the CIA and FBI to what they detected as dangerous Islamist extremism — even before he had spent six months in the country. His uncle described Tsarnaev’s shift toward extreme devotion: “I was shocked when I heard his words, his phrases, when every other word he starts sticking in words of God.”
Tsarnaev gave up the sport he won prizes in — boxing — because of Islam. He gave up drinking. He complained about the loss of values in modern society. He hit his girlfriend and persuaded his American wife to become a Muslim — now covered from head to toe.
Of course the Boston bombings were an act of jihad. To read writers such as The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald desperately searching for some other motive — “some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature” — is to despair of some left-liberals’ naivety.
History is crammed with violence committed in the name of God. From the Crusades to the Reformation to the religious conflicts of the 17th century in Europe, we have seen how Christianity — although founded by a radically non-violent guru — can become murderous. How much more plausible is the idea of violence coming from a religion founded by an explicitly political conqueror.
The motive for the bombing was religion, stupid. But it was also, of course, only one strain of religion — the most extreme and total form.
Over the centuries Christianity largely tamed itself. For many centuries Islam was more peaceable than Christianity, especially when it commanded an imperial presence over infidels in the Ottoman empire. The tendency to take religion to its extreme, even violent, form is not the exclusive province of any faith. But what it is important to grasp is that this is not a deviation from or perversion of faith; it is its ultimate, most impassioned form, often seized on by an individual to appease personal conflicts and overcome confusion and bewilderment.
It is faith without doubt and without humility. It is past reason. It is a form of total surrender of the self to something other and greater. It knows no restraint.
So do Tsarnaev a favour and take him at his word. He was not crazy. He was just terrifyingly consistent. If this life is but a blip compared with eternity, if God controls everything and if you believe your adopted country and culture are at war with that God, why is it not your duty to defend God’s law?
Yes, there also seem to be strains of modernity in Tsarnaev: a penchant for driving a Mercedes, a macho swagger, possible drug-dealing, all-American branded baseball caps and a very modern lust for celebrity. But that helps to explain the recourse to extremism. The 9/11 murderers, after all, were not without internal conflicts. They went to a strip bar before preparing themselves for eternity. Osama bin Laden was once a trust-fund kid cavorting around the West.
This is emphatically not to say that Islam is the core problem. As you can see from Tsarnaev’s mosque, from the disgusted reaction of his Muslim relatives, from the 99% of American Muslims who share a faith of non-violence and humility and charity, Tsarnaev is an extreme exception, not the rule. But it is also true, it seems to me, that Islam has an acutely difficult relationship with modernity. It cannot moderate doctrinally because its founding text is believed to be literally the word of God speaking through his prophet and can never be altered or reinterpreted in the light of history or reason, let alone be subject to objective scholarship. Whereas Christianity became imperial under Constantine, Islam began as imperialist and thereby political. Unlike Judaism it also claims universality.
Which is why the Tsarnaev brothers are in some ways more frightening than organised terrorist groups. All you need is a sense of bewilderment and alienation in the modern world, a need for total certainty and an internet connection . . . and you have a religious motive for violence.
As the modern world increasingly defies all the constraints that ancient religion imposed, some will find a reason to strike back. Returning the favour, as in the invasion of Afghanistan or the occupation of a Muslim country such as Iraq, doesn’t help. It only threatens to intensify the blowback from online loner fanatics.
Stigmatising the 99% of US Muslims who are appalled by terrorism and far better integrated than in Europe is another way to turn a tragedy into a catastrophe. We are stuck with hoping that some day Islam will relearn what Christianity finally learnt: non-violence is the better path.
In other words, to describe this terrorist act as religiously based does not mean one is a bigot; just a realist. Fanaticism is as old as humanity — and now empowered on a global, internet stage.
The only answer is stoicism, vigilance and religious humility. And time.
Autistic children are atheists
That’s the opinion of Fehmi Kaya, head of the Health and Education Associations for Autistic Children in Adana, Turkey. Autistic children are atheists, he said, “due to a lack of a section for faith in their brains.”
“Autistic children do not know believing in God because they do not have a section of faith in their brains,” Kaya said, according to daily Milliyet.
Kaya said the underdevelopment of faith sections in the brain caused autistic children to not believe in God.
“That is why they don’t know how to pray, how to believe in God. It is needed to create awareness in these children through methods of therapy.”
Kaya added that autistic children should undergo treatment to “create areas of faith in their brain.”
Apparently, it’s not the children’s fault. According to Kaya whose degree is in sociology, they are born atheists because of the missing faith section. “Research,” he adds, “says atheism and autistic children are linked. Researchers in the USA and Canada say that atheism is a different form of autism.”
A backlash from individuals and autism associations throughout Turkey has caused Kaya to complain that his remarks were taken out of context by news reports.
On a personal note, my own background leads me to wonder if there’s some truth to at least one of Fehmi Kaya’s claims; the one involving problems wth the brain's "faith sections."
You see, I was a believer from a very young age and remained one until suffering a tragic injury (involving experience, reading and thinking) to the faith section of my brain. The injury occurred, I suspect, somewhere between the cerebellum, the pons and the I-Like-Fox-News center (another underdeveloped area in many atheist brains).
(This came from a Fark thread - some comments:)
He has a point. When you remove emotion from the equation and let logic take charge, belief in deities seems weird and incongruent with a universe predicated on examinable physical laws.
But humans are not purely logical creatures. Along with our logical minds, we are burdened with our emotional mind as well. Except in the case of autistic children, of course. They are emotionally crippled, for better or worse. As far as atheism goes, for the better, obviously.