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.
William Lane Craig
Well-publicized atheists like Dawkins and Harris are closer to being household names than William Lane Craig is, but within the subculture of evangelical Christians interested in defending their faith rationally, he has had a devoted following for decades. Many professional philosophers know about him only vaguely, but in the field of philosophy of religion, his books and articles are among the most cited. And though he works mainly from his home, in suburban Marietta, Ga., he holds a faculty appointment at Biola University, an evangelical stronghold on the southeastern edge of Los Angeles County and home to one of the largest philosophy graduate programs in the world.
Surveys suggest that the philosophy professoriate is among the most atheistic subpopulations in the United States; even those philosophers who specialize in religion believe in God at a somewhat lower rate than the general public does. Philosophers have also lately been in a habit of humility, as their profession's scope seems to shrink before the advance of science and the modern university's preference for research that wins corporate contracts. But it is partly because of William Lane Craig that one can hear certain stripes of evangelicals whispering to one another lately that "God is working something" in the discipline. And through the discipline, they see a way of working something in society as a whole.
The enormous kinds of questions that speculative-minded college students obsess over—life, death, the universe - are taken unusually seriously by philosophers who also happen to be evangelical Christians. To them, after all, what one believes matters infinitely for one's eternal soul. They therefore tend to care less about disciplinary minutiae and terms of art than about big-picture "worldviews," every aspect of which should be compatible with a particular way of thinking about the fraught love affair between God and humanity - or else.
The debates for which Craig is most famous live on long after the crowds are gone from the campus auditoriums or megachurch sanctuaries where they take place. On YouTube, they garner tens or hundreds of thousands of views as they're dissected and fact-checked by bloggers and hobbyists and apologists-in-training. Such debates have an appealing absence of gray area: There are only two sides, and one or the other has to win. By the time it's over, you have the impression that your intelligence has been respected—you get to hear both sides make their cases, after all. The winner? You decide.
"I believe that debate is the forum for sharing the gospel on college campuses," Craig told an audience of several thousand at a seminar about "Unpacking Atheism" in a suburban Denver church last October, simulcast at other churches around the country. Compared with the rancorous presidential debates happening at the time, he added, "these are respectable academic events conducted with civility and Christian charity."
Craig generally insists on the same format: opening statements, then two rounds of rebuttals, then closing statements, then audience. He prepares extensively beforehand, sometimes for months at a time, with research assistants poring over the writings of the opponent in search of objections that Craig should anticipate. He amasses a well-organized file of notes that he can draw on during the debate for a choice quotation or a statistic.
In the opening statement he pummels the opponent with five or so concise arguments - for instance, the origins of the universe, the basis of morality, the testimony of religious experience, and perhaps an addendum of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Over the course of the rebuttals he makes sure to respond to every point that the opponent has brought up, which usually sends the opponent off on a series of tangents. Then, at the end, he reminds the audience how many of his arguments stated at the outset the opponent couldn't manage to address, much less refute. He declares himself and his message the winner. Onlookers can't help agreeing.
This line of questioning - about whether William Lane Craig is merely persuasive or actually correct, an honest philosopher or a snake-oil evangelist - arises every time another one of his bouts hits the Internet. Anyone can see that he is good, but is he for real?.................
Most outsiders are familiar with the caricatures of evangelical anti-intellectualism, from the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925 to televangelists and the faux-folksiness of George W. Bush. So are evangelicals themselves. Almost 20 years ago, the evangelical historian (and historian of evangelicals) Mark Noll warned, at book length, about The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This, as much as secularism itself, is an ill that Craig and others at Biola have set out to cure.
"Biblical Christianity retreated into the intellectual closet of Fundamentalism," he writes in the introduction to Reasonable Faith. "Satan deceives us into voluntarily laying aside our best weapons of logic and evidence, thereby ensuring unawares modernism's triumph over us."
Craig Hazen, who directs the apologetics department at Biola, calls the problem "blind-leaping." He told me, "The idea that we're blind-leaping into faith is actually reinforced by evangelical churches all the time." ................
The students in Craig's classes at Biola, it's true, bear a kind of battle scar. A common story among them goes something like this: When they were teenage boys, growing up in evangelical households, their childhood faith began to buckle. Their classes in school and their classmates and the Internet posed questions they didn't know how to answer. Their parents and pastors couldn't help; they only recommended more prayer and faith, more blind-leaping. It didn't work...........
Craig's muscular arguments lend them the confidence to delve into areas of inquiry that might have previously seemed closed, from historical criticism of the Bible to theistic interpretations of evolution.
Professor Anthea Butler has caught much flack recently for arguing in a post here on RD that the George Zimmerman verdict exposes that a god-complex, tied to and articulated as white supremacy, remains powerfully at work within U.S. society. She’s right, of course. In putting on the table the question of how religion relates to the verdict, how religion has been operative under the radar, so to speak, inside of the verdict, and how religion is the larger horizon of the shooting and subsequent trial, Dr. Butler has done us all a profound service.
But as a theologian or a Christian intellectual, I want to up the ante on her provocative and important analysis and propose that the only moral, ethical, and religious response worth its salt to the Zimmerman verdict is to be atheist.
Now before you shut me down, hear me out.
On that fateful night a year and a half ago, George Zimmerman did not see Trayvon Martin, the human being. He did not see Trayvon Martin, a young, 17-year-old child on his way home from the convenience store with Skittles and a soft-drink and talking on his cell phone with his friend. Instead, all that Zimmerman could see was a hooded threat. And so, he deputized himself to be the police, and in that capacity shot Trayvon Martin dead.
But more than just deputizing himself to act with police power (and this is the crucial point of Dr. Butler’s reflections), he deputized himself to stand in the place of god, to act in god’s name and with divine or sovereign power (remember Zimmerman’s words to Sean Hannity that shooting Trayvon Martin was “God’s will”), and finally, not just to act as god but to be a god, a god who could judge and act with the power of life and death—or more accurately, with the power of death and under the protection of law.
But who is this god in whose name Zimmerman acted under the cover of law on that dusky Florida night? This is the question Dr. Butler rightly—and to the discomfort of many—is raising. Her answer: it’s the “American god,” who is nothing less than “a white racist god . . . carrying a gun and stalking young black men.”
This edgy reference to a “white racist god,” drawn from Dr. William R. Jones’s book Is God a White Racist?, is what seems to have stuck in some people’s craw and found its way into much of the conservative media. What could such a phrase mean? As my colleague Professor Willie James Jennings outlines beautifully in a recent follow up piece, this book, written in 1973 in the wake of the social transformations of the 1960s, forces a question back upon the intellectuals of the black theology project—particularly back upon Dr. James Hal Cone and Dr. Deotis Roberts.
Dr. Jones raised what in the history of philosophy and theology has come to be called the “theodicy” question: How do we hold onto God’s goodness in the face of ongoing suffering, suffering that God should be able to stop but doesn’t stop? What does it mean that God doesn’t stop suffering, though God is supposed to be good? There’s only one conclusion: in Dr. Butler’s words, “God ain’t good all the time.”
Where is God for Trayvon Martin and his family? Where is the goodness and justice of God for Marissa Alexander, the African-American woman who is presently serving a 20-year prison sentence for shooting a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband from attacking her? She “stood her ground,” shoots and kills no one, but gets 20 years in prison (we’re still waiting to see if Florida’s governor will commute her sentence or if this will remain a travesty of justice); Zimmerman shoots and in fact kills Trayvon Martin and is acquitted.
While neither of these cases was legally argued under the “Stand Your Ground” statute, they both were operating in a “Stand Your Ground” cultural context that cannot be uncoupled from race. Indeed, juror B37’s comments in her interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper reveals that “Stand Your Ground,” if not legally then certainly culturally, was operative in her deliberations to support her exoneration of Zimmerman. The cases of Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman, both individually and together, force the question: Where is liberation in this and where is the good God?
This is Dr. Butler’s question. But there’s also an implied question here that I’m trying to smoke out and that Dr. Jennings was trying to get at as well. Who is the god behind U.S. society; behind its system of laws, behind a criminal justice system that in effect tried Trayvon Martin from the grave for his own murder and found him guilty even as it found Zimmerman not guilty? Who is the god that stands religiously and symbolically behind the historic association of blackness—and especially black men—with criminality. Toni Morrison talked about this in a different context but her words echo powerfully here: “Blackness and criminality are merged in the minds of most white Americans.”
In forcing these uncomfortable questions on us, Professor Butler is saying that we must reckon with the legal, social, historical, and finally the religious, entanglements of Christianity with whiteness. So entwined has the racial imagination, the imaginary of whiteness, become with Christianity in the religious underwriting of U.S. society that the question is no longer the question Why god? It is now, Which god? Which god is being talked about and enacted when the word “god” is invoked? Which god was Zimmerman invoking to Sean Hannity?
Dr. Butler’s answer, with which I agree, is clear. The Zimmerman acquittal exposed the workings and the crushing weight of the “American god” (to be distinguished from God with a capital “G”) on black bodies.
Whiteness is Not About Being White
And now to up the ante. If Dr. Butler is right that the Zimmerman acquittal displays a particular kind of god, the “American god,” then the only response to the problem of (this) god is atheism.
I’m not talking about the atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or the late Christopher Hitchens. The atheism I’m talking about entails social, political, and intellectual struggle, not against some god-in-the-abstract, but rather against a specific or particular god: the “American god.” What I hear in Dr. Butler’s term the “American god”—and what, I think, we all must hear—is not a condemnation of America as such, but rather the courage to name its idolatries so that we can be a different, more just United States of America, “not a perfect, but a more perfect union,” as President Barack Obama said last week in his most poignant comments to-date on race in America.
And just as we cannot talk about god-in-the-abstract, nor can we speak of idolatry-in-the-abstract. The white, western god-man is an idol that seeks to determine what is normal. It is a norm by which society governs the body politic or regulates, measures, evaluates, and indeed judges what is proper or improper, what is acceptable or suspicious citizenship. It is this idol, the idol of the “American god,” that is the symbolic figure Zimmerman identified himself with and in relationship to which he judged Trayvon Martin as, in effect, religiously wanting—wanting in proper citizenship, and ultimately wanting in humanity.
That Zimmerman is Latino should not distract us, for in fact it reinforces the point inasmuch as whiteness (and therefore the notion of the white, western god-man at its heart) is not a biological notion; it is narrative or a story, which is what Professor Brian Bantum was getting at in his commentary on the Zimmerman verdict. Whiteness is that story that one must aspire toward if one is to be deemed a proper citizen, a proper American. Rather than being biological, then, whiteness is better understood as a kind of discipline, something one must be disciplined into and thus something one must achieve and continually accomplish within oneself.
Understood in this way whiteness is a story of assimilation, a story that hails or calls out to us—especially to immigrant families. It awaits our answer to its call and through our answers (which can take the form of everyday practices like neighborhood watching, for example) we establish ourselves inside of or relate ourselves to the narrative of the proper citizen, to proper Americanness. Indeed, immigrant history in this country is the (very often violent) history of the achievement for some (and the failed achievement for others) of assimilation into the national narrative of the proper citizen.
This is the broader matrix for understanding Zimmerman as Latino and his profiling or policing of Trayvon Martin. On that fateful night, between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin stood the ghost of whiteness, the narrative of proper or improper Americanness, or the specter of the “American god,” whose “will” Zimmerman saw himself as carrying out in protecting his neighborhood from the suspicious citizen or the out-of-place, hoodie-wearing “black boy,” to use that loaded phrase of the African-American writer Richard Wright.
We must struggle against this “American god” or the idol of the white, western god-man. Indeed, we must struggle against this god with an eye toward a different social order and under the realization that things don’t have to be this way—and that they must change.
What I’m in effect calling for is a Christianity uncoupled from this nation-state project, from the project of social purity or “proper” Americanness, with its (racially inflected) legal protocols and its vision of racialized criminality and institutions of incarceration. I’m calling for a Christianity that no longer provides religious sanction or the cloak of righteousness to the political project of U.S. sovereignty and its vision of who is normal (and in the right place) and who is abnormal (and thus out of place). I’m calling for a Christianity whose animating logic is no longer tied to that false “god-man.” The “god” of (or that is) whiteness is a god toward which we must be thoroughgoing atheists and religionless.
If Christianity in this country and in our times is to have a future, it must be a Christianity beyond (the reigning) Christianity (and its god of anti-blackness). It must be a Christianity no longer centered in a normalizing whiteness. It must be a Christianity of a Not-Yet social order that is emerging right now in our midst (which is why there’s so much racial backlash in our so-called “postracial” moment).
It will be a Christianity of that “terrible beauty” that Professor Imani Perry speaks of in her improvisation on James Baldwin. In short, what is needed is a Christian atheism, a Christianity-after-Christianity, a Christianity beyond itself, a Christianity that plays out on the ground as struggle, that in fact is struggle under what Edouard Glissant, when crossing the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary, called “the consent not to be a single being,” to be more than one.
For it may be that struggle in solidarity with others, the struggle to be for and with others, the struggle of the multitude, the struggle that is blackness, is the new ecclesiology. This is the struggle to get rid of these “Stand Your Ground” laws that are in place in many states besides Florida, struggle against state legislatures (such as North Carolina’s) that are enacting draconian laws of various sorts, struggle in the name of the protection of women’s agency about their own bodies—in short, struggle to imagine a new politics of social belonging, or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “life together.”
Christian atheism: This is the only moral, ethical, and alas Christian response worth its salt to the Zimmerman verdict.
Conservatives Try To Deal With Gay Marriage
Faced with a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian people in both society and the church, the religious right is rolling out its new sales pitch for heterosexuality: "Married heterosexuals have the best sex!"
After failing to sell the younger generation on the intrinsic value of marriage as the best way to raise children, they've decided to back up a few steps and instead pitch the great baby-making sex that straight married couples apparently have.
"Those who worship God weekly have the best sex," asserted Patrick F. Fagan, Senior Fellow and Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) at the Family Research Council.
Interestingly, however, the Christian Post article fails to mention that the National Health and Social Life Survey, from which FRC pulled their data, says that it's actually devout Catholics who have the best sex—not Evangelical Christians. (As my good Southern Baptist momma will tell you straight up: "Catholics are not Christians.") But, let's not dwell on such unimportant details. Instead, let's look at perhaps why the typically sex-averse FRC is now using sex to sell the straight lifestyle.
Could the urgency be linked to the new report by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, which Peter Montgomery wrote about earlier, which reveals that the white evangelical conservative base is shrinking with each successive generation?
The report, dubbed the "Economic Values Survey," uses respondents' views on everything -- from God to the Bible to the role of government in the economy -- to create a new scale of religiosity that divides Americans into four groups: religious conservatives (28 percent), religious moderates (38 percent), religious progressives (19 percent) and the nonreligious (15 percent.)
Moderate and progressive religious people make up a strong 57% of the population. Something you would never guess if you listened to the base of the Republican Party or the religious right talking heads like FRC leader Tony Perkins that the media insists on inviting to give the "Christian" perspective on the day's events - especially if they include gays and lesbians.
Although, if you think about it, it's not really a shock that the popular idea of a "Christian" these days is someone like Perkins, since so many have dedicated themselves to being both vocal and visible while moderate to progressive Christians tend to view faith as a personal issue. Certainly more centrist and left-leaning religious organizations like Sojourners and People for the American Way are pushing for more moderate and liberal voices to be heard from the media stage, but Perkins and his ilk often make for far more controversial sound bites and viral videos being circulated through social media. Nuanced arguments from the left don't translate well in our ADHD-afflicted media, social or otherwise.
What the more liberal Christians need to pay attention to here, and challenge through that media megaphone - if you can stop thinking about sex for just one minute—is the FRC's absolute and total hypocrisy on the issue of welfare.
In this presentation, they point out that welfare recipients are the most productive workers, the "heavy lifters of the economy." FRC praises these families that have more mouths to feed, for their Protestant work ethic. Which begs the question about why FRC and other conservative organizations, like the Heritage Foundation, enthusiastically advocate for welfare reforms that would shrink the rolls of the working poor. You would think they'd want to increase social safety nets so these sacred "intact" families could continue to be "the core strength of the country."
Perhaps they're hoping that the great sex will make up for the lack of food and shelter these heroes of family values will experience when conservative policymakers get their way.
In the end, though, the FRC prefers to turn its sex-fevered brain from public policy to debauchery as they make the case for hot-sex-based heterosexual marriage: "Abortion, homosexuality, infidelity, pornography, euthanasia, infanticide, all of these things were just the common sexual practice of Pagan Rome, and Christians were noted for being very, very different – monogamous, faithful, struggling for chastity," said Fagan.
The anti-gay brain seems to have a habit of feverishly imagining the hot, sweaty and ... oh, yeah ... terrible, awful and sinful sex that their gay and lesbian (and anyone else not straight, white and "naturally" married) counterparts must be having. Sadly, the facts of gay and lesbian life—as well as straight married life—may prove too much of a challenge for their sales pitch.
As writer and Soulforce founder Mel White once told talk show host Larry King when asked what he and his husband did in bed, Mel replied, "We do what every couple whose been married for over 20 years does. We sleep."
Fundamentalists and Scholarship
Over the weekend, Reza Aslan went on Fox News to discuss his new book Zealot (which I covered and discussed here before the fooferaw). Lauren Green spent the entire segment interrogating Aslan, a Christian-turned-Muslim, as to why a follower of Islam would dare write about Jesus, while never actually dealing with the specific arguments of the book.
What strikes me about this tactic is how it exposes the weakness of fundamentalist Christianity when it comes to dealing with historical scholarship that may challenge some aspects of Christian orthodoxy. Christian fundamentalists often simply have no way to respond to the facts – because empirical inquiry is anathema to fundamentalists. They refuse to acknowledge the extraordinary insights into the origins of the Gospels that historical research has unearthed; they cannot tolerate any dissent from Biblical literalism (itself an inherent contradiction, since the Bible repeatedly contradicts itself if taken literally); they have to blind themselves to the science of our time in a way someone like Aquinas did not in his; they even have to insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis, for goodness’ sake.
So what are they to do when someone pops up with some actual research and arguments and challenges to received dogma? The only thing they can do is attack the messenger. That’s how intellectually bankrupt Christianism is. It cannot relate its own dogmas to the truths about the world we have discovered outside of faith. Christianists do not seem to understand that if something is demonstrably true, it cannot be counter to God, who is the ultimate Truth. They are terrified of using their minds because their faith is so often mindless – and any engagement with contemporary scholarship on Christianity is a threat to their faith, rather than, as it should be, a spur to see it in a new light.
What you see above, in other words, is an expression of fear and unreason. Which is roughly all that Christianism has in its rigid quiver.
Of course, you cannot truly blame a Foxbot interviewer who hasn’t read the book for following the script laid out for her by Roger Ailes or one of his lower-level propagandists. Or maybe you can. David Graham has a great idea:
I find myself wishing [Aslan had] flipped the argument around on Green: After all, isn’t any Christian too hopelessly biased to write a serious book on Jesus? Most folks would say no; it’s as spurious as the attack against Aslan. But for a network that defines itself against a liberal media it insists is too biased to offer a clearheaded, fair interpretation of current events, there’s a glaring double standard.
Aslan might also have mentioned the many non-Muslims who have written books about Muhammad and Islam. Fox has happily given a platform to Christians and Jews who have been critical of the prophet and the religion, from the scholarly (Bernard Lewis) to the hysterical (Frank Gaffney) to the … also hysterical (Andrew McCarthy). In addition, although Aslan noted his conclusions conflicted with Islamic positions on Jesus — for example, he argues that the crucifixion, which Islam denies, actually happened — it might have been helpful to point out that Muslims revere Jesus as an important prophet, though refuting his divinity.
Waldman views the interview as symptomatic of the way the media covers religion, Islam in particular:
Green came pretty close to saying that as a Muslim, Aslan must by definition be hostile to Christianity in general and Jesus in particular and therefore incapable of writing a measured piece of history. This gets back to something I wrote about last week on the privilege associated with being the default racial setting, although here it’s the default religious setting. If you’re in the majority, it’s your privilege to be whatever you want and speak to whatever you want, and you can be treated as an authority on anything. But those in the minority are much more likely, when they come into this kind of realm, to be allowed only to speak to the experience and history of their particular demographic group.
So Fox has no trouble treating Reza Aslan as an authority on Islam, but if he claims to also be an authority on Christianity, those Christians react with incredulity.
They’re so hermetically sealed in their bubble, they cannot see their bigotry. Which is why, of course, they react so strongly whenever they are accused of such. And so the beat goes on.
Superman and Saints
Viewing superheroes as Christ figures is less cringe-making than the Vatican’s canonisation-by-miracle of dead Popes
The Vatican has spoken: Superman is not Jesus. American Christian propagandists and Warner Brothers have been putting out the idea of using the new movie Man of Steel as sermon-fodder. After all, Clark Kent/Superman is sent by his father in the sky, Jor-El, to live on Earth anonymously and humbly (he’s a downtrodden newspaper desk man. That figures). He is ordered to use his special powers to help mankind, must resist temptations, gets wrongly accused, suffers and revives from a three-day coma.
Well, you see where they’re coming from. I have been enjoying the film’s Pastor Resource Site a lot: I only wish I was eligible for a “free pastor screening”, since a cinema full of American clergy might be less rowdy with the popcorn fights and snogging than the usual company in which one finds oneself dutifully absorbing these cultural landmarks.
But L’Osservatore Romano, mouthpiece of the Vatican, doesn’t accept the Jesus idea. Superman, it objects, never turns the other cheek, but fights violence with violence and even allies himself with the US Army (in, to be fair, a fictional crisis rather than a hawkish Middle East intervention, but still unacceptable to the Curia). Moreover, in a separate article (“la Fede dei Supereroi”) the Osservatore points out that Superman is a Methodist. Presumably John Wesley took a detour to convert planet Krypton on that suspiciously long sea-voyage to Savannah.
The paper also reveals, from scholarly examination of certain brightly coloured texts, that Batman is Episcopalian and the Incredible Hulk keeps rosary beads and is therefore Catholic. So is Catwoman, though they throw stern doubt on the feline superheroine’s degree of devoutness. Clothes too tight, presumably. Ben Grimm (the Thing of the Fantastic Four) is Jewish, it seems. Spiderman and Captain America are Protestants.
But L’Osservatore is not happy with a violent American Methodist in blue tights being presented as a Christ figure (even though his Lois Lane is Catholic and virtuous). It seems shortsighted of the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, as it is surely a tribute to the power of the New Testament that from Beowulf to Batman fiction has always been full of Christ figures and redemption allegories. There are those who aver that Babette in Babette’s Feast is Jesus; ditto someone called Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Others find them in John Updike’s Couples and in Hemingway, in Lord of the Flies (Simon), in Spartacus and in Jean Valjean of Les Misérables.
An earnest cadre even finds echoes in the film Scarface: they say that self-sacrificing Tony Montana’s assassin is called the Skull, thus symbolising Golgotha, and that there are the same number of letters between the initials J and C and between T and M.
More overt allegories have always been created by Christian writers. We all know about Aslan in Narnia, although fewer have read C. S. Lewis’s other fiction, a gripping but progressively more preposterous science-fiction trilogy. Here, the cosmic overlord Maleldil gives each planet an “eldil” guardian identified with classical mythology: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and the rest are called down to Earth by a golden-bearded Christ-figure professor to defeat our own eldil, who unfortunately seems to be Satan. They enrol to their cause an undead Merlin disinterred from beneath a Midlands university.
We also spot plenty of Christian allegories in Tolkien, and Harry Potter was shaping up nicely (as J. K. Rowling has admitted) as the latest ultimate sacrificial saviour of mankind until the author somewhat lost her bottle. She has him not only resurrected but prosaically married off to Ginny Weasley, doing the school-train run years later rather than ascending into heaven.
But I digress. We began with the Vatican and the rather more troubling news that while Superman doesn’t cut the mustard, Pope John Paul II is to be canonised; made a saint less than ten years after his death at the same time as Pope John XXIII, who died 50 years ago.
To a widespread Catholic cringe, this lifts once again the veil on the process of canonisation and the requirement for official “miracles” to be ascribed to the virtuous dead. The Church used to demand two, but Pope John XXIII, the Vatican II reformer, has been let off without “attested cures” merely because his body was found uncorrupted when exhumed, although a Professor Gennaro Goglia has reportedly claimed that he was asked to embalm him secretly hours after death.
As for the Polish John Paul II, his “miracles” consist of curing a French nun of Parkinson’s disease and a Costa Rican mother of an aneurysm. The latter woke up to find a magazine with his picture on it by her bed and heard a voice saying: “Get up, do not be afraid.”
I spoke just now of a Catholic cringe because, although I personally am an even less devout figure than Catwoman, long and grumpily alienated from Mother Church by its hierarchical corruptions and obsessive sexual narrowness, I was a cradle Catholic. I still have great affection for its better aspects and people, and know how painful it is for them to contemplate the gruesome superstitious primitivism of canonisation-by-miracle.
It is a relic of a distant time, a device more akin to myth than to living faith or even theology. Before medicine grew up and began to reverse ancient ills, and long before we accepted the power of the hysterical brain over the body, these miracle stories were useful metaphors and inspirations. Outdated now, they no longer help any but the most dangerously credulous.
Yet other myths and metaphors are alive and burn bright in the imaginations of all age groups and nations. They can inspire ideas of altruism and sacrifice and goodness, even as we happily accept that they are pure fictions. Churches would do better to accept and use these stories rather than courting dodgy affidavits from pious South American doctors or devout, but not necessarily well-balanced, former invalids to whom Popes are magazine-cover celebrities.
No. Let John Paul II rest in peace and be judged by his God, and let’s have no more of these artfully spun “saints”. There is healthier inspiration to be found in Aslan and Gandalf, Superman and Spartacus. And, OK, if you insist, Harry Potter.
Why looking backwards is not the way to meet today’s problems.
“There was noticeable hostility to the view of the Churches,” the Archbishop of Canterbury told the General Synod on Friday. He was referring to the debate in the House of Lords on same-sex marriage. He added that there had been an “overwhelming change of cultural hinterland” in social attitudes.
He’s right. Gay marriage will become established and there will come a time when few of its current opponents (including Archbishop Welby) will be exercised by the issue. The same was true of civil partnerships and of decriminalising homosexuality. It was also true of legislation in 1882 to enable married women to own property independently — a reform that the purported defenders of marriage likewise denounced as contrary to the natural order.
Most voters see this. The Church predominantly can’t. Why does it so reliably lag social attitudes? Consider Archbishop Welby’s predecessors. William Temple was influential in debates over the postwar welfare state. But his predecessor, Cosmo Lang, supported the disastrous foreign policies of Neville Chamberlain. Michael Ramsey forcefully opposed racism. But his predecessor, Geoffrey Fisher, foolishly remarked — in Africa — that “all men are not equal in the sight of God though they are equal in the love of God”. Rowan Williams bizarrely declared that adoption of Sharia in some parts of Britain was unavoidable.
The Church eventually acclimatises itself to intellectual discoveries, such as Darwinism, or the expansion of liberty, such as opening civic and military office to non-Anglicans in the 19th century. There are rare scholars who have drawn wisdom from theological reflection, such as the great Protestant ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. But modern secular culture is wiser than the Church. Science and liberalism are critical, whereas religion aims to uncover the true meaning of sacred texts and revelations. Always looking backward, the Church is late in catching up.
Woo Woo Thinking
In a flat expanse of southwest Las Vegas, six miles from the gaudiness and glitz of the Strip, sits the massive South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa. Enter its cavernous “gaming floor” and one is immediately pulled into a world of middle-aged waitresses in skimpy costumes, geriatric gamblers, and men in tanktops - arms invariably graffitied with tattoos—scanning The Racing Form.
But during a four-day stretch in mid-July, these stereotypical Vegas denizens shared the hotel with a very different, very un-Vegas crowd. On the far end of the casino and up an escalator, in a windowless conference center, there was an annual convention taking place called The Amazing Meeting—a gathering known to attendees simply as TAM.
TAM is organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a group devoted to a philosophy called skepticism: the debunking of psychics, mediums, pseudoscientists, faith-healers, homeopaths, and anyone else who makes claims that defy the known laws of science. Skepticism has a wide following—the Internet is littered with self-proclaimed skeptic blogs, podcasts, and forums—and JREF is widely acknowledged to be the movement’s hub. Over 1,000 people attended this year’s conference, which featured an array of panelists and speakers, from magician Penn Jillette to comedian Father Guido Sarducci to Steven Novella, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. (And yes, it was ironic that this militantly rational group decided to hold its annual meeting in a casino.)
The activists of TAM see themselves as waging a broad, multifront battle to drag American culture, inch by inch, away from the nonscientific and the nonlogical. This turns out to be a surprisingly uphill struggle. Probably the majority of Americans believe in some degree of what JREF’s founder, James Randi, calls “woo-woo.” (“Please use woo-woo,” he instructs me. “I’m trying to get it into extensive use.”) In 2005, for instance, Gallup found that 73 percent of Americans subscribed to at least one paranormal belief. Television personalities like John Edward earn huge audiences by purporting to commune with the dead. Numerous Americans swear by homeopathy, ingest supplements with no proven medical benefit, or believe, against all available evidence, that genetically modified organisms might transform humans into tumor-covered golems.
Indeed, whether it’s feng shui consultants rearranging your apartment’s “energies” or alternative medicine advocates pushing dubious internal “cleanses,” woo-woo is very big business in the United States. “People like the flavor of bullshit, the aroma,” Randi says. “It’s very rare that people will stand for a complete lack of bullshit in anything.”
During a 2010 address to TAM, Slate science writer Phil Plait conceded that he “sometimes wonders” if the goals of skepticism are “reasonable.” Not because the arguments themselves are deficient, but because most people aren’t predisposed to question extraordinary claims. “Our brains don’t work that way,” Plait argued, because they “aren’t wired for skeptical thinking. They’re wired for faith.” And therein lies the central challenge for the skeptic movement: if we’re genetically predisposed to magical thinking, if we desire a certain amount of bullshit in our everyday lives, can a group of people ardently opposed to superstition ever really win?
RANDI, A.K.A. James “the Amazing” Randi, is the closest thing the movement—almost everyone I talked to called it “the movement”—has to a leader. Now an energetic 84 years old, his face swathed in a wild, white Charles Darwin beard and eyebrows crawling up his forehead like albino caterpillars, Randi was once one of America’s most recognizable illusionists and escape artists. But in the 1970s, his career took a more serious turn. Like Harry Houdini, who late in life focused his talents on debunking mediums and psychics, Randi turned his attention from performing magic to exposing magic masquerading as the supernatural. (In his bestselling book Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday, Penn Jillette writes, “James Randi is my hero. James Randi is the modern Houdini, except better.”)
In the course of numerous appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Randi introduced Americans to skepticism without labeling it as such. It was on The Tonight Show that he famously assisted Carson, an amateur magician himself, in exposing the popular—and widely believed—spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller. He later replicated Geller’s supposed ability to mind-read for Barbara Walters, who had previously been convinced that his trickery was genuine psychic ability. Carson also gave Randi a platform to expose the television faith healer Peter Popoff, whose divine messages revealing private details of his congregants’ lives were in fact worldly messages from his wife, delivered via a wireless earpiece.
Randi proved to be a relentless proselytizer and prosecutor, attacking a wide range of targets—from the homeopathy industry, which he mocked by consuming an entire bottle of homeopathic “sleeping pills” on stage, to Sniffex, a nonfunctioning bomb-detecting device used by the Iraqi military. When I called him a “debunker,” he replied that he prefers to think of himself as an “investigator” of supernatural claims. But when I asked him if he had ever investigated a psychic phenomenon without debunking it, he chuckled, and said, “That has not happened, no.”
One gets the feeling that he doesn’t expect it to: JREF has long offered a million-dollar prize—officially known as the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge—to anyone who can demonstrate, under strict test conditions, psychic ability. The money still sits untouched in a New York City bank account.
AS SOMEONE largely on board with Randi’s worldview, I nevertheless came to Las Vegas with some questions about the movement. For starters: what does it actually mean to be a skeptic?
“The word is not defined well enough,” Richard Saunders, president of Australian Skeptics, told me. “And it’s used by everybody. The best definition I can give you about where we come from is, we are skeptical of any claim that contradicts the known laws of physics.” Jamy Ian Swiss—another key player in the movement who is, like Randi, a magician—says that skeptics are constantly debating the utility of the label. “I’ve never been involved in a local skeptic group that didn’t get around to saying, ‘Can’t we think of a better word that’s not so negative?’ I’ve never not heard that question.”
JREF’s goal, according to its website, is to “expose paranormal and pseudoscientific frauds in the media, and hold media organizations accountable for promoting dangerous nonsense.” The Skeptics Society, publisher of Skeptic magazine, describes its mission as an effort “to engage leading experts in investigating the paranormal, fringe science, pseudoscience, and extraordinary claims of all kinds, promote critical thinking, and serve as an educational tool for those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint.”
But aren’t these merely descriptions of plain old science? Saunders says there is an important distinction. “We especially go after these claims that are against the laws of physics, while generally science is the study of nature,” he explains. In other words, science tends to ignore ghosts, goblins, levitating yogis, and mind-reading mediums claiming an ability to commune with the dead. “We’re not doing science. We’re advocating for it,” Swiss explains. “We’re advocating for using science as a way to view the world and solve the problems of the world.”
One of the challenges facing skepticism is that any number of different groups have appropriated the word. Holocaust deniers call themselves “Holocaust skeptics.” Those who claim that the MMR vaccine is behind an increase in autism among children are often labeled “vaccine skeptics” in the media.
Such fringe views are clearly rejected by the skeptic movement. The issue of climate change, however, has proven a bit more complicated, and has caused something of an internal rift. Conservatives who doubt that global warming is taking place have labeled themselves “global-warming skeptics,” and their point of view—though very much at odds with the scientific consensus—has made some inroads among skeptics themselves. Randi, for instance, says that while he is “seeing the evidence more in favor of anthropogenically caused global warming,” he is “not totally convinced.” “I’m skeptical of it,” he adds, “and that is a healthy attitude.”
This year’s TAM hosted an address by Michael Mann, a renowned climate scientist and adamant defender of the scientific consensus that global warming is real. His selection as a speaker angered some participants; TAM speaker Robert Sheaffer compared him with a “creationist.” After Mann’s talk, I asked him why people who are skeptical of man-made global warming shouldn’t be considered skeptics. “They reject accepted science based on the flimsiest of arguments that don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny,” he replied. “They are not being skeptical, because their arguments are silly.”
BUT THE arguments over climate change are nothing compared with the biggest rift in the skeptic movement: the rift over God. The debate is not over the existence of God—almost all the skeptics I met at the conference were nonbelievers. Rather, the argument is over whether skepticism should be synonymous with atheism, or whether the two movements should stay separate.
Jamy Ian Swiss, a close-up magician by trade, is one of the chief advocates for the latter view. Swiss lives in Southern California but is New York through and through. He’s voluble and opinionated, delivering withering judgments with the kind of lilting Brooklyn accent that one rarely hears in today’s Brooklyn. He’s a left-wing Jew who disdains religion (“The rabbi and the cantor were such assholes that they turned me into an atheist by the day of my bar mitzvah”) and is obsessed with science. He isn’t an academic, but his references to radical journalist I.F. Stone and knowledge of scientific history might persuade you that he should have been.
Addressing a group of California atheists in 2010, Swiss delivered a barbed speech on the relationship between skepticism and atheism. “Read my lips: there is no fucking God,” he roared. “But that is my personal belief, it’s not my public cause. My cause is scientific skepticism.” After the speech, PZ Myers, a widely read—and notoriously prickly—academic and science blogger, denounced “asshole” Swiss’s “incredibly repellent talk” and announced that he would “no longer consider myself a ‘skeptic.’ ” The skeptic world, as it so frequently does, convulsed with charges, countercharges, ad hominem, and endless debates over whether God is a “testable scientific claim” or whether guys like Swiss were selling out atheism in an effort to expand the movement’s popularity.
At the conference in Las Vegas, I spoke to Daniel Loxton, author of a children’s book on evolution and co-author of the recently released Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. He said that internal debates over atheism were relatively new to the skeptic movement. “After 9/11, some people started thinking tolerance [of religion] is dangerous,” he explained. “And around 2005, with the emergence of podcasts and blogs, a bunch of entry-level skeptics came on the scene, attracted to the ethos of skepticism but their primary concern was atheism.”
These strident atheists had beliefs similar to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and other writers who, in recent years, brought new energy to the atheist cause. The overlap between skepticism and the worldviews of these so-called new atheists was undeniable—and so it was no surprise that many of them gravitated toward JREF and TAM.
Yet not all skeptics were comfortable with new atheism’s growing influence on the movement. Saunders of Australian Skeptics drew a distinction between traditional skepticism and atheism. “I’m what they label a Bigfoot skeptic,” he explains, “which is the old school. I’m interested in looking at proof of paranormal claims, weird creatures, medical healings, spoon bending, talking to the dead—that’s my game.”
Richard Saunders drew a distinction between traditional skepticism and atheism: “I’m interested in looking at proof of paranormal claims, weird creatures, medical healings, spoon bending, talking to the dead—that’s my game.”
At TAM, the old school seemed to be winning the internal fight. Most of the people I met argued that religious believers should be welcome in the movement, as long as they didn’t push ideas like creationism. “I know many religious skeptics, but we stay away from religion—except if someone has a bleeding idol statue,” says Dale Roy, a former science teacher from New Hampshire and founder, with her husband, Travis, of the Granite State Skeptics. Saunders takes a similar position: “In Australian Skeptics, we don’t care if you have a religious outlook.”
Moreover, if not all skeptics must be atheists, it’s also true that not all atheists are skeptics. It was frequently pointed out to me at TAM that comedian Bill Maher, a strident atheist, is dubious about vaccines. Swiss recalls that when he objected to his children reciting the pledge of allegiance in school—with its religious stipulation that ours was a “nation under God”—his wife, also a nonbeliever, created an Atheist Parent Meetup. “One of the parents showed up to the meeting and the first thing she asked one of the other parents was, ‘What’s your sign?’”
Still, no one would deny that skepticism and atheism are, at the very least, closely linked. “Can you be a skeptic and a believer in God? I find it almost impossible to believe,” Randi told me. “As a skeptic, I have to be an atheist as well.” One of Randi’s heroes, the mathematician and ur-skeptic Martin Gardner, identified as a deist. “He said to me, ‘I don’t have any evidence whatsoever for being a deist. I can’t beat you in an argument, but I do it because it makes me feel more comfortable.’ That’s the honest approach.”
SPEND TOO much time amid this infighting and factionalism, and the skeptic movement can start to resemble a meeting of Occupy Wall Street, with its interminable debates over ideological deviation and philosophical purity. But I was reminded of the movement’s value once I was back in the real world—and started noticing just how much woo-woo intrudes upon our daily lives. One night while in Vegas, I met up with a group of friends—who were in town at another, unrelated conference—and I struck up a conversation with a woman who seemed reasonably intelligent and decently informed. Interrupting her soliloquy on the importance of eating natural foods, I mentioned that I was afflicted with type 1 diabetes. Her eyes widened, savoring the opportunity to help. She offered something that no endocrinologist previously had: a possible cure. “Switch to a raw-food diet,” she advised. Now my eyes widened. “You mean that raw food would help lower blood sugar?” I asked. “No, no,” she said with exasperation. “It can cure diabetes.” When I doubted that chewing on uncooked yams would kick-start my crippled pancreas, she accused me of lacking an “open mind.”
Perhaps the best example of the skeptic movement’s tenacious real-world influence has been its battle with a California-based company called Power Balance—manufacturers of wristbands that, when worn, were supposed to improve strength, balance, and flexibility, “safely restoring and optimizing the electro-magnetic balance within the human body,” the company at one point claimed on its website. In 2010 alone, an estimated 2.5 million people wore them. Among those who sported the wristbands were Bill Clinton, David Beckham, Kate Middleton, Shaquille O’Neal, and countless professional athletes. Power Balance was making so much money that, in 2011, it purchased the naming rights to the Sacramento Kings’ arena.
But Saunders smelled a rat. “I saw a report on a news program that said, ‘Look at these amazing wristbands,’ and they did the demonstration. So I wrote to the reporter and said, ‘Look, I know how the tricks work.’ ” The reporter arranged for Saunders and Tom O’Dowd, who owned the right to distribute Power Balance in Australia, to test the bands on national television. “He failed five out of five tests. And that started the avalanche that led to Power Balance’s downfall.” Australian regulators intervened, issuing a finding that forced Power Balance to admit that it was selling a product that didn’t work as it claimed. “In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims,” the company conceded. Soon after, it filed for bankruptcy.
Today, visitors to Power Balance’s website—which is now under new ownership—are met with vague and confusing claims. The bracelet’s hologram sticker, it says, is “designed based on Eastern philosophies” and “many Eastern philosophies contain ideas related to energy ... There are a number of well known practices like acupuncture, meditation and Feng Shu [sic], which are believed to affect these energies. The hologram is based on some of these same ideologies.”
But what was the trick that customers found so convincing? Scroll through YouTube and you’ll find countless videos of people standing on one leg, arms outstretched, being toppled by tanned and toothy pitchmen applying a small bit of pressure above a test subject’s elbow. With the bracelet on, the demonstrator, up against the Power Balance ionic force field, pushes and grunts. The subject remains standing.
At TAM, Liam Jones, a young Australian skeptic, showed me how to do this trick. (Simply put, it involves pushing on subjects’ arms in a slightly different way, depending on whether or not they are wearing the bracelet.) The following day, walking through Las Vegas’s Miracle Mile Mall, I met a fast-talking salesman who offered to sell me something called a T-Band, which looked to me like a Power Balance competitor. For $35, he claimed, this wristband could make me—a reedy writer—stronger, more balanced, and more alert.
Like Power Balance’s website, the T-Band site makes a number of head-scratching claims. “From cell phone towers to mircowaves [sic], these items can emit harmful emissions that can have detrimental effects to our overall health.” “Relevantly, the energy factories within the cells called mitochondria can then produce at its optimum performance level.” And so on. According to his LinkedIn biography, the company’s owner has a “B.S. in Entrepreneurship,” which seemed appropriate. (He didn’t respond to an email request for comment.)
After swatting away my question about the claims against Power Balance (this bit of gummy rubber was “different”), the T-Band salesman had me teetering on one leg, my arms parallel to the ground, and soon plummeting toward the floor. When it was time to test T-Band’s efficacy, my wife, having heard me explain the trick earlier in the day, helpfully intervened: “Let me push.” She toppled me with ease—while the salesman nervously offered to “help” apply pressure in the proper way. Why did the T-Band fail the test? “Sometimes the conditions aren’t right,” he explained. When I returned an hour later, a crowd of credulous—and possibly drunk—tourists was gathered around the T-Band cart, oohing and aahing at the power of this little magical piece of rubber and reaching for their wallets.
VICTORIES LIKE the one over Power Balance give the skeptic movement confidence that impassioned argument can translate into quantifiable, real-world success. “For instance, we have the anti-vaccination people on the ropes in Australia,” says Saunders. “That’s because of our unrelenting pressure.” Indeed, when asked if things are getting better or worse for their enemies, most skeptics I met were cautiously optimistic, citing the rapid growth of their movement and the slight decline in belief in God.
But as Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, observes, “Skeptics, atheists, and militant anti-religionists, in their attempts to undermine belief in a higher power, life after death, and divine providence, are butting up against ten thousand years of history and possibly one hundred thousand years of evolution.” Perhaps this explains why polls measuring the percentage of Americans who believe in ghosts, ESP, and other psychic phenomena show skeptics making at best partial progress. (Some of the numbers seem to be moving in skeptics’ direction, but some don’t: according to a Pew poll, for instance, the number of Americans who believe they have encountered a ghost doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent between 1990 and 2009.)
Many believe that the movement’s insularity and self-confidence is damaging its ability to broaden its impact. In his 2010 speech at TAM, Slate’s Phil Plait offered his allies a harsh bit of advice: if you want to gain converts, he said, “don’t be a dick.” “The tone of what we are doing is decaying,” he admonished, and “vitriol and venom are on the rise.” It was certainly something I noticed in talking to TAM attendees—skeptical questions about skepticism were often met with dramatic eye rolls and you-can’t-be-serious stares. It’s easy to understand why this hubris might not be the best way to win converts.
Randi is mixed in his assessment of whether his movement is winning. “It’s better in many ways,” he says. “We have many good people, well-educated people, on our side who never really bothered about it before. But I think the numbers are going the other way in the regular populace, because of the media.” Both Randi and Swiss accuse the media—specifically the talk-show industry—of spreading junk science. “Generally speaking, they don’t care very much if what they are reporting is absolutely true, nor do they care if it harms other people—either emotionally or financially,” Randi says.
“We have many good people,” Randi says, “well-educated people, on our side that never really bothered about it before. But I think the numbers are going the other way in the regular populace, because of the media.”
But it isn’t just TV, or even mainly TV, that has proved to be a key factor in the struggle between skepticism and its adversaries. The Internet has also had an enormous impact. On the one hand, it has strengthened the skepticism movement by allowing it to reach more and more people. Yet it has simultaneously strengthened the anti-vaccination crowd, the homeopathy industry, and any number of similar movements. By breaking elite monopolies on information, the Internet has allowed pseudoscience to access ever-larger audiences.
Meanwhile, many of the people and ideas once discredited by skeptics keep coming back. A recent softball BBC documentary on the psychic Uri Geller shows him living in a stately English country house, a Brideshead built on bent spoons. He now tours as a motivational speaker and hosts various Geller-branded television programs. TV medium John Edward refuses to be tested by JREF, according to Randi, but still sells out major venues all over the country (a $160 ticket includes “question-and-answer sessions and messages from the other side”). Power Balance might have gone bankrupt, but it’s back in business with new owners and new celebrity pitchmen. Peter Popoff, the faith healer Randi long ago exposed on Johnny Carson’s show, is currently separating the sick from their savings by selling packets of “Miracle Spring Water.”
But the intractability of woo-woo and religious belief hasn’t dented Randi’s spirit. His war against bullshit continues, even if it sometimes feels like a series of World War I–style battles—a little ground gained, a little ground lost, and it’s impossible to tell who is winning. When we talk of the future, he grins and lifts up his hand, displaying a new wedding ring. “Shhh,” he says, “I’m going to announce it at the conference.” Last month, at age 84, Randi traveled from Florida—where gay marriages aren’t legal—to Washington, D.C., in order to marry his partner, a pony-tailed Venezuelan national named Deyvi Pena. And it occurs to me that Randi’s marriage, long prevented by a legal adherence to religious dogma and superstition, is something of a victory for skepticism.
Amelia Thomson-Deveaux has a great piece about religious groups that are trying to remove restrictions on church-based electioneering. She suggests that rather than gutting the rules, there's a simple fix, "Religious leaders who want the liberty to endorse candidates can give up their churches’ tax deduction."
I would go one further. Let's tax churches! All of them, in a non-discriminatory way that doesn't consider faith or creed or level of political engagement. There's simply no good reason to be giving large tax subsidies to the Church of Scientology or the Diocese of San Diego or Temple Rodef Shalom in Virginia or the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion church around the corner from me. Whichever faith you think is the one true faith, it's undeniable that the majority of this church-spending is going to support false doctrines. Under the circumstances, tax subsidies for religion are highly inefficient.
What's more, even insofar as tax subsidies do target the true faith they're still a pretty bad idea. The basic problem with subsidized religion is that there's no reason to believe that religion-related expenditures enhance productivity. When a factory spends more money on plant and equipment then it can produce more goods per worker. But soul-saving doesn't really work this way. Upgrading a church's physical plant doesn't enhance the soul-saving capacity of its clergy. You just get a nicer building or a grander Christmas pageant. There's nothing wrong with that. When I was young I always enjoyed the Grace Church Christmas pageant. But this is just a kind of private entertainment (comparable to spending money on snacks for your book club—and indeed what are Bible study groups but the original book clubs?) that doesn't need an implicit subsidiy.
Meanwhile, nobody thinks churches and other religious institutions should silence themselves on the important issues of the day. On the contrary, discussing moral action is at the heart of many religious enterprises. And much moral action plays itself out in the arena of politics. So trying to say that churches should get subsidy when they don't endorse candidates is de facto a kind of subsidy to religious doctrines whose views happen to lack strong partisan implications. So if your faith says "abortion should be illegal and spending on the poor should be increased and it's too bad neither candidate supports that" you're golden, but if your faith says "abortion should be legal and spending on the poor should be increased so good for Barack Obama" suddenly you're in trouble. That's perverse. Just make everyone pay taxes.
Conservative Christians and Trans-Genders
One of the most frustrating, and often infuriating things about religious conservatives is their stubborn penchant for dividing the world into either/or categories. People are either straight or gay, white or black, male or female, religious or atheist. And of course if you're on the right side of the dichotomy, you're on the right side of God. Anyone else is at best inferior and at worst, a sinner damned to hell.
We see this kind of thinking in a Washington Post On Faith post by Russell D. Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore tackles California's new law protecting the rights of transgender students, allowing them to freely use bathrooms or locker rooms they feel fits their gender identity.
Moore emphasizes that Jesus tells us we are born "male and female" and the existence of transgender people "who feel alienated from their identities as men or as women" is simply the result of the "fallen" nature of our world—since we, as humans, are alienated from God because of our sinfulness that we inherited from Adam.
Really, it's enough to make you scream. Instead of, oh, I don't know, turning to science to explain why one person's brain feels differently about gender than another person's brain, evangelical Christians keep referencing an unscientific book that knows absolutely nothing about gender variance and modern discoveries about biology and the brain.
Honestly, it's not an affront to God to look for sources written later than 3,000 years ago by a bunch of guys who were mostly concerned with proving and spreading their own religious view of the world. God does, indeed, intend for us to use our brains, and when modern science can clearly show that transgenderism has biological origins (and isn't caused by a "fall" or "sin"), it must gall God for us to keep referring to ancient texts to deny the findings.
But, male and female (and the supremacy of the male part) is the dichotomy that underpins the entire conservative Christian worldview. What most on the religious right don't understand, and frankly are most offended by, are male-to-female transgender people. I mean, who would want to give up the right (and privileged) side of the dichotomy to enter into the left (and clearly inferior) side? To want that must indeed be "sinful" since you're going further away from God than closer. (This, by the way, is why the religious right is most offended by gay men whom they see as playing a "female" role, while lesbians are of little concern.)
The fact is, we are not all born into that male/female dichotomy. Science is continuing to discover that differences in the brain can account for why someone feels like they are "trapped in the body of the wrong sex." Spanish researchers have found differences in the white matter of the brain between transgender people and those who are not. Patricia Churchland, in her new book Touching a Nerve, takes the reader on a short tour of neurological differences that can occur during fetal development. She points to differences found, at autopsy, in the subcortical area of the thalamus called the "bed nucleus of the stria terminalis," or BNST, which is usually twice as large in males as in females. For female-to-male transgender people who have been studied, "the BNST looks like that of a typical male," she writes.
But, the religious right could never be accused of letting scientific facts get in the way of that "you're a sinner going to hell" story.
"The transgender question means that conservative Christian congregations such as mine must teach what's been handed down to us, that our maleness and femaleness points us to an even deeper reality, to the unity and complementarity of Christ and the church," Moore writes.
Which gets it completely wrong. The conservative church has been teaching "what's been handed down to us" for far too long. They taught "what was handed down to us" about people of color, about women, about gays and lesbians, heck, even about left-handed people being "of the devil."
Here's an idea for my conservative brothers and sisters: Instead of teaching "what's been handed down" to you—namely the condemnation of people of which you disapprove (like people of color, women, gays and transgender people)—how about:
"Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater ..."
Evangelicals and End Times
I'm starting to think evangelicals should be barred from holding public office. If your religious cult thinks an apocalyptic war is a great way to honor your gods, then you shouldn't be making foreign policy decisions for the rest of us who don't follow your bloody handed deity of choice.
This is just what this debacle needs....Evangelical nonsense based on Revelations and a deathwish for global war in the mistaken belief that this is what God wants.
Why do people believe nonsense like this? I'm seriously asking...it just doesn't make sense to me.
It feels good to believe it. (if you can).
* The end is coming and this life doesn't matter. (aka, so what if you are a fark up. This life doesn't count and you get a do-over)
* We True Believers (TM) are special so are you as long as you are with us! We have a magic sky wizard and for us the end times is a BLESSING!
* You don't have to work your ass off or try to make the world better, just pray really hard and don't bother your pretty little head about reality.
It's a pretty sweet belief if you can swallow it. Lack of responsibility, no burden to succeed or think critically. Just "believe" and carry on and everything will be awesome for you.
Noah's Ark Was Unpossible
Today we're going to have a bit of fun and shine the light of science on an ancient story. It is said that a gigantic wooden ship once carried a family and two of every kind of animal to safety, when the entire world was flooded. Noah's Ark sailed for five months, then rested aground, sheltering its multitudinous crew for more than a year.
The elephant in the room here is that it's virtually impossible to do an episode on this subject without having it sound like an attack on Christianity. I argue that it's not at all; the majority of Christians, when you combine the numerous denominations, don't insist that the Noah story is a literal true account. And, as has been pointed out many times, the Bible is hardly the only place where various versions of the Noah story are found. The most famous parallel, of course, is the Epic of Gilgamesh, wherein one of the many Babylonian gods charged the man Utnapishtim to build an ark, in a story that parallels Noah's in all the major details and most of the minor ones. It is perfectly plausible that all such stories stem from an actual event, the details of which are lost to history, but that might well account for the stories we have today of a boat and a flood. But regardless, in this episode I'm not going to address any issues of faith, but only of science. We want to look at the engineering plausibility of Noah's great ship.
Noah's Ark was a great rectangular box of gopherwood, or perhaps some combination of other woods colloquially referred to as gopherwood. Its dimensions are given as 137 meters long, 23 meters wide, and 14 meters high. This is very, very big; it would have been the longest wooden ship ever built. These dimensions rank it as one of history's greatest engineering achievements; but they also mark the start of our sea trials, our test of whether or not it's possible for this ship to have ever sailed, or indeed, been built at all.
Would it have been possible to find enough material to build Noah's Ark? When another early supership was built, the Great Michael (completed in Scotland in 1511) it was said to have consumed "all the woods of Fife". Fife was a county in Scotland famous for its shipbuilding. The Great Michael's timber had to be purchased and imported not only from other parts of Scotland, but also from France, the Baltic Sea, and from a large number of cargo ships from Norway. Yet at 73 meters, she was only about half the length of Noah's Ark. Clearly a ship twice the length of the Great Michael, and larger in all other dimensions, would have required many times as much timber. It's never been clearly stated exactly where Noah's Ark is said to have been built, but it would have been somewhere in Mesopotamia, probably along either the Tigris or Euphrates rivers. This area is now Iraq, which has never been known for its abundance of shipbuilding timber.
In 2003, a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Jose Solis, created a proposal to build the Ark for Noah based on sound naval architecture. He proposed a dead weight — the weight of the wooden structure alone minus cargo and ballast — as 3,676 tons. Fully loaded, it would have displaced 13,000 tons, as compared to the Great Michael's 1,000 that consumed "all the wood of Fife". Where would all that wood have come from? In his proposal, Solis simply skipped this detail, and assumed the wood was commercially available at a cost of $16,472,040 in 2003 dollars. Tens of thousands of massive timber-quality trees would have to have been imported into the middle of what's now Iraq. Did Noah have the resources to import from France, Norway, or anywhere else?
But if the Ark did get built, it would be necessary to overcome its extraordinary fragility. Recall that when the Titanic sank, that massive steel structure tore completely in half simply because one end was heavier than the other. Just that difference in weight was sufficient to tear open many decks of reinforced steel that had been engineered to the day's toughest standards. Were Titanic a wooden box instead of rigid steel, you (as a giant) could destroy it just by swishing your finger in the water next to it.
Allow me to explain. What's known as the square-cube law is pretty familiar: increase an object's dimensions, and its surface area increases by the square of the multiplier, and its weight increases by the cube of the multiplier. But one extension of this law is less familiar. When we scale up an object — take a wooden structural beam as an example — the strength of the beam does not increase as fast as its weight. Applied mechanics and material sciences give us all the tools we need to compute this. In summary, the tensile strength of a beam is a function of its moment and its section modulus. No need to go into the complicated details here — you can look up beam theory on Wikipedia if you want to learn the equations. Scale up a simple wooden beam large enough, the weight will exceed its strength, and it will break from its own weight alone. Scaled up to the immense size of Noah's Ark, a stout wooden box would be unspeakably fragile.
If there was even the gentlest of currents, sufficient pressure would be put on the hull to open its seams. Currents are not a complete, perfectly even flow. They consist of eddies and slow-moving turbulence. This puts uneven pressure on the hull, and Noah's Ark would bend with those eddies like a snake. Even if the water itself was perfectly still, wind would expose the flat-sided Ark's tremendous windage, exerting a shearing force that might well crumple it.
Whether a wooden ship the size of Noah's Ark could be made seaworthy is in grave doubt. At 137 meters (450 feet), Noah's Ark would be the largest wooden vessel ever confirmed to have been built. In recorded history, some dozen or so wooden ships have been constructed over 90 meters; few have been successful. Even so, these wooden ships had a great advantage over Noah's Ark: their curved hull shapes. Stress loads are distributed much more efficiently over three dimensionally curved surfaces than they are over flat surfaces. But even with this advantage, real-world large wooden ships have had severe problems. The sailing ships the 100 meter Wyoming (sunk in 1924) and 99 meter Santiago (sunk in 1918) were so large that they flexed in the water, opening up seams in the hull and leaking. The 102 meter British warships HMS Orlando and HMS Mersey had such bad structural problems that they were scrapped in 1871 and 1875 after only a few years in service. Most of the largest wooden ships were, like Noah's Ark, unpowered barges. Yet even those built in modern times, such as the 103 meter Pretoria in 1901, required substantial amounts of steel reinforcement; and even then needed steam-powered pumps to fight the constant flex-induced leaking.
Even in the world of legend, only two other ships are said to have approached the size claimed for Noah's Ark. One was the Greek trireme Tessarakonteres at 127 meters, the length and existence of which is known only by the accounts of Plutarch and Athenaeus. Plutarch said of her:
But this ship was merely for show; and since she differed little from a stationary edifice on land, being meant for exhibition and not for use, she was moved only with difficulty and danger.
The other example is the largest of the Chinese treasure ships built by the admiral Zheng He in the 15th century, matching Noah's 137 meters, but only in the highest estimates. Many believe the biggest ships Zheng took with him on his seven voyages were no bigger than half that size, and moreover, that they remained behind in rivers and were not suitably seaworthy for ocean travels.
The long and the short of it is that there's no precedent for a wooden ship the size of Noah's Ark being seaworthy, and plenty of naval engineering experience telling us that it wouldn't be expected to work. Even if pumps had been installed and all hands worked round the clock pumping, the Ark certainly would have leaked catastrophically, filled with water, and capsized.
There's another elephant in the room, too, that is necessary to address. Many of the problems with the Noah story are often answered, by those who regard it as a literal true account, with a special pleading. A special pleading is when any question is answered with "It was done by a higher power that you and I are not qualified to understand or question." Obviously, every point that science might raise regarding the Noah story can be fully answered with a special pleading. Superman, Underdog, and The Jetsons can shown to be literal true accounts if we allow special pleadings to be admissable. If the special pleading of divine intervention did indeed come into play during the Great Flood, then it was the most flagrant Rube Goldberg solution I've ever heard of. If divine intervention was needed to give Noah knowledge of how to build the Ark, or to provide the wood for its construction; then why not just provide an already-completed ark? Why bring the animals on board to be fed for a year or more, when divine intervention could have provided them an island? For that matter, why have the entire flood at all, when divine intervention could have simply struck down the evil humans with a plague? Why construct this most elaborate of all disaster and survival scenarios, some part of which was dependent on divine intervention; when divine intervention could have easily made the entire ordeal unnecessary? Special pleadings dismiss the true sciences that have allowed us to build real ships and conquer the world. Looking at the reality of what's possible and how things are done is always more interesting than imagining what's possible when anything is possible.
When did the church accept that the Earth moves around the sun?
We know that the Catholic church has a troubled history with the idea of heliocentrism, but when did this history become history? What year would Galileo have gotten away with publishing his book?
In 1632, Galileo and the Catholic Church had a little spat. You may have heard about it. It was partly because he had evidence that contradicted the prevailing geocentric worldview, and partly because, while presenting that evidence, he called the pope a dummy. While it's doubtful that any pope would have warmed to the second offense, few people know when the church changed its opinion on the first offense.
The answer is, 'when it had to,' which turned out to be in 1822. For the centuries beforehand, heliocentrism became a battle ground for different religions and religious factions. As Protestantism and Catholicism battled it out for religious supremacy, whichever religion gave ground on the geocentric model of the universe was accused by the other of turning away from the scriptures. As a result, both stood firm on an immobile Earth.
In schools, things made a bit more progress. For much of the 1700s, people insisted that both models should be taught to students. (Sound familiar?) Once both models were being taught, with both professional and amateur astronomers proliferating, the geocentric model continuously lost ground. It simply didn't support the growing body of data that scientists were accumulating. As astronomers stopped believing in geocentrism, schools stopped teaching it, and it was good and dead, academically, by the 1800s.
So when the Catholic church convened a college of cardinals and let people know that the books about the heliocentric model of the universe would now be "permitted," there was some public amusement. Amazingly, there were still strict Protestant sects that forbade the teaching of the heliocentric model. The dates on which they relented (if they ever did) are unrecorded.
Beliefs Always Trump Facts
Yale law school professor Dan Kahan's new research paper is called "Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government," but for me a better title is the headline on science writer Chris Mooney's piece about it in Grist: "Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math."
Kahan conducted some ingenious experiments about the impact of political passion on people's ability to think clearly. His conclusion, in Mooney's words: partisanship "can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills.... [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs."
In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions. It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn't the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we're rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.
For years my go-to source for downer studies of how our hard-wiring makes democracy hopeless has been Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth.
Nyan and his collaborators have been running experiments trying to answer this terrifying question about American voters: Do facts matter?
The answer, basically, is no. When people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct those errors only makes them cling to their beliefs more tenaciously.
Here's some of what Nyhan found:
People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it.
People who thought George W. Bush banned all stem cell research kept thinking he did that even after they were shown an article saying that only some federally funded stem cell work was stopped.
People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama's economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year - a rising line, adding about a million jobs. They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same. Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.
But if, before they were shown the graph, they were asked to write a few sentences about an experience that made them feel good about themselves, a significant number of them changed their minds about the economy. If you spend a few minutes affirming your self-worth, you're more likely to say that the number of jobs increased.
In Kahan's experiment, some people were asked to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes, and some people were asked to interpret a different table -- containing the same numbers -- about whether a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns reduced crime.
Kahan found that when the numbers in the table conflicted with people's positions on gun control, they couldn't do the math right, though they could when the subject was skin cream. The bleakest finding was that the more advanced that people's math skills were, the more likely it was that their political views, whether liberal or conservative, made them less able to solve the math problem.
I hate what this implies -- not only about gun control, but also about other contentious issues, like climate change. I'm not completely ready to give up on the idea that disputes over facts can be resolved by evidence, but you have to admit that things aren't looking so good for reason. I keep hoping that one more photo of an iceberg the size of Manhattan calving off of Greenland, one more stretch of record-breaking heat and drought and fires, one more graph of how atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen in the past century, will do the trick. But what these studies of how our minds work suggest is that the political judgments we've already made are impervious to facts that contradict us.
Maybe climate change denial isn't the right term; it implies a psychological disorder. Denial is business-as-usual for our brains. More and better facts don't turn low-information voters into well-equipped citizens. It just makes them more committed to their misperceptions. In the entire history of the universe, no Fox News viewers ever changed their minds because some new data upended their thinking. When there's a conflict between partisan beliefs and plain evidence, it's the beliefs that win. The power of emotion over reason isn't a bug in our human operating systems, it's a feature.
The Problem With Religious Rules
Two Orthodox Rabbis and eight of their affiliates were arrested last week in New Jersey and New York. Their crime? They intended to kidnap an Orthodox man who refused to grant his wife a divorce, torture him, and obtain a get – basically, a statement from the man that approves the divorce. For this they were reportedly paid at least $60,000 (though in fairness $10K was used to pass a rabbinical decree permitting violence against the husband).
And Rabbi Epstein's prolific career (he had at least two dozen victims, probably more) raises a profound question about religion. Namely: why is it easier to subvert and disrespect religious rules than simply change them? Why is it easier to kidnap and torture husbands into granting a divorce than to simply institute egalitarian divorce?
Perhaps it’s because changing divorce laws could theoretically challenge other patriarchal Orthodox theological principles. Additionally, change always threatens the very premise of many conservative religious groups: that they are manifestations of original, true religion, distinct from the turbulent, sinful modern world. Adopting the divorce laws of the outside world could potentially undermine the very legitimacy of the community. Because of this, it’s often easier to find work-arounds to rules and traditions than to change them - even if the work-around is violent or bizarre.
In this environment, updating divorce laws is practically necessary but politically and ideologically impossible. Pressuring men into granting divorces becomes an option that does not challenge the legitimacy of Orthodox Judaism while allowing women in exceptional circumstances (and, critically, with financial resources) to get a divorce.
Which is why the explanation that Epstein simply did this “for the money”, as the prosecutor said, misses the point. Epstein did something crucial: he made a religious rule that wasn’t working function. Sure, he profited personally out of it. Sure, his method was repugnant. But he also helped those suffering under the Orthodox Jewish divorce system. He made the system work. That, you might argue, is itself a religious duty.
Of course, Orthodox Judaism isn’t the only religion with “work-arounds”; all communities, religious and non-, have rules that no longer function but, for whatever reason, haven't been changed. These rules thus require complex solutions to simultaneously maintain and subvert the rule.
Some religions in some ages, including Islam, divide people and hinder free expression between them.
Richard Dawkins’s autobiography has attracted venemous reaction. I have to interview him next month and so have been reading An Appetite for Wonder carefully and listening to the famous atheist’s detractors too. The same criticisms keep cropping up: “conceited”, “aggressive”, “intolerant”, “rude”.
Is it fair for an unbeliever to attack the faiths of others when he has nothing to recommend in their place? It is this, and not Dawkins’s supposed vanity nor even his beliefs, or lack of them, that really riles his critics. I know so after decades of hearing readers’ reactions to my own writing. What infuriates believers is the impression that an unbeliever is actually preaching unbelief. People hate this in Dawkins.
Their objection has apparent force. “Atheism” implies only an absence, they say. Why crusade for a blank? Atheism should be a shrug of the shoulders, not a raised fist. Why go on about it? This is the first and central charge against Dawkins.
Rasher critics make a second charge, and one I’m also used to hearing: that atheism is a logical impossibility because you cannot know that something does not exist: you can only doubt. You might be missing something that believers can see. To this view, the only appropriate alternative to belief is doubt.
I can answer that briskly. It’s true we cannot wholly “know” anything; apparently solid objects may be mirages; seemingly empty spaces may contain things invisible; but we cannot so much as throw off our duvets without proceeding on a series of working assumptions. The Pope’s is that God exists. Dawkins’s is that He doesn’t. Both are within their rights.
So Dawkins is entitled to his atheism. But is he right to preach it? And is his animus against Christianity appropriate? I answer “possibly not” to the second and “yes” to the first.
The objection that faith alone is entitled to crusade ignores an important truth about human nature. Ideas need sponsors. Atheism is not just the absence of an idea; it is itself an idea, a belief, as much a belief as our modern belief that mad people are not possessed by demons. We are all ademonists even though we remain largely ignorant as to what does cause madness. In some communities ademonists have to struggle against a prevailing demonism with no alternative science of their own to offer. May they not crusade against the casting out of demons?
A God would be the most important thing in the world. His absence would be of equally huge significance: an absence that atheists would have a duty to proclaim. Faith makes enormous claims and does its best to order the world accordingly; it follows that disbelief has profound consequences too.
The atheist must rethink the world and the structure of his ideas; he must find new footholds for
moral knowledge. The day when he concludes that he can see no God is not, for him, an admission of blindness but an opening of his eyes in new directions.
Throughout the history of ideas, Denial has often required Assertion. When it occurred to women that the theory of male superiority was empty, when it occurred to slaves that there was no case for their subjection, when it occurred to doctors that the bodily humours did not exist . . . these conversions represented more than the death of old ideas; and ended in the birth of new ones.
However, old ideas are sticky, and humans cling. Belief systems do not form and flow, rise and fall on their inherent properties alone and according to the laws of logic, like blobs in a lava-lamp with the frictionless automaticity of a GCSE physics demonstration of convection. Wrong ideas that should sink can rise, propelled by the sword; right ideas that should rise can fall, victims of their sponsors’ complacency. Believers are right to evangelise; and non-believers to evangelise our unbelief.
How stridently? Whenever as a columnist I overdo the impertinence, I feel ashamed later if nice people have felt wounded. I doubt Dawkins cares too much. I myself would not have approved of the militant suffragettes’ stunts; as a Tory proponent of homosexual equality I found Peter Tatchell’s antics embarrassing; my two sisters’ campaign against bullfighting seems obsessive to me. But truths need sword-bearers as well as diplomats and I’m steadily coming to respect firebrands more.
So why would I now argue that atheists should go easy on the Church? Because Christianity is mankind’s most serviceable road to atheism — a road that Dawkins’s memoir reveals he himself once trod.
I’ve been spending time recently in offshore Malaysia, a nation where Islam has been steadily gaining ground. Driving in Sabah on Borneo, I note the advance of the veil — not the full veil, but the complete covering of a woman’s head apart from her face. I cannot pretend this does not sadden me. We round a bend in the road and reach a community with churches, where pork and beer are advertised by the roadside, and something in my spirits rises, though I crave neither pork, alcohol nor prayer. A veil has lifted.
With some religions in some ages — and I think that Islam today is one — the veil is truly symbolic because a kind of curtain comes down between you and another individual, as individuals. The other human being is in thrall to something, blocking frank communication. I don’t like the screening off of a human’s individuality, blurring her or him to you, veiling their spirit. I don’t like the veil and I don’t like the religion that makes it. I have the same reaction to Jewish Hassidim in their excluding black garb in North London. I feel these people have been captured by something, and I want to tell their children that it isn’t compulsory and that they can choose. I hate to see free spirits in thrall.
So to my question. Free spirits or thraldom: which side is Christianity on? Here I think Dawkins may miss something.
Very, very broadly, with a thousand exceptions, after making every kind of qualification, taking a global view, and allowing for some ghastly counter-examples, I think Christianity is on the side of the free spirit. In teaching a direct and unmediated link between the individual and God, it can liberate, releasing people from fear (as I’ve seen missionaries do), freeing people from the weight of their own culture, empowering them to stand up for themselves, to love and to respect themselves. Christianity can smash the metaphysics that entrap cultures.
It does this (I would concede to Dawkins) by substituting its own metaphysics in the form of a single, all-powerful, personal, loving God. Dawkins and I believe that God to be a fiction, but like a gateway you pass through, like the learner-wheels that first enabled us to balance alone on a bicycle, the Christian God can equip the individual with a kind of cosmic confidence. Later the wheels can be removed and the deity withdrawn.
As he reveals in his autobiography, Dawkins went through an adolescent stage of religious enthusiasm. He should ask himself whether this acted to dull his appetite for the truth. I submit that the very hymns he loved to sing may have sharpened his appetite for meaning, even though, in time, he shed the truths they offered him. Right at its heart, Christianity gives the individual the opportunity to reject God. To be taught that we are the masters of our own souls is of the most colossal importance.
Britain: Religion and the Law
Christianity no longer holds sway in the legal system, one of the country’s most senior judges said yesterday, declaring that courts must serve a multicultural community of many faiths.
Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, said that judges should not “weigh one religion against another”, or pass judgment on their tenets and beliefs. He added: “Happily for us, the days are past when the business of judges was the enforcement of morals or religious beliefs.”
Sir James, addressing family lawyers, was outlining the “enormous changes in the social and religious life of our country”. Victorian judges were expected to promote virtue and discourage vice with “a very narrow view of sexual morality”, he said. The Christian Church also had a dominant influence.
Today judges had rightly abandoned their claims to be “guardians of public morality”, just as Christian clerics had “by and large moderated their claims to speak as the defining voices of morality and of the law of marriage and the family”.
Sir James said: “We live in this country in a democratic and pluralistic society, in a secular state, not a theocracy. Although this country is part of the Christian West, and although it has an Established Church, which is Christian, we sit as secular judges serving a multicultural community of many faiths, sworn to do justice to all manner of people.”
Courts these days recognised no religious distinctions and, generally, passed no judgment on religious beliefs or on the tenets, doctrines or rules of any particular section of society.
“All are entitled to respect, so long as they are ‘legally and socially acceptable’ and not ‘immoral or socially obnoxious’ or ‘pernicious’.”
Sir James’s comments are the latest by a senior member of the Establishment to underline that multiculturalism has ousted Britain’s once-prevailing ethos of a Christian-dominated society.
Dr Rowan Williams, who until last year was the Archbishop of Canterbury, provoked a political and religious row when, in 2008, he tried to argue that the adoption of aspects of Sharia was “inevitable”.
The 2011 Census showed that 33.2 million people, or 59.3 per cent, in England and Wales said that they were Christian, down from 71.1 per cent in 2001. The next largest faith group were Muslims, at 2.7 million, or 4.8 per cent, but there was a rise from 14.8 per cent to 25 per cent of those with “no religion”.
Sir James, speaking at a conference organised by the Law Society, said that family law, within limits, would also tolerate things that “society as a whole may find undesirable”. Where the line should be drawn could be a matter of controversy, he said. “There is no ‘bright-line’ test that the law can set.”
He identified as “beyond the pale”, forced marriage (to be distinguished from arranged marriage); female genital mutilation and “so-called, if grotesquely misnamed, ‘honour-based’ domestic violence”.
Some aspects of even mainstream religious belief might also fall foul of public policy, he said, such as a Court of Appeal ruling that a “marriage” valid under Sharia was not entitled to recognition in English law.
The courts would give effect to manifestations of religious belief only if in accordance with a child’s best interests, Sir James added. “In matters of religion, as in all other aspects of a child’s upbringing, the interests of the child are the paramount consideration.”
He said that religious belief, however conscientious and ancient and respectable the religion, could never “immunise the believer from the reach of the secular law”.
Recent years had seen “enormous changes in the social and religious life or our country”, Sir James said. “We live in a largely secular society which, insofar as it remains religious at all, is now increasingly diverse in religious affiliation.”
Whatever the particular believer’s faith was not the “business of government or of the secular courts”, he said, “although, of course, the courts will pay every respect to the individual’s or family’s religious principles”.
What They Do, Not What They Believe
The conservative National Catholic Register worries not just about the contraception mandate, but also about cases such as that of the Christian baker or caterer who must equally serve gay and straight couples—not because legalized same sex marriage requires it, but because state anti-discrimination laws do. One person's discrimination is another person's religious freedom, apparently. From the Register:
Those with vision understand that all this has been orchestrated for the purpose of driving religion from the public square entirely. This has always been the goal. Gay marriage? Who cares really? At most, gays represent 2% of the population and those who actually wish to be married are only a small subset of that already small subset. So why has this gay marriage push been the main focus of secularists and progressives for the last 20 years? Simply to push religion out of public policy entirely.
The panic embedded in that account of the gay rights movement is driving Republican lawmakers to try to make laws prohibiting actions that haven't happened, and won't. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), introduced legislation this week, the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which would prevent the Internal Revenue Service from revoking the tax-exempt status of churches who oppose same-sex marriage. (A similar bill was already introduced in the House.)
"We need not just statements, but we need legislation to protect religious liberty from this kind of potential threat," Lee told the Examiner. "What I would like to do is make sure that we go out of our way to protect churches from adverse action that could be taken against them as a result of their doctrinal views of the definition of marriage," he added, in response to a non-existent threat that the Obama administration will retaliate against opponents of marriage equality.
"This basic freedom is under attack by the current administration. This bill will protect groups from administrative attacks, such as additional hurdles with taxes or obtaining federal grants or contracts," said Sen. David Vitter (R-LA).
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says the bill would "bar the federal government from discriminating against individuals and organizations based upon their religiously-motivated belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage. The Act provides broad protections against adverse federal actions directed toward individuals and organizations that act on such beliefs."
This panic builds on the one from last spring, in which evangelical groups charged the IRS was subjecting them to "viewpoint discrimination." But the historical issue driving this—the revocation of Bob Jones University's tax exempt status in the 1970s, because of its ban on interracial dating—became an issue because the University was discriminating against non-white students, not because it believed the Bible prohibited interracial dating. Similarly, the government is entitled to enforce anti-discrimination laws if an institution is actually discriminating against a protected person, such as a caterer discriminating against a gay person in a state whose civil rights laws consider sexual orientation a protected class. They're not prosecuted for their beliefs, they are prosecuted for their actions. What's more, the government does not inquire into a church's beliefs when considering whether to grant or revoke tax exempt status.
It serves the interests of the religious freedom panic squad to portray a danger of squelching their religious beliefs, and pretend the government is against them solely because of what they believe, not because of what they do. It almost makes you forget other people are involved.
The Supreme Court in Britain has ruled that Scientologists can marry in their own church because their practices amount to “worship”. This overturns a 1970 ruling that religions must have a “supreme being”, such as Ralph Richardson in the film Time Bandits, or God. What to say, beyond the observation that Scientology is clearly the world’s silliest religion? (Scientologists dislike the word “cult”, so I will not call it “the world’s silliest cult”.)
They believe, among other things, that 75m years ago a galactic dictator called Xenu killed large numbers of people to reduce the population of the planets and brought their frozen souls, known as Thetans, to Earth, which was then called Teegeeack. He then placed them near volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. These souls loiter and make us crabby unless we know how to deal with them — which is, obviously, by joining Tom Cruise and John Travolta in becoming a Scientologist.
Not that we should know about Xenu. He is hidden in the church’s “advanced technology”, which is supposed to be viewed only by sophisticated believers. Mention “space aliens” and Scientologists get angry and walk out of interviews.
The religion’s founder, L Ron Hubbard — who was also, not coincidentally, a successful science fiction writer — reportedly said that he wanted to found a religion because it was profitable. Scientologists also deny this — who wouldn’t?
Do we care? It’s difficult for an agnostic to resist one improbable creation myth and not another. We must ignore the seniority that older religions demand and have equality in lunacy. Xenu and the frozen alien souls is so fantastical that it makes the resurrection, and even a burning bush that talks oddly like a Jewish mother, sound dull. (“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals.”)
The delight, as ever, is in the detail. Ask the Mormons, who have an angel called Moroni. Even so, can one say that Xenu is less probable than Yahweh? Or that there is more evidence for the resurrection than there is for Moroni and his golden testaments buried in the earth? (Inevitably, they got lost.)
Last week I watched women kiss the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem until they were pulled away by a priest for monopolising the shrine; is this really less weird than thinking that Hubbard, of all people, was the one who saw the truth? As Martin Amis observed in his novel Money, “practically every human activity has its fans by now”.
Critics of Scientology will say let us stick with Jesus, a known quantity. I disagree: the law must be fair. Far more troubling, and less amusing, than Scientology’s creation myth are the alleged bullying of apostates; the purported demands that believers must sometimes separate themselves from their families; the expense of discovering Xenu. And why all the celebrities? Is Scientology the religious wing of Hello! magazine?
What now — will there be free schools, charitable status, tax benefits? This must all be pondered, but meanwhile let Scientologist wed Scientologist under a canopy of loon and let me laugh at them.
Separation of Church and State
Not being allowed governmental favoritism doesn’t take away your rights. It simply keeps your rights where they are and doesn’t take away the rights of others. Former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin recently made disparaging remarks about "atheists armed with lawyers." She apparently has an issue with court rulings that keep government from endorsing a specific religion. But for everyone who respects the secular foundations of the United States, it’s not the lawyers they are armed with, it’s the United States Constitution. It’s the will of the Founding Fathers.
There are three tyrannies that the Founding Fathers wanted to protect us from.
1. The tyranny of a tyrant
2. The tyranny of the majority
3. The tyranny of the church
They established three solutions:
1. Separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government and a Presidency that is an elected position with terms for re-election.
2. A Bill of Rights that grants certain rights and liberties to all citizens.
3. The part of the First Amendment that contains “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” which is formally referred to as the Establishment Clause.
Combine this with the words that begins the U.S. Constitution, “We the People.”
The “Establishment Clause” was intended to prevent any government endorsement or support of religion. This means no governmental favoritism of one religion over another or none. Just as there is no governmental favoritism for a Christian, there is to be no governmental favoritism for an atheist. This is called religious liberty.
What specifically does the “Establishment Clause” mean? There have been court rulings to provide additional guidance.
Does a state action violate the Establishment Clause? The following is prohibited per guidance by Everson v. Board of Education.
-setting up a state church
-passing laws which specifically aid one religion or aid religions generally
-forcing or otherwise influencing individuals to attend or not attend church
-punishing people for ascribing to certain beliefs or disbeliefs or for attending or not attending church
-taxes levied to support religious institutions or activities
-governmental participation in religious organizations or participation by religious organizations in governmental activities
Why have separation of church and state when this country was founded on Judeo Christian values? The answer is simple. The United States was not founded on Judeo Christian values. Freedom of religion is not Biblical. A republic is not Biblical. The pagan Romans established a Republic long before they adopted Christianity. The ancient Zeus worshiping Greeks established the first democracy in Athens before Jesus Christ was born. So what was the United States founded on?
The United States was founded on the collected wisdom of philosophers, sages and legislatures over a long period of time. Don’t take it from me, take it from General George Washington, the first President of the United States of America.
“The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government”
George Washington, Circular to the States, June 8, 1783
Government institutions should not have giant crosses. Government institutions should not look like churches. A hierarchy of the church should not dictate policy. There should not be a ban on education that doesn’t correspond with the Bible. People should not be punished who don’t attend church. Public funds should not support a church. The United States should not be a theocracy.
Believing in these things doesn't make you an atheist with a lawyer. It makes you a patriot.
It’s understandable why so many are confused regarding separation of church and state with the motto of “In God we Trust.” But people need to remember this had absolutely nothing to do with the Founding Fathers. The heroes of World War II didn’t have nor need “Under God” in their Pledge or “In God we Trust” on their paper currency.
Religious liberty suffered under the fear, ignorance and superstition of the 1950s. We the people need to restore the glory of “an Epoch when the rights of mankind are better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.” “We the People,” not "We the religious" or "we the non-religious" is the Constitutional motto of the United States of America.
The Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, is one of America’s largest and most celebrated ecclesiastical buildings. At 60,000 square feet and designed by architect Philip Johnson, it was until recently the sanctuary of Robert H. Schuller, once one of the country’s most prominent and influential Christian ministers. In September 1980, when he dedicated the cathedral at an opening ceremony (“To the glory of man for the greater glory of God”), Schuller was at the height of his influence, preaching to a congregation of thousands in Orange County and reaching millions more worldwide via the Hour of Power, a weekly televised ministry program. Among the show’s annual highlights were “The Glory of Easter” and its companion production, “The Glory of Christmas,” multimillion-dollar dramatic extravaganzas staged inside the cathedral with a cast of professional actors, Hollywood-grade costumes, and live animals. The setting for the spectacles was a striking, soaring, light-filled structure justly praised by architecture critics. But it was not a cathedral. It was never consecrated by a religious denomination. The building is not even made of crystal, but rather 10,000 rectangular panes of glass. Like the much beloved, much pilloried Disneyland three miles to the northwest, the Crystal Cathedral is a monument to Americans’ inveterate ability to transform dominant cultural impulses—in this case, Christianity itself—into moneymaking enterprises that conquer the world.
But 2013 marked the end of an era. In June, Schuller’s evangelical Christian ministry, founded almost 60 years ago amid the suburbs of postwar Southern California, conducted its last worship service and filmed its last Hour of Power in the Crystal Cathedral. Hounded by creditors (including some of those Hollywood-grade costume and livestock suppliers), the ministry had declared bankruptcy three years earlier and last year sold the cathedral for $58 million to Orange County’s Catholic diocese. The diocese promptly announced plans to transform the 34-acre campus, which also includes notable ministry buildings by other name-brand architects, into Christ Cathedral, a spiritual home and civic showplace for the county’s surging population of more than 1.2 million Catholics, many of them immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia. The equipment facilitating Schuller’s elaborate stagecraft—lights, cameras, below-stage elevators, theater-style seating, an indoor reflecting pool—will be ripped out and replaced with a consecrated altar, bishop’s cathedra, baptismal font, and votive chapels dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and other saints prominent in immigrant Catholics’ devotional lives. When the building reopens for worship in 2016, it will embody a transformation in the nation’s spiritual landscape that is only now beginning to be felt.
Just 10 years ago, evangelical Christianity appeared to be America’s dominant religious movement. Evangelicals, more theologically diverse and open to the secular world than their fundamentalist brethren, with whom they’re often confused, were on the march toward political power and cultural prominence. They had the largest churches, the most money, influential government lobbyists, and in the person of President George W. Bush, leadership of the free world itself. Indeed, even today most people continue to regard the United States as the great spiritual exception among developed nations: a country where advances in science and technology coexist with stubborn, and stubbornly conservative, religiosity. But the reality, largely unnoticed outside church circles, is that evangelicalism is not only in gradual decline but today stands poised at the edge of a demographic and cultural cliff. The most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, found that just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants—five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals. (It should be noted that surveying Americans’ faith lives is notoriously difficult, since answers vary according to how questions are phrased, and respondents often exaggerate their level of religious commitment. Pew is a nonpartisan research organization with a track record of producing reliable, in-depth studies of religion. Other equally respected surveys—Gallup, the General Social Survey—have reached conclusions about Christianity’s status in present-day America that agree with Pew’s in some respects and diverge in others.)
Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.
Prominent figures in the evangelical establishment have already begun sounding alarms. In particular, the Barna Group, an evangelical market research organization, has been issuing a steady stream of books and white papers documenting the erosion of support for evangelicalism, especially among young people. Contributions from worshippers 55 and older now account for almost two-thirds of evangelical churches’ income in the United States. A mere three percent of non-Christian Americans under 30 have a positive impression of evangelical Christianity, according to David Kinnaman, the Barna Group’s president. That’s down from 25 percent of baby boomers at a similar age. At present rates of attrition, two-thirds of evangelicals in their 20s will abandon church before they turn 30. “It’s the melting of the icebergs,” Kinnaman told me. Young people’s most common complaint, he said, is that churches are too focused on sexual issues and preoccupied with their own institutional development—in other words, he explained, “Christianity no longer looks like Jesus.”
A book making the rounds among evangelical pastors these days is called The Great Evangelical Recession. Written by John S. Dickerson, a former investigative journalist turned evangelical pastor, it chronicles in unsparing statistical detail how evangelical Christianity is hemorrhaging members, money, and influence. “The United States has shifted into a … post-Christian age,” he writes. “No one disputes this.”
Visible from nearby freeways, the 128-foot-tall Crystal Cathedral looms over Orange County’s landscape of low-rise tract houses, shopping centers, and manicured office parks. Up close, it resembles a giant, angular greenhouse. Glass panes, affixed to steel trusses by silicone-based glue, cover the entire exterior, glinting in the hazy Southern California sunshine and reflecting the landscaped grounds. Across a paved plaza from the cathedral are an older church sanctuary and an office tower designed in the 1960s by celebrated modernist architect Richard Neutra, and the so-called Welcoming Center, a performance and exhibition space completed in 2003 by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Richard Meier, known for his design of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Adjacent to these buildings are a memorial garden and columbarium sunk like an amphitheater into the ground, and a 236-foot-tall mirrored glass bell tower, also designed by Philip Johnson.
The cathedral complex is an odd, sometimes startling juxtaposition of high and low culture. The three main buildings, though architecturally distinguished, bear no stylistic relation to one another and thus resemble ships from different eras run aground on a shoal. The light-filled interior of the cathedral, seen from ground level, feels more like a corporate convention hall than a religious sanctuary. Before the Catholic diocese began renovation in 2013, potted palms and ferns surrounded a raised stage. A reflecting pool ran the length of an aisle between rows of folding, padded theater seats. Banks of stage lights hung from the roof. Giant speakers flanked the stage. Outside, gaudy statues (“The Smiling Jesus,” “Christ With the Lost Sheep”) adorned the plaza, including a bronze replica of Jesus striding across a reflecting pool at the base of Neutra’s exacting, 13-story Tower of Hope. Amateur religious art donated by members of Schuller’s congregation hung in an exhibition gallery adjacent to the reflecting pool.
On a recent tour of the cathedral, Father Christopher Smith, the Catholic priest charged with supervising transformation of the complex into a Catholic worship space, did his best, but frequently failed, to be diplomatic about Schuller’s design sensibilities. “It was a beautiful campus,” he said. “It’s still beautiful. But it’s tired.” He pointed up toward the cathedral’s sloping glass roof. “We recaulked 1,500 panes of glass. We’re really trying to fix the leaks.” In its final years, Schuller’s cash-strapped ministry skimped on building maintenance.
Outside, on the plaza, the priest stopped beside a statue of children surrounding a beneficent Jesus. “Some of these are awful,” he remarked. Most, he said, would be removed during the diocese’s $53 million renovation. The diocese, taking its inspiration from the historic cathedrals of Europe, envisions the structure as something wholly different from Schuller’s ministerial showplace. “Traditionally, cathedrals are centers of art and culture,” Smith said. “We want it to be that.” He spoke of touring symphony orchestras playing in the sanctuary, academic and theological conferences in the Welcoming Center’s exquisitely spare meeting spaces, ecumenical worship services, art exhibits, the bustling cultural activity of a civic gathering place—something Orange County, built over decades with little central planning in car-mad Southern California, simply doesn’t have.
Born in Iowa in 1926 and educated at an evangelical seminary in Michigan, Schuller arrived in rapidly suburbanizing Orange County in 1955, the year Disneyland opened. Like other successful evangelical ministers before and after him, he quickly grasped the direction American society was moving and molded his ministry accordingly. He established a church not in a building but at a drive-in movie theater in the town of Garden Grove, which, following World War II, was rapidly transforming from an expanse of orange, walnut, and strawberry farms 30 miles south of Los Angeles into a grid of suburban neighborhoods home to 44,000 people. Five years after Schuller’s arrival, the newly incorporated city’s population had doubled. Many of those new residents attended Schuller’s church, where he preached atop a snack bar to rows of worshippers in their cars. In 1958, Schuller bought a parcel of land a few miles from the drive-in and commissioned Neutra, an émigré Austrian who had made his name designing glass-walled houses for wealthy Los Angelenos, to build a permanent home for what was then called the Garden Grove Community Church. Neutra’s modernist, rectangular worship hall was dedicated in 1961. Seven years later, the architect added the equally severe Tower of Hope. In 1980, by this time a pastoral celebrity known around the world, Schuller began preaching in the $18 million Crystal Cathedral.
Schuller, like Billy Graham and other name-brand evangelical ministers, led a mid-20th-century spiritual resurgence that corresponded with the birth and subsequent coming of age of America’s baby-boom generation. Even as older, inner-city mainline Protestant congregations withered in postwar America, suburban evangelical churches gained members when boomers, now having children of their own, began showing up in the late 1970s. A decade later, evangelical megachurches—some of the largest of which were in Orange County—were the dominant trend in American Christianity, growing in lockstep with the suburbs that gave them birth and set their spiritual tone.
The Christianity practiced in these suburban churches was not of the fire-and-brimstone variety. Evangelicals are far looser and more theologically diverse than Christian fundamentalists, who emerged in the late 19th century in reaction to the destabilizing effects of industrialization, the Civil War, and advances in science. Fundamentalism, especially the view that the Bible is inerrant in all of its teachings, has been steadily declining as a force in American Christianity for decades. Recent Barna Group research shows that just 38 percent of Christians—down from close to half two decades ago—regard the Bible as “totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches.” Evangelicals, by contrast, while acknowledging the authority of scripture, place greater emphasis on the believer’s personal relationship with Christ. They trace their roots in America to Jonathan Edwards, an 18th-century Massachusetts divine who paired Calvinistic theology with scholarship, evangelism, and spiritual conversion. The preeminence of conversion has produced huge variety and creativity in their outreach to nonbelievers. For nearly a century, evangelicals have been at the forefront of innovations in church music, worship style, architecture, and use of media to engage the non-Christian world.
Schuller was one of those innovators. His embrace of California car culture, his commissioning of high-profile architects, and his focus on televised spectacle were all efforts to wow, and woo, secular audiences. (Those approaches also fed Schuller’s ego, and their success his pocketbook.) The suburban style of evangelicalism Schuller pioneered was showmanlike and inspirational, emphasizing feel-good messages and entertaining worship services rather than liturgical tradition and theological complexity. Most other large evangelical churches have followed this pattern, with greater or lesser doses of commitment required of their worshippers. Christian traditionalists often assailed popular evangelical ministers for watering down the faith. But their flocks grew as baby boomers, accustomed to television and American plenitude, sought churches that matched their upwardly mobile, entertainment-oriented life styles.
Only with the social turbulence of the late 1960s—and particularly after the Supreme Court’s 1973 legalization of abortion—did evangelicals begin moving to the political right, merging with fundamentalists in a conservative Christian voting bloc—a rightward tilt that tracked with larger shifts in American culture. As the boomers’ youthful political activism evolved into the suburban libertarianism and mistrust of government that propelled Ronald Reagan into office, evangelical megachurches offered their own spiritual blend of social conservatism and entrepreneurial innovation. Pastors emulated the corporate managers who often filled their pews. They researched their audience, introduced new products, marketed their offerings, and measured success by growth in membership and budgets.
Schuller’s own Orange County was at the forefront of America’s plunge into entrepreneurial suburbanization. Explosive growth in the county during the 1950s and ’60s led in subsequent decades to the construction of sprawling planned communities. Heavily capitalized developers transformed the landscape into a manicured rebuke to America’s troubled inner cities. Their plans excluded the prevailing elements of urban design: high-rise buildings, mixed-use commercial districts, multifamily housing, and straight streets, which were thought to be easier for criminals to navigate. The county lured corporations with plush but safely bland office parks, and local governments kept taxes low and business regulations light. The result was a resounding success. Today, Orange County is an economic colossus with a 2012 GDP of $195 billion; per capita, its GDP is roughly the size of Singapore’s. Over the years, some portion of that wealth flowed into the evangelical churches, which molded themselves to suit the county’s mostly white-collar, affluent population.
But just as Orange County pioneered a new form of low-rise urbanism, it was also among the first places to experience the demographic consequences. All those planned communities—their well-paid inhabitants liked to eat out, their houses needed cleaning, and their lawns needed trimming. Beginning in the 1970s, migrants, mostly from Mexico, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Korea, began arriving to cook, clean, and mow. These immigrants and their families began taking over formerly all-white neighborhoods, principally in northern parts of the county, transforming the look and cultural fabric of those areas. Today, Orange County is one of the most ethnically, politically, and economically diverse places on the planet. Only 43 percent of its more than three million residents are white, and almost a third were born abroad.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the neighborhoods surrounding the Crystal Cathedral. Garden Grove, where Schuller once preached to young white homeowners in their cars, is now inhabited almost entirely by immigrants and their descendants. The adjacent city of Westminster is home to the world’s largest population of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. In another neighboring city, Santa Ana, 82 percent of the families speak at home a language other than English, primarily Spanish. These mostly poor residents cram several families into tract houses, work low-wage jobs, and reliably vote Democratic (the county’s registered voters are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans; Barack Obama won in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012). They also gravitate not to evangelical megachurches like Schuller’s but to Catholic parishes, Buddhist temples, mosques, and storefront Pentecostal churches. The Islamic Society of Orange County, which owns a mosque, school, and mortuary five miles from the Crystal Cathedral, is one of America’s largest centers of Islamic worship. The Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, a few miles north of Orange County, is the largest Buddhist temple in the United States. Orange County’s Catholic diocese is one of the nation’s largest and fastest growing.
This demographic shift, which experts predict will make the United States’ majority population nonwhite in roughly three decades, has not been kind to suburban evangelicalism. Young people in Orange County, no matter their ethnic or economic background, no longer view themselves as living in a suburban appendage of urban Los Angeles. The county is dense with Vietnamese pho joints, boba tea shops, Asian shopping malls, halal markets, Mexican swap meets, punk-rock nightclubs, and art galleries. Corporate-style megachurches seem bland by comparison. Several of them remain in Orange County, including the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, Mariners Church in the planned community of Irvine, and First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton. But these are clustered in the county’s most affluent areas. None are growing rapidly anymore.
These days, young Christians in Orange County attend very different kinds of churches, some unrecognizable as churches at all. Laundry Love, a ministry in Santa Ana, is an ad hoc community of young Christians who gather monthly at various inner-city, coin-operated laundries and wash patrons’ clothes for free. The ministry is an offshoot of Newsong Church, a mostly Asian evangelical congregation founded nearly three decades ago by a pastor named Dave Gibbons, who sought to reach people like himself, mixed-race descendants of immigrants (his parents are white and Asian) who felt out of place in mainstream American society. Newsong now has branches in Thailand, England, Mexico, and India—all of which function like self-sustaining Christian communes oriented around humanitarian relief initiatives. Gibbons has emerged as one of a growing number of in-house critics of evangelical Christianity’s wholesale adoption of corporate American values. “The church has become involved in big business,” he told me by phone. “That’s why artists and creatives don’t want anything to do with church. What’s unique about how we’re trying to do things is we focus on people who aren’t like us. We don’t have to build our own brand.”
A decade ago, Newsong, with 4,000 members, was on its way to becoming America’s latest Asian megachurch. Unsettled by its relentless focus on growth, Gibbons abruptly changed course, rededicating Newsong to ministering in low-income neighborhoods and providing a haven for artists. More than a quarter of the congregation left. But now Gibbons’s move seems prescient. In the past decade, evangelical churches, especially in culturally diverse urban areas, have been forced to choose between adopting urban cultural values and extinction. “The megachurch was a baby-boomer suburban phenomenon that folks under 45 typically aren’t perpetuating,” says Ryan Bolger, who teaches contemporary Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. Young evangelicals “want to start communities in cafés, and this isn’t just whites. We’re starting to see with Koreans and Latinos a desire to move away from the churchiness of church, to be multicultural and in an urban context, church in the profane areas of life.”
At Epic Church, a 200-member, decade-old congregation in a northern part of Orange County populated mostly by Koreans and Hispanics, members gather for weekly worship in a rented office building but spend much of their time together working as tutors to low-income students at a nearby neighborhood center. “We haven’t been a church that understands ourselves as goods and services,” said Kevin Doi, Epic’s founder and pastor. The church welcomes gays, makes no overt effort to raise money from members, and regularly invites residents at a neighboring homeless shelter to its services. Doi said he has no long-range plan for his church and wouldn’t mind if it ceased functioning as an institution altogether. “We didn’t feel like our goal was to get people to come to our church,” he said. “We wanted to be present in the neighborhood, where we’re the guests.”
In a few years, perhaps a decade or two, religious America will catch up to Orange County’s present. There will be a shrinking number of evangelical megachurches, gradually aging and waning in influence. There will be numerous small, eclectic, multiethnic evangelical congregations whose emphasis on spiritual commitment and social service is unlikely to attract a large, mainstream following. And there will be surging numbers of immigrant Catholics, Pentecostals, and Muslims. The political influence of evangelicalism will decline. America will not become like Europe, where ossified state churches proved unable to compete against the inherently secularizing forces of market capitalism—and where immigrants’ faith expressions are often met with hostility. America will remain exceptionally religious. But traditional evangelical Christianity will no longer be a dominant presence in that religiosity.
Two years ago, in December 2011, yet another immigrant arrived in Orange County. Rob Bell migrated not from abroad but from Michigan, where he was a megachurch pastor and author who’d recently made the cover of Time and was about to be profiled in The New Yorker. Bell’s arrival, with his wife and three children, in the oceanfront city of Laguna Beach was tantamount to an escape. His spring 2011 book, Love Wins, the catalyst for the magazine stories, had ignited a firestorm in the world of evangelical Christianity. The book questioned the existence of hell and raised the possibility that all people, not just Christians, will be redeemed by God. Nothing in the book was theologically new; indeed, Bell never denied outright the reality of hell. But his book became a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over evangelicalism’s future. Younger, liberal evangelicals were for the book. Older, conservative evangelicals rejected it. In the midst of the debate, Bell, who had already tired of the institutional responsibilities of running his 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, stepped down from leadership and lit out in semi-anonymity for the beach.
When I spoke to Bell earlier this year, he was still in the first flush of California love, waxing lyrical about the spirituality of surfing (he owns seven surfboards and arranges his schedule around the daily surf report). He was also at work on plans for a television talk show. Bell represents the new breed of young evangelicals who are, with gathering speed, reshaping and in some respects dissolving their movement. A decade ago, Bell was lionized in the evangelical world for blending the movement’s age-old formula (conservative theology; rapid, corporate-style growth) with hip new brains and style (sermons larded with quantum physics; a YouTube video series). Yet, like so many younger evangelicals, Bell grew disenchanted with church. By the time he wrote Love Wins, he was already fantasizing about Southern California, where he had attended graduate school. Bell doesn’t go to church in Laguna Beach. He and some friends from college have formed a quasi-intentional spiritual community, gathering in one anothers’ homes to worship and talk about faith.
“Evangelicals are good at whipping people up into a frenzy, and then you’re like, ‘What was that?’ ” Bell told me. “I was the pastor of a megachurch, and lots of people came, and I did book tours and interviews and films. That’s fine. But I’ll take seeing God every day, which is washing dishes with my kids and walking my dog and interacting with someone I just met.”
In other words, the future of the evangelical church as glimpsed from Orange County might be no church at all. Robert Schuller’s brand of worship might just turn out to be nothing more than a spiritual fad. As the generation that embraced it—middle-class, baby-boomer whites flocking to car-based suburbs—dies off, their spirituality dies with them. This is not to say that the church will go away. The Crystal Cathedral still stands. But its name is now Christ Cathedral. And Schuller’s vision of a glittery surface reflecting himself and the suburbs where he preached is gone.
What Is The Religious Argument Against Atheism?
recall precisely the first time I thought Christian theology might be doomed. It was when I found myself in a hotel room near Heathrow Airport, being drowned out by the sound of planes taking off, trying to explain why Martin Buber’s idea of “I-Thou” could help a man from Aberdeen be better at civil engineering. I had the same thought in the pews watching the Nativity on Christmas Eve.
I was there, as I always am, for the music and the whiff of myrrh. Even in the strained voices of the congregation, the last verse of O Come All Ye Faithful conjured the memory of the descant of the choristers of King’s College, Cambridge. I do not for a second recognise the presence of the divine. It is just music, but what music. I was there too as a Christmas addict. I love the story but as I watched the familiar tale unfold I was troubled by an argument best put in Mary Warnock’s Dishonest to God and Larkin’s first great poem, Church Going. What happens when the annual tourists in the congregation outnumber the believers? Will Christmas just be late shopping?
Because there is no doubt that the Church of England is in serious strife. Between 1971 and 2007 the population of the UK grew 10 per cent. Membership of the Anglican Church fell 43 per cent. No more than 2 per cent of people attend a Church of England service each week and the average age of the parishioner is 61. In 1950 two thirds of us were baptised, but today it is less than a fifth. Marriage has moved out of church and even most of the dead have a better date these days. Churches are being turned into badminton courts and bingo halls.
On Christmas day the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, exhibited the Church’s usual response to decline with an exercise in what his predecessor Rowan Williams called Faith in the Public Square. Archbishop Welby’s Christmas sermon was a lament about greed and the persistence of poverty. There is a theological basis, notably in the Gospel of James, for the Church to be a player in temporal affairs and a nation with an established Church can hardly expect its principal to refrain from comment. I also, as it happens, agreed with Archbishop Welby’s every word.
I am not altogether sure, though, that he was wise to say them. Sitting in the frowsty barn on Christmas Eve, I needed no persuasion that food banks are a disgrace. It is not obvious to me that the Church of England has any future as a cross between the Association of Credit Unions and the Child Poverty Action Group. As I watched the Nativity play I was seized, as I always am, with an inability to suspend disbelief. It wasn’t the poor acting but the script. The story doesn’t ever withstand the probing question of an inquisitive seven-year-old and I mean the whole story, not just the lovely Christmas bit. Rather than tell me some social policy, wouldn’t Archbishop Welby have been better served trying to find some plain language to mount the argument for faith?
The recent theological efforts of the Church of England lie on a spectrum from apologetic to lamentable. Most believers seem content to whinge that the attack from Richard Dawkins has been “too aggressive”, as if in the game of metaphysics the meek shall inherit the truth. Religious believers are making eternal claims about the origins of the Universe. It is not surprising that these claims encounter some tough-minded resistance. Rather than moaning about the etiquette, theologians should concentrate on devising retorts that didn’t collapse under the weight of their own evasions.
The Bishop of Oxford provided a good example on these pages on Christmas Eve. The Bishop recounted the parable told by Yann Martell in Life of Pi in which the hero of the book offers two explanations for his survival in a storm. One is a straight narrative account, the other is a fantastic tale of the friendship he forged with a Bengal tiger. The Bishop finds an allegory for the Christian story of Christmas in Pi’s killer line: “Which story do you prefer?” Note the question is not about which story shows the greater fidelity to the facts. It is just that one is enchanting and the other is dull.
As an answer to one of the great metaphysical questions of all eternity this leaves rather a lot to be discussed. In The Case For God the former nun Karen Armstrong ends up with nothing to say for herself. Armstrong concludes that something as sublime as God cannot be expressed in language. In the beginning was the Word but the rest, she says, is silence. Having struggled through her latest book I rather wish Armstrong had taken her own advice.
Roger Scruton has also made a serious attempt to recuperate what he calls The Face of God. Scruton finds the problem in our failure to understand that the gift of God is immanent in what we see around us when, for example, we glimpse the eternal in a beautiful landscape. To put it in more modern Christmas terms, the hills are alive with the sound of meaning.
Scruton ends up, though, with me in the Nativity. His claim that participation in the Eucharist renews the bonds of community may be true but it doesn’t make a fact out of transubstantiation. It may well be true (although I hope not for the sake of the Church) that the Eucharist is best explained by listening to Wagner’s Parsifal, but this is just Scruton’s version of the descant in O Come All Ye Faithful.
This is all difficult stuff and it needs an Anglican translator. It needs to be spoken in plain language for the lay floating voter. Unless the Anglican Church finds and expresses some better arguments for belief it is doomed. The Church used to be the place you went to for great writing. Thomas Cranmer’s Prayer Book is one of the glories of English literature. To cite two phrases minted by Cranmer, the Anglican Church is at death’s door, given up for lost. That is because, ceding all the ground to the eloquent and learned atheists, the Church of England has not spoken yet.
Atheist Survived Tornado
When Wolf Blitzer asked Moore tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun if she thanked the lord, many expected her to answer "yes." Instead she replied "I'm actually an atheist."
"Saying 'I'm an atheist' in Oklahoma is like screaming 'Jihad' at airport security," says Doug Stanhope in a clip from Charlie Brooker's 2013 Wipe. "That took some nuts."
The blue comedy specialist decided to show his appreciation for Vitsmun's candidness by starting an IndieGogo campaign on her behalf.
"If you watch the footage, all the other victims are on the news thanking Jesus for only killing their neighbors and not them, while a crawler is on the screen telling me where I can text money to help them out," Stanhope goes on to say. "Fuck them. I don't want Jesus getting credit for my $50. I'll help that other girl out."
By the end of the two-month funding duration, Stanhope's campaign had raised nearly $126,000 for Vitsmun.
In the Brooker clip, Stanhope explains that he didn't do it for the sake of helping out the victim of a natural disaster — he did it for the sake of not helping out her Lord-thanking neighbors.
"I didn't do it because I felt sympathy because she got all her shit destroyed by a tornado," he said. "I did it simply to be a prick to her Okie-Christian neighbors, hoping that they were still eating off of FEMA trucks when someone drove up and presented Rebecca with a giant cardboard check."
What happens when you mix native populations with modern visitors? In some cases, what's happened has been a curious religious phenomenon known as "cargo cults".
If you've heard of cargo cults before — and a lot of people have not — the version that you heard probably goes something like this. During WWII in the Pacific theater, Allied troops landed on islands throughout the South Pacific, bringing with them food, medicine, Jeeps, aircraft, housing, electricity, refrigeration, and all manner of modern wonders that the native populations had never seen before. But then the war ended and the troops went home, leaving just a few scraps behind. The natives, in a demonstration of Arthur C. Clarke's third law which states "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," concluded that such a windfall must have come from the gods. They wanted this wealth of cargo to return. And so they did what seems logical from a stone-age perspective: they set about to recreate the conditions under which the gods and their cargo had come. They cleared paths in the jungle to resemble airfields. They wore scraps of military uniforms. They made "rifles" out of bamboo and marched as they had seen the soldiers march. And always they kept their eye on the sky, hopeful that the gods observed their preparations and would soon return with more cargo.
On some islands, particularly the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu), these gods were personified in John Frum, an apocryphal American serviceman, according to the most popular version of the tale. John Frum is symbolized by a red cross, probably inspired by that painted on the sides of ambulances during the war. To this day, a surviving core of the John Frum Movement dresses in imitation WWII uniforms and celebrates February 15 as John Frum Day, in a plaza marked with a red cross and an American flag. They predict that on this day, John Frum will eventually return, bringing all the material goods of the modern world with him. In the words of one village elder:
John promised he'll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him. Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.
The story of John Frum is sometimes erroneously confused with Tom Navy. Tom Navy was probably an actual person, possibly Tom Beatty of Mississippi, who served in the New Hebrides both as a missionary, and as a Navy Seabee during the war. Tom Navy is more of a beloved historical character associated with peace and service, whereas John Frum is regarded as an actual messiah who will bring wealth and prosperity.
The popular version of the John Frum story may seem a little whimsical. It's actually quite oversimplified and misstates the actual causes and motivations behind what happened. This particular cargo cult has deeper roots that have pulled directly on the heartstrings of much of the population. It goes all the way back to the early 18th century, long before anyone thought of WWII or American servicemen. At that time, the New Hebrides were an unusual type of colony called a condominium, jointly administered by both the British and the French. Among the early colonists were Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, who took a dim view of the uninhibited native lifestyle. On the island of Tanna beginning around 1900, at which time there was no meaningful colonial government, the missionaries imposed their own penal system upon the natives, a period called Tanna Law. Many of the traditional practices were banned, including ritual dancing, polygamy, swearing, and adultery. They also required observation of the Sabbath. But perhaps their most inflammatory prohibition was that of the traditional practice of drinking kava by the men. Those who violated these rules were convicted by the missionaries and sentenced to hard labor.
So it was a population in dire need of a saviour to whom John Frum first appeared, and he did so in the 1930's. By most contemporary accounts, John Frum was a native named Manehivi who donned Western clothes; only in later versions of the story did he become an American serviceman. John Frum advocated a new lifestyle that was a curious mixture of having your cake and eating it too. He promised that if the people followed him, they could return to their traditional ways, but he would also reward them with all the material goods that the missionaries had brought. And so this is what the majority of the islanders did: The missionaries were suddenly ignored and found themselves vastly outnumbered by a population who took renewed interest in all their previous freedoms. Colonial authorities were summoned and leaders of the movement, including several chiefs, were arrested and imprisoned in 1941, introducing a new and culturally powerful element into the situation: martyrdom.
And then, an extraordinary thing happened. World War II descended upon the Pacific. The New Hebrides were flooded with Westerners. Food, medicine, Coca-Cola, and money were showered upon the natives. Many islanders were recruited as laborers and paid (relatively) lavishly. Life was rich with both traditional freedoms and material wealth. John Frum's promise had been miraculously fulfilled.
And so it's clear that the John Frum Movement has more to it than just a silly superstition that if you build something that looks like a dock out of bamboo, supply ships will come streaming in. That's how cargo cults are often portrayed, and it's really not a fair description. The people were going through genuine oppression, a man stepped up and promised freedom, and he delivered in spades. That actual fulfillment of prophecy, though it was merely a fortuitous coincidence, is still more than a lot of other religions can claim. So it does make a certain amount of sense that today's members of the John Frum Movement still look out to sea, and to the sky, waiting for their bounty. As one modern chief explained:
John was dressed in all white, like American Navy men, and it was then we knew John was an American. John said that when the war was over, he’d come to us in Tanna with ships and planes bringing much cargo, like the Americans had in Vila.
Historians have not made much progress trying to find the origins of the name John Frum. One interesting explanation is that "frum" happens to be the pijin pronunciation of broom, as in sweeping the white people off the island. It's also likely that there was an actual person in the islands with a German last name of Fromme or Frumm, and Manehivi could have adopted his name. Another possibility is that it's a simple contraction of "John from America".
Cargo cults have appeared many, many times, and were not all centered around WWII. One of the earliest known cargo cults grew on the Madang Coast of Papua New Guinea, when the pioneering Russian anthropologist Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay stayed there for some time in the 1870's, bringing with him gifts of fabric and steel tools. A hundred years later, a group formed on the island of New Hanover, and believed that if they could acquire American president Lyndon Johnson and install him as their king, cargo would come along with him. They rebelled against the Australian authorities, formed their own government, put together a budget, and offered to purchase Lyndon Johnson from the United States for $1,000. Their price was probably naïve, but just think what would have happened had Johnson accepted: Their plan probably would have worked better than they ever imagined.
The blending of Christianity with native superstitions sometimes caused some interesting problems. During WWII, some Australian groups grew concerned with what they saw as the sacrilegious inclusion of cargo cult principles with Jesus in Papua New Guinea. An educated New Guinean official named Yali, who had been on good terms with the missionaries, was employed by the Australians to travel around and try to dispel cargo cult mythology. After the war, Yali was rewarded with a trip to the Australian mainland, where he saw three things that greatly disturbed him, and caused him to rethink his work of the past few years. The first was the obvious wealth of the Australians compared to New Guinea. The second was a collection of sacred New Guinea artifacts on display at the Queensland Museum, which he began to suspect had been stolen by the Australians and resulted in their great accumulation of material goods. The third, and perhaps most influential, was exposure to the theory of evolution. This led Yali to conclude that the Australian missionaries, who had promoted the story of Adam and Eve, had been lying to him. Taken altogether, Yali reflected that he had been right to preach the separation of Christianity and cargo cults, but that he'd been on the wrong side.
And so while cargo cults may seem, at first glance, like quaint stone age ignorance, they're actually not entirely irrational. They're certainly naïve and based on a fallacious confusion of correlation and causation, but to give their believers some credit, they're doing their best to make sense of what they've been given. Where this belief system fails them, quite obviously, is that it replaces the need to work hard to achieve goals with the belief that faith will provide. This is the lesson that would best serve the believers, and it's the same lesson that missionaries and social workers should pay the most attention to. Rather than smiling at their funny little religion, or trying to replace it with another, we should instead give them the tools they need to create their own wealth of cargo.
The Lessons of the Flood Stories
That faint humming sound you’ve heard recently is the scholarly world of the Bible and archaeology abuzz over the discovery of the oldest known Mesopotamian version of the famous Flood story.
A British scholar has found that a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet from what is now Iraq contains a story similar to the biblical account of Noah’s Ark. The newly decoded cuneiform tells of a divinely sent flood and a sole survivor on an ark, who takes all the animals on board to preserve them. It even includes the famous phrase “two by two,” describing how the animals came onto the ark. But there is one apparently major difference: The ark in this version is round.
We have known for well over a century that there are flood stories from the ancient Near East that long predate the biblical account (even the most conservative biblical scholars wouldn’t date any earlier than the ninth century B.C).
What’s really intriguing scholars is the description of the ark itself.
The Bible presents a standard boat shape – long and narrow. The length being six times the measure of the width, with three decks and an entrance on the side.
The newly discovered Mesopotamian text describes a large round vessel, made of woven rope, and coated (like the biblical ark) in pitch to keep it waterproof.
Archaeologists are planning to design a prototype of the ark, built to the specifications of this text, to see if it would actually float. Good luck to them in trying to estimate the weight of its cargo.
So, why does this new discovery matter? It matters because it serves as a reminder that the story of the Flood wasn’t set in stone from its earliest version all the way through to its latest incarnation.
The people who wrote down the Flood narrative, in any of its manifestations, weren’t reporting on a historical event for which they had to get their facts straight (like what shape the ark was).
Everyone reshapes the Flood story, and the ark itself, according to the norms of their own time and place.
In ancient Mesopotamia, a round vessel would have been perfectly reasonable – in fact, we know that this type of boat was in use, though perhaps not to such a gigantic scale, on the Mesopotamian rivers.
The ancient Israelites, on the other hand, would naturally have pictured a boat like those they were familiar with: which is to say, the boats that navigated not the rivers of Mesopotamia but the Mediterranean Sea.
This detail of engineering can and should stand for a larger array of themes and features in the flood stories. The Mesopotamian versions feature many gods; the biblical account, of course, only one.
The Mesopotamian versions tell us that the Flood came because humans were too noisy for the gods; the biblical account says it was because violence had spread over the Earth.
Neither version is right or wrong; they are, rather, both appropriate to the culture that produced them. Neither is history; both are theology.
What, then, of the most striking parallel between this newly discovered text and Genesis: the phrase “two by two”? Here, it would seem, we have an identical conception of the animals entering the ark. But not so fast.
Although most people, steeped in Sunday school tradition, will tell you without even thinking about it that “the animals, they came on, they came on by twosies twosies,” that’s not exactly what the Bible says.
More accurately, it’s one thing that the Bible says – but a few verses later, Noah is instructed to bring not one pair of each species, but seven pairs of all the “clean” animals and the birds, and one pair of the “unclean” animals.
(This is important because at the end of the story, Noah offers sacrifices – which, if he only brought one pair of each animal, would mean that, after saving them all from the Flood, he then proceeded to relegate some of those species to extinction immediately thereafter.)
This isn’t news – already in the 17th century scholars recognized that there must be two versions of the Flood intertwined in the canonical Bible. There are plenty of significant differences between the two Flood stories in the Bible, which are easily spotted if you try to read the narrative as it stands.
One version says the Flood lasted 40 days; the other says 150. One says the waters came from rain. Another says it came from the opening of primordial floodgates both above and below the Earth. One version says Noah sent out a dove, three times. The other says he sent out a raven, once. And yes: In one of those stories, the animals come on “two by two.”
Does this mean that the author of that version was following the ancient Mesopotamian account that was just discovered? Certainly not.
If the goal of the ark is the preservation of the animals, then having a male and female of each is just common sense. And, of course, it’s a quite reasonable space-saving measure.
Likewise, the relative age of the Mesopotamian and biblical accounts tells us nothing about their relative authority.
Even if we acknowledge, as we probably should, that the biblical authors learned the Flood story from their neighbors – after all, flooding isn’t, and never was, really a pressing concern in Israel – this doesn’t make the Bible any less authoritative.
The Bible gets its authority from us, who treat it as such, not from it being either the first or the most reliable witness to history.
There is no doubt that the discovery of this new ancient Mesopotamian text is important. But from a biblical perspective, its importance resides mostly in the way it serves to remind us that the Flood story is a malleable one.
There are multiple different Mesopotamian versions, and there are multiple different biblical versions. They share a basic outline, and some central themes. But they each relate the story in their own way.
The power of the Flood story, for us the canonical biblical version, is in what it tells us about humanity’s relationship with God. But, as always, the devil is in the details.
DIY - Invent Your Own
"Isn't it blasphemy to invent a religion?" my student asked with concern.
Every semester, in the comparative religion class I teach at a local community college, I ask my students to divide into groups and create a religion from whole cloth.
"All religions were invented at some point," I offered, reminding him that while Jesus may have assigned Peter to be the rock upon which the church would be built, it was up to everyone else to determine the details.
It's fascinating to watch the young (with a smattering of older) students invent a new belief system. I give them some guidelines: their religions must include some common elements such as doctrine, dogma, symbols, music, rituals—and most importantly, reformers.
A few of the groups have had fun with the assignment, coming up with religions like The Church of Charlie Sheen, that could rival anything the Pastafarians have come up with.
But last semester emerged as a perfect case study of millennial religion—a portrait of this generation (those between the ages of 18 and 30) in which one in four call themselves "atheist" or "agnostic" or "nothing in particular."
Most of the religions my class invented incorporated Eastern religious ideas like meditation— especially meditation used for psychological growth or personal fulfillment—as well as ideas like reincarnation and karma. When Western religions were included, the pieces taken from them were such things as pilgrimage, like the hajj to Mecca required by Muslims, or rituals like prayer. But the prayer was of a particular stripe, always centering on personal—or even material—enrichment.
There were several components of religion that were glaringly absent. Not one of them had career clergy who were in charge of services, rituals, or care of the congregation. There were, for the most part, no regular meetings of the faithful. Some had monthly or annual gatherings, like conferences, but most were very individualized religions, centering on personal growth and enrichment away from a physical community.
So, right off the bat, this generation has dumped its religious leaders, its priests or gurus, and has dispensed with the obligation of coming together each week as a community. I guess, if there's no one there to deliver a sermon or wisdom talk, what's the point of gathering together once a week?
The most intriguing thing for me, however, was the fact that not one of the religions crafted by the student groups included a concept of hell, or any form of punishment for not following the prescriptions of the religion.
"What happens if somebody transgresses from the beliefs of your religion?" I asked after one presentation.
"They can find another religion," was the answer.
"You mean you would excommunicate them from your religion?" I asked.
"No," they said, "they're always welcome to come back."
The tales of their "reformers" were not much more forceful. Other than tinkering with one or two doctrines or ideas, the reformers they imagined for the assignment were just as "feel good" about the religion as the original founders.
I asked the class after the presentations why they all chose to eschew the idea of hell.
"Religion today is so ... judgmental," one student offered.
"Yeah," another agreed. "We don't need some church telling us what to do when they don't practice what they preach."
Here they were utterly consistent with an oft-cited poll of a few years ago, in which many millennials said they found the church too judgmental or hypocritical.
Ultimately, what the class presentations revealed most clearly to me, as a teacher, is how distant this generation is from a full-featured understanding of religion.
These students held a romantic view of the idea of meditation, reincarnation, pilgrimage and other elements of major world religions. They like the idea of quiet meditation, especially if it can make their lives less chaotic and more balanced. They like the idea of reincarnation—you get another chance even if you mess this one up! Pilgrimage sounds fun, too. Road trip!
But, what they miss about all of these religious practices is that deep within each of them lie the core ideas of human suffering, the concept of discipline, and the very real threat of punishment.
For Buddhists and Hindus, meditation is not just a way to calm the mind, it's a vehicle for enlightenment. Meditation, and other yogic/ascetic practices, are not meant to make you simply feel good.
Similarly, reincarnation isn't an invitation to take another ride through life. You must go back around to learn the lessons you didn't learn the last time. In that sense, reincarnation is not something to seek out, it is something to avoid.
Pilgrimage, too, is a way of seeking a way out of suffering. Christians walk the Via Dolorosa, for example, not to revel in Jesus' sacrifice, but to understand, in a deeper, embodied sense, his suffering.
By ignoring the question of suffering of humanity, and role of religion in addressing that suffering, I am afraid that this new generation is denying itself the opportunity to truly connect not just with the divine, if that's their thing, but with each other.
Unless they can acknowledge suffering—either their own or that of others—all the feel-good religion in the world will not be much good.
Which brings us right back to what all these millennial religions lacked: leadership, community, discipline and a sense of a larger mission for their invented sect. It would be unfair to say that millennials do not appreciate discipline or that their actions have consequences; I found many of my students to be smart, industrious and willing to work hard.
The problem, as I see it, is not with the lack of imagination of this new generation, but with religious institutions themselves—many of which have allowed their leaders to become rock stars, their communities to become clubs of like-minded believers, and their doctrines to become rigid, with an over-emphasis on discipline and damnation for things (like homosexuality) that millennials see as simply judgmental and unfair.
If organized religion can't renew itself from the inside, this new generation will switch to a new platform—even if they have to invent it for themselves.
Why is it so hard for Christians to understand evolution?
I find that many writers on Quora assume that such Christians are stupid or crazy for rejecting the theory of evolution. But a good methodological principle of social science is that if a belief or practice seems bizarre to you, you probably don't understand the context.
It's not that these Christians are incapable of understanding evolution. Some do, and many don't but could if they tried. It's that the costs, to them, of believing it are extremely high.
The divine inspiration and infallibility of the Bible is absolutely central to Christianity, especially Protestantism. And contrary to what others have said, it is impossible to harmonize the Bible with Darwinism. There have been many attempts to line up the evolutionary sequence with the days in Genesis, for example, or to argue that the "days" really represent eras, but they are not convincing. The text says that birds came before land animals, all animals were originally herbivores, no animals died before the Fall, humans were created directly from dust rather than descended from other species, and so on.
Yet the fact that thousands of different ways of reconciling biology and the Bible have been tried shows that most Christians really would like to incorporate as much science into their beliefs as possible. There is nothing in their belief system that is opposed to science per se. They believe that, since the Bible is an inerrant text authored by an omniscient being, science should confirm it. If it doesn't, you must be doing it wrong.
You can be a Christian AND accept evolutionary theory (and there are many who do), but there is a high price to pay. You have to interpret the creation stories as myths or allegories, although they seem to present themselves as facts. Then you have to wonder how to interpret the other passages in the Bible, both Testaments, that refer to them. It becomes hard to formulate a criterion to distinguish myth from history in the rest of the Bible, and scriptural interpretation becomes a complex and uncertain endeavor. You can't take the text at face value anymore. You have to try to explain why God would write his book in such a strange and confusing way. And worse, why a God described as all powerful and perfectly loving would create the world by such a strange process, long and slow and wasteful and full of pain and death. It's hard to still believe that humans are a special creation, made in the "image of God," categorically and ontologically distinct from all other life forms. It's hard to decide what to make of the doctrines of original sin and "fallenness" if we inherited our tendencies from apes rather than Adam.
It gets very complicated and confusing. And perhaps you have to experience it to understand it, but cognitive dissonance at the level of your core beliefs can be agonizing. It's lonely and alienating. It's paralyzing. It can drive you to madness.
In short, if you want to be a Christian, you really want the theory of evolution to be false. And many people really want to be Christians. Being right about science (that is, having beliefs that are consistent with the scientific evidence) is not most people's strongest psychological need. If you can believe it wholeheartedly, without reservation, Christianity offers psychological benefits--identity, belonging, community, value, empowerment, safety, comfort, hope, certainty--that are pretty hard to beat.
Richard Dawkins Interview
You have just published part one of your memoir. Is it intended as a humanising exercise, to show you're not a mean, nasty baddie?
I don't know how many people think I'm mean. I'm certainly not and I didn't consciously set out to do any image-cleaning or anything. I like to think it's an honest portrayal of how I really am. And I hope it is human, yes.
Nevertheless, there's a gulf between the real you and the caricature Richard Dawkins. How has that come about?
I have two theories which are not mutually exclusive. One is the religion business. People really, really hate their religion being criticised. It's as though you've said they had an ugly face, they seem to identify personally with it. There is a historical attitude that religion is off limits to criticism.
Also, some people find clarity threatening. They like muddle, confusion, obscurity. So when somebody does no more than speak clearly it sounds threatening.
You definitely polarise people. How do you feel about the hate mail you get?
I did a film that's on YouTube of me reading hate mail with a woman playing the cello in the background. Sweet strains to contrast with this awful, "you fucking wanker Dawkins" and so on. Making comedy of it is a pretty good way of absorbing it.
Do you still get fan mail too?
Yes. The hate mail is illiterate but the opposite is actually very moving and I get very, very gratifying responses. I just got back from a tour of the US promoting this book and I noticed even more forcibly than before the enormous numbers of people who come into the book-signing queue, and they nearly always say something like, I became a scientist because of you, you've changed my life.
Has what drives you changed over the years?
It hasn't changed: a love of truth, a love of clarity, a love of the poetry of science. Insofar as I show hostility to alternatives, superstition and so on, it's because they are sapping education and depriving young people of the true glory of the scientific world view – I care especially about children in this case. It's tragic to see children being led into dark, pokey little corners of medieval superstition.
Would you rather be remembered for explaining science or taking on religion?
To me they amount to the same thing – they are different sides of the same coin. But I suppose I'd rather be remembered for explaining science. I would be upset if people dismissed my science because of the religion.
You have turned your attention to Islam recently. Why is that?
I think my love of truth and honesty forces me to notice that the liberal intelligentsia of Western countries is betraying itself where Islam is concerned. It's stymied by the conflict between being against misogyny and discrimination against women on the one hand, and on the other by the terror of being thought racist – driven by misunderstanding Islam as though it were a race. So people who would normally speak out against the maltreatment of women don't do it. I do fret about what I see as a betrayal by my own people, the nice liberals.
Another battle of yours has been against group selection – the idea that evolution works by selecting traits that benefit groups, not genes. You destroyed that paradigm, but then it came back again.
Something else came back under the same name. If you look carefully it turns out to be things like kin selection rebranded as group selection. That irritates me because I think it is wantonly obscuring something that was actually rather clear.
I think part of why it came back is political. Sociologists love group selection, I think because they are more influenced by emotive evaluations of human impulses. I think people want altruism to be a kind of driving force; there's no such thing as a driving force. They want altruism to be fundamental whereas I want it to be explained. Selfish genes actually explain altruistic individuals and to me that's crystal clear.
What subjects currently interest you in evolutionary biology?
I'm fascinated by the way molecular genetics has become a branch of information technology. I wonder with hindsight whether it had to be that way, whether natural selection couldn't really work unless genetics was digital, high-fidelity, a kind of computer science. In other words, can we predict that, if there's life elsewhere in the universe, it will have the same kind of high-fidelity digital genetics as we do?
When we are able to muck around with our own genes more, where do you think it will take us?
The funny thing is that if you take the two parts of the Darwinian formula, mutation and selection, we've been messing around with the selection part with just about every species – except our own. We have been distorting wolves to Pekineses and wild cabbages to cauliflowers, and making huge revolutions in agricultural science. And yet with a few exceptions, there have been no attempts to breed human Pekineses or human greyhounds.
Now the mutation half of the Darwinian algorithm is becoming amenable to human manipulation, people have jumped to asking questions – what's going to happen when we start tinkering with genes? – while sort of forgetting that we could have been tinkering with selection for thousands of years and haven't done it. Maybe whatever has inhibited us from doing it with selection will do the same with mutation.
Do you believe there is a genetic basis to irrationality?
It would be very surprising if there wasn't a genetic basis to the psychological predispositions which make people vulnerable to religion.
One idea about irrationality that I and various other people have put forward is that the risks we faced in our natural state often came from evolved agents like leopards and snakes. So with a natural phenomenon like a storm, the prudent thing might have been to attribute it to an agent rather than to forces of physics. It's the proverbial rustle in the long grass: it's probably not a leopard, but if it is, you're for it. So a bias towards seeing agency rather than boring old natural forces may have been built into us.
That may take quite a lot of overcoming. Even though we no longer need to fear leopards, we inherit the instincts of those who did. Seeing agency where there isn't any is something that may have been programmed into our brains.
If we are irrational, perhaps one of the reasons people bristle at you is they feel their nature is under attack.
We accept that people are irrational for good Darwinian reasons. But I don't think we should be so pessimistic as to think that therefore we're forever condemned to be irrational.
When Can Society Overrule Religion?
As the row over ritual slaughter shows, when articles of faith clash with society’s values they can’t always be defended.
Religions grow from many roots. There is a profound intuition that life is more than squalid mortality, a desire for ethical order and ultimate justice, and a proto-scientific need to explain how the world works — whether your answer is in the Book of Genesis or a conviction that it is balanced on a giant turtle. Some faiths pare themselves down to a spiritual essence, most develop florid appendages of legend and ritual. Leaders, being human, like to bolster their authority. Many religions feel a need to differentiate themselves by imposing detailed rules of life. (Christianity, oddly, has fewer than most. Ten commandments, and “the greatest of these is Love”. )
All are valid to their adherents and deserve reasonable respect: there are many ways up the holy mountain. The tricky bit comes when man-made rules, interpretations and observances rub up awkwardly against surrounding society. For everyone’s good, including that of believers, good societies have values too: liberty, democracy, free speech, human rights and — increasingly today — environmental concern and humane treatment of animals.
Well, you see where I am heading. The Danish Government has followed Sweden and Norway in banning one important element in Muslim and Jewish slaughter of animals for halal and kosher food. Denmark says that the animal must first be stunned, but that it remains conscious is one of the six rules of halal slaughter. The other five say that the slaughterer must be of faith, pronounce the name of Allah, use a sharp knife, bleed the carcass dry and ensure that the animal was fed a natural diet. Judaism has similar prescriptions.
Some Muslims call it a limitation on religious freedom; Jewish leaders have cried anti-Semitism. It inevitably raises the historical spectre: Hitler and Mussolini banned shechita in the 1930s. But the Danish agriculture minister, Dan Jørgensen, says flatly: “Animal rights come before religion.” Believers can, of course, still freely import halal or kosher meat. And interestingly, Imam Khalil Jaffar, in Copenhagen, has said on al-Jazeera that actually, Danish Islamic leaders issued a religious decree years ago saying that animals stunned before slaughter can be considered halal. Since stunning is technically reversible, the creature is alive. Just not conscious.
Over here, with a typically British flinch, politicians continue to allow unstunned ritual slaughter, despite campaigning from the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and the Farm Animal Welfare Council. Some argue that, correctly done, slitting a conscious animal’s throat causes no more distress than the stun-gun. They also point out that crowded abattoirs are horrible anyway and that Danish industrial pig farming makes a nonsense of this “principled” humane stand, and therefore conclude that it may be fuelled by religious intolerance.
Let the Danes sort that out. A more universal interest lies in that line about animal welfare trumping religion. In the age of the multicultural melting pot we are all forced to examine our priorities. Most religious observances are no problem: if individuals eat fish on Fridays, speak in tongues, let their hair grow or gather to sing and pray peaceably together, it is no business whatsoever of the law or wider society. Nor is it a government’s right to silence those who prefer to laugh at believers. In 2005, before the passing of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, there was a risk of us losing that last freedom until the Lords insisted that to be criminal, there must be a clear intention to stir up hatred, rather than just a vague charge of “insulting” religion.
Nonetheless, there comes a point when we have to decide which values really do override sincere religious belief. In the case of female genital mutilation it is not too difficult: this horrid cruelty predates Islam and is not required by any mainstream part of it. Some primitive non-Muslim sects do it and it is clearly more cultural than religious. So the law can get tough, and at last we seem to be doing so after decades of pathetic cultural cringe. The law has never had too much trouble, either, in condemning the torture and killing of children under certain African “witchcraft” beliefs. And Jehovah’s Witnesses are overruled when they refuse lifesaving blood transfusions for children too young to decide.
As views about children’s rights become ever subtler, other decisions loom. Male circumcision, vitally important to observant Jews, is challenged from time to time in the US and Scandinavia; dramatically, the German Social Democrat MP Marlene Rupprecht put forward a resolution to the Council of Europe last year decrying “violation of the physical integrity of children”. She included male infant circumcision and withdrew after furious protests. But there it is: in modern terms that is an irreversible physical intervention without consent. Sometime, the issue will arise again.
We also have a strengthening sense that “emotional abuse” of children is actionable. Richard Dawkins called bringing a child up as a Roman Catholic “mental abuse”; now John Cornwell’s new book about the Confessional, The Dark Box, throws a grim implication over the 1910 papal decree that said this private, intimate whispered confession of sins should begin at the age of seven. Is confession itself potentially abusive? Not in my memory, but it’s a question worth asking after recent clerical scandals.
What trumps what? The question is not only for states and societies but for honest believers. Religions, too, should ask, how much is non-negotiable? What truly relates to the vital spiritual core and how much is barnacled cultural accretion, outdated and unnecessary to the essential flame you tend?
The Religious Right and Birth Control
What do religious fundamentalists have against birth control? In challenging the Obamacare rule that employers must provide contraception coverage as part of their health care plans, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, the companies whose suits the Supreme Court will hear later this month, have been careful to frame their objections narrowly. They’re not refusing to pay for all birth control. They just don’t want to fund “items” like the morning-after pill and the IUD, which they say effectively cause abortion by preventing a fertilized embryo from implanting in the uterus. Many scientists say that’s not true. But the companies are trying to take a limited, reasonable-minds-may-differ position.
The government has medical heavyweights on its side, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But Hobby Lobby has more briefs—the majority of a total of more than 80 briefs, by my count, were filed by conservative groups—and their allies have written the sentences that jump off the page. Despite how the companies themselves have carefully crafted their case, the briefs from their supporters provide a refresher course in how fundamentalists get from here to there. They are full of revelations.
Before we get to those, a brief recap of why contraception coverage matters. The Department of Health and Human Services decided to include contraception as part of comprehensive preventive health care for women—and thus a service employers must cover under the Affordable Care Act—based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. The IOM looked at the outcomes associated with getting pregnant unintentionally and found connections to delayed prenatal care, premature delivery, low birth weight, maternal depression, and family violence. Getting pregnant without intending to also can prevent women from getting a degree or a job they aspire to. Birth control, in other words, helps women in wide-ranging ways. It’s pretty simple, really: Women are better off when they get to choose if and when to have babies. When birth control is part of the health insurance package, as opposed to an expense women foot on their own, their health literally benefits.
That’s the consensus position of the mainstream experts at the IOM, among others. But the American Freedom Law Center, which says it “defends America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values,” sees contraception, instead, as Pope Paul VI did in 1968. In its brief, AFLC quotes the former pope like so:
It has come to pass that the widespread use of contraceptives has indeed harmed women physically, emotionally, morally, and spiritually — and has, in many respects, reduced her to the “mere instrument for the satisfaction of [man’s] own desires.” Consequently, the promotion of contraceptive services — the very goal of the challenged mandate — harms not only women, but it harms society in general by “open[ing] wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”
The Beverly LaHaye Institute, the research arm of Concerned Women for America, drives home this point, arguing that the government should have considered:
the documented negative effects the widespread availability of contraceptives has on women’s ability to enter into and maintain desired marital relationships. This in turn leads to decreased emotional wellbeing and economic stability (out-of-wedlock childbearing being a chief predictor of female poverty), as well as deleterious physical health consequences arising from, inter alia, sexually transmitted infections and domestic violence.
And so, as the AFLC argues, contraceptives of all kinds aren’t medical or related to health care at all. They are “procedures involving gravely immoral practices.” Protected sex demeans women by making men disrespect them. (Just as Pope Paul VI did decades ago, the AFLC presents this as true inside marriage as well as out.) By separating sex from childbearing, birth control is to blame for the erosion of marriage, for the economic difficulties of single motherhood, and even for the rotten behavior of men who beat their girlfriends and wives. Birth control is the original sin of modernity. Its widespread availability changed everything, for the worse.
Birth control is to blame for the erosion of marriage and even for the rotten behavior of men who beat their girlfriends and wives.
If it sounds like I’m describing a 1960s enraged sermon about the pill, I guess that’s the point: I could be. The Hobby Lobby case has given the groups that want to go back to prepill days a chance to air their nostalgia. And they want the Supreme Court to know that all women don’t share the view that controlling one’s body, with regard to the deep, life-altering question of when to be pregnant, is helpful and freeing. There are plenty of women who don’t “value free abortion drugs above public goods such as religious freedom and limited government,” as the brief from conservative women’s groups, including Concerned Women for America and the Susan B. Anthony List, puts it. And they are on the straight-and-narrow conservative path to sanctified motherhood. “It is demeaning to women to suggest that women’s fertility and the bearing and rearing of children are ‘barriers,’ ” the group Women Speak for Themselves argues. “Most women aspire to and do bear and rear children.”
Most women who have abortions bear and rear children, too, actually. And it goes without saying that women who have used birth control have kids, too, since “women who use contraceptives” means practically every woman in the country. And yet there are still people willing to say that “well-woman preventive care visits” are about minimizing “the risk and consequence of a sexually licentious lifestyle,” as yet another brief insists.
Make no mistake: If Hobby Lobby wins, the fundamentalist views I’ve been detailing (and despairing) win, too. Here’s the cherished ideal that will have its moment of ascendance: Women should welcome pregnancy at any time. Because if that blessing comes, it was divinely intended, and any other goal, at any moment, must yield.
These Supreme Court cases are ostensibly about a few lines in the many pages of Obamacare regulations, but really, they’re about sex and power. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins pointed out last week, “The war on abortion is often grounded in a simple aversion to sex that does not lead to procreation.” The same is true of the war on birth control. It’s supposed to be over, but it’s not. Because according to the segment of the religious right that signed on to these briefs, there is only one way for true women to wield power: by giving it up to become God’s (and their husband’s) handmaidens.