Tag Archives: religion

Intolerance and Divine Revelation

Intolerance_film

Another day, another heinous, murderous act in the name of religion — the latest this time a French priest killed in his own church by a pair shouting “Allahu akbar!” (To be fair countless other similar acts continue on a daily basis in non-Western nations, but go unreported or under-reported in the mainstream media).

Understandably, local and national religious leaders decry these heinous acts as a evil perversion of Islamic faith. Now, I’d be the first to admit that attributing such horrendous crimes solely to the faiths of the perpetrators is a rather simplistic rationalization. Other factors, such as political disenfranchisement, (perceived) oppression, historical persecution and economic pressures, surely play a triggering and/or catalytic role.

Yet, as Gary Gutting professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame reminds us in another of his insightful essays, religious intolerance is a fundamental component. The three main Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are revelatory faiths. Their teachings are each held to be incontrovertible truth revealed to us by an omniscient God (or a divine messenger). Strict adherence to these beliefs has throughout history led many believers — of all faiths — to enact their intolerance in sometimes very violent ways. Over time, numerous socio-economic pressures have generally softened this intolerance — but not equally across the three faiths.

From NYT:

Both Islam and Christianity claim to be revealed religions, holding that their teachings are truths that God himself has conveyed to us and wants everyone to accept. They were, from the start, missionary religions. A religion charged with bringing God’s truth to the world faces the question of how to deal with people who refuse to accept it. To what extent should it tolerate religious error? At certain points in their histories, both Christianity and Islam have been intolerant of other religions, often of each other, even to the point of violence.

This was not inevitable, but neither was it an accident. The potential for intolerance lies in the logic of religions like Christianity and Islam that say their teaching derive from a divine revelation. For them, the truth that God has revealed is the most important truth there is; therefore, denying or doubting this truth is extremely dangerous, both for nonbelievers, who lack this essential truth, and for believers, who may well be misled by the denials and doubts of nonbelievers. Given these assumptions, it’s easy to conclude that even extreme steps are warranted to eliminate nonbelief.

You may object that moral considerations should limit our opposition to nonbelief. Don’t people have a human right to follow their conscience and worship as they think they should? Here we reach a crux for those who adhere to a revealed religion. They can either accept ordinary human standards of morality as a limit on how they interpret divine teachings, or they can insist on total fidelity to what they see as God’s revelation, even when it contradicts ordinary human standards. Those who follow the second view insist that divine truth utterly exceeds human understanding, which is in no position to judge it. God reveals things to us precisely because they are truths we would never arrive at by our natural lights. When the omniscient God has spoken, we can only obey.

For those holding this view, no secular considerations, not even appeals to conventional morality or to practical common sense, can overturn a religious conviction that false beliefs are intolerable. Christianity itself has a long history of such intolerance, including persecution of Jews, crusades against Muslims, and the Thirty Years’ War, in which religious and nationalist rivalries combined to devastate Central Europe. This devastation initiated a move toward tolerance among nations that came to see the folly of trying to impose their religions on foreigners. But intolerance of internal dissidents — Catholics, Jews, rival Protestant sects — continued even into the 19th century. (It’s worth noting that in this period the Muslim Ottoman Empire was in many ways more tolerant than most Christian countries.) But Christians eventually embraced tolerance through a long and complex historical process.

Critiques of Christian revelation by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume raised serious questions that made non-Christian religions — and eventually even rejections of religion — intellectually respectable. Social and economic changes — including capitalist economies, technological innovations, and democratic political movements — undermined the social structures that had sustained traditional religion.

The eventual result was a widespread attitude of religious toleration in Europe and the United States. This attitude represented ethical progress, but it implied that religious truth was not so important that its denial was intolerable. Religious beliefs and practices came to be regarded as only expressions of personal convictions, not to be endorsed or enforced by state authority. This in effect subordinated the value of religious faith to the value of peace in a secular society. Today, almost all Christians are reconciled to this revision, and many would even claim that it better reflects the true meaning of their religion.

The same is not true of Muslims. A minority of Muslim nations have a high level of religious toleration; for example Albania, Kosovo, Senegal and Sierra Leone. But a majority — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Malaysia — maintain strong restrictions on non-Muslim (and in some cases certain “heretical” Muslim) beliefs and practices. Although many Muslims think God’s will requires tolerance of false religious views, many do not.

Read the entire story here.

Image: D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) movie poster. Courtesy: Sailko / Dekkappai at Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Your Local Morality Police

Hot on the heals of my recent post on the thought police around the globe comes a more specific look at the morality police in selected Islamic nations.

I’ve written this before, and I’ll write it again: I am constantly reminded of my good fortune at having been born in (UK) and later moved to (US) nations that value freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

Though, the current electioneering in the US does have me wondering how a Christian evangelical theocracy under a President Cruz would look.

From the BBC:

Police forces tasked with implementing strict state interpretations of Islamic morality exist in several other states, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Malaysia.

Many – especially those with an affinity with Western lifestyles – chafe against such restrictions on daily life, but others support the idea, and growing religious conservatism has led to pressure for similar forces to be created in countries that do not have them.

Here are some places where “morality police” forces patrol:

IRAN

Name: Gasht-e Ershad (Persian for Guidance Patrols), supported by Basij militia

Who they are: Iran has had various forms of “morality police” since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the Gasht-e Ershad are currently the main agency tasked enforcing Iran’s Islamic code of conduct in public.

Their focus is on ensuring observance of hijab – mandatory rules requiring women to cover their hair and bodies and discouraging cosmetics.

SAUDI ARABIA

Name: Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or Mutawa (Arabic for Particularly obedient to God)

Who they are: Formed in 1940, the Mutawa is tasked with enforcing Islamic religious law – Sharia – in public places.

This includes rules forbidding unrelated males and females to socialise in public, as well as a dress code that encourages women to wear a veil covering all but their eyes.

Read the entire story here.

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MondayMap: Thought Police

Map-Freedom-of-ThoughtThe inflammatory rhetoric of the US election gives me pause. Pretenders to the nation’s highest office include xenophobes and racists. Yet their words of fear and hate are protected by one of the simplest and most powerful sentences written in to law:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We should give thanks for these words every day. The words protect our utterances, thoughts, beliefs and associations.

Citizens in many other country’s are not so lucky. Some nations give preferential treatment to believers in the state-sanctioned religion and discriminate against those who don’t adhere. Other nations will severely persecute or punish their own people for blasphemy and/or apostasy.

Then there’s the list of 13, including: Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Pakistan, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. Here you can be put to death for not believing or for criticizing or renouncing your state-imposed belief system.

Please visit the International Humanist and Ethical Union to read the full Freedom of Thought Report 2015. It makes for sobering reading — hard to believe we all live in the 21st century.

Image: Countries (in red) where apostasy is punishable by death. Courtesy of Independent / International Humanist and Ethical Union.

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Religious Upbringing Reduces Altruism

Religious_symbols

Ready? This one may come as a shock to some. Yet another body of research shows that children raised in religious families are less likely to be selfless and generous towards others. Yes, that’s right, morality and altruism do not automatically spring forth from religiosity. Increasingly, it looks like altruism is a much deeper human (and animal) trait, and indeed studies show that altruistic behaviors are common in primates and other animals.

From Scientific American:

Organized religion is a cornerstone of spiritual community and culture around the world. Religion, especially religious education, also attracts secular support because many believe that religion fosters morality. A majority of the United States believes that faith in a deity is necessary to being a moral person.

In principle, religion’s emphasis on morality can smooth wrinkles out of the social fabric. Along those lines, believers are often instructed to act selflessly towards others. Islam places an emphasis on charity and alms-giving, Christianity on loving your neighbor as yourself. Taoist ethics, derived from the qualities of water, include the principle of selflessness

However, new research conducted in six countries around the world suggests that a religious upbringing may actually yield children who are less altruistic. Over 1000 children ages five to twelve took part in the study, from the United States, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and China. By finding that religious-raised children are less altruistic in the laboratory, the study alerts us to the possibility that religion might not have the wholesome effects we expect on the development of morality. The social practice of religion can complicate the precepts of a religious text. But in order to interpret these findings, we have to first look at how to test morality.

In an experiment snappily named the dictator game, a child designated “dictator” is tested for altruistic tendencies. This dictator child is conferred with great power to decide whether to share stickers with others. Researchers present the child with thirty stickers and instruct her to take ten favorite stickers. The researchers carefully mention that there isn’t time to play this game with everyone, setting up the main part of the experiment: to share or not to share. The child is given two envelopes and asked whether she will share stickers with other children at the school who cannot play the game. While the researcher faces the wall, the child can slip some stickers into the donation envelope and some into the other envelope to keep.

As the researchers expected, younger children were less likely to share stickers than older children. Also consistent with previous studies, children from a wealthier socioeconomic status shared more. More surprising was the tendency of children from religious households to share less than those from nonreligious backgrounds. When separated and analyzed by specific religion, the finding remained: children from both Christian and Muslim families on average shared less than nonreligious children. (Other religious designations were not represented in large enough numbers for separate statistical comparison.) Older kids from all backgrounds shared more than younger ones, but the tendency for religious children to share less than similar-aged children became more pronounced with age. The authors think this could be due to cumulative effects of time spent growing up in a religious household. While the large numbers of subjects strengthens the finding of a real difference between the groups of children, the actual disparity in typical sharing was about one sticker. We need to know if the gap in sticker sharing is meaningful in the real world.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Religious symbols from the top nine organized faiths of the world. From left to right: 1st Row: Christian Cross, Jewish Star of David, Hindu Aumkar 2nd Row: Islamic Star and crescent, Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, Shinto Torii 3rd Row: Sikh Khanda, Bahá’í star, Jain Ahimsa Symbol. Courtesy: Rursus / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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North Korea + Oil = Saudi Arabia

Most of us in the West — myself included — take our rights and freedoms very much for granted. This is a mistake. We should celebrate every day. And here’s a stark reminder from the Middle East. The latest collection of royal decrees from the rulers of Saudi Arabia now declare that atheists are terrorists.

At some point in our future I still have to believe that the majority of humanity will come to realize that morality, compassion, altruism, kindness are basic human traits — they come to be despite religion, not because of it. At that point, perhaps, more nations will remove the shackles of religious dogma that constrain their citizens and join in the celebration of truly secular and global human rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to think, freedom to dance, freedom to drive, freedom to joke, freedom to be spiritual but not religious. And, of course those who desire to still believe in whatever they wish, should be free to do so.

From the Independent:

Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

In a string of royal decrees and an overarching new piece of legislation to deal with terrorism generally, the Saudi King Abdullah has clamped down on all forms of political dissent and protests that could “harm public order”.

The new laws have largely been brought in to combat the growing number of Saudis travelling to take part in the civil war in Syria, who have previously returned with newfound training and ideas about overthrowing the monarchy.

To that end, King Abdullah issued Royal Decree 44, which criminalises “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” with prison sentences of between three and 20 years, Human Rights Watch said.

Yet last month further regulations were issued by the Saudi interior ministry, identifying a broad list of groups which the government considers to be terrorist organisations – including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.

Read the entire article here.

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Finding Meaning in Meaninglessness

If you’re an atheist, like me, you will certainly relate to the excerpted interviews below — where each individual “unbeliever” recounts her or his views on living a purposeful life in an thoroughly indifferent, meaningless and beautiful universe. If you’re a “non-unbeliever”, you will see that meaning is all around.

As writer Gia Milinovich puts it:

It is enough that I exist, that I am here now, albeit briefly, with all of you. And it’s an amazing, astonishing, remarkable, totally mind-blowing fucking miracle.

From Buzzfeed:

Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist:

“The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.

“If you’re an atheist and an evolutionary biologist, what you think is, I’m lucky to have these 80-odd years: How can I make the most of my existence here? Being an atheist means coming to grips with reality. And the reality is twofold. We’re going to die as individuals, and the whole of humanity, unless we find a way to colonise other planets, is going to go extinct. So there’s lots of things that we have to deal with that we don’t like. We just come to grips with the reality. Life is the result of natural selection, and death is the result of natural selection. We are evolved in such a way that death is almost inevitable. So you just deal with it.

“It says in the Bible that, ‘When I was a child I played with childish things, and when I became a man I put away those childish things.’ And one of those childish things is the superstition that there’s a higher purpose. Christopher Hitchens said it’s time to move beyond the mewling childhood of our species and deal with reality as it is, and that’s what we have to do.”

Susan Blackmore, psychologist:

“If I get a what’s-it-all-for sort of feeling, then I say to myself, What’s the point of it all? There isn’t any point. And somehow, for me – I know it’s not true for other people – that is really comforting. It slows me down. It reminds me that I didn’t ask to be born here, I’ll be gone, and I won’t know what’ll happen, I’ll just be gone, so get on with it. I find that comforting, to say to myself that there is no point, I live in a pointless universe. Here I am, for better or worse, get on with it.

“I was thinking about this yesterday. I was gardening, out there pulling up brambles, and I thought, Why do I do this? And the answer is, because I’m smiling, I’m enjoying it, and actually I love it. It’s because of the cycles of life. I was thinking, What’s the point of growing these beans again, because they’ll just die, and then next year I’ll do the same thing again. But isn’t that a great pleasure in life, that that’s how it is? The beans come and go, and you eat them and they die, and you do the work, and you see it come and go. Today is the due date for my first grandchild, and I think similarly about that. The cycles of birth and death. Here I am in the autumn of my life, I suppose – I’m 64 – and I’m just going through the same cycles that everyone goes through, and it gives me a sense of connection with other people. God, that sounds a bit poncey.

“The pointlessness of life is not a thing to be overcome. It’s something to be celebrated now, because that’s all there is.”

Kat Arney, biologist and science writer:

“I was raised in the Church of England. As a teenager, I ‘found Jesus’ and joined the evangelical movement, probably because I desperately wanted to feel part of a group, and also loved playing in the church band. I finally had my reverse Damascene moment as a post-doctoral researcher, desperately unhappy with my scientific career, relationship, and pretty much everything else, and can clearly remember the sudden realisation: I had one life, and I had to make the best of it. There was no heaven or hell, no magic man in the sky, and I was the sole captain of my ship.

“It was an incredibly liberating moment, and made me realise that the true meaning of life is what I make with the people around me – my family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. People tell religious fairy stories to create meaning, but I’d rather face up to what all the evidence suggests is the scientific truth – all we really have is our own humanity. So let’s be gentle to each other and share the joy of simply being alive, here and now. Let’s give it our best shot.”

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, molecular biologist:

“I think there are two things about living in a godless universe that scare some people. First, there is no one watching over them, benevolently guiding their lives. Second, because there is no life after death, it all feels rather bleak.

“Instead of scaring me, I find these two things incredibly liberating. It means that I am free to do as I want; my choices are truly mine. Furthermore, I feel determined to make the most of the years I have left on this planet, and not squander it. The life I live now is not a dress rehearsal for something greater afterwards; it empowers me to focus on the here and now. That is how I find meaning and purpose in what might seem a meaningless and purposeless existence; by concentrating on what I can do, and the differences I can make in the lives of those around me, in the short time that we have.”

Read the entire article here.

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Gadzooks, Gosh, Tarnation and the F-Bomb

Blimey! How our lexicon of foul language has evolved! Up to a few hundred years ago most swear words and oaths bore some connection to God, Jesus or other religious figure or event. But the need to display some level of dubious piety and avoid a lightening bolt from the blue led many to invent and mince a whole range of creative euphemisms. Hence, even today, we still hear words like “drat”, “gosh”, “tarnation”, “by george”, “by jove”, “heck”, “strewth”, “odsbodikins”, “gadzooks”, “doggone”.

More recently our linguistic penchant for shock and awe stems mostly from euphemistic — or not — labels for body parts and bodily functions — think: “freaking” or “shit” or “dick” and all manner of “f-words” and “c-words”. Sensitivities aside, many of us are fortunate enough to live in nations that have evolved beyond corporal or even capital punishment for uttering such blasphemous or vulgar indiscretions.

So, the next time your drop the “f-bomb” or a “dagnabbit” in public reflect for a while and thank yourself for supporting your precious democracy over the neighboring theocracy.

From WSJ:

At street level and in popular culture, Americans are freer with profanity now than ever before—or so it might seem to judge by how often people throw around the “F-bomb” or use a certain S-word of scatological meaning as a synonym for “stuff.” Or consider the millions of fans who adore the cartoon series “South Park,” with its pint-size, raucously foul-mouthed characters.

But things might look different to an expedition of anthropologists visiting from Mars. They might conclude that Americans today are as uptight about profanity as were our 19th-century forbears in ascots and petticoats. It’s just that what we think of as “bad” words is different. To us, our ancestors’ word taboos look as bizarre as tribal rituals. But the real question is: How different from them, for better or worse, are we?

In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”

It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.

In the 19th century, “Drat!” was a way to say “God rot.” Around the same time, darn started when people avoided saying “Eternal damnation!” by saying “Tarnation!”, which, because of the D-word hovering around, was easy to recast as “Darnation!”, from which “darn!” was a short step.

By the late 18th century, sex, excretion and the parts associated with same had come to be treated as equally profane as “swearing” in the religious sense. Such matters had always been considered bawdy topics, of course, but the space for ordinary words referring to them had been shrinking for centuries already.

Chaucer had available to him a thoroughly inoffensive word referring to the sex act, swive. An anatomy book in the 1400s could casually refer to a part of the female anatomy with what we today call the C-word. But over time, referring to these things in common conversation came to be regarded with a kind of pearl-clutching horror.

By the 1500s, as English began taking its place alongside Latin as a world language with a copious high literature, a fashion arose for using fancy Latinate terms in place of native English ones for more private matters. Thus was born a slightly antiseptic vocabulary, with words like copulate and penis. Even today modern English has no terms for such things that are neither clinical nor vulgar, along the lines of arm or foot or whistle.

The burgeoning bourgeois culture of the late 1700s, both in Great Britain and America, was especially alarmist about the “down there” aspect of things. In growing cities with stark social stratification, a new gentry developed a new linguistic self-consciousness—more English grammars were published between 1750 and 1800 than had ever appeared before that time.

In speaking of cooked fowl, “white” and “dark” meat originated as terms to avoid mention of breasts and limbs. What one does in a restroom, another euphemism of this era, is only laboriously classified as repose. Bosom and seat (for the backside) originated from the same impulse.

Passages in books of the era can be opaque to us now without an understanding of how particular people had gotten: In Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” Giles the butler begins, “I got softly out of bed; drew on a pair of…” only to be interrupted with “Ladies present…” after which he dutifully says “…of shoes, sir.” He wanted to say trousers, but because of where pants sit on the body, well…

Or, from the gargantuan Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884 and copious enough to take up a shelf and bend it, you would never have known in the original edition that the F-word or the C-word existed.

Such moments extend well into the early 20th century. In a number called “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” in the 1932 Broadway musical “42nd Street,” Ginger Rogers sings “He did right by little Nelly / with a shotgun at his bell-” and then interjects “tummy” instead. “Belly” was considered a rude part of the body to refer to; tummy was OK because of its association with children.

Read the entire story here.

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Atheists Growing, But Still Remain Hated

infographic-atheism-2014

While I’ve lived in the United States for quite some time now it continues to perplex. It may still be a land of opportunity, but it remains a head-scratching paradox. Take religion. On the one hand, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 22.8 percent of the adult population has no religious affiliation. That is, almost one quarter is atheist, agnostic or has no identification with any organized religion. This increased from 16 percent a mere seven years earlier. Yet, on the other hand, atheists and non-believers make up one of the most hated groups in the country — second only to Muslims. And, I don’t know where Satanists figure in this analysis.

Pew’s analysis also dices the analysis by political affiliation, and to no surprise, finds that Republicans generally hate atheists more than those on the left of the political spectrum. For Pew’s next research effort I would suggest they examine which religious affiliations hate atheists the most.

From the Guardian:

The dominant Christian share of the American population is falling sharply while the number of US adults who do not believe in God or prefer not to identify with any organized religion is growing significantly, according to a new report.

The trend is affecting Americans across the country and across all demographics and age groups – but is especially pronounced among young people, the survey by the Pew Research Center found.

In the last seven years, the proportion of US adults declaring themselves Christian fell from 78.4% to 70.6%, with the mainstream protestant, Catholic and evangelical protestant faiths all affected.

Over the same period, those in the category that Pew labeled religiously “unaffiliated” – those describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – jumped from 16.1% of the population to between a fifth and a quarter, at 22.8%, the report, released on Tuesday, found.

“The US remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith, but the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by almost eight points since 2007,” the survey found.

The change in non-Christian religious faiths, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and “other world religions and faiths” crept up modestly from 4.7% to 5.9% of US adults.

“The younger generation seem much less involved in organized religion and the older generation is passing on, which is a very important factor,” John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron in Ohio and an adviser on the survey, told the Guardian.

Tuesday’s report is called the Religious Landscape Study and is the second of its kind prepared by the Pew Research Center.

Pew first conducted such a survey in 2007 and repeated it in 2014 then made comparisons.

The US census does not ask Americans to specify their religion, and there are no official government statistics on the religious composition of the US population, the report pointed out, adding that researchers gathered their material by conducting the survey in Spanish and English across a nationally representative sample of 35,000 US adults.

Green said there were a number of different theories behind more young people eschewing organized religion.

“The involvement of religious groups in politics, particularly regarding issues such as same sex marriage and abortion, is alienating younger adults, who tend to have more liberal and progressive views than older people,” he said.

The rise of the internet and social media has also drawn younger adults towards online, general social groups and away from face-to-face organizations and traditional habits, such as churchgoing, he said.

And there is a theory that the fact that more young people in this generation are going to college is linked to their falling interest in organized religion, he said.

Read the entire story here.

Infographic courtesy of the Pew Research Center.

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Marketing of McGod

google-search-church-logos

Many churches now have their own cool logos. All of the large or mega-churches have their own well-defined brands and well-oiled marketing departments. Clearly, God is not doing enough to disseminate his (or her) message — God needs help from ad agencies and marketing departments. Modern day evangelism is not only a big business, it’s now a formalized business process, with key objectives, market share drivers, growth strategies, metrics and key performance indicators (KPI) — just like any other corporate franchise.

But some Christians believe that there is more (or, actually, less) to their faith than neo-evangelical brands like Vine, Gather, Vertical or Prime. So, some are shunning these houses of “worshipfotainment” [my invention, dear reader] with high-production values and edgy programming; they are forgoing mega-screens with Jesus-powerpoint and heavenly lasers, lattes in the lobby and hip Christian metal. A millennial tells his story of disillusionment with the McChurch — its evangelical shallowness and exclusiveness.

From the Washington Post:

Bass reverberates through the auditorium floor as a heavily bearded worship leader pauses to invite the congregation, bathed in the light of two giant screens, to tweet using #JesusLives. The scent of freshly brewed coffee wafts in from the lobby, where you can order macchiatos and purchase mugs boasting a sleek church logo. The chairs are comfortable, and the music sounds like something from the top of the charts. At the end of the service, someone will win an iPad.

This, in the view of many churches, is what millennials like me want. And no wonder pastors think so. Church attendance has plummeted among young adults. In the United States, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have, at some point, dropped out. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, among those of us who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claim no religious affiliation at all, making my generation significantly more disconnected from faith than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their lives and twice as detached as baby boomers were as young adults.

In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.

 You’re just as likely to hear the words “market share” and “branding” in church staff meetings these days as you are in any corporate office. Megachurches such as Saddleback in Lake Forest, Calif., and Lakewood in Houston have entire marketing departments devoted to enticing new members. Kent Shaffer of ChurchRelevance.com routinely ranks the best logos and Web sites and offers strategic counsel to organizations like Saddleback and LifeChurch.tv.

Increasingly, churches offer sermon series on iTunes and concert-style worship services with names like “Vine” or “Gather.” The young-adult group at Ed Young’s Dallas-based Fellowship Church is called Prime, and one of the singles groups at his father’s congregation in Houston is called Vertical. Churches have made news in recent years for giving away tablet computers , TVs and even cars at Easter. Still, attendance among young people remains flat.

Recent research from Barna Group and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” While we have yet to warm to the word “traditional” (only 40 percent favor it over “modern”), millennials exhibit an increasing aversion to exclusive, closed-minded religious communities masquerading as the hip new places in town. For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of “inauthentic” is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him. Millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,” argues David Kinnaman, who interviewed hundreds of them for Barna Group and compiled his research in “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church .?.?. and Rethinking Faith.”

My friend and blogger Amy Peterson put it this way: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”

Millennial blogger Ben Irwin wrote: “When a church tells me how I should feel (‘Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!’), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion — not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.”

When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.

Read the entire story here.

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Belief and the Falling Light

Many of us now accept that lights falling from the sky are rocky interlopers from the asteroid clouds within our solar system, rather than visiting angels or signs from an angry (or mysteriously benevolent) God. New analysis of the meteor that overflew Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013 suggests that one of the key founders of Christianity may have witnessed a similar natural phenomenon around two thousand years ago. However, at the time, Saul (later to become Paul the evangelist) interpreted the dazzling light on the road to Damascus — Acts of the Apostles, New Testament — as a message from a Christian God. The rest, as they say, is history. Luckily, recent scientific progress now means that most of us no longer establish new religious movements based on fireballs in the sky. But, we are awed nonetheless.

From the New Scientist:

Nearly two thousand years ago, a man named Saul had an experience that changed his life, and possibly yours as well. According to Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the biblical New Testament, Saul was on the road to Damascus, Syria, when he saw a bright light in the sky, was blinded and heard the voice of Jesus. Changing his name to Paul, he became a major figure in the spread of Christianity.

William Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, has a different explanation for what happened to Paul. He says the biblical descriptions of Paul’s experience closely match accounts of the fireball meteor seen above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013.

Hartmann has detailed his argument in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science (doi.org/3vn). He analyses three accounts of Paul’s journey, thought to have taken place around AD 35. The first is a third-person description of the event, thought to be the work of one of Jesus’s disciples, Luke. The other two quote what Paul is said to have subsequently told others.

“Everything they are describing in those three accounts in the book of Acts are exactly the sequence you see with a fireball,” Hartmann says. “If that first-century document had been anything other than part of the Bible, that would have been a straightforward story.”

But the Bible is not just any ancient text. Paul’s Damascene conversion and subsequent missionary journeys around the Mediterranean helped build Christianity into the religion it is today. If his conversion was indeed as Hartmann explains it, then a random space rock has played a major role in determining the course of history (see “Christianity minus Paul”).

That’s not as strange as it sounds. A large asteroid impact helped kill off the dinosaurs, paving the way for mammals to dominate the Earth. So why couldn’t a meteor influence the evolution of our beliefs?

“It’s well recorded that extraterrestrial impacts have helped to shape the evolution of life on this planet,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “If it was a Chelyabinsk fireball that was responsible for Paul’s conversion, then obviously that had a great impact on the growth of Christianity.”

Hartmann’s argument is possible now because of the quality of observations of the Chelyabinsk incident. The 2013 meteor is the most well-documented example of larger impacts that occur perhaps only once in 100 years. Before 2013, the 1908 blast in Tunguska, also in Russia, was the best example, but it left just a scattering of seismic data, millions of flattened trees and some eyewitness accounts. With Chelyabinsk, there is a clear scientific argument to be made, says Hartmann. “We have observational data that match what we see in this first-century account.”

Read the entire article here.

Video: Meteor above Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013. Courtesy of Tuvix72.

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Religious Dogma and DNA

Despite ongoing conflicts around the global that are fueled or governed by religious fanaticism it is entirely plausible that our general tendency to supernatural belief is encoded in our DNA. Of course this does not mean that a God or that various gods exist, it merely implies that over time natural selection generally favored those who believed in deities over those did not. We are such complex and contradictory animals.

From NYT:

Most of us find it mind-boggling that some people seem willing to ignore the facts — on climate change, on vaccines, on health care — if the facts conflict with their sense of what someone like them believes. “But those are the facts,” you want to say. “It seems weird to deny them.”

And yet a broad group of scholars is beginning to demonstrate that religious belief and factual belief are indeed different kinds of mental creatures. People process evidence differently when they think with a factual mind-set rather than with a religious mind-set. Even what they count as evidence is different. And they are motivated differently, based on what they conclude. On what grounds do scholars make such claims?

First of all, they have noticed that the very language people use changes when they talk about religious beings, and the changes mean that they think about their realness differently. You do not say, “I believe that my dog is alive.” The fact is so obvious it is not worth stating. You simply talk in ways that presume the dog’s aliveness — you say she’s adorable or hungry or in need of a walk. But to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive” signals that you know that other people might not think so. It also asserts reverence and piety. We seem to regard religious beliefs and factual beliefs with what the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls different “cognitive attitudes.”

Second, these scholars have remarked that when people consider the truth of a religious belief, what the belief does for their lives matters more than, well, the facts. We evaluate factual beliefs often with perceptual evidence. If I believe that the dog is in the study but I find her in the kitchen, I change my belief. We evaluate religious beliefs more with our sense of destiny, purpose and the way we think the world should be. One study found that over 70 percent of people who left a religious cult did so because of a conflict of values. They did not complain that the leader’s views were mistaken. They believed that he was a bad person.

Third, these scholars have found that religious and factual beliefs play different roles in interpreting the same events. Religious beliefs explain why, rather than how. People who understand readily that diseases are caused by natural processes might still attribute sickness at a particular time to demons, or healing to an act of God. The psychologist Cristine H. Legare and her colleagues recently demonstrated that people use both natural and supernatural explanations in this interdependent way across many cultures. They tell a story, as recounted by Tracy Kidder’s book on the anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, about a woman who had taken her tuberculosis medication and been cured — and who then told Dr. Farmer that she was going to get back at the person who had used sorcery to make her ill. “But if you believe that,” he cried, “why did you take your medicines?” In response to the great doctor she replied, in essence, “Honey, are you incapable of complexity?”

Moreover, people’s reliance on supernatural explanations increases as they age. It may be tempting to think that children are more likely than adults to reach out to magic to explain something, and that they increasingly put that mind-set to the side as they grow up, but the reverse is true. It’s the young kids who seem skeptical when researchers ask them about gods and ancestors, and the adults who seem clear and firm. It seems that supernatural ideas do things for adults they do not yet do for children.

Finally, scholars have determined that people don’t use rational, instrumental reasoning when they deal with religious beliefs. The anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues have shown that sacred values are immune to the normal cost-benefit trade-offs that govern other dimensions of our lives. Sacred values are insensitive to quantity (one cartoon can be a profound insult). They don’t respond to material incentives (if you offer people money to give up something that represents their sacred value, and they often become more intractable in their refusal). Sacred values may even have different neural signatures in the brain.

The danger point seems to be when people feel themselves to be completely fused with a group defined by its sacred value. When Mr. Atran and his colleagues surveyed young men in two Moroccan neighborhoods associated with militant jihad (one of them home to five men who helped plot the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and then blew themselves up), they found that those who described themselves as closest to their friends and who upheld Shariah law were also more likely to say that they would suffer grievous harm to defend Shariah law. These people become what Mr. Atran calls “devoted actors” who are unconditionally committed to their sacred value, and they are willing to die for it.

Read the entire article here.

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Apocalypse Now in Three Simple Steps

Google-search-apocalypse

Step One: Return to the Seventh Century.

Step Two: Fight the armies from Rome.

Step Three: Await… the apocalypse.

Just three simple steps — pretty straightforward really. Lots of violence, bloodshed and torture along the way. But apparently it’s worth every beheaded infidel, every crucified apostate, every subjugated or raped woman, every tormented child. This is the world according to ISIS, and it makes all other apocalyptic traditions seem like a trip to the candy store.

This makes one believe that apocalyptic Jews and Christians really don’t take their end-of-days beliefs very seriously — otherwise wouldn’t they be fighting alongside their Muslim brothers to reach the other side as quickly as possible?

Hmm. Which God to believe?

If you do nothing else today, read the entire in-depth article below.

From the Atlantic:

What is the Islamic State?

Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.

The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.

Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al?Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Apocalypse. Courtesy if Google Search.

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The Paradox That is Humanity

Romans_punish_Cretan_Saracens

Fanatical brutality and altruism. Greed and self-sacrifice. Torture and love. Cruelty and remorse. Care and wickedness. These are the paradoxical traits that make us uniquely human. Many people give of themselves, love unconditionally, exhibit kindness, selflessness and compassion at every turn. And yet, describing the immolation, crucifixions and beheadings of fellow humans by humans as inhuman or “beastial” rather misses the point. While some animals maim and kill their own, and even feast on the spoils, humans have risen above all other species to a pinnacle of barbaric behavior that demands that we all continually reflect on our humanity, both good and evil. Sadly, this is not news: persecution of one group by another is encoded in our DNA.

From the Guardian:

It describes itself as “an inclusive school where gospel values underpin a caring and supporting ethos, manifest in care for each individual”. And I have no reason to doubt it. But one of the questions raised by the popularity of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is whether St Thomas More Catholic School is named after a monster or a saint. With Mantel, gone is the More of heroic humanism popularised by Robert Bolt’s fawning A Man for All Seasons. In its place she reminds us that More was persecutor-in-chief towards those who struggled to see the Bible translated into English and personally responsible for the burning of a number of men who dared question the ultimate authority of the Roman church.

This week’s Wolf Hall episode ended with the death of Middle Temple lawyer James Bainham at Smithfield on 30 April 1532. More tortured Bainham in the Tower of London for questioning the sanctity of Thomas Becket and for speaking out against the financial racket of the doctrine of purgatory that “picked men’s purses”. At first, under the pressure of torture, Bainham recanted his views. But within weeks of being released, Bainham re-asserted them. And so More had him burnt at the stake.

The recent immolation of Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh by Islamic State (Isis) brings home the horrendous reality of what this involves. I watched it on the internet. And I wish I hadn’t. I felt voyeuristic and complicit. And though I justified watching on the grounds that I was going to write about it, and thus (apparently) needed to see the truly horrific footage, I don’t think I was right to do so. As well as seeing things that I will never be able to un-see, I felt morally soiled – as if I had done exactly what Isis had wanted me to do. I mean, if no one ever watched this stuff,  they wouldn’t make it.

Afterwards, I wandered down to Smithfield market to get some air. I sat in a posh cafe and tried to picture what the place must have been like when Bainham was killed. Both then and now, death by burning was a staged event, deliberately public, a theatre of cruelty designed for political/religious instruction. In his book on burnings in 16th century England, the historian Eamon Duffy recounts a burning in Dartford in 1555: “‘Thither came … fruiterers wyth horse loades of cherries, and sold them’.” Can you imagine: passing round the cherries as you watch people burn? What sort of creatures are we?

Yes, religion is the common factor here. But if there is no God (as some say) and religion is a purely human phenomenon, then it is humanity that is also in the dock. For when we speak of these acts as “inhuman”, or of the “inhumanity” of Isis, we are surely kidding ourselves: history teaches that human beings are often exactly like this. We are often viciously cruel and without an ounce of pity and, yet, all too often in denial about our basic capacity for wickedness. One cannot be in denial after watching that video.

And yet the thing that it is almost impossible for us to get our heads around is that this capacity for wickedness can also co-exist with an extraordinary capacity for love and care and self-sacrifice. More, of course, is a perfect case in point. As well as being declared a saint, More was famously one of the early humanists, a friend of Erasmus. In his Utopia, he fantasised about a world where people lived together in harmony, with no private property to divide them. He championed female education and (believe it or not) religious toleration.

Robert Bolt may have only reflected one aspect of More’s character, but he did stand up for what he believed in, even to the point of death. And when More was declared a saint in 1935, it was partially a powerful and deliberate witness to German Christians to do the same. And who would have guessed that, within a few years, apparently civilized Europe would return again to the burning of human bodies, this time on an industrial scale. And this time, not in the name of God.

Read the entire article here.

Image: 12th century Byzantine manuscript illustration depicting Byzantine Greeks (Christian/Eastern Orthodox) punishing Cretan Saracens (Muslim) in the 9th century. Courtesy of Madrid Skylitzes / Wikipedia.

 

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Je Suis Snowman #jesuissnowman

snowman

What do Salman Rushdie and snowmen have in common, you may ask. Apparently, they are they both the subject of an Islamic fatwa. So, beware building a snowman lest you stray onto an ungodly path from idolizing your frozen handiwork. And, you may wish to return that DVD of Frozen. Oh, the utter absurdity of it all!

From the Guardian:

A prominent Saudi Arabian cleric has whipped up controversy by issuing a religious edict forbidding the building of snowmen, described them as anti-Islamic.

Asked on a religious website if it was permissible for fathers to build snowmen for their children after a snowstorm in the country’s north, Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Munajjid replied: “It is not permitted to make a statue out of snow, even by way of play and fun.”

Quoting from Muslim scholars, Munajjid argued that to build a snowman was to create an image of a human being, an action considered sinful under the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam.

“God has given people space to make whatever they want which does not have a soul, including trees, ships, fruits, buildings and so on,” he wrote in his ruling.

That provoked swift responses from Twitter users writing in Arabic and identifying themselves with Arab names.

“They are afraid for their faith of everything … sick minds,” one Twitter user wrote.

Another posted a photo of a man in formal Arab garb holding the arm of a “snow bride” wearing a bra and lipstick. “The reason for the ban is fear of sedition,” he wrote.

A third said the country was plagued by two types of people: “A people looking for a fatwa [religious ruling] for everything in their lives, and a cleric who wants to interfere in everything in the lives of others through a fatwa.”

Munajjid had some supporters however. “It (building snowmen) is imitating the infidels, it promotes lustiness and eroticism,” one wrote. “May God preserve the scholars, for they enjoy sharp vision and recognise matters that even Satan does not think about.”

Snow has covered upland areas of Tabuk province near Saudi Arabia’s border with Jordan for the third consecutive year as cold weather swept across the Middle East.

Read more here.

Images courtesy of Google Search.

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Frenemies: The Religious Beheading and The Secular Guillotine

Secular ideologues in the West believe they are on the moral high-ground. The separation of church (and mosque or synagogue) from state is, they believe, the path to a more just, equal and less-violent culture. They will cite example after example in contemporary and recent culture of terrible violence in the name of religious extremism and fundamentalism.

And, yet, step back for a minute from the horrendous stories and images of atrocities wrought by religious fanatics in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Think of the recent histories of fledgling nations in Africa; the ethnic cleansings across much of Central and Eastern Europe — several times over; the egomaniacal tribal terrorists of Central Asia, the brutality of neo-fascists and their socialist bedfellows in Latin America. Delve deeper into these tragic histories — some still unfolding before our very eyes — and you will see a much more complex view of humanity.  Our tribal rivalries know no bounds and our violence towards others is certainly not limited only to the catalyst of religion. Yes, we fight for our religion, but we also fight for territory, politics, resources, nationalism, revenge, poverty, ego.  Soon the coming fights will be about water and food — these will make our wars over belief systems seem rather petty.

Scholar and author Karen Armstrong explores the complexities of religious and secular violence in the broader context of human struggle in her new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

From the Guardian:

As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logicalsolution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word dinsignifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

The myth of religious violence

Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe. The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.

Read the entire article here.

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Theism Versus Spirituality

Prominent neo-atheist Sam Harris continues to reject theism, and does so thoughtfully and eloquently. In his latest book, Waking Up, he continues to argue the case against religion, but makes a powerful case for spirituality. Harris defines spirituality as an inner sense of a good and powerful reality, based on sound self-awarenesses and insightful questioning of one’s own consciousness. This type of spirituality, quite rightly, is devoid of theistic angels and demons. Harris reveals more in his interview with Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

From the NYT:

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.

Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?

Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.

The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.

The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.

G.G.: But science aims at objective truth, which has to be verifiable: open to confirmation by other people. In what sense do you think first-person descriptions of subjective experience can be scientific?

S.H.: In a very strong sense. The only difference between claims about first-person experience and claims about the physical world is that the latter are easier for others to verify. That is an important distinction in practical terms — it’s easier to study rocks than to study moods — but it isn’t a difference that marks a boundary between science and non-science. Nothing, in principle, prevents a solitary genius on a desert island from doing groundbreaking science. Confirmation by others is not what puts the “truth” in a truth claim. And nothing prevents us from making objective claims about subjective experience.

Are you thinking about Margaret Thatcher right now? Well, now you are. Were you thinking about her exactly six minutes ago? Probably not. There are answers to questions of this kind, whether or not anyone is in a position to verify them.

And certain truths about the nature of our minds are well worth knowing. For instance, the anger you felt yesterday, or a year ago, isn’t here anymore, and if it arises in the next moment, based on your thinking about the past, it will quickly pass away when you are no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind — and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you do understand it deeply — that is, if you are able to pay clear attention to the arising and passing away of anger, rather than merely think about why you have every right to be angry — it becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. Again, this is an objective claim about the character of subjective experience. And I invite our readers to test it in the laboratory of their own minds.

G. G.: Of course, we all have some access to what other people are thinking or feeling. But that access is through probable inference and so lacks the special authority of first-person descriptions. Suppose I told you that in fact I didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher when I read your comment, because I misread your text as referring to Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”? If that’s true, I have evidence for it that you can’t have. There are some features of consciousness that we will agree on. But when our first-person accounts differ, then there’s no way to resolve the disagreement by looking at one another’s evidence. That’s very different from the way things are in science.

S.H.: This difference doesn’t run very deep. People can be mistaken about the world and about the experiences of others — and they can even be mistaken about the character of their own experience. But these forms of confusion aren’t fundamentally different. Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete.

For instance, consider an emotion like fear. We now have many physiological markers for fear that we consider quite reliable, from increased activity in the amygdala and spikes in blood cortisol to peripheral physiological changes like sweating palms. However, just imagine what would happen if people started showing up in the lab complaining of feeling intense fear without showing any of these signs — and they claimed to feel suddenly quite calm when their amygdalae lit up on fMRI, their cortisol spiked, and their skin conductance increased. We would no longer consider these objective measures of fear to be valid. So everything still depends on people telling us how they feel and our (usually) believing them.

However, it is true that people can be very poor judges of their inner experience. That is why I think disciplined training in a technique like “mindfulness,” apart from its personal benefits, can be scientifically important.

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Time Traveling Camels

camels_at_giza

Camels have no place in the Middle East of biblical times. Forensic scientists, biologists, archeologists, geneticists and paleontologists all seem to agree that camels could not have been present in the early Jewish stories of the Genesis and the Old Testament — camels trotted in to the land many hundreds of years later.

From the NYT:

There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place.

Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C., and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham’s servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac.

These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”

Dr. Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of “how people in the Middle Ages used semitrailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another.”

For two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. They sought evidence of when domesticated camels were first introduced into the land of Israel and the surrounding region.

The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century B.C. — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible. Some bones in deeper sediments, they said, probably belonged to wild camels that people hunted for their meat. Dr. Sapir-Hen could identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads.

The findings were published recently in the journal Tel Aviv and in a news release from Tel Aviv University. The archaeologists said that the origin of the domesticated camel was probably in the Arabian Peninsula, which borders the Aravah Valley. Egyptians exploited the copper resources there and probably had a hand in introducing the camels. Earlier, people in the region relied on mules and donkeys as their beasts of burden.

“The introduction of the camel to our region was a very important economic and social development,” Dr. Ben-Yosef said in a telephone interview. “The camel enabled long-distance trade for the first time, all the way to India, and perfume trade with Arabia. It’s unlikely that mules and donkeys could have traversed the distance from one desert oasis to the next.”

Dr. Mizrahi, a professor of Hebrew culture studies at Tel Aviv University who was not directly involved in the research, said that by the seventh century B.C. camels had become widely employed in trade and travel in Israel and through the Middle East, from Africa as far as India. The camel’s influence on biblical research was profound, if confusing, for that happened to be the time that the patriarchal stories were committed to writing and eventually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible.

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Camels at the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Which is Your God?

Is your God the one to be feared from the Old Testament? Or is yours the God who brought forth the angel Moroni? Or are your Gods those revered by Hindus or Ancient Greeks or the Norse? Theists have continuing trouble in answering these fundamental questions much to the consternation, and satisfaction, of atheists.

In a thoughtful interview with Gary Gutting, Louise Antony a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, structures these questions in the broader context of morality and social justice.

From the NYT:

Gary Gutting: You’ve taken a strong stand as an atheist, so you obviously don’t think there are any good reasons to believe in God. But I imagine there are philosophers whose rational abilities you respect who are theists. How do you explain their disagreement with you? Are they just not thinking clearly on this topic?

Louise Antony: I’m not sure what you mean by saying that I’ve taken a “strong stand as an atheist.” I don’t consider myself an agnostic; I claim to know that God doesn’t exist, if that’s what you mean.

G.G.: That is what I mean.

L.A.: O.K. So the question is, why do I say that theism is false, rather than just unproven? Because the question has been settled to my satisfaction. I say “there is no God” with the same confidence I say “there are no ghosts” or “there is no magic.” The main issue is supernaturalism — I deny that there are beings or phenomena outside the scope of natural law.

That’s not to say that I think everything is within the scope of human knowledge. Surely there are things not dreamt of in our philosophy, not to mention in our science – but that fact is not a reason to believe in supernatural beings. I think many arguments for the existence of a God depend on the insufficiencies of human cognition. I readily grant that we have cognitive limitations. But when we bump up against them, when we find we cannot explain something — like why the fundamental physical parameters happen to have the values that they have — the right conclusion to draw is that we just can’t explain the thing. That’s the proper place for agnosticism and humility.

But getting back to your question: I’m puzzled why you are puzzled how rational people could disagree about the existence of God. Why not ask about disagreements among theists? Jews and Muslims disagree with Christians about the divinity of Jesus; Protestants disagree with Catholics about the virginity of Mary; Protestants disagree with Protestants about predestination, infant baptism and the inerrancy of the Bible. Hindus think there are many gods while Unitarians think there is at most one. Don’t all these disagreements demand explanation too? Must a Christian Scientist say that Episcopalians are just not thinking clearly? Are you going to ask a Catholic if she thinks there are no good reasons for believing in the angel Moroni?

G.G.: Yes, I do think it’s relevant to ask believers why they prefer their particular brand of theism to other brands. It seems to me that, at some point of specificity, most people don’t have reasons beyond being comfortable with one community rather than another. I think it’s at least sometimes important for believers to have a sense of what that point is. But people with many different specific beliefs share a belief in God — a supreme being who made and rules the world. You’ve taken a strong stand against that fundamental view, which is why I’m asking you about that.

L.A.: Well I’m challenging the idea that there’s one fundamental view here. Even if I could be convinced that supernatural beings exist, there’d be a whole separate issue about how many such beings there are and what those beings are like. Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.

In any case though, I don’t see that claiming to know that there is no God requires me to say that no one could have good reasons to believe in God. I don’t think there’s some general answer to the question, “Why do theists believe in God?” I expect that the explanation for theists’ beliefs varies from theist to theist. So I’d have to take things on a case-by-case basis.

I have talked about this with some of my theist friends, and I’ve read some personal accounts by theists, and in those cases, I feel that I have some idea why they believe what they believe. But I can allow there are arguments for theism that I haven’t considered, or objections to my own position that I don’t know about. I don’t think that when two people take opposing stands on any issue that one of them has to be irrational or ignorant.

G.G.: No, they may both be rational. But suppose you and your theist friend are equally adept at reasoning, equally informed about relevant evidence, equally honest and fair-minded — suppose, that is, you are what philosophers call epistemic peers: equally reliable as knowers. Then shouldn’t each of you recognize that you’re no more likely to be right than your peer is, and so both retreat to an agnostic position?

L.A.: Yes, this is an interesting puzzle in the abstract: How could two epistemic peers — two equally rational, equally well-informed thinkers — fail to converge on the same opinions? But it is not a problem in the real world. In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe.

G.G.: So is your point that we always have reason to think that people who disagree are not epistemic peers?

L.A.: It’s worse than that. The whole notion of epistemic peers belongs only to the abstract study of knowledge, and has no role to play in real life. Take the notion of “equal cognitive powers”: speaking in terms of real human minds, we have no idea how to seriously compare the cognitive powers of two people.

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Ducks, Politics and God

duck-dynastyUntil last Wednesday (December 18, 2013) the funniest elements of Duck Dynasty were the beards, Uncle Si and Uncle Si’s beard. But then reality hit the reality TV show.

On Thursday, and even more humorous than the show and beards, the patriarch of the family Phil Robertson was suspended for an anti-gay slur. That someone cannot voice a real remark, however obnoxious, on a reality TV show is rather ironic and quite hilarious. Spouses should await a similar suspension from the family for a week for the next household faux pas. Or, could it be that the show is somehow scripted by A&E management anxious to cash in on the next fleeting opportunity?

By Friday the situation has become even more surreal — the politicians and bible thumpers had jumped in. The silly season had begun. The chorus from conservatives has been deafening: “it’s about faith”, “it’s about sin”. But most seem to forget that in our consumer-oriented, market-driven society it’s really about money. So if advertisers blink because one or more members of the Duck Dynasty commercial franchise is a bigot, so be it. That’s free speech and money is the ultimate equalizer. The market has spoken.

That said, one wishes that politicians, pundits and prosletyzers could be suspended as well.

From the Washington Post:

Few could have predicted that the story lines of the hit A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty” and the 2016 presidential contest would converge.

But that unexpected mash-up played out Thursday as conservative politicians rushed to defend Phil Robertson, the shaggy-bearded, homespun star of the breakout series, who was suspended by the cable network after his published comments about gays stirred a storm of controversy.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), a likely White House contender whose state is home to the show about a family that runs a duck-hunting gear enterprise, called Robertson and his family “great citizens.”

“The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with,” Jindal said in a statement prominently displayed on his official Web site, adding: “I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), another probable 2016 candidate, chimed in on Facebook, writing: “If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson.” And 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin wrote in a Facebook post that “those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”

Their embrace of Robertson — who in an interview with GQ described “homosexual behavior” as sinful and compared it to bestiality and infidelity — underscored how gay rights remain a potent political issue for many religious voters on the right.

As the same-sex marriage movement has gained steam, many evangelicals and conservative Catholics feel as if they are being asked to give up deeply held beliefs — an effort they perceived in the quick suspension of the “Duck Dynasty” star after his comments were denounced by gay rights groups.

The furor is reminiscent of the protests and counter-rallies of support that swirled around the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A last year after its president said the company supported “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

Conservative Christians “feel like they’re under siege in a culture that is increasingly intolerant and discriminatory toward their views, and they don’t feel represented,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who noted that Robertson paraphrased from the Bible’s Book of Corinthians in his interview. “I did not get any impression at all that there was animus expressed,” Reed said

By jumping into the “Duck Dynasty” maelstrom, conservative leaders such as Jindal and Cruz sent a clear message to evangelical voters: We’re on your side.

“Make no mistake,” Reed said, “these voters are paying attention, and they are going to remember who stood up.”

The controversy played out on the very day that opposing cultural forces were on full display. New Mexico’s highest court legalized same-sex marriage, the 17th state to allow gays and lesbians to wed. And figure skater Brian Boitano announced he is gay, making him the third gay member of the U.S. delegation who will travel to Russia in February for the Winter Olympics.

The cross-currents spotlighted the schism over gay rights that persists in parts of the country.

“This shows that there clearly needs to be more engagement of the evangelical community if gay acceptance is going to become a reality,” said Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights advocacy group.

Still, other gay rights advocates noted the growing number of moderate Republican leaders who have embraced the cause of same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, more than 100 Republicans signed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.

Fred Sainz, spokesman for the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said that “the days of making gay a wedge issue are dated.”

“I think they are outliers,” he said of Jindal, Cruz and Palin, adding that he believes they jumped into the “Duck Dynasty” controversy to appeal to “a niche base.”

But that base remains a powerful force in the Republican Party, particularly when it comes to presidential primaries in states such as Iowa and South Carolina.

Conservative activists said that the national push for gay rights could mobilize evangelical voters to the polls in new numbers in 2016, particularly if they feel there is a candidate running who reflects their beliefs.

David Lane, an influential Christian activist based in California who organizes pastor conferences, said he got an e-mail Thursday morning from a top Republican activist in Iowa who credited Jindal for speaking out quickly about Robertson’s suspension.

“What Jindal is doing is absolutely tremendous, from an evangelical and pro-life Catholic standpoint,” Lane said. “Spiritually speaking, we’re in a war.”

And Robertson, the blunt-spoken reality show star, is serving as the unexpected latest flashpoint. (Notably, his comments about gays — including a graphic description of which body parts are more desirable — have garnered substantially more attention than his contention in the same GQ interview that African Americans were happier in the era of Jim Crow laws in the South, calling them “singing and happy.”)

In the interview he said:“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”

Robertson issued a statement Thursday saying that he believes his mission is to spread the Bible’s teachings. “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me,” he said. “We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of New York Times.

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Dawkins: Radical Atheist

At any point in time, every major religion seems to be home to a handful of outspoken radicals who act as both standard-bearers and lightening rods for the broader movement. And, atheism is no different. If you Google “atheist” it is highly likely that the most frequent hits will highlight Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, our beloved, and recently departed, Chris Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.

Of course, they all have their very own, very different approaches to prosletyzing — that is, if atheists are indeed allowed to do such a thing. Hitchens, for example, used his unsurpassed erudition, elephantine memory and linguistic eloquence, and logic, to crush contrary opinion in a relentless but very thoughtful and charming way. Dawkins on the other hand comes across as more arrogant and impatient. He’s on a mission to save the world from the believers.

From the Guardian:

On the top floor of Random House’s offices in London, the world’s number one thinker – according to Prospect magazine’s annual poll – walks in from the roof terrace and shakes my hand. Richard Dawkins is a trim 72-year-old with one of those faces that, no matter the accumulation of lines, will always draw the adjective “boyish”.

There’s a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.

Perhaps the renowned evolutionary biologist and the world’s most famous atheist was feeling especially cautious. The day before I met him he had become embroiled in a Twitterstorm, which grew into a broader media monsoon, after he had tweeted the following: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the middle ages, though.”

He defended himself in the ensuing furore by saying that he was merely stating a fact. And it’s true, it was a fact. Many objected that it was a fact used to demonise Muslims, that it was racist (Dawkins responded by pointing out that Islam is not a race), and that, out of context, it was, at the very least, mischievous and misleading.

I returned later to this dispute, but first of all we got down to discussing his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, a sort of portrait of the scientist as a young man. The first of two volumes, it takes us from boyhood to the publication of his landmark bestseller, The Selfish Gene. The story begins with his colonial childhood in Kenya and Nyasaland (now Malawi), and is full of dusty anecdotes of our young hero rummaging without a care in the great African outdoors. Does he look back with nostalgia at that now largely disappeared way of life?

“Yes,” he says slowly, as if watchful for hidden traps. “It’s now unfashionable and in many ways it’s something we British have to live down. But yes, there is a nostalgia for it and, although I was never in India, I get it reading novels of the Raj. It’s a lost era that you can’t help having a certain affection for, even if you disapprove politically.”

His parents were hardy, practical types, unflustered by war or life in the bush or, it seems, anything else. His father was a botanist, working in the agricultural office in Nyasaland, so Dawkins grew up in a family that took a scientific interest in living organisms, though he insists he never inherited his parents’ extensive knowledge of flora and fauna.

He moved to England when he was nine and went through a very typical public school experience for the era, except that he managed to fend off the sexual predations of older boys. Other than in relation to genetic research, sex doesn’t raise its titillating head at all in the book – apart from one occasion. We learn that at the ripe age of 22 he lost his virginity to a cellist in London. She “removed her skirt in order to play to me in her bedsitter (you can’t play the cello in a tight skirt) – and then removed everything else.”

But that’s all that Dawkins allows in terms of romance.

“Well that was a little token to say, ‘This is all you’re going to get,’?” he says firmly. “I wanted to announce that this is not going to be that kind of autobiography.”

Why not? “Fear of betraying confidences,” he says, shifting in his chair. “These things are private. Some people let it all hang out but I prefer not to.”

You can say that again. Dawkins may have an appetite for wonder, but he is positively anorexic when it comes to personal revelation. Perhaps the most confessional section – and it can hardly be called exposing – deals with his years teaching at Berkeley in the late 60s, when the campus was a hotbed of countercultural revolt. Dawkins took part in protests against the Vietnam war, of which he remains proud, but also got caught up in a local militant initiative to take over some university waste ground and turn it into a “people’s park”. “With hindsight,” he writes, “it was a trumped-up excuse for radical activism for its own sake.”

I suggest that radical movements invariably function on peer pressure and he agrees that he succumbed to the impulse to belong. “There was a sort of feeling of flower power and drugs,” he says. “I never actually took drugs, oddly enough. I never had the opportunity. But the music of the time and the atmosphere – there was a feeling of loyalty to the protesters: these are my people. The same people who marched against the Vietnam war marched for the people’s park and it was an automatic decision to join them. One should be more independent-minded than that.”

That’s Dawkins at his most self-reflective. He avoids any details of interest about his first marriage – to the ethologist Marian Stamp. And according to him, he is unlikely to be any more forthcoming in the second volume about his second marriage to Eve Barham, or his third to the actress Lalla Ward, a former assistant to Dr Who, who was introduced to him by his late friend Douglas Adams.

The couple live in Oxford, where Dawkins has resided almost all of his adult life, and where he spent 13 years until his retirement in 2008 as the professor for public understanding of science. As he was free in that role to pursue his own interests, he says his “nominal retirement” has made no difference at all.

The memoir is strong on the professional excitement of his early years as an academic, but it assiduously sidesteps the rivalries and disputes that mark even the most unremarkable scientific careers, let alone one as distinguished as Dawkins’s. He didn’t want any score settling, he says, or to “appear hostile”.

So although he notes that the biologists Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose were two of the rare voices who criticised The Selfish Gene on its widely acclaimed publication in 1976, he fails to discuss their arguments or his thoughts on them, other than to say that both came from the “political left”. Did he think their case against him was political rather than scientific?

“Yes, I think politics,” he says after another anxious pause. “I actually wrote a fairly savage review of the joint book they produced later [Not in Our Genes] which I suppose I’ll probably mention in volume two.” He weighs his words again and then adds, “It was sarcastic rather than savage.”

Dawkins seems determined in both the memoir and our interview to present a calm, conciliatory side to his character that has not always been associated with his public image. Later the photographer, Andy Hall, will tell me that Dawkins requested to look at the screen on Hall’s camera to see what he had captured during the shoot. “You’ve made me look too harsh,” complained the biologist.

Hall told him he was merely giving him appropriate gravitas.

“I don’t want fucking gravitas,” Dawkins snapped. “I want humanity.”

One senses that for all the recognition he’s garnered – the world’s leading intellectual, the bestselling books, the rapt audiences etc – Dawkins would like to be a little more loved. I ask him if he thinks he’s misunderstood by the media and the general public.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Richard Dawkins, 2010. Courtesy of Cooper Union / Wikipedia.

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Comedy Athiest Assemblies

Religion pervades the public consciousness, and events fueled by religion still seem to dominate the news on a daily basis. Yet, atheism continues to make significant inroads — numerous studies show continued growth in non-belief and atheism, especially in the West. But not content in their non-belief, some atheists are organizing local assemblies to compete with the flocks who attend churches, mosques, and synagogues. After all, it should not be left only to the members of organized religions to have some communal fun.

From the Guardian:

It started, as a number of the world’s great religions have done, with a small group of friends and a persuasive idea: why should atheists miss out on all the good things churches have to offer? What would happen if they set up a “godless congregation” that met to celebrate life, with no hope of the hereafter?

Eight months after their first meeting in a deconsecrated church in north London, the founders of the Sunday Assembly have their answer: on Sunday they will announce the formation of satellite congregations in more than 20 cities across Britain and the world, the first wave of an expansion that they believe could see 40 atheist churches springing up by the year and as many as 1,000 worldwide within a decade.

From Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol and Dublin, to New York, San Diego and Vancouver, to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, groups of non-believers will be getting together to form their own monthly Sunday Assemblies, with the movement’s founders – the standup comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans – visiting the fledgling congregations in what they are calling, only partly in jest, a “global missionary tour”.

Though he always suspected he was not the only one to regret that his lack of faith excluded him from a church-style community, Jones admits to being a little bewildered by the speed and scale at which his idea has caught on. “When I had the idea for this, I always thought if it was something I would like to go to in London then it was something other people would like to go to in other places.

“The one thing that we didn’t take into account was the power of the internet, and I think even more than that, the fact that there is obviously a latent need for this kind of thing. People have always congregated around things that they believe in. I think people are going to look back at the fact that it didn’t happen as the oddity, not this part.”

Satellite assemblies will agree to the central charter of Jones and Evans’s original gathering – which still meets monthly in central London – and Jones expects them, initially at least, to stick to a similar format, in which a “host” leads several hundred congregants through songs, moments of contemplation and a sermon-like (but secular) talk.

“If we do it in London and there are 400 people who come, that’s brilliant, but if we find a way to help hundreds of people to set one up then we can have a bigger impact than we could ever dream of,” says Jones. Their vision, he says, is “a godless gathering in every town, city or village that wants one”.

Stuart Balkham is one of a small group of Brighton unbelievers who next weekend will hold their inaugural assembly – the theme is beginnings – in a disused church in Hove.

He and his partner went to the London gathering where, he says, “there was just something that clicked”. Part of the appeal was the style of non-worship: “It’s unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format, so it’s part of the collective consciousness.”

Balkham says he has envied churches the sense of community they can offer, and thinks atheists can learn from the social good that many churches do. “It’s naive to deny that there’s a lot of good that comes out of organised religion, and I think helping in the community is another thing that Sunday Assemblies should be aspiring to unashamedly copy.”

Nick Spencer, research director of Theos, a thinktank looking at religion’s role in society, says the growth of the movement may appear striking but it is not necessarily new. “This contemporary idea of people who are not religious but wanting to maintain some kind of church-like existence has got form. We’ve been here before.”

Spencer, who will publish a book next year on the history of atheism, sees echoes of the late 19th century, when hundreds of “ethical unions” were founded in response to the growing atheism of the times. The movement, he says, similarly concentrated on good works and community around a recognisably church-like liturgy, but petered out within a generation or two.

“The reason for that was because you need more than an absence to keep you together. You need a firm common purpose. What you can see in these modern-day atheist churches is people united by a felt absence of community. I suspect what brings them together is a real desire for community when in a modern, urbanised individualised city like London you can often feel very alone. That creates a lot of camaraderie, but the challenge then becomes, what actually unites us?”

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Is Your Company Catholic or Baptist?

Is your business jewish? Does your corporation follow the book of tao or the book of mormon or those of shadows (wicca) or yasna (zoroastrianism)? Or, is your company baptist, muslim, hindu or atheist or a practitioner in one of the remaining estimated 4,200 belief systems?

In mid-2012 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that corporations are indeed people when it ruled for Citizens United against the State of Montana in allowing unlimited corporate spending in local elections. Now, we await another contentious and perplexing ruling from the justices that may assign spirituality to a corporation alongside personhood.

Inventors of board games take note: there is surely a game to be made from matching one’s favorite companies with religions of the world.

From Slate:

Remember the big dustup last summer over the contraception mandate in President Obama’s health reform initiative? It required companies with more than 50 employees to provide insurance, including for contraception, as part of their employees’ health care plans. The constitutional question was whether employers with religious objections to providing coverage for birth control could be forced to do so under the new law. The Obama administration tweaked the rules a few times to try to accommodate religious employers, first exempting some religious institutions—churches and ministries were always exempt—and then allowing companies that self-insure to use a separate insurance plan to pay and provide for the contraception. Still, religious employers objected, and lawsuits were filed, all 60 of them.

A year later, the courts have begun to weigh in, and the answer has slowly begun to emerge: maybe yes, maybe no. It all depends on whether corporations—which already enjoy significant free-speech rights—can also invoke religious freedom rights enshrined in the First Amendment.

Last Friday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the contraception mandate, rejecting a challenge from a Pennsylvania-based cabinetmaker who claimed that as a Mennonite he should not be compelled to provide contraceptive coverage to his 950 employees because the mandate violates the company’s rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The owner considers some of the contraception methods at issue—specifically, the morning-after and week-after pills—abortifacients.

The appeals court looked carefully to the precedent created by Citizens United—the 2010 case affording corporations free-speech rights when it came to election-related speech—to determine whether corporations also enjoy constitutionally protected religious freedom. Writing for the two judges in the majority, Judge Robert Cowen found that although there was “a long history of protecting corporations’ rights to free speech,” there was no similar history of protection for the free exercise of religion. “We simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation—apart from its owners—can exercise religion,” he concluded. “A holding to the contrary … would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.”

Cowan also flagged the absolute novelty of the claims, noting that there was almost no case law suggesting that corporations can hold religious beliefs. “We are not aware of any case preceding the commencement of litigation about the Mandate, in which a for-profit, secular corporation was itself found to have free exercise rights.” Finally he took pains to distinguish the corporation, Conestoga, from its legal owners. “Since Conestoga is distinct from the Hahns, the Mandate does not actually require the Hahns to do anything. … It is Conestoga that must provide the funds to comply with the Mandate—not the Hahns.”

Judge Kent Jordan, dissenting at length in the case, said that for-profit, secular corporations can surely avail themselves of the protections of the religion clauses. “To recognize that religious convictions are a matter of individual experience cannot and does not refute the collective character of much religious belief and observance … Religious opinions and faith are in this respect akin to political opinions and passions, which are held and exercised both individually and collectively.”

The 3rd Circuit decision creates a significant split between the appeals courts, because a few short weeks earlier, the Colorado-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., finding by a 5–3 margin that corporations can be persons entitled to assert religious rights. Hobby Lobby is a chain of crafts supply stores located in 41 states. The 10th Circuit upheld an injunction blocking the contraception requirement because it offended the company owners’ religious beliefs. The majority in the 3rd Circuit wrote that it “respectfully disagrees” with the 10th Circuit. A split of this nature makes Supreme Court review almost inevitable.

The Supreme Court has long held the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to prohibit governmental regulation of religious beliefs, but a long line of cases holds that not every regulation that inflects upon your religious beliefs is unconstitutional. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars the federal government from imposing a “substantial burden” on anyone’s “exercise of religion” unless it is “the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.” The Obama administration and the judges who have refused to grant injunctions contend that the burden here is insignificant, amounting to a few dollars borne indirectly by the employer to facilitate independent, private decisions made by their female employees. They also argue that they are promoting a compelling government interest in providing preventive health care to Americans. The employers and the judges who have enjoined the birth-control provision claim that they are being forced to choose between violating protected religious beliefs and facing crippling fines and that free or inexpensive birth control is available at community health centers and public clinics.

Basically, the constitutional question will come down to whether a for-profit, secular corporation can hold religious beliefs and convictions, or whether—as David Gans explains here —“the Court’s cases recognize a basic, common-sense difference between living, breathing, individuals—who think, possess a conscience, and a claim to human dignity—and artificial entities, which are created by the law for a specific purpose, such as to make running a business more efficient and lucrative.” Will Baude takes the opposite view, explaining that the 3rd Circuit’s reasoning—that “ ‘corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires’ … would all prove too much, because they are technically true of any organizational association, including … a church!” Baude likens the claim that corporations can never have religious freedom rights to the claim that corporations—including the New York Times—can never have free-speech rights.

Part of the problem, at least in the case of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, is that neither corporation was designed to do business as religious entities. It has been clear since the nation’s founding that corporations enjoy rights in connection to the purposes for which they were created—which is why the administration already exempts religious employers whose purpose is to inculcate religious values and chiefly employ and serve people who share their religious tenets. This is about companies that don’t meet those criteria. As the dissenters at the 10th Circuit observed, the fact that some “spiritual corporations” have some religious purposes doesn’t make every corporation a religious entity. And as professor Elizabeth Sepper of Washington University puts it in a new law-review article on the subject: “Corporations, as conglomerate entities, exist indefinitely and independently of their shareholders. They carry out acts and affect individual lives, and have an identity that is larger than their constituent parts. Walmart is Walmart, even when Sam Walton resigns.”

The rest of the problem is self-evident. Where does it stop? Why does your boss’ religious freedom allow her to curtail your own? The dangers in allowing employers to exercise a religious veto over employee health care are obvious. Can an employer deny you access to psychiatric care if he opposes it on religious grounds? To AIDS medications? To gelatin-covered pills? Constitutional protections of a single employer’s individual rights of conscience and belief become a bludgeon by which he can dictate the most intimate health decisions of his workers, whose own religious rights and constitutional freedoms become immaterial.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of ThinkProgress.

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Do Corporations Go to Heaven When They Die?

Perhaps heaven is littered with the disembodied, collective consciousness of Woolworth, Circuit City, Borders and Blockbuster. Similarly, it may be possible that Enron and Lehman Brothers, a little less fortunate due to the indiscretions of their leaders, have found their corporate souls to be forever tormented in business hell. And, what of the high tech start-ups that come and go in the beat of a hummingbird’s wing? Where are Webvan, Flooz, Gowalla, Beenz, Loopt, Kosmo, eToys and Pets.com? Are they spinning endlessly somewhere between the gluttons (third circle) and the heretics (sixth circle) in Dante’s concentric hell. And where are the venture capitalists and where will Burger King and Apple find themselves when they eventually pass to the other side?

This may all seem rather absurd. It is. Yet, the evangelical corporate crusaders such as Hobby Lobby and Chick Fil A would have us treat their corporations just as we do mere (im)mortals. Where is all this nonsense heading? Well, the Supreme Court of the United States, of course.

From the New York Times:

David Green, who built a family picture-framing business into a 42-state chain of arts and crafts stores, prides himself on being the model of a conscientious Christian capitalist. His 525 Hobby Lobby stores forsake Sunday profits to give employees their biblical day of rest. The company donates to Christian counseling services and buys holiday ads that promote the faith in all its markets. Hobby Lobby has been known to stick decals over Botticelli’s naked Venus in art books it sells.

And the company’s in-house health insurance does not cover morning-after contraceptives, which Green, like many of his fellow evangelical Christians, regards as chemical abortions.

“We’re Christians,” he says, “and we run our business on Christian principles.”

This has put Hobby Lobby at the leading edge of a legal battle that poses the intriguing question: Can a corporation have a conscience? And if so, is it protected by the First Amendment.

The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, requires that companies with more than 50 full-time employees offer health insurance, including coverage for birth control. Churches and other purely religious organizations are exempt. The Obama administration, in an unrequited search for compromise, has also proposed to excuse nonprofit organizations such as hospitals and universities if they are affiliated with religions that preach the evil of contraception. You might ask why a clerk at Notre Dame or an orderly at a Catholic hospital should be denied the same birth control coverage provided to employees of secular institutions. You might ask why institutions that insist they are like everyone else when it comes to applying for federal grants get away with being special when it comes to federal health law. Good questions. You will find the unsatisfying answers in the Obama handbook of political expediency.

But these concessions are not enough to satisfy the religious lobbies. Evangelicals and Catholics, cheered on by anti-abortion groups and conservative Obamacare-haters, now want the First Amendment freedom of religion to be stretched to cover an array of for-profit commercial ventures, Hobby Lobby being the largest litigant. They are suing to be exempted on the grounds that corporations sometimes embody the faith of the individuals who own them.

“The legal case” for the religious freedom of corporations “does not start with, ‘Does the corporation pray?’ or ‘Does the corporation go to heaven?’ ” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby. “It starts with the owner.” For owners who have woven religious practice into their operations, he told me, “an exercise of religion in the context of a business” is still an exercise of religion, and thus constitutionally protected.

The issue is almost certain to end up in the Supreme Court, where the betting is made a little more interesting by a couple of factors: six of the nine justices are Catholic, and this court has already ruled, in the Citizens United case, that corporations are protected by the First Amendment, at least when it comes to freedom of speech. Also, we know that at least four members of the court don’t think much of Obamacare.

In lower courts, advocates of the corporate religious exemption have won a few and lost a few. (Hobby Lobby has lost so far, and could eventually face fines of more than $1 million a day for defying the law. The company’s case is now before the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.)

You can feel some sympathy for David Green’s moral dilemma, and even admire him for practicing what he preaches, without buying the idea that la corporation, c’est moi. Despite the Supreme Court’s expansive view of the First Amendment, Hobby Lobby has a high bar to get over — as it should.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: Gluttony: The circle itself is a living abomination, a hellish digestive system revealing horrific faces with mouths ready to devour the gluttons over and over for eternity. Picture: Mihai Marius Mihu / Rex Features / Telegraph. To see more of the nine circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno recreated in Lego by artist Mihai Mihu jump here.

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British? May the Force be With You

Recent census figures from the United Kingdom show that Jedi is the seventh most popular faith overall, with just over 176,000 followers.

While this is down from a high of around 400,000 in the previous census (2001) it does suggest that George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars franchise, would still be a good stand-in for God in some parts of the U.K.

To learn more about Jediism point your browser here.

From the Telegraph:

The new figures reveal that the lightsabre-wielding disciples are only behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism in the popularity stakes, excluding non-religious people and people who did not answer.

Following a nationwide campaign, Jedi made it onto the 2001 census, with 390,127 people identifying themselves a decade ago as followers of the fictional Star Wars creed.

Although the number of Jedis has dropped by more than 50 per cent over the past 10 years, they are still the most selected “alternative” faith on the Census, and constitute 0.31% of all people’s stated religious affiliation in England and Wales.

The latest official population survey also revealed 6,242 people subscribe to the Heavy Metal religion, which was set up in 2010 by the Rock magazine, Metal Hammer.

The number of people specifically identifying as Atheists was 29,267, while over 13.8 million refused to identify with a faith at all, ticking the “No religion” box on the census form.

Norwich was revealed as the area with the highest proportion of non-religious people, with 41.5% of residents refusing to identify with a faith. The city also possesses the highest proportion of Heavy Metal followers and the 3rd highest proportion of Jedi Knights.

Other non-mainstream religions that had followers in significant numbers included 56,620 Paganists, 39,061 Spiritualists, 2,418 Scientologists and 20,288 Jainists, some of whom sweep the floor with a broom made of cotton threads as they walk along so as not to kill any insects.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Star Wars Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Lucas Films.

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Child Mutilation and Religious Ritual

A court in Germany recently banned circumcision at birth for religious reasons. Quite understandably the court saw that this practice violates bodily integrity. Aside from being morally repugnant to many theists and non-believers alike, the practice inflicts pain. So, why do some religions continue to circumcise children?

From Slate:

A German court ruled on Tuesday that parents may not circumcise their sons at birth for religious reasons, because the procedure violates the child’s right to bodily integrity. Both Muslims and Jews circumcise their male children. Why is Christianity the only Abrahamic religion that doesn’t encourage circumcision?

Because Paul believed faith was more important than foreskin. Shortly after Jesus’ death, his followers had a disagreement over the nature of his message. Some acolytes argued that he offered salvation through Judaism, so gentiles who wanted to join his movement should circumcise themselves like any other Jew. The apostle Paul, however, believed that faith in Jesus was the only requirement for salvation. Paul wrote that Jews who believed in Christ could go on circumcising their children, but he urged gentiles not to circumcise themselves or their sons, because trying to mimic the Jews represented a lack of faith in Christ’s ability to save them. By the time that the Book of Acts was written in the late first or early second century, Paul’s position seems to have become the dominant view of Christian theologians. Gentiles were advised to follow only the limited set of laws—which did not include circumcision—that God gave to Noah after the flood rather than the full panoply of rules followed by the Jews.

Circumcision was uniquely associated with Jews in first-century Rome, even though other ethnic and religious groups practiced it. Romans wrote satirical poems mocking the Jews for taking a day off each week, refusing to eat pork, worshipping a sky god, and removing their sons’ foreskin. It is, therefore, neither surprising that early Christian converts sought advice on whether to adopt the practice of circumcision nor that Paul made it the focus of several of his famous letters.

The early compromise that Paul struck—ethnic Jewish Christians should circumcise, while Jesus’ gentile followers should not—held until Christianity became a legal religion in the fourth century. At that time, the two religions split permanently, and it became something of a heresy to suggest that one could be both Jewish and Christian. As part of the effort to distinguish the two religions, circumcisions became illegal for Christians, and Jews were forbidden from circumcising their slaves.

Although the church officially renounced religious circumcision around 300 years after Jesus’s death, Christians long maintained a fascination with it. In the 600s, Christians began celebrating the day Jesus was circumcised. According to medieval Christian legend, an angel bestowed Jesus’ foreskin upon Emperor Charlemagne in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was supposedly buried. Coptic Christians and a few other Christian groups in Africa resumed religious circumcisions long after their European colleagues abandoned it.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Apostle Paul. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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How Religions Are Born: Church of Jedi

May the Fourth was Star Wars Day. Why? Say, “May the Fourth” slowly while pretending to lisp slightly, and you’ll understand. Appropriately, Matt Cresswen over at the Guardian took this day to review the growing Jedi religion in the UK.

Would that make George Lucas God?

From the Guardian:

Today [May 4] is Star Wars Day, being May the Fourth. (Say the date slowly, several times.) Around the world, film buffs, storm troopers and Jedi are gathering to celebrate one of the greatest science fiction romps of all time. It would be easy to let the fan boys enjoy their day and be done with it. However, Jediism is a growing religion in the UK. Although the results of the 2001 census, in which 390,000 recipients stated their religion as Jedi, have been widely interpreted as a pop at the government, the UK does actually have serious Jedi.

For those of you who, like BBC producer Bill Dare, have never seen Star Wars, the Jedi are “good” characters from the films. They draw from a mystical entity binding the universe, called “the Force”. Sporting hoodies, the Jedi are generally altruistic, swift-footed and handy with a light sabre. Their enemies, Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader and other cohorts use the dark side of the Force. By tapping into its powers, the dark side command armies of demented droids, kill Jedi and are capable of wiping out entire planets.

This week, Chi-Pa Amshe from the Church of Jediism in Anglesey, Wales, emailed me with some responses to questions. He said Jediism was growing and that they were gaining hundreds of members each month. The church made the news three years ago, after its founder, Daniel Jones, had a widely reported run-in with Tesco.

Chi-Pa Amshe, speaking as a spokesperson for the Jedi council (Falkna Kar, Anzai Kooji Cutpa and Daqian Xiong), believes that Jediism can merge with other belief systems, rather like a bolt-on accessory.

“Many of our members are in fact both Christian and Jedi,” he says. “We can no more understand the Force and our place within it than a gear in a clock could comprehend its function in moving the hands across the face. I’d like to point out that each of our members interprets their beliefs through the prison of their own lives and although we offer guidance and support, ultimately like with the Qur’an, it is up to them to find what they need and choose their own path.”

Meeting up as a church is hard, the council explained, and members rely heavily on Skype and Facebook. They have an annual physical meeting, “where the church council is available for face-to-face questions and guidance”. They also support charity events and attend computer gaming conventions.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, a web-based group called the Jedi Church believes that Jediism has always been around.

It states: “The Jedi religion is just like the sun, it existed before a popular movie gave it a name, and now that it has a name, people all over the world can share their experiences of the Jedi religion, here in the Jedi church.”

There are many other Jedi groups on the web, although Chi-Pa Amshe said some were “very unpleasant”. The dark side, perhaps.

Read the entire article after the jump.

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Religious Art: From Faith or For Money?

Over the centuries many notable artists have painted religious scenes initiated or influenced by a very deep religious conviction; some painted to give voice to their own spirituality, others to mirror the faith of their time and community. However, others simply painted for fame or fortune, or both, or to remain in good stead with their wealthy patrons and landlords.

This bring us to another thoughtful article from Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian.

From the Guardian:

“To paint the things of Christ you must live with Christ,” said the 15th-century artist Fra Angelico. He knew what he was talking about – he was a Dominican monk of such exemplary virtue that in 1982 he was officially beatified by Pope John Paul II. He was also a truly great religious artist whose frescoes at San Marco in Florence have influenced modern artists such as Mark Rothko. But is all holy art that holy?

From the dark ages to the end of the 17th century, the vast majority of artistic commissions in Europe were religious. Around 1700 this somehow stopped, at least when it came to art anyone cares to look at now. The great artists of the 18th century, and since, worked for secular patrons and markets. But in all those centuries when Christianity defined art, its genres, its settings, its content, was every painter and sculptor totally sincerely faithful in every work of art? Or were some of them just doing what they had to do and finding pleasure in the craft?

This question relates to another. What is it like to live in a world where everyone is religious? It is often said it was impossible to even imagine atheism in the middle ages and the Renaissance. This is so different from modern times that people do not even try to imagine it. Modern Christians blithely imagine a connection when actually a universal church meant a mentality so different from modern “faith” that today’s believers are as remote from it as today’s non-believers. Among other things it meant that while some artists “lived with Christ” and made art that searched their souls, others enjoyed the colours, the drama, the rich effects of religious paintings without thinking too deeply about the meaning.

Here are two contrasting examples from the National Gallery. Zurbarán’s painting of St Francis in Meditation (1635-9) is a harrowing and profoundly spiritual work. The face of a kneeling friar is barely glimpsed in a darkness that speaks of inner searching, of the long night of the soul. This is a true Christian masterpiece. But compare it to Carlo Crivelli’s painting The Annunciation (1486) in the same museum. Crivelli’s picture is a feast for the eye. Potted plants, a peacock, elaborately decorated classical buildings – and is that a gherkin just added in at the front of the scene? – add up to a materialistic cornucopia of visual interest. What is the religious function of such detail? Art historians, who sometimes seem to be high on piety, will point to the allegorical meaning of everyday objects in Renaissance art. But that’s all nonsense. I am not saying the allegories do not exist – I am saying they do not matter much to the artist, his original audience or us. In reality, Crivelli is enjoying himself, enjoying the world, and he paints religious scenes because that’s what he got paid to paint.

By smothering the art of the past in a piety that in some cases may be woefully misplaced, its guardians do it a disservice. Is Crivelli a Christian artist? Not in any sense that is meaningful today. He loves the things of this life, not the next.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Annunciation with St Emidius, Crivelli Carlo, 1486. National Gallery, London. Courtesy of Wikipedia / National Gallery.

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Science and Politics

The tension between science, religion and politics that began several millennia ago continues unabated.

From ars technica:

In the US, science has become a bit of a political punching bag, with a number of presidential candidates accusing climatologists of fraud, even as state legislators seek to inject phony controversies into science classrooms. It’s enough to make one long for the good old days when science was universally respected. But did those days ever actually exist?

A new look at decades of survey data suggests that there was never a time when science was universally respected, but one political group in particular—conservative voters—has seen its confidence in science decline dramatically over the last 30 years.

The researcher behind the new work, North Carolina’s Gordon Gauchat, figures there are three potential trajectories for the public’s view of science. One possibility is that the public, appreciating the benefits of the technological advances that science has helped to provide, would show a general increase in its affinity for science. An alternative prospect is that this process will inevitably peak, either because there are limits to how admired a field can be, or because a more general discomfort with modernity spills over to a field that helped bring it about.

The last prospect Gauchat considers is that there has been a change in views about science among a subset of the population. He cites previous research that suggests some view the role of science as having changed from one where it enhances productivity and living standards to one where it’s the primary justification for regulatory policies. “Science has always been politicized,” Gauchat writes. “What remains unclear is how political orientations shape public trust in science.”

To figure out which of these trends might apply, he turned to the General Social Survey, which has been gathering information on the US public’s views since 1972. During that time, the survey consistently contained a series of questions about confidence in US institutions, including the scientific community. The answers are divided pretty crudely—”a great deal,” “only some,” and “hardly any”—but they do provide a window into the public’s views on science. (In fact, “hardly any” was the choice of less than 7 percent of the respondents, so Gauchat simply lumped it in with “only some” for his analysis.)

The data showed a few general trends. For much of the study period, moderates actually had the lowest levels of confidence in science, with liberals typically having the highest; the levels of trust for both these groups were fairly steady across the 34 years of data. Conservatives were the odd one out. At the very start of the survey in 1974, they actually had the highest confidence in scientific institutions. By the 1980s, however, they had dropped so that they had significantly less trust than liberals did; in recent years, they’ve become the least trusting of science of any political affiliation.

Examining other demographic trends, Gauchat noted that the only other group to see a significant decline over time is regular churchgoers. Crunching the data, he states, indicates that “The growing force of the religious right in the conservative movement is a chief factor contributing to conservatives’ distrust in science.” This decline in trust occurred even among those who had college or graduate degrees, despite the fact that advanced education typically correlated with enhanced trust in science.

Read the entire article after the jump:

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Religion for Atheists and the Agape Restaurant

Alain de Botton is a writer of book-length essays on love, travel, architecture and literature. In his latest book, Religion for Atheists, de Botton argues that while the supernatural claims of all religions are entirely false, religions still have important things to teach the secular world. An excerpt from the book below.

From the Wall Street Journal:

One of the losses that modern society feels most keenly is the loss of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness that has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, by the pursuit of contact with one another primarily for individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.

In attempting to understand what has eroded our sense of community, historians have assigned an important role to the privatization of religious belief that occurred in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century. They have suggested that we began to disregard our neighbors at around the same time that we ceased to honor our gods as a community.

This raises two questions: How did religion once enhance the spirit of community? More practically, can secular society ever recover that spirit without returning to the theological principles that were entwined with it? I, for one, believe that it is possible to reclaim our sense of community—and that we can do so, moreover, without having to build upon a religious foundation.

Insofar as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centered on the worship of professional success. We sense that we are brushing up against its gates when the first question we are asked at a party is “What do you do?,” our answer to which will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned.

In these competitive, pseudo-communal gatherings, only a few sides of us count as currency with which to buy the goodwill of strangers. What matters above all is what is on our business cards. Those who have opted to spend their lives looking after children, writing poetry or nurturing orchards will be left in no doubt that they have run contrary to the dominant mores of the powerful, who will marginalize them accordingly.

Given this level of discrimination, it is no surprise that many of us choose to throw ourselves with a vengeance into our careers. Focusing on work to the exclusion of almost everything else is a plausible strategy in a world that accepts workplace achievements as the main tokens for securing not just the financial means to survive physically but also the attention that we require to thrive psychologically.

Religions seem to know a great deal about our loneliness. Even if we believe very little of what they tell us about the afterlife or the supernatural origins of their doctrines, we can nevertheless admire their understanding of what separates us from strangers and their attempts to melt away one or two of the prejudices that normally prevent us from building connections with others.

Consider Catholicism, which starts to create a sense of community with a setting. It marks off a piece of the earth, puts walls up around it and declares that within their confines there will reign values utterly unlike the ones that hold sway in the world beyond. A church gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane.

The composition of the congregation also feels significant. Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values. We are urged to overcome our provincialism and our tendency to be judgmental—and to make a sign of peace to whomever chance has placed on either side of us. The Church asks us to leave behind all references to earthly status. Here no one asks what anyone else “does.” It no longer matters who is the bond dealer and who the cleaner.

The Church does more, however, than merely declare that worldly success doesn’t matter. In a variety of ways, it enables us to imagine that we could be happy without it. Appreciating the reasons why we try to acquire status in the first place, it establishes conditions under which we can willingly surrender our attachment to it.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Alain de Botton. Courtesy of BBC.

 

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Political and Social Stability and God

theDiagonal has carried several recent articles (here and here) that paint atheists in the same category as serial killers and child molesters, particularly in the United States. Why are atheists so reviled?

A study by Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayanat at the University of British Columbia shows that it boils down to trust. Simply put, we are more likely to find someone to be trustworthy if we believe God is watching over us.

Interestingly, their research also showed that atheists are more likely to be found in greater numbers in a population governed by a stable government with a broad social safety-net. Political instability, it seems, drives more citizens to believe in God.

From Scientific American:

Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to. Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies looking at why atheists are so disliked. His conclusion: It comes down to trust.

Gervais and his colleagues presented participants with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver. Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian. In a different study, Gervais looked at how atheism influences people’s hiring decisions. People were asked to choose between an atheist or a religious candidate for a job requiring either a high or low degree of trust. For the high-trust job of daycare worker, people were more likely to prefer the religious candidate. For the job of waitress, which requires less trust, the atheists fared much better.

It wasn’t just the highly religious participants who expressed a distrust of atheists. People identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation held similar opinions. Gervais and his colleagues discovered that people distrust atheists because of the belief that people behave better when they think that God is watching over them. This belief may have some truth to it. Gervais and his colleague Ara Norenzayan have found that reminding people about God’s presence has the same effect as telling people they are being watched by others: it increases their feelings of self-consciousness and leads them to behave in more socially acceptable ways.

When we know that somebody believes in the possibility of divine punishment, we seem to assume they are less likely to do something unethical. Based on this logic, Gervais and Norenzayan hypothesized that reminding people about the existence of secular authority figures, such as policemen and judges, might alleviate people’s prejudice towards atheists. In one study, they had people watch either a travel video or a video of a police chief giving an end-of-the-year report. They then asked participants how much they agreed with certain statements about atheists (e.g., “I would be uncomfortable with an atheist teaching my child.”) In addition, they measured participants’ prejudice towards other groups, including Muslims and Jewish people. Their results showed that viewing the video of the police chief resulted in less distrust towards atheists. However, it had no effect on people’s prejudice towards other groups. From a psychological standpoint, God and secular authority figures may be somewhat interchangeable. The existence of either helps us feel more trusting of others.

Gervais and Norenzayan’s findings may shed light on an interesting puzzle: why acceptance towards atheism has grown rapidly in some countries but not others. In many Scandinavian countries, including Norway and Sweden, the number of people who report believing in God has reached an all-time low. This may have something to do with the way these countries have established governments that guarantee a high level of social security for all of their citizens.  Aaron Kay and his colleagues ran a study in Canada which found that political insecurity may push us towards believing in God. They gave participants two versions of a fictitious news story: one describing Canada’s current political situation as stable, the other describing it as potentially unstable. After reading one of the two articles, people’s beliefs in God were measured. People who read the article describing the government as potentially unstable were more likely to agree that God, or some other type of nonhuman entity, is in control of the universe. A common belief in the divine may help people feel more secure. Yet when security is achieved by more secular means, it may remove some of the draw of faith.

Read the entire article here.

Image: In God We Trust. Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle.

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