Tag Archives: religion

What About the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

We Americans treasure religious liberty. We’re just a bit vague on the definition of “religious.” (Actually, we aren’t too clear on what we mean by “liberty,” either.)

I still recall a conference I attended early in my academic career; I approached a religious studies scholar who had delivered what I considered a brilliant paper, and during the ensuing discussion, she shared her belief that the First Amendment should simply have protected “intellectual integrity”–that the problem with specific references to religious liberty was that they required courts to decide what should count as “religious” for purposes of constitutional analysis.

And what should count as “religious” has been–and remains– hotly contested.

Think, for example, about the awkward history of conscientious objector jurisprudence. For a long time, courts only recognized moral objections to engaging in combat if the person registering the objection belonged to a “recognized” (um..established??) pacifist church. Others claiming that status were challenged. But–as the courts ultimately came to recognize– there are many non-theists and members of other denominations and religions who have sincere and deeply-felt pacifist beliefs.

More recently, of course, we are seeing people claim religious sanction for a right to discriminate, and it is hard not to suspect that their “sincerely held beliefs” have more to do with bigotry than godliness.

The point is, it is by no means clear what sorts of beliefs and conduct can properly be labeled “religious,” as opposed to “political,” “ideological,” “philosophical” or even delusional.

I receive Sightings, a digital newsletter from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and that publication recently referenced a Massachusetts lawsuit raising precisely that issue:

But courts do get asked about “religion,” and can’t wiggle out of exchanges on this. It was easier to define in historic cultures where a manifestation of religion, e.g. “an established church” got to define religion in “we” versus “they” terms. Today, propose a parlor game in which participants have to define the term, and listen. If “established” versions you will hear are too constricted, others are too protean. One hears then: “if everything is religious, then nothing is religious.” Now, pity the people who are called to fight over religious subjects not in games but in courts…

O’Loughlin’s case involves the keepers of a Massachusetts “religious” shrine whose property is tax-exempt for those parts of its workings which strike “everyone” as being focally religious: worshiping, nurturing, shaping spiritual life. But, strapped-for-tax-revenue neighbors of the shrine-keepers argue, should parts of the property used for what some would call “secular” purposes be tax-exempt because the owners or custodians of the shrine deem them and claim them to be ‘religious’?

Unsurprisingly, religious leaders of several traditions filed a brief in support of the tax-exempt status of the entire facility.

The notion that local assessors or any government actor is equipped or would presume to deem whether one use of a religious organization’s property or another falls within the definition of ‘religious worship’ is antithetical to religious freedom,” said the brief, signed by leaders representing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, also weighed in, arguing in a brief that the shrine’s grounds offer “communion with nature,” which “is a core religious activity with ancient roots in Christianity’s past.”

Gee–I “commune with nature” in distinctly unChristian fashion…But I digress.

According to this argument, courts and other secular institutions are simply precluded from drawing distinctions between properties used for authentically religious purposes (whatever those are) and those simply owned by religious organizations–although to the extent properties are tax-exempt, secular taxpayers’ rates increase. (Someone has to pay for the public services such properties enjoy–streets, police and fire protection, garbage collection and the like.)

I can’t help thinking of Flip Wilson’s inspired “Church of What’s Happening Now” rants (you youngsters can Google that), or the more contemporary “worship” of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Despite rightwing rhetoric, it isn’t the LGBT community that is demanding “special rights.”

The War on Secularism

Can you stand one more meditation about religion and the need for certainty ?

We talk a lot these days about fear–fear of terrorism, fear of change, fear of modernity. But when you come right down to it, the basis of all of these threats to subjective well-being is an overwhelming fear of ambiguity.

We humans evidently have a primal need for bright lines, eternal truths—for non-negotiable and non-relative Truth with a capital T.

The political danger presented by that need for certainty was obvious to the nation’s founders, who intended the Bill of Rights to prevent the “passions of the mob” from extinguishing the rights of those holding nonconforming beliefs.

The deep desire for easy answers in a complicated world explains many of the more troubling aspects of our  political environment. Consider the current “Trump phenomenon.” According to a study referenced in a recent article in the Washington Post,

Interviews with psychologists and other experts suggest one explanation for the candidate’s success — and for the collective failure to anticipate it: The political elite hasn’t confronted a few fundamental, universal and uncomfortable facts about the human mind.

We like people who talk big.

We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren’t.

And we don’t like people who don’t look like us.

Much of Trump’s appeal–and the appeal of the many demagogues who preceded him–boils down to this need to simplify, to draw bright lines, to chase away the demons of ambiguity.

Hibbing of the University of Nebraska says this need for clarity is important to understanding Trump’s support.

“People like the idea that deep down, the world is simple; that they can grasp it and that politicians can’t,” Hibbing said. “That’s certainly a message that I think Trump is radiating.

Much the same psychology is on display by the religious conservatives fighting for (their version of) religious rights. (Sometimes, aided and abetted by people who surely know better. Yes, Justice Scalia, I’m looking at you.)

Most of us look at Christian Americans and see people who have been highly privileged by a culture that has long been dominated by Christians. But these religious warriors see themselves under attack, not by a rival theological perspective, but by secularism.

Christian conservatives who are battling for the right to promote their faith in public or official settings see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion. But that rival isn’t Islam. It’s secularism.

However one defines secularism, it represents a diminished influence of religion and religious authority—the blurring of previously “bright” lines.

Secularism terrifies people who need those bright lines, who need concrete authority to obey and whose worldviews are rendered entirely in black and white.

What terrifies me are people who fear ambiguity, who see no shades of gray, and who reject the exercise of moral autonomy.

And those people aren’t all in ISIL.

 

Uses and Abuses of Religion

My youngest son has a simple formula for comparing and evaluating religions. According to him, whatever their other differences and similarities, religions fall into one of two basic categories: those that encourage adherents to engage with the questions (good), and those that hand believers fixed, inflexible answers (bad).

It’s a handy guide.

Just this week, that distinction came to mind twice. Once, when I read about Governor Pence’s fundraising; evidently, one of his major donors is the owner of Hobby Lobby–the man who went to Court to protect his “right” to impose his religious beliefs on his employees. Our Governor is quite clearly in the camp of those who are sure they have the answers, that they know exactly what God wants (and isn’t it nice that God hates the same people they do!), and who give no evidence of ever having engaged with the questions or wrestled with moral ambiguities.

Fortunately, there is another kind of faith community, and it was on beautiful display last Sunday at an Interfaith Vigil for Nondiscrimination. The Vigil was held at North United Methodist Church, and hosted by the Interfaith Coalition on Nondiscrimination, Freedom Indiana and the Reconciling Ministries Network of Indiana.

When my husband and I entered the sanctuary, I was struck by the size of the audience. My husband estimated attendance at a thousand people, most of whom appeared to be middle-aged or older.

Program participants included Darren Cushman-Wood, Pastor of North Church; Rev. Danyelle Ditmer, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church; Rev. Linda McCrae, pastor at Central Christian Church; Whittney Murphy, the student body president of Christian Theological Seminary; Rabbi Sandy Sasso, Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck: and Philip Gulley, Pastor of Fairfield Friends Meeting.

If there was a “call to arms,” it would probably be Rabbi Sasso’s declaration that people of faith would not stand by and allow religion and religious language to be hijacked and used as a cover for hatred and discrimination.

If there was a summing up of the sentiments of those in the sanctuary, it would be these words of Phil Gulley’s–a small part of his extraordinary and moving speech. Gulley reminded us of “the America of the open door, its hand extended in friendship.

“It is the land of the kindly neighbor, the generous friend, the liberal heart. It is the America welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. It is the people with nothing to fear but fear itself, the nation conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. It is the America made wiser by our differences, the America committed to justice, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, who measures its strength in its citizenry, not its weaponry.”

To which we might add (with a nod to my son’s categorization), it is the America in which thoughtful religious citizens are grateful for their constitutional right to explore questions of meaning and transcendence for themselves—an America that understands the importance of extending that same intellectual and moral autonomy to everyone, that rejects the profoundly unAmerican theocratic urge to use religion in the service of their own dominance and privilege.

Both the Governor’s fundraising report and the Interfaith Vigil remind me that, like so much else in life, religion is neither an unalloyed good nor an unremitting evil. It can be used or it can be abused.

My own test is actually simpler than my son’s: if your beliefs make you a better, kinder person, they’re good. If they make you a rigid, judgmental asshole, they aren’t.

 

 

 

Religion and Hostility

Nothing causes Americans to clutch their pearls and get their panties in a twist like arguments about religion. Let Starbucks omit snowflakes from their seasonal cups, and the fundamentalists are up in arms–they just know that those plain red cups are an attack on Jesus!

Is a failure to specifically endorse a religion (a la the offense of plain red cups and “Happy Holidays”) really equivalent to an attack? (And not so incidentally, don’t you people screaming about these assaults have lives to live and other things to do?)

Americans don’t agree on the definition of religion, let alone what constitutes an insult. What is the difference between a religion and a cult? Between religion and ideology? Are some religious beliefs better for society than others, and if so, which ones and why? We may not be able to answer these questions, but most of us seem firmly convinced that whatever it is, religion is good for us.

Maybe it’s more complicated than that.

As Phil Zuckerman recently wrote in the LA Times,

In the aftermath of the shooting at Umpqua Community College, for example, Fox host Bill O’Reilly cited weakening religion as the culprit. “As the world becomes more secular,” he declared, “civilized restraints to bad behavior drop.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee offered similar sentiments after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., blaming such wanton violence on the fact that “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”

The theory is simple: If people become less religious, then society will decay. Crime will skyrocket, violence will rise, and once-civilized life will degenerate into immorality and depravity. It’s an old, widespread notion. And it’s demonstrably false.

If it were true that when belief in God weakens, societal well-being diminishes, then we should see abundant evidence for this. But we don’t. In fact, we find just the opposite: Those societies today that are the most religious — where faith in God is strong and religious participation is high — tend to have the highest violent crime rates, while those societies in which faith and church attendance are the weakest — the most secular societies — tend to have the lowest.

Zukerman notes–quite properly–that correlation is not the same thing as causation. But the correlations are certainly striking:

According to the latest study from the Pew Research Center, the 10 states that report the highest levels of belief in God are Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma (tied with Utah). The 10 states with the lowest levels of belief in God are Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Alaska, Oregon and California. And as is the case in the rest of the world, when it comes to nearly all standard measures of societal health, including homicide rates, the least theistic states generally fare much better than the most theistic. Consider child-abuse fatality rates: Highly religious Mississippi’s is twice that of highly secular New Hampshire’s, and highly religious Kentucky’s is four times higher than highly secular Oregon’s.

Given self-proclaimed “Christians” proclivity to wax hysterical over the loss of snowflakes on a Starbucks cup,  I think we might infer some measure of causation…

There Goes Another One….

I think I’m beginning to figure out why so many ostentatiously pious people reject science and empirical data. (And yes, Ben Carson, one of the examples I’m looking at is you…) It’s because those darn scientists keep telling us stuff we don’t want to hear.

And now, they’ve done it again.

It’s frequently argued that we need religion because–to use religious language– it leads people to “love their neighbors as themselves,” to be generous and giving. The accuracy of that assertion was recently tested by Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. The results of his study have just been published in Current Biology. As the Economist reports,

Altogether, Dr Decety and his colleagues recruited 1,170 families for their project, and focused on one child per family. Five hundred and ten of their volunteer families described themselves as Muslim, 280 as Christian, 29 as Jewish, 18 as Buddhist and 5 as Hindu. A further 323 said they were non-religious, 3 were agnostic and 2 ticked the box marked “other”.

Decety and his collaborators used a variety of measurements to assess the religiosity of participating families, and arranged for the children to play a version of what is known to psychologists as the dictator game—an activity measuring altruism, that involves the willingness of the children to give up “stickers” that they have been awarded.

The upshot was that the children of non-believers were significantly more generous than those of believers. They gave away an average of 4.1 stickers. Children from a religious background gave away 3.3. And a further analysis of the two largest religious groups (Jews, Buddhists and Hindus were excluded because of their small numbers in the sample), showed no statistical difference between them. Muslim children gave away 3.2 stickers on average, while Christian children gave away 3.3. Moreover, a regression analysis on these groups of children showed that their generosity was inversely correlated with their households’ religiosity. This effect remained regardless of a family’s wealth and status (rich children were more generous than poor ones), a child’s age (older children were more generous than younger ones) or the nationality of the participant. These findings are, however, in marked contrast to parents’ assessments of their own children’s sensitivity to injustice. When asked, religious parents reported their children to be more sensitive than non-believing parents did.

This is only one result, of course. It would need to be replicated before strong conclusions could be drawn. But it is suggestive. And what it suggests is not only that what is preached by religion is not always what is practised, which would not be a surprise, but that in some unknown way the preaching makes things worse.

Happy Sunday morning….