Tag Archives: religion

The Religion of Politics

The most significant difference between science and religion is that the former deals with empirical evidence, while the latter requires faith. (You can’t, after all, demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of God in a laboratory experiment.)

Falsification is the heart of scientific inquiry; no matter how fervently a scientist believes in a particular explanation of natural phenomena, if further experimentation disproves it, she alters that conviction. Religious beliefs by their very nature cannot be falsified.

Ideally, policy decisions, like science, are based on evidence; we try a policy approach, and if it doesn’t work, we try something else. The characterization of states as “laboratories of democracy” rests on that premise–states will try different approaches to similar problems, and others will learn from their successes and failures.

When political ideologies become religions, societies suffer. A recent post at Political Animal, made that point:

When Josh Duggar and countless similar self-righteous conservatives are exposed as cheating molesters, it doesn’t cause conservatives to question whether their belief system might be causing those problems. They just double down. When abstinence education causes more teen pregnancy than responsible sex education, conservatives double down on the slut shaming. When tax cuts on the rich and wage cuts to government workers lead to economic recession, Republicans don’t question their core economic beliefs; they just claim they weren’t allowed to go far enough.

In a way, modern conservatives are similar to the Communists of old. No matter how obvious the ideology’s failure, the response is always that the policies were not enacted in a strong and pure enough manner.

That inability to come to grips with failure and adjust course, and that insistence on doubling down in the face of adverse results, is part of why many consider modern conservatism to be an almost cultic movement. Its adherents long since stopped caring about the evidence or empirical results. It’s all about who can prove truest to the faith, and maximally annoy and rebel against the evil liberal heathens. Policies and results are really beside the point.

Yep.

Religious Voices Sing Different Tunes

There’s a central insight that gets lost in those fabricated “wars” on Christmas and the purported victimization of “people of (Christian) faith.”

The really consequential religious battles aren’t those that occur between us secular folks and adherents of various religious communities. They aren’t even the conflicts between followers of different religions.

The real dividing line is between people who look to their religion for guidance about the nature of the good, and those who see in dogma a tool for exercising power and/or asserting superiority.

The religious folks I admire strive to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their Lord” (to appropriate a phrase from Jewish liturgy). These are people who aren’t consumed with moral certainty or pumped up with self-righteousness; they’re people looking for wisdom in managing their relationships to each other and the planet, people who understand that there are many paths to a good life, and many good people on paths different from their own.

Then there are those who use religion primarily to advance their own temporal prospects, and the zealots to whom they appeal– angry, insecure people for whom religion is expressed in fundamentalism and intolerance.

Recently, these two incompatible approaches met in Louisiana. I give you Bobby Jindal and the awesome counter to his blatant politicizing of religion. 

A group of religious leaders has scheduled a prayer rally at Southern University to rival Gov. Bobby Jindal‘s religious gathering — officially called The Response — at LSU.

The prayer rally  at Southern University will take place in the Felton G. Clark Center (Mini Dome) on the same day, Jan. 24, as Jindal’s event at the Peter Maravich Assembly Center (PMAC) on LSU’s campus. The Southern gathering is being called the “Prayer Rally for the Soul of Louisiana.”

Organizers of the Southern event have said they will focus on Louisiana’s mass incarceration rate, Medicaid expansion and the state’s failing education system. The list of issues may be a personal critique of Jindal’s tenure as governor. For example, the governor has consistently refused to accept federal dollars to expand the Medicaid program in Louisiana, even as other Republican governors have done so.

Jindal has come under criticism for holding The Response at a public facility on LSU’s campus. Some question whether the event, which is overtly Christian, should be held in a government building. Other criticism has to do with sponsor for The Response — the American Family Association (AFA) — which holds controversial views about homosexuality, Eric Garner’s death and freedom of speech. An initial prayer guide released for The Response linked the rise of same-sex marriage to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

If more genuinely religious folks protested the hijacking of religion for political purposes, religion might be more appealing to the growing number of Americans who are throwing the baby of spiritual exploration out with the bathwater of bigotry.

 

 

 

About Those Religious “Victims”

Speaking of religion and government–as I have been for the past couple of days–it might be well to consider just how much the pious victims of religious persecution are suffering financially in our (ostensibly) secular culture. An article in the Washington Post recently considered the fiscal relationship of church to state.

Well, sort of. The article actually reported on a study detailing the various tax benefits our religiously “neutral,” government extends to religious organizations, the vast majority of which are Christian.

When people donate to religious groups, it’s tax-deductible. Churches don’t pay property taxes on their land or buildings. When they buy stuff, they don’t pay sales taxes. When they sell stuff at a profit, they don’t pay capital gains tax. If they spend less than they take in, they don’t pay corporate income taxes. Priests, ministers, rabbis and the like get “parsonage exemptions” that let them deduct mortgage payments, rent and other living expenses when they’re doing their income taxes. They also are the only group allowed to opt out of Social Security taxes (and benefits).

What is the value of all this preferential treatment?

The article quotes the authors of the original study, who calculated the total subsidy at $71 billion. But the original study didn’t include the cost of a number of subsidies, like local income and property tax exemptions, the sales tax exemption, and — most importantly — the charitable deduction for religious donations.

The charitable deduction for all groups cost the government approximately $39 billion dollars in 2014, according to the CBO.  Since some 32 percent of all charitable donations are made to religious groups, the value of just those exemptions is around $12.5 billion.If you add that to the amounts reported in the original study, you get a religious subsidy of about $83.5 billion.

Next time someone whines about the war on religion or Christmas, or complains that government is insufficiently protective of “people of faith,” think about that.

I’d love to be “victimized” to the tune of 80+ billion dollars…

It Isn’t Whether–It’s How

Extremists on the Right constantly complain that religion has been banished from public school classrooms. This, of course, is inaccurate: what the Establishment Clause prohibits is proselytizing–imposing religious beliefs or observances on the “captive audience” that is the public school classroom.

The courts have been careful to distinguish between official endorsement or sponsorship of religion, which is unconstitutional, and instruction about religion, which is not only constitutional, but entirely appropriate. (Try teaching history, or art history, without reference to the immense influence of religious beliefs.)

One of the problems caused by low levels of civic and constitutional knowledge is that some schools have become skittish, avoiding even the appropriate study of religion for fear of lawsuits, while at the other end of the spectrum, schools have simply ignored the line between proper and improper instruction.

But some schools have gotten it right. Modesto, California is one of them.

The course’s inclusive curriculum ensures that it meets constitutional standards. It’s obvious from the design of the course and from emerging evidence that it succeeds in providing a thorough and objective education in world religions. For that reason, it’s a useful example of how religion ought to be taught in schools, if it’s going to be taught at all. And it’s sharply distinct from the Religious Right’s various attempts to insert sectarianism in public classrooms.

Modesto’s course and curricular proposals stand in sharp contrast to the Bible class designed by Hobby Lobby’s owners that has been proposed for use in Mustang, Okla., public schools. Steve Green, the corporation’s current president, called the class “the fourth leg of my personal ministry” and stated that it’s intended to complement his planned Bible museum in Washington, D.C. Legal objections from groups like Americans United have put the class on hold for now, but it could still be implemented in Mustang’s high schools.

If the goal is to have kids know about religion, there are perfectly legal ways to do that. The problems arise when your goal is really to impose your particular beliefs on others.

 

Religion and Football–More Alike Than We Might Think

It’s Sunday, and today’s sermon will consider the origins of religion.

There are all kinds of theories about religiosity. Some scientists believe humans are “hard-wired” for religion, although there is considerably controversy over that theory.

Anther is that belief in a deity arose from the need to explain otherwise inexplicable phenomena –the “God of the gaps” thesis. Why did lightning strike that guy’s hut? He must have angered the Gods…The problem with the God of the Gaps theory is that science and empirical inquiry keep narrowing the gaps.  (Bill O’Reilly famously defended the existence of God by the fact that “the tides come in and the tides go out, and no one knows why.”  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, however, we actually do know why, and God isn’t involved.)

Whatever the genesis of religion, social scientists have pointed to the benefits of religious affiliation, most of which can be explained by membership in a supportive community.

Because supportive communities come in all shapes and sizes, and don’t necessarily revolve around worship, one social scientist suggests that membership in a religious group is a lot like being a football fan.

Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse has concluded that belief in the supernatural is window dressing on what really matters—elaborate rituals that foster group cohesion, creating personal bonds that people are willing to die for. (He doesn’t suggest that football fans go quite that far.)

The cooperation required in large settled communities is different from what you need in a small group based on face-to-face ties between people. When you’re facing high-risk encounters with other groups or dangerous animals, what you want in a small group is people so strongly bonded that they really stick together. The rituals that seem best-designed to do that are emotionally intense but not performed all that frequently. But when the group is too large for you to know everyone personally, you need to bind people together through group categories, like an ethnic group or a religious organization. The high frequency rituals in larger religions make you lose sight of your personal self….

All really large-scale religions have rituals that people perform daily or at least once a week. We think this is one of the key differences between simply identifying with a group and being fused with a group. When you’re fused with a group, a person’s social identity really taps into personal identity as well. And identity fusion has a number of behavioral outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, fused individuals demonstrate a significant willingness to sacrifice themselves for their groups….

Unfortunately, sacrificing oneself for one’s group has often meant demonizing–or even murdering–those who belong to other groups, who worship other Gods–or none.

Religion has been, at best, a mixed blessing.