Browsing the archives for the Religion category.


The Decline of Christianity?

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Religion

Yesterday the Pew Religion and Public Life organization released results of a survey showing that the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has dropped quite a bit since 2007, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. As has been reported in previous surveys, most of this change has come from a decrease in the ranks of “mainline” Protestants and Catholics and an increase in “nones,” or people with no religious affiliation. This is a trend that’s been going on for a few decades. There also has been a 1.2 percent increase in non-Christian religions and a 1.5 percent increase in self-identified atheists.

The percentage of evangelicals has dropped by less than one percentage point, however, while their numbers have actually gone up a tad. So, while the percentage of Americans who are Christian is shrinking, the remaining “pool” of Christians is more conservative. IMO this is not a healthy development.

 Christianity Today argues, perhaps with justification, that “nominal” Christians — people who really aren’t religious but self-identify as “Christian” if asked — are now the “nones,” and the percentage of “convictional” Christians remains the same. Nothing has changed, CT says. However, this doesn’t explain why there’s been such a hemorrhage from the older Protestant denominations but not so much from evangelicalism. The author also admits that even evangelicalism is losing ground.

On the other hand, I’ve seen commentary from atheists crowing about the triumph of atheism. They want to claim the “nones,” or most of ‘em anyway, as their own. But Pew has said of “nones,”

… the unaffiliated are not wholly secular. Substantial portions of the unaffiliated – particularly among those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” – say they believe in God or a universal spirit. … The unaffiliated are about as likely as others in the general public to believe in reincarnation, astrology and the evil eye. And they are only slightly more likely to believe in yoga as a spiritual practice and in spiritual energy located in physical things such as mountains, trees and crystals.

The picture of the “nones” presented by Pew shows that they just aren’t keenly interested in religion, one way or another, and haven’t given it much thought, but are about as likely to believe in ghosts or homeopathy as anyone else. Atheists who are now celebrating the dawn of the New Age of Reason are being a tad premature.

And here I could insert something about whether disinterest in religion really is the same thing as atheism. An atheist is one who has decided there is no God, although he may pay lip service to having an open mind about it if “evidence” should emerge. My sense of things is that a “none” might think there could be a God someplace but that God just isn’t a big concern.

The other question raised by the survey results is the extent to which the rise of the Religious Right is causing the decline of Christianity overall. Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has been arguing for years that if fundamentalists are allowed to define Christianity and determine how the Bible is interpreted, it will eventually cause intelligent people to desert Christianity. And, according to Pew, the “nones” on average are better educated than the “remains.”

IMO Christianity has an image problem. For the past few decades, lazy or clueless media outlets, television producers in particular, have allowed only right-wing Christians to speak for Christianity in mass media. Much of this goes back to the 1970s and 1980s. Political operatives like Paul Weyrich recruited right-wing ministers like Jerry Falwell to help promote conservative causes. And the Right actively promoted its stable of “approved” Christian spokespeople to the television producers, so that when some talk show needed a guest to present the “Christian” or “religious” perspective, someone like Falwell would get the call.

This was never more obvious than during the Terri Sciavo circus, when it seemed all the bobblehead programs on all the networks exclusively booked right-wing Christian ministers to speak for “religion.” Per mass media, “religion” was opposed to taking Sciavo off life support.

But religion did not speak with one voice on this issue. Ministers, rabbis, theologians, etc., could have argued on well-founded religious grounds that removing the feeding tube was the moral thing to do, under the circumstances. And, in fact, many members of the clergy said this publicly. But from what I saw the television producers simply didn’t ask not-fundamentalist religious people into the studios.

It’s hardly surprising that Christianity is losing support, when its most visible public representatives are the likes of Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, and the Duck Dynasty guy.

It will be interesting to see if the popularity of Pope Francis bolsters American Catholicism. Long-term, we ought to be able to look forward to a more secular society. It’s also possible that major shifts in religious institutions could eventually lead to a kind of New Reformation; the old order will break up and be replaced by something else — hopefully something less stupid.

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False Dichotomies

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Religion

It irritates me to no end that headlines keep framing the Indiana flap as gays versus Christians or the “secular left” versus religion. It is no such thing.

A number of religious groups, including Christian ones, have spoken out in opposition of Indiana’s “religious freedom” law and call it plain old bigotry.  Here’s a roundup. I’d already mentioned the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Indiana Episcopal diocese, and other denominations speaking out in support of equal treatment for LGBT people include the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. I’m betting the BJCRL doesn’t include Southern Baptists, but still … also the Unitarian Universalists, the Sikh Coalition, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The dichotomy we’re seeing is a faction of hyper-reactionary religionists — some of whom are about as genuinely religious as the Las Vegas strip — versus everybody else. Let’s keep that straight.

Frank Bruni says a true thing that the religionistas are not ready to hear:

… homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in any church anywhere.

That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred’s pull as of tradition’s sway. Beliefs ossified over centuries aren’t easily shaken.

But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.

It disregards the degree to which all writings reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras.

It ignores the extent to which interpretation is subjective, debatable.

And it elevates unthinking obeisance above intelligent observance, above the evidence in front of you, because to look honestly at gay, lesbian and bisexual people is to see that we’re the same magnificent riddles as everyone else: no more or less flawed, no more or less dignified. …

… So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.

Bruni goes on to make some of the same points I made in The Book (Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World), in particular that even among “Bible believers” ideas about what is sinful and what isn’t have changed over the years. Polygamy used to be okay, until it wasn’t. Just 150 years ago southern white preachers defended slavery as not only sanctioned by the Bible but a benefit to the Africans who were sold into the West and made Christian. And so on.

The truth is, the moral views expressed in Iron Age scripture reflect Iron Age culture. Humankind has moved on. If the biblical literalists can’t accept that, they are free to run their own churches any way they like. But unless they want to be like the Mennonites and form their own enclosed communities, they need to adjust.

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Obliviousness Will Be Our Doom

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Religion, Terrorism

Earlier today I read a comment saying that Islamic extremism started with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. And of course that’s nonsense. The Iranian Revolution simply marked the point at which Americans noticed Islamic extremism.

I was as oblivious as anybody then. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 1973 and worked for the university for a few years after that, so I was on campus until about 1977. From time to time middle eastern students would mark around with signs denouncing the Shah of Iran and calling for America to stop supporting him. I ignored them. I had started seeing these guys with their signs before we were done with Vietnam, and I thought they should go demonstrate in their own country.

And then came the overthrow of the Shah and the Iranian hostage crisis. This wasn’t the first time violence connected to the region had gotten in our faces, of course. I became aware of the existence of Palestinians when a group of them got eleven Israeli athletes killed during the Munich Olympics. Which, along with being an atrocity, was also one of the worst public relations moves of all time. But I don’t remember that Americans associated Middle Eastern or Asian terrorism with Islam until they’d learned to hate the Ayatollah Khomeini.

But after all these years we still have no clue. I now have some understanding how much of today’s conflicts have their roots in European policies in the region at the end of World War I, and how that damage was compounded by America’s proclivity for propping up unpopular despots who at least were reliably anti-Soviet, like the Shah; and for toppling legitimately elected leaders who displeased us, such as Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had nationalized his country’s oil industry; he had to go.

Even our recent colossal screw-ups don’t seem to register as a cause of discontent. Invasion of Iraq? Abu Ghraib? Hello? Nah — it must be their religion.

I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s new book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. She argues for something that I touched on my in book, Rethinking Religion. And that is that most of the time, the primary cause of “religious” violence isn’t religion, but something else that has caused fear and anger and a desire for violent action. And then the angry, fearful people get out their scriptures and look for Holy Permission to do what they want, usually accepting only those passages that could be interpreted to support their positions and ignoring those that don’t.

Most of the time, I argue, religion is not the cause of group violence but can act as an accelerant, allowing qualms and inhibitions to drop away. I think it can be argued that when an angry mob or violent movement persuades itself that God condones their violence, they might very well be more violent than they would have been. However, that doesn’t mean that if the religion factor were removed the violence wouldn’t have happened at all.

But what if the other factors were removed and just religion were left? Looking at all the religious violence in the world today and in history, I propose that religion alone doesn’t cause people to be violent. Religion has to be combined with something else, such as a deeply felt grievance. That grievance may have little or nothing to do with religion. And people of the Middle East have plenty of reasons to be aggrieved.

However, once an extremist religious movement has formed, attacking them, meeting anger with anger and violence with violence, just feeds it. It becomes more extremist; it attracts new recruits. Plus once the violence starts there are other groups of violent, angry people who want revenge. And if they can persuade themselves that their enemies have no cause for grievance and are just violent because they are crazy whackjob  religious fanatics, scorched earth retribution becomes more palatable.

See how that works?

 

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Thinking About Separation of Church and State

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Religion

I’m writing this in response to something posted in a Facebook group, which I started to write in Facebook, but it was turning into something major, so now it’s a blog post.

The original comment:

“I really just mean a state anti-religious or taking the separation between church and state to nitpicky extremes, obsessed with avoiding all prayers to God in general in the public square or the slightest mention of God in the public square. I have no problem with a President, for example, saying “God bless the United States of America”, or the pledge saying, “Under God”, or, “In God we trust” on our coins, or prayers at public meetings, as long as neutral and inclusive, and not mandatory for anyone.”

My response, addressed to the person who posted the comment:

Let’s take these apart. “The left” these days really is not concerning itself with “In God We Trust” on coins; possibly a few atheists are, but I haven’t heard anything about this lately.

When you are talking about the “public square” are you talking about official functions of some level of government — including public school functions — or activities initiated by private citizens and carried out on public property? This makes a huge difference.

Current U.S. statutory and case law protects the rights of individual citizens to do religious stuff on public property, such as hold prayer meetings in a public park. Local ordinances may require you to get a permit, but local officials cannot deny your group a permit just because it is religious, as long as it is allowing non-religious groups permits to use the park.

The same thing is true of public school property. Students may organize their own prayer groups and pray together on public school property before and after school and during recess. They may also organize Bible study clubs and use school facilities after school for their meetings, if the school is allowing other kinds of clubs, such as the Girl Scouts, to meet there. This is a matter of law, enacted by Congress in the Equal Access Law of 1984, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990).

So it’s utter hyperbole to say that religion is being totally banned from the “public square.” What’s prohibited, mostly, is religious expression that is initiated or sponsored by government itself.

The reason parents — and they weren’t just atheist parents — challenged school prayers is that some schools were forcing children to say prayers that violated their religious beliefs. For example, one of the landmark SCOTUS cases that prohibited school prayer, Engel v. Vitale (1962), was brought by Jewish families whose children were being coerced into saying prayers to Jesus in public school. There were a number of other cases back then in which children were being punished in subtle ways — being forced to hide in the cloakroom or sit in the library doing long division — if they refused to take part in religious activities in school.

The more recent Texas football case, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), was initiated by Catholic and Mormon families who not only objected to the content of the prayers being said over the loudspeakers before football games, they also testified that many teachers had treated their children with hostility because they hadn’t been “born again” and in some cases had ridiculed them in front of other students because of their religion. School officials seriously needed to be reminded they weren’t living in the United States of Fundamentalist Jesus.

However, by law, people who really want to pray to Fundamentalist Jesus before high school football games can still do so if they organize their own prayer circles before the game, and they can do this on school property. It just can’t be part of the official program that everyone has to sit through.

One of my favorite “enlightenment” examples on this issue was an article in World Net Daily by a guy who couldn’t understand the big deal about prayers at football games until his company temporarily transferred him to Hawaii. He was invited to a high school football game and asked to stand up for the pregame prayer, which he did. Then he realized to his horror that he was standing up for a Buddhist prayer.

We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions. I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby.

Wow, that was big of him.

Anyway, over the next few days the writer found out that, because this ethnic Japanese community was predominantly Buddhist and Shinto, the pre-game prayers were also either Buddhist or Shinto. He stayed away from Hawaiian high school football games because he couldn’t handle the prayers. He concluded,

The point is this. I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day. Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land.

Yes, and it’s apparently incomprehensible for a lot of people of the majority faith, Christianity, to imagine what it feels like to be in the minority until it happens to them. I wish I could send the whole Bible Belt to Buddhist/Shinto public observances so they can appreciate what it feels like.

The point here is that courts have interpreted the free exercise of religion to be a basic right of citizenship enshrined in the First Amendment but protected by the 14th Amendment, the first paragraph of which is —

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Prayers and other religious observances that are initiated and conducted by “officials” of government, whether school teachers or senators, and are part of the official program of some kind of government function, are an infringement of the free exercise of religion of any citizen who is not of the faith represented in the prayer. And there is no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer,” especially if there are any atheists or nontheists (like me) in the audience.

Earlier this year in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) SCOTUS ruled to allow sectarian prayer before government meetings. Such prayers had never been prohibited as long as they didn’t amount of obvious proselytization, although there was some grumbling Justice Scalia’s written opinion opened that door. Conservative Christian groups celebrated their “freedom to pray,” as if they’d actually been prohibited from praying before. Now some groups are fighting back by insisting that the prayers include pagan or other minority prayers, and I don’t see how even Justice Scalia — famous for his creative interpretations of the Constitution — could come up with an argument that such prayers must only be Christian. Although I wouldn’t put it past him to try.

I haven’t personally said the Pledge of Allegiance for decades. I originally stopped saying it because I was angry about the War in Vietnam, but then I realized the “under God” part was wrong, and citizens should be required to say that. It’s an infringement on freedom of religion. I’m not on any big crusade to outlaw the thing, but I do encourage people who are uncomfortable with it to just not say it. Maybe someday if enough people are just not saying it, the thing will be re-thought.

The point is that something that may not seem like a big deal to you might be a big deal to the guy standing next to you, and he has rights, too. Your “nitpicky extreme” might feel like a serious infringement to somebody else.

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The Fantasies of Sam Harris

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Middle East, Religion

I find Sam Harris slightly less annoying than, say, Richard Dawkins, but that’s not saying much. Much like Dawkins, Sam Harris is intelligent and articulate and a seething mass of self-deception. He’s a smart guy soaking in his own bullshit, basically.

If you know me at all you know I don’t give a hoo-haw whether someone believes in God or not, as long as they aren’t being missionaries about it, either way. I’m fine with atheists. I call myself that sometimes, although I prefer the label non-theist if I have to be labeled. What bugs me aren’t so much atheists but anti-theists, people with a knee-jerk disdain for all religion. Anti-theists are inevitably ignorant of religion — including non-theistic ones — and assume it all to be just varying degrees of fundamentalism.

Harris also represents another crew I can do without, the true believers of scientism. Scientism — the current and more dogmatic form of what is also called positivism —  is not science; it’s a blind faith that the scientific method is the measure of all truth, and whatever is not subject to falsification by the scientific method is just superstitious nonsense. Scientism is itself unscientific, since its premise is not subject to testing by the scientific method, but the scientismists get very angry when you point that out to them.

You may have heard about the televised flame over Islam among Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Maher’s show last week. Affleck isn’t the guy I would have chosen to stand up to Harris, and I confess I haven’t taken the time to watch it. (I defer to Juan Cole’s analysis of the event.) Nicolas Kristof was on the show, too, and apparently could get few words in edgewise. But the fallout has been interesting, possibly more so than the flame itself.  People clearly are judging the “winner” based on their prior opinions of Islam. And now Harris writes on his blog that Affleck and Kristof were mean to him. “Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims,” Harris writes.

But Harris’s bigotry to Muslims, and toward all religion generally, has been commented on for years; he really ought to be used to it by now. For the ultimate analysis of Harris’s twisted worldview, see this 2011 article by Jackson Lears, “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

There is copious data in the field of psychology suggesting that people are not nearly as rational as we think we are, and the myth-making parts of our brains are still churning out myths. Generally without being conscious of it we’re all creating a narrative, a personal myth, that explains us to ourselves. As we go through life we make up a story about ourselves and our role in the world, and who we think we are, and we process our experiences by fitting them into the narrative. I wrote in the book,

In his book The Unpersuadables, which really is the best thing I’ve read on this topic, Will Storr suggests that our thinking skills haven’t evolved beyond the age of myth as much as we think. Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

Indeed, it may be that the most foolish belief of all is the belief that any of us are rational. The only difference between a sensible person and a kook may be that the sensible person holds irrational beliefs that conform to a socially acceptable norm, while the kook is more creative.

Further, the social psychologists tell us our opinions on just about everything are being generated by our subconscious, and without realizing it we then craft a story to tell ourselves why we believe as we do. We’re all being jerked around by biases unless we come to know ourselves very, very well and recognize the emotional cues we’re getting from our ids, and make a conscious choice to ignore them. And that would be one person in a million.

And a bit later in the book, I wrote,

What’s happening with scientism believers (scientismists?), seems to me, is that they very much want to believe they are as entirely rational as computers and utterly unlike those irrational religion-believing people they so dislike. So the myth-making parts of their brains have developed a strong cognitive bias to “confirm” their belief in absolute rationality and of themselves as relentlessly rational. They’re living in a myth that they’re not living in a myth.

I say a person cannot be genuinely rational until he recognizes and acknowledges his own irrationality. Otherwise, he’s just kidding himself.

IMO this is precisely what’s going on with Harris. He is living in a myth that he is entirely rational, and in his mind everything he thinks must be rational because he’s the one thinking it. If you disagree with him, you are being emotional and irrational.

Harris’s and Dawkins’s groupies are just as bad. Find any online article critical of one of the Prophets of New Atheism and you get hundreds of comments sputtering in outrage that anyone dare question the wisdom of The Prophets. It doesn’t matter how clearly the article writer has expressed himself and supported his views; whatever he writes will be dismissed as ad hominem and even as bigoted toward atheism. This is true even if the author acknowledges that he is an atheist himself. (This review of the first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography is a good example. If you read it, then see “John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins” for the knee-jerk defense of a true believer against anything short of fawning deference toward the Great Man.)

In the book I make mention of Harris’s ideas on science-based morality, which he described in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values and elsewhere, and which I dismantled in some detail. Harris really does see the ideal human as absolutely rational and as logical as a computer, which is nonsense, and as a neuroscientist he ought to know better. In fact, we’re all an oozy mess of biases and various psychological pathologies trying to cope with it all, and our brief moments of pure rational thought are like lightning flashes in the sky of our otherwise muddled understanding. That may sound pessimistic, but it’s the truth, and I honestly don’t believe anyone can be rational at all until he or she owns up to that and makes allowance for it.

Regarding Islam, Harris is stuck in the belief that the ghastly violence and extremism roiling the near and middle east are entirely coming from Islam, which is irrational on its face considering that there really are devout Muslims who are gentle and nonviolent human beings and not violent psycho-pathological killers. New Atheists assume all religion exists on a sliding crazy scale, and the more “devout” one is the more extreme, crazy, and potentially dangerous one is, but it actually doesn’t work that way. As I observed in the book,

Violent religious factions around the globe appear to share some characteristics, and one of these is a tendency to disregard doctrines that counsel putting away hatred and avoiding violence. In fact, the more radical and violent the group, the less likely the fanatics are to accept their religion’s doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they tend to make a fetish out of some doctrines, usually those involving enforcement of morality and respecting the religion’s deities and symbols, while ignoring deeper spiritual doctrines about humility and compassion. We can see this clearly in radical Islam, but the same tendencies are apparent in hyper-conservative Christianity and Judaism as well as in the militant Buddhist monks.

As I document at some length in the chapter on religious violence, “religious violence” never happens in a vacuum. If you look deeply and objectively at the episodes of religious violence around the world today and back through history, they are never just about religion. Violence happens during a confluence of particular cultural, social, political, historical, and sometimes religious factors, usually combining some kind of “holy cause” — which is not necessarily a religious one — with a fanatical grievance, an unshakable belief that one has been wronged somehow and is entitled to get back at somebody for it, a belief that can manifest in many forms. Sometimes religion is a primary motivator, but more often, when religion is a factor at all, it’s used to package the rage and give atrocity a fig leaf of respectability.

Among New Atheism’s pet dogmas is the belief that religion is the cause of nearly all wars. I understand there is a massive tome called the Encyclopedia of Wars that analyzes wars, mentioned recently in a Timothy Egan column. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,’” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” I would have guessed a bit higher than that, frankly, but I will assume that’s accurate.

New Atheists get around apparently non-religious reasons for war by equating all ideological fanaticism as “religious,” even when the fanaticism has a stated anti-religious basis, as in Communism.  In the late Christopher Hitchens’s largely ridiculous book God Is Not Great, Hitch supported his argument that religion is the root of all evil essentially by classifying things he disapproved of as religious and those he approved of as not religious. Thus, Mao Zedong was religious, but Martin Luther King wasn’t. And Hitch believed himself to be entirely rational.

Islam actually is a hugely diverse tradition in which scripture and teachings are interpreted and practiced many different ways, which means anyone who ever speaks of Islam as if it were one monolithic thing should automatically be dismissed as ignorant. And if you can’t see the many historical, cultural, social and political factors fueling violence in the Muslim world, you are blind. There’s just no getting around that; you’ve got to be a blinkered idiot to assume Islam alone is the cause of the current madness. And since Sam Harris sees the world that way, I have to assume there’s something seriously wrong with him, and applied rational thinking isn’t it.

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Sam Harris vs. Islam

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Religion

Sam Harris is very sure that Islam created ISIS, and he criticized President Obama for saying otherwise:

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

If indeed Islam itself demands that all apostates must die, it’s been weirdly inconsistent about this over the years. Just yesterday I found an article about Muslims who risked — and sometimes lost — their own lives saving Jews from the Holocaust. Harris would probably argue those Muslims were hypocrites (No True Muslim would rescue a Jew?). But I’m sure if we checked we could probably find many examples of amicable meetings between Muslims and non-Muslims that didn’t end in slaughter.

Maybe the relationship between Islam and violence is not what Harris assumes.

In Rethinking Religion I devote a chapter to religious violence and another to the dynamics of mass movements. In the latter chapter I propose that many of the supposed evils of religion — a propensity to violence and dogmatic faithfulness to irrational beliefs — can be found in many kinds of movements, both religious and not religious. And I propose that violent movements of all sorts have two things in common — a “holy” cause combined with a fanatical grievance.

The holy cause does not have to be religious; patriotism will do nicely, too, especially when combined with belief in ethnic or racial superiority or some kind of glorious national destiny. But the fanatical grievance is an essential component, also. I postulate that people who do not feel particularly aggrieved about anything tend to be disinclined to become violent about their holy causes, whether religious or not.

At Alternet, C.J. Werleman addresses atheists’ flawed view of Islamic terrorism. In particular, he addresses Sam Harris’s insistence that terrorism by Muslims is driven entirely by Islam. Werleman documents that a great many factors other than Islam  have been driving terrorism in Muslim countries, and all of this supports my “fanatical grievance” hypothesis. This is not to say that religion is not a factor, but it is not the simple and direct factor that Harris imagines.

At Foreign Policy, anthropologist Scott Atran writes,

… the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

So, evidence suggests religion can bring out the best in us as well as the worst. I propose that without the “fanatical grievance” factor, religion by itself is unlikely to cause people to go to war. An emotionally healthy and reasonably contended individual does not become a mass murderer because of something he reads in scripture, no matter how devout he is.

Religion does not exist in a vacuum. All religions live and grow within a culture of, well, culture. And politics, and society, and history. These things exist together and condition each other in countless ways. Sometimes culture expresses itself through religion. Sometimes religion expresses itself through culture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Religious identity often gets mixed into ethnic or national identity, so that “defending the faith” becomes synonymous with “defending my people.”

Very often the factors that push a movement toward violence may have little to do with religion, but at some point in the process religion is trotted out to justify whatever extreme measures are used to achieve ends. More often than not, the truth of this isn’t apparent even to the people fomenting the violence. Religious violence often begins when people become angry or fearful about something, and as a desire to strike the feared or hated thing grows, religion provides a great moral cover for whatever violent impulses want to be expressed. Persuading yourself that you have been anointed to do God’s terrible work makes it much easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

Religion, then, is not the root cause of violence as often as it is an accelerant. Scott Atran writes,

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments.

We can see from our own home-grown fundamentalists that all kinds of unrelated things can become sacralized. Some American conservative Christians have sacralized capitalism, for example, to the point of claiming free-market capitalism is ordained by the Bible.

As Karen Armstrong and other scholars have documented, religious fundamentalism is primarily a backlash against modernity. The original Christian fundamentalist movement arose in the late 19th century United States in reaction to a spectrum of social and cultural challenges, such as the huge influx of immigrants, many of which were barely connected to religion.

In the broader sense of the word, “fundamentalist” religious movements around the world are reactionary. They tend to be obsessed with creating some kind of sacred enclave where they can be in complete control and free of outside influence. Often, as in the case of ISIS, they venerate a highly mythologized version of the past that they say they want to restore. They place great importance on sacred symbols and moral purity, especially the moral purity of women. But they also tend not to follow their own religions in any kind of holistic way. Any parts of their own doctrines or scriptures that do not support their violent path, such as teachings on mercy and compassion, are studiously ignored.

So, whether Sam Harris likes it or not, there is a solid argument to be made that the root cause of ISIS is not Islam, and that instead Islam has been appropriated to serve as packaging for a veritable compost heap of grievances mostly related to politics and oil. That said, the extent to which the ISIS movement can persuade itself its cause is holy will have a lot to do with how long and hard and effectively the group will survive and keep fighting. So Islam cannot be ignored.

At the same time, it can be argued that what’s fueling ISIS is more of an idea of Islam than Islam itself. Rather than a practice of humble submission to the will of God, this idea of Islam exalts and empowers the leaders and followers of ISIS. And while it’s not up to me to judge what is “true” Islam and what isn’t, I respect arguments that the ISIS version aint’ it.

But Sam Harris says he knows better.

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran.

The Qu’ran is not my area, but I doubt it’s Sam Harris’s area, either. Harris’s words smack more of bigotry than scholarship. Obviously, Harris has a deep ego-investment in the belief that Religion Is Bad, and that good ol’ confirmation bias backs him up every time. I doubt that his mind could be opened to entertain another view. And that’s why he’s mostly clueless.

Making Islam the enemy is the last thing we should be doing now. For another view, see Salam Al Marayati, “The Key to Defeating ISIS Is Islam.”

Religious violence is a complex topic. Sometimes religious institutions have made cold-blooded decisions to betray their own doctrines and engage in violence, and this is usually related to either ensuring the institution’s survival or spreading its influence.  But examples of this kind of violence have become less common in the modern era, and I don’t know if it applies to any violence going on in the world now.

What I do know is that responses to religious violence coming from a place of knee-jerk bigotry and ignorance are not going to help us deal with it.

Read more about religious violence in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[Cr0ss-posted from Rethinking Religion Blog]

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The Christian Right Is Dangerous

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Religion

I posted on the religion blog about Why the Christian Right Is Dangerous after reading this by Amanda Marcotte. It does seem that the extremist wing of the Christian Right is growing bigger and crazier. The “home schooling” and “school choice” movements are particularly worrying. The number of American children being home schooled has grown from 850,000 students in 1999 to  1,770,000 students in 2013. Not all of those children are being kept out of school for religious reasons, of course. But we could easily be growing a subculture of badly educated religious fanatics who could become increasingly violent as they become more estranged from the rest of us.

Karen Armstrong defines fundamentalism in a broad sense as a reaction against and rejection of modern Western society. Fundamentalists, in different ways, all attempt to establish enclaves of pure faith that shut out any other views. Those they come in contact with who aren’t “them” must be either shunned or assimilated. And in time, if that doesn’t work, they must be eliminated.

Two chapters in Rethinking Religion are dedicated to religious mass movements and religious violence. These chapters propose that the two factors always present in violent mass movements are a holy cause — defending the faith against those they think are its enemies, in this case — combined with a fanatical grievance, or the belief they’re the ones who are the victims. You see this in violent Islam, in the violent Buddhists in Myanmar, and also in mass movements that are not expressly religious.

The Christian Right in America is obsessed with the belief that they are being persecuted. This has been true for a long time, but it’s becoming more and more obvious. And they clearly have a holy cause. I think we would be very naive to assume that widespread religious terrorism can’t happen here — except around abortion clinics,of course, which for some reason is not supposed to count.

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Hobby Lobby Has Not Split “the Left”

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Religion

Stupidest headline I’ve seen so far today — “How Hobby Lobby Split the Left and Set Back Gay Rights” at The Atlantic. I’m not seeing the Hobby Lobby decision split “the Left” at all. Have you?

It’s true that several gay-rights groups have withdrawn support from ENDA — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — but their reasons are understandable. They say the bill has been so carved-out and watered down as to be useless. And they’re probably right. I’m not seeing any objections from other lefties.

What makes this article (by Molly Ball) especially pathetic is that her strongest examples of splitting on “The Left” are Third Way and Jim Wallis. Third Way is an organization of center-right trolls. And Jim Wallis is a troll, period.

Wallis fools a lot of people because he presumes to speak for the religious Left, and he’s written some books, such as God’s Politics, that spoke against the influence of extremist right-wing religion in U.S. politics. But over the years it has become plain he is no progressive himself; he just plays one on the Tee Vee.

Actual progressive religious people such as Frederick Clarkson have been calling out Wallis’s bullshit for years. Here’s just one article about Wallis out of a whole lot of others at the website Talk to Action.

In fact, here’s an interview of Wallis from Christianity Today where he plainly says he is no liberal and not part of the religious Left. He’s opposed to marriage rights and has been weaselly on reproductive rights, refusing to take a stand on the abortion issue but engaging in much winking and nodding toward the Right.

So no, just because Third Way and Jim Wallis and a few center-right Democrats are chewing their nails over the Hobby Lobby decision doesn’t mean “The Left” is split over it. It is not.

Anyone who wonders what actual progressive religion looks like are welcome to read my book, btw.

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Faithless Faith

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Religion, Republican Party

The Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference in Washington DC ends today. An annual event, this year’s shindig turned into a contest over which potential 2016 Republican presidential nominee could blow the loudest dog whistles.

The biggest headlines from the event so far told us that some genius put Obama bobblehead dolls in the men’s urinals. And the speeches seemed to be on about the same intellectual level. One speaker after another declared unquestioning loyalty to the Coalition’s dogmas: abortion must be criminalized, same-sex marriage must be stopped, Barack Obama is evil incarnate, and Christians must be restored to their rightful place as the dominant tribe of the U.S.

[Update: And what else is there to say but ... Ralph Reed?]

There were reports a few meek voices spoke up to suggest the attendees ought to recognize America’s religious diversity, but it seems they were mostly shouted down.

Groupthink just doesn’t look like “freedom” to me, no matter how many “don’t tread on me” T-shirts one may spot in the herd. It also seems to me that the attendees espouse a peculiarly faithless faith.

This faithless faith rests on the proposition that the reality of God depends on a literal interpretation of scripture. If evolution is true, for example, then God is not real. It’s a faith with conditions.

And for all their expressed devotion to the Bible, their “God” seems more to be based largely on their own projections. He all-too-perfectly reflects and confirms their fears, biases, resentments and various social and psychological pathologies.

I wonder what they’d do if Jesus himself materialized at the conference and said, you know, you’ve got God all wrong, and you’ve entirely missed the point of everything I taught. I bet some of them would boo their Lord and Redeemer off the stage.

Their real faith isn’t in God, or even the Bible. It’s in their fears, biases, resentments and various social and psychological pathologies, which they cling to the way someone cast into an ocean might cling to anything that floats.

It’s through those fears, etc., that they define themselves and make sense of the world. It’s the conceptual box they live in. Whatever is outside the box terrifies them, because if the box is destroyed the “me” they’ve always believed in and the world they’ve constructed in their heads would disappear.

This isn’t freedom, and it isn’t faith, either. As I wrote in my book, Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World,

The notion that Christianity is mostly about arranging one’s mental furniture in accord with a belief system would have been alien to most of the great Christian theologians of history. “Faith” to early Christian theologians — and many recent ones, for that matter — was not at all a synonym for belief. It was more about love of or trust in a God whose nature and opinions were beyond human understanding. To declare you know what God thinks about anything, including which politicians he supports, would have been blasphemy to them.

It’s possible to have great religious faith with no God-object at all (see, for example, Buddhism). Genuine faith does not demand the world conform to one’s belief system; just the opposite. According to many great theologians, genuine faith requires trust, compassion for others, and sometimes self-sacrifice. Not a lot of that on display at the “Faith and Freedom” conference.

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Impulse and Ideology

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conservatism, firearms, Religion, Social Issues, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Some guy at MSNBC argues that it makes “little sense” to call Jerad and Amanda Miller, the Las Vegas shooters, “right-wing extremists.”

He said right-wing extremists typically focus their anger on federal authorities, not local law enforcement officers like these.

“They weren’t the ATF, they weren’t the FBI. They couldn’t be seen as the representatives of a repressive government,” Levin told NBC News. “There are some militia group members who believe that the only valid authority is at the county sheriff level. In fact, many right-wing extremists love the police. They feel kinship to local law enforcement.”

So we’re just supposed to ignore the white supremacist literature, the shooters’ attempt to join the crew at the Bundy ranch and the “don’t tread on me” flag.

I wrote in my first post about the Las Vegas shooting that I doubted the shooters were working with the Bundy crew, who have decided only the federal government is evil. But the remarks at MSNBC reflect a basic misunderstanding of the connection between ideology/belief, whether political or religious, and violence.

This is something I spend a lot of time on in My Book, Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World, because I think understanding this connection and how it functions is critical to dealing not only with our ongoing domestic violence problem but also with understanding religious violence around the world.

My thinking on this issue is very much influenced by Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. Very simply, Haidt makes a strong argument that our moral choices — including the choice to be violent — and our political and religious beliefs are rooted deeply in the subconscious. We are born pre-wired to interface with the world in particular ways, and this pre-wiring disposes us to leaning left or right, say, or determines whether we are likely to be dogmatists or open-minded. And, of course, the way we perceive, interpret and experience ourselves and the world also is very much influenced by cultural and other conditioning.

As we meander through our lives and bump into myriad phenomena, including religious and political beliefs and moral issues, all of this pre-wiring and conditioning and whatnot clanking around in our psyches churns up emotional responses. These include feelings of comfort and discomfort. We naturally want to affirm those things that make us feel good while denouncing the stuff that frightens or disgusts us. We then call on our rational minds to craft a narrative that justifies our feelings. These narratives are merged into our primary narrative, or personal myth, which is the ongoing story we tell ourselves about who we are and what the events in our lives might mean.

Another factor is what Buddhists call “mental formations,” or our states of mind, which can become habitual. This (in part) refers to the way some people tend to easily become defensive and critical, while others in the same situations are understanding and accepting. This also speaks to our basic orientation toward the world and whether we feel integrated with it or estranged from it.

By the time we are adults this wiring/conditioning “stuff” has become extremely complicated, and I doubt any two human beings who ever lived have identical inner stuff. But it’s important to understand that, ultimately, we are drawn to our beliefs and ideologies because of the stuff, not because it appeals to our rational mind. For this reason, what an ideology or political position represents to an individual on a subconscious or even metaphorical level is more critical than intellectual consistency.

This is what the guy on MSNBC doesn’t get. From their own words and actions, it’s obvious that right-wing anti-government rhetoric and the Bundy ranch drama resonated deeply with Jerad and Amanda Miller and represented something enormously significant to them, even if how they understood the “movement” differed in some particulars from most of the rest of the Bundyites.

More crudely, they wanted to kill police because they wanted to kill police, and in their minds the militia anti-government movement gave them permission, and even made killing police a righteous and praiseworthy act. They weren’t being logical, no. But does anyone seriously think the crew in the desert pretending to be at war with the federal government got there because of logic?

This is why the “he did it because of mental illness” excuse for Elliot Rodger didn’t fly for me. Crazy is a continuum, and we’re all on that continuum. None of us are entirely rational. Everyone feels a violent impulse now and then. But except for those who are demonstrably psychotic, we are capable of choosing to not act on those impulses. And Rodger was not psychotic. His writing was ordered and organized, even if the ideas he expressed were outrageous. This means he was rational enough to choose to not do what he did, as were the Millers. They all knew perfectly well they were breaking laws. Had they lived, it’s enormously unlikely they would have gotten off on an insanity plea.

But what Rodger and the Millers had in common was that they had seduced themselves into believing that their impulses were righteous and justified. And this is where public rhetoric and hate-group subcultures really do get people killed. Within the misnamed “men’s rights” subculture, talk of violating and killing women meets with social approval. Women as a class are perceived as evil and dangerous; violence against women is therefore justified, even heroic. Likewise, the right-wing anti-government rhetoric permeating American society can make killing government officials seem justified, even if some are a little hazy about the distinction between state and federal government officials.

I don’t think extremist right-wingers are inherently more prone to violence than extremist left-wingers. But at this moment in American history, the “extremist” Left is the fringe of the fringe, and it is absent from mass media. I’m not even sure it has much in the way of an internet presence. The applicable political spectrum here goes from a liberal/progressive Left that is well within the mainstream of American political traditions to a Right that stretches deeply into the tin-foil-hat section of the Twilight Zone.

And while you can find individuals on the Left expressing violent impulses, on the Right it’s not just individuals; it’s major media personalities and politicians serving in high-level state and federal offices. It’s coming from positions of authority, in other words.

This is why public rhetoric has consequences (see, for example, Paul Waldman, “How much does right-wing rhetoric contribute to right-wing terrorism?“). We’ve been having this conversation since Columbine, and the hate-speakers on the Right simply refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for the ongoing right-wing domestic violence. I have no solution to this impasse. I fear it will have to get worse before it can get better.

But this is why splitting hairs over whether the Millers were truly “right-wing extremists” because they killed local cops instead of federal BLM agents is stupid.

I’m seeing the same misunderstanding among western “Buddhalogists” in academia. There is a faction of western religious studies professors who are combing through Buddhist doctrines to find the “cause” of the Buddhist violence against Muslims in Burma, and some other places. And they are “finding” it by misinterpreting scriptures and even projecting meaning into scriptures that just plain isn’t there; I walked through an example of this in My Book.

The plain fact is that the violence violates everything the Buddha taught. The impulse is not coming from Buddhist teachings, but from racism and jingoism, and it’s being fueled by political expedience. “Buddhism” is not just a religion to the majority in Burma; it’s part of their ethnic and national identity. And a faction of monks has been cranking out rhetoric that justifies violence as “defending Buddhism.” So in spite of what it teaches, Buddhism has become a symbolic permission slip for violence in Burma.

And weirdly, in America, “patriotism” has become a symbolic permission slip for sedition. Looking for logical reasons for this is a fool’s errand.

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