Browsing the archives for the Religion category.

The Fantasies of Terrorism

Religion, Terrorism

A couple of days ago I wrote that Omar Mateen “wasn’t so much a jihadist as someone who poured his excessive rage into a fantasy of jihad.” Turns out that may have made him a typical jihadist.

At the New York Times Peter Bergen writes that he did exhaustive research into more than 300 individual incidents of terrorism to find out what motivated the terrorists. He concludes,

The easy explanation — that jihadist terrorists in the United States are “mad” or “bad” — proved simply wrong. Around one in 10 had mental health problems, below the incidence in the general population. Nor were they typically career criminals: Twelve percent had served time in prison, compared with about 11 percent of the American male population.

I found that the perpetrators were generally motivated by a mix of factors, including militant Islamist ideology; dislike of American foreign policy in the Muslim world; a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose; and a “cognitive opening” to militant Islam that often was precipitated by personal disappointment, like the death of a parent. For many, joining a jihadist group or carrying out an attack allowed them to become heroes of their own story.

The “heroes of their own story” turns out to be key.

But in each case, the proportion of the motivations varied. For instance, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, was a nonpracticing Muslim who became an Islamist militant once his dreams of becoming an Olympic boxerfaded. At the time of the attack, he was unemployed. For him, bombing the marathon seemed to allow him to become the heroic figure that he believed himself to be.

On the other hand, his younger brother, Dzhokhar, never seemed to embrace militant Islam. He smoked marijuana, drank and chased girls — hardly the actions of a Muslim fundamentalist. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s motivations for the bombings were instead largely molded by his older brother, whom he admired and feared, and by his own half-baked opposition to American foreign policy.

Nidal Hasan, the Army major who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in 2009, seemed to be a more classic jihadist. He was a highly observant Muslim who objected to American foreign policy. But according to Nader Hasan, a first cousin who had grown up with him, the massacre at Fort Hood was also motivated by Nidal Hasan’s personal problems. He was unmarried, both his parents were dead, he had no real friends and a dreaded deployment to Afghanistan loomed. “He went postal,” Nader Hasan told me, “and he called it Islam.”

David C. Headley of Chicago, who did much of the planning for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, in which more than 160 people were killed, was not an observant Muslim. He juggled multiple wives and girlfriends. He was motivated more by a passionate hatred of India — and his enjoyment in playing the role of a jihadi James Bond, hanging out with Bollywood stars for cover while secretly planning one of the most spectacular and deadly terrorist assaults since Sept. 11, 2001.

Bergen doesn’t say if he found any examples of well-adjusted people not facing a life crisis or nursing a boiling personal grudge who decided only from their reading of the Quran that they had a duty to be jihadists, but my guess would be no.

I had said something similar in my book about the 9/11 terrorists, who were known to drink alcohol and go nightclubbing. Deep down, what they did was not really about religion. Meaning, religion didn’t provide the prime motivation. If you look closely, the “motivation” is nearly always some tangled mix of political, economic, social, cultural and historical factors with some big, honking Personal Issues mixed in. I wrote,

But it’s rarely just about Buddhism. Or Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism, or any other religion. Like any other part of human civilization, religions exist in a context of culture, society, politics, and history, not to mention the various psychological issues of the participants. Religion has been the prime driver of some violent situations, but sometimes it’s just one factor among many, and the violence probably would have happened without it.

And sometimes religion may not be the prime driver but acts more as an accelerant, or at least an excuse, giving people a moral “cover” or context for their rage, even when their rage is being driven by something else entirely. If you can persuade yourself that your vehemence is sanctified, and that you are entitled or even anointed to strike at the object of your anger, it’s a lot easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

And this, I think, is at the root of why so much of the mass violence in the world today has a connection to religion. Religion has become the last refuge of the furious.

In short, religion can be used to craft a cosmic permission slip and provide a kind of holy absolution (in the minds of the perps, anyway) for what would otherwise be unjustifiable savagery. And, of course, ultimately it’s still unjustifiable.  But terrorists do tend to be the world’s worst cherry pickers, as far as doctrine is concerned. They’re only interested in the parts that might be used to justify what they were going to do, anyway. The remainder can be ignored.

In the book I went back to this great quote:

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both. —  Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) 

I propose that these factors tend to come together to form “terrorists.”

The first is some kind of association with an idealized mass movement.  As Bergen said, they seem to have “a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose.” However, this association may exist only in the head of the perp, as it did in Omar Mateen. In other words, the association may exist as a psychological factor but not a physical or operative factor, and it’s important for us to keep that straight. Otherwise you’re off into Crazy Land with John McCain, who has said President Obama is responsible for the murders in Orlando because he hasn’t bombed ISIS enough.

The idealized mass movement comes with a “holy cause.” But the holy cause is not necessarily religious; nationalism or or extremist political ideologies or white supremacy or a lot of other things will do just as well. If the “holy cause” is religious, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot if the individual perp really believes it that much. It’s the idea of having a holy cause to rally around, rather than personal devotion, that’s important. Without a holy cause to fight for, one cannot be the hero of one’s own story.

Finally, and possibly most important of all, is the fanatical grievance. I think if you look hard enough, in the soul of every terrorist or mass shooter or anybody who feels a need to express himself through violent slaughter is a festering grievance that the world simply is not giving him what he is due. Whether this grievance is primarily personal or collective, or a little of both, may not matter.

This is why people who make Islam, or religion, out to be “the problem” don’t get it. In the presence of the other psychological factors any mass movement/holy cause will do, including (in theory) atheism. It hardly matters if atheism has no doctrines, as doctrines aren’t that important to “religious” terrorists, anyway.” What’s important is the Cause, which ultimately is just something to reflect glory on the perp’s own ego.

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New Jersey Just Poked China


And now for something completely different … New Jersey just released a list of approved religious holidays, meaning holidays that give a child a legitimate excuse for being out of school. A number of Buddhist holidays showed up, which of course is nice. But one jumped out at me —

April 25 The 11th Panchen Lama’s Birthday (Buddhist)

The Panchen Lama, a high lama of the Geluk school, is the second highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism. At the moment there are two, one recognized by Tibetan Buddhism and the authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and one recognized by the government of China.

April 25 is the birthday of the Panchen Lama recognized by Tibetan Buddhism. The other one was born in February.

Historical background: The 10th Panchen Lama, who spent a large part of his life in Chinese prisons, died in 1989 shortly after giving a speech mildly critical of Beijing. Officially, he died of a heart attack.

In May 1995, a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, of Chinese-occupied Tibet, was recognized as the tulku, or rebirth, of the Panchen Lama. Two days later the child and his family were taken into Chinese custody. They have not been seen or heard from since.

Later that year, Beijing named another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu — the son of two Tibetan Communist Party officials — as the 11th Panchen Lama. Gyaltsen Norbu spent most of his childhood in seclusion in Beijing. But in recent years he has been given a number of functions, such as representing Tibetan Buddhism at official conferences and releasing statements praising Beijing for its wise governance of Tibet. (See also “The Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism: A Lineage Hijacked by Politics.”)

You may ask, why is this a BFD? Because it relates to the 14th Dalai Lama and possibly to the 15th as well.

Beijing harbors an irrational and all-consuming hatred for the 14th Dalai Lama. Just as an example of how far Beijing will go to smack down His Holiness — back in 2009 the revered Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh expressed a wish on Italian television that the Dalai Lama might be allowed to return to Tibet. Later that year 400 nuns and monks who were followers of Thich Nhat Hanh were forcibly evicted from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam.

Although Hanoi gave no sensible reason for the eviction, it was understood by everyone that Beijing had ordered it. A number of U.S. presidents have carefully not met with His Holiness in the oval office for similar reasons.

Among the traditional functions of a Panchen Lama is to recognize the rebirth of a Dalai Lama. And here we come to the crux of it. Gyaltsen Norbu has been prepared his entire life to carry out one function, which is to recognize some young boy as the 15th Dalai Lama some day. Beijing has claimed sole authority to recognize all important rebirths, in fact, through a lot of historical revisionism. (See “China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.”)

Beijing has made no secret that it intends to recognize and enthrone a 15th Dalai Lama once the 14th is gone. They appear to believe this will help pacify the Tibetans. The fact that Gyaltsen Norbu is not recognized by Tibetans even in China — indeed, the young man requires a substantial guard when he makes ceremonial visits to Tibetan monasteries — ought to tell the Chinese officials this might not work. But they bought into this plan years ago, and aren’t about to let go of it. (See also “Buddhism in China and Tibet today.”)

Whether New Jersey officials realized what they were getting themselves into by recognizing Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama I do not know, but bravo! Well done, somebody!

And maybe Beijing won’t notice. If they do, we could offer to let them keep Chris Christie as hostage.

A couple of other odd things about the New Jersey holiday list — It does not include the birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama himself (July 6), but it does let kids take September 7 off for His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s birthday. This lama is head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of four to six schools depending on who’s counting. I’ve only recently become aware that there was anything of the Sakya school in the U.S. at all; most of western Tibetan Buddhism is Geluk, Kagyu or Nyingma, from what I’ve seen. Kagyu and Nyingma are not represented on the list. However, I don’t doubt Sakya Trizin is a fine fellow whose birthday deserves a day off of school.

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This Is What Happens Without Separation of Church and State


Brunei has banned public Christmas celebrations, and the usual promoters of the War on Christmas are apoplectic. The commenters of Jihad Watch are calling for a ban on Islam, while others snark that Muslims must be weenies (my word, not theirs) if their faith can’t stand up to Santa Claus hats.

This is from the same people who threw an epic fit over the building of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan and who whine incessantly about being oppressed because people wish them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” These are the same people whose god is such a wimp he can be ordered out of public schools by Supreme Court decisions. And these are the same people who insist they can use government offices to enforce their own religious beliefs, such as by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Many of these people would vote for Marco Rubio, who declared the United States is governed by God, not the Constitution. And don’t get me started on Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.

(Note that several GOP candidates have claimed God told them to run for president. Why does God hate America?)

What these meatballs don’t get about Brunei is that this is what happens when there is no separation of church and state.

On my other website I devote several articles to Buddhism in China. It seems lots of people in the U.S. think China bans religion, and that is not true. Officially, the government in Beijing supports religion. In recent years, Beijing has sunk a lot of money into restoring temples (many destroyed during the Cultural Revolution) and building big religious displays, such as the gigantic Guanyin of the South Sea.

They do this for other religions, too. The government has restored many cathedrals destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Sounds nice, right? But the cathedrals are administered by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, part of the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy. The CPCA also appoints bishops and, I believe, pays the salaries of clergy. The Vatican doesn’t recognize Chinese clergy as authentic. See also China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.

In the case of Buddhism, Taoism, and other traditional Chinese religions, much of this investment is about tourism. Monasteries, shrines and temples are expected to make money. I understand the fabled Shaolin monastery is a regular cash cow for Beijing.  See also The Disneyfication of Tibet.

This is what happens without separation of church and state.

As most of you know, the establishment clause of the First Amendment essentially forbids Congress  (and through the Fourteenth Amendment, state and local government also) from favoring one religion over another. This is not about banning religion from the public sphere outright, just not showing favoritism. Governments can either ban nativity scenes on public (as in government) property or allow other religions to promote their holidays as well, including Muslims, Satanists and Pastafarians. Lots of groups are demanding that Festivus poles be displayed on public grounds this year, in protest of nativity scenes.

Last month a Pew survey found that white Christians are now less than half of the population. Conservative Christians who continue to claim separation of church and state is the work of the Devil had better think about what might happen if a non-Christian religion ever claims enough followers to become a majority in the U.S. Without separation of church and state, what happened in Brunei could happen here.

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If You Find the Evangelical Love Affair With Donald Trump Baffling, Let Me Explain It


Apparently The Donald is capturing the Evangelical vote, for the moment, anyway. The question is, why?

Trump does not exactly radiate piety. He’s been married three times. He’s mostly known for making money and firing people on a bad reality show.

Worse, the church he claims to attend says he’s not an “active member.” Turns out it is the church his parents attended. The Donald apparently doesn’t know what denomination the church is part of; he called himself a Presbyterian, but the church in question is part of the Reformed Church in America.

Digby wrote,

In South Carolina this week, Trump explained that evangelicals love him, and he loves them. And he loves the Bible more than anything, even his own book, “The Art of the Deal,” which he loves very, very much. He declined to identify his favorite Bible passages, because he says the Bible is so intensely personal to him, but he was more forthcoming awhile back when pollster Frank Luntz asked him if he’d ever asked God for forgiveness.

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t…” Trump said. “When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed. I think in terms of ‘let’s go on and let’s make it right.’”

His piety and spirituality are very moving.

I would add that most Presbyterian churches in America serve non-alcoholic grape juice for communion, although the Reformed people do use wine.

There’s a lot of analysis out there trying to explain why evangelicals, of all people, would embrace this guy as one o’ there’n. Betsy Woodruff tells us that Trump has been courting churches for the past few years, which may be a clue he is actually serious about the President thing and is not just in it for the attention. She writes at The Daily Beast,

Turns out, Trump has been courting the evangelical vote for quite some time. The Donald J. Trump Foundation has made donations to evangelical groups like Iowa’s The Family Leader ($10,000 in 2013, PDF), Samaritan’s Purse ($10,000 in 2013, PDF) and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ($100,000 in 2012, PDF), according to IRS forms posted on

Earlier this month, Graham’s son, Franklin, praised Trump’s debate performance on Facebook.

“[H]e’s shaking up the Republican party and the political process overall. And it needs shaking up!” Franklin Graham wrote.

And like other right-wingers who have fallen under Trump’s spell, there’s the authoritarian angle. Evangelicals are tired of Republicans who promise to do things like end abortion and stop same-sex marriage, and then don’t do it because of those pesky constitutional limits on their powers. Trump is a man of action who is just going to fix things, see? See also Steve M.

I’d like to point out one more thing about people who consider themselves religious. Psychologists who study religiosity as an aspect of personality talk about “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” religious orientations. Exactly what this means and how it is measured have shifted a bit over the years, I believe, but they are still important measures. This is from a recent study of the impact of religion on attitudes toward homosexuality:

How to distinguish intrinsic from extrinsic motivation? Allport and Ross (1967, p. 434) determined the difference as follows: “the extrinsically motivated person uses his religion, whereas the intrinsically motivated lives his religion.”  …  An example is an extrinsically motivated person, whose attitude relies heavily on the statements of fellow believers as well as religious leaders. This person is expected to be particularly homonegative if their peers and religious leaders speak out decidedly against homosexuality. It is conceivable that the attitude of an extrinsically motivated person would be built on the abbreviated and therefore most likely more radical commentary of religious authorities. In comparison, intrinsically motivated persons will occupy themselves intensely with the foundations of their religion and, in doing so, will possibly come to a more sophisticated and therefore more liberal view of homosexuality.

On other words, the extrinsic orientation is mostly about social and cultural conditioning and group conformity dressed up as piety; the intrinsic orientation is more focused on actual church teaching. And I contend that religious culture warrior types are mostly extrinsics. Their religion is not something they keep in their hearts and minds; it’s the uniform they wear. It’s the banner they carry.

That the “religion” some evangelicals manifest may have little to do with the teachings of Jesus shouldn’t take anyone by surprise, because it doesn’t. It’s mostly their culturally induced biases shoved into a Christian (or whatever) package. And an authoritarian figure who promises to smite those they are biased against is just too compelling. Who cares if he doesn’t know Presbyterian from popcorn?

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Will Evangelicals Rediscover Religion?


Our ongoing public arguments about religion suffer badly from the fact that few of the arguers have a clue what religion actually is. This is true of the crusading atheists, who define “religion” as “knee-jerk obedience to literal interpretations of scripture while believing in imaginary sky fairies.” Yes, some religious people are like that, but that doesn’t define “religion” per se any more than the platypus defines “animals.”

A big part of the problem with our definitions of religion stems from the fact that most of us have had a very narrow exposure to religion. This is doubly true in the U.S., in spite of the fact that we may be living in the most religiously diverse nation in human history. Somehow, in mass media and in the public hive mind, the default definition of “religion” is “conservative evangelical Christianity.”

Emma Green writes in The Atlantic,

Evangelical Christianity has long had a stranglehold on how Americans imagine public faith. Vague invocations of “religion”—whether it’s “religion vs. science” or “religious freedom”—usually really mean “conservative, Protestant, evangelical Christianity,” and this assumption inevitably frames debates about American belief. For the other three-quarters of the population—Catholics, Jews, other Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, secular Americans, Buddhists, Wiccans, etc.—this can be infuriating. For some evangelicals, it’s a sign of success, a linguistic triumph of the culture wars.

Author Green will probably catch some flack for leaving out atheists. But atheists often are part of the problem, since so many of them have bought into evangelical hegemony.

For example, consider the alleged conflict between “religion” and evolution. Once on a web forum I mentioned that a large majority of mainline Protestants accept evolution theory, which according to Pew they do, and was promptly slammed by a chorus of atheists, who coughed up data relating to evangelicals. When I explained that the “mainline” Protestants were the older denominations that are not considered evangelical, they didn’t believe me.

A meme about Pope Francis accepting evolution, and how this is going to signal the end of religion as we know it, pops up about once a week in my Facebook feed. But the fact is the Catholic Church never denounced evolution, and back in 1950 Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical saying there is no direct conflict between evolution science and Christianity.

The rabbinic tradition of Judaism also accepts evolution, and there’s no conflict I can see between evolution and Asian religious tradition. Islamic views vary widely. Some Muslims are on the same page with most mainline Protestants and Catholics, which is that they accept the science but believe God is still the ultimate cause. Others are more like conservative evangelicals and believe in creationism.

So, to be accurate, the conflict is not between “religion” and evolution. It’s between Christian conservative evangelicalism and conservative Islam, on one side, and evolution on the other. And leave the rest of religion out of it. But try to explain that to an atheist in self-righteous “I worship at the altar of open-mindedness and reason” mode. Just try.

Emma Green’s article is a profile of Russell Moore, who is the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. And apparently Moore has had it with evangelical hegemony, too. Green quotes Moore:

“Most Americans agreed on certain traditional values: monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, the right to life, the good of prayer and church attendance, free enterprise, a strong military, and the basic goodness of the American way of life. The argument was that this consensus represented the real America.” Presumably, everyone else—gays, divorcees, pacifists, socialists—lived outside the “real America.”

If such a “real America” ever existed in more than Leave It to Beaver re-runs, it certainly doesn’t exist now. Gay marriage is legal. Church attendance is down. Most TV shows are less about happy homes than the hectic, diverse tumble of American family life; the cultural preoccupation with perfectionist conservatism has largely come to an end.

Some see this as a loosely defined form of “secularization.” These are the people, Moore said, who approach him after church and ask, fearfully, whether Christianity is dying. “Behind that question is an assumption that Christianity is a sub-culture of American life,” he told me. “I think what is dying is cultural, nominal Christianity, and I don’t think we should panic about that. I think we should see that as an act of God’s grace.”

The assumption that evangelicals own American culture and politics has ended. This is good for minority groups, for other Christians, and for those who are still searching. But the radicalness of Moore, who by right of inheritance should be America’s Culture Warrior in Chief, is that he thinks it’s good for evangelicals, too.

This fascinates me, because a big problem with American evangelicalism is that it forgot about religion some time back. At some point, conservative evangelicalism became not just a subculture of American life; it came to be so wired into political conservatism as to be indistinguishable. As a result, “culture warriors” like Ann Coulter could write a book about how liberals hate God (Godless: The Church of Liberalism, 2006), claiming that liberals reject God and revile all religious people.  And she could do the usual television talk-show circuit to promote this book without ever being challenged how often she goes to church, or even if she belongs to one. Political conservatives in America are assumed to be members in good standing of the conservative evangelical tribe, by default, unless they are Catholic or Jewish. No further effort is required. Likewise, liberals can never be members, no matter how pious they may be. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

Green continues,

Like any good Southern Baptist preacher, Moore knows how to unleash some spiritual whoop-ass, though that probably wouldn’t be his preferred choice of words. The straitlaced, suit-wearing preacher from Biloxi, Mississippi, included a whole passage in his book about how much he hates tattoos; he is studiously polite and clean-cut. Yet he rails against people who merely perform their Christianity, who assume that following Jesus is the same as being a “shiny, happy Republican.”

In the Bible Belt in particular, “Christianity became a totem to secure a happy marriage, a successful career, well-behaved children—all that, and eternal life, too,” he writes. “Such a Christianity doesn’t have a Galilean accent, but rather the studied clip of a telemarketer.”

I assume Moore is still a cultural conservative, and someone with whom I would disagree about many things; the difference is that he appreciates religion as religion. And what is that? It has been many things through the ages, but to think of it merely as a supernatural belief system, or a calcified relic of Iron Age metaphysics, is to miss it. Until modern times, anyway, religion was not a system of propositions about the physical world one was required to accept. Through most of human history, religion was a commitment to a way of living, usually one that promised some sort of transcendence of the limited self. Karen Armstrong said,

“Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.” [The Spiral Staircase]

In other words, religion is something you do, not something you are, or believe, or something to adopt as part of your tribal identity. And as something you do, it should not necessarily be easy, or be a socially enforced norm. And it’s that last part that’s hard for conservatives to accept. And for more on this, please see Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-Affirming World.

Back to the Atlantic article:

“There was a larger mentality that came along with the last generation of evangelical political activism that assumed that we represent the real America in ways that turned out not only not to be true, but turned out to be damaging to the larger mission of the church,” Moore told me.

It may be more effective to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, rather than sin and Christ and blood, but in Moore’s eyes, it’s less authentic. As he wrote in his book, “We were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgement, of Christ and his kingdom.”

It’s a lot easier to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, but it never seems to occur to these religious people that the faithful in other countries also package Christianity in terms of their country and tradition.

The worst thing that can happen to religion, IMO, is to become entangled with ethnic and national identities, and thereby with politics. That’s where religious violence comes from; it’s the confluence of ethnic and racial bigotries and political power with conservative religion that drives the worst of what is called “religious” violence.

Moore is making an argument for embracing Christian strangeness. “Our message will be seen as increasingly freakish to American culture,” he writes. “Let’s embrace the freakishness, knowing that such freakishness is the power of God unto salvation.”

I interpret this to mean that Moore rejects the idea that Southern Baptists must fight to make sure the larger culture reflects Southern Baptist views, and instead learn to accept that they will be at odds with cultural and social norms in America. Granted, this might be seen as a self-pitying whine on Moore’s part, but by separating Christianity from social convention, it can become more authentically religious. It can become something that people make a personal commitment to doing, rather than something one attaches to because it’s conventional.

Skipping a bunch of stuff to the end:

This is not an assimilated, salable Christianity. If anything, it troubles the anodyne, dog-whistle-y “values” rhetoric that Moore rejects. It calls for politicians to be committed to living out Christianity beyond the breath it takes to utter “God bless America.” It goes against “a certain cultural moment in American life which sees Christianity as a mood, rather than a life-changing truth,” like the Willie Nelson concert where the singer seamlessly transitions from “Whiskey River” to “Amazing Grace.” And inevitably, it undermines Bible Belt identity, which has long depended on pairing God with guns and Republican politics. Not to worry, Moore says: “The Bible Belt was no Promised Land.”

Perhaps this moment of evangelical clarity could also be a moment of clarity for other kinds of American Christians. Conservative Protestants have longed crowed about the decline of mainline Christianity, citing shrinking attendance as a sign of tepid faith. Then again, “American Christianity” has so often been used as a shorthand for evangelical Protestantism; if the faith is delineated in terms of conservative “values,” it’s a little unclear what it means to be a progressive Christian. If evangelicals embrace their weirdness, perhaps progressive Christians will embrace a similar cultural moment.

The progressive Christians I know are clear about the difference between them and the conservative evangelicals, but it might make it easier for others to appreciate the difference.

At the other end of the scale, see Andy Schlafly, son of Phyllis. Andy — who is such a dweeb he appeared on the Colbert Report without realizing he was being mocked — is running a “conservative Bible project” to revise English translations of the Bible to make them more conservative. He’s finding too many translations with “liberal” words like “comrade.” He also doesn’t find enough anti-abortion language and wants the new translation to emphasize “free market” principles.

Schlafly is quite certain these changes reflect the “original intent” of the author, and the stuff he doesn’t like obviously are errors created by those nefarious liberals. Indeed, one of his reasons for revising the translations is that “the ensuing debate would flesh out — and stop — the infiltration of churches by liberals pretending to be Christian.” In other words, liberals can’t be Christians in Andy’s World.

And be clear, this is not a re-translation. He’s not calling on scholars to review the source material. He’s calling for conservative volunteers to rewrite the Bible to make it more perfectly reflect their ideology.

Any of the great Abrahamic theologians or rabbis of history would have called Schlafly out as a heretic for doing this. The very idea of any mortal man assuming to know “original intent” was unthinkable once upon a time, and would have been recognized as the sin of Pride, on steroids. But the inversion of Christianity from religion to political/cultural ideology is pretty much complete with Schlafly.


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Lies of Biblical Proportion


Juan Cole reminds us that, um, “biblical marriage” was not between one man and one woman. Often is was between one man and multiple women.

But wackiest of all is the idea that the Bible sees marriage as between one man and one woman. I don’t personally get how you could, like, actually read the Bible and come to that conclusion (see below). Even if you wanted to argue that the New Testament abrogates all the laws in the Hebrew Bible, there isn’t anything in the NT that clearly forbids polygamy, either, and it was sometimes practiced in the early church, including by priests. Josephus makes it clear that polygamy was still practiced among the Jews of Jesus’ time. Any attempt to shoe-horn stray statements in the New Testament about a man and a woman being married into a commandment of monogamy is anachronistic. Likely it was the Roman Empire that established Christian monogamy as a norm over the centuries. The Church was not even allowed to marry people until well after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, since it was an imperial prerogative.

Ancient scripture can be a source of higher values and spiritual strength, but any time you in a literal-minded way impose specific legal behavior because of it, you’re committing anachronism. Since this is the case, fundamentalists are always highly selective, trying to impose parts of the scripture on us but conveniently ignoring the parts even they can’t stomach as modern persons.

1. In Exodus 21:10 it is clearly written of the husband: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” This is the same rule as the Qur’an in Islam, that another wife can only be taken if the two are treated equally.

2. Let’s take Solomon, who maintained 300 concubines or sex slaves. 1 Kings 11:3: “He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.” Led him astray! That’s all the Bible minded about this situation? Abducting 300 people and keeping them immured for sex? And the objection is only that they had a lot of diverse religions and interested Solomon in them? (By the way, this is proof that he wasn’t Jewish but just a legendary Canaanite polytheist). I think a settled gay marriage is rather healthier than imprisoning 300 people in your house to have sex with at your whim. …

… According Mark 12:19, guys, if your brother kicks the bucket, you have to marry your sister-in-law and knock her up. Since the Bible approved of multiple wives, you have to do this even if you’re already married. If you think in-laws are hard to get along with now, try being married to them.

Seriously, my understanding is that in western civilization, our ideas about what marriage is supposed to be evolved over many centuries long after the Bible was canonized. . For example, before the 12th century or so only members of the nobility were married “in the church.” Peasants just kind of worked things out for themselves.

So all this Bible thumping and whining about the sanctity of marriage is really about people’s cultural biases. Even some people who are familiar enough with the Old Testament to know that some of God’s People were polygamists can’t bring themselves to see the disconnect between their deeply held beliefs about a “righteous” marriage and what the Bible actually says. This is something I discuss in more detail in Rethinking Religion, btw.

Speaking of polygamy, it’s fascinating the way conservatives are certain the next pillar of civilization to fall will be monogamy. Same-sex marriage and polygamy have nothing to do with each other, in my mind. But I guess to a conservative everything considered a “perversion” is dumped into the same box.

Jonathan Rauch wrote,

Predictably, the Court’s decision led to another of countless rounds of forecasts that the marriage-rights movement will now expand to multiples. (Like this.) Again, we’ll see, but I’m willing to stand by what I’ve long said: the case for gay marriage is the case against polygamy, and the public will be smart enough to understand the difference.

Gay marriage is about extending the opportunity to marry to people who lack it; polygamy, in practice, is about exactly the opposite: withdrawing marriage opportunity from people who now have it. Gay marriage succeeded because no one could identify any plausible channels through which it might damage heterosexual marriage; with polygamy, the worries are many, the history clear, and the channels well understood.

And has many have pointed out, it seems to be the hyper-conservative religious who actually go in for “plural marriages.” It’s currently not on the liberal/progressive radar, that I know of.

Rauch also said,

I’ve always believed that cultural conservatives misunderstood the gay-marriage movement: far from being an attack on the culture of marriage, it represented a shift back toward family values by a group that had learned the hard way, through eviction by their own parents and suffering in the AIDS crisis, how important marriage and commitment and family really are.

Mike Huckabee, who has appointed himself a spokesperson for God, has been calling for civil disobedience to protest marriage equality. But he’s a bit hazy about what that means.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what exactly are you calling on people to do right now? You say resist and reject this judicial tyranny. Spell out exactly what that means?

HUCKABEE: George, judicial tyranny is when we believe that the courts have a right to bypass the process of law and we’ve really seen it this week in two cases, in both the Obamacare case, which Justice Scalia called it – said we not – should call it SCOTUScare because they have rescued it twice, ex cathedra to the law, and then in the same-sex marriage ruling in which –

STEPHANOPOULOS: So are you calling for civil disobedience?

HUCKABEE: I don’t think a lot of pastors and Christian schools are going to have a choice. They either are going to follow God, their conscience and what they truly believe is what the scripture teaches them, or they will follow civil law. They will go the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, who in his brilliant essay the letters from a Birmingham jail reminded us, based on what St. Augustine said, that an unjust law is no law at all. And I do think that we’re going to see a lot of pastors who will have to make this tough decision.

You’re going to see it on the part of Christian business owners. You’ll see it on the part of Christian university presidents, Christian school administrators. If they refuse to -

Stephanopoulos is another of those television bobbleheads who doesn’t know how to stick to a touch line of questions. Here he switched the conversation to county clerks and the like. He should have pushed Huckabee to be specific about the pastors. How will the civil law even affect them? They won’t be required to perform same-sex marriages, and I suspect Huckabee knows that.

And if Huckabee does know that, he is, in effect, bearing false witness. He is perpetrating a falsehood — that pastors will be required to perform gay marriages — in order to attract a following. That breaks at least one of the Ten Commandments. And he thinks himself godly, no doubt.

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The Pope’s Encyclical

environment, Religion

The first thing I noticed about Pope Francis’s Encyclical is that the following people are screaming at him to shut up:

Ross Douthat thinks Papa Francisco is an alarmist who hates modernity. He especially objects to implications that Capitalism is hurting the poor, because even poor people have toothbrushes now, or something.

Rich Lowry criticizes the Pope’s “bizarre ramblings” and “apocalyptic climate alarmism.” Oh, and the Pope doesn’t appreciate modernity. I think Douthat and Lowry may have cribbed off each other.

Michael Goodwin of the New York Post says the Pope is out of touch. Well, Goodwin would know out of touch. Goodwin says that “­archaeological researchers found plaque on the teeth of people who lived 400,000 years ago,” and this proves the Pope is wrong. And you can’t argue with that. No, really. You should just walk away from it and hope for his sake Goodwin isn’t carrying sharp objects.

Some guy named Tim Worstall at Forbes says the Pope has gone “horribly wrong with his economics.” But Worstall misses the point. As Worstall says, economists don’t think the earth’s resources are infinite. But business and industry certainly behave as if that’s exactly what they think, and that’s what the Pope was addressing.

And so on.

This is not to say I don’t have issues with the encyclical also. His Holiness is still opposed to population control measures — still nixing birth control and abortion — and he threw in what sounds to me like an utterly unnecessary dig at transgenderism.

However, I appreciate that he feels taking care of the earth is a moral and religious imperative, not just a nice sentiment for Earth Day. He understands that, yes, capitalism does hurt the poor, and “by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.” Basically, our consumerist culture is causing depletion of earth’s resources while not providing for the basic needs of the poor, like water. Addressing this will require a real shift in our values and how we do business with each other. Yeah, pretty much.

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A Tale of Two Churches

Religion, Social Issues

The shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC that left nine dead is at the top of the news this morning, as it should be. The Guardian seems to be doing the best job of updating What We Know So Far. Allegedly the shooter is a 21-year-old white kid named Dylann Storm Roof. We’ll soon learn that he was mentally ill and not a racist (she said, facetiously).

One of those killed, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was also a South Carolina state senator with a long history of public service. After the shooting death of Walter L. Scott by a white police officer in North Charleston, the Reverent Pinckney had led a rally against gun violence.

No More Mr. Nice Blog has a representative selection of responses from Fox News viewers, in which we learn that the real villains here are Al Sharpton, Al Sharpton, Al Sharpton, Rachel Dolezal, the racist (and anti-Semitic) president and liberal media, legislators who turn churches into gun-free zones, and, of course, gay people.” Well, that goes without saying.

At Salon, Chauncy DeVega wants to know “Where are the white fathers in the white home?” Heh.

I predict we’ll soon learn that young Mr. Roof is a big fan of right-wing media and a regular consumer of right-wing hate speech. This revelation will be followed by shrieks of outrage from the Right, because libruhls are trying to censor them. The South Carolina state legislature will respond by making it legal to open carry firearms in churches, if it isn’t legal already. Then this will all be shoved under the rug.

The other church in the title of this post is the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, which is on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. The Church was built on the site said to be where Jesus fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish. It has been severely damaged by arsonists. No persons were seriously injured.

Was this done by deranged Palestinians or Jesus-hating jihadists? Apparently not; those arrested for the crime are yeshiva students, who left a note about false idols being smashed. These alleged arsonists live on the West Bank and are being defended by a right-wing organization. Israeli officials condemned the act. However,

The Catholic Church in Israel told Haaretz that they saw this attack as a continuation of the aggression against holy Christian sites over the last few years, which it said the Israeli government and authorities have failed to deal with accordingly. A report on the matter has been given to the Vatican, the sources said.

So are the good American wingnut Christians going to rise up and condemn Israel for not aggressively dealing with anti-Christian terrorists who are not Muslim? I’m not holding my breath.

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The Decline of Christianity?


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


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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