Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is Vermont Destined to "Turn Evangelical" After All?

I came across an interesting little report in the Baptist Press written by Terry Dorsett, Director of the Green Mountain Baptist Association. Mr. Dorsett first went to Vermont as sort of a "missionary" to the heathen, or at least the unenlightened. He's a Southern Baptist. Very evangelical and all of that. He reports no SBC presence in Vermont until 1963. In the past 8 years, the number of congregations has grown from 17 to 37. In 1999, there were less than 600 Southern Baptist worshippers. In 2008? Nearly 1900.

In fact, Dorsett reports that the SBC is one of the fastest growing evangelical churches in Vermont. The E Free, Assemblies of God, and Christian and Missionary Alliance are also on top of the game. In fact, one Alliance congregation sports an average attendance of 1,ooo+ every Sunday. All of this in the state that Gallup dubbed "the least religious state in America."

Even Dorsett admits that Vermonters don't find religion particularly important in their lives. Remember, this is the place that allowed the first same-sex unions. That is a battle that Mr. Dorsett seems particularly distressed to be losing. He writes how he has personally seen several homosexuals in Vermont find freedom from that detestable sin.

One has to wonder if he has read Mel White's Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America . Many gay folks "fought that battle" with "sin" as Dorsett would call it. They fought it valiantly. In the end, however, they decided that they loved Jesus but that the Church-- always accusing and condemning-- had little to do with him.

He wraps up his "Baptist orgy" with a prediction of eventual victory for evangelical forces in Vermont. After all, he promises, "we offer them the only Hope that can change their lives." What unabashed evangelical claptrap and hubris! To think that ONLY evangelicals have hope to offer and not Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Church of Ch...... Oh brother! Get real!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Seems South African Reformed Church Still Can't Decide About Apartheid

In 1982 the World Alliance of Reformed Churches suspended the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa (NHKA) from the global alliance for its biblical and theological support of apartheid. Of course, come might ask why it took until 1982 for that action to occur, but that is beside the point here. Now, NHKA has applied for readmission to the WARC and they have been denied.

The WARC committee dealing with such matters has stated that first NHKA must deny apartheid "fully and completely." It seems, referring to the report of the WARC visiting team, that there are "deep division[s] in the church about moving beyond apartheid."

Some NHKA theologians have expressed frustration that the church will not officially identify apartheid as "unevangelical" and "evil." The topic was on the agenda of the NHKA 2007 General Synod for discussion, but it was too much of a hot potato to make it to the floor.

Now, we could be quick to condemn all of this. We surely could. And maybe rightly so. But, is it much different than the disenfranchisement of gay folks or folks who seem to come from the theological "left field" that cannot get a hearing in our churches? Perhaps NHKA is afraid of the skeletons of racism that still festers in its ranks. Perhaps we are xenophobic and homophobic. One thing is certain. You can't heal hate and fear by sweeping them under the carpet. They are only healed by bringing them out in the light of day.

Why did it take the WARC ( a body to which my denomination belongs) until 1982 to censor a member communion for hate? Is right, right, only when it is popular and politically correct and expedient?

Monday, June 22, 2009

PCUSA Still Trying to Find a Way to Gain Acceptance for Gay Clergy

As a long time member of the denominational church scene, I have observed two trends that are true-- at least in the world(s) I move (have moved) in. These trends are as follows:
  1. Clergy are generally more theologically progressive than the laity (I speak as one of the club-- the progressive clergy club).
  2. Church judicatories (i.e. general assemblies, synods, presbyteries, and church boards/sessions) follow a declining line of "liberal thought and practice"-- generally in the order listed.
All of this brings me to the third attempt in the last 12 years to see the PSUSA's position concerning "fidelity and chastity," a position that explicitly bars gay clergy, or at least gay clergy engaging in homosexual practice, from ordination and ordained ministry.

The move to rescind the church directive passed the PCUSA General Assembly, but required a vote of at least 87 of its 173 presbyteries to become policy. The move garnered only 69 presbyterial votes.

Terry Schlossberg of the conservative Presbyterian Coalition hailed the vote as a victory for Mom, apple pie, and God Almighty. He states: "It is well past time to acknowledge that the church today, as through history, knows her mind on this matter, and that is the mind of Christ."

But, hold on Terry! I'm not so sure. Twenty-eight presbyteries changed their vote from "no" to "yes" since the 2001 vote, while only 2 presbyteries seem to have caught the "mind of Christ on this one," going from "yes" to "no" (strangely including San Francisco Presbytery).

So, what will happen in the continuing saga of the PCUSA and gay clergy? Stalemate? Will all the anti gay folks just leave (they are hemorrhaging members)? Will the "pro gay folks get fed up and leave?" Or will they all find some common ground? Time will tell.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why Big Folks Have Trouble Remembering Stuff About Being Little Folks (But Why it Still Causes Them Problems)

What do you recall about your childhood? I don’t remember much about mine. Snatches of this, hints of that. I am fifty-two. My sister is a year and a half older. When we talk about “those magical childhood days,” we often find that we remember them quite differently (including who was Mom’s favorite). Who’s right? Seems to me that I am. She always pulls the “age card.” “You’re too young to remember.” It can really make me angry. Problem is, she is probably right—at least in some cases. Childhood memory is a bit of a mystery, or maybe I should say, forgetting of childhood events is the real mystery.

There is a name for this forgetting phenomenon. It is usually termed childhood amnesia. It appears to be a robust effect that is well established [J.M. Fitzgerald, A Developmental Account of Early Childhood Amnesia. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 152(2)]. It appears that the period of childhood amnesia extends from birth to age three or four—sometimes its can even extend to age 6 or 7. Referring to that time period at a later age, children and adults do show the “snatches” of memory that I have experienced, but they seem to take all of the “snatches” and “snippets” and form a “conglomerate memory” blending many things together and embellishing and subtracting from actual events— as adults present at the time of the original event occurrence can attest.

Newcombe et al [Remembering Early Childhood: How Much, How, and Why or (Why Not). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(2)] affirm that the phenomenon of Childhood amnesia is real, but that people continue to be able to recall parts of their lives from age two to five, however in much less detail and accuracy than from later periods. Implicit memories may be present, even if explicit ones are not. As we shall see, this may have some relevance for emotional content of memory, even if facts are sketchy. Lastly, Newcombe et al conclude that the autobiographical content of early memories may be missing. I would add that, even if they seem to be present, they might not be veridical.

Now, in the midst of this, I must hasten to say that research has continued to strengthen the case for a reasonably robust memory in toddlers. It seems to persist for days or weeks. So, that being the case, and taking, say age five as the “memory pick up point,” we are left with a mystery attested to by Eacott [Memory for the Events of Early Childhood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(2)]. There have been many answers proposed from many theoretical perspectives to explain the “great forgetting.” Nevertheless, as of yet, no truly satisfactory consensus has been reached. One might say it is a mystery.

At any rate, I have been pondering a few real (shall we say “cult??”) classics from the late 60’s and early 70’s, namely Berne’s, Games People Play, Harris’, I’m OK- You’re OK, and Steiner’s, Scripts People Live. As I’m sure the fifty-ish+ crowd will recall, these are all classics of transactional analysis. Harris offered the most “pop view.” The others were more serious attempts. Of course, TA didn’t just “die out” in 1972 or so (just search the web!). It has long ago outgrown its moniker as a “pop psychology”—see for example TA for Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis by Stewart and Joines, 1987, Lifespace Publishing. I think TA offers some useful insights here.
The basic notion is that we all have an inner Parent, Child, and Adult. The Parent sounds and does just like our parents. And it offers the same injunctions—don’t’s, but of course we are offered plenty of do’s as well. The Parent includes other parenting figures as well. Of course the Parent isn’t necessarily BAD. If that were the case, there would be little hope of socialization, and we might all be a bunch of criminals. However, the Parent can offer up a hefty dose of guilt and pain and leave us feeling not “good enough.” The Adult in each of us takes in the data from our world, the data from the Parent, and the data from our either quilt ridden or more free wheeling Child and tries to make sense of the world—deciding which data is correct and which is unhelpful or simply wrong.

As Steiner points out, we use all of this and, either in early childhood, or at least by early adolescence, form a script for our lives. It may be one that tells us we are successful. It may be the script of “The Lonely Loser.” It may be a helpful script, or a harmful one; the point is that we will ever try to live it out, because it helps us make sense of our world (unless there is a conscious effort to change it and a bunch of work to do so—TA teaches that we can always change our script).

We also choose some basic life position, such as “I’m OK and You’re OK.” Harris, borrowing Adler’s notion of a universal inferiority complex feels that, no matter how “good” our parenting, we all emerge from early childhood with a life position of “I’m NOT OK and You’re OK.” I believe that Berne and Steiner might argue that one. The gist of it all, however, is that we have “an inner voice” that we may not identify as the Parent or the Child, a position, perhaps I’m NOT OK, and a life script with a beginning, middle and ending, written long ago to make sense out of life. It is doubtful that we recognize these things unless they are pointed out to us and we think about them.

Cowan and Davidson in Salient Childhood Memories [Journal of Genetic Psychology (145) First Half] point out that when adults are asked to produce their earliest memory, the memories tend to be largely unhappy ones. Not all researchers have found this effect, however the study appears to be well done and carefully analyzed. Acklin et al [Predicting Depression Using Earliest Childhood Memories. Journal of Personality Assessment (53(1)], report that adults recounting earliest memories involving deprivation, loss of control, poor human interactions—just plain negative stuff—were more likely to be depressed as adults.
You may wonder why a writer about fundamentalism is interested in all of this. As a child I attended a Child Evangelism Fellowship Bible Club. It was full of five to nine- year olds. Every week, we sang songs, did crafts, all kinds of fun stuff. Then they got out the heavy guns. We were sinners and God had a place for sinners. We were all going to hell. If we didn’t know what that was, well they made sure they told us. What impact does it have on a six- year old to be told that s/he is so bad s/he is worthy of hell? A five- year old? If fundamentalist big people told this to five and six- year olds, do you think they did any less with four- year olds? You see, now we are somewhere in that zone of childhood amnesia. At this age the Adult within the child does not have the cognitive capacity to sort through the input they are receiving.

I think of the writings of James Dobson in the 1970’s and 80’s (before he toned it down a bit for his newspaper column). I recall Larry Christensen’s, The Christian Family, published in the early 1970’s—the child raising bible when I was a fundamentalist. I well remember their advice about spanking and “breaking the will of the child.” In fact, I often reflect on all of the hierarchal authoritarian parenting/family schemes set forth by fundamentalist Christians and all of the books on Child rearing in fundamentalist/evangelical bookstores, and I am concerned. I remember being a Jesus Freak in the early 1970’s (as part of the Jesus Movement) and seeing two and three- year olds spanked. I recall one father who, as part of the ritual, even made his two- year old bring him the paddle. When the boy was two, every night, the parents would tell him a bedtime story about “going to hell.” Finally, one night, the child came “unglued” and began screaming that he didn’t want to go to hell. His dad said, “The good news, Bobby, is that you don’t have to, if you accept Jesus.” The church was all-abuzz! “Bobby got saved that night!” It became a real model and point of celebration for the church. What a clever and loving father and mother! After all, the boy was saved and only two- years old!

The TA folks say that the basic life position and script are pretty well written by five, six, seven or so. The childhood amnesia folks tell us that we can’t recall why we wrote it. The personality researchers remind us that we hang on to the “bad memories”—even if we don’t have them quite right and they cause us problems later—depression, anxiety, and (from a TA perspective) a likelihood of defeatist scripts. And the fundamentalist “child development experts?” Well, they help ensure our kids will write dysfunctional scripts through “hellfire,” beatings, and confused love. There must be a better way.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Friend Got Upset

Have a good (correct that, GREAT) old friend.  We go back to the days of Jesus Freakdom, Christian communes, and being "dyed-in-the-wool" Charismaniacs.  We sort of parted theological company about 30 years ago.  Don't get me wrong.  His theology hasn't been exactly "static."  Nope.  He has shifted around a bit.  If we were both level 8 literalists "back in the day,"  he's probably a 5.67 now.  We ARE still great friends.  Only problem, and this rarely comes out, is that I now cruse at about a level 2.17.  That means I'm about 38% lower on the absolutism scale than my friend.  As I said, it rarely comes out, but....

Read the last post.  When I called him and told him that I was doing a statistical study of fundamentalism and domestic violence and that involved classifying denominations as evangelical/fundamentalist or mainline/liberal, it really seemed to irritate my old buddy.  I was rather surprised.  I guess fundamentalism is a rather "dirty" word, and nobody in the "evangelical camp" much wants to own it.  Yet, the web site of the National Association of Evangelicals reads like an updated version of the 1909 "name-maker" and "movement-maker," The Fundamentals.

Sad thing about it all is that statistical studies usually can't address individual cases (they cannot implicate any particular member of any particular church).  If a movement such as evangelicalism/fundamentalism is certain that the fruit it has to offer is good and can only better others, why worry about a scientific investigation of the situation?  After all, Barna Group has been using stats to "dig up dirt" on liberals for years.  If the research is fair, honest, and scientific and ethical, I say, study what you will, and let the chips fall where they may.  The only thing we all really MUST fear is ignorance.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

It's Been Awhile!

Yes, I know, I've been gone for 16 days.  So, exactly what have I been up to lately?  Well... where to begin.  As you know from earlier postings, I am very interested in statistical studies centering around the question of fundamentalism and domestic violence.  A few months back, I decided that most of the evidence that we had regarding this was anecdotal.  There was, in fact, plenty of that kind of stuff.  Further, about everyone and their mother knows that male dominated, far out, weirdo religious cults have there share of domestic violence going on.  A good account of that kind of stuff is Under the Banner of Heaven.  It will blow your mind.  But I got to wonderin', What about the regular ol' fundies in the ol' US of A?  Any relationship there?

There have been a few investigations, but I was looking for something on a larger scale.  So... I talked with the dean at the college where I teach, and, lo and behold, she agreed to pay a Fellow of the College (a type of really "good student" scholarship) and offer me 200 hours worth of research assistance.  Hot dog!  We were in the money now!

Anyway, that is what I have been up to.  Busy as a beaver.  It involves data (literally) from about 150,000,000 folks.  Just been doing some initial crunching.  Have I found anything?  Well... I am hoping for publication of this one.  Have I found anything yet?  No!  I'm not telling!  Not yet anyway.

So, it's back to "statistical salt-mines."  I'll try to do better about keeping something going here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Christian Enclaves-- Places One Can Run and Hide

There were a couple of interesting articles in our local paper a week or so ago, both sent out by the AP. In a way, they both dealt with education and the attempt to create "Christian enclaves"-- protected places where Christians can run and hide.

The first that caught my eye dealt with Domino's Pizza founder, Thomas Monahan. Monahan is a Roman Catholic. He has started a project in the Naples area of Florida that is a bit reminiscent of the religious utopian experiments of the early 19th. century. He is creating a town, centered around a college that he foresees as being a distinctively "Catholic" experiment. At first, he proclaimed that no store would sell contraceptives or pornography. The Cable T.V. would carry no adult content. Due to complaints by civil rights activists, he has since backed-down on these proscriptions, but such guidelines are still highly encouraged.

At the center of Monohan's town is Ava Maria University, a quite conservative Catholic school. In the article in question, reporter Mitch Stacy quoted one student speaking about the benefits of the school. The young woman commented, "It's just nice to go to a school where you don't feel challenged in your faith."

A second article described how Falwell's Liberty University was "infiltrated" by a senior from Brown University who enrolled as a student while secretly planning to write a book about the experience. He expected a lot of mindless fundamentalism. He found it, to be sure. He also found students trying to make romantic "hook-ups" in Bible class, dorms full of gossip, hip-hop music, and secret viewing of R-rated movies.

I imagine these things are at Ava Maria as well. After all, even many priests are far from sainthood. The world is a funny thing. You can run, but you can't hide. And there is always the problem of the second generation that may not be as "enthusiastic" as the first. It will be interesting to watch the progress of both Ava Maria and Liberty over the years. The 19th century utopians could not sustain their ardor. Can the Falwellians and the Monohanians?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Christians Support Torture

A recent op ed piece by Lenoard Pitts discussed the results of a recent Pew opinion poll dealing with American's views of torture.  Pitts makes several excellent points that bear restating here:
  1. Between 1933 and 1945 the Nazi regime systematically slaughtered six million Jews.  Yet, for the most part, the Christian church said nothing.  This is especially true of the German church-- although the criticism can be extended well beyond the borders of Germany.  (I have written about the history of the German church during the days of Nazi Germany and the opposition, if you are unfamiliar with the history, you might want to read about it.)
  2. Between 1955 and 1968, the US was awash in violence as forces of "US apartheid" attempted to keep an entire race (all citizens of our nation) in abject poverty and subjection.  The church largely said nothing.  Still, often in the face of continuing racism, the church refuses to speak out.
  3. Beginning in the 1980's, folks with AIDS became modern day pariahs in our society.  The church did not, for the most part, speak out for justice and mercy.  The church largely said nothing.  In the mid 1980's, I was completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  My placement was at a psychiatric institution.  The other student chaplain found out that several of the residents had HIV/AIDS.  After that, he refused to be around, or (especially) touch those patients.  I kept wondering how he could ever be their chaplain.
Now, a recent Pew poll has found that almost 50% of Americans support torture in some cases. That's pretty sad.  Even sadder is that the least likely to support torture are the secular folks. The most likely are White, evangelical, protestants (62%).

One would think, as Pitts writes, Christians would  be the least likely to support torture.  First, by international law, it's illegal.  Second, by any fair estimate, it's immoral.  Finally, it's a vicious practice that brings Americans "down to the level" of terrorists.

I must say, over the last year, I have written about many things on this blog.  There are days it is hard to continue to call myself a Christian.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does Faith Lead Terminally Ill Patients to Approve Using "all Means Possible" to Preserve Life?

A recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association seems to indicate that more religious patients approve of more aggressive means of treating cancer. This seems to be the case even when such treatment only offers a prolongation of suffering. Researchers expressed concerns that not only did such treatment prolong the suffering of the patient, it made coping for the bereaved at an inevitable passing (or so it seemed to be apparent when the patient was living) much more difficult.

Religious patients were also more likely to request "heroic" measures such as being placed on a ventilator, or a stomach tube during their final week of life. It would seem that religion would make death a more "peaceful" occurrence (if that is possible). Why would the faithful choose this path?
  1. Perhaps their faith makes them optimistic, even if the situation seems hopeless. They are holding out a hope that God will yet intervene and "heal" them.
  2. Along that same line, very religious folks may see sickness more as a test of faith than a path terminating in death.
  3. Perhaps the faith the religious hold on to gives them the strength they need to face a dismal quality of life and withstand heroic measures at the end.
  4. Maybe it is fear. We know from studies that much of religion does contain a "fear element." Is it possible that belief in an afterlife inhabited by a stern and exacting judge creates a desire to avoid facing that judge as long as possible?
  5. Is there some fear that they may have been wrong about it all? Being uncertain what the end holds, they wish to remain in the familiar as opposed to the unknown kingdom.
  6. Or... maybe it's all about sanctity of life-- that life must be preserved at all costs. Of course, there may be a fear element here as well.

Dr, Phelps, the author of the study expressed concern about the findings. Quoting Phelps, "We are worried because aggressive care, at least among cancer patients, is a difficult and burdensome treatment that medically doesn't usually provide a whole lot of benefit."

Yet, there is a caveat. We all probably know someone for whom experimental or "last ditch efforts" worked (I have a dear friend in that group-- I'm glad he went through it). Still, I think for all of us there is a basic fear of death-- the unknown. Is it just possible that religious myths added to strong faith does lead to a greater fear than the absence of those factors?

So, what would I do if I had to face that decision at some point in my own life? I really don't know. Not completely anyway. I have a living will. But, if "push came to shove?" What would I choose? What would any of us choose?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Passion for Truth

"The passion for truth is silenced by answers which have the weight of undisputed authority"
Paul Tillich

The passion for truth, what is it?  Simply put, it is an insatiable, never-ending search for meaning and reality.  It is that part of us, each of us, that longs to be more than the sum total of (what I have been told is)  a few bucks of chemicals.  It is a hunger to know why that particular collection of chemicals has come together as it has-- in short, Why are we? or, more personally, Who am I?

The passion for truth recognizes this search as a work always in progress.  It admits to its own ignorance and inadequacy to the task.  Those who seek for truth with passion know that the book is never closed, there is always more.  Always.  Such seekers recognize that there are many "truths" in the world.  Our truth is conditioned by our desire, our education, our culture, and our dispositions.  A passion for truth demands that we admit the (very high) possibility that it is highly unlikely that on a planet of about six billion folks, we are the only ones to get it right.  Passion for truth rightly sees such hubris for the arrogance that it is.

Truth is always viewed from a perspective.  My perspective may not match yours.  Not even when we are supposedly examining the same truth proposition.  We all hear it with slightly different ears.  It is doubtful that any of us ever really hears the stories of the Bible in exactly the same way.

That being the case, the greatest disservice a religious institution can perform for an adherent is to "close down" the search.  When that happens, where else do we go?  We have nowhere to turn.  We must believe, even if we cannot.  Since faith is a matter of certitude more than certainty (as Gordon Allport might say), when religious leaders stop all debate, they stop spiritual progress as well.

So, don't get boxed in.  The truth is a many faceted jewel.  Passion for the truth is as precious as the truth itself.  Own the passion.  Don't buy somebody else's answers.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gay Marriage Gains Acceptance

In an earlier post, I discussed the results of a recent survey that showed that the South was the "most religious" region of the US. It also appeared in the survey that New England might be called the "least religious." Of course, the issue is raised, How are "most" and "least" religious defined? and, an associated question, Are the operational definition of the terms framed in such a way that they actually measure religiosity as opposed to something else? I advise the reader to visit the earlier posting and decide for him/herself.

One thing is certain, New England does appear to be more, let us say, "liberal" (another tricky word to operationally define). Currently Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut permit gay marriage. Listening to NPR this week, I have discovered that New Hampshire and Maine may soon join those ranks as well. Certainly, when it comes to the issue of marriage, New England is the most gay friendly place to be.

All of these moves have been applauded, in rather official ways, by the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalists. The ECUSA and the UCC are both more decidedly "Christian" than the UU Church. This raises further issues about the nature of these denominations. Both do have a strong presence in New England-- especially the UCC, being the "church of the Pilgrims," at least after a fashion.

Then there are the Concerned Women for America. They are right on top of the situation stating: "While government officials may change definitions they cannot change nature.... The first human relationship was between one man and one woman, and it became the foundation of all society."

Now, there are two parts to that statement. The first is an appeal to nature. It might be incorrect, but it must carry some weight in considering this matter. The second part is based on a religious myth-- at least to some degree. There are many cultures and many myths in this world. It reminds me of an old Jerry Falwell line (a rather ridiculous one at that, I might add), "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

Back to New England.... Does this just prove the stereotype (or research) that folks aren't particularly religious "up there?" Or does it prove that they are strong supporters of justice, equality, and human rights? What do you think?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Existentialism, Fundamentalism, and What Really Matters

Existentialism has long proclaimed an oddly unified message. I say oddly unified, because the existentialist movement in philosophy (and somewhat in theology) is anything but a unified movement. By its very nature, it proclaims a message of individualism and personal action. Yet, there are four points upon which the existentialists appear to be largely in agreement. These deal with the dilemma of humans-- the angst of our condition, the source of our anxiety and despair. These four major points, or better, problems, may be summed up as followed:
  1. The problem of meaninglessness-- Human life seems meaningless, really absurd in many ways. Why are we here? Is there any meaning to our existence? Is this all there is?
  2. The problem of isolation-- The bottom line is that we are tragically alone. At the final conclusion, it's just us. There is no one else. How do we deal with the problem (one all of us have felt) of loneliness and isolation?
  3. The problem of freedom-- Humanity is really free. Frighteningly free. We are, in the final analysis actors. We are free actors, though. We usually "make it up as we go along." Since we live in a world devoid of any real meaning and since we are, at our base alone, we must use our freedom to make meaning out of our lives. Of course, with freedom comes responsibility.
  4. The problem of death-- Humans are unique among earth's inhabitants in that we know that we shall die. This life will end, and we shall be no more. How do we live in the face of that awareness?
Death is the capstone. If you follow this line of thinking, life really is "one thing after another, then you die." Yet, if we are honest and brave, death also makes our lives worth living. Knowing that we will not smell a fragrance some day causes us to enjoy spring flowers all the more. Knowing that we may not see tomorrow, causes us to want to live today to its fullest.

I once read that Albert Camus said that sometimes we must give 100% commitment to that for which we have only 51% evidence. The psychologist Gordon Allport has written that religious folks are well aware that they cannot know their position with absolute certainty. Still they hold to the probability, the likelihood that God is there. Probability+faith+love is good enough to provide the certitude they need to have faith.

Life can seem pretty meaningless. Maybe, though Camus and Allport are on to something. Fundamentalist certainty notwithstanding (it is an illusion after all), true faith may trump it all.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Catholic Church Was Well Aware of Pedophillia Years Before "it" All Went Public

The letter of Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald was recently published in the National Catholic Reporter. Fitzgerald is a priest who specializes in the treatment of sexually abusive priests. He warned leaders, after becoming aware of the prevalence of the problem, that sexually abusive priests should be defrocked. In fact, he felt they were rather "beyond the point of redemption"-- at least in this matter-- and should perhaps be exiled to a Caribbean island. He wrote the pope (Paul VI) of priests addicted to sexually abnormal practices, the dangers they posed to youth, and the urgency of action called for by the situation. He wrote repeatedly to Catholic bishops in the 1950's and 1960's and personally to the pope in 1963.

As is apparent, his concerns went largely unheeded. Bishops merely "moved" offending priests around. Victims were often made to feel like they were victimizers. It is difficult to understand the status that priests occupy in the eyes of the Catholic faithful (less today). In many ways, it seemed to me as if they were (are?) held in an almost divine status.

But, then again, it makes some sense. The Catholic Church is an authoritarian hierarchy that claims to hold the "keys to the Kingdom." It is a dangerous thing to risk dissent when the priests and bishops have the power to forgive sin, and the whole system is lead by an individual claiming infallibility derived from God Almighty.

In the recent book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace, Former LA Times Religion writer William Lobdell recounts how his investigative reporting of the clergy sex abuse scandal became one of the main influences in his abandoning religion (certainly not the only factor). At the time when he began investigating, he was deeply involved in RCIA(the adult initiation right of the Catholic Church. Yet, he knew it just wouldn't work. He simply could not, in good conscience, unite himself with those making high moral claims nor accept the moral superiority of Christians making those claims when such little evidence of moral superiority existed.

This sort of situation (the sex scandal) is not unique to Catholicism. Witness evangelicals Swaggart, Bakker, and, more recently, Haggard. We could also write volumes about more flamboyant figures as Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton and others mostly interested in money. Or what of the political powerbrokers in ecclesiastical trappings (Robertson, Dobson, etc.)? Whenever people have almost near absolute control over the thinking of others-- usually willingly granted them by those very folks wanting some other person or organization to think for them-- Watch out! Danger is not far away.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Faith Must Make Room for Doubt

A couple of weeks ago, I was preaching on the morning gospel text taken from John. In the text, Jesus appears for the first time to the disciples after his resurrection. First, they think they are seeing a ghost. They are scared, indeed terrified. It's not every day that a dead guy comes by to visit. They really don't know what to make of it all.

This may seem a bit surprising. All the more so, since, according to the gospel account, Jesus had told them that he would die, be dead three days, and rise again. Then there was Mary-- the first evangelist of the resurrection. She had told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. Peter and John had "checked out" her story and found an empty tomb. Cleopas and his traveling companion had seen Jesus-- who even provided dinner for them. They told the disciples as well.

Now, the disciples see. But, they can't believe their eyes. Jesus meets them where they are. He offers his hands and feet for inspection. Eventually, he eats a little snack in front of them. This is no ghost. He was offering the disciples all kinds of proof that he was really alive.

The disciples? The account says that that they were filled with joy. But, it says they were also "disbelieving and wondering." How can this be? It's all faith. Or is it doubt? You see, faith walks a fine line. True faith is about belief, certainly. But it also makes room for doubt. In fact, as Paul Tillich insists, faith includes doubt.

Those with true faith must always come praying the prayer of the pleading parent seeking Jesus' help. "I do believe! Help my unbelief!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why What Happens to the Baha'is Matters So Much

There seems to be no end to the evil towards which absolutism tends. How can there be? When one is right in the eyes of God Almighty, all else seems to vanish in insignificance. So it seems with right-wing Christian fundamentalists. Witness their ridiculous tirades against such "forces of evil" as insuring adequate health care availability for all Americans. Or ponder their war on humanity and our very survival as they grapple for yet more control of the GOP and attempts to stymie efforts to stop a global climate catastrophe. Like all fundamentalists conceptions-- it's all pretty nuts. (Remember how they supported George in the killing of WHO KNOWS HOW MANY Iraqis.)

Lately, my posts have dealt with fundamentalism from the atheist side. Just as dangerous. Read a few of the posts beginning with the 4/6 posting until this one. The "new atheists" (also fundamentalists) have much violence to promote and much hatred to spew. It seems like it just comes with the territory of absolutism-- a phenomenon which certainly, at some point, begins to incorporate religious and/or political authoritarianism.

The "or" of the "and/or" is bad news, but pity the one under the tyranny of the "and." And that is the case in Iran. Of course, every authoritarian regime must have it's "whipping boy." For the Nazis it was the Jews. For the Iranian Islamic crazies, it's the Baha'is.

The Baha'i Faith began in Persia in the mid nineteenth century. It no doubt had it's roots in messianic shi'a Islam, but it soon transcended those roots to become a tolerant faith, embracing the prophets of all the major religions. Baha'is eschew partisan politics and work for global understanding and world peace. Yet, their openness and tolerance, they hardly fits in with the fundamentalist Islamic state, which has legally ruled that they are not a religion, deserve no protections, and have engaged in a policy of killing, arresting, confiscating of Bahai's property, and incarceration.

There current tack is to label Baha'is spies for Israel-- a completely ludicrous charge. Why not, when they have been labeled spies and executed as spies for about every other nation as well? This is religious hate-- pure and simple.

As Roya Hakakian points out, this should carry special concerns for Jews, who have first hand knowledge of such treatment at the hands of their countrymen. The situation has not escaped the noticed of US lawmakers. HR Resolution 175 was proposed in February, but never made it out of committee. Is that because Baha'is represent only a small portion of the American electorate and therefore can be summarily dismissed? I invite all readers to read Representative Kirk's official posting on the situation. He far outdoes me in eloquence. I don't know if he is a liberal, conservative, Republican, or Democrat, but you need to read it. The Resolution likely is more symbolic than effectual. Still, what if masses of Americans raised an outcry-- an opportunity offered by the Resolution? Doesn't morality at times call for moral outrage?

So why does all of this matter to you and me? I could mention that I have a good friend who is a Baha'i, a fellow spiritual traveler, one who challenges my thinking, and is one of the most fair- minded individuals I know. That's all true. Still, it is not, ultimately, my rationale for deciding why this matters. It plays a role, because it tells me something about Baha'is. Still, there are larger concerns. Really, it's simple. Absolutism of all stripes is on the rise. It offers simplistic answers to complex questions. "Just check your brains at the the door, and let BIG DADDY [whoever that may be in any given case-- whether Bush, Dobson and Robertson, or Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris, or worse (to a degree anyway) hatemongers like bin Laden or Ahmadinejad] do the driving." Only in isn't so simple. And as anyone can see, it is a tree with rotten fruit. No. We must reject the way of the absolutist religious and political zealot and demand a different way. How much more such "religion" can the world endure?

What will you do? Maybe a good place to start is by contacting your US representative.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where is the Self? Who Are You (Really)?

Recently, I have been reading Chris Hedges book I Don't Believe in AtheistsHedges has already distinguished himself by writing several brilliant books. He is especially adept at taking on fundamentalism (see esp. American Fascists). Hedges has produced an insightful look at the craziness and scariness of Christian fundamentalism. Now he sets his sights on atheist fundamentalism. This short series will take a chapter by chapter look and offer some commentary on I Don't Believe in Atheism.  

Final Chapter:  "The Illusive Self"

Strange that I happened to be finishing this Hedges' book at the exact same time that I was finishing Fuller's Psychology and Religion.  Of course, as advertised, these postings are my attempt at an interaction with Hedges' book.  They are sort of a commentary/dialogue.  We've looked at the book a chapter at a time, and I don't want the reader to think that this has all been some blog version of a "book report."  There is way too much James Alexander and far to little Chris Hedges here for that conclusion.  Hedges' book is quite a worthy read.  As always, he is brilliant, engaging, and provocative.

But, as a bit of an aside, Fuller's book fits right in here.  It is look at eight classical positions coming from psychology relative to religion.  It begins, as one might expect, with William James, then Freud, on to Jung, Allport, and so on.  One thing is pretty apparent,  Most of the classic voices of psychology are not hostile to religion (exception being, perhaps, Freud).  Also, many of them agree that humanity's problems are largely spiritual in nature.  They may not agree about who or what God is-- the eight theorists offer a range of opinions ranging from our own subconscious to an actual Supreme Being to uncertainty concerning the whole question. But, they all deal with Hedges' topic of the illusive self.

We really don't know the self.  We may know the ego, the "I" that the knower within us observes.  We may identify ourselves as the knower.  But, we fail to know who we really are.  As such, we are easily taken in and easily bedazzled by fast-talking car salesmen, TV preachers, and popular atheists.

The real essence is captured by Albert Camus as quoted by Hedges, "On the whole, men are more good than bad; that however isn't the real point.  They are more or less ignorant...."  It is here that the danger lies.  Being convinced that we can "fix ourselves up" with a bit of effort, we let our guard down.  Our ignorance kicks in, and we underestimate our potential for choosing the wrong.

Religion can guide folks here.  Not the institutional stuff.  That is something that all eight of the psychological gurus Fuller reviews are clear on.  Folks know that.  As Hedges points out, people all pick and choose, they choose the parts of the religious tradition that helps and ignore the crazy, unhelpful parts.  Religion, as Allport and James so clearly point out, is a living changing endeavor.  This is as true for Christians as for Muslims-- and everyone else.

But, the "new atheists" come along and, since we are ignorant of our true nature, offer a short cut:  Just let them do the driving.  They will show us the path to Nirvana.  And more of us are being suckered in to absolutist unthinking religion or absolutist unthinking atheism all of the time.  We want an easy way out of the confusion of this so confusing world.  We simply don't want to do the "work" of life.  All of the fundamentalists-- religious and atheists make it seem so easy.  It really is the opiate of the masses, you know.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Humiliation and Terrorism

Recently, I have been reading Chris Hedges book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges has already distinguished himself by writing several brilliant books. He is especially adept at taking on fundamentalism (see esp. American Fascists). Hedges has produced an insightful look at the craziness and scariness of Christian fundamentalism. Now he sets his sights on atheist fundamentalism. This short series will take a chapter by chapter look and offer some commentary on I Don't Believe in Atheism.

Chapter 6: "Humiliation and Revenge"

Hedges begins Chapter Six with a discussion of Harris' The End of Faith. Harris does not see Islam as being legitimate or peaceful in any reasonable manner. He does not view Islam as a large faith that is being hijacked by a minority of extremists. He believes that Islamic terrorism is the only logical conclusion to Islam as a whole. It is the logical conclusion of the Koran and the literature of the hadith.

Of course, as Hedges points out, none of the "new atheists" are students of Islam, neither Harris nor Dawkins; Dennett nor Hitchens. From the perspective of Hedges (one time middle east bureau chief for the New York Times), they write out of their ignorance, but there is more.

In their confident assertions concerning Islam, they completely ignore the role that humiliation and historical forces (much bound up with US policy and hubris) have had in fermenting anger. Humiliation is a strong force in extracting revenge. The Serbs justified ethic cleansing of Muslim populations on former humiliations. Israel justifies repression of the Palestinian populations as it recalls the Holocaust-- an atrocity with which no connection can be claimed. Yet, Arabs are equated with Nazis. Americans, at least under the Bush administration, were taught to equate Iraqis with al-Qaeda, yet no credible connection was ever established. In each case, national humiliation has been used to justify revenge.

We now have ( I hope this will decrease) a situation, where many Americans were taught an apocalyptic view, as were many Islamists. Both believe they are morally right and beyond the possibility of error. It has become a battle, for both sides, of good vs. evil, God vs. Satan. The new atheists, being overwhelmingly right-wing neo-cons offer a secular version of all of this-- but the same old absolutist story.

Yet, the longer the US maintains an occupational war on and in Islamic nations, the more the humiliation will grow. As it grows, more terrorists will be recruited to the cause. Bush announced a war without limits. I hope Obama is not so foolish. An endless war is every bit as apocalyptic and crazy as any idea that al-Qaeda's leaders have suggested. Isolation and containment of extremists within their own societies and nations has been judged by many strategists as much more effective than occupations and further marginalization of whole populations and associated humiliation: The breeding ground for more terrorists.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Nature of Human Nature

Recently, I have been reading Chris Hedges book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges has already distinguished himself by writing several brilliant books. He is especially adept at taking on fundamentalism (see esp. American Fascists). Hedges has produced an insightful look at the craziness and scariness of Christian fundamentalism. Now he sets his sights on atheist fundamentalism. This short series will take a chapter by chapter look and offer some commentary on I Don't Believe in Atheism.

Chapter 5: "The Myth of Moral Progress"

Hedges prefaces this chapter with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr. Embedded within that quote, one finds the words, "The idea of progress is only possible upon the ground of a Christian Culture." Of course, non-absolutist that I am, I'd have to argue with Reinhold on that one. But, Hedges isn't quoting it to assert the absolute superiority of the Christian religion. He, too, rejects absolutism. What is a most positive aspect about the Judeo/Christian epistemology is that it takes "human fallen-ness" (human "flawen-ness") so seriously.

The Enlightenment changed everything about western culture-- even that of those who claim to be Enlightenment rejectors. At the heart of the Enlightenment was a positivism that was (almost?) cocky. The certainty flowed out of Enlightenment faith that science would solve our problems and make our twisted world turn round right. In short, it was a utopianism that was, in some manner, replacing the millenarian views of religion. Yet, at the end of the Enlightenment road that Europe traveled was WWI which killed eight and half million soldiers, ten million civilians, and wounded millions upon millions more.

As the belief in the perfectibility of humanity marched on, WWII killed some sixty millions-- well over half civilians. Behind it all stood a maniac with plans of making a thousand year empire, populated by perfected, master-race people. Utopia. Since that time, at least fifty million more have been slaughtered by various other wars and ethnic cleansings.

In War a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges discussed at length how killing and, perhaps, ultimately killing ourselves-- everything even-- is our collective human neurosis. Freud, certainly no religionist, made a case for a deep struggle of the life force, Eros, forever engaged in battle with a death instinct, Thanatos, in the innermost being of all people. Freud sounded a warning that something like WWII was surely in store for a world that saw itself as the current pinnacle of the path to perfectibility as opposed to product, and part (and an active part at that) of the flawed nature of humanity's past that will ever live on.

Hedges points out that the basis of all totalitarian regimes is the idea of the perfected society. This is true in the case of the fascists and the communists. Hedges points out that it was also true of the pacifist movement following WWI. It was based on a utopian belief that humanity could be educated to reject war. He feels that steps certainly could have been taken to stop Nazi Germany, but pacifiers who believed in the innate goodness of humanity often stood in the way.

Of course, one might argue that point a bit. As St. Paul asks, "Shall we do evil that good may come?" As many of the old Mennonite peace folks I deeply respect have said, "Better be wronged than do wrong." Yet, as a national policy, pacifism would hardly stand as a workable plan of deterrence. The issue is this: What do I do when my personal beliefs conflict with my national obligations? I guess, for me, taking the life of another is a solution I would have great trouble accepting. Bonhoeffer struggled with this and finally decided there were times that "doing evil that good may come" was acceptable. Who are we to judge? Have we faced the evil he faced?

Still, Hedges' point is well taken. Both the absolutist Christian and the fundamentalist atheist deny the notion that humans are not inherently perfectible. Many religious pacifists also deny the notion of, let us say, "original sin" and keep hoping for a perfection of the human race they are never going to achieve. The conflict is played out, says Hedges, not between pacifism and militarism but, rather, between accepting the notion of a human utopia or admitting humans will always be limited and flawed.

The perfectionists will tend toward totalitarianism. Sam Harris, one of the "new atheists," believes the salvation of the world lies in a "benign dictatorship" that must be imposed from without via economic sanctions and military options. Hitchens agrees with the idea of endless military occupation to bring about utopia.

All of this sounds as nuts as the the ideas of our former fundamentalist president, "W." He authorized (commanded?) destruction in Iraq that rivals anything that Saddam imposed. In so doing, his stated intent was to bring about US style democracies in Iraq and the rest of the middle east. In true utopian fashion, the ends were believed to justify the means-- even if it means that Americans would lose their political heritage of freedom and rule of law-- their national soul.

Hedges believes that it is impossible to have an ethical/moral stance without the acceptance of human limitations. I would amplify that statement to say, "...human limitations and fallibility, including our own." In fact, in our analysis of the situation, maybe the place to start is within.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Only Fooling Ourselves

Recently, I have been reading Chris Hedges book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges has already distinguished himself by writing several brilliant books. He is especially adept at taking on fundamentalism (see esp. American Fascists). Hedges has produced an insightful look at the craziness and scariness of Christian fundamentalism. Now he sets his sights on atheist fundamentalism. This short series will take a chapter by chapter look and offer some commentary on I Don't Believe in Atheism.

Chapter 4: "Self-Delusion"

We delude ourselves when we buy into the notion of the perfection of humankind. Usually, those who support such a delusion buy into a false dichotomy of good and evil. They fail to recognize that very many of our ethical decisions are only of the "lesser of two evils" category. There is no perfection. And ethics, from earliest times, is largely a religious proposition.

Our fundamentalist atheists friends want. as Hedges so clearly points out telos-- completion, finality, perfection. The god of science will work to collectively make all of our lives better and better until utopia is achieved. This will no doubt involve the dehumanization and eradication (as is already proposed by fundie atheists regarding Muslims) of those who will spoil utopia. Such a view avoids the unpleasant reality that the world is not getting better, but more hate filled and violent-- much of that "evil" helped along by science. The new atheists are true believers and as such desire to eliminate voices of dissent that question the goal of telos.

Although Dawkins and company continually assert the accidental nature of our existence, in doing so, they go well beyond the domain of science. Then, such talk becomes an article of faith. Just like all fundamentalisms, articles of faith drift into mystery and mysticism. Neither religious nor atheistic fundamentalism can be proven. Therefore, both are based more on wishful thinking than fact.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fundamentalism, Old and New

Recently, I have been reading Chris Hedges book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges has already distinguished himself by writing several brilliant books. He is especially adept at taking on fundamentalism (see esp. American Fascists). Hedges has produced an insightful look at the craziness and scariness of Christian fundamentalism. Now he sets his sights on atheist fundamentalism. This short series will take a chapter by chapter look and offer some commentary on I Don't Believe in Atheism.

Chapter 3: "The New Fundamentalism"

The "new fundamentalism" Hedges speaks of is atheistic fundamentalism. Really, it is not much different from the religious variety. Both are centered in a world view that is absolute in outlook. Both are highly dismissive of alternative viewpoints. Both are, as he states "binary" worlds.
In such a world everything can be framed in terms of right and wrong-- or better yet, good and evil.

In the binary world one can find all kinds of fear and intolerance. It would seem as if fundamentalists all share a good measure of xenophobia. Our fundamentalist atheist friends have certainly not escaped this. They make confident statements regarding the evils and naivety of religion, although they are unwilling to look into the matter in any in-depth way. One can find in the fundamentalist atheist world many confident statements made by the progenitors of the "theory", yet they have little knowledge about religion and less inclination to obtain information.

This is why I reviewed the book Godless so highly on this blog. It is a book written by a former evangelical turned atheist that leaves the vitriolic hate behind. Such knowledge and such an even-handed treatment of a view the author no longer accepts (theism) makes the book more rational, measured, and likely to gain a hearing and engender dialog. That approach, however, is sadly missing from the great "high priests" of atheism. You might say that the fundamentalists are giving atheism a bad name.

Earlier, I had written about the need to approach an investigation of religion agnostically (not an original idea, as you can see by the post). Our fundamentalist atheist friends seem incapable of even attempting such a view. Their minds are firmly made up. Don't confuse them with the facts, thank you!

Fundamentalist atheists do not see any "moral worth" in believers. Christian fundamentalists share that belief concerning those "in the world." Even though, as Hedges points out, science cannot form a moral code, as it does not operate in that domain, fundie atheists still keep trying to claim the moral high ground. They see those who disagree as standing in the way of their simplistic scientific utopia. Those who differ may be viewed as "throw away" people.

It seems as if atheist fundamentalists and their religious counterparts share something of "the same religion"-- absolutism.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Atheism, Fundamentalism, and Pseudoscience

Recently, I have been reading Chris Hedges book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges has already distinguished himself by writing several brilliant books. He is especially adept at taking on fundamentalism (see esp. American Fascists). Hedges has produced an insightful look at the craziness and scariness of Christian fundamentalism. Now he sets his sights on atheist fundamentalism. This short series will take a chapter by chapter look and offer some commentary on I Don't Believe in Atheism.

Chapter 2: "Science and Religion"

Darwin changed everything, there is no denying that. Even though fundamentalist Christians may say "the Bible only," they are well aware that in our day, that is not enough. So what do they do? They turn to pseudoscience and "cook-up" theories that sound scientific, but really are not-- theories like intelligent design. It seems that since Darwin, we must all answer to science in one way or another.

The fundamentalist atheists also resort to pseudoscience in setting forth their fundamentalist utopian visions of the world to come. Science is not capable of answering the "real" questions of religion. By this, I don't mean literal creation accounts, flood stories, etc. Here I speak of the existential questions of humanity. Science has no answers for humankind's experience of the transcendent, the mystery
of being, or the human search for meaning. These things are not things that can be quantified and empirically dealt with in any meaningful sense.

Still, the new atheism uses pseudoscience to create, prove, and defend a non existent utopia (by the way, the word "utopia" literally means "no thing"-- an appropriate word for what the new atheism proposes). Why pseudoscience? What do I mean?

As Hedges points out, Darwin dealt with biological change over time. The modification and origin of species. He made no claims about applications of the theory to the "way the world should be" in a social/cultural sense. Other associates such as Galton, Wilson, and Spencer saw the theory as somehow, someday arriving at "perfected humanity." This resulted in theories such as eugenics, or biological engineering that fueled the insane theories of Nazism.

Other theories, such as social Darwinism, have been used to justify the oppression of the poor, minorities, and women. Really, it is not so different than religious fundamentalism. An opiate, drugging the proponent so that kindness can be excused in some sort of larger cause. Yet the quest to create a perfected humanity-- something proposed by the new atheism, is based on a myth. The myth of perfected humanity is neither true, humane, nor scientific.

In Dawkins theory of "memes" (sort of a personality/psychosocial version of genes), the goal is to to get rid of the "bad" memes and cultivate the "good" ones. Sound a bit like utopian social engineering of many a despotic regime? Fundamentalism is always a bit nutty, you know.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Is Atheism the Answer?

Recently, I have been reading Chris Hedges book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges has already distinguished himself by writing several brilliant books. He is especially adept at taking on fundamentalism (see esp. American Fascists). Hedges has produced an insightful look at the craziness and scariness of Christian fundamentalism. Now he sets his sights on atheist fundamentalism. This short series will take a chapter by chapter look and offer some commentary on I Don't Believe in Atheism.

Chapter 1: "The God Debate"

There is indeed an atheism that is every bit as fundamentalist and crazy as the Christian or Muslim variety. That can hardly be escaped. It is myopic and sees only its views as right. It is intolerant. And just like the nutty Right Wing Christians, its answer to dissent from the atheist party line is disenfranchisement, isolation, and (strangely enough, as is clearly proposed by Harris in The End of Faith) even physical violence-- and lethal violence at that. Like all true fundamentalists, atheists demonize the "other side" (the religious side) and attempt to make them "less than."

As Hedges points out, the issue isn't really one of whether or not one believes in God. (I've read most of his stuff, and I never have been able to answer that question concerning him.) The issue is whether or not one believes in sin. He makes a good case for the existence of evil in the world (something I would sure not deny) and points out that the world is not getting better. Terrorism, the "War On" not withstanding, is unlikely to cease. Planetary resources are being rapidly spoiled and depleted by human greed. At some time in the not too distance future, one can imagine global violence related to dwindling resources.

The problem with Christian fundamentalism is that it is fully utopian. The notion is that God is going to give the true believers heaven, or a renewed earth, or pie in the sky, by-and-by. Since Christian fundamentalism is basically apocalyptic, the thought is that God will wipe out the enemies of the true believers and their God, and bring back THE GARDEN.

Being fundamentalist as well, the "new atheism," represented by folks such as Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens is also utopian. Science will bring about THE GARDEN (so to speak). The new atheists, however, seem rather "apocalyptic" as well. Science must engineer out, remove, isolate, or, if need be, destroy those obscurantists who get in the way. Just like the Christian version, where the earth is cleansed by fire, the atheist world will be cleansed by the fire of reason and science.

Hedges points out that just as many religious folks are not fundamentalists, neither are all atheists. There are those atheists with much more of a "live and let live" attitude, just as there are Christians willing to accept diversity.

Atheism may be a valid approach to life. Fundamentalist atheism, however, is every bit as obnoxious, insane, and dangerous as the religious variety. Currently, their numbers are much smaller. But as sales of books such as The God Delusion (Dawkins) demonstrates, the influence is growing-- and helping many folks down the path of intolerance and hate.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Christian Right, Fundamentalists, and Global Warming (destruction!)

Sometime back, I watched a very interesting DVD documentary entitled Jesus Camp. The movie mostly dealt with how fundamentalists utilized fear, emotionalism, disinformation, and well, what can I say, religion as the opiate of the masses, to indoctrinate their children in the Religious Right thought patterns. Actually, the entire process was quite frightening.

It's been a bit, but I can still remember one incident from the video where a homeschooling parent was teaching her child that global warming was a bunch of crap that just didn't matter. She told her kid that temperatures were rising less than a fraction of a degree each year, and that could hardly be termed a global warming crisis. The main figure in the DVD (the main indoctrinator in general) appeared to be a woman named Pastor Becky. I would liken what she was doing to psychological child abuse. Be that as it may, for all of the Pastor Beckys and fundie homeschooling mammas out there, here are a few facts that I recently gleaned from an AP article by Randolph Schmid that I would like to share.

It appears that the Arctic sea ice is melting at such a rate that it will be mostly gone in 30 years. Why is that important? The Arctic sea ice acts as a giant "air conditioner" for the planet. It is white and shiny (of course, after all, it's ice!) and as such, it reflects huge amounts of the sun's heat back out of the earth's atmosphere. As it becomes melted, it creates darker water. The water absorbs heat. Now the AC unit has become a space heater-- except the space is the whole planet.

How do we know all of this? Due to the 2005-2008 loss of sea ice, the Arctic air temperature is already nine degrees Fahrenheit above what would be expected. Complex computer models reveal that changes that were already expected by the end of the century are likely to occur much sooner.

The prediction is that summer sea ice will decline from the normal 2.8 million square miles to 620,000 square miles within 30 years. The six lowest minimum records for ice coverage for summer ice have all occurred in the last six years.

The climate is changing. Any scientist worth his/her salt seems to agree that it is a human created phenomenon. Yet, in their religious-blinded arrogance, and perhaps their latent desire to see the world end and Jesus come, along with all of the fatalism that implies, the fundamentalist Religious Right refuses to acknowledges any problem. Further, they consistently stand in the way of those who want to work to, at least, slow down the process. It seems to have passed the tipping point for fixing it.

So, here we are, in the sinking ship. Some of us are bailing water as fast as we can. At the same time, Pastor Becky and the fundie homeschooling mommas of the world are on the the other side of the boat-- filling up buckets and dumping them onto the sinking boat. Strange world, indeed!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Scientist Affirms There Just Might be More to Reality Than Meets the Eye

To begin this posting, it would be most helpful for the reader to have a bit of knowledge concerning the John Templeton Foundation.  The Mission Statement of the Foundation presents its mission in these words:

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity.

Many of these big questions that the Foundation supports investigating cross the line and begin to impinge upon religion.  That is certainly the case of the Templeton Prize winner this year. The announcement of the winner took place only a few weeks ago at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

The winner, Bernard d'Espagnat is one of the formative physicists in the area of Quantum Mechanics.  His research lead him to the conclusion that science cannot adequately explain the "nature of being."  In a statement, d'Espagnat stated that since science cannot reveal anything with certainty concerning the nature of being, it likewise cannot tell us what is not.

He writes, "Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated.  On the contrary it is one of the most constructive elements of being."

It is extremely rare to find a religious individual that is willing to admit to possible errors and misconceptions in the content of his/her faith.  Certainly, it is unheard of in confessional/creedal statements.  We have fought to gain the dogmatic high ground.  We are not likely to relinquish it any time soon.  It is even more rare, strangely enough, to encounter a member of the scientific priesthood who clings to mystery-- even embraces it, admitting science's inability to arrive at all of the answers.

Readers interested in this topic might find my book chapter on myth an interesting read.  You can access it here:  www.therecoveringfundalmentalist.com .

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is God, Indeed, Love?

Ah.... Just to know that God is love and to rest in that knowledge. To bask in it. To lose oneself in it. It is an amazing thing. But is it true? Read the Good Book much lately? It has all kinds of little "gems" to ponder:

  1. "Bash Israel's enemies babies' heads against the wall."

  2. Utterly destroy all of the nations of Canaan. This includes the helpless little children and frightened old men and women. All of them.

  3. Since David sinned with Bathsheba, punish him by killing his infant child-- one who had committed neither good nor evil.

  4. Punish the wayward Israelites with such chastisements as famine, and slavery.

  5. Top that off with driving them to cannibalism (it's a heavy load being the "apple of God's eye").

  6. Cause women to have pain in childbirth until this world ends as payment for the primordial sin of one woman.

  7. Wipe out the entire world by flood.

  8. Promise to wipe it out again in war and fire.

  9. Make a place called hell. Determine that hell is a fair penalty for missing the mark.

Of course, one might point to many "love" passages from scripture (there are thousands). I'm not sure that all of the love cancels all of the hate. And, why did God demand a blood sacrifice of God's own son? After all, God is God. Did God really HAVE to do that to forgive? Religions other than Christianity have a concept of forgiveness without a notion of blood sacrifice. It seems very primitive, very cruel.

Is God love? If you read the right parts of the Bible, yes, of course. If you don't? Well, then.... Maybe we would be best to admit that the Bible is a book that conveys very human experiences of God. Some resonant with me. Some really "put me off." The question for us is this: Who is the historical Jesus and can we arrive at any conclusions about his teachings? Much is out there about this topic, if we take the time to look. If we don't, our theology is likely to end up all fragmented and thoroughly confused. For a few chapters about fundamentalism and the confusion it engenders, visit my book web site where you can read three full chapters.( http://www.therecoveringfundamentalist.com/ )

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Problem With the Bible is it Talks Out of Both Sides of its Mouth

"God is Love."  Right?  Yes.  Of course.  Pure, unconditional love.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Well... maybe.  What I love about the Bible and the God it proclaims is that God loves humanity like a gentle father.  God cares for humans like the perfect mother.  Nothing can get in the way of God's unconquerable love.  It is unflappable.  Unquenchable.  Unmeasurable.  God is the shepherd who leads us besides the still waters and goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  God holds our hand.  God promises that we will have perfect peace as long as our minds are stayed upon God.  Just to contemplate God is perfect peace.

"God is Love."  Love is described in 1 Corinthians 13: 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.  (NIV)

Love is all about giving.  "God so loved the world God gave...."  What did God give?  God gave everything.  That's God.  God is love.  Who can help but to love a being  such as this?  Such great love.  It should inspire us to love.

Ah, but there is more.  For you see, the Good Book is a little schizophrenic.  In the midst of all of this love, where God makes the world and declares it all good, is also a picture of unmitigated wrath.  And, I think we must admit that is true of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, at least as we have it.  It is full of eternal damnation and pure hate language. Rightly did Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards preach about the character and actions of this God in an attempt to win converts:
So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment. The devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliging forbearance of an incensed God.

The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire....

Surely not! you say.  Read much of the book of Revelation lately?  Or the "hellfire and brimstone" words of Jesus?  What's going on here?  Part of me is drawn to this book and this God.  Part of me is repulsed.  And you cannot chalk it up to justice, as some preachers do.  That might work, except the Bible takes it all too far-- too much violence, too much hate.  Justice and punishment in the context of love always carries a remedial aspect-- not pure hate and destruction.

So, how do we understand this?  It seems as if the Bible writers and redactors were trying to reconcile two images of God that had been handed down to them.  Sometimes, they would get lost in the beauty and wonder of the love, sometimes, the hate images would take over.  I would say that the preponderance of evidence is that Jesus went the love way (he did NOT, as some evangelicals teach, speak more about hell than heaven).  When we attempt to construct the original sayings, as many have, we are left with precious little vengeance.  Still, the hateful/violence side of things  remains is  troubling.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The ELCA and Gay Clergy

Seems like all of the mainline denominations want to get on the "let's ordain openly gay clergy bandwagon." The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America *ELCA) has been flirting with this one for quite awhile. I hope they know what they are doing (been keeping your eyes on the ECUSA??). I don't claim to have the answer, but I'd like to weigh in a bit on the issues.

It looks as if the ELCA's main legislative body will have the issue (non-celibate gay clergy) up for a vote in August. I don't fully understand ELCA polity, but, as near as I can tell, local congregations and judicatories will have a "final" say in ordination, if the motion is approved. I guess that one could play either way.

Conservative groups in the church are already crying foul. They point out that gay ordination is certainly a departure from the "letter of the law" in the New Testament epistles. Unless one does some pretty "fancy stepping," I don't see how that can be denied. Of course, it is possible that the Bible writers are simply wrong. I'm not above entertaining that possibility. I guess it all depends on how literal one is about it all.

According to Christian Century four areas of agreement would need to be reached for it all to come about:
  1. That the ELCA is willing to recognize committed, lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships.
  2. There is a commitment that allows such folks to serve in the church.
  3. The ELCA agrees to respect those who disagree with all of this stuff.
  4. Finally, the ELCA removes the ban from partnered gay clergy.
Nice ideas. All I can say is that I'm glad I'm not the one who is going to hold those four deals together without allienating a whole bunch of church members.

Life just ain't so simple any more. No, Toto. I don't think we are still in Kansas.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Yet More Stuff About Religious Monuments on Publiclicly-owned Property

Here we go again. Seems that the US Supreme Court has ruled that a public park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah doesn't have to put up a monument bearing the "commandments" of "Summum." a small religious sect eager to spread their religious beliefs by means of a monument placed in a tax-funded, public place. In writing the opinion for the court, Judge Alito pointed out that placing such a monument in the park is tantamount to "government speech." That, of course, cannot be allowed.

Now you might think that I would be sending the court a nice note about FINALLY doing something sensible about religion. After all of the Bush appointments and years of confounding church and state, it seems they finally got it right eh...? Well, don't forget the words of former "right winger" and chief justice Rehnquist. To quote: "The 'wall of separation between church and state' is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.” As you might imagine, after operating under this premise for the last decade plus, this recent judgement might seem like a breath of common sense.

But, not so fast there, partner! For you see, in that same park, the court saw nothing wrong with a Ten Commandments monument! It was left perfectly intact. Now, seems to me that turn about is fair play. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, etc.; etc.; etc.;and so on.

The only really fair course is to call all such monument secular and give everybody a "piece of the monument pie," or nix them all. You can't have it both ways. If a monument is government speech for the poor Summumumians, it's no less so for the Christians or Jews. Come on now! Lets play fair!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

If You Are Looking for God. Go South!

I recently came across an interesting item from the Religious News Service.  A new Gallop Poll, based on over 350,000 interviews has discovered that Mississippi is the place to be if one is looking for folks who are into religion.  In fact, 85% of the residents stated that religion was an important part of their daily lives.  Other "high scorers" were also southern states, situated in the Bible Belt.  In fact, Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Arkansas were all "cruizin'" around the 80% level.  So, my conclusion?  Want religion?  Go south!

New England?  Forget it!  Only 42% of Vermonters found religion to be very important on a daily basis.  New Hampshire?  46%.  Maine and Massachusetts, both 48%.  Some places in the Northwest aren't doing so hot either.  Alaska?  51%  (Governor Palin, what the hell is going on up there???).  Washington state weighs in at about 52%.

Overall, the poll found that 65% of all Americans rated religion as important to their daily lives. Considering other Western industrialized nations, that's really pretty high when you think about it (of course, so is 42%).  The poll did seem to indicate that the lack of interest in New England reflected a large drop in the Catholic population.  It was noted that this seemed to be a a genuine case of people moving away from the religion not the region.

It is interesting to note that, of course, the Bible Belt states are far more fundamentalist in religious outlook.  That might account for some of the difference between regions.  At any rate, it is an interesting trend.  I hope that such studies might lead to other studies of sociological and demographic trends that might be related to the trends highlighted in this recent poll.