Category Archives: Faith

Religion and Self-Control

Atheists have been working overtime lately trying to portray religion as the primary source of much of the world’s suffering and evil. Convince people to abandon religion, they say, and our lives would be a lot better.

But the evidence doesn’t support that view. John Tierney quotes one researcher, Michael McCullough, who has been studying the coorelation between religion and self-control:

I’m not claiming that religion is a panacea, but the scientific support for the idea that religiosity is associated with many benefits for health, well-being, and social adjustment is now quite overwhelming.

Which is what the Bible has been claiming for over 2,000 years.

Advertisements

Of Zealots and Heretics

Ever wonder what it must have been like as a medieval heretic struggling against the almighty power of the Church? Harry Mount in the Daily Telegraph says you can find out quite easily: “Try saying you’re a bit sceptical about man-made global warming.” You’ll find out in a hurry what it’s like to be a heretic.

Environmentalism is the new secular faith – school prayer for liberals, as an American philosopher put it. The faith is a strict one. You’re not allowed to join if you think that it’s sensible to keep an eye on the environment but don’t think that man is to blame for changes in world temperature.

You must believe in the full package. If you do, you are blessed, free from sin and allowed the pious smugness you find in the worst sort of religious believers. It’s not enough to believe in these things yourself; you must condemn others for not sharing your belief.

Human nature is universal, whether clothed in clerical robes or eco-friendly jeans. When a group of people coalesce around a shared faith, their zeal for The Cause can exceed the boundaries of common sense, and irrational arrogance is the inevitable result.

The environmental movement is overdue for a Reformation.

The Decline of Religion in America

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life just released the results of an exhaustive study on the current state of religion in America. The research does not paint a pretty picture.

Among the findings:

  • “The United States is 78 percent Christian and about to lose its status as a majority Protestant nation, at 51 percent and slipping.”
  • “More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all.”
  • “One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution.”
  • “The majority of the unaffiliated — 12 percent of the overall population — describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” and about half of those say faith is at least somewhat important to them.”
  • “The Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition . . . roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics.”
  • “Non-denominational churches are growing.”
  • “Although evangelical churches strive to win new Christian believers from the ‘unchurched,’ the survey found most converts to evangelical churches were raised Protestant.”
  • “Atheists or agnostics account for 4 percent of the total population.”
  • “The group with the worst retention is one of the fastest growing — Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only 37 percent of those raised in the sect known for door-to-door proselytizing said they remain members.”

These findings suggest several important lessons for churches today.

  • Despite the effort to remain “relevant” over the last several decades, usually by providing all kinds of social activities, American churches are increasingly viewed by Americans as irrelevant. For all its good intentions, the social gospel is a failure; it does not address the deepest needs of humanity.
  • Evangelism efforts directed at converting members of other churches are facing a shrinking market. Increasingly, churches must adapt their message to reach people who have little or no religious background.
  • Religions built upon a highly authoritative command structure (such as Catholicism and Jehovah’s Witnesses) have the most difficult time holding on to members, while churches with the least authoritative command structure (non-denominational) are bucking the trend and growing.

Put all of this together, and a simple picture emerges: People find the greatest fulfillment in a religion that emphasizes personal spirituality without bureaucratic control. Do a fresh reading of the New Testament, and you’ll find that’s exactly why early Christianity became so popular. It consisted of independent local churches that were dedicated to a simple program of character development.

I suspect the same approach would work today, if churches would only try it.  Of course, it would require that a lot of very powerful people give up their positions of prominence, so I don’t expect a mass movement in that direction.

Literature and Culture

David Plotz, writing in Slate, describes a recent visit to The Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, which houses a collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His article is an interesting recounting of the history of the Scrolls, the Essenes, and the fortress at Masada. But the following paragraph really caught my attention.

The difference between the Jews and the Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites, and all the other Ites who bedeviled us in the Bible is that we wrote the book, and they didn’t. Jews survived not because we went forth and multiplied—we didn’t—but because we kept going to the library. Again and again, Jews as people have barely survived extermination, skirting wipeouts at the hands of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. We were scattered by diaspora, savaged by the Inquisition and Holocaust. If you are religious-minded, you may believe that Jews persisted because God chose us. But even if you’re not, you must acknowledge that the holy books are the root of our survival. Jews endured because our book endured. We remained a people because we preserved a culture, and we preserved a culture because we kept a book.

This is an excellent defense of the power of literature to preserve a culture, despite every effort to wipe it out. This prompts a couple of sobering thoughts.

First, it might explain why Christianity is in decline across much of the Western world today. Christians on the whole no longer look to “the Book” — the Bible — as the lodestone of their faith. The Bible is routinely disparaged and ignored as the source of guidance and hope — and that by the very people who ought to be zealously defending it.

Second, on a broader level, this concept portends doom for a nation whose education system no longer honors its literary heritage. Children who pass through our education system today are not exposed to the literary genius of earlier English and American authors like they once were. The result is a generation of young Americans who look with disdain on anything older than last week’s edition of People Magazine as outdated and irrelevant.

Literature is to a culture what blood is to a human body. When we lose it, we die.

Lanier on Science and God

Jaron Lanier has been called a “cyberspace Renaissance man,” an eclectic talent with impressive credentials in academia, music, computer science, and art. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists him as one of history’s 300 or so greatest inventors. He is also a prolific writer, who frequently explores metaphysical topics dealing with the nature of human consciousness and its relation to the natural world.

One topic that Lanier has addressed is the sharp divide that exists between science and religion. He is no friend of fundamentalist religion, but he deplores the open hostility that intellectuals often display against any and all expressions of religious faith. For example, in a piece he wrote last year, Lanier argues that traditional religionists aren’t the only threat to intellectual vigor:

While the left is frequently associated with college campuses and braininess, it can also spread anti-intellectual sentiment, and the New Age isn’t the only way this happens. I’ve seen recent K-12 math books that focus more on multiculturalism and surface image than on math, for instance. The anti-intellectual component of the American character has been triumphant in the classroom for all too many students. This scares me as an American, because I wonder what the country will do to make money when these kids grow up. The goal should be better informed kids who think it’s cool to work towards honestly understanding the world (which is a quick populist shorthand for doing science.)

In a more recent piece, Lanier takes this line of thought further. He asks,

Why should a scientist show any degree of acknowledgment, much less friendliness, toward topics that are so big or mysterious that they can almost certainly never be addressed experimentally?

Some answers are: Because to pretend to be certain that such big questions don’t exist is to be dishonest. Because noticing what I’ll call “permanent mysteries” evokes wonder. And most important, because people are afraid to die, and they sometimes find hope in the unresolved status of the biggest questions. Take away that hope and you hand victory to whatever creep can give it back.

I don’t agree with all of Lanier’s suggestions for how to bridge the gap between science and faith, but it’s refreshing to hear an intellectual at least acknowledge that faith has a place at the table.

Anyone Can Have a Closed Mind — Even Atheists

In an opinion piece in today’s edition of USA Today, Tom Krattenmaker argues that atheists and secularists can be just as dogmatic and close-minded as the religionists they so despise. He describes an email exchange he had recently with a staff member of a humanist organization:

Discussing the relationship between science and religion, I had expressed my view that religion should leave scientific research to the scientists and devote itself, along with the fields of ethics and philosophy, to the mighty issues of the human condition: good and evil, the meaning of life, the nature of love and so forth. To which my correspondent replied: Why would something as inherently foolish as religion deserve a place at the table for discussions of that magnitude?

As someone who has studied religion and attended progressive churches, I was aghast. I had expected an articulate and intelligent advocate for the non-religious worldview to display a more nuanced understanding of that which she stood against.

Krattenmaker — no “right-wing Christian nut” himself — points out that this kind of sweeping generalization is more and more coming to define atheism’s intellectual foundation, as documented in recent bestselling books by atheist authors. If all they can do is flail wildly at the admitted excesses of religion, then what is the reasonable alternative? Especially when history offers just as many examples of secular excesses.

Krattenmaker quotes an earlier piece from atheist Jacques Berlinerblau, who is dismayed at this decline in secular thought:

Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than 30 seconds without referring to religious people as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the common good … conjure men (or) irrationalists?

Maybe the problem is not religion or secularism, but a more fundamental trait that theists and atheists share alike: human nature itself. Regardless of how we approach the problem, we’re all grappling with the same issue, i.e., human imperfection and its consequences. That’s why atheists can be just as close-minded and irrational as people of faith. Let’s all just admit it, and set about to discuss possible solutions with reason and respect.

J. K. Rowling: The Next C. S. Lewis?

I’m not a big Harry Potter fan. I’ve seen several of the movies, but since I’ve not read a single book in the series, most of the plot lines go over my head. Still, it’s hard to be a student of modern culture and not at least be aware of the Potter phenomenon.

Commentator Jeffrey Weiss, however, apparently is a big Potter fan, and he sees a distinctly Christian message in the Potter story, one that may surprise the Christian critics of the series. Themes of self-sacrifice, resurrection, and the cosmic battle between good and evil are every bit as Christian as the fiction of C. S. Lewis.

Many readers who finish the Potter saga will conclude, perhaps to their surprise, that Harry’s world is at least as Christian in its essential underpinnings as is C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia.”