8/17/2012 9:41:04 AM
This post originally
appeared at Chronicle.com.
a moth flies at night, it uses the moon and the stars to steer a straight path.
Those light sources are fixed and distant, so the rays always strike the moth's
multilensed eyes at the same angle, making them reliable for nocturnal
navigation. But introduce something else bright—a candle, say, or a
campfire—and there will be trouble. The light radiates outward, confusing the
moth and causing it to spiral ever closer to the blaze until the insect meets a
years Richard Dawkins has used the self-immolation of moths to explain
religion. The example can be found in his 2006 best seller, The God Delusion,
and it's been repeated in speeches and debates, interviews and blog posts.
Moths didn't evolve to commit suicide; that's an unfortunate byproduct of other
adaptations. In much the same way, the thinking goes, human beings embrace
religion for unrelated cognitive reasons. We evolved to search for patterns in
nature, so perhaps that's why we imagine patterns in religious texts. Instead
of being guided by the light, we fly into the flames.
implication—that religion is basically malevolent, that it "poisons
everything," in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens—is a standard
assertion of the New Atheists. Their argument isn't just that there probably is
no God, or that intelligent design is laughable bunk, or that the Bible is far
from inerrant. It's that religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning
them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better
off without it.
you can know for sure, you have to figure out what religion does for us in the
first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in
fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're
applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover
whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more
cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally
look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant,
fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific. Dawkins and company have been
no more charitable in return.
the field is still young and fairly small—those involved haven't settled on a
name yet, though "evolutionary religious studies" gets thrown
around—its findings could reshape a very old debate. Maybe we should stop
asking whether God exists and start asking whether it's useful to believe that
say someone gives you $10. Not a king's ransom, but enough for lunch. You're
then told that you can share your modest wealth with a stranger, if you like,
or keep it. You're assured that your identity will be protected, so there's no
need to worry about being thought miserly. How much would you give?
you're like most people who play the so-called dictator game, which has been
used in numerous experiments, you will keep most of the money. In a recent
study from a paper with the ominous title "God Is Watching You," the
average subject gave $1.84. Meanwhile, another group of subjects was presented
with the same choice but was first asked to unscramble a sentence that
contained words like "divine," "spirit," and
second group of subjects gave an average of $4.22, with a solid majority (64
percent) giving more than five bucks. A heavenly reminder seemed to make
subjects significantly more magnanimous. In another study, researchers found
that prompting subjects with the same vocabulary made some more likely to
volunteer for community projects. Intriguingly, not all of them: Only those who
had a specific dopamine receptor variant volunteered more, raising the
possibility that religion doesn't work for everybody.
similar experiment was conducted on two Israeli kibbutzes. The scenario was
more complicated: Subjects were shown an envelope containing 100 shekels
(currently about $25). They were told that they could choose to keep as much of
the money as they wished, but that another member of the kibbutz was being
given the identical option. If the total requested by the participants (who
were kept separated) exceeded 100 shekels, they walked away with nothing. If
the total was less than or equal to 100, they were given the money plus a bonus
based on what was left over.
kicker is that one of the kibbutzes was secular and one was religious. Turns
out, the more-devout members of the religious kibbutz, as measured by synagogue
attendance, requested significantly fewer shekels and expected others to do the
same. The researchers, Richard Sosis and Bradley Ruffle, ventured that "collective
ritual has a significant impact on cooperative decisions."
also a study that found that religious people were, in some instances, more
likely to treat strangers fairly. Or the multiple studies suggesting that
people who were prompted to think about an all-seeing supernatural agent were
less likely to cheat. Or the study of 300 young adults in Belgium that found that those who
were religious were considered more empathetic by their friends.
results of other studies are less straightforward. A Harvard Business
discovered that religious people were more likely to give to charity, but only
on the days they worshiped, a phenomenon he dubbed the "Sunday
Effect." Then there's the survey of how belief in the afterlife affected
crime rates in 67 countries. Researchers determined that countries with high
rates of belief in hell had less crime, while in those where the belief in hell
was low and the belief in heaven high, there was more crime. A vengeful deity
is better for public safety than a merciful one.
of that research settles the value of belief, and much of it is based on
assuming that certain correlations are meaningful or that particular techniques
(like the one used in the dictator-game study) actually prime what researchers
think they prime. And questions remain: How effective is religious belief,
really, if it needs to be prompted with certain words? And is the only thing
stopping you from robbing a liquor store really the prospect of eternal
a growing body of research suggests that religion or religious ideas, in
certain circumstances, in some people, can elicit the kind of behavior that is
generally good for society: fairness, generosity, honesty. At the very least,
when you read the literature, it becomes difficult to confidently assert that
religion, despite the undeniable evil it has sometimes inspired, is entirely
to read the rest.
Image by Vinoth Chandar,
licensed under Creative
9/30/2011 5:26:56 PM
We’re nearing the time of year when many people celebrate Halloween, and when many pagans and Wiccans celebrate Samhain, an ancient ritual with Celtic roots. But it appears that gathering around bonfires, a Samhain celebration staple, can be an act fraught with uncertainty: not because of spells or ghouls or human sacrifices, but because the law might show up.
A wiccan reader from Halifax, Nova Scotia, writes to Witches & Pagans magazine (Summer 2011) about the way it usually plays out:
Every time I attend a Samhain ritual in public, we are all in full swing enjoying the ceremony and then some muggle always calls the fire department. The fires are extinguished and our ceremony is ruined. It never fails. We always have a permit but that does not assure the authorities that we’re not Satan-worshipping idiots.
Aside from the gratuitous slap at Satanists—fellow pariahs should stick up for each other, no?—this Wiccan is on to something: Many law enforcers and emergency responders simply don’t understand religious and spiritual traditions that fall outside the mainstream.
Not all are unenlightened, though. In fact, Witches & Pagans in its last issue reported on David Chadwick, a high priest of a Wiccan church in Jonesboro, Arkansas, who happens to wear a blue uniform in his other gig. He sees his dual role as, um, a blessing and a curse:
Both a law enforcement officer and a visible member of the pagan clergy, David spoke of some of the challenges he faces. “Being in law enforcement has helped in some circles; however, wearing a badge keeps you in the spotlight. Add ‘pagan clergy’ to the mix, and I’m under a microscope.”
David’s profession has enabled him to educate police and pagans on how to get along. He also uses his skill to build effective security teams for events such as Pagan Pride Day, festivals, and special gatherings.
Sounds like just the kind of guy that most pagans and Wiccans would welcome at the bonfire.
Source: Witches & Pagans
(articles available only to subscribers)
, licensed under
4/29/2011 12:33:11 PM
Some of our UIPA nominees for Body/Spirit coverage have chimed in on two of the issues dominating headlines across the country. (No, not the royal wedding. If you’re looking for an appropriate response to that, there’s this headline from Democracy Now! that pretty much sums it up: “Frenzy around Britain’s Royal Wedding ‘Should Embarrass Us All.’”)
First, Valerie Elverton Dixon at Sojournersstruggles with being a Christian when it comes to what she feels is an appropriate response to Donald Trump’s obsession (read: media ploy) with Obama’s birth certificate.
It is the moments when I am most angry and most disappointed in particular people and circumstances that I find it very, very difficult to be a Christian….When commentators asked why the president had not [released his long-form birth certificate] sooner, I screamed back at my television: “Why should he have to do it at all?”
Dixon rightly notes that the fact that the President of the United States felt forced into revealing this document is “not only a national embarrassment; it was an insult to every American who voted for him, and a special offense to African Americans.” She ends up finding her Christian footing, ultimately asking her God to “forgive [Trump] because he does not know what he is doing.” Unfortunately, I can’t get myself to that point; I think he knows exactly what he’s doing.
At The Christian CenturySteve Thorngate brings into his discussion of the House Republican budget, the still-overlooked budget plan from the Congressional Progressive Caucus. (Why “still overlooked”? Here’s what Rachel Maddow thinks is the reason.) After detailing some of the “provisions in the bill that deserve a dose of public outrage” Thorngate goes on to make a fantastic point:
Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus released a detailed rival plan that includes some serious tax hikes. It'll never pass, but that's not the point: the budget negotiations will involve à la carte solutions and much compromise. The Progressive Caucus's menu of ideas will help counteract the bad ones detailed above—and its existence will make it harder for the Republicans to take Obama's moderate, pre-compromised approach, paint it as insanely and dangerously liberal and then get him to compromise even further.
Lastly, at TikkunMichael Hogue has some stronger words about Ryan’s “courageous” plan, calling it “revoltingly immoral and unjust” and “insidiously wicked.”
There is NO religious framework or lifeway that, except through disingenuous hermeneutical backflipping, could possibly justify these principles. And if that’s the case, and if these principles (which are usually dressed up a bit in public) undergird the Ryan proposal and most other Republic sensibilities about the deficit, then there is NO way that there should be any religious support for this budget proposal. Is there anything in Christianity, or Islam, or Buddhism, or Religious Humanism, or Religious Naturalism, or Unitarian Universalism that so brazenly endorses the accumulation and concentration of wealth among a very few at the expense of the very many, and especially at the expense of the vulnerable? Absolutely not.
Source: Sojourners, The Christian Century, Tikkun
Image by ssoosay, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/28/2010 4:29:52 PM
It’s fascinating to see Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand posthumously elevated to the level of saint by conservatives who are allegedly driven by Christian values. For Rand was an aggressive atheist who condemned altruism of all kinds, writes Tim King in Sojourners, and “Grace, by its very definition, cannot find any place within Rand’s philosophy.”
As King explains in his short commentary, “Jesus Shrugged”:
Rand was clear that her philosophy, known as objectivism, was incompatible with that of Jesus. For her, any system that that required one individual to live for others and follow anything beside his or her own self-interest was immoral. For Jesus, any system or behavior that does not take into account living for others and acting on their behalf is immoral. Christians should take Ayn Rand’s words as a warning. To follow her and her vision, one must give up Christ and his cross.
You heard it, libertarians, go-Galters, and Tea Party rabble rousers: If you cheer Rand’s self-worshipping objectivist ideals, you cheer with the devil.
(article not available online)
, licensed under
11/18/2010 4:37:48 PM
As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.) met earlier this week to elect a new president, Vincent Miller, writing for America, had a message for them: Preach the fullness of the Catholic doctrine, not just those hot-button issues (namely, abortion and same-sex marriage) that grab media attention. “Every Catholic and every American citizen knows the church’s teaching on abortion and marriage,” Miller writes. “The same cannot be said for the rest of Catholic social teaching.”
Few Americans citizens or politicians, including Catholics, are aware of the church’s teaching that government is necessary to serve the common good; the importance of solidarity with all of the vulnerable, not just the ones we consider innocent or worthy; and, most importantly at this hour, the fact that subsidiarity cuts both ways, limiting government intervention and demanding it when necessary.
Miller argues that the U.S.C.C.B.’s response to the recent U.S. midterm elections—a response that said the Bishops’ agenda was “unchanged”—is insufficient, pointing out that it has not historically been Democrats that have been against programs the assist the poor. Indeed those on the far right, such as Glen Beck, put Catholic teaching “under fire”:
Taking an “even-handed” tone is possible only if the U.S.C.C.B. washes its hands of what has actually happened.
And it has happened with their cooperation. Many bishops have cultivated a “prophetic” style of engagement on life issues and marriage. On these matters, they do not hesitate to confront policies and politicians at odds with the teaching of the Church. Politicians are named. Communion is denied. U.S.C.C.B. bulletin inserts and postcard campaigns are distributed.
Other epochal moral concerns—rising poverty and wealth inequality, the shifting of the tax burden to the middle class, the details of providing universal health care coverage, forthright advocacy of dismantling government domestic policy and social safety networks—are passed over as matters of prudential concern left to politicians. They are effectively ignored.
Unfortunately it seems that Miller’s memo wasn’t delivered to the U.S.C.C.B., which has elected Timothy M. Dolan as its new president. By all accounts Dolan will be a leader in the culture wars, focusing on same-sex marriage and abortion. The election left one observer criticizing it as “evidence of a rising ‘Catholic Tea Party’ among conservative church leaders.”
Here’s hoping that Miller’s message gets through to the U.S.C.C.B., because as he concludes, “The American public and the next generation of the church desperately needs to hear the fullness of the church’s social doctrine.” Better late than never.
And to those who will undoubtedly argue that the church’s teachings should simply be left out of politics, well, that argument ignores the place and time we are currently living in—one needs look no further than the recent healthcare debate to see the influence the U.S.C.C.B. has on public policy. If that influence is going to be there, we can only hope that it takes into account Miller’s version of the Catholic doctrine, rather than a version that focuses solely on one issue.
10/1/2010 3:18:29 PM
Lots of Americans say they’re religious, but a new poll finds many of them don’t actually know that much about world religions—their own included. The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey by the Pew Forum found that U.S. atheists and agnostics, along with Jews and Mormons, are actually more conversant than Christians in many faith-related facts.
While that basic takeaway is rich with irony—some of the least religious people know the most about religion—it confirms what some atheists have long suspected, and a few of them are bursting with pride about the results (which for them is not a sin, of course). Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, told Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times:
“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
That’s not to say that believers don’t know anything about their own faiths, but rather that atheists and agnostics are well versed in a wider range of religious topics. Mormons and evangelical Protestants, for example, are very knowledgable on questions specifically relating to the Bible and Christianity, and atheists and agnostics aren’t far behind. According to the survey results:
On questions about Christianity—including a battery of questions about the Bible—Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.
Jeffrey Weiss at Politics Daily quibbles with the survey’s approach—“Too many [of the questions] read to me as if they were taken from a religion version of Trivial Pursuit,” he writes—but he notes that the results line up in a way with previous surveys that reveal a related phenomenon:
Academics call it the Religion Congruence Fallacy: In survey after survey, year after year, Americans who say they belong to a particular religious tradition tend not to act like it.
To take an easy set of examples: Conservative Protestants are no less likely than other Protestants to have been divorced, to have seen an X-rated movie in the last year, or to be sexually active even if they aren’t married. Even though their church teaches strongly that all three practices are wrong.
Maybe that’s because many of us don’t know all that much about the faith tradition we say we profess—or what makes it distinctive from any other.
Ignorance about our own or other religions is not necessarily an American tradition: As Ted Widmer recently reminded us in the Boston Globe, even the men who wrote the Constitution were quite familiar with the Koran:
As usual, the Founders were way ahead of us. They thought hard about how to build a country of many different faiths. And to advance that vision to the fullest, they read the Koran, and studied Islam with a calm intelligence that today’s over-hyped Americans can only begin to imagine. They knew something that we do not. To a remarkable degree, the Koran is not alien to American history — but inside it.
Meanwhile, Steve Thorngate at the Christian Century suggests that atheists, agnostics, and Jews shouldn’t get too uppity about their good marks on the religion exam:
Atheists/agnostics and Jews didn’t actually do better on the Christianity questions than Christians did, just nearly as well—and considerably better on all the others. This is perfectly intuitive: minority groups know more about the majority than vice versa, because majority culture tends to define what counts as general knowledge. So most Jews know where Jesus was born, even though few Christians know much about Buddhism. Jesus makes the cover of one general-interest magazine or another ever month or so, and it only takes a couple shopping trips between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to accidentally memorize the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
What do you know about religion? Take the Pew Forum’s 15-question religious knowledge sample quiz and find out.
Sources: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, New York Times, Politics Daily, Boston Globe, Christian Century
Utne Reader editorial intern Will Wlizlo contributed to this post.
Image by dottorpeni, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/16/2009 2:57:32 PM
Responding to a post by conservative Catholic Rod Dreher at Beliefnet, who asks why gay Catholics don't leave the church, Atlantic writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan engages Dreher in that rarest of acts: a nuanced discussion of the Catholic experience:
I wore an ACT-UP t-shirt to communion once, but that was the limit of my daring. I am not a gay Catholic at Mass. I am a Catholic. The issue of eros is trivial in the face of consecration, prayer and meditation.
I write about it because I feel a need to bear witness as a gay Christian in a painful time, but mainly because I want to argue for a civil change in civil society. But it is in no ways central to my faith. It is peripheral to the Gospels, is unmentioned in the mass, and I try to focus on the liturgy and prayer and to take in as much of the sermon as is safe for my intellectual composure.
That's just an excerpt. Be sure to read all of Sullivan's post: On Remaining Catholic .
Sources: Beliefnet, The Daily Dish
Image by lhar, licensed under Creative Commons.
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!