3/28/2008 4:18:11 PM
Albert Einstein once said insanity is going to the same conferences over and over and expecting a different result. Or at least he said something to that effect. The National Conference of American Atheists, held recently in Minneapolis, could fit neatly within this maxim, except for one thing: the audience was overwhelmingly, unexpectedly young. When the commencement speaker asked all students to stand, close to a quarter of the seats in the hotel ballroom emptied. Two high school kids sitting against the back wall (free from school in honor of Good Friday, ironically) were so animated that they would have fit in better at a hip hop show than a conference.
Many of the speakers boasted about the large turnout of young people, pointing to a recent Pew report that suggests a growing trend of skepticism toward religion in people under 50. Among the 10-plus speakers, however, only two seemed intent on engaging the younger members of the audience. One, predictably, was scientist and author Richard Dawkins, whose eloquent and erudite manner is overshadowed only by the rationality of his oratory. Dawkins is a go-to guy for atheist talking points, and there was plenty of furious note taking in the audience during his presentation, presumably to stockpile ammunition for future debates. The other was physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose lecture on dark matter and energy was informative and surprisingly accessible to the clueless layperson.
Though widely different in focus, Dawkins’ and Krauss’ presentations had one central similarity: a simplicity of argument. Simplicity is the basis of atheism, and it’s also what many rational thinkers find appealing. There is no room for ritualistic mystery in atheism. It is adherent to the laws of nature and humanism, nothing more. To atheists, the mystery of the universe is not a testament to the power of a god, but a thing to be studied and ultimately unlocked.
Unfortunately, this simplicity was lost on most of the speakers, who were more intent on pointing out the flaws in religion than they were in making a case for the inherent rationality of atheism. The defensive vitriol leveled at the religious powers-that-be effectively muddied the waters. Using atheism as a takedown of religion makes basic belief systems complicated. It is difficult to address the many failings of the world’s religions without entering the labyrinthine, incense-scented halls of ancient mythology. Going down that road serves only to add to the confusion of people unfamiliar with what atheism really is, exacerbating the misled belief that it is a cult or a religion. In fact, atheism is the antithesis of such belief-oriented groups. Next year’s conference would do well to scrap the bathetic victimhood and pointless navel-gazing, and concentrate on nabbing more speakers like Dawkins and Krauss.
3/28/2008 10:45:09 AM
A lot of ink has been spilled over the Left Behind video games—the post-apocalyptic, Grand Theft Auto-style games, where players run around murdering non-believers. For readers seeking out more religiously motivated internet fun, Craig Leinoff of Jewcy reviews a few of the “strangest agenda-driven games on the Internet.” Unfortunately, the Left Behind game seems to be the best of the bunch, receiving a rating of “Doesn’t Suck That Much.” Of course, that’s after Leinoff spent time playing, The Zoo Race Game, a “Mindbogglingly Sucky” racing game that resembles Mario Kart for the creationist set. You can watch a sample of some of the game below.
3/27/2008 1:40:09 PM
Many evangelicals are not fans of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. One primary reason they give is polygamy, which they understand to be common among Mormons and unheard of among evangelicals. The problem is that they’re wrong on both counts.
In fact, the LDS Church has prohibited polygamy for more than 100 years. The practice now exists only within fringe factions. The same is true of evangelicalism, Allie Cook reports on the blog of evangelical magazine World. By some estimates cited by Cook, the young movement of polygamous evangelicals now boasts some 50,000 members.
Cook links to several websites promoting and facilitating evangelical couples’ search for sister-wives. Since polygamy is illegal, the sites tend to be anonymous. One, christianpolygamy.com, includes an article on its home page offering advice for dodging the legality issue. Its author, Don Milton, apparently feels free to reveal his name because he is not himself a polygamist.
Milton also posts occasionally on his fairly ludicrous blog, where he addresses timely questions such as, “What is behind this Monogamist reign of terror?” What do Hitler, Stalin, and Mao have in common? That’s right—all monogamists.
3/26/2008 5:07:48 PM
Since the advent of cell phones, phone booths have lost much of their usefulness. So what if you want to contact the divine? Better find a prayer booth like the one featured in the Baltimore Sun. The booth—complete with a kneeler and directions for proper hand positioning—was conceived as a public space for the typically private activity of prayer, but passers-by seem more bemused than spiritually buoyed by its presence.
Image by Mrs. W., licensed under Creative Commons.
3/26/2008 3:48:07 PM
It’s no secret that the leaders of many Christian traditions prefer to stick with unambiguously male depictions of God, despite the feminine alternatives present in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. But it hasn’t always been this way.
The cross—that complex symbol of male violence, shame, courage, and sacrifice—didn’t start out as the dominant Christian symbol, Margaret R. Miles writes in the Christian Century (article not available online). Late medieval and Renaissance art often features the Virgin Mary, one breast exposed, nursing the baby Jesus. The mother’s breast is a symbol of God’s love; her milk represents salvation. Miles traces the history of this image and details how it was eventually replaced by one far manlier:
By 1750 the public meaning of naked breasts was largely medical or erotic. I have not been able to find a single religious image of the breast painted after 1750. By that time, it was impossible to symbolize God’s love by depicting a nursing Virgin. Meanwhile, crucifixion scenes increased in number and in their graphic depiction of violence and suffering.
She goes on to conclude that we’d do well to bring the nursing-mother image back:
In societies in which violence is rampant on the street and in the media, the nursing Virgin can perhaps communicate God’s love to people in a way that a violent image, the image of one more sacrificial victim, cannot.
On a related note, the Vatican recently clarified that all Catholics baptized in the name of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier—a popular gender-neutral alternative to father, son, and holy spirit—should be re-baptized using the proper male names for God.
3/18/2008 2:28:12 PM
Pundits of all political stripes have pondered the effect that religion is currently having in the world, and what that means for the future of the planet. The rise of radical Islam has right-wing commentators up in arms, while the popularity of evangelical mega-churches in the United States has caused plenty of hand wringing on the left.
The fears of both sides are unfounded, according to Alan Wolfe, writing for the Atlantic. “Most of the religious revivals we are seeing throughout the world today complement, and ultimately reinforce, secular developments,” Wolfe writes. “They are more likely to encourage moderation than fanaticism.”
Taking a page from the playbooks of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Wolfe writes that material wealth makes people less religious. As countries get rich, their citizens will turn away from religion. The United States would seem to disprove that rule, since its citizens are both religious and wealthy, but Wolfe discounts that, calling American religiosity, “as shallow as it is broad.” Also, the current popularity of American evangelicalism, according to Wolfe, is owed in part to the religion’s embrace of secular values and lifestyles.
Throughout the world, Wolfe writes that “religious peace will be the single most important consequence of the secular underpinning of today’s religious growth.”
Not everyone, however, shares Wolfe’s optimistic vision of the future. Philip Jenkins writes for the New Republic (subscription required) that the looming crisis in climate change will exacerbate preexisting religious tensions throughout the world. In the future, as crops wither and icecaps melt, Jenkins warns that “ethnic cleansing in the name of resource protection” may become the norm.
On the other hand, climate change could lead to greater cooperation between people, Cynthia G. Wagner writes for the Futurist. Wagner acknowledges the probability that global warming could lead to conflicts, but also posits that the coming ecological crisis could lead to “economic change, trade, technological and social innovation, and peaceful resource distribution,” rather than simple religious strife and fighting. God willing.
Image by naughton, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/17/2008 4:16:50 PM
The idea of not working on Shabbos puzzles many non-Jews. No work means no flipping light switches, no pushing elevator buttons, no warming up food. Do the devout sit at home in the dark, hungry and unmoving, for the entire day? Nah, reports the irreverent Jewish magazine Heeb, thanks in part to interfaith friendships with "Shabbos goys." By Heeb’s account, when the temperature dips in a Brandeis dorm room, Sarah Black adjusts the thermostat. When the light goes off in the bathroom at Temple Beth Ahm in New Jersey, Bill Webber uses his gentile fingers to flip it back on.
For many Jews, such partnerships are nothing new. Shabbos goys used to be paid positions, but now the favors are often just between friends. Jews get heat and light without breaking work prohibitions, and gentiles like Webber and Black get to help out their Jewish brethren. Heartwarming, or at least house-warming.
3/17/2008 2:57:18 PM
In Jerusalem, the government pays to bury the dead. For many years, burials have been handled by groups affiliated with Orthodox Judaism—meaning that services follow the Orthodox rite, regardless of the deceased person’s own religious affiliation.
This is finally changing, Nathan Jeffay reports for Forward. In January, the city announced plans to build a secular cemetery. The 12-acre site will conduct burials in accordance with the family’s wishes, with or without religious elements. And, unlike Orthodox-run cemeteries, the new secular burial grounds will grant adjacent plots to intermarried or GLBTQ couples, and women and men will be able to stand together at burial services.
Image by Alan Kotok, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/17/2008 2:00:05 PM
Understanding seasonal cycles can lead to more creativity and more original ideas, according to an article in Kosmos Journal. The seasons provide a framework for understanding how to develop ideas, especially in academic work. Autumn is the time for active seed planting (both intellectual and actual seeds), winter provides a period of rest and gestation, spring is when new life and ideas emerge, and summer is the time to gather physical or intellectual fruits. Many people fail to honor the individual rhythms of scholastic work in Western academia, the authors argue, especially when educators insist that students work on collective, rigid deadlines. People also tend to shortchange the “feminine” seasons of winter and spring, curtailing the true creative process by rushing from literature review to writing without allowing a patient pause for new ideas to grow. As a result, academics are left with “‘second-order’ creativity or smart mental permutation of already known ideas” and a dearth of innovation.
Image by Keith Hall, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/13/2008 2:09:11 PM
The interfaith organization Unity prays 24-7 for anyone who requests it—and of two million annual requests, 30 percent are for “healing” reports Spirituality & Health (free registration required). Healing includes physical, emotional, and spiritual repair, so it’s hardly shocking that it ranks as most-popular petition. All the same, higher-minded pursuits do seem to weigh more heavily among our prayer-time priorities: Appeals for “divine order” snag 9 percent of requests, whereas “peace of mind” grabs 5.6 percent. The more material pursuits of “prosperity” and “success/achievement” account for only 3 and 2.9 percent respectively.
, licensed under
3/10/2008 4:00:03 PM
The culture war in the United States is often framed as a clash between evangelicalism and pluralism. But, unlike the secularism common in Europe, religious pluralism is not an ideology; its inclusiveness means it need not clash with anyone. What’s surprising, Marcia Pally explains in Utne Independent Press Awards nominee Islamica, is that the U.S. tradition of pluralism was built largely by evangelicals.
Since colonial times, evangelicals have emphasized the spiritual primacy of the individual, motivating them to advocate for the freedom of conscience in religious matters. Whatever the theocratic fringe may be crowing about, the dominant evangelical intellectual strain “disposed Americans to multi-confessional communities—in other words, to pluralism,” Pally writes. She credits this as a major reason that devout U.S. Muslims have an easier time participating in the broader culture than their European counterparts do, even since 9/11 and its anti-Muslim backlash.
Perhaps some evangelicals would find it ironic and even offensive that their spiritual tradition might positively affect the American Muslim experience. But to many, for whom the ideal of freedom of conscience has never been a mere political ploy, this no doubt sounds exactly right.
3/8/2008 11:56:00 AM
Waiting for the subway, an appointment, or a boyfriend or girlfriend can be a frustrating experience. It can also be an opportunity for meditation and reflection. Writing for Tricycle, Martha Henry writes about her experience trying to find some inner quiet among the inevitable delays in life. The technique doesn’t always work, and Henry admits that she sometimes loses her cool, but it does help her find a little relaxation among daily stresses. “I’m clearly not meditating for the benefit of all beings,” Henry writes. “Rather, I’m mediating so that I won’t be bitchy when my boyfriend arrives.”
Image by The B's, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/7/2008 2:06:08 PM
Urban communes aren’t just for punks and poets anymore. Zionist youth in Brooklyn are moving in together and starting urban kibbutzim, the Jewish student magazine New Voices reports. The urban kibbutz movement is an Israeli import that grew out of twentieth-century agricultural collectives based on ideas of social activism. The article is vague about what activism in Brooklyn entails, mentioning only work in the Zionist youth movements.
Kibbutz members build community through practices such as sharing a checking account and weekly six-hour meetings. This closeness must take a toll on members, but they’re motivated by their convictions. Kibbutz member Daniel Roth says, “We are all interested in working to break down the walls that the capitalist world builds between each of us.”
3/7/2008 10:59:26 AM
Scarlet letters and stockades went out of style in American culture as a way of creating social change, but public shaming is still very much en vogue. The phrase “shame on you” still gets thrown around in American politics, both overtly and in more subtle ways.
The Jewish tradition Mussar teaches people that there are better ways of creating change. In the March-April issue of Tikkun (article not available online), Leonard Felder breaks down three steps that people should take when trying to right social wrongs. They are:
- Try a dignified one-on-one first
- Make sure you aren’t trying to blast someone for what you yourself need to be working on
- Put human dignity and peace ahead of any other rules or laws
The guidelines not only help people act morally in conflict, they’re also often more effective than public shaming.
Image by David Krieger, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/5/2008 3:31:24 PM
Even when they’re not seedy dens of sin, sex stores often neglect one set of potential customers: religious conservatives. One couple is trying to rectify the situation by opening the online sex toy store Book22, catering to conservative, married couples. The pornography-free site, which takes its name from the Biblical book Song of Solomon, sells sex toys as “aids” for procreative intercourse. Owners Joy and Kevin Wilson avoid anal toys—not sin-free—and take their purchase cues from prayer. “We pray about things before we add them to our site,” Joy Wilson explained recently to NPR. “Almost our whole entire ‘special order’ page has come about from that.”
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