Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Can a corporation have religious scruples?

March 23, 2014

Employers have brought a case before the U.S. Supreme Court claiming a religious conscientious objection to the provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring them to provide health insurance that covers contraception.  What they’re claiming, as I see it, that religious freedom includes the right to refuse to do business with sinners.

The general rule is that there is no right of religious exemption from laws for the benefit of the general public that apply to everyone equally.  Nevertheless, there is a tradition in the United States of bending over backwards to accommodate individuals with sincere religious beliefs, from allowing religious conscientious objection to military service to exempting Seventh Day Adventists from Sunday closing laws.

I think this is a good tradition, as it applies to individuals.  I don’t think, for example, that the right of gay people to marry includes the right to do business with a florist or wedding photographer who thinks homosexuality is sinful.

Corporations are a different matter.  Corporations are not human beings.  They are soulless artificial constructs whose supposed personhood is a legal formality.  How, then, can a corporation have religious scruples?   Why do the managers of a corporation have any more right to impose their private views on their employees than do the managers of a state Department of Motor Vehicles?

http://www.answers.com/topic/corporations-have-neither-bodies-to-be-punished-nor-souls-to-be-damned

http://www.psychopolitik.com/2014/03/22/compound-stupidity/

Does Evangelical influence lead to more divorce?

February 12, 2014
Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

As strange as it may seem, a new study indicates that the influence of evangelical Protestant Christianity leads to higher divorce rates.

Sociologists Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak found that the higher the concentration of evangelical Protestants in a U.S. county, the higher the divorce rate was likely to be.   Early marriage is associated with low income and lack of education, but there was a higher divorce rate even among couples of the same income level and educational level in the counties with higher percentages of evangelicals.  The divorce rate among evangelical Protestants themselves is higher in such counties.

They said the reason is the evangelical Protestant culture promotes early marriage, and people who get married in their teens are more likely to be divorced than those who wait until they are in their twenties.  This fits my experience.  When I was single and living in western Maryland, a religiously conservative area, in the 1960s, it seemed as if virtually every waitress with whom I struck up a conversation had gotten married while in high school, gotten divorce and was working to support herself and a child.

The connecting link between religion and d was evangelical Protestant culture rather than evangelical Protestant faith.  Glass and Lovchak found that among couples who did marry young, the ones who went to church regularly had, on average, more lasting marriages than those who didn’t.   But statistically, early marriage did more to encourage divorce than regular church-going did to inhibit it.

Why would early marriage be associated with divorce?  Poverty puts a strain on marriage.  Young women who drop out of high school to get married have a harder time earning an income than those who postpone marriage until graduation.  This puts the burden of being a family breadwinner on the young man, whose prospects also may be poor.

Evangelical Protestant churches tend to oppose contraception, which would lead to unwanted pregnancies and shotgun marriages.  They tend to discourage sex education and promote sexual abstinence, which means newlyweds have no sexual experience and little knowledge.

But for all that, there is something worse than a culture of early marriage and early divorce, and that is the underclass culture where people never go to church and have children without thinking of marriage at all.   Early marriage and early divorce represent a step up from having sex and begetting children with multiple partners and none of the legal responsibilities that go with marriage.   In such circumstances, a strict religion such as evangelical Protestantism is a solution, not the problem.

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew

February 9, 2014

This reverent movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a gay Communist atheist, shows the intrinsic interest of the Bible to non-believers and believers alike.

Click on The Gospel According to St. Matthew for an introduction to this movie by Roger Ebert.

Click on We Are All Living Pasolini’s Theorem for an appreciation of Pier Paolo Pasolini by Pepe Escobar.

Hat tip to Steve Badrich.

Does anybody still read the Bible?

February 2, 2014

 bible-minded

My old friend Steve, who teaches English at a community college, says most of his students have incredibly detailed knowledge of the origin myth of Spider-Man, but draw a blank when asked about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   He thinks this is a big gap in their education, and I agree.

The decline of Biblical literacy is not limited to the young or the poorly educated.  I know people who are fascinated by Reza Aslan’s Zealot or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code who do not read the Gospels for themselves.  My experience is that the main groups of people who study the Bible intensely are hard-core Protestant Christian fundamentalists  who are trying to follow it and hard-core atheists (or rather anti-theists) who are trying to debunk it.

The American Bible Society did a national survey of what they call Bible-mindedness, based on the percentage of people who told a pollster they had read the Bible within the past seven days.   The chart above shows how American cities rank in Bible-mindedness (my own city, Rochester, NY, is 83rd of 100), but does not show how Bible-minded they are; that is, it doesn’t show the percentage of Bible readers in each city or in the nation as a whole.

I think it is too bad that so many Americans haven’t read the Bible because:

  • The Bible is the key to understanding American and English literature.  Without Biblical literacy, you can’t understand expressions such as “forbidden fruit” or “prodigal son”.
  • The Bible is one of the two foundations, along with the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, of American and European culture.  The heritage and values of the Bible mold the thinking even of people who don’t believe in it.
  • The Bible is so damn interesting.

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On not believing in the supernatural

February 1, 2014

I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits or the occult.   But I thought The Boy Who Was Possessed Remembers and The Devil and Latoya Ammons posts and comment threads from Rod Dreher’s web log were extremely interesting.  They consist of first-person accounts by people, including freethinkers and rationalists, of seemingly supernatural phenomena they couldn’t otherwise explain.  I think Dreher is right to say that paranormal experiences are much more common than most people are willing to let on.

When I encounter something I can’t explain, my reaction is to say that this is something I can’t explain, and suspend judgment.   Some statistician said that a million things happen to the average human being in the course of a month (I don’t know the basis for this) and therefore it would not be surprising if once a month something happened that the odds were a million to one against.  The video above shows that even the highly improbable can be true

Then, too, the ability of human beings to process sensory input into perception of reality is a more complicated process than we realize, and most human cognition takes place below the level of consciousness.  When things emerge into consciousness from our unconscious minds, it can do strange things to our perception.  I have often awakened from strange dreams, and mistaken the dreams for reality until I get my mind together.

Yet, for all this, I admit I don’t have a logical basis for not rejecting the possibility that the supernatural is real.  I believe that everything that happens is either the blind working of natural laws or the actions of sentient beings.   The supernatural, if it exists, would be the working of natural laws and actions of sentient beings that I don’t know about.

The late Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.   Yet what constitutes an extraordinary claim?  And just what kind of extraordinary evidence would satisfy him?  To the vast majority of human beings in history, and billions in the world today, the existence of ghosts and spirits is taken for granted.  Darwin’s theory, quantum theory and string theory would be regarded as the extraordinary claim.

Scientists try to make sense of the universe.  The great wisdom teachers of the world’s great religions try to give meaning to human life.  I think the occult is probably false, and, if true, to be avoided, because, to the extent that the world really is governed by arbitrary and irrational magical forces, it is a waste of time for human beings to try to make sense of life.

American exceptionalism: Church and state

January 15, 2014

One of the ways in which we Americans are exceptional in a good way is our separation of church and state.  The United States is a country that is friendly toward religion, yet the government neither subsidizes religion nor takes orders from a religious authority.

In virtually every other country of which I know, the government either taxes the public for the support of religion, or is actively hostile toward religion.  The U.S. government is neither.  Perhaps for this reason, church attendance and religious belief are stronger in the USA than in the countries of western Europe.

We have storefront churches in poor neighborhoods here in Rochester, NY, with more worshipers on a Sunday than some of the empty cathedrals of Europe, or so I am told by friends who have toured Europe.

I think the reason for this is in our history.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain’s North American colonies provided refuge to religious dissenters not only from Britain itself, but from all over Europe.  Being persecuted doesn’t necessarily make people tolerant, but the colonies became home to so many different kinds of dissenting religious groups that tolerance become a necessity.

Voltaire is supposed to have said that the best thing for a country is to have many religious sects, and the worst thing is to have just two.  The religious diversity of the United States is a safeguard of religious freedom, because no one denomination is in a position to take over..

I admit the United States has not been free of religious hatred.  The worst was the anti-Catholic riots and persecutions in the 1830s and 1840s.  As late as 1960, there were still Protestants who questioned whether a Catholic could be trusted to occupy the White House.  I do not think these attitudes were justified, but there is an explanation for them.

The Papacy in the 19th century aligned itself with European monarchs and was hostile to democratic movements and to religious tolerance.  It was mistaken, but not crazy, to think of Roman Catholicism as incompatible with American freedom and democracy.  Indeed, I might well have thought that way myself, if I had not had Catholic friends and realized that all these 19th century encyclicals were irrelevant to the way my Catholic friends and neighbors actually thought.

The same is true today of Islam.  The fear of Islam is not so much intolerance of difference as the fear of being subject to the religious law of someone else’s religion.  I think this fear is far-fetched, but if I had never met any American Muslims and nor had any Muslim friends, I would feel the same way about them as my 19th century forebears thought about Catholics.

We have a lot of controversies in the United States about separation of church and state.  Most are about trivialities—whether a local government meeting can begin with a prayer, and, if so, what kind of prayer.   I don’t care either way.  Whatever is decided, nobody is denied the right to practice their religion nor compelled to practice someone else’s religion.  This is as it should be.  Religion that is practiced out of compulsion is meaningless.

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If you take the Bible literally…

January 12, 2014

My friend Bill Elwell e-mailed me this quote by Marilynne Robinson, a Christian novelist whom I greatly admire.

marilynne-robinson41People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.”

In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with those of their adversaries, who yearn to dis-burden themselves of the weak, and to unshackle the great creative forces of competition.

The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor.

I am wary of overgeneralizing.  I would never say that Biblical fundamentalists as a group fail to follow Jesus’s teaching about giving to the poor.   I’d guess, for example, that there are Creationists in the Salvation Army, which does as much to help poor people as any organization I know, and whose political and social program, if enacted, would make the world a better place.

I recall that, 15 or so years ago, I was part of a team of volunteers for Catholic Family Services, helping resettle refugees from other lands in their new home in Rochester, N.Y.  I am a Unitarian Universalist, our team leader was a Lutheran woman and our other team members were an Irish Catholic women and a born-again Christian man, with amazing stories about people whose lives were transformed overnight by a single revival meeting.   We worked together very well.

All that said, I think we all have encountered the type of person to which Marilynne Robinson refers.  If the shoe fits, put it on.

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C.S. Lewis on the varied meanings of Christmas

December 16, 2013

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer, wrote in 1957 that the holiday we call Christmas and celebrate on Dec. 25 is really three holidays in one.

GodInTheDockThree things go by the name of Christmas.  One is a religious festival.  This is important and obligatory for Christians, but … it can be of no interest to anyone else …

The second … is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality.  If it were my business to have a ‘view’ on this, I should say I much approve of merry-making.  But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. …

But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everybody’s business.  I mean of course the commercial racket.

The idea that everybody is obligated to buy presents for all their friends, and buy cards to send to all their loved ones, friends and acquaintances, is a contemporary idea and not part of the historical idea of Christmas, Lewis wrote.  He condemned the commercial Christmas holiday on the following grounds.

1.  It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You only have to say over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare.  Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think of suitable gifts for them.  They are in no trim for merry-making, much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act.  They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

Christmas-Shopping-Fever-22.  Most of it is involuntary.  The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own.  It is almost a blackmail.  Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we can hardly remember) flops un-welcomed through the letter-box and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3.  Things are given as presents which no mortal has ever bought for himself — gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because nobody was ever fool enough to make their like before.  Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than the spend them on all this rubbish?

4.  The nuisanceFor after all, during the racket we still have our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labor of it.

Lewis wrote that if the Christmas shopping season is necessary to keep the retail stores in business, he would sooner give them the money for nothing and write it off as a charity.

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William Sloane Coffin on Socrates’ mistake

December 8, 2013
W.S. Coffin

Rev. William Sloane Coffin

Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined life but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living.   Descartes too was mistaken, “Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am?”  Nonsense,  Amo, ergo sum sum – I love therefore I am.  Or, with the unconscious eloquence St Paul wrote. “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  I believe that.  I believe that it is better not to live than not to love. 

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How many ombudsmen has the Pope?

November 18, 2013

Autocrats at the top of hierarchical organizations—whether governmental, corporate, religious, military or political—have a lot of power when it comes to crushing dissent or doing battle with outside forces.

But when it comes to internal reform, that autocratic power commonly melts away.   Autocrats who try to reform the institution they supposedly control run into mysterious resistances and obstacles.  An autocrat is only as powerful as the willing obedience of those lower in the hierarchy extends.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

That’s why I admire and sympathize with Pope Francis in his struggle to clean house at the Institute for Religious Works, also known as the Vatican Bank.  Originally set up to finance the church’s charitable activities, the Vatican Bank operates outside Italian law and financial reporting requirements, and is understood to have been infiltrated by the Italian Mafia for the purposes of money laundering.

I don’t think Pope Francis really is targeted for assassination, as some Italian prosecutors have suggested, but I do think the various Italian Mafias are powerful institutions, and not only in Italy, and they did their utmost to frustrate the Pope’s efforts.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope, I wrote about his ambiguous role in Argentina’s “dirty war” under the dictatorship.  I now think that what I wrote was uncharitable and based on incomplete information.

I admire Pope Francis not just for his highly-publicized modeling of the behavior of Jesus toward the poor, sick and outcast, but his willingness to take action against church officials who abuse their power, such as the Bishop of Limberg, Germany, who was suspended for misuse of church funds for his extravagant lifestyle.  You don’t have to be a Catholic to wish him success.

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