A new exposé of Mother Teresa shows that she—and the Vatican—were even worse than we thought

Eupraxsophy:

Very disturbing, though it confirms what I’ve already read and seen from other sources.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

First Christopher Hitchens took her down, then we learned that her faith wasn’t as strong as we thought, and now a new study from the Université de Montréal is poised to completely destroy what shreds are left of Mother Teresa’s reputation. She was the winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, was beatified and is well on her way to becoming a saint, and she’s universally admired. As Wikipedia notes:

[She was] named 18 times in the yearly Gallup’s most admired man and woman poll as one of the ten women around the world that Americans admired most. In 1999, a poll of Americans ranked her first in Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. In that survey, she out-polled all other volunteered answers by a wide margin, and was in first place in all major demographic categories except the very young.

The criticisms of…

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America’s Most Secular and Religious Cities

The Barna Group is an Evangelical Christian polling organization that focuses on the state of Christianity in the United States. Most of its research consists of determining the demographic and ideological makeup of American Christians. According to its official mission statement:

The ultimate aim of the firm is to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States. It accomplishes these outcomes by providing vision, information, evaluation and resources through a network of intimate partnerships.

Given this goal, the Barna Group is considered a reliable and trustworthy source regarding Christianity — after all, since it wants assist fellow Christians in engaging with one another or reaching out to secularists, its imperative to provide only the most accurate information available.

So, I thus far trust its conclusions, including the following study concerning America’s most secular cities. See where yours ranks (my hometown and current residence, Miami, Florida, is pretty high at 20th place).

The group’s criteria for determining irreligion were as follows:

Barna Group tracks the following 15 metrics related to faith, which speak to the lack of Christian identity, belief and practice. Read more of Barna Group’s research on the “Nones,” secularization and post-Christian America.

Post-Christian = meet at least 60% of the following 15 factors (9 or more factors)
Highly Post-Christian = meet at least 80% of the following 15 factors (12 or more factors)

1. do not believe in God
2. identify as atheist or agnostic
3. disagree that faith is important in their lives
4. have not prayed to God (in the last year)
5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
6. disagree the Bible is accurate
7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
8. have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
9. agree that Jesus committed sins
10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)

Interesting stuff, although perhaps not terribly surprising, as most of the cities are in regions well-known for their secularism (the Northeast and the West Coast). A number of large Southern and Midwestern cities weren’t far behind though.

Meanwhile, the organization provides a list of the country’s most “Bible-minded” cities, based on an interesting metric: not only individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches. After all, many avowed atheists have read the Bible, while many pious Christians haven’t. By measuring both the knowledge and attitude toward the Bible, one can get a rough approximation of religiosity.

Unlike the previous study, this one offers a pretty detailed breakdown:

On trend with much of the New England area, cities within the state of New York were on the lower end of the Bible-minded rankings. As for patterns in the three other most populous states, the research reveals the following.

  • Florida: Though in the South, most of the major cities on the peninsula rank near the bottom middle of Bible-minded cities, including West Palm Beach (28%, ranked 53rd out of 96 markets), Tampa-St. Petersburg (27%, rank: 57), Orlando (25%, rank: 64), and Miami (24%, rank: 70). The exceptions to these patterns are in the northern part of the state, including Pensacola / Mobile (45%, rank: 13) and Jacksonville (41%, rank: 20). These two cities are more on trend with other Southern states and likely reflect more of a native Floridian or Southern population and fewer transplants than the Southern Florida cities.
  • California: In addition to San Francisco being among the lowest rated, most of the major California cities are in the bottom third of the rankings. The Los Angeles media market represents a pretty normal range for California cities with 24% of the residents being Bible-minded (ranking 68th out of 96 cities,). San Diego (24%, rank: 74), Sacramento (24%, rank: 72), and Fresno / Visalia (25%, rank: 66) were also bunched in the same range. Bakersfield, CA stood out as being among the most Bible-minded cities in the Pacific states (39%, rank: 26).
  • Texas: As part of the traditional “Bible belt,” Texas stayed fairly true to trend, with most of it’s major cities ranking in the top half of Bible-minded cities. Dallas / Fort Worth ranked as the top Bible-minded city in Texas (38% Bible-minded, ranking at 27th) over San Antonio (36%, rank: 33), Houston (32%, rank: 39) and Austin (29%, rank: 48). Notable exceptions to the Bible-mindedness of Texas cities were Harlingen / Weslaco / McAllen / Brownsville (28%, rank: 56), Waco (27%, 59), and most significantly El Paso (23%, rank: 80). These exceptions are likely a result of these markets having a higher percentage of Hispanic Catholics, who are less likely to engage the Bible.

This didn’t surprise me. California is a large and diverse state with around 35 million people, and it’s long been split between it’s secular and liberal coastal and southern regions, and its more religious and conservative north and central ones. The influence of its large and typically pious Hispanic community can certainly be felt.

Meanwhile, Florida and Texas are fast-growing traditionally conservative states that are receiving an influx of immigrants and northerners, many of whom are irreligious or non-Christian. Demographically, they’re also fairly young and urban, two features that characterize secularism in the United States. Even among the fast-growing Hispanic communities in these states, there’s been a growth in both irreligion and Evangelical Christianity. This state of transition is reflected in the fact that both of these traditionally conservative states have become “purple” politically, although established Republicans continue to maintain most of the political power.

Here’s more analysis:

Among the nation’s largest 30 cities, 10 of them are in the top half of the Bible-minded market rankings, while 20 of them are in the bottom half. Generally speaking, the more densely populated areas tend to be less Bible oriented. Only three of the most Bible-minded cities are among the largest 30 cities—Charlotte (7th), Nashville, TN (14th) and Raleigh / Durham, NC (22nd). The other 22 top Bible-minded markets have fewer than 1 million households.

Still, among the largest markets there are many more relatively Bible-minded cities, including Dallas / Fort Worth (27th), Atlanta (28th), Indianapolis (32nd), Houston (39th), St. Louis (41st), Cleveland (43rd) and Detroit (46th).

Philadelphia (28%, rank: 52) is among the most Bible-minded cities along the eastern seaboard, ranking slightly higher than the aforementioned Northeastern cities as well as Washington, DC (25%, rank: 63) and Baltimore (26%, rank: 60).

Chicago is the nation’s third largest city, and while it tends to be a bastion of many evangelical organizations, ranks between New York and Los Angeles in terms of Bible-mindedness (23%, rank: 76th). Colorado Springs, CO, which is also home to many Christian organizations, is right in the middle of the pack (29%, rank: 51st). By comparison, Denver is ranked lower (71st) with about one in four individual’s qualifying as Bible-minded (24%).

In the Northwest portion of the country, the cities are all fairly similar, with about a quarter of the population being Bible-minded, including most notably Portland OR (25%, rank: 65th and Seattle, WA (24%, rank: 69th).

I also find the commentary at the very end interesting, as it sounds like something out of a marketing agency (indeed, George Barna, the group’s founder, expressly stated that his aim was to provide “research and marketing expertise as a service to Christian ministry”).

First, the large range of Bible-minded scores—from 52% in the highest markets to 9% in the lowest—shows just how diverse the nation’s population can be, from city to city. The rankings reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible, and in some markets half or more of the population claim to be open, while in other areas the proportion that is open to the Bible is more like one in ten adults. These gaps make a significant difference in the tone and tenor of conversations about Christianity, morals, public education, and spirituality, among many other topics.

Second, although there are outliers—cities in which the Bible-minded rankings are significantly above- or below-average—the overall picture that is painted depends on one’s vantage point. The least sanguine way to analyze the results would be to emphasize the lack of Bible-mindedness in America; in 91 out of 96 markets a majority of the residents are not Bible minded.

However, a more optimistic way to view those markets would be to look at those cities with at least one-fifth Bible-mindedness—meaning those areas where at least one out of five adults are open to engaging and esteeming the Bible. Among some researchers, this proportion—20%—is often thought to be something of a social or technological “tipping point” (for example, once one in five people had mobile phones, the momentum toward more people owning mobile phones began to grow exponentially). In this analysis, 83 out of 96 cities in the U.S. have at least 20% of their residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Christian leaders should recognize that most of the major cities in the nation continue to have basis for biblical engagement among a significant share of the population.

As ministry leaders in particular, it’s important to keep both vantage points in tension. Whether you live in a city ranked in the top half of Bible-minded cities or in the bottom half of Bible-minded cities, there are still tens of thousands of people to reach regarding both the message of the Scriptures and their importance. However, no matter what type of city you live in, there is also a significant remnant of Bible-minded individuals. The key is to not merely “preach to those insiders” but instead to equip and empower those who do believe with a strong and relevant message to take out into their communities, vocations and spheres of influence. They are the tipping point and can have great influence on the greater city.

Take all that as you will. Personally, I find it disquieting to speak of Christianity as if it were some product to sell, but of course, that’s not surprising given my own secularism.

Eupraxsophy:

Organized religions seem to be giving way to more personalized, individualistic, and informal belief systems. Very interesting development.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

The results of a new study on the prevalence of world religion were summarized in the New York Times last week, and I’ve now read the full report. The survey, “The global religious landscape” (download full report here) was conducted by the Pew Research Center (now in collaboration with the Templeton Foundation!).   It’s a long report (80) pages, but unless you’re interested in the variation among nations, there are only a few salient results for us.

  • The first is that although 84% of the world’s population (5.8 billion people0 identifies with a religious group, 16%—one in six—is “religiously” unaffiliated. This figure from the survey tells the tale:

Picture 1

These data are for 2010.  (Oy vey: only 0.2% Jews!)

The 1.1 billion people who aren’t affiliated with a religion aren’t, of course, all atheists.  As the report notes,

Surveys indicate that many of the unaffiliated hold some religious beliefs (such…

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How Americans View Christianity’s Affect on Society

Close to 80% of Americans identify as Christians of some form or another, and most of them are pretty devout. Given that Christianity is touted for its moral and ethical teachings, it should be expected that a society that is this overwhelmingly religious – more so than any other developed country – should see a positive impact in overall societal wellbeing. Wouldn’t Christians themselves no doubt expect this?

The survey above examined this very question. Produced by Grey Matter Research and Consulting, a private research organization, the report is called “What Difference Does Christianity Make? How People Feel the Christian Faith Really Impacts (or Doesn’t Impact) America.” The data is drawn from a demographically representative sample of 1,000US adults* who were asked how they feel the Christian faith impacts 16 different areas. The sample included Christians of different denominations, people of other faiths, and the nonreligious. Again, since most Americans, and thus most respondents, describe themselves as Christian, the results more or less show how our Christian society views the impact of its own teachings.

Needless to say, the answers are very interesting, considering that many Christians viewed their own faith as having little or no impact in many areas. From the report:

“Over half of all Americans (54%) believe the Christian faith really does not impact how people treat the environment. Almost half believe the faith has no impact on ethics in the business world (44%), participation in politics and voting (44%), the amount of substance abuse in society (43%), or differences of opinion being discussed in a civil manner (42%). Christianity is considered to lack any real impact in eight other areas by around one out of three Americans”

Even more fascinating is the complex view that different believers – as well as nonbelievers – have towards one another. The popular perception is that most Christians find their teachings to be effective and superior, while secular folks would strongly beg to differ. But a break down of the data muddles this black-and-white concept of religious versus nonreligious.

Consider that when asked about their religion’s affect on helping the less fortunate, Christians answered overwhelmingly (79%) that Christianity has a positive impact, which isn’t too surprising – Christians generally pride themselves on the charitable nature of their belief system.

However, atheist and agnostics were pretty much in agreement with them: 67% stated Christianity had a positive impact in this area. In fact, secular respondents gave Christianity a far more positive score on this question than did members of other religions  – by contrast, only 49% of non-Christian religious believers believed Christianity had a positive impact on helping the less fortunate.

But it’d interesting to note that for the most part, those identifying as “atheist/agnostic” had similar answers to people of “other (non-Christian) religions,” which may be because that both groups feel marginalized or ostracized by an overwhelmingly Christian society. Maybe there is some level for kinship too, since a lot of minorities tend to find common cause with each other. I’d be curious to know how this dynamic works out in other developed countries, in which non-Christians are a much larger force, while devout believers – especially conservative ones – are a relative minority.

Another interesting point to consider are the differences that exist within Christianity, namely between Protestants – consisting mostly of conservative Evangelicals and a smaller number of  liberal Mainline groups – and Roman Catholics, who are also divided politically. According to the data, while Protestants generally see Christianity as having a positive impact on everything, Catholics are more nuanced: if you look at the breakdown of the report, 41% of Catholics view Christianity as having a negative impact on sexuality, compared to only 27% of Protestants. This also puts a lot of Catholics at odds with their own Church.

In conclusion, it is clear that Christianity’s influence in society is more complex than most people think. It’s perceived as something of a mixed bag even by its own believers, having a positive effect only in certain social areas, and an outright negative effect on others (namely sexuality, tolerance, and our global image). More importantly for secularists, these results give lie to the frequent and simplistic claim that nonreligious people (especially self-identified atheists) viscerally reject and despise religion at every turn. While that may certainly be true of some of us (and is no different than how some Christians treat nonbelievers), it’s apparent that many atheists, along with non-Christians, give credit to Christianity in certain areas, especially in poverty alleviation (which owes itself more to the fact that Christian churches have an organized and well-established structure, as well as a broader belief base, through which to give aid). Furthermore, religious and nonreligious people alike didn’t differ in their answers all that much, even agreeing that religion had no impact one way or the other in many areas.

So as with most social and ideological phenomenon, there is far more complexity and nuance than meets the eye.

*In every post I’ve made in which poll data is referenced, someone inevitably brings up the point that only a small number of people are questioned, and thus the results should not be seen as representative of the population as a whole. However, that is why the sample is designed to represent society’s demographics as closely as possible. Given that we cannot ask these questions on the census, which is the only poll of its kind to include everyone in the country, studies like these are the closest we have to figuring out what the country believes. I’m not saying it’s 100% definitive, but it shouldn’t be reflexively dismissed either, unless you’re willing to disbelieve any and all statistical data (which a lot of people do anyway, so in that case disregard this post).

The Self-Victimization of the Religious Right

In the Washington Post’s “On Faith” forum, columnist Paula Kirby takes politicians to task on their use of person suffering, or that of loved ones, as an appeal for being elected. The piece is a bit old, and partly references the GOP faith forum held in Iowa back in November, but its message is no less relevant:

Imagine that the year is 1932 and presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, instead of addressing himself to the economic paralysis that has gripped the nation, talks endlessly about the polio-induced paralysis of his own legs as some sort of unique qualification for the presidency. He blathers on about his deep faith in God as the reason he should be elected, weeps at the memory not only of his struggle with polio but of his own sins, and generally talks to the Americans as if they were choosing a Confessor/Penitent-in-Chief instead of a president.

That was exactly the spectacle presented last Saturday by Republican presidential candidates at a forum stressing faith and family in Des Moines, Iowa. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rich Santorum and the pizza impresario Herman Cain broke down when they spoke, respectively, about the brain tumors of a friend’s son, the birth of a daughter with a severe genetically determined disability, and being diagnosed with cancer.

Boo-hoo, gentlemen. Having endured the ordinary vicissitudes or the extraordinary and unfathomable tragedies of life and having sought the help of whatever God in whom you believe has absolutely nothing to do with your suitability for the nation’s highest office. An atheist would face the same tragedies without invoking God’s help and that, too, would have nothing to do with his or her fitness for the presidency.

The Iowa forum was a triumph of the union of psychobabble and public religiosity that has come to dominate American politics. President Obama’s refusal to engage in this kind of faith-infused psychological exhibitionism is one of the main reasons why the media (and not only conservative media) have tagged him as a cool professorial type who does not know how to make a connection with ordinary people. . .

Suffering does not always ennoble but, on the contrary, can sometimes create a grandiose sense of entitlement. . . .

While I would never advocate a return to the days when photographers would, out of misplaced deference to the office of the presidency, agree not to take pictures of the president in a wheelchair, being in a wheelchair (metaphorically or literally) tells you nothing about whether a man is an effective leader. It reveals a good deal about the character of a candidates, however, when they think that they deserve votes because they’ve had cancer or a brain-damaged child. This use of personal faith and personal suffering in politics is nothing less than an obscenity.

Kirby then contrasts this view of suffering with the GOP’s increasing diffidence towards alleviating, or at least properly acknowledging, the suffering of other Americans (though some would disagree with her prescription of government intervention).

I’d also add that the problem is hardly unique to religious conservatives – just about everyone in a position of power tries to play up their “credentials” as a man (or woman) of the people, since they ostensibly endured the same experiences and suffering. Some of it is clearly opportunistic self-promotion, but a lot of it may be a genuine attempt  to convince oneself that they aren’t as disconnected or selfish as they’re made out to be. 

But from the way the Christian Right portrays it, one would think this country was enduring some atheist-led witch-hunt against the religious. Religion is under assault, the values we hold dear are being eroded, and some sinister cabal of secular-liberal elites is out to destroy Christianity, it’s values, and with it, America. This mix of paranoia, intransigence, and self-victimization has become the bedrock of religious conservative rhetoric and identity.

Never mind that Christians comprise the overwhelming majority of the population, that a good chunk of Americans define themselves as moderate to conservative, and that religious convictions, though greatly secularized, are still strong. Apparently, Christianity is an oppressed minority that must fight for its survival.

Granted, some of this is partly drawn from some understandable concerns about this country’s future prospects and the grave problems we face. But clearly it’s being taken too far. Comparing our president to murderous dictators, and invoking notions of revolution and war (sometimes explicitly) lead us down a very dangerous path. At the very least, we’re polarizing society to the point of political and ideological stagnation.

Leaving aside the political basis for this mentality, it’s clear where the religious sentiment is drawn from – the fact that religion no longer has a monopoly on public opinion and social values. To be sure, Christianity remains influential and well-resourced, especially in the realm of politics (where you have to feign piety just to get elected). By some accounts, the Christian Right is growing in both numbers and power, just as the liberal Mainline Protestants continue their precipitous decline.

But a growing number of Americans, especially the younger generations, are starting to move away from established Christian mores – there is greater acceptance of homosexuality, gay marriage, other faith traditions, and non-traditional families. Attitudes towards sex, marriage, and religious doctrines have liberalized. Religion is still influential, but comparatively less so, especially as it’s taken on a more spiritual, non-denominational, and individualized character.

So for the most part, all of this thundering rhetoric is reactionary. Any time a dominant institution finds itself the least bit threatened, especially after a long period of privilege, it starts to become fearful and indignant. Raising so much ire about a loss of sociocultural hegemony is not a sign of confidence and security.

In all fairness, however, this mentality isn’t limited to the Christian right. Both leftists and atheists are prone to this behavior as well, albeit not with the same sense of flair or rhetorical skill (the political right is far better at framing issues or invoking the powerful symbolism of the Bible or American history). Everyone feels threatened, and the mood in this country is of palpable and intractable conflict between hardened factions: left vs. right, religious vs. secular, 1% vs. 99%, and so on. I discussed most of this at length several posts back.

I think that the same problem afflicts part of the atheist movement, the part in which any real or ostensible offense— offensiveness being the mildest form of suffering — is seen not only as a badge of honor, but as a plea for self-affirmation, a kind of affirmation that, I think, detracts from the goals of our movement.  How does it advance our agenda to heap tons of opprobrium on a misguided purveyor of gelato—especially one who immediately apologized—or to blame our personal failures on discrimination against atheists?  We know we’re a reviled minority, so let’s accept that, call it out when it seriously impedes our mission, and get on with the job.

 

 

George Carlin’s Thought-Provoking Humor

The great George Carlinwho died in 2008, was probably one of the best comedians of our time (indeed, he was often rated as such during his lifetime). He was one of the few in his career to successfully combine social commentary, politics, philosophy, and humor into nearly all his stand-up work. He could make you laugh and think at the same time, which is no easy feat: mixing vulgarity and insightful observation requires a lot of finesse, and subsequently few comedians even try to do that, much less accomplish it effectively.

He was noted social critic and satirist, especially of modern American and Western culture. Among the diverse subjects he touched on were consumerism, religion (he was an atheist), society’s obsession with fame and celebrity, conservative Christianity, political alienation, corporate power, hypocrisy, child raising, fast food, media, self-help publications, nationalism, sexual taboos, government surveillance, and the pro-life position, in addition to many more.

His regular “Seven Dirty Words” routine even figured in the landmark 1978  Supreme Court case F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, which narrowly upheld the government’s power to regulate indecent material on the public airwaves.

Below is just a sample of Carlin’s genius. I should know that he was also famously cynical and misanthropic, and that shows in a lot of his skits. Even if you didn’t agree with his positions, you had to give him credit for raising some important issues to reflect on. Humor as an excellent but often underrated medium for conveying ideas, especially when your trying to reach a wide audience. It’s said that delivery is just as vital as the substance itself.

 

 

 

 

This list is hardly exhaustive, and you could easily find more on YouTube. I’ll probably share other videos from time to time. You can read some excerpts of his commentary here.

The Tragic Story of Amina Filali

If only horrific stories like these were as isolated as they seem. Sadly, far too many women endure this poor girl’s fate. It’s disturbing to realize that it’s happening even as I speak, and few people either know about it or care.

You can read more about this case, and it’s repercussions, here. I don’t care what the cultural, traditional, or religious pretext of a given social norm is: if it violates a person’s freedom, dignity, and human rights, it should be admonished and opposed. Cultural relativism should not trump ethics. Obviously, some circumstance are more complex, but this disturbing case is clearly non-negotiable.

If you want to help girls like Amina, click here to sign a petition to the Moroccan government. There’s no guarantee it’ll work of course, but there’s no reason not to at least try.

Creationism in Schools

Even though the US Supreme Court ruled against the teaching of creationism in public schools in 1987 (as per church-state separation), efforts to re-introduce this religious belief have continued unabated to this day.

The most recent attempt was to re-package it as intelligent design, a pseudoscientific claim that certain biological developments bear the signs of an intelligent designer rather than a natural process (said designer is sometimes left vague, other times specified as the Christian God).

Because it lacked any sort of scientific merit – even by the admission of some of its proponents – this unfounded “theory” was rejected in a federal court case in 2003, along the same grounds as creationism (note that the presiding judge, John Jones III, was a regular churchgoer)

But neither the courts nor the weight of scientific evidence have done much to bury this movement. The National Center for Science Education(NCSE) has provided some recent updates, some good and others disquieting.

First, comes a patent nonstarter: a bill passed by the Indiana Senate last year that would have made it legal to teach creationism in science classes, until it was shelved by the Indiana House for its clear violation of court law. The bill can be read here, with its most damning provision being the following:

Sec. 18. The governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.

A clear-cut case if there ever was one. Also note the term creation science, as if the story of Genesis, or some derivative thereof, was empirically and methodically established.

Moving on, there was the House Education Committee of the State of New Hampshire that had dismissed two absurd bills regarding the teaching of science in schools. As you’ll see, they were clearly doomed to fail from the start, but the fact that they were even proposed is still a bit troubling. As a local periodical reported:

The first bill, sponsored by Rep. Gary Hopper of Weare, told teachers to present all scientific theories as works-in-progress that students should challenge. The second, introduced by Rep. Jerry Bergevin of Manchester, required teachers to present evolutionary scientists’ political and religious affiliations along with their scientific theories.

Not only would the first bill attack evolution, but pretty much all the core scientific theories, such as gravity and relativity, which underpin the very workings of the universe. Imagine being taught that we pretty much shouldn’t come to a conclusion about anything we’ve learned through science. Yes, a scientific mindset requires a certain level of fallibilism – science itself is constantly progressing and reevaluating. But this bill would’ve pushed it to a ridiculous level. Meanwhile, the second bill would not only have highlighted personal details that are irrelevant to the subject matter in question, but imply that certain ideologies are to be distrusted – don’t believe the scientists who are liberal or secular, for example, regardless of the veracity of their theories.

Meanwhile, however, things aren’t looking good for science in Alabama, one of the country’s most religious states, and the only one that requires an evolution disclaimer to be stuck to every biology textbook used by public schools. The State House of Representatives has introduced a bill that allows public school students to receive academic credit for out-of-school religious instruction, provided that it’s not on school property, isn’t subsidized by the state in any way (including transportation) and is not required or sponsored by the public school that the student is attending.

The problem? Well for one thing, the idea that students can receive class credit for religious courses is clearly a way to circumvent the ban on religious instruction in public schools (note that this isn’t a study of religion, which is rightly acceptable, but actual theological teaching).

Secondly, the bill is almost certainly designed to allow for the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution, to the extent that even the bill’s original sponsor went on record to say that its point is “to balance the presentation of evolution in the public schools.” That clearly flies in the face of established legal precedent. How would schools regulate such courses? What if other religions or opposing denominations get involved? Suddenly, government may get tangled up in religious matters that it is forbidden from being involved in.

One silver lining to all this is that scientists in Alabama are trying to fight back. Faculty from several departments in the University of Alabama have created create an Evolution Working Group which promotes and provides the teaching of evolution (you can learn about its seminar series here. They’ve even managed to establish a Minor in Evolutionary Studies, which include relevant courses in philosophy, geology, and anthropology.

Still, it’s going to be a long and hard slog for science, especially on the evolution front, since the overwhelming majority of Americans reject the theory and see it as fundamentally opposed to their religious beliefs.

A Strange But Familiar Fear

A disturbing thought sometimes seeps into my mind while I try to fall asleep: what if I never wake up? What if something happens to me while I’m unconscious and this moment before ends up being my last? It’s a bizarre thing to consider before bed, but my mind tends to wander the moment it’s given a pause from the daily concerns that occupy it.

Few people ever go to sleep or wake up wondering what day will be last. For obvious reasons, most human beings tend to avoid such thoughts, even though death is always omnipresent. Too many people die random and pointless deaths, never having fair warning or a chance to prepare. It scares me to no end to know that this could happen to me at any moment, even as I write this. There are so many ways for our fragile lives to end.

I wonder what the end would be like. As an atheist, I obviously don’t envision a world beyond this one, although I’m open to the possibility, however unlikely. So if we don’t enter another state of existence when we die, what happens? Does everything just go black? The only reason anything exists to me is because I am a conscious and cognitive being: if that awareness ends, then what? What would it feel like to be nothing? If there is no feeling, how does one imagine not feeling it or seeing it coming?

It’s ponderings like these that not only keep me up at night (literally) but that make understand why so many people believe in an afterlife. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around non-existence.

In the meantime, I’ll keep making the most of this persistent neurosis by trying to live each moment like my last. It’s a morbid thing to consider, but it really helps me enjoy life to the fullest. As far as any of us knows for certain, we have but one life and one Earth, and it’s best not to take any chances as far as squandering them – including through nerve-wracking but aimless thoughts like these.

Post Script:
I apologize to any long-term readers who have already read similar musings on here before. As you can imagine, this is a recurring issue for me. But since this is partly an online journal, expect me to share what’s on my mind for it’s own sake, rather than for an intended audience.

 

Dominionism

Dominionism is a little-known Christian movement that is so complex and enigmatic that its very existence is debated. Though it’s been discussed in academic circles for a few decades, the ideology garnered considerably more attention this past fall, when several GOP presidential candidates were seen to have ties with various “Dominionist” organizations.

Around that time, NPR did an interview with the leader of one such group, the New Apostolic Reformation. The link above will take you to the full radio discussion, and includes a transcript that covers most of it. This is a basic summary of the organization and its head.

A new charismatic Christian movement that seeks to take dominion over politics, business and culture in preparation for the end times and Jesus’ return is becoming more of a presence in American politics. The leaders are considered apostles and prophets, gifted by God for this role. Several apostles affiliated with the movement helped organize or spoke at Rick Perry’s August prayer rally, The Response.

The international “apostolic and prophetic” movement has been dubbed the New Apostolic Reformation by C. Peter Wagner, who has become one of its leaders. He describes himself as the first person who noticed the movement, gave a name to it and started writing books about it. He was, until recently retiring, the president of Global Harvest Ministries. For 30 years, he was a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Missions.

As to be expected from that introduction, these folks are a bit loopy. Consider some of the highlights of the interview:

On the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan being connected to the emperor of Japan having sex with the sun goddess
“That happened many, many years ago, and that created a spiritual atmosphere over Japan which was an atmosphere ruled by the powers of darkness. The sun goddess is not a very nice lady. The sun goddess is a power of darkness, which is headed up by the kingdom of Satan. And so the sun goddess wants natural disasters to come to Japan. Sometimes the hand of God, which is more powerful, will prevent them. And when he decides to prevent them and when he doesn’t is far beyond anything that we can predict.”

“But in this case, God could have prevented that tsunami and the destruction, but he didn’t. He just took his hand off and allowed these natural forces to work. And one of the background pieces of information is Japan is under control of the sun goddess.”

 On demons
As we talk, in Oklahoma City there is an annual meeting of a professional society called the Apostolic — called the International Society of Deliverance Ministers, which my wife and I founded many years ago. … This is a society of a large number, a couple hundred, of Christian ministers who are in the ministry of deliverance. Their seven-day-a-week occupation is casting demons out of people. And they have professional expertise in this and they happen to meeting — to be meeting right now. My wife is one of them. She’s written a whole book called How to Cast Out Demons. And I don’t do that much. Once in a while when I get in a corner, I might. But that’s — that’s been her ministry. And so I’ve been very, very close to that for years. We’ve been married for 60 years.”
 
On people in American politics being possessed by demons
“We don’t like to use the word possessed because that means they don’t have any power of their own. We like to use the word afflicted or, technical term, demonized. But there are people who — yes, who are — who are directly affected by demons, not only in politics, but also in the arts, in the media and religion in the Christian church.”
 
On demon identification
“Sometimes they know. Sometimes the demon has identified itself to the person. Sometimes you can tell by manifestations of superhuman, unhuman behavior. Sometimes you can tell by skilled deliverance ministers. My wife has a five-page questionnaire that she has people fill out before she ministers to them. So she asks the kind of questions that a medical doctor would ask to find out, to diagnose an illness. So she actually does diagnostic work on people to discover not only if they have demons, but what those demons might be.”
A disproportionate about of his attention seems to be on demons, whose exact nature is disturbingly vague. I’m quite certain the criteria for being identified as “demonic” or “demon-possessed” are quite flexible, making for a convenient way to identify cultural and ideological competitors as being the agents of ultimate evil. Case in point:

On spiritual mapping to cast demons out of cities

“When you talk about demons over cities, we’re talking about what — sometimes what we refer to as territorial spirits, and they’re more high-ranking spirits in the hierarchy of darkness and they’re more powerful and they require different approaches, and it’s not as easy as commanding them to leave in the name of Jesus. So sometimes there has to be repentance, sometimes there has to be — there has been bloodshed in that city that needs to be repented of, there has been idolatry in the city that has ruined the land. There’s been immorality that needs to be repented of, and there are several social things that people really need to acknowledge that they’re bad and repent of them and ask forgiveness. … There are certain individuals in our whole movement that have special gifts for doing that, and they’re helping lead the way in weakening the power of the spirits. We don’t believe we can kill demons and sometimes we don’t believe we can completely get ‘em out, get ‘em away from a city, but we can reduce their power. We can bind them, and then we can move strongly with the kingdom of God into the city.” 

Perhaps the only thing more disquieting than this medieval superstition is the authoritarian structure of the organization, which is actually quite characteristic of most religious institutions.
On what it means to be an apostle
“In terms of the role of the apostle, one of the biggest changes from traditional churches to the New Apostolic Reformation is the amount of spiritual authority delegated by the Holy Spirit to individuals. And the two key words are authority and individuals — and individuals as contrasted to groups. So now, apostles have been raised up by God who have a tremendous authority in the churches of the New Apostolic Reformation.”
 
On the role of the prophet
“God has chosen certain people from the church to have the gift of prophecy. And it says in the Old Testament in the Book of Amos that God does nothing unless he first reveals his secrets to his servants the prophets. So that’s a very key role. It hasn’t been recognized by the church very much up until the New Apostolic Reformation, but we recognize the role of prophet.” 

Notice the lack of qualifiers for what constitutes either an apostle or a prophet. As in most religions, anyone can claim to be chosen by the divine, and can thus attribute their own whims as those of a higher power. This is a dangerous recipe for abuse and manipulation – when you can claim legitimacy from an invisible and untestable source, anyone can take advantage. Authority should always justify itself and be accountable in some way.

So how does this mentality bode for the group’s view on government?

On what he means when he describes the NAR’s mission as taking dominion overbusiness, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family and religion
“In terms of taking dominion, we don’t — we wouldn’t want to — we use the word dominion, but we wouldn’t want to say that we have dominion as if we’re the owners or we’re the rulers of, let’s say, the arts and entertainment mountain. What we strive to do and our goal is to have people in the arts and entertainment mountain who are committed to the kingdom of God, so therefore, we use the adjective there — kingdom-minded believers — and our goal is to try to have as many kingdom-minded believers in positions of influence in the arts and entertainment mountain as possible. And the reason for that is, to help bring the blessings of heaven to all those in the arts and entertainment mountain.”
 
On dominionism and acquiring leadership positions in government
“We believe in working with any — with whatever political system there is. In America, it’s democracy and working with the administrative, judicial and legislative branches of the government, the way they are, but to have as many kingdom-minded people in influence in each one of these branches of government as possible so that the blessings of the kingdom will come.”

There isn’t much that’s out-of-step with the mainstream Christian Right. Despite their radical views on other matters, the NAR seems to be typical of most evangelical groups (even the demonology might not be that far off). In fact, if you read or listen to the rest of the interview, Wagner discusses topics homosexuality, Islam, and the coming of Jesus in a relatively tame way. So what’s the big deal about Dominionism?

Well, the NAR represents just one element of the broad Dominionist movement, and its overall goals are for less savory. A group called Tal to Action provides a much more in-depth account about what this unusual Christian movement is about. Rachel TabachnickBruce WilsonFrederick Clarkson.

Dominionism is a broad political impulse within the Christian Right in the United States. It comes in a variety of forms that author Fred Clarkson and I call soft and hard. Fred and I probably coined the term “Dominionism” back in the 1990s, but in any case we certainly were the primary researchers who organized its use among journalists and scholars.

Clarkson noted three characteristics that bridge both the hard and the soft kind of Dominionism.

  • Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe the United States once was, and should again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
  • Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
  • Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, believing that the Ten Commandments, or “biblical law,” should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing Biblical principles.

At the apex of hard Dominionism is the religious dogma of Dominion Theology, with two major branches: Christian Reconstructionism and Kingdom Now theology. It is the latter’s influence on the theopolitical movement called the New Apostolic Reformation that has been linked in published reports to [former] Republican presidential nominees Perry, Bachmann or Palin. All three of these right-wing political debutantes have flirted with Christian Right Dominionism, but how far they have danced toward the influence of hard-right Dominion Theology is in dispute. It would be nice if some “mainstream” journalists actually researched the question.

“While differing from Reconstructionism in many ways, Kingdom Now shares the belief that Christians have a mandate to take dominion over every area of life,” explains religion scholar Bruce Barron. And it is just this tendency that has spread through evangelical Protestantism, resulting in the emergence of “various brands of `dominionist’ thinkers in contemporary American evangelicalism,” according to Barron.

The most militant Dominion Theologists would silence dissenters and execute adulterers, homosexuals and recalcitrant children. No…seriously. OK, they would only be executed for repeated offenses, explain some defenders of Christian Reconstructionism. Even most Christian Right activists view the more militant Dominion Theologists as having really creepy ideas.

It sounds like pretty scary stuff, but because there’s a lot of overlap between Dominionism and the broader Christian Right, it’s hard to say how many Christians actually believe in any of this, let alone actively participate in such groups. It could very well be a minority small enough to merit little attention or concern. But the fact that some presidential hopefuls may have been influenced by this kind of thinking is pretty disturbing, especially since it goes beyond mere attaining power within our democratic system.

Advocates of Dominion Theology go beyond the democracy eroding theocracy of Dominionism into a totalitarian form of religious power called a “theonomy,” in which pluralistic democracy and religious tolerance are seen as a problem to be solved by godly men carrying out God’s will. Karen Armstrong calls Christian Reconstructionism “totalitarian” because it leaves “no room for any other view or policy, no democratic tolerance for rival parties, no individual freedom.” Matthew N. Lyons and I call Christian Reconstructionism a “new form of clerical fascist politics,” in our book Right-Wing Populism in America, because we see it echoing the religiously based clerical fascist movements that existed during World War II in countries including Romania and Hungary. 

According to Fred Clarkson:

Reconstructionists believe that there are three main areas of governance: family government, church government, and civil government. Under God’s covenant, the nuclear family is the basic unit. The husband is the head of the family, and wife and children are “in submission” to him. In turn, the husband “submits” to Jesus and to God’s laws as detailed in the Old Testament. The church has its own ecclesiastical structure and governance. Civil government exists to implement God’s laws. All three institutions are under Biblical Law, the implementation of which is called “theonomy.”

Christian Reconstructionists believe that as more Christians adopt Dominion Theology, they will eventually convert the majority of Americans. Then the country will realize that the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are merely codicils to Old Testament biblical law. Because they believe this is God’s will, they scoff at criticism that what they plan is a revolutionary overthrow of the existing system of government. Over the past 20 years the leading proponents of Reconstructionism have included founder Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Gary DeMar, and Andrew Sandlin. Kingdom Now theology emerged from the Latter Rain Pentacostal movement and the concept of Spiritual Warfare against the literal demonic forces of Satan. It has been promoted by founder Earl Paulk as well as C. Peter Wagner, founder of the New Apostolic Reformation movement.

For many, President Obama and the Democratic Party are among these “demonic forces.” This has real world consequences.

It certainly does – almost any ideology that is driven by absolute and unempirical dogma will cause great harm to society. Zealotry that isn’t constrained by real-world consequences or rationality can wreak all sorts of havoc. In this case, Dominionists aren’t satisfied with simply electing pious people into office and passing laws based upon Christian values. They want to completely supplant secular civil society with a despotic and patriarchal brand of theocracy, one which will extend into all areas of society, and which should never be questioned or resisted.

Religion scholar Bruce Barron explains that “unlike the Christian Right, Reconstructionism is not simply or primarily a political movement; it is first and foremost an educational movement fearlessly proclaiming an ideology of total world transformation.” According to sociologist Sara Diamond, Christian Reconstructionism spread the “concept that Christians are Biblically mandated to `occupy’ all secular institutions” to the extent that it became “the central unifying ideology for the Christian Right.”

I can imagine that many non-Dominionists would sympathize with these views as well. After all, anyone with a belief system that claims moral preeminence would prefer that it apply to everyone. Nothing promotes certainty and self-righteousness more than believing that the most powerful being imaginable is backing you up.

Even so, are any of these objectives resonating with the quarter or so of Americans who identify as evangelical right-wing Christians?

It is difficult to assess the influence of Reconstructionist thought with any accuracy. Because it is so genuinely radical, most leaders of the Religious Right are careful to distance themselves from it. At the same time, it clearly holds some appeal for many of them. One undoubtedly spoke for others when he confessed, `Though we hide their books under the bed, we read them just the same.’

Martin reveals that “several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists.” The late Christian Right leaders Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy “endorsed Reconstructionist books” for example. Before he died in 2001, the founder of Christian Reconstuctionism, R. J. Rushdoony, appeared several times on Christian Right televangelist programs such as Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and the program hosted by D. James Kennedy.

“Pat Robertson makes frequent use of `dominion’ language,” says Martin. Robertson’s book, The Secret Kingdom, “has often been cited for its theonomy elements; and pluralists were made uncomfortable when, during his presidential campaign, he said he `would only bring Christians and Jews into the government,’ as well as when he later wrote, `There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world.’ “

Martin also pointed out that Jay Grimstead, who led the Coalition on Revival, “brought Reconstructionists together with more mainstream evangelicals.” According to Martin, Grimstead explained “`I don’t call myself [a Reconstructionist],” but “A lot of us are coming to realize that the Bible is God’s standard of morality…in all points of history…and for all societies, Christian and non-Christian alike….It so happens that Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and North understood that sooner.”

Then Grimstead added, “there are a lot of us floating around in Christian leadership–James Kennedy is one of them–who don’t go all the way with the theonomy thing, but who want to rebuild America based on the Bible.”

In other words, let’s not jump the gun on assuming that every conservative Christian has totalitarian sympathies (at least not in the area of governance). Indeed, it’d be no different than the way many of them accuse secular liberals of seeking to impose a tyrannical form of social engineering.

Even if this group is serious in its intentions and influential, there’s no reason to assume that they’ll actually succeed in reorganizing society around their extreme form of theocracy – I have far more faith in the integrity of the political system and the reasonableness of the American public.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary of it. I’m sure many Christians would be just as opposed to Dominionist doctrines and aims as any secularist like me. It’s a good reminder of the importance of being well-informed and rational, especially as it pertains to ideologies that purport to alter the way people are governed.

If anyone is interested, you can read more about Dominionism from authors Rachel TabachnickBruce WilsonFrederick Clarkson. The first of them also did an excellent exposé on the podcast Point of Inquiry.

Decide for yourselves: is this stuff a real threat, or are scholars – and myself – being too alarmist?