A Tree of World Religions

Humans today practice around 4,200 religions in total, albeit only a handful of which can be classified as major “world religions“, with followers in the tens of millions or more.

Throughout history there may have been tens of thousands of other distinct religious traditions, the vast majority of which are no longer followed. (The complex and often nebulous definition of “religion” makes it hard to get a solid count.)

Someone named Dzvenislava Novakіvska from what looks to be a Ukrainian consulting firm has created a gorgeous and extensively detailed “tree of world religions” (which is nonetheless labeled in English). Continue reading

The Psychosocial Roots of Religion

An international study published in Nature aims to explore religion’s role in expanding and refining beneficial social values such as cooperation, mutual trust, and fairness. The study’s premise alone is of tremendous interest to me as both a secular humanist and a science buff, but the abstract is even more intriguing. Continue reading

What Do Rabbits and Eggs Have To Do With Easter?

If, like me, you have ever wondered what things as disparate as bunnies and eggs have to do with the resurrection of Jesus in Christianity, then check out Vox’s quick but comprehensive explanation of these unusual symbols.

First, the iconic Easter Bunny.

The first historical references we have to an Easter Bunny date to the 16th-century German tale. According to this legend, a mysterious creature named Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, visited children while they slept and rewarded them for their good behavior (similar to Santa). The children made nests for the hare, which would then lay colored eggs in them.

The tale was then brought to America by Germany immigrants in the 18th century. In the United States, the hare became a rabbit and grew in prominence as books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Easter Bunny That Overslept (1957) were published. In 1971, ABC aired a television special called Here Comes Peter Cottontail based on a 1957 book.

The history of why, exactly, German Protestants came to associate Easter with a magical hare is somewhat murky.

One theory is that hares were traditionally associated with new life, due to their high fertility rate. Some have theorized that there is a connection between hares and the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre —€” the goddess from whose name “Easter” may be derived, according to one source.

Eggs, meanwhile, have a more complex and ancient origin. Continue reading

How Medieval Islamic Theology Can Fight ISIS

Islam is distinct from many other faiths in having a very complex legalistic character, which among other things, provides a lot of leeway for adapting to the modern world, including the current challenges posed by globalization, pluralism, and modernity.

One of example of this tradition is the ancient yet surprisingly progressive concept of irja, which, as explained by Mustafa Aykol in an excellent New York Times piece, offers a valuable counter to the regressive and viciously intolerant dogma of Islamic State (emphasis mine).

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing”. It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate”. Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.

The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia”, the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers”. The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism.

So contrary to popular belief, Islam has the potential to be a tolerant and pluralistic belief, even if it ultimately — like Judaism and Christianity — proposes an exclusivist ideology. Mainstream Muslims can draw from a deep tradition of theological compromise and pragmatism to combat the bloodthirsty expansionism and sectarianism of extremists.

And while irja sadly did not survive the tumultuous early years of Islam, its legacy remains in practice, if not explicitly.

…There are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who are also engaged in irja, even if they are unfamiliar with the term. Some of them are focused on the Quran, instead of the medieval Shariah, and hold on to the famous Quranic verse that says, “There is no compulsion in religion”. Other Muslims are under the cultural influence of Western liberalism. Others are under the influence of Sufism, the mystical brand of Islam, which focuses on the individual’s willful godliness rather than strict adherence to rules and laws. In its condemnation of irja, the Islamic State also targets these lenient Muslims. They are the ones … who “made Islam into a mere claim having no reality”. They must be reminded that “Allah’s mercy and forgiveness is not an excuse to commit sins”.

It is no surprise that fanatical ideologues like I.S. would be steadfastly opposed to irja. But as Aykol rightly concludes, the group and its allies will have a tougher time making their case if more and more of their fellow Muslims step up to reclaim the label and, more importantly, put it into practice.

I call on my like-minded coreligionists to join me in wearing the irja badge with pride — and revived knowledge. We lost this key theology more than a millennium ago, but we desperately need it today to both end our religious civil wars and to establish liberty for all.

Aware that irja is its theological antidote, the Islamic State presents it as a lack of religious piety. It is, however, true piety combined with humility — the humility that comes from honoring God as the only judge of men. On the other hand, the Islamic State’s zeal to dictate, which it presents as piety, seems to be driven by arrogance — the arrogance of judging all other men, and claiming power over them, in the name of God.

If any good can come from Islamic State’s bloody and disruptive emergence, it is the possibility that the group’s unleashing of Islam’s darkest elements will compel more Muslims to do some soul searching and tap into the understated wellspring of tolerant and pluralistic values. Just as the wars of religion within Christianity eventually led to a softening of Christian dogma and an emergence of more progressive strains of the faith, so, too, could Islam hopefully benefit from a similar and legitimate path towards progress — hopefully at less cost along the way.

What are your thoughts?

Continue reading

Graph: The World’s Most Religious Societies

The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes survey measured the degree to which people around the world value religion in their personal lives.  The results show that poorer and less stable countries tend to be more religious, although there are some interesting outliers to this pattern.

Religious Conviction Around The World

Courtesy of The Telegraph

The above data is drawn from over 45,400 interviews from adults spanning the forty subjection nations. (You can learn more about the methodology here.) Continue reading

Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

Even as an atheist, I have always found Buddhism – with its almost uniquely nontheistic orientation, its relatively pragmatic doctrines, and its philosophical principles — to be fairly palatable as far as religions go.

A recent study reported in Quartz confirms this sentiment by demonstrating that Buddhist teachings about the self — our concept of who we are — meshes remarkably well with the latest findings in neuroscience. Continue reading

The Katskhi Pillar, Georgia

The Hermit Monk of the Katskhi Pillar

Maxime Qavtaradze is a Georgian monk in his early sixties who has literally taken his piety to new heights: for over 20 years, he has been living in almost complete solitude atop a 131-foot natural column outside the town of Chiatura, Georgia (the country).

Monk Maxime is continuing the ancient practice of the stylites, also known as pillar-saints, Christian ascetics who lived on pillars to avoid worldly temptation and be closer to God. It was first practiced over 1,500 years ago, with the monastery on the Katskhi pillar dating back to the ninth or tenth century. Continue reading

The End of Casual Christianity

As expected, the response to a recent Pew report finding a precipitous decline in religious believers in the United States has generally been doom and gloom among most Christians. But as an article in the Washington Post rightly points out, the issue of declining piety — and its subsequent impact on society and policies — is a lot more nuanced that meets the eye.

Most of the actual decline in believers from 2007 to 2014 was concentrated among Roman Catholics and the Protestant mainline, and among those most loosely tethered to religious faith. Evangelical Christians held pretty steady, which set up an odd chain of reactions. Secularists were pleased about the decline of Christianity. Some conservative Christians were pleased about the decline of theological liberalism. The latter is evidence of an old grudge.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant mainline decisively won the battle for cultural preeminence — triumphing in public battles such as the Scopes Trial and leaving fundamentalists to retreat into a subculture. So the mainline’s comeuppance is met with uncharitable satisfaction in some conservative circles — call it William Jennings Bryan’s revenge. The language of “decline”, however, is imprecise. The mainline has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture. “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive”, says historian George Marsden, “if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture”.

Indeed, with most liberal Christians being, in effect, deists — denying retrograde doctrines and theologies — it makes sense that the natural progression would be towards outright irreligiosity, agnosticism, or atheism. Continue reading

The Invisible Atheists of the Arab World

From The New Republic comes an interesting look at the rarely acknowledged world of nonbelievers in the Middle East, namely in Arab countries. Though still a largely religious and conservative region, the ranks of secular people, including  atheists, is growing quickly and to significant proportions — stereotypes notwithstanding.

While Arab states downplay the atheists among their citizens, the West is culpable in its inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist. In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. In Europe, the debate focuses on immigration (are “Muslim immigrants” adverse to secular freedoms?) while in the United States, the central topic is terrorism (are “Muslims” sympathetic to it?). As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA.

The Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world. In 2012, a wide-ranging WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi citizens—more than a million people—self-identify as “convinced atheists”, the same percentage as in the United States. Nineteen percent of Saudis—almost six million people—think of themselves as “not a religious person”. (In Italy, the figure is 15 percent.) These numbers are even more striking considering that many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Yemen, uphold the sharia rule punishing apostasy with death.

…the percentage of people who express some measure of religious doubt is higher in the Arab world (22 percent) than in South Asia (17 percent) and Latin America (16 percent). And that 22 percent is only an average; the percentage goes higher in some Arab countries, from 24 percent in Tunisia up to 37 percent in Lebanon. Considering the extent to which the Arab social and political environment impedes the expression of non­belief, the numbers of doubters and atheists would likely be significantly higher if people felt freer to speak their minds. In January, Egyptian atheist activist Ahmed Harqan told Ahram Online, “If the state preserved and protected the rights of minorities, the numbers of those who reveal they’re atheists would increase tenfold”.

Arab societies, though far from free and liberal by Western standards, are a lot more progressive and pluralistic than many would assume. Though nonbelievers still have it tough, and face both social and political repercussions, they find themselves in environments that are increasingly more accommodating to their lifestyle.

The fact of the matter is, except in relatively small ultra-­religious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world. For example, though forbidden in Islam, drinking alcohol is commonplace, particularly among the educated middle and upper classes. Until recently in Morocco, a country that produces large quantities of wine (alongside Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan), alcohol was sold in a super­market chain owned by King Mohammed VI, also known as the Commander of the Faithful. In a recent speech, Nabil Al Fadhl, a Kuwaiti member of parliament, deplored his country’s prohibition of alcoholic beverages, in effect since 1964, for driving young people to drink clandestinely manufactured—and thus dangerous—beverages.

Sex outside of marriage, another practice prohibited by Islam, is also unexceptional, especially in urban environments where genders have been mixing in the public space for more than half a century. In Morocco, a study determined that 800 clandestine abortions (presumably prompted by out-of-wedlock pregnancies) are performed on any given day.

Likewise, while Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at fixed times, including twice during working hours, believers typically skip the prayers while they’re at work and perform them once back home. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most zealous Arab countries when it comes to religious protocol, shops have to close for about 15 minutes at each prayer call to allow the customers to perform their religious duty. But you can often see small crowds of people gathered on the sidewalk and waiting idly—some taking a cigarette break—until the shops reopen.

In today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it. Nonreligious attitudes and beliefs are tolerated as long as they’re not conspicuous. As a system, social hypocrisy provides breathing room to secular lifestyles, while preserving the façade of religion. Atheism, per se, is not the problem. Claiming it out loud is. So those who publicize their atheism in the Arab world are fighting less for freedom of conscience than for freedom of speech.

All this sounds very familiar, not unlike what has happened (and is still happening) in the developed world. But unlike in most parts of the world, secularism in the Arab world takes on a more political tone, which reflects the degree to which religion is intertwined with the ruling elites (especially in the Gulf). To be secular, especially openly atheist, is to challenge the status quo of the powers that be, who use religion as a tool of control.

I recommend reading the rest of the article to get a full picture of the political and social implications of secularism growing in one of the world’s most religious regions. Feel free to weigh in.

The Cruelty and Inanity of LGBT Discrimination

From Daniel Fincke’s Camels With Hammers column on Patheos:

[LGBT people] do not want to be praised or blamed on account of the accident of their sexual orientation but want the same dignity to be treated based on the content of their character as expressed in deeds. Even if you had a good reason to say that that homosexual acts were immoral, this does not justify the sorts of conformity enforcing brutality that even non-sexually active homosexually oriented gays have routinely received from bullies—including policemen, including legislators exploiting the vulnerability of this unpopular minority to gin up support for themselves as George Wallace (initially relatively indifferent to segregation) did.

Even were being gay like being an alcoholic, which it’s not, would that justify losing one’s job and one’s family’s approval and being harassed by bullies and policemen even when one’s behavior does not intrude on anyone else’s lives? Unlike the alcoholic who says and does rude, thoughtless, and physically reckless things which endanger others bodily and mentally, the gay person merely being gay in your presence does no harm to you. Why justify the abuse meted out to such people?

And if you think that being gay is a genetic disorder, does this mean you promote disownment of children with gentic disorders? Should mayors who have genetic disorders be assassinated for their disorders as Harvey Milk was for what you think was his? That would not be evidence of any “real” discrimination as I imagine you think Harvey Milk’s murder wasn’t anything “real”?


Gays exist. Just because they cannot naturally and directly reproduce with their sexual/romantic love partners as you and I could, does not mean that they cannot love, that they could not raise children with as much love and wisdom as any straight person, does not mean they can not contribute to society morally and creatively as much as anyone else, does not mean they cannot successfully use IVF technology to create genetic children even where some heterosexual couples never are able to.

But you won’t “celebrate” these real human beings who number in the tens or possibly hundreds of millions worldwide finding ways to live as full lives as possible, simply because doing so involves a few extra-circuitous routes to overcome a genetic dilemma. That’s it. So, I guess you close your arms and spit when you see the Special Olympics because, goddamn it, we can’t promote people in wheel chairs playing sports or else people will think of breaking their legs! We cannot approve of access for wheel chairs or more braille in public places lest people think blindness itself or inoperative legs themselves are great things. No one is saying that gays’ inabilities to directly reproduce is what makes being gay a good thing. What we are saying is that this is only one obstacle that can no more “handicap” gays from as loving, as fully excellent lives, including as parents, as you and me and any other straight person is capable of. Just as being in a wheel chair does not stop you from racing and shooting baskets impressively and just as people should be assessed for how they flourish in the conditions in which they actually find themselves rather than according to standards they have no control over (being white, being straight, being able to reproduce, being male, being American, being young, being old, etc.).

This is not just an “alternative lifestyle” this is people’s lives. As full, equal, dignified, loving, creating, morally excellent people. These people do not need your denigration of their entire love lives over the biological obstacles to their directly reproducing. They don’t need your self-centered contempt for and dismissal for the ways that they are routinely marginalized and abused—even by your own language about them. They don’t need to be blamed for being vulnerable to a virus. We all are, it’s part of being an animal, as we all are.

And they don’t need to be offered wholly impracticable choices like “be celibate or marry someone you’re not actually sexually oriented towards”. They don’t need to be reduced to just getting your pity and no affirmation for their pursuit of full, equal, dignified lives because you have arbitrarily decided that an action’s not being able to lead directly to reproduction makes it fully evil or makes those who have that trait fully defective.

Your idea of ethics offers nothing serious, nothing constructive, no real alternatives for gays. It demonizes, it vilifies, it marginalizes, and bullies. It demands alienation where affirmation and constructive thinking and living are possible. It is deeply prejudicial and self-absorbed.