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Archive for the ‘The Human Condition’ Category

In the First Great Awakening, which occurred in colonial British America in the 1730s and 40s, 98 schisms took place in Congregational churches in New England. “New Lights,” who were “awakened” to a heightened personal experience of needing to be redeemed by Jesus Christ, split from the “traditionalists,” who refused to relegate ritual and ceremony. By 1800, a further splintering occurred as many Congregational churches in New England had shifted to a Unitarian basis. Even by the 1750s, several Congregational preachers were preaching universal salvation—a teaching that put those preachers at odds with those of the First Great Awakening. In theory, a New England town could have three Congregational churches (or two plus a Unitarian church) standing side by side on the central green. At the time of any of the schisms, the particular basis of the split must have seemed quite important to Christianity.

More than two hundred years later, the significance of the “conflict” between personal experience and ritual would long have passed, at least with respect to any demand to split off from an established denomination. In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the matter deemed significant in this sense concerned “social issues,” especially that of homosexuality.

For example, the leadership and two-thirds of the laity of the Episcopal diocese of South Carolina split off from the Episcopal Church in November 2012 due to the denomination’s approval of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay clergy. The break-away conservative group filed suit in a South Carolina court to get ownership of 35 parishes. The matter was also in federal court, where the conservative break-away group argued that the freedom of religion plank of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives the group the right to leave the denomination. “We have the freedom to remove ourselves,” Rev. James Lewis of the break-away group said. That argument is a red herring, however.

The freedom of religion language in the First Amendment maintains that the government cannot tell a citizen (or resident) which religion he or she must sign up with or practice. The language does not apply to the infighting within a denomination. Freedom of association would be a stronger basis for that, but even that constitutional basis would not guarantee that the church property goes along with the dissenters. “We strongly agree with the freedom of religion and the freedom of these folks to go their own way,” Matthew McGill, a lawyer representing the Episcopal Church said. “You simply can’t take it with you.” In other words, freedom to form a new association does not entail the freedom to assume ownership rights of the property of the pre-existing group. In actuality, the issue before the courts is property rights.

As traumatic as the “social issue” ecclesiastical splits may seem in its time, it is by no means the case that the contentious issue will still divide churches even fifty years later. The fighting itself, however, could hurt the image of Christianity, though any long-term decline in membership would likely have more to do with recognition of the cumulative splits—all of which seemed vital at one time only to have this perception defeated by time itself. Put another way, the ecclesiastical splits due to gay rights may someday look just as unnecessary as the splitting during the First Great Awakening looked by the time of the “social issue” splits. For people to assume such significance in matters whose gravity passes so easily with time reflects negatively on the strength of their religion, especially if the fighting takes place in and through the religion. As Nietzsche would say, such a religion would have to be human, all too human.

For more, please see Valerie Bauerlein’s article, “Church Fight Heads to Court,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 14, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324010704578418983895885100.html?mod=ITP_pageone_1

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In the 1940s and 1950s, only about five percent of adult Americans did not identify themselves with any institutional religion, according to the General Social Survey. That number rose to only eight percent in 1990. By 2013, however, the percentage of people who don’t consider themselves part of a religion had jumped to twenty percent. Interestingly, there was no discernible upward trend in the percentage of people who expressed atheist or agnostic beliefs. Several implications can be drawn.

One implication is that it cannot be assumed that a person does not believe in “God” just because he or she does not belong to an institutional religion. Indeed, “atheism” does not make sense without a “theism.”  Put another way, atheism is part of the religious paradigm, serving as the negation of a theist belief. People can be spiritual without being religious. This does not mean that they are “new age.” Nietzsche, for example, was accused of being an atheist just because he criticized the dominant conception of God (as, for example, being vengeful). A vice ascribed to the deity in how it is being conceptualized discredits the conceptualization itself. “God is dead.” This does not mean that the living God of experience is discredited, as it does not depend on the concepts that are ascribed to it.

Another implication is societal in nature. As the percentage of people not identifying themselves with a religious paradigm (i.e., basic framework, including of concepts and conduct such as ritual and prayer) increases in a society, the religious world-view itself becomes increasingly demarcated as delimited in nature. That is, the default in society turns to viewing the religious world-view as foreign rather than as a given. The disparate nature of the religious paradigm as being very different makes it easy for the non-religious to keep away from it, as well as to view it as foreign. The world of religion is perhaps inherently delimited because its concepts do not have currency outside of the religious paradigm. The historical hegemony or even universality of religions in societies may therefore have been artificial in nature, such as by means of being forced on people. If so, the declining salience of religion in modern society may be nature’s way of restoring to religion its rightful place, similar to how water finds its way eventually down the stream.

Another implication is that it may not be reasonable to assume that even a highly charismatic leader of a particular religion, or sect thereof, can bring people back to religion. The assumption that such a leader could accomplish such a feat presumes that 1) not belonging to an institutional religion is a problem and 2) the problem does not lie in the religions themselves, or in religion itself. Also assumed is the problematic assumption that a leader can make such a difference. It may be that religion itself puts too much emphasis on the religious leader or founder, attributing too much significance to him or her relative to the value of the teachings themselves. Such anthropomorphism may be one reason why not identifying with a religion is not a problem, but, rather, a sign of spiritual health instead. According to David Hume, the human mind has great trouble holding on to “pure” concepts of divine simplicity. We tend to add our own human characteristics to the divine, even to the point of constructing the god-man concept. If religion is incapable of being purged of error, it is right and fitting that people refuse to identify themselves as not belonging to a religious institution.

Besides the implications above, one question that “comes out of the data” regards whether people who do not belong to an institutional religion can sufficiently “exercise” their spirituality. A related question is whether spirituality can exist apart from the religions. One might also ask how well spirituality can do within a religion. To the extent that a given religion (or religion itself) is rigid, it may be that certain expressions or manifestations of spirituality are snuffed out or excluded outright. The trend of “none-religious” may provide more opportunities for spirituality to come into its own. We should not assume, in other words, that the trend is toward secularity if it is defined as the absence of spirituality in addition to religion.

 

See Katherine Bindley’s article, “Religion Among Americans Hits Low Point, As More People Say They Have No Religious Affiliation: Report,” at the Huffington Report on March 13, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/13/religion-america-decline-low-no-affiliation-report_n_2867626.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

 

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Samuel Mullet Sr., bishop of his Amish sect, was convicted along with fifteen other people in September 2012 of hate crimes for having entered Amish homes in order to clip men’s beards and women’s uncut hair–both of which have religious significance to the Amish. The Amish men getting their beards clipped apparently went into hysterics as did the women getting the haircuts, even crying wildly and praying out loud. Apparently the “punishment” was meted out to Mullet’s foes, some of whom had refused to honor his shunning decrees against his foes. The Amish who dared to claim that such decrees constituted an improper use of Mullet’s power as bishop were met with shears used on horse manes. According to the New York Times, “Prosecutors argued that the attacks were intended to humiliate those who questioned [Mullet’s] cultlike methods.” Those devices included “forcing errant followers to sleep in chicken coops and pressing married women–including his own daughter-in-law–to accept his intimate sexual ‘counseling’.”

Both the devices and the revenge point to the danger that may be inherent as human beings assume religious office. Indeed, even the title “bishop” seems presumptuous for a man who would have his sons walk into peoples’ homes in order to clip their beards and hair. To be sure, crying wildly and praying out loud simply because one’s hair is being cut raises questions of how religious belief can have unhealthy psychological effects.

In other words, both the clippers and those clipped can be accused of reacting irrationally (i.e., overreacting). Religion can account for the loss of perspective that is in both Mullet’s presumptuousness and his victims’ reactions while getting the haircuts. Even if it were the case that a beard or long hair is salient in the preaching of Jesus, hair does grow back. It is not the end of the world (which, by the way, did not come “within this generation”). Therefore, in addition to the obvious danger in religious authority being assumed by people, a related and more subtle perceptual loss and related propensity to over-react may be said to come with religiousity. An alien from another planet studying our species would doubtlessly wonder why such adults had lapsed back into childhood. “They are religious,” one might reply. Doubtless the aliens would be utterly bewildered, and so should we.

It might be said that we are too used to the religious mentality that we give it too much of an excuse. Mullet should never have been allowed to get to such behavior, and the victims’ co-religionists should have told those with the clipped hair to grow up. Not that the crime can be excused, but to cry wildly and pray out loud indicates that the person has really “lost it,” albeit under the cover of religion. I contend that it is time to pull back the cover and expose the illness for what it is. Put another way, the manner in which religion interacts with the human mind should give us all caution both in terms of how carried away we as well as others get with our religious beliefs and practices. I suspect that part of the problem is that religion itself needs to be clipped back to its native fauna. Quietly focused on transcendence centered on a referent point beyond the limits of human perception and cognition (the accent thus being on the reaching rather than on the nature of that which is yearned for) need not involve putting other people in chicken coops or cutting off their beards (or crying wildly just because your hair has been cut). It can be said that religion itself can easily get out of control in the human mind without the latter having any sense of the gravity of the danger. The lack of any feedback loop in the brain with respect to religion magnifies the inherent danger that is in religion itself as it interacts with the presumptiveness of the human mind. If “bishop” Mullet was at all still steadfast in his conviction that he acted well and with good intention, in spite of having received the verdict of being guilty of “hate crimes” from a jury, then the depth and utter intractability of the sickness must surely be admitted. For to be so wrong and yet presume that one cannot be wrong in one’s religious rationale demonstrates just how dangerous religion can be to the human mind.

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As Madrid prepared for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day in August 2011, many people, including 120 priests, were raising objections to the Pope’s visit. Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman at the Vatican, said at a briefing at Rome that the protests were not very surprising. Dismissing the objections, he said, “It’s part of life in a democratic country.”  I contend that there is a certain arrogance in this statement. Would the spokesman use the same statement regarding protests against apartheid, for example?  Oh, well, what can you expect; there are always protests. To be sure, the frequency of protest does indeed rarify the impact of any particular protest. Surely, however, the gravity of the causes differs. Exterminating the Jews, for example, should not be treated as of similar importance as saving some bird species, yet both causes could be expected to eventuate in protests.

In the case of the Pope’s visit to Madrid for the youth festival, priests who work with the poor objected to the “lavish $72 million celebration.” That some of this sum would be paid with tax dollars even as Spain was in an austerity program affecting the poor had more than some people shaking their heads at the priorities of the Vatican and Spain. It was not as though the Pope had not visited the state. In fact, Esther Lopez Barcelo, a youth coordinate for a political party, observed, “They still can’t tell us how much the pope’s visit cost two years ago. Every time he comes here, the figures become opaque.” Cost-containment is obviously not a priority at the Vatican.

To be sure, having more than a million visitors in Madrid could be expected to benefit both local business and the government’s coffers, though it is doubtful that the spending by the youth would match the increased municipal expenses such as trash removal. In short, Spain—one of the PIGS in the E.U. in terms of the debt crisis—was in no position to host a church’s youth day. The Pope’s home region of Bavaria in Germany would have been a better pick, considering the state of the German economy.

For the Catholic Church, the Vatican’s dismissiveness of the protest signed by 120 of its own priests plus others rings of the sort of heartlessness in ignoring someone. It is the sort of heartlessness in someone who has no qualms about enjoying himself even as he knows that some people nearby are suffering. There is a fakeness to such a smile that involves willful blocking of something that is not convenient.

In a broader context, the Vatican’s indifference regarding objections to its lavish spending was amid a trend since 1979 away from social justice and human rights and toward a hypertrophy in abortion and stem-cell protests. I wonder, by the way, whether “It’s all part of life in a democratic country” could also be used by pro-choice groups to dismiss pro-life rallies? Furthermore, I wonder if the Vatican would object to that use of its statement?  Would the Vatican be willing to contend that using a human stem-cell in research is more objectionable than diverting religious and public funds from the poor in a time of need?

On the Church’s “own turf,” one could point to Jesus’ use of the five loafs and two fishes to feed the multitudes. Furthermore, one could recount the saying attributed to Jesus about the rich man getting into the kingdom of heaven being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle. Surely, profligate spending for a festival as the poor are suffering from austerity-program cut-backs is hard to square with Jesus’s teachings. Higher human love (caritas), and especially selfless divine love (agape), manifest justly in terms of universal benevolence (benevolentia universalis). Leibniz, for example, based this justness of this obligation on the fact that we all share in being—God is perfect Being. Augustine based the justness on caritas applying even to one’s enemies (as opposed to merely one’s friends—Cicero’s amicitia).

Similarly, John Rawls points to the unfairness involved in knowing beforehand where one is situated in benefiting from the benevolence. Under a veil of ignorance concerning one’s station, it is only fair to see to it that the least fortunate position benefits. Practically speaking, one never knows if one will someday occupy such a position. For a person (or organization) to ignore the poor while using funds that those people who are barely surviving badly need (from the state)—particularly when one knows one’s station (i.e., as not poor)—is to add selfishness and a hardened heart to the unfairness. This is not exactly a station of the Cross. Rather, it pertains to the lofty, who are justly brought low, rather than to the lowly, who are to be exalted.

To refuse to take part in the exaltation of the lowly by ignoring the obligation of redistributive justice, particularly as arrives at a festival as the star of the show, reflects on one’s underlying attitude toward the teachings attributed to Jesus (or Gandhi, for that matter) as well as the ethical principle of basic fairness. It is, in short, to practice hypocrisy, if one represents a Church in the name of a simple carpenter who may well have gone from meal to meal.

See Suzanne Daley, “Catholic Clergy Protest Pope’s Visit, and Its Price Tag,” New York Times, August 16, 2011.

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Yesterday while I was reading the introduction of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God at Borders, a book on a short display shelf at the end-wall of a line of bookshelves fell off and hit the ground right in front of me.   I was on the second floor of the store, sitting in a comfortable chair and surrounded by bookshelves with only one other person in sight…a woman who was busy scanning a row of books on one of the other bookshelves.  She didn’t appear to notice the book falling, and I returned to my reading, thinking nothing of it.  

Now, this is the weird part:  There had been two copies of the book on the little shelf. It was the outer one that had fallen and was lying on the floor.  Surely, the remaining copy would not fall, as it was the copy against the bookself-wall.   So I was perplexed when it did fall nevertheless, about a minute after the first one had fallen.  This second one landed on the carpeting in a standing position.  How could a book that had been on the inside position on the shelf manage to fall over just because the outer book had fallen?  Surely the shelf was not too short for the back one. Looking over at the woman still scanning a row of books, I asked her if she had heard the books fall. 

“Yes, I did,” she replied. 

“I can understand how the first one could fall…but the second?–I don’t get it,” I said in a flat voice.

She nodded in agreement as she instinctively picked up the second book and returned it to its back-position on little shelf. 

“It must be a ghost,” she said with a smile.

“That’s just what I was thinking!” I said aloud as much as to myself.  How odd!

Now, reading a book on religion and having seen Ghost years ago, I had thought just after the second book fell that maybe…just maybe…it might be possible that one of my dead grandfathers was there in some way and was trying to communicate with me in the only way he could.  Would that mean he had been able to look into what I’ve been doing since he died?  Oh, man…that would include sex!   Oh, geez…  This thought jolted me back to the modern world of scientific explanation.  There had to be one. Perhaps the first book fell because one page too many had subtly shifted its weight forward by a draft.  The draft caused by its falling off the little shelf might have caused a similar subtle change in the book behind it.  Such an explanation is much better than the prospect of one of my ancestors visiting me uninvited who-knows-where.  

It occured to me as I was reading Karen Armstrong’s argument that we as finite human beings can’t possibly know as much about God as we think we do.  We tend to fill in the void created by our mind’s inherent inclination to transcend its own cognitive limits…only we don’t realize that we are the ones filling the void.  In thinking of the possibility of a ghost tipping over the books–the second one, remember, landed standing–I was filling the void created by my own verdict that my scientific explanation seemed rather weak, or stretched.   Here is the rub: I don’t believe I will know, at least while I’m alive, whether the cause was a ghost or some other cause more “worldly.”

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