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Archive for the ‘World Religions’ Category

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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The pope in his homily at the 2009 midnight (actually 10pm) mass quoted Origen (early Xn theologian) who wrote that pagans (who worship stone images of God…which would include Hindus today) can only have hearts of stone (meaning they cannot love…even each other).  Specifically, according to Ratzinger, “Origen, taking up one of John the Baptist’s sayings, saw the essence of paganism expressed in the symbol of stones: paganism is a lack of feeling, it means a heart of stone that is incapable of loving and perceiving God’s love. Origen says of the pagans: “Lacking feeling and reason, they are transformed into stones and wood” (in Lk 22:9).”  So a Hindu believer cannot feel love or use reason.  Being as though lifeless matter, such humans are in effect not human, or sub-human.  This is the implication from Ratzinger’s quote of Origen.  At the very least, one must wonder how insulting good-meaning Hindus (and people of other religions where the deities are in images other than that of Jesus, the “true image of God” according to Ratzinger) can possibly be reconciled with subscribing to a religion wherein God is love and that love is in neighbor-love universalized

Ratzinger continues in his homily,  “The God of whom no image may be made – because any image would only diminish, or rather distort him – this God has himself become visible in the One who is his true image.”   Is this not a contradiction?  If no image can be made, then none–even one believed to be correspond to the divine essence–could be made or seen by humans without distortion.  Otherwise, the statement would read, “the God of whom only one image can be made.”   Any image is distorting because God as the source of existence transcends any image within the limits of human cognition and perception.  Also, even if there were a true image, it would be presumptuous to assume that human beings can know which, if any, is the true image.  Even revelation must go through human hands in being written down.  Furthermore, the presumption that one’s particular image of God is THE true image involves a conflict of interest.   In other words, it is convenient for Joe Ratzinger that his image of God is THE true image of God.  At the very least, Joe Ratzinger’s claim ought to be doubted because it is self-serving. 

C’est vraiment incroyable.  Certainement, un mauvais homme qui croit que il est bon.  …Ratzinger, je veux dire.  Bien sur (ou naturalement), les journalists ont dit rien de ca plus tard.  Hindus ne pouvent pas aimer ou penser.  Sprechen das ist schlecter als  “they can’t be saved” because “being saved” is a Christian artifact.  Ratzinger’s homily represents Christianity on steroids.  …or an 82 year old man on steroids.  No wonder some (other) crazy person jumped on him during the procession.  To be sure, that was crazy too, but after he got up, it is telling that his eyes were shifty.   In watching him, I got the sense that he is not a very trusting person.  It is difficult to judge, but I would not be surprised were he a spiteful rather than a spiritual man.  I view his decision to quote Origen as just as crazy, and him comments on God’s image as convenient at the very least.  …yet in spite of his comments, the legitimacy is presumed to go with him so no one questions it, at least publically.  The Roman emperor, I submit, is not wearing any clothes.  Yet unlike the baby in the manger, he is all decked out.  It is time, in other words, to see through the glittering robe to uncover the man behind the curtain.

Source: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20091224_christmas_en.html

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A rabbi, a minister and a sheik are at a baseball game, one of them cries “foul”,…

So is there a punch-line or have I struck out?  (I would never ask such a question or be so punny with the comments feature on, so I’ll just assume you find my sense of humor emetic and move on to the more serious business of trying to make a point)

The NYT does a better job: “It sounds like the start of a joke: a rabbi, a minister and a Muslim sheik walk into a restaurant.  But there they were, Rabbi Ted Falcon, the Rev. Don Mackenzie and Sheik Jamal Rahman, walking into an Indian restaurant, and afterward a Presbyterian church.”  Here is their family photo:

Rather than reducing their conversations to the lowest common politically-correct denominator, “the three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them.”  I find this to be rather important.  But they do not charge headlong into the others’ religions; rather, they balance self-criticism with honest feedback on what they don’t like about the others.  I have found this mixture to be useful in discussing politics with people from other countries–my self-criticism often times being surprising to my interlocators.   But whereas in politics criticizing one’s own country or leaders can almost be a pasttime, at least in the US, it is generally taboo for a religionist to criticize anything in his or her own faith. 
There seems to be, moreover, an assumption that for a religion to be viable, it must be accepted without erasure or amendment.  Eviscerating a passage in a scripture is particularly verboten, and even traditions can reach the status of being a given.   In my opinion, this rigidity is not justified by the process by which scripture (and tradition) are begun or formed because human beings are involved in it.  I suspect that with time a given scripture or tradition come to be treated as “a given” whereas it was not so treated when it was formed.   The distance of time, in other words, is transformative–and not necessarily for the good.   Lincoln, for example, is today a mythic figure who freed the slaves.  But the truth is, he exempted the five slave states that remained in the Union (MI, KY, WV, MD, and DE), and he considered exiling the freed slaves.  What Lincoln has become–and without justification we presume this was how he was then–is far different than what he was.  In Christianity, this same dynamic might be involved in the “From Jesus to Christ” idea (as well as that of the historical Jesus as distinct from what he is taken to be today).   In any case, a certain “hardening of the arteries” seems to be part of the aging process of a religion.   As a given religion becomes increasingly artificial, it becomes more of a dead letter rather than a living spirit…and thus eventually dies. 
From this perspective, I am particularly impressed with our three amigos.  First, they declare what they most value as the core teachings of their tradition. At one gathering,  minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.”  They also give honest feedback on what they don’t like about the others’ religions, but then, they do something almost unheard of.  The NYT suggests as much in reporting, “the room then grew quiet.”   Each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”  The instinct in line with how we tend to understand religion is to immediately hedge.  For example, the sheik immediately added, “It is a verse taken out of context,” and he pointed out that the previous verse says that God has no love for aggressors. “But we have to acknowledge that ‘kill the unbelievers’ is an awkward verse,’ ” the sheik said as the crowd laughed. “Some verses are literal, some are metaphorical, but the Koran doesn’t say which is which.”  Well,the verse isn’t just awkward.  One could argue it ought to be expunged from the Islamic scripture.   The problem is, we tend to assume this would render the entire scripture somehow null and void.  It either hangs together or falls together. 
Well, I beg your pardon to differ.  At the very least, because human beings are involved in at least the copying, it is possible, even likely, that errors are made, which do not render an entire work null and void.   The problem is, given that interpretation involves the subjective assessment of whether a given passage is literal, symbolic, figurative or metaphorical, deciding on whether a given passage should be extracted does not have the certainty as in “2+2=5 is incorrect and thus should be erased.”  There is a “what if we are wrong?” element in “messing” with a scripture.   We tend to focus on the human element that would be involved in editing a scripture while ignoring the fact that human beings were involved in the writing of it.  This asymetry points to a basic flaw in religion as it is typically understood and practiced by mankind.  That is to say, we could improve religion itself.  It can be advanced, as can technology or political systems.  
To be alive, of spirit, a religious text (and tradition) must be able to breath.  Of course, removing mistakes or cultural artifacts that are no longer fitting (e.g., slavery) does involve the risk of making a mistake, but the chance of making one is mitigated, or worth the risk, where it is pretty clear that a given passage is problematic or wrong.  If nothing else, the practice of a religion, which typically involves compassion or love, involves removing the source of pain to another.  This alone justifies removing passages deemed offensive by others.  However, even here, one must discern a legimate beef from over-sensitivity.   In any case, self-criticism (without caveat) and compassion ought to override the current view of what being a scripture means.  Ironically, by admitting the human element in religion, we can make our religions more closely approximate the divine, and the more we treat our own handiwork as divine the further we fall from our ideal. It is our choice–not a given. 

For more, pls see:  http://twitter.com/deligentia

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/us/24amigos.html?_r=1

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In my posts regarding the Bible, some readers have sent me messages  stating that my statements are subjective–very suubjective in fact–while the person’s own biblical views are objective.   Such commentators are assuming that their own views simply reflect what is in the text, and that the Bible is objective fact.   I want to suggest that we tend to enable the cloak of religion to essentially excuse such presumption and utter rudeness–what is in actuality passive aggression.  On the street, were another person to say, “your view is subjective, while mine and that of my favorite book are objective,” one would quite understandably feel insulted and wonder how such presumption could have gone unchecked (presumably the other person is an adult physiologically).   In actuality, it is quite childish behavior.   Even if the person believes his or her favorite religious text to be objective, and therefore superior to any mere opinion, the objectivity is not something that can be proved, for it is itself a matter of opinion.  

For example, when I suggest that the biblical writers or the people written about in the Bible (assuming historical personage here) might have been influenced at times by their vested personal interest in writing or saying something religious (rather than it coming from God), I find it a sort of brain-sickness (to use a Nietzschean term) to suggest that I’m just being subjective and so my view should be dismissed while the person disagreeing with me is representing objectivity.  The sickness is in the extent of the presumption and passive aggression, as well as in the person’s blind-spot concerning it.  The corrective feedback loop is inoperative.  It is perhaps physiological/neurological in origin.  It is a bit like the street person who claims to be Julius Ceasar.   The guy has no clue, and yet presumes to be above everyone else. 

I assume that every human being is subjective, so even if one views his or her favorite book as objective, that claim cannot go beyond that person’s subjectivity.  In other words, we can’t possibly be objective about objective truth (which is not to say that it does not exist).  I also take it as palpably insulting to tell someone that they are subjective while the person himself claims to have an objective source.  As I mention above, it is really a case of passive aggression.  Why there is so much of it in religion, I don’t know.  However, I suspect that the phenomenon of religion has a vulnerablity to it, and may even facilitate that sort of brain sickness–under the rubric of superiority, of course.   Confronting such a sickness with itself assumes a strength that does not exist in such fecklessness.   In my subjective opinion, the only reaction I can recommend is to treat it as an attack and walk away (i.e., state your decision not to continue, based on the insult–calling it what it is).   Trying to get the other person to confront their sickness is like trying to get an active alcoholic to confront his or her disease.  Both, I submit, are mind diseases.  Both defend themselves by the presumption that they can’t be wrong about themselves and others.   In dealing with such illnesses, dialogue is impossible.  Typically anyway, the person presuming to be objective will view the notification of the insult as the insult and will find it convenient to walk away rather than to confront the possibility of what may lie within himself.

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I would like to call attention to the conflicts-of-interest and element of self-interest that are often glossed over in religious matters.  I submit that making transparent these elements would improve religious discourse and religion itself because the infected pronouncements and declarations could be “re-calibrated,” or revalued, in terms of their credibility.

For example, say I was holding an office in a religious organization and I said, “Any member who leaves this religion risks losing their salvation.”  Even if my religious organization taught that membership is required for salvation, the conflict-of-interest both for the institution and myself renders this teaching or pronouncement null and void unless made by someone of another religion (i.e., who does not have the conflict-of-interest).  At the very least, we ought to make a footnote acknowledging the conflict-of-interest.  Yet how often do we insist on this?  My point is that self-interest, either collectively or individually, is not absent from religious discourse, and the related conflicts-of-interest ought to be recognized and treated as such in pronouncements that are tinged by them.

This criterion could be applied to religious texts just as well as religious functionaries (and laity).   As an experiment, someone might go through a religious scripture, identifying all of the passages involving a conflict-of-interest for the writer or the religion itself.  Removing all those passages, how would the text look?   This is essentially a hermeneutic designed to make religion more honest–to hold it and its sponsors more accountable, given the salience of self-interest in all of us.

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I submit that perspective is half the battle. Those of us trading comments on this blog are  similar  in the sense that we are sufficiently interested to comment in ethical or religious matters.  We are perhaps of the more sensitive sort, being oriented behind the lining of an existence that others take at face value and simply live out.  So when I’m reading a comment here, I don’t really stop to ask..is this person Catholic? The differences between our vantage-points within this domain are dwarfed by how different we are from those people who are primarily interested in what the stock market is doing today or who is playing tomorrow. Too often in religious discussions, we lose sight of this distance and overstate the extent of our own differences. That there isn’t more fellow-feeling simply a grace de our shared interest in the domain suggests to me that we might be taking the obvious for granted. A shared recognition of our domain-interest could act as a check on the overstating of differences that is unfortunately typical in interreligious dialogue. 

Just as a spiritual pursuit involves assuming a perspective that includes transcending our realm, interreligious dialogue has as its perspective the distance existing between the table and the stock-ticker or sports stadium.   Concentrating on maintaining such a perspective can draw on the same sort of concentration that one uses to transcend the world in entering into a religious experience.   I don’t think, however, that the religious perspective of transcendence of this realm is suffiicent for interreligious dialogue.  Hence, I add here an inter-domain perspective wherein all participants at the table are essentially one point in being sufficiently interested in religion as distinct from other competing domains such as government, business, hollywood and sports.  Viewing the chasm existing between these domains and religion,  one’s perspective changes regarding the other people sitting at the table of interreligious dialogue.  Suddenly nuanced differences in cognitive beliefs or rites become less important as we gain a sense of being on the same planet of religiosity. 

Gaining and achieving perspective is at least half the battle.  One could call this: having a sense of what really matters rather than trying to get everything one wants.  Too often, religious discussion is simply an exchange of veiled self-centeredness.  So humility is perhaps the rest of the battle.

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Delimiting Religion

After reading my post on Scientology, a man wrote me to express his opinion that Scientology “has very little to do with religion.”  What, I thought to myself, disqualifies a proclaimed religion from being widely accepted as one? 

In the case of Scientology, the means, or “audit,” is bascially psychological in nature.  The practice consists of two people sitting down together.  One questions the other using a sequence of questions geared to helping the other one to be free of his or her frightful memories.   Once freed from one’s fears from past tramas, one can partake in an experience that can be said to transcend the realm of our ordinary experience.  I am not myself a Scientologist, and it has been some years since I read its rather thick book.  In very general terms, my sense is that the means of Scientology can be considered as a form of counseling, while the goal can be labeled religious (although I could be wrong on the latter). 

Perhaps we can generalize to say that something is a religion if either its means or ends involve the practioner ideally transcending “the world.”  Ideally, religion involves transcending the limits of human cognition and perception to an experience geared to the “wholly other,” or “beyond.”   In another post, I argue that it is a mistake to presume we know very much of that which by definition is beyond our limits, and therefore our ken.  I argue that it is the transcending itself (oriented to going beyond what we can know and experience) that is the focus that facilitates the religious experience. 

I submit that the question “is X a religion” can be approached in terms of whether it involves a salient transcendent aspect.   Of course, the question of salience points to the subjective element in answering the broader question.   Furthermore, the tendency of bias is apt to distort a person’s answer.  One might presume an answer without sufficiently studying the candidate.  The vested interests of the leaders of one’s own religion might unduly sway one into a precipitate or premature conclusion.  Prejudice against new movements can also act as a distorting filter. 

In more general terms, the decision of whether something is a religion can be influenced by the mistaken belief that the very act of delimiting religion is not politically correct, and therefore “anything goes.”  At the same time, the decision can also reflect the assumption that one’s own religion is the only true religion.  Both of these assumptions are dogmatic, or artificial.  Their co-existence in one society demonstrates how difficult it can be for a consensus regarding a candidate to emerge.

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