Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

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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While it might seem easy, discerning saints from sinners can be rather difficult. Hence, we are urged not to judge, lest we, too, be judged. This lesson landed on me when I found my opinion on a seemingly-saintly elderly woman change dramatically.

The elderly Philipino woman whom I met seemed at first to be very pious, having an explicit desire to gain the attribute of holiness. The simplicity of her faith appealed to me. Yet when I made reference to one of her priests being–to put it nicely–more of an administrator than a pastor, she replied that her priest “was Jesus.” I replied that the priests are in the line of the Apostles, rather than instantiating Jesus. I cited apostolic succession, and she relented. Not content to be corrected, she asserted that the Bible is sufficient as a source of historical evidence. I replied that a faith narrative is neither written with the intention of recording historical facts nor of the genre of historical writings that is taken as proffering historical evidence. The woman disagreed, insisting that a faith narrative can be considered as a source of historical facts. I asked her whether she knows or believes the so-called facts. She readily replied that she knows them. “Well,” I observed, “then it would seem that you have no use for faith then.” My unexpected comment stopped her in her tracks. “What do you mean?” she asked. “We have faith in things we don’t know–things we are not certain of, such as whether we will be alive tomorrow,” I replied. “It doesn’t make sense to have faith in something we know because there is not uncertainty about it. So if the Bible gives you facts that you know, that tells me that it is not a matter of faith.” Taken back, she repeated that she knew that the Bible proves that certain historical events took place. “And you can’t be wrong about that?” I asked. “Yes, I can’t be wrong about it.” As if giving the conclusion of a syllogism, I remarked, “Then that means that not only is faith unnecessary for you, but it is based on arrogance–that of presuming that you cannot be wrong.” My pronouncement stunned her into speechlessness. She stood staring at the ground as if unable to move. There was no anger or resentment–just a wall that was blocking her view and not letting her pass.

If Jesus is a door, then a believer opens the door and walks through; one does not keep holding on to a front door once one has entered a house. The elderly woman was stuck holding on to a doornob as if it were attached to a wall. For myself, I was simply stunned that religion could so distort cognition so much and involve denial to the extent that a human being readily admits to not being able to be wrong about something that most of us would say involves belief rather than knowledge. It is as if the domain furtherest from certain knowledge were somehow the most capable of proffering evidence about which a person could not be wrong.

Perhaps this exchange reflects the saying, “Where God builds a church, Satan builds a chapel.” My question is: In preaching against arrogance, was I in the church or chapel?

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The religious vs. spiritual debate is perhaps a modern one.  I suspect that the ancients and medievals would tell us that we are making much ado about nada.  Institutional religions, of course, would say that sprituality exists within them; they could also point to explicit spirituality programs. Christianity, for example, goes to the extent of proclaiming the work of the Holy Spirit, a person or manifestation of God,  in the Church as well as in the individual members. 

In short, I think the distinction between a religious and a spiritual person has been overdrawn, and has perhaps been fueled by prejudice against “the other side.”  When a person says “I am religious,” it can be taken to mean that that person is a spiritual person, and vice versa.  People without an agenda do not fret so about any proclaimed distinction.  That is, I suspect that in modern parlance, the two terms blur together even if some have a vested interest in seeing that they are pried apart.  I think historically this has been the case, though for people in the profession spirituality has referred to something within the religion.  To say that now such spirituality no longer needs the roof of an institution is not to say that being spiritual is not religious.   If there is a distinction to be made, it could be that spirituality refers to one’s inner feeling or experience while religion refers to the sphere or domain (e.g., the field) in which it is taking place (i.e., institutional or not).  By analogy, politics goes on in the political realm.   Or, politics is an activity in the civic domain.   How much difference is there between politics and civics?  The particular polity, ecclesiastical or civic, does not seem all that relevant here.

Also, I think the distinction between following the beliefs promulgated by an organized religion versus one’s own idiosyncratic beliefs is overdrawn as well.  With few exceptions, I bet that most people who identify themselves with a particular organized religion have their own take, or interpretation, hence the “collective vs. idiosyncratic” distinction is, I would argue, overdrawn.  Even people who view their religious beliefs as idiosyncratic must surely have imbibed to some extent collective beliefs, even if unconsciously.   Finally, the quality of the beliefs–and more importantly the faith (which is not necessarily cognitive)–is more important, I would argue, than whether they are shared in common or idiosyncratic.  That quality, I submit, is <em>sui generis</em> in the sense that a faith, whether you want to call it religious or spiritual, is oriented beyond the limits of our world.  Besides being of value in itself, this transcendent nature of religious faith or spirituality means that we, ourselves, cannot be the focal object.  In fact, the object cannot be known or perceived in itself; only its immanence can be felt.  To sense the real in our world even as one grasps or is oriented to the transcendent is, I submit for your consideration, the core of religious spirituality or spiritual religion.   Put another way, a person who feels herself spiritual and a person who feels himself religious are much more alike in these respects than they are to a person who really doesn’t give a damn about either being religious or spiritual.    A person can be spiritual or religious and yet not take so seriously the sort of pretended minute distinctions that have historically sparked war.   I suspect that if one really is spiritual or religious, he or she would naturally transcend meaningless distinctions, which would otherwise be felt as an inconvenient distraction.  The implication regarding those who insist that we make the distinction is…well, you can connect the dots here.

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I suspect that a religious perspective contains a vulnerability to making empirical inferences for which the religious nature of the sources are insufficient.  This impedes interreligious dialogue and does not reflect well on the religionist.  I don’t believe the religionist realizes the extent to which his or her empirical justification is over-extended.  From the other direction, we tend to “excuse” the religionist, not letting a non-religionist get away with such over-reaching.  This is ultimately enabling. 

In other words, just because we think we know that Paul made an empirical claim does not mean that he did, or that the empirical event really happened.   Tradition might say that he made the claim, and we might think it probable…but neither is sufficient to justify knowledge that the empirical event occurred historically. 

The leap from “probable” to “so it really happened” is a cognitive lapse that I believe goes with a religious frame of mind.  I don’t want to say as some have theorized that this makes religiosity some sort of sickness; such a conclusion is generalizes over too much of religiousity.  I believe there are healthy or positive elements even if there are “short-circuits.”   If we could have the former without the latter…that would be an improvement in the phenomenon of religion.  Is this possible?  Can you have one side without the other?  I really don’t know, though I have faith that it is possible.  This is not to say that I KNOW, for if I knew, I wouldn’t be relying on faith.

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Awhile back, I got snagged into going to a bible study.  I contained myself…even participating in a way that impressed the members of the group.  I was really surprised, however, when the study leader said, “Now, this the the correct interpretation.”  Of course it was his interpretation.  To my reckoning, an interpretation cannot, by definition, be true.   It would be like saying “the sky looks beautiful today” was a fact.  The emphasis of the evening was on the raison d’etre of the Old Testament being to point to the coming of Jesus.   Substantively, the group leader gave the definition of Christ when defining Messiah (the Messiah is not the annointed one).  I realize that formal education is not–and should not–be a prereq for the ministry, but if a minister is going to define terms he is obliged to get them correct.   

 One of my concerns regarding born-again Christians is that they stress a cognitive belief in Jesus’ identity and a personal relationship with Jesus so much that they can come off as hypocrits in how they relate with other people.   That is, they stress belief and personal relationship with jesus so much that they might tend to drop the ball in being generous with other people.  Absent a promise of attending the Christian’s church service or allowing the Christian help with one’s decision to accept Jesus and build a relationship with Him, the born-again Christian might be rather indifferent to the person’s requests for help.  The mix of presumptuousness and not being helpful to others is what I’m getting at here.  That a person could be so presumptuous in terms of what one knows of religious truth and yet so utterly clueless on how selfish and miserly one is in relating with other people…that is, how someone could be so clueless and yet presume so much…is a mystery to me.

In going to the bible study (which I was pressured into), I didn’t think I would convince anyone to adopt my beliefs; rather, once in the study I tried to take on their perspective and help them in their own terms.   In fact, I raised a question that assumed their belief system and led to interesting discussion among the participants.  Although not intended as such, my question led all of us to a paradox wherein an apparent logical contradiction need not invalidate our understanding of the divine because the latter transcends human reason.  The two apparently opposed stances on the same question suggested by two group members could both be valid, and this paradox need not invalidate the underlying truth. 

Indeed, the presence of paradox in a religious matter demonstrates the absurdity of “the correct interpretation.”   We, as human beings, are inherently limited–hence so are our cognitions and perceptions.  In having faith, the emphasis can be on the glancing out beyond…rather than on the nature of “the object” that inherently transcends the limits of human cognition and perception.  

My critique of born-again Christianity is that it is oriented to the nature of “the object”..an inherently presumptuous enterprise given human nature.  Relative to the divine, we are all human beings and therefore in the same condition.  For some of us to presume that our truth is superior to those of others is mere artifice and pretension.  Such artificial distinctions that benefit ourselves are in actuality projections of our egos.  We are all human beings.  Fundamentally, we are in the same sandbox when it comes to playing with God’s sand.   Let us not take our our castles for divine edifices.  We have only to wait for the next wave to discover the actual substance of our truths.  

To presume so much for ourselves…and to be so little.  Such is perhaps the human condition.   Yet surely it is not set in stone tablets.   Presumption, being of our own making, seems without our limited ability to eradicate.  The problem is: it can be like a hard wall when efforts are made by others to make it transparent. If a person can come to see his or her presumptuous, I believe he or she will want to shed it like an old coat.  But attachment to “truth” can be like a straight-jacket and thus resist any external or internal efforts to loosen its grip.  That none of us have a monopoly on truth means that our efforts to reduce human presumptuous are inherently compromised.  How can a compromised tool cut through a stone wall?   Even as they don’t seem to me to be inevitable, both the wall and the dull drill can be said to be part of the human condition.  I do believe, however, that the problem of presumptuousness in humanity’s approach to religion (and in general) can be solved, though the solution eludes me.  Tu be sure, it is a tough nut to crack.

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On September 30th, I was watching the news of the tital wave in Samoa from an earthquake.  Someone took video footage that was played on the news.  On the footage, a guy is saying “please Lord Jesus Christ…give me strength to accept this…please Lord Jesus Christ…”  He was referring to the temporary river then going by his building.   The invocation of a lord something struck me as odd…and the implications as troubling.

The sheer act of asking an external agent to give one strength makes one a passive recepticle that is itself a state of weakness.  The asking outward, in other words, makes one weaker, making it more difficult, not less, to achieve the strength desired.  If the entity being summoned does not exist (or can not be known to exist), the added problem of appealing to an imaginary friend would also point to an underlying weakness.  Specifically, it seems rather pathological to me–like Jimmy Stewart in Harvey having  an imaginary friend that he talks to in spite of never hearing any voice from the other–no real evidence of the bunny’s existance.  …an imaginary rabbit.   …maybe this is why the easter bunny has has had such traction.  It is astounding to me how social legitimacy can make something seem real even though there is no evidence of its independent existence. 

That people would reduce themselves to passivity on the premise that an imaginary benefactor exists does not bode well for the human condition or the individuals themselves, particularly as they want to gain strength.  Their means, in other words, is inherently counterproductive to the end, and yet the subterfuge of religion can make an entire society blind to the underlying feckless nature of the illusion (and its participants).  

 For those who would retort: what if there really is a Lord Jesus Christ existing “out there” in a resurrected condition that transcends the bounds of our perception and cognition, I would counter that God as (an) intelligent being could not be expected to set us up to engage in anthropomorphic (i.e., self) idolatry.  God as  it is understood cannot be sin.  Nor do I think it in God’s nature to set us up to be passive and self-ashamed rather than instantiating what strength we are capable of.   Moreover, were there there such an entity as an eternal Son of God, it would be at best a cruel joke were “he” to have kept himself from presenting himself to all of us externally (i.e., as a real being)…an “internal voice” being possibly one’s own.  As Nietzsche wrote (and was stated at his funeral), “Save us from the redeemer!”  That is to say, save us from the illusion perpetrated by weakness under the guise of strength.  If such a dynamic is in the nature of truth, perhaps we need to re-conceptualize our notion or content of truth.  

Ironically, Jesus’ inner strength in the story of his death–in facing adversity in standing up (with arms out-stretched) for one’s principles is so utterly at odds with “Save us, or give us strength…”    The humility ascribed to the figure is so utterly at odds with the presumption of those who claim to follow him and tell the rest of us what we should believe–indeed, the presumption to call on such a being as they have invented for themselves.  A Catholic priest once said in his homily: “We have the truth; we know this.  We can therefore be thankful.”  Translated: “We have defined truth and feel no hindrance in imposing it on others. We can be thankful for what we have decided is truth and not have to consider that we could be wrong.”  Such a stance belies the substance of faith, which by definition goes beyond what is known. 

To presume knowledge of the truth and go on to impose it on others as if one’s own ability to know truth is somehow superior to other human beings are to take a matter of faith for that of knowledge…and thus to have little faith and much self-love.   Self-emptying, in other words, involves riding faith of presumed knowledge and therefore to be agnostic to the essence of things as they really are.  Faith is a transcending glance rather than an exposition on the nature of that which transcends the limits of our conception and perception.  As Joe Campbell once said, the conception one has of Christ is the final obstruction to the religious experience. 

Of course, my reflections here are those of a person limited cognitively and in perception.  That is to say, my argument is made by a human being, and therefore cannot be taken as truth.  Rather, it evinces a passion for transcending that which may be a misleading and weakening subterfuge.  The content of truth itself is beyond the grasp of even faith in human terms.  So a reader could justifiably fill his or her cup with my argument, then just as easily pour the quickly-stale liquid out and fill up again somewhere else.  I would like to think that there is some accumulation of progress in such a process, but this could just be human hubris too.  Perhaps the process itself is useful in human terms if ridding the world of arrogance and conceit is of any value here.  We, as humans, may be presuming much too much for ourselves, given how we are hard-wired, and yet in presuming we overlook (or presume away) the sheer possibility of it!  Ironically, perhaps in looking internally for strength we might downscale that which we presume to ask for.

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