Wednesday, September 17, 2014

God and Randomness

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I have a friend who is retired from a very successful career in a medical specialty. Years ago, I remember asking him, “With what you know now about science and medicine, are you more or less persuaded about the existence of God?”

“Less,” he responded without hesitation.

I was surprised, and judging by his current behavior, I believe he may have changed his mind. But I was surprised because the complexity and precision of human biology seems to cry out for a “designer.” It’s hard to imagine the evolutionary process as entirely random.

Though I’ve lost the reference to this, I recall reading a quote that said something to the effect that believing that creation is entirely random is like believing that a press building explodes and a fully bound, up-to-date Encyclopedia Britannica blows out of the explosion and onto the street. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic work, the Encyclopedia in its various forms had from 12 to 17 volumes, each with at least 1,000 pages, on practically every subject you can think of.

I thought of this because of the recent visit of my son, his spouse and their 3-month-old baby. I didn’t have to change his diaper, but while watching his parents do it, it occurred to me how the baby’s emerging internal organs and systems are developing. He’s currently being fed by mother’s milk and his digestive system works accordingly, but as it grows and develops its digestive system will, incredibly, adapt to solid food.

Here are other facts, not at all among the most significant, about the human body that I find no less than amazing. They’re from the web site,
·       The head is equipped with eyebrows whose principal purpose is to keep sweat from running into the eyes. To help protect and keep the eyes healthy, you blink over 6 million times per year.
·       In one day, you shed about 10 billion skin flakes and salivate an average of 1-3 pints of saliva.
·       The heart produces enough pressure to squirt blood over 35 feet. It beats an average of 35 million times per year, or around 100,000 times per day.

Instead of wondering why at my age my biological processes and organs are slowing, I marvel that they still work at all, that wounds still heal and that although I’m losing brain cells, I’m also generating them. I find that incredible. What human-made thing is as efficient and durable? 

Ok, so the universe is amazing. That doesn’t disprove the randomness of evolution or prove God’s existence. That’s true, but just as some people write off God and religion because of their “gut feelings,” my rational self can’t accept the total randomness of evolution. I understand that many scientists say the universe has no need for a designer, but evolution without one, and without a “goal,” makes no sense, and making sense is important to humans.

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It occurs to me that the randomness of evolution may be similar to that of a casino slot machine. According to an on-line article by John Robison in the American Casino Guide, the machines are designed to pay out, say, 95 percent of what is inserted, so the “house” will always derive 5 percent on average. But the chances of an individual player winning at any particular time are still random.

“Random does not mean that everything is completely unpredictable and unknowable,” says Robison.

Returning to evolution, it seems to me that a God who used evolution and its randomness to create, nonetheless had certain results in mind. It’s the most plausible explanation for how, or maybe why, the universe is evolving. We assume, of course that contemporary humans are the end result and the apex of evolution, but that may not be the case. After all, as the Psalms say, who knows the mind of the Designer?

Theologians remind us that faith is not meant to answer scientific questions, and I believe them. However, to make sense of reality, all of us have to reconcile what we know from theology and science, and science has been unable to answer how, let alone why, the universe exists.

Given what I know from my brief time on this earth, the “big bang” seems less like the explosion of the printing press – an event that occurred for no particular reason and with no particular “goal” – and more like a deliberate, purposeful event kicking off billions of years of evolution that resulted in what we experience as contemporary human beings.

Getting from that idea to the idea of a personal God, who knows about me and cares for me, is another matter, of course, but that subject must await other blogs (although I’ve written about it in previous blogs). Unlike my retired doctor friend, the little I know of science and medicine, and of what I observe on a daily basis, confirms my faith in God.       

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Accidents of Birth

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Most of us, at one time or another, think about the “what ifs.”

What if my father hadn't married my mother but somebody else? Would there be a me? What if my parents had moved to Atlanta instead of Kansas City before I was born? How much would my life be different? And what if I had been born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, instead of St. Joseph, Mo.? Would I be alive today?

San Pedro Sula, which few Americans know exists, is said to be the most dangerous city in the world. With a metro area of 1.2 million, it has a murder rate of 159 per 100,000 people. By comparison, Detroit has a rate of 55/100,000 and New Orleans, 53/100,000. Many of the people, including children and young families, we saw on TV in July when thousands of immigrants were stranded on the border, were said to be from San Pedro Sula.

Instead of living there, I live in a relatively safe place where crimes are generally solved and people can’t normally commit them with impunity. Compared to many residents of San Pedro Sula, my life is a walk in the park.

So what, exactly, did I do to deserve it? Absolutely nothing. It was an “accident of birth.”

That should engender in me a profound sense of gratitude to God (or for some, the “stars,” or to whomever people substitute for God). But my gratitude is half-hearted. And it should prevent me from criticizing, or looking down on residents of San Pedro Sula, the people who migrate from such places and people like them. But I’m tempted to disparage them nonetheless.

I have a sign on the bulletin board in the room of my house where I write these blogs that says, “Nearly 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day.” But the sign has been there a long time, and I don’t look at it often, so I forget how fortunate I am. And I forget to be grateful.

As for the “what if?” questions, does God have any better answers to them than we do? Probably not, because they’re not real questions. They’re like asking whether Julius Caesar would like cheeseburgers.

What is amazing about accidents of birth is how little we acknowledge that they’re accidental. Somehow, we have a sense of entitlement, the notion that we deserve to have been born into relative wealth or that God favors us, which makes it hard to be empathetic to the suffering of others. And I’m more convinced than ever that empathy for others – being concerned about others’ welfare – is essential in the search for God.

That’s because in Jewish, Christian and other traditions and theology, God identifies with his people. So if we ignore or harm people, we may search for some other “god” but not the God of those traditions and theology.

The Message translation of the Hebrew Bible, about which I wrote last week, has an interesting translation of Psalm 14. “Don’t they know they can’t get away with this – treating people like a fast-food meal over which they’re too busy to pray?” the psalmist asks. “Night is coming for them, and nightmares, for God takes the side of victims. Do you think you can mess with the dreams of the poor? You can’t, for God makes their dreams come true.”

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In the Christian Bible, Jesus identifies even more forcefully with his people. “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me,” it says in the same translation.  

This theme of “empathy,” a sensitivity to our shared humanity, is taken up in Pope Francis’ exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” He applies the theme to the real world of politics and economics, which are determinant for our welfare.

“…We also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” he writes. “Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” People in the “culture of prosperity,” he says, are often “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor.”

Many believe that everybody has a chance to live like we do, and if they don’t, it’s somehow their own fault. It helps explain what the Pope calls the “globalization of indifference.”

Some people are scandalized and outraged by the Pope’s words, seeing them as meddling in politics, but he’s only applying Jesus’ words about “giving me to eat and drink,” reminding us that it’s not a matter of charity, but a more fundamental matter of justice. You can’t have charity without justice.

These ideas aren’t limited to Catholic social teaching, by the way. The “social gospel” was a prominent part of U.S. Protestant teaching in the early 20th century and empathy for others, especially the poor, is seen as essential for most Protestant denominations. Jewish and other congregations are also sensitive to the needs of others.

Many people are cynical of the idea of applying religious principles of love and care for others in all areas of life. But talk about your “what ifs!” Just think how different the world would be if that happened.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Book That Reads Us

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This blog tries to help skeptics connect with God and religion, and that’s no easy task.

According to studies, many young people, and not-so-young people, are tepid about God and shun traditional religions. Though I know many people’s objections to religion go much deeper than language, I try not to be “churchy,” avoiding religious terms that may be “off” buttons. It’s hard to write about Christianity, or Judaism for that matter, without mentioning the Bible, however.

Just about all of what we know about God is from the Bible or from people – modern or ancient, scholars or religious leaders – who have tried to gain insight into the Bible and share that insight with us.

At some point in a search for God, however, you should read the Bible for yourself. And that could be a problem. It was written over a period of 1,500 years, the last contribution thought to have been written about 1,900 years ago. So it isn’t exactly like reading the newspaper, or even as “easy” as reading Shakespeare.

Furthermore, it was written in at least three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic (the day-to-day language in Judea at the time of Jesus) and Greek, and unless we have training in these languages, we’re stuck with translations.

A few preliminary facts. First, the Bible is not really a “book” but more like a library. The number of books depends on whom you ask. Traditionally, there are 24 books in the Bible used by Jews; 66 books in the “Protestant” Bible, 73 in the “Catholic” Bible, and 78 in the Greek Orthodox Bible. Other Orthodox groups, and Mormons, have still different numbers. The Bible of the non-Jewish groups includes both the Old and New Testaments, referred to by many today as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible.

I know, it’s confusing, but it’s all about which books each religion believes is “canonical;” that is, which are considered part of the Bible.

Second, Jews and Christians traditionally believe that the Bible is “inspired” by God. That doesn’t mean that God dictated the words to the authors but that he/she put thoughts into their heads that they expressed in their own words. That’s why the Bible is sometimes called “the word of God in the words of men.”

None of this makes the Bible easy to read and understand, so if you don’t have much interest to begin with, chances are you’re not going to read it. But trying to do so is worth it. Start with the “easier” books in the Christian Bible (assuming you lean toward Christianity), which would be the Acts of the Apostles and letters like those to the Corinthians and Ephesians.

Eugene Peterson
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Regarding ease of readership and understanding, it also makes a big difference which translation you read. I’ve recently discovered a relatively new one that is not only easy to read, but actually beautiful in parts. It’s called The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language.

Right off, I should say that it’s controversial. Some people are upset if a translation isn’t as close to literal as possible. Others are happy with easy-to-read translations. I think it depends on the use. If you want to analyze the text, translations like the Jerusalem Bible and The New American Bible are for you. If you’re reading for inspiration or insight, The Message fills the bill nicely.

Says William Griffin, who recently translated the “Catholic” portions of the Bible for The Message, “The scholars want to be faithful to the original words; we translators want to be faithful to the original meaning.” Both are important.

Griffin describes The Message, mostly translated by Eugene Peterson – a long-time Presbyterian pastor and Scripture scholar – as a “fresh, compelling, insightful, challenging, faith-filled paraphrase of the Bible into contemporary idiomatic American English.”

Author Joyce Rupp (a long-time friend of mine) describes it this way: “Reading The Message is like walking into a familiar room where the furniture has been creatively rearranged and the walls newly painted.”

In his introduction, Peterson writes about reading the Bible. “As we read, and the longer we read, we begin to ‘get it’ – we are in a conversation with God. We find ourselves listening and answering in matters that most concern us: who we are, where we came from, where we are going, what makes us tick, the texture of the world and the communities we live in, and – most of all – the incredible love of God among us, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” It is, he wrote, “…a book that reads us even as we read it.”

Here’s a sample from the famous passage about love in the First Letter to the Corinthians.

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rustic gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

Even skeptics can relate to that.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Economics of Faith

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I recently saw the movie, Boyhood. The acting was superb and the plot, exhibiting the fragility of modern family life, mirrored reality. But the movie needed a good editor. It was, in my opinion, way too long.

The length was somewhat understandable, however, when you consider that it took 12 years to make the movie, all in an attempt to chronicle the life of a boy from ages 6 to 18. It was fascinating to see the actors aging before your eyes.

The boy went through lots of family crises, including his parents’ divorce, abuse at the hands of a stepfather, the end of his mother’s second marriage and the tentativeness of a third. As a maturing teen, the boy falls in, and out of, love. A scene with his biological father – conversing over beers in the loft of a recording studio – was, for me, the most poignant.

“What’s the point?’’ asks the son. “Of what?” asks the father. “Of everything?” the boy responds.

In another scene, reflecting on all she had been through in unsuccessfully trying to form a lasting family, the boy’s mother remarks, “I just thought there would be more.”

Some would call this a chronicle of “the human condition.” We humans are often bewildered about the apparent emptiness of life, surprised that even pleasant events, things and even relationships don’t necessarily make us happy. We’re keenly aware that something is missing.

Sorry if this is predictable, but I can’t help thinking that it’s God that’s missing, that what is obvious is shunned for being obvious, traditional and “out-of-touch” with contemporary life. We’re deeply suspicious of what we may have learned from our parents and grandparents about the “meaning of life.” They were steeped, we may believe, in the myths of religion, blindly following traditions and prescripts of beliefs that society has now deemed irrelevant. We want, above all, to be relevant.

Popular culture promotes the idea that religion is obsolete. It may be OK for kids but not adults, who must be in complete control of their lives. Problem is, we’re never in complete control, even when we think we are. And society shoves religion aside not because it’s been “disproven,” or because it makes no sense or provides no benefits, but because it somehow “doesn’t fit” in modern society.

It appears that modern society is desperately trying to kill God so we can be “our own persons,” free from God’s tyranny, free to choose our own paths, to be “fulfilled” at last. And from a Christian point of view, we’re not just trying to kill the idea of God. We’re trying to kill God in each other – the children stuck on the border, the thousands killed in places like San Pedro Sula in Honduras, Ferguson, Mo., Detroit, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and Palestine.

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Yes, the fundamentalist and mega churches appear to be thriving, but people who attend don't seem to be like me or the people I know. They really do seem out-of-touch and closed-minded with their Christian music, Christian business directories and Christian dating services.

Popular songs have been expressing these sentiments for decades. In American Pie, that epic 1971 rock song that even today’s young adults seem to know, one famous line goes, “And the three men I admired most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, they took the first train to the coast…the day the music died.”

Like the movie, Boyhood, that song was also about delusion, the failure of the vision for young people of that era of what America could become. Somehow, God got implicated in that failure.

Seems to me we should apply a bit of “economics” to the problem and do a cost/benefit analysis of faith. Looking at it as objectively as possible, do the benefits of belief outweigh the costs, or vice versa? Would an investment in faith pay off, or simply add to the burden implicit in the recurring question about whether there’s a point to life?     

Our reluctance to embrace God and/or religion may be partly a matter of “risk aversion.” Studies show that most people’s degree of displeasure over loss, and their eagerness to avoid it, is greater than their degree of pleasure over the same amount of gain. We’re pleased when we get a $1,000 tax return, for example, but disproportionately more despondent when the IRS informs us we owe $1,000.

This may be a factor in our reluctance to risk what we perceive as “the good life” for God and religion. The implicit point of the Boyhood scene, however, is that without God, life isn’t all that good. Maybe that’s why studies consistently show that religious people are happier than non-religious people.

And why wouldn’t they be? Faith provides meaning to life. It gives you something, or rather someone, to live for. It establishes a relationship that is dependable and loving, a reason to be fundamentally happy. It confirms that no matter what happens to you, someone is always there for you, who always listens. And it expands your family to every living person, even to every plant and animal.

I understand that the kinds of “what’s-it-all-about” questions asked in movies like Boyhood are lost on many people who are so entrenched in their work, their relationships and their stuff they don’t have time for thoughtfulness. About them, you’re tempted to ask, “Just who is out-of-touch?” 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Loving Fridays, Hating Mondays

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What words do so many people long to hear each week, even from colleagues considered a bit nerdy?

“Happy Friday,” of course.

Of about 100 million Americans who have full-time jobs, according to Gallup’s latest State of the Workplace study, only 30 percent are engaged and inspired at work. About half of American workers are not engaged. They show up at work but are “not inspired by their work managers,” the study says.

About 20 percent are “actively disengaged,” and “these employees, who have bosses from hell that make them miserable, roam the halls spreading discontent.”

In other words, millions of people hate their jobs or are bored out of their minds at work. These are the people who dread, or even get depressed on, Sunday nights and are ecstatic on Friday.

I was so lucky that for most of my working life I loved my job. As a newspaper reporter, I often thought I should be paying the newspaper instead of the newspaper paying me for the interesting – even fun – things I was doing: interviewing interesting people, learning new things, traveling to curious places and having my reports published for others to see.

Still, I had bad periods in my career, and had friends who hated their jobs, so I understand the problem. It doesn’t seem fair that we spend at least a third of our lives doing something we don’t enjoy, all for somebody else’s benefit. And in an age when human labor is considered a commodity, it’s even harder to be a “dedicated employee.”

“Am I wasting my time here just for a paycheck?” we may ask. “Could I be doing something else that’s more fulfilling? Why doesn’t my boss recognize my value? Why is my job so boring?”

Notice that none of these questions are about salary. That’s because study after study shows that the majority of employees are more concerned about job satisfaction than about salary – even though many feel stuck in their jobs because of financial or health-insurance considerations.

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I believe this antipathy toward work can result in a sour attitude that makes it hard to search for God or become interested in religion, which we may perceive as one more thing trying to mess with our lives. But for sincere seekers of God, here are some questions to think about.

Do we fail to see the value of our work? Can we look upon our work as a vocation rather than just a job? In other words, can we focus on the value of the service or the product we provide? It may be hard to see that if, say, we’re doing administrative work in an insurance office. But according to Christian tradition, all work has value, partially because of the help it provides to others.

Then there’s the opportunity to relate to, and help, other employees. The workplace is for many the prime arena for testing our ability to “love our neighbor,” the most fundamental of Christian values. People who irritate us, who talk incessantly about “nothing,” who have annoying habits – those may be just the ones who need a smile or a kind word.

(This may sound unrealistic, but like other things, you often have to practice faith to acquire it. I wrote in a previous blog about the need to “just do it.”)

Another Christian value applicable in the workplace is the effort to make things better - for customers, employer and employees. Many Christians who concentrate on the “hereafter” miss this value, but I believe we have an obligation to collaborate with God in creating a better world.

Some people wouldn’t be happy in any job, of course. Like the hobo in the old song, Big Rock Candy Mountain, they want to “hang the jerk that invented work.” No job or career interests them. For them, it may have to be a question of “sucking it up” and getting over it.

However, people who feel stuck in their jobs, perhaps because of salary or benefits, need to find the courage to look for something in which they could better use their talents and be happier. Life’s too short to do otherwise, and from what we know about him/her, God wants us to be happy.

With seven days in a week, it’s a shame to hate all of them but one.







Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Benefit of Companions on the Journey

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I had a newspaper colleague who liked to refer to me as “the defrocked priest.”

She thought it was funny, and I sort of did, too, and was never offended by it. Truth is, though, I seldom wore a “frock,” and I wasn’t de-anything’d. I freely sought a dispensation from my promises as a priest and was granted it.

Although through the years I’ve had serious doubts about my faith, my leaving the priesthood was not a rebellion against the church. I was never treated with anything but respect by church members, including the dozens of priests and nuns with whom I studied and worked. And as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, once I accepted that the only way to determine the existence of a personal God is by faith, most of the rest of what the church teaches was a walk in the park. I simply couldn’t live a life of celibacy.

Some ex-priests have left the church or become its enemy, and I’ve had my differences with how the church operates. But I could no more leave the church than I could my family. And I can’t see how leaving the church can do anything to change the things about the church I don’t like. You can’t bail out and expect others to promote the changes you want.

Of course, the key is caring. You can’t change anything unless you care about it, and I understand that many people simply don’t care about the church, if not God or religion. That includes many Catholics and, presumably, some people who read this blog regularly.

A problem for Americans in the Catholic Church is that it’s not democratic. However, I believe that in its slow, deliberative way, it is becoming more so and will continue to do so. It is filled with consultative bodies, on the parish, diocesan, national and world levels. And in an unprecedented move, the Vatican recently issued a worldwide survey on family life that includes questions about people’s views on birth control, cohabitation before marriage and gay marriage. A meeting of bishops is set to discuss the survey’s results next October.  

(I again ask the indulgence of non-Catholics. I know I tend to write a lot about Catholicism, which is what I know best. Much of this can be applied to other faiths, however.)

I suspect a lot of people leave the church after much soul-searching and even agonizing analysis. Others, I suspect, leave as a reaction to a cliché, not the church I know and love. To me, the church is at once complex and simple. It’s not primarily the pope, the Vatican curia or bishops and priests, although there is a sense in which the church is an “organization.” It’s a community of people on a communal search for God, having found important clues that encourages the trek.

It includes solidarity with believers in my family and others far back into history, to the time of Christ himself. I have a hard time understanding the modern cult of the celebrity who excels in sports, popular music or the cinema, but has doubtful ethics. After all, it’s easy to be a “bad boy,” hard to consistently do what’s right.  My heroes are the “saints,” canonized or not, who, though considered naïve or unrealistic, heroically follow Jesus’ teachings.

In a time when trends last only months or years, when society rushes from one “new thing” to another, having a sense of solidarity with those believers is important.

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Recognizing that all analogies fall short, the church is sort of like those pioneers who crossed the western U.S. during the 1800s. They were all on a journey together for many different reasons but pulling for each other and defending each other to the hilt. Some left to take a different route, but that was OK, as long as they were trying to reach the same goal.

I often feel this sense of community when celebrating Mass with fellow believers, feeling that we’re on a pilgrimage together. And I often have a sense of loss when perceiving that many others who were formerly there seem to have abandoned the journey. Only God knows whether that’s actually the case, of course.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, some might say the sense of peace and joy that comes from belief is what Karl Marx was talking about when he called religion the “opium of the people,” that believers are simply involved in massive self-deceit. But that’s a superficial look at faith and the solidarity with other believers that is part of the deal.

Returning to the analogy of the pilgrims crossing the American west, there were certainly “no-goods” among them, at least according to the Westerns that I watched incessantly as a kid. There were people who faked having the common vision of the pioneers, people who just went along for the ride and people who took advantage of others and whose deeds embarrassed those whose vision was sincere.

That hasn’t changed. It’s obvious that all of us pilgrims are scarred. Some in our number do horrible things in the name of religion. The incidents of child abuse by the clergy are only the latest examples. Some are hypocritical to the hilt. Others are simply clueless and mindlessly follow the rituals and dogmas. I believe, however, that the vast majority of Christians are sincere and recognize the benefits of searching for God as members of the church.

Among those benefits are shared hope, and the trust in God and others that results from that hope. Even a “defrocked priest” can recognize these benefits, and profit by them.  


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tired Stereotypes about Religion

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Using stereotypes that reflect common “wisdom,” rock musician Tom Petty recently used his fame to slam religion, particularly Catholicism.

I wouldn’t normally use this blog to take on such an icon of American rock music. I try to be positive because Christianity’s message is nothing if not positive, even joyful. But his words, originally published in Billboard Magazine, were displayed prominently in a recent issue of USA Today and other media and will influence millions. They shouldn’t go unchallenged.

I give Petty credit for being against violence and war and for opposing pedophilia. Whether he agrees or not, that exhibits genuine Christian values. But in commenting on his new song, Playing Dumb, it doesn’t appear that knowledge of religion is his strong suite. Here’s what he had to say.

“Catholics, don’t write me. I’m fine with whatever religion you want to have, but it can’t tell anybody it’s OK to kill people, and it can’t abuse children systematically for God knows how many years… If I was in a club, and I found out that there had been generations of people abusing children, and then that club was covering that up, I would quit the club."

So would I. But the church is not a club. Back to that later.

“Religion,” he goes on to say, “seems to me to be at the base of all wars… I’ve nothing against defending yourself, but I don’t think, spiritually speaking, that there’s any conception of God that should be telling you to be violent. It seems to me that no one’s got Christ more wrong than the Christians.”

The idea that religion is “at the base of all wars” is commonly held but patently false. For decades, Catholic and other churches have been doing the opposite of telling people “it’s OK to kill people.”

Tom Petty
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As long as I can remember, the Vatican has been preaching - mostly to deaf ears - about world peace. All of the recent popes have written against war. Pope John Paul II in 1991 expressed his opposition to the Gulf War and publicly appealed to President George Bush not to wage it. In 2003, he once again opposed the Iraq war and appealed to the second President Bush to refrain.

Pope Francis, in an address in St. Peter’s Square last September, said, “May the noise of weapons cease! War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity. Let the words of Pope Paul VI resound again: 'No more one against the other, no more, never ... never again, never again war!'”

How could you be more emphatic?

Globally, and in the U.S., church leaders have for years spoken out against the death penalty, too. (Do an Internet search on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, then search for “capital punishment.”) And no one has done more to publicize the injustice of the death penalty than Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun. Her book, Dead Man Walking, and the movie based on it, has changed hearts.

In fact, the worst violence in history, and in recent memory, was perpetrated by people who were atheist and/or anti-religion. At least five million people were killed in Nazi camps, to say nothing of the world war that Hitler started. Other millions were murdered by Russian dictator Josef Stalin, and still other millions slaughtered in the "Rape of Nanking" and in Cambodia. Violence by believers, or motivated by religion, pales by comparison.

Many people cite the Inquisition as an example of religion's savagery. But it was an on-again, off-again Catholic campaign against Muslims, Jews and Protestants that was perpetrated by officials of the state as much as of religious origin. Best estimates on deaths are 32,000 people between 1480 and 1808, a period of 328 years. On the murder and mayhem scale, that just doesn't cut it by modern standards – even when you consider that the population of cities and countries was substantially smaller then.

And as for Catholics and the idea that “it’s OK to kill people,” surely Petty knows about the church’s stance on abortion, which – despite euphemisms to the contrary – is killing people or potential people.

Now about the child abuse committed by clergy that Petty references. According to an exhaustive study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice – part of the City University of New York – it was committed by about 4 percent of priests and was “systematic” only in the sense that it was geographically widespread. The vast majority of Christians, including Catholics and Catholic leaders, abhor such behavior by people who take advantage of their privileged positions. And it appears the church is doing all it can to find and punish offenders, prevent further abuse and help victims, even though some critics of the church may not think so.

Finally, comparing the church to a club is like comparing a Mercedes Benz to a wheel barrow. They both have wheels, but that’s just about it. Yes, the church is an institution with defined roles for various tasks, but it is principally the “people of God,” the “Body of Christ,” “a pilgrim people.” These are not just clichés but are crucial to Christians’ self-image. Being a Christian is a relationship, to God and to others, not a club.

Unfortunately, Petty is far from alone in expressing these ideas. Even people who have spent years in religious schools are amazingly ignorant about their own faith, let alone others’. With courtesy and respect, believers should never be afraid to set the record straight. And those searching for God should seek objective facts from reliable sources.