Thursday, February 26, 2015

Religious but Not Churchy?


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I’ve written before in this blog about the “spiritual-but-not-religious” phenomenon. Many who profess this preference are among the “nones,” who write or say “none” when asked in surveys to name their religious affiliation.

Here are some data on the “nones,” according to a 2013 report of the Pew Research Center.

·       One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

·       The third of adults under 30 who have no religious affiliation (32%) compares with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

·       Mainstream Protestants have declined the most. The Catholic share of the population has been roughly steady, in part because of immigration from Latin America.
 
·       The vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are not seeking a church or other religious group to join.

The reasons for these changes? Several leading scholars contend that young adults, in particular, have turned away from organized religion because they perceive it as deeply entangled with conservative politics. I know first-hand some who have left the church because they believe it’s too conservative, or because it’s too liberal.

Other theories include the notion that it’s related to the postponement of marriage and children by the under 30 group; or social disengagement, the “bowling alone” idea that young people are not “joiners;” still others believe secularization is the cause (though this could as easily be an effect); others say it’s related to unprecedented good health, relative prosperity, and the general lack of crises in most young people’s lives.  

Undoubtedly, some “nones” are hostile toward or indifferent about organized religions because of religion’s hierarchies, dogma, and moral teachings, some of which clash with current societal values.

Many, however, profess an interest in “spirituality,” distinguishing between spirituality and religious practice.  


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This idea has become so well-known and established, according to Anthony Robinson, writing in the Christian Century magazine, that people who say they are spiritual but not religious have their own acronym, SBNRs.

“Publishers have identified the SBNRs as a key market,” writes Robinson, “and preachers flitter between testily putting them down and fawningly attempting to court them.

“So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the eminent sociologist of religion Nancy Ammerman conclude in her new study of religion in everyday life that the SBNR is a unicorn - a species that does not exist in reality.

“For most people, Ammerman found, organized religion and spirituality are not two separate realms but one. Respondents who were "most active in organized religion," she reports, "were also most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world."

Further, writes Robinson, “…those who invoke the distinction between religion and spirituality ("I'm spiritual but not religious"),” turn out to be neither. For the most part, such language is what sociologists call boundary-maintaining discourse. It is a way that people who want nothing to do with religion have found to say to religious people or institutions, ‘Don't bug me.’”

Fact is, it’s difficult to be “spiritual” without being religious, without – consciously or not – tapping into the traditions of spirituality of the great religions; without sharing spiritual insights and benefiting from the insights of fellow spiritual searchers, current and past; without the practical ways to maintain and promote spirituality that religion provides.

Without religion, spirituality is a vague, inconsistent desire for something more without any means to fulfill it. It’s like an un-staked tent in the wind, or like trying to get into and stay in physical shape in today’s sedentary society without joining a gym. We need to “be spiritual” with others because that’s part of the meaning of spirituality.

Just what does it mean to be “spiritual?”

Many say it can’t be defined, or that it is useless to do so, because it doesn’t exist. Some scientists who study the brain, for instance, say it’s all there – that all that makes up what we formerly referred to as “the mind” is simply a function of the brain.

That seems to me to be a very narrow view of reality, excluding a dimension of life because it can’t be detected by science. To me, it’s obvious that humans have a spirit, something that can’t be seen or measured, something that makes us human.

The spiritual connects us to each other and, for many of us, to a transcendent being that we know from faith. All human beings are “spiritual” in that sense, and religion helps foster and promote our spiritual selves.

If people understood religion and were less dependent on stereotypes - that religion is “judgmental,” rigid, and that it promotes intolerance and violence, for instance – they would see its benefits. I believe most would want to be religious though maybe not “churchy.”

It’s the “churchiness,” the cultural baggage of many religions, that I believe accounts for the increase in the number of “nones.”  

 

 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Care and Feeding of Your Soul

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You’ve drawn so close that it’s hard to see you.
And you speak so softly that it’s hard to hear you.
And I guess that’s what I get for inviting you in.
Because you took me at my word, and now I know that

Faith is not a fire as much as it’s a glow.
A quiet, lovely burning underneath the snow.
And it’s not too much – it’s just enough to get me home.
Cause love moves slow – Love moves slow.

This is the chorus of “Slow,” a song written and performed by Audrey Assad, whom I’ve mentioned before in this blog. You can hear her sing it at
www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OZp2UezV54.

I’ve started with Assad’s lyrics because like many of her songs, it moves me. And the point of this post is to encourage people who seek God to nourish their souls emotionally as well as intellectually.

First, a word about the term “soul.” Using it violates one of the norms I’ve used in this blog: to avoid “churchy” terms. “Soul,” like “heart,” however, has taken on a secular meaning, used regularly in poetry and song-writing. It’s not just used in church.


Still, the dictionary defines soul as “the spiritual part of a person that is believed to give life to the body and in many religions is believed to live forever.” And it’s the word that best fits here because in the search for God, people express their “spirituality,” the part of us that doesn’t depend upon the physical and measurable, the part that must open to God’s call if we want to find him/her.

Nearly all spiritual writers agree that the soul must be nourished, but that’s a foreign concept to many of us. Today in the western world we are all but obsessed with food and physical exercise, but the care and feeding of our souls seldom occur to us.

We are also daily assaulted by negative, even depressing, narratives and images that may distort our view of the world and ourselves. Like the big-city crime investigator who sees a daily parade of murderers, thieves and rapists, we may begin to believe that humans are basically evil, making it hard to see God in others.


Audrey Assad
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And that idea may be strengthened by what happens in our own lives – the betrayals and hurtfulness of others, possibly combined with our self-contempt.

We need to be aware of these assaults and make sure they’re balanced by positive, life-confirming stimuli that not only provide a momentary inspiration, such as that found continuously on Facebook, but people, images and material that support our search for God.

The first thing many of us will say is, “I don’t have time.” But it’s a truism that we make time for what’s important to us. It’s also true that the feeding and care of our souls doesn’t take much time.

So, what sources are available for people searching for God? Here are some suggestions:
 
·       Prayer. You probably don’t think of this as a “source,” and it may be hard for you to shake the idea that you’re just talking to yourself when you pray. But this is where I invoke the Nike slogan, “Just do It.” If you do it with a sincere heart despite your doubts, prayer has a way of balancing the crude observation that “sh.. happens.” 

·       Others. Yes, connecting with others - especially those who have a positive outlook on life - because despite what we glean from the media and popular culture, that’s where God is. This is one of the key mysteries of Judeo Christianity: that God is present in others, and easier to find in the poor and marginalized.   

·       The Bible. I know, it’s like asking you to read Shakespeare. But it’s not really that hard, especially if you try the easy translations, such as The Message, which comes in “regular” and “Catholic/Ecumenical” editions. Also, start with the easier books of the Christian Bible, such as the Acts of the Apostles, and the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible. 

·       Web sites. One of my favorites is Sacred Space (www.sacredspace.ie) by the Irish Jesuits. It’s available in many languages and includes daily prayers, Scripture and other readings, and a “3-minute retreat” you can make on your desktop, laptop or smart phone. There are lots of such sites for Catholics, Protestants, Jews and others, as well as for non-believers. Just take time to find them. 

·       Periodicals. I like America magazine, the National Catholic Reporter and Christian Century, but look for those that are right for you. These media balance the steady droning of the national and local media which, however they try to be objective and fair, often make us feel rotten about ourselves and make us cynical about any connection with the transcendent. 

·       Church (synagogue, etc.). You may not be ready for this, but praying with others who are also searching for God can be a shot in the arm for your spiritual life. The key is finding the right congregation and liturgy. Don’t be afraid to drive across town or make other sacrifices to find them. 

·       Art, literature and music, such as that produced by the likes of Audrey Assad. They appeal to a part of our minds that aren’t reached by “rational” approaches and as religious people have known for centuries, we can find God in them.

 

 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Society of Exclusion?

Pope Francis kisses a disabled man
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Diego Neria was born a girl in Spain, but after a sex-change operation eight years ago, he’s now a man.

Neria was raised a devout Catholic but many people in his parish scorned him after the operation, according to CNN News. After heated discussions with a parish priest and some others in his hometown of Plasencia, he started staying away from Mass.
"I've never lost faith, ever," Neria says. "But the other thing is the rejection."

So, with the help of his bishop, he wrote to Pope Francis last year and, says Neria, Francis telephoned him twice. Then came a visit with the pope on Jan. 24 at the papal residence.
The Vatican and the bishop have declined comment.

"This man loves the whole world," Neria says of Pope Francis. "I think there's not, in his head, in his way of thinking, discrimination against anyone. I'm speaking about him, not the institution. …But if this Pope has a long life, which all of his followers hope, I think things will change."
I hope he’s right about change, but for me, what Pope Francis is doing is much more profound, and much more relevant to the message of Jesus. More about that later.

One of the most interesting stories I did as a newspaper reporter was traveling to Trinidad in southern Colorado to interview the doctor at the center of the “sex-change capital of the world.” Dr. Stanley Biber, who grew up in Iowa and as a youth wanted to be a rabbi, was in his sixties at the time of the interview. He died in 2006.
A diminutive, cowboy-boots wearing surgeon, he exuded optimism and compassion for his patients, who came from around the world. 

Besides spending time with Biber, I interviewed three of his patients, all men who wanted to be women. Each of them was different, but what they had in common was the idea that they were women trapped in a man’s body. All of them had been in years of therapy, and it was Biber’s policy to provide the operation only as a last resort.
Stanley Biber
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Perceived as “effeminate” or just plain weird, they described the scorn they encountered during their lives. They didn’t expect it to diminish after the surgery, and Dr. Biber didn’t give them hope that it would. Despite the operations, their gender was still hard to determine by appearance. The operations did, however, seem to provide some inner peace.

Now, back to the pope and the Spaniard. Francis’ befriending of the woman-turned-man impressed me particularly because it reminded me of that assignment in Colorado, and how easily we accept the exclusion of so many people. Many of us Christians, whose founder and leader befriended prostitutes and tax collectors, have nothing to do with people whom we consider to be on the margins of society.
During the prayers of the faithful at the Catholic mass, we pray for our sick and dying, our boys in the military, our political leaders, our parish organizations, our priests and bishops, and all the good people we can think of. Following Jesus’ example, shouldn’t we be praying for homosexuals, transgender people, immigrants, disabled people and others society shuns? Shouldn’t we also be praying for prostitutes, pornographers, rapists, murderers, muggers and others whom we presume to be outside God’s care?  

Reaching out to the Spanish man is one of many surprising gestures by this pope. Yearning for something more “substantive,” many people interested in church reform dismiss them as empty tokens. Others believe the pope is going too far, sowing doubt and uncertainty in the minds of the faithful and confusing people about church teaching.
I lean toward those wanting reform but am deeply moved by the lessons Pope Francis is teaching by being himself. Those of us who are believers know in our hearts that he is following Jesus’ teaching and example. Just as Jesus was rejected by those who preferred the rituals and the religious customs of his day, many today take refuge in dogma and ritual emptied of human understanding and compassion – what many of us believe to be the heart of true religion.

And those who aren’t believers – or who like many believers are still searching for God – are equal beneficiaries of Francis’ “gestures.” He’s helping heal society’s self-inflicted wounds, and if we are to find God, chances are it will be through people like him.
One of the most interesting stories in the Christian Bible is from the Acts of the Apostles, describing how the newly formed church tried to resolve an identity crisis. Peter, the leader of the apostles, encountered a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who despite being a non-Jew had apparently gained God’s favor.

After a vision that opened Peter’s eyes and heart, he exclaimed, according to The Message version of the Bible, “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from … the door is open.”
How can we say it’s open to everyone but the likes of Diego Neria?  

 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Believing the Absurd



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Name this important person in history: He was raised in an obscure village of 200 to 400 inhabitants. He and his family were at the bottom of the social classes, even below that of the peasantry.

The house he grew up in was made of stones roughly stacked on top of one another. The floor was of packed earth; the roof was thatched, built over beams of wood and held together with mud. Two or three of these shacks were clustered together around an open courtyard where much of the cooking was done. There was a common cistern and a millstone for grinding grain. Garbage and sewage was tossed outside the house into alleyways between the groups of houses.

Conditions were filthy, malodorous and unhealthy. He and most residents had iron and protein deficiencies, and most had severe arthritis. Life expectancy was somewhere in the 30s.

Some of you may have guessed that this describes Jesus and, according to archaeologists, the circumstances in which he lived. Odd, isn’t it, that many people think of him as a sanitized, middle-class-like, pious guy, who was movie-star handsome? It’s easy to get comfortable with that kind of guy. He’s far enough away from us in time, way of life – and relevancy.

I’m currently reading “Jesus, A Pilgrimage” by James Martin, S.J. It has some fascinating descriptions of what archaeologists have discovered about life in Nazareth at the time of Jesus. It’s likely that Jesus lived much like the poorest people still live in many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. He had little privacy, probably wore dirty and worn clothes, and until he became an itinerant preacher, was a common laborer.

(We think of him as a “carpenter,” but according to Martin’s book, that’s a bit romantic. He and others with that title had to do any jobs that brought income, including heavy lifting under the thumb of upper class employers.)

I find this fascinating for a couple of reasons. The first, as mentioned, is how much it contrasts with the common perception of the plastic Jesus. The second is the unlikelihood that someone born and raised in such an insignificant place and such pitiful circumstances could be “God’s son.”


I believe he is because as I’ve mentioned in these blogs, once I get beyond the idea that God exists, the rest – the Christ story and the religion that resulted – is a walk in the park. But I believe many Christians have lost the sense of its incredulity, its weirdness, of how radically counter-cultural it is.
 
Barbara Ehrenreich
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I’ve just started reading another book called “Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Trained as a scientist, Ehrenreich became an activist and is the author of 14 books. During her youth, she writes, she attended camps and events sponsored by Baptists and Congregationalists. She also tried Catholicism, she says, but it occurred to her that “this was a religion whose central ritual was an enactment of cannibalism.”

She was evidently referring to Catholics’ belief in Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine at Mass and its reception in communion. At least she has an appreciation for how incredible this ritual is. It would do wonders for the manner in which we Catholics blandly receive communion if more of us appreciated how bizarre it is. Instead, many of us are “ho-hum” about it, having received communion hundreds of times.

St. Paul had a good notion of the absurdity of our faith. In his first letter to his Christian converts in Corinth, he mentioned that if what we believe isn’t true – speaking specifically of Jesus’ resurrection – we’re to be pitied.

“If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years,” Paul writes in The Message translation of the New Testament, “we’re a pretty sorry lot.”

Earlier in the same letter, he writes, “The message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction….”

Why should believers always be aware, as I believe they should, of the absurdity of faith? Because it makes us conscious that any degree of faith we may have does not entirely result from our own cleverness, but is a gift, often delivered through generations of believers. If it were entirely our doing, would be unwilling to buck the popular culture about faith and religion?

And if we intend to help others in a search for God, we have to present faith as it is. Despite the common view that faith is a comfortable, risk-free, no-cost way of life, we have to acknowledge to people searching for God that there’s a cost to discipleship, including the cost of being counter-cultural. I use the word “entirely” above because besides being a gift, faith requires on our part openness, honesty with self, resolve, patience with God and self, and the willingness to accept uncertainty.

The incredibly unlikely choices God made in choosing the circumstances of Jesus’ life gives us a glimpse of God’s otherness. Isaiah, the great Hebrew prophet, saw this thousands of years ago when he wrote, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” 

 

 

 

 

   

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Who Are Your Heroes?


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I’m not much of a celebrity watcher, subscribing to the cliché that celebrities “put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us (assuming we wear pants).”
 
But I came across a 2012 interview of actor Mark Wahlberg, recently placed on Facebook. I think of him as a tough guy, “heart-throb” actor who has appeared in movies such as The Italian Job, The Departed, The Perfect Storm and The Fighter. He’s been getting a lot of publicity lately because of his movie, The Gambler. Judging by the critics, it needs all the promotion it can get.
 
Anyway, Wahlberg, 43, used coke at age 13, was a gang member and was sent to prison at 16 after having been involved in racially motivated assaults, according to the interview. Growing up in Boston, he is from a family of nine children, several of whom have also served time.
 
At some point after prison, he changed. Here’s what he had to say about it.
 
“Once I focused on my faith, wonderful things started happening for me. And I don’t mean professionally – that’s not what it’s about.”  He told the interviewer he now attends Mass, or at least goes to church to pray, every day.
 
Interesting for a widely popular celebrity, many of whom seem shallow and self-centered. Oddly, he speaks easily about his faith in interviews, not seeming to be embarrassed, even though religion and faith are close to being taboo topics in such interviews. He doesn’t seem to mind that many people will place him on their “uncool” list.
 
Mark Wahlberg
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Many people are greatly impressed by celebrities like Wahlberg, and maybe what they say in such interviews can help people. Indeed, movie and TV stars, athletes and politicians are the heroes of society today.
 
President Obama was the “most admired” in 2013, followed by George Bush and Pope Francis, who were tied for second. But all the others on the list of a couple dozen men and women most admired were politicians, athletes and celebrities of one kind or another.
 
It leads to the question about what our heroes tell us about ourselves. Do the people we admire reflect our true values and beliefs? I believe they do to some extent. Admiration implies the desire to be like the person we admire, to emulate that person’s qualities.
 
So, do we usually see in most celebrities qualities such as integrity, self-discipline, kindness, compassion, honesty, and justice – the qualities that most people SAY they admire? Do most celebrities contribute greatly to the good of humanity? Not really, in my view.
 
For many, in fact, the most obnoxious and outrageous celebrities are the most admired. Why do so many of us admire people who appear to have no interest in doing what’s right? After all, doesn’t it take more “guts” to do what’s right, no matter what, rather than give in to greed, sexual promiscuity, egoism and selfishness?
 
Although there are notable and admirable exceptions, society seems to be stuck on admiration for the popular, the superficial, the outrageous, the trendy, “the next big thing.”
 
So, who are your heroes, the people you have most admired? Many will, of course, be people the rest of us will never have heard of – family members, friends and others who are non-celebrities. That’s true for me, at least.
 
But it got me thinking about the well-known people, past and present, whom I most admire and have most influenced me. It might be interesting for you to make your own list. 
 
·       Jesus. I know, this sounds shamelessly pious, but he can’t be left off any such list, even though he’s really in a category by himself. Among all else, he shows us how to be human.
·       Thomas Aquinas. I can’t say that I understood much of what he wrote, but I admire the fact that he took flak from his religious contemporaries of the 13th century for exploring the scholarship of other cultures, specifically that of the Middle East. He was an incredibly productive scholar but was humble, reported to have said toward the end of his life that what he had written was “so much straw.” I consider him my “patron saint.”
·       Fyodor Dostoevsky, the 19th century Russian journalist, novelist and philosopher. His novels, “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot” and “The Brothers Karamazov,” are among the best novels ever written - full of insights on faith, unbelief, God and life.
·       Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian. His book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” and his “Letters from Prison,” plus the fact that he paid for his faith with his life at the hands of the Nazis, changed my life.
·       Another of my heroes of the same era is Franz Yagerstatter, the Austrian Catholic layman who, unlike the priests and bishops who were his spiritual leaders, recognized Nazism for what it was. He was executed by the Nazis for being a conscientious objector.
·       Mohandas Gandhi, the Hindu non-violent leader of the Indian independence movement, who influenced people around the world, including our own Martin Luther King, in non-violent civil disobedience. A biography I read as a young man influenced me greatly.
·       Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis. This former nightclub bouncer hasn’t been able to avoid becoming a celebrity. A more current list, if worldwide, might place him at the top. For many Catholics like me, he’s the great hope of our church.
 
You’ll notice that all my heroes are religious people. That reflects my background. But millions of people who may, or may not, be religious deserve to be considered heroes. To me, heroes should be people who contribute to the world’s well-being and reflect the best that’s in you. Even a celebrity, like Mark Wahlberg,  might qualify. 
 






Thursday, January 22, 2015

Could you speak up, God?

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“Hello Lord, it's me your child.
I have a few things on my mind.
Right now I'm faced with big decisions
And I'm wondering if you have a minute, 'cause
Right now I don't hear so well.
And I was wondering if you could speak up.”

These lyrics by singer/songwriter Sara Groves touch on a frequent subject of this blog: God’s silence. I believe it’s one of the biggest obstacles to faith today, although the problem surely stretches back to the dawn of belief in an invisible God.

If there is a God, why doesn’t he/she show himself/herself? And, ask many who have given up on God and religion, if God is unknowable, why bother? Just get on with life and do the best you can without him/her.

Many who would like to believe in God, as well as many who on some level already do, are stuck on these questions.

In his book, “Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” physician and geneticist Francis Collins – head of the National Institutes of Health, best known for leading the Human Genome Project – writes about his journey from atheism to belief. As a young physician, he was struck by the deep spirituality of many of his patients, noting that “if faith was a psychological crutch…it must be a very powerful one.”

A later insight is, for me, crucial in this age of widespread indifference about God and belief. He came to the point of asking himself, “Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than ‘Is there a God?’” Later still, Collins was influenced by the famous author C.S. Lewis, author of the fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lewis’ well-known book, “Mere Christianity.”

After reading that book, he realized that “all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy.

“When I learned subsequently that Lewis had himself been an atheist, who had set out to disprove faith on the basis of logical argument, I recognized how he could be so insightful about my path.” Collins decided to prove to himself that atheism was the right path for him.

Instead, among the aspects of belief that greatly impacted Collins was the universal presence of a “moral law,” what some call the “natural law” – basically that humans are “wired” for right and wrong, and that this characteristic is not merely a consequence of cultural traditions.

Francis Collins
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Thinking about the possibility of a God, Collins speculated whether or not this would be a “deist God, who invented physics and mathematics and started the universe in motion about 14 billion years ago, then wandered off to deal with other, more important matters, as Einstein thought.”

No, Collins wrote, “this God, if I was perceiving him at all, must be a ‘theist God,’ who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of himself (the moral law?) into each one of us.”

In this process, which must have included the emotional along with the rational side of Collins, he eventually concluded that “faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief. …It also became clear to me that science, despite its unquestioned powers in unraveling the mysteries of the natural world, would get me no further in resolving the question of God. If God exists, then he must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about him.”

There’s much more to this story, of course, and in future blogs I’ll deal with subsequent insights in his book. Briefly, however, Collins embraced religion and now refers to himself as a “serious Christian.”

I heard a National Public Radio report recently about the acclaimed movie, “The Theory of Everything.” Stephen Hawking, a renowned scientist, perhaps the most famous atheist and the subject of the movie, was quoted in the report as saying something to the effect that science will eventually be able to answer any question about the natural world.

He may be right, depending on what he means by “natural world.” There will probably be a scientific “theory of everything” if you’re talking about things you can measure, that is, whatever is not spiritual.

But many people, like Collins, have discovered the spiritual, and that, it seems to me, is an essential step in the search for God, and an answer to the problem of God’s silence.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Faith and Fanaticism

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The terrorism events in Paris have generated debates about religion and fanaticism and provide ammunition to those who believe religion is irrational and violent. The debates are a good thing, but the view about religion, I believe, is misguided. 

A BBC reporter recently interviewed a woman in England who defended the brutal and lethal methods of radical Islamic groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, which appear to favor mass killings and beheadings in their attempts to conquer parts Iraq and Syria.

When the reporter asked the woman, who had been accused of promoting terrorism in Great Britain, how she could justify breaking British law, she replied that she must obey God’s law rather than civil law. She seemed to apply that principle to the Middle East killings as well.

It reminded me of the passage from the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian Bible in which Peter and some other apostles were hauled before the Jewish Supreme Council in Jerusalem. Council members berated the apostles for preaching about Jesus after the Council had forbidden them to do so.

“Didn’t we give you strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name?” the chief priest asked the apostles. Peter answered, “It’s necessary to obey God rather than men.”

Christians would likely classify the woman in Britain and the terrorists in Paris as fanatics, but not Peter and the apostles. There appears to be a fine line, however, between religious fervor and fanaticism, so what’s the difference?

The dictionary defines a fanatic as a person “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.”

The part about “excessive enthusiasm” is hard to deal with because “excessive” is subjective. I’ve noticed that in some Spanish-speaking countries, the name for "soccer fan" is “fanatico.” So fans are expected to be fanatics when it comes to their sport. Should religious people be any less enthusiastic about their faith?

It’s the second part of that definition that, I believe, is key here, especially the word “uncritical.”

The woman in Britain acknowledged to the reporter, who was evidently a Muslim herself and well-versed in the Quran, that she had not actually studied the Quran nor Islamic theology, but that “wise mullahs,” whom she respects, had and she had adopted their views.

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In other words, the woman had not done her homework, and that, in my view is what principally separates religious people from fanatics. Most religions, though steeped in mystery and subject to doubt, are rational. They require thoughtfulness and critical thinking. And although I haven’t read much of the Quran, no religion that I know promotes violence.

A few believers do, of course, and appear to be determined to impose their views on others.

If you’re thinking primarily of Islam, however, here’s what one Muslim leader recently had to say on the subject during a recent interview on Fox News. Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA Spokesperson Qasim Rashid condemned the attack in Paris and refuted the notion that Islam is inherently violent.

"This is not an Islamic act of terror," he said; "this is just an act of terror done by people claiming to ascribe to Islam. When we study Islam, we see clearly that the Quran condemns this kind of violence categorically. That Prophet Muhammad said that a Muslim is one from whom all others are safe.”

Why, then, asked the interviewer, do “these Islamic extremists, these terrorists use the Quran as justification for committing these kinds of violent acts?”

Answered Rashid: “Well, it's the same reason why any extremist group uses scripture. There's no shortage of extremists in everything. Let's not forget the Lord's Resistance Army, a Ugandan terrorist group that claims to be Christian. And I would vehemently argue against anyone who would blame the Bible, or Jesus Christ, for their acts of terrorism.

This is not about religion,” he said. “This is about political power, this is about uneducated, ignorant youth who are being manipulated by clerics and extremists. And this is why it's all the more important for us, as the moderates, regardless of faith, to stay united and combat this.”

Besides Rashid, the French Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Arab League, and Al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old seat of religious learning respected by Muslims around the world, issued statements condemning the Paris attacks.

People searching for God have sufficient struggles with faith, and have sufficient doubts about religion, without having to deal with the question of whether religion is inherently violent. Despite the few who want to impose their “faith” on others by force, the vast majority of religions are rational and teach love and peace, and the vast majority of religious people are rational, loving and peaceful.