Richard Ostling

Fried-chicken wars: How much should Christianity mix with commerce?

Fried-chicken wars: How much should Christianity mix with commerce?

MICHAEL-ANN ASKS:

Businesses like Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A overtly follow Christian principles and thus promote Christianity. Is it profitable for them to have this ‘brand,’ or do you think the CEOs have some deeper evangelical goal?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

These two remarkable corporations are the largest in the U.S. that operate on an explicitly “Christian” basis, and both have been in the news lately.

The Hobby Lobby craft store chain won U.S. Supreme Court approval June 30 of the religious right to avoid the new federal mandate to fund certain birth control methods the owners consider tantamount to abortion.

Sept. 8 brought the death of S. Truett Cathy, billionaire founder of the Chick-fil-A fast-food empire. His New York Times obituary said that to some he was “a symbol of intolerance” and “hate.” Such journalistic labeling stemmed from Cathy’s son and successor Dan criticizing same-sex marriage on biblical grounds in 2012. Afterward, the firm cut donations to groups that back traditional marriage. No-one claimed Chick-fil-A discriminates against gays in hiring or customer service.

With both companies, Christian commitment is accompanied by prosperity, and the question suggests their religious image may be calculated for “profitable” advantage. 

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Do people who take their own lives automatically go to hell?

Do people who take their own lives automatically go to hell?

TOMMY ASKS:

Does someone go to Hell if they take their own life?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question was posted shortly before the shocking suicide of superstar comedian and actor Robin Williams during an apparent bout with depression. Following that tragedy, conservative Christian blogger and Williams fan Austin Thompson posted an item of  questionable taste, declaring “with great sadness” that “maybe Robin Williams is in Hell.”

The Guy usually sidesteps his personal opinions, but here would advise Christians never to speculate publicly about the eternal destiny of individuals by name. It seems improper, offensive, judgmental, and lacking in love. Also it’s a total waste of time since, as even Thompson correctly concluded, “only God knows.”

This sort of clergy malpractice occurred during the worst sermon The Guy has heard during decades as a religion reporter attending worship services. The preacher in question told of a troubled youth who had been disrespectful toward him and died soon afterward in a motorcycle accident. The sermon suggested that this lad’s defiance sent him to Hell for eternity, and seemed as upset about insulting the preacher himself as rejection of Almighty God. Moreover, this was a baptismal service, so think of the negative reaction of non-religious family members who were present!

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Define 'New Age' religion: Give three examples

Define 'New Age' religion: Give three examples

LISA ASKS:

What exactly is the definition of “new age” thinking?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This loosely diffuse movement, largely located in America,  is so indeterminate that it’s tempting to simply say “new age” covers any recently formed “spiritual” or “psychic” or “mindful” or “self-discovery” groups that don’t fit snugly into other religious categories. As part of this, new agers don’t fall within the formal organizational life of Buddhism or Hinduism but often appropriate various ideas and practices from Eastern religions, alongside other influences.

A good place to start is “Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions” (Gale), issued in eight updated editions, most recently in 2009. This standard reference work should be in any well-stocked library. Author J. Gordon Melton is a Baylor University professor whose decades of research make him the acknowledged expert on the taxonomy of U.S. faiths, especially thousands of young, small, marginal and obscure groups most people have never heard of. Note that the new age phenomenon extends well beyond formal organizations listed in such an encyclopedia to include free-floating ideas, fashions, books,  gurus and other influences.

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How does the modern Catholic Church view marriages with Jews?

How does the modern Catholic Church view marriages with Jews?

LISA ASKS:

When a Catholic marries a Jew, does the Catholic Church recognize that marriage as a sacrament, since Catholicism has roots in Judaism?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

No. In the church’s view a marriage between a Catholic and an adherent of Judaism (or any other non-Christian religion) is not a sacrament. This doesn’t mean the church doubts the couple is truly married, nor does it signify any disrespect toward Judaism with which -- yes -- Christianity has great affinity.

The Canon Law Society of America commentary on the 1983 law code notes there’ve been “extensive changes” toward leniency in marriage rules since the Second Vatican Council, partly because such mixed marriages have become “more commonplace and socially acceptable.”

Technically, marriage with a non-Christian involves “the impediment of disparity of cult.” 

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Why is the Song of Solomon in the Bible, anyway?

Why is the Song of Solomon in the Bible, anyway?

ROB ASKS:

The Song of Solomon gets a lot of "bad press." Are there spiritual lessons to be found in this book?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The Song of Solomon or Song of Songs has probably roused more confusion than any other book in the Hebrew Bible, similar to the New Testament’s complex Book of Revelation. Roland K. Harrison of the University of Toronto says the Song provides “almost unlimited ground for speculation.” The Bible’s usual piety, preachments and prayers are totally absent, nor is God even mentioned (except for 8:6 in some translations). Yet readings from the Song are chosen for Judaism’s Passover liturgy and Catholicism’s feast of Mary Magdalene.

Why was this book chosen for the Bible in the first place? Did King Solomon write it? Is it about him? And, most important, is this a book of erotic poetry, as it appears on the surface, or something totally different, an unusual expression of the spiritual love bond between God and believers?

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Richard Ostling: Is military service sinful?

Richard Ostling: Is military service sinful?

GAGE ASKS:

Is killing as a protection of the United States, like going into the Army, a sin?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Adequate treatment of this classic issue would require thousands of words. But start with some venerable quotations: “Do not kill or injure living creatures” (typical wording from Buddhism’s Five Precepts). “You shall not kill” (from the Bible’s Ten Commandments). “Do not kill the living soul which Allah has forbidden you to kill, except for a just cause” (Islam’s Quran 6:151).

Very broad-brush, religions have generally accepted military service alongside those teachings, and the killing it inevitably involves, as justified for self-defense, protection of others, public safety, and other social values, although faiths usually also contain groups that favor total pacifism.

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Was Marx right that religion = "opium"?

Was Marx right that religion = "opium"?

ROD ASKS:

Was Marx right? Is religion the opiate of the masses?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This blog’s third item about atheism and atheists in seven weeks!  Rod cites the famous quote about religion from a 26-year-old Karl Marx in 1844, four years before he co-authored the momentous “Communist Manifesto.” Here’s the full context in his typically prolix prose, from the introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”:

“The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness…” (Oxford University Press translation, 1970).

Before seeing how some analysts unpack those words let’s scan a bit of biography. 

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Why do some Protestants teach “young earth” chronology?

Why do some Protestants teach “young earth” chronology?

ANNE ASKS:

What is the explanation for today’s “young earth” movement among evangelicals?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question highlights the split between many Christians in science and a wing within conservative Protestantism that believes Genesis chapter 1 requires a “young earth” chronology with earth and all living things originating some 10,000 years ago, not the billions of years in conventional science.

Confusingly, this is -- especially in news reporters -- called “creationism” though Christians who accept the long chronology also believe God created earth and life. Most “creationists” also say God literally formed the world in six 24-hour days, immediately fixed all species and humanity without evolution, and caused a flood that covered the globe.

In the 19th Century, geologists shifted to the vast timeline that was later confirmed by measuring radioactive decay in earth’s minerals. Long chronology was essential for Darwin’s theory that gradual evolution produced all biological species.

Whatever they thought of Darwinism, leading evangelicals and fundamentalists originally saw no biblical problem with the new geology.

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How should we define -- and assess -- atheism?

How should we define -- and assess -- atheism?

DANIEL ASKS: Is it becoming possible to be religious without believing in god? (the lower-case “god” is Daniel’s usage)

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This is partially a repeat from March 22, 2013, when The Guy posted “Is atheism a ‘religion’? Is the Pope Protestant?” That headline indicated the idea seems ludicrous on its face. Yet, as the item explained, things are actually somewhat complicated.

The Guy won’t repeat that material here. Meanwhile there’s intense interest not only in definitions but in atheism’s role in society, to judge from the 69 lively comments posted in response to The Guy’s June 21 item on the unhappy “track record when atheists wield political power.” As an admitted theist, The Guy would like to thank all atheists who responded. These matters obviously deserve another look.

First, can people be “religious” without belief in God, or a god, or gods? Yes, absolutely. This is not “becoming possible” now but has long been true. The Buddha lived perhaps 26 centuries ago and everyone agrees Buddhism is as much a religion as, say, Islam. The Buddha Dharma Education Association, among others, states flatly that true Buddhists do not “believe in a god.” Yet teachers like Kusala Bhikshu tell us “a lot of Buddhists believe in God” while others don’t.

Or consider the modern Unitarian Universalist Association, self-defined as a “religion” yet creedless. It explicitly welcomes atheists as members in good standing alongside those with a God-concept. Humanistic Judaism likewise designates itself as a “religion” but eliminates the Jewish God.

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