Atheists & Agnostics

Not all religions are the same, you know: Can a faith be good if it’s not true?

Not all religions are the same, you know: Can a faith be good if it’s not true?

THE QUESTION:

Are various religions good for individuals and for society even if, as skeptics contend, their beliefs are not really true?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Time for a skepticism update. Never before in history has there been such a concerted effort to question the value of religious faith like we now see across the West’s free societies (as distinct from artificially enforced atheism under Communist tyrannies).

For instance, the common conviction that religion is important for shaping youngsters’ morals is questioned in a recent qz.com article by Annabelle Timsit, a writer on early childhood. “Parents who decide to raise their kids without a religion shouldn’t worry,” she assures us. “Studies have shown that there is no moral difference between children who are raised as religious and those raised secular or non-believing. Moral intuitions arise on their own in children.”

Admittedly, terrorism by Muslim cults raises doubts about the moral credibility of religion in general. Yet even Timsit acknowledges there are “well-documented” potential benefits from religiosity, such as “less drug, alcohol, and tobacco use; lower rates of depression and suicide; better sleep quality; and greater hopefulness and life satisfaction.” Faith also provides a “buffer” against stress and trauma, she says, not to mention fostering “better test scores” for students.

Stephen T. Asma, philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago, takes a similar stance. The above question is The Religion Guy’s blunt distillation of the intriguing scenario in his new book “Why We Need Religion” (Oxford University Press). He summarized it in a June 3 nytimes.com opinion piece “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).”

Say that again: “We need religion.”


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Faith-free thinking about aliens: Oxford experts say we probably are all alone in universe

Faith-free thinking about aliens: Oxford experts say we probably are all alone in universe

Near the end of his life, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis give a final interview to journalist Sherwood Eliot Wirt. One of the topics they discussed was the possibility of intelligent life on other planets -- a subject that interested Lewis, a fact made obvious in his trilogy of science fiction novels.

This is a subject that can be addressed in a secular manner, of course.

At the same time, if intelligent life is found on another planet, this does raise certain questions for those who believe in a God that -- one way or another -- created heaven and earth. To cut to the chase: What actions would this kind of God need to take to provide redemption on other worlds, if they are as sinful and fallen as this one?

For example, there was this exchange in that 1963 Lewis interview:

Wirt: Do you think there will be widespread travel in space?

Lewis: “I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on earth were to get right with God, of course, all would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite a different matter.”

Now, flip that coin over and look at the other side. What are the theological implications of evidence that this world is truly unique, that intelligent life does not exist elsewhere?

With that in mind, consider this weekend's think piece, which ran at Vox under this sobering double-decker headline:

Why haven’t we found aliens yet?

A new paper on the Fermi paradox convincingly shows why we will probably never find aliens.

Unless I have missed something, this long piece is totally free of any content linked to religion, at least in a positive sense. The absence of any religious implications -- even the obvious points that would raised by an atheist or agnostic -- is rather striking.

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A liberal Baptist preaching to Unitarians: Washington Post digs into racial conflicts (period)

A liberal Baptist preaching to Unitarians: Washington Post digs into racial conflicts (period)

From Day 1, folks here at GetReligion have urged newsrooms to pay more attention to liberal Christianity and other forms of liberal faith. There is, of course, lots of coverage of these groups when it comes to politics and social-justice issues. Progressive actions on sexuality make news. 

What is missing is what any of this has to do with the basic building blocks of religious faith and tradition. What do these liberal groups have to say about, well, doctrine?

With that in mind, let's turn to the long, intensely reported Washington Post feature that ran under this headline: "Prominent progressive D.C. church, accused of racism, tries to move on." The church at the heart of this story is All Souls Church Unitarian, a prominent congregation at or near the heart of progressive Beltway culture. Here is the overture:

One of the District’s best-known progressive congregations was locked for months this year in a very public conflict with its associate minister, who claimed she was mistreated and pushed out because she is black. Her supporters -- in the church and around the country -- spotlighted the case as an example of what, to them, liberal racism looks like, and vowed to keep it in the public eye until she got a better exit package.

The conflict at the 1,100-member All Souls Church Unitarian, known for nearly 200 years as a bastion of social justice activism, became fodder for debate about the nature of racism, and whether its pervasiveness will always seep into interactions and judgments even among people and institutions who say they are fixated on fighting it.

Now, three months after All Souls reached a private settlement with the Rev. Susan Newman Moore, the impacts of the dispute are still unfolding.

A few lines later, a very interesting word enters this discussion. Let us attend:

Moore has returned to the Baptist denomination in which she was ordained in the 1970s, and a few weeks ago the D.C. Baptist Convention held a “reaffirmation” ceremony for her, “as a binding of sore spots where wolves have taken a bite of you.”

You read that right. This prominent Unitarian Universalist preacher is a Baptist.

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Are Satanists of the MS-13 gang an under-covered story on the religion beat?

Are Satanists of the MS-13 gang an under-covered story on the religion beat?

Recently the saddest story ran in the Los Angeles Times about a 10-year-old boy who was slaughtered by his mother’s boyfriend. The point was that the boyfriend suspected that the child was gay and so tortured Anthony to death.

I’m not going to argue whether or not the child was gay or whether a kid can know such a thing at that age, as there’s plenty of talk about this issue in the comment field.

What drew my attention was something near the end of the article. Notice the fourth paragraph:

Anthony Avalos came out as gay in recent weeks, and authorities are now investigating whether homophobia played a role in the death of the 10-year-old Lancaster boy, a county official said.

Anthony was found mortally wounded at his home last week with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body.

Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, revealed in an interview Monday that Anthony “said he liked boys” but declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when…

Nichols said that his department’s caseworkers documented years ago that Leiva was allegedly a member of the MS-13 criminal gang, but that information was not classified by the workers as a safety threat necessitating Anthony’s removal from the home, and the department never moved to have him permanently removed.

What I didn’t include in the article was a description of how Anthony and his siblings were tortured. Because that is part and parcel of how MS-13 operates and when I looked further into them, I discovered something else about them.

MS-13 is heavily into Satanism. Somehow I’d never realized that a surprising amount of outlets have written about this, especially since late last year. 

For those of you who, like me, didn't know this, the Washington Post probably has the best history of this group and its satanic roots:

Some of the gang’s founders were devil-worshiping metal heads, according to experts. And although the connection has waned over the past 30 years, it can still be seen in MS-13’s use of satanic nicknames, tattoos and other imagery. The gang’s devil horns hand sign is known as “la garra,” a Spanish reference to Satan’s claws. And some MS-13 members have told investigators that they committed their crimes at the behest of “la bestia,” or the Beast.

“The beast … wanted a soul,” an MS-13 member nicknamed Diabolical said after killing a 15-year-old girl who’d disrespected his satanic shrine, prosecutors told a Houston courtroom earlier this year.


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What did America’s three founding presidents believe about religion?

What did America’s three founding presidents believe about religion?

THE QUESTION:

Here’s one for July 4th:  What were the religious beliefs of the three founding presidents of the United States, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence, was the date when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died.

What were the odds?! The two served on the five-man Continental Congress committee responsible for the Declaration of Independence, and Adams, who recognized Jefferson’s golden pen, ensured that his younger colleague would be the author.

The immortal prose had a distinctively religious flavor, with non-sectarian affirmation of peoples’ unalienable human rights that were “endowed by their Creator,” citation of the laws bestowed by “nature’s God,” appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and with “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” during the improbable and risky rebellion against mighty Britain.

These two Founders coincided otherwise in life, as in death. Adams was the nation’s first vice president and Jefferson its first secretary of state in the administration of the first president, George Washington. Adams was then elected president in 1796 with runner-up Jefferson as his vice president. After the nasty 1800 campaign, during which Jefferson was assailed as a religious infidel, he turned the tables and defeated the incumbent Adams.

Adams was so furious he even boycotted Jefferson’s inauguration. Though these allies of independence had become fierce rivals, they reconciled later in life and exchanged fascinating letters that enrich the recent book “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” (Penguin) by prize-winning Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood.

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After the Cakeshop case: Justice Kennedy cites need for First Amendment guidelines -- then punts

After the Cakeshop case: Justice Kennedy cites need for First Amendment guidelines -- then punts

It's the question that journalists have to be asking right now, along with the legal pros on both sides of future First Amendment clashes between sexual liberty and religious liberty. 

Now what?

To be blunt, was the 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (.pdf) a signal (a) to religious believers of all stripes that it's open season, in terms of rejecting LGBTQ customers or (b) to blue-zip-code politicians that they are free to stomp on the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers, only while using cool, calm legal logic rather than the heated prose used in Colorado?

As always, the key lines to parse were written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Here is the essential material, as quoted by USA Today:

Kennedy acknowledged that business owners generally cannot deny equal access to goods and services under a neutral public accommodations law. Otherwise, he said, "a long list of persons who provide goods and services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws."

"The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts," Kennedy said. "These disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market."

It's interesting that Baptist Press, when focusing on the same bottom line, made a strong effort to note the degree to which Kennedy once again affirmed LGBTQ rights:

"Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth," Kennedy said. "For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression."

He wrote, "The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market."

So reporters, what phrases jump out at you, as you look to the future of this story?

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Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

No doubt about it. It's hard to get more Greek than the name "Dimitrios Pagourtzis." So, yes, I was not surprised to receive emails asking me the significance of the Greek Orthodox heritage (and ethnic dancing skills) of America's latest young student with guns and a mission.

Once again, we face questions about the contents of a gunman's head and heart, as journalists (and law officials) try to answer the always painful "Why?" question in the mantra, "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How."

The Orthodox connection is mentioned in most background stories about Pagourtzis. Here is a TMZ reference with a link to video. You will not, when viewing it, be tempted to shout, "Opa!"

The student arrested for gunning down 10 people at his high school appeared to be nothing more than a church-going dancer mere days before the shooting.

TMZ has obtained video of 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis participating in a choreographed dance for his Greek Orthodox church the weekend before he allegedly shot and killed 8 of his peers and 2 teachers.

Sources connected to the event tell us the dance was part of a larger Greek festival in a town about 30 minutes away from Santa Fe, TX where he went to school. 

In traditional, even elite, media this Greek Orthodox information is more likely to look like this -- care of The New York Times.

Investigators, meanwhile, are scouring his journal, a computer and a cellphone that Mr. Abbott said showed the suspect had been planning the attack, and his own death. ... 

In many ways, Mr. Pagourtzis was a part of the Santa Fe community. He made the honor roll. He played defensive tackle on a school football team that was the pride of the town. His family was involved in the Greek Orthodox Church.

As always, in this digital-screens world of ours, what a person does with his or her time in analog life (like dancing in an ethnic dance team) may not be as important as what the person expresses in social media.

It's interesting to note that the Times team did not include the following piece of social-media information about Pagourtzis -- which did make it into print at The Washington Post.

In the Facebook account, he described himself as an atheist and said, “I hate politics.”

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That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Was Freud correct or not in his anticipation of the demise of religion in “The Future of an Illusion”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Ah, 1927, the year of Lindbergh, “The Jazz Singer,” Mount Rushmore, Sacco and Vanzetti, Dempsey and Tunney, the Yankees and Murderers’ Row, CBS Radio and the BBC. And the year of British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell’s booklet “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

By coincidence, that same year Sigmund Freud applied his psychoanalytic theories to religion in “The Future of an Illusion.” Arguably, these were the 20th Century’s most influential atheistic books.

To over-simplify (which is what we journalists do), Freud (1856–1939) thought that belief in God arises from a neurotic childhood longing for a father-figure. Yes, religion provided certain comforts to our primitive ancestors. But that was wishful thinking. People in the age of modern science now have the ability to test and reject imaginative fantasies, embrace reality, and as a result become more psychologically healthy and mature.

Yet religion in fact hasn’t died out and it looks like it never will, to judge from all the evidence in the nine decades that followed Freud’s book. Contra his deathly forecast, religion survived and in many places has thrived. This is especially remarkable because the past century brought unprecedented political power exercised by atheists, which resulted in the most bloodthirsty effort in history to exterminate religious faith -- and many religious believers as well. Meanwhile, in free nations  public expressions of hostility toward traditional faith have never been so unimpeded.

Followers of Freud can correctly point out that since World War II Christianity has gradually slumped into widespread desuetude across western Europe, especially in urban centers. Yet sectors of vitality persist. The most notable are among immigrants from Africa and Asia, both Muslims and Christians.

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Friday Five: Atheists and hell, unsafe church vans, royal wedding, 'I'm Batman' and more

Friday Five: Atheists and hell, unsafe church vans, royal wedding, 'I'm Batman' and more

There was breaking news this week in the world of religion, as noted by Religion News Service's Aysha Khan.

"We now believe in hell," American Atheists announced on Twitter.

The impetus for this major change in (lack of) theology?

It was a New York Times report that "a television show featuring Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who is suing President Trump on behalf of a pornographic film actress, and the former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci was pitched to two cable networks in recent weeks." 

Yes, I believe we'll all be reassessing the state of the universe now.

In the meantime, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Louisville Courier-Journal's investigative report headlined "Is your church van a death trap?" is the must-read religion story of the week. 

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