Atheists & Agnostics

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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Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Newsworthy poll numbers from ABC News and The Washington Post, which combine 5,017 interviewees during 2017, say self-identified “evangelical or born again” white Protestants have slumped to a mere 13 percent of U.S. adults. That compares with 21 percent for “nones” who lack any religious affiliation.

Americans With No Religion Greatly Outnumber White Evangelicals,” New York magazine’s headline proclaimed. If so, that would be political dynamite due to evangelicals’ importance for the Republican coalition and Democrats’ growing dependence on “nones.”

Now, let's be skeptical for a moment -- like journalists. 

Mysteriously, 13 percent is well below counts in other recent polls, so journos ought to dig into whose numbers are best and why.

The 21 percent for “nones” closely tracks other surveys. However, two experts would argue that the “With No Religion” claim in the hed above is misleading. They are Todd Johnson and assistant Gina Zurlo who lead the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Zurlo is also a researcher with Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

In the 2016 academic compendium “Sociology of Atheism,” Zurlo and Johnson spent 24 pages analyzing “nones.” One main point was that in the U.S., at least, those who list no affiliation or call their religious identification “nothing in particular” often hold to beliefs or practices -- only minus membership. They include “spiritual but not religious” seekers and young free-floating evangelicals who shun institutional commitments.

The key: This article distinguishes between the unaffiliated and fully non-religious atheists and agnostics. It also explains pitfalls in overseas polling.

Johnson, Zurlo, and other CSGC colleagues are a go-to source for religious statistics that are used in standard reference works, and for interpretation of them. Their regularly updated World Christian Database, newly spiffed up this year, exploits every imaginable source for past, present and future numbers for each religious and ethnic group in 234 nations and territories, alongside ample backgrounding.

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Stats on future of faith in Europe: What happens when Christendom's heart weakens?

Stats on future of faith in Europe: What happens when Christendom's heart weakens?

The original saying, I think, was this: "When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold (or words to that effect)." The meaning is pretty obvious.

Then people started spinning off variations. One of the most common is this: "When America sneezes, the world catches cold." In this case, we're talking about American economic clout, but there are many variations -- as this nice NPR feature explains.

But I'm convinced the true cultural equation is this one: "When Europe sneezes, America catches the cold." The whole idea is that Europe tends to be several decades ahead of America, when it comes major trends in arts, culture, etc."

Now what about religion? That's basically what we talked about in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Well, for decades now, demographers have known that the active practice of religious faith was fading in most (not all) of Europe. Once again, France has been one of the easiest places to see this trend. However, in the past decade or so -- Hello, Church of England -- it's been easy to see the same struggles in other pews.

Now, several years ago here in America, we had a hurricane if ink and newsprint when the Pew Forum released its famous "Nones on the Rise" study, showing a sharp increase in the number of "religiously unaffiliated" Americans, especially among the young. The term "Nones" has been all over the place, ever since (including here at GetReligion).

Why? Well, for starters there were big political overtones. This paragraph from one of my "On Religion" columns pretty much sums that up:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

In other words, a coalition of atheists, agnostics and "Nones" is now to the Democratic Party what the Religious Right (broadly defined) is to the Republican party -- the grassroots heart.

So here is the question that host Todd Wilken and I talked about this week: If the "Nones" study has received acres of headlines, why has there been so little American coverage of that stunning new Benedict XVI Centre study entitled "Europe's Young Adults and Religion"? 

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Pope's (maybe) hell comment sparks firestorm, while NPR offers Easter spit-take (and more!)

Pope's (maybe) hell comment sparks firestorm, while NPR offers Easter spit-take (and more!)

First things first: Yes, your GetReligionistas received your messages and saw your many tweets about National Public Radio's amazing Easter correction. 

However, it's important to see the larger picture.

In terms of strange news and social-media -- Twitter in particular -- was this an amazing (Western) Holy Week  and Easter or what? Is the pope Catholic?

I'll deal with some of the tweets first, but it's important to know where we are going -- which is the larger story linked to what Pope Francis did or didn't say about hell, in his latest sit-down with his 93-year-old atheist friend, and journalist, Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica.

Hold that thought, because we have quite a distance to go before we get there. In my opinion, the most amazing part of that Holy Week story was the Vatican's sort-of denial that was issued to straighten out this latest Scalfari drama.

The now famous NPR correction was attached to a story about this Francis statement, under the headline: "Pope To World: Hell Does Exist." 

The Washington Post actually published an analysis piece about this correction, placing it in the context of decades of debate about media bias linked to religion. Here is the top of that piece:

An NPR report on Good Friday described Easter inaccurately and, in doing so, practically begged Christians to renew charges that the media is biased against them.
“Easter -- the day celebrating the idea that Jesus did not die and go to hell or purgatory or anywhere like that, but rather arose into heaven -- is on Sunday,” read an article on NPR’s website.
Easter, in fact, is the day when Christians celebrate their belief in the earthly resurrection of Jesus.

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Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

The latest Pew Research Center survey amalgamates (that's our word of the day) 257 surveys over 23 years about the  political alignments of some 350,000 U.S. registered voters, with important data on gender and other demographics.

We also find valuable context for religion reporters covering political dynamics, and for political reporters covering religious dynamics. Rather than lumping all Protestants and Catholics together, Pew’s data carefully distinguish between the two main and very different Protestant camps, white “mainline” vs. “evangelical,” and between white non-Hispanic Catholics and the politically distinct Hispanics who are now 34 percent of U.S. Catholics.

The following numbers will compare January of 1994, the year Republicans regained control of the U.S. House after a 40-year drought, with last December, the end of Donald Trump’s first year as president. The percentages combine those who identify with a political party with those who “lean” that way.

For Democrats, some patterns are stable. Black Protestants’ overwhelming support rose a notch, from 82 percent to 87 percent. Hispanic Catholics’ Democratic affinity slipped from 69 percent to 64 percent. Jews’ loyalty was virtually unchanged at 69 percent vs. the current 67 percent.

White "mainline” Protestants are split between the parties, with Republican support edging up a bit, from 50 percent in 1994 to the current 53 percent. Mormons’ strong Republicanism (a major irony in 19th Century terms) was 80 percent during the 1994 sweep but sagged to 72 percent last December, presumably reflecting some distaste toward Mr. Trump.

This brings us to the three big shifts that will shape national and state elections in 2018 and beyond.

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