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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Three weekend reads: Another #MeToo case for SBC, faith-based adoption and Bible teacher Jimmy Carter

Three weekend reads: Another #MeToo case for SBC, faith-based adoption and Bible teacher Jimmy Carter

After a week in Puerto Rico on a Christian Chronicle reporting trip, I'm still catching up on my sleep — and my reading.

Speaking of reading, here are three interesting religion stories from the last few days.

The first concerns the latest #MeToo case facing the Southern Baptist Convention. The second is an in-depth analysis of religious freedom vs. gay rights in taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care. The third is a feature on the Sunday school class in Plains, Ga., taught by former President Jimmy Carter.

1. Southern Baptist officials knew of sexual abuse allegations 11 years before leader’s arrest

Sarah Smith, an investigative reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, delves into how the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board handled allegations that a 25-year-old seminary student sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl.

A crucial question: Why didn't the board report the matter to police?

Smith meticulously reports the facts of the case and gives all the relevant parties ample space and opportunity to comment, even if some choose not to do so or to issue brief statements that shed little light. This is a solid piece of journalism.

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God, man and FIFA: The ongoing struggle to keep soccer as 'secular' as possible

God, man and FIFA: The ongoing struggle to keep soccer as 'secular' as possible

Before we dive into this week's "Crossroads" podcast -- which is about faith and football (soccer here in America) -- please click here and take a look at the map that ran atop a Washington Post feature story in 2015. (To tune in the new podcast, just click here.)

Basically, if you are looking for lots and lots of unbelievers, your best bet is to head to China, Europe and other highly industrialized and educated nations.

Where things get really complex is in Europe -- a continent in which belief and unbelief bump into one another on a regular basis. North America is quickly moving in that direction as well (you may have seen a few headlines about that). 

Now, look at the same map and think about the teams that made it into this year's FIFA World Cup (click here for a list).

Quite a mix of faith-intensive and rather faith-free nations, right? And what about the championship game, with powerful France taking on the cinderella squad from Croatia?

The Catholic News Agency offered this interesting feature about Croatia and its coach, under this striking headline: "Croatia's World Cup soccer coach clings to the rosary as he finds success."

How would this kind of symbolism play in modern France? Here is a key chunk of this story:

Here’s one reason Catholics in the US might be rooting for the small Central European country: Croatia is a deeply Catholic country, and the coach of its national team, Zlatko Dalic, is a man of sincere faith.

Dalic said recently that his current success is due to his faith in God, and that he always carries a rosary to hold onto in difficult times. Dalic spoke about his faith on Croatian Catholic radio when the World Cup began.

“Everything I have done in my life and in my professional career I owe to my faith, and I am grateful to my Lord,” Dalic said. ... "When a man loses any hope, then he must depend on our merciful God and on our faith," he said.

In that sense, Dalic explained that "I always carry a rosary with me" and "when I feel that I am going through a difficult time I put my hand in my pocket, I cling to it and then everything is easier.”

Now, why is the rosary hidden in his pocket? Why not just wear it around his wrist?

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Friday Five: Fading way of life, 'Submarine Churches,' Chick-fil-A flash mob and more

Friday Five: Fading way of life, 'Submarine Churches,' Chick-fil-A flash mob and more

This week in Friday Five, we've got closing churches. We've got "Submarine Churches." We've got serpent-handler churches.

We've even got a church — flash mob style — at a Chick-fil-A.

I bet you just can't wait!

So let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a fascinating piece this week on how a way of life is fading as churches close.

The "first in an occasional series written by Jean Hopfensperger" explores how "Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations face unprecedented declines, altering communities and traditions celebrated for generations." 

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Editor Terry Mattingly's post titled "New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?" occupies the No. 1 spot this week.

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When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

When covering Pentecostal serpent handlers, reporters shouldn't settle for a quick hit

I recently come out with a book on 20-something Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers who publicize their exploits on social media, so I know a few things about what it’s like to cover this unusual group. I’ve handled a lot of topics on the religion beat, but this was one of the most difficult.

First, most of their churches are tough to find, as they typically wish to stay hidden from the media. Worship, to them, is not a spectator sport and services are four hours or more. Most of these churches are tucked into remote corners of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee; south West Virginia, western North Carolina, the northeastern tip of Alabama, western Virginia and northwestern Georgia.

You need to earn the trust of those handling the snakes. You don’t just walk into a service and expect to be handed the right to interview people or take photographs. It takes several visits to for them to know you. I stuck out because I was bringing a 7-year-old with me.

I was also fortunate that the photographer I worked with for my first article on these folks, which ran in late 2011 in the Washington Post, had done all the prior groundwork for this first encounter. That meant that I simply needed to drive 420 miles from inside the Beltway to a famous church in Jolo, W. Va., and stay there three days.

I learned these handlers are some of the most vilified people in American religion. I explain why in a Wall Street Journal “Houses of Worship” column running today. It says, in part:

In 40 years covering religion, I’ve rarely seen a religious group receive as much vitriol as the serpent-handler community. Yet the handlers have a fascinating ability to withstand torrents of abuse and ridicule. I was afraid of them myself once. But after spending time in their churches, I found kind, likable people who struggle to get through life like everyone else.

Thanks to a reality show, "Snake Salvation," on two serpent-handling families that ran in September 2013 on the National Geographic Channel, coverage of this culture has exploded. All sorts of media flocked to eastern Tennessee when one of the photogenic leaders of the movement ended up in court. The following February, Jamie Coots, one of the stars of the reality show, died at the age of 42 from rattlesnake bite, leading to more coverage.

A lot of handlers have faded into the woodwork since then, but there are still reporters out there seeking to cover this culture.

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U.S. mission groups stranded by Haiti unrest, and CNN — to its credit — reports on it

U.S. mission groups stranded by Haiti unrest, and CNN — to its credit — reports on it

Summer is prime time for faith-based mission trips.

Many U.S. church groups — often including teens and college students — travel all the world this time of year.

I just returned from a Christian Chronicle reporting trip to Puerto Rico, where I followed a Kentucky congregation helping with Hurricane Maria relief work. While there, I noticed the news about unrest in Haiti, a country I visited just a few months ago to report on water well drilling. 

Just weeks ago, I reported on political violence prompting the cancellation of dozens of church mission trips to Nicaragua. Not so many years ago, of course, ongoing concerns over drug cartels began curtailing mission work in Mexico. 

Not too often, though, do major news organizations cover the impact of the dangerous world on church mission trips, even though there's frequently a compelling story there.

That's why I was so pleased to see CNN tackle that angle amid the Haiti unrest:

(CNN) A number of US missionary groups are stranded in Haiti after protesters took to the streets following a fuel price hike ordered by the government.

One group described burning barricades preventing them from reaching the airport in the nation's capital, Port-au-Prince.

The US Embassy in Haiti warned its citizens Saturday to stay inside amid continued demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and a northern city.

Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant on Saturday announced a temporary stop to the price increases and appealed for calm. Prices for gasoline were to rise 38% while diesel prices were to go up 47% and kerosene 51%, the Haitian daily newspaper Le Nouvelliste reported.

Keep reading, and CNN offers several specific examples of groups caught in the conflict.

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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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Primer on Sunni terrorists includes helpful advice on the perennial labels game in news

Primer on Sunni terrorists includes helpful advice on the perennial labels game in news

For the foreseeable future, journalists will be covering Muslim zealots who terrorize innocent civilians in God’s name, fellow Muslims included, hoping that violence will force the creation of  a truly Islamic society. Their revolutionary  bloodshed spans the globe -- and spurns centuries of moderate teaching by Islamic authorities.

Journalists remain uncertain on how best to name these groups, which is among matters explored in “The Mind of the Islamic State: ISIS and the Ideology of the Caliphate” by Robert Manne, an Australian media personality and emeritus professor at La Trobe University. Though publisher Prometheus Books is known for partisan and sometimes supercilious attacks on religious faiths, The Religion Guy finds this title even-tempered, as well as brisk and valuable (though Prometheus deserves brickbats for providing no index).

This readable background will help guide journalism about a complex scourge that mainstream Islam is unable to eliminate. The book covers only Sunni extremists, not the rival radicals in the faith’s minority Shi’a branch centered on  Iran. Here’s Manne’s advice on common terms and labels seen in the news.

Islamo-Fascism. This label is “quite misleading” due to fascism’s historical fusion with nationalism (Muslim radicals spurn existing nation-states and  simply divide humanity into believers vs. “infidels”), and with racism (the movement’s hatreds lie elsewhere).

Islamic Fundamentalism. Also a misnomer, this borrows a term for strict textual literalism among Protestant Christians (see the Associated Press Stylebook). Problem: Such Protestants are non-violent, and so are many of the Muslims who favor that approach to holy writ. Rather, we need to label a terroristic political faction.

Islamists. This term designates believers who seek to reshape politics in accordance with religious law (sharia). Here again, such Muslim activists do not necessarily embrace terror.

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New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

The New York Times' front page Monday featured a "beautiful and powerful story" — as one top journalist described it — on the 20th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.'s racially motivated dragging death in the East Texas town of Jasper.

Emotional and compelling, the piece is expertly written and filled with riveting details.

It even contains several references to faith.

So why am I about to give this story — which I mostly liked and really hoped I could praise — a negative critique? The simple answer is that the Times, in an otherwise excellent piece of journalism, fails to answer basic questions tied to religion. 

Up high in the story, the newspaper hints strongly at a religion angle when it mentions church and notes that Byrd's family forgave his killers:

JASPER, Tex. — Sometime after church but before dinner, Sgt. James Carter of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the front door of James and Stella Byrd’s home. He stepped into the living room, removed his white cowboy hat and bowed his head. Then, with a somber look on his face that the Byrds still remember years later, he delivered the news that their son James Byrd Jr. was dead.

The horrific circumstances surrounding his death they would learn later: Chained by his ankles to a pickup truck by three men, he had been dragged three miles, murdered before the sun rose that Sunday morning 20 years ago.

“I just knew something was terribly wrong,” Betty Boatner, 63, one of Mr. Byrd’s younger sisters, whispered as she sat on a picnic bench at a memorial park now named in his honor. “It’s such a small town that we had already heard the rumors that a black man was found dead, but we didn’t know who it was. Until the knock on our door.”

The family forgave Mr. Byrd’s three killers long ago and made peace with Jasper, the small East Texas town where they have lived for three generations. But as the nation faces a spread in bias crime incidents, the family wants to ensure the public remembers one of the worst hate crimes of the 20th century. In the years since Mr. Byrd’s death, both state and federal hate crime laws bear his name.

As I kept reading, I expected — or at least hoped — that the Times would elaborate on the family's forgiveness of the killers and the reasoning, which I suspected would include religion, behind it. But that explanation never comes.

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