Thursday, June 12, 2008

Faithfully Unfaithful or Fatefully Faithful

Looks like talking about religion and faith is back in style again. Big name magazines have been devoting a large amount of space to faith (or its lack thereof). Maybe it is the coming elections or it is provoked by the creationist hordes insisting on riding roughshod over Darwinism or maybe it is just a pure reflection of our collective questioning in a world of galloping scientific progress undermining long held tenets... Whatever, some of the viewpoints expressed make for great reading.

From the Economist, a political bent to religiosity:

For politicians doomed to deal with religion, two lessons stand out—one principled, the other pragmatic. The principle is that church and state are best kept separate. Subsidized religion has seldom made sense for either state or church: witness Europe's empty pews. In some cases, separating the two is easy. In private, people can choose to believe that the world was created exactly 6,003 years ago, but teachers should not be allowed to teach children creationism as science. The state should not tell people whether they can wear headscarves, let alone ban “unauthorized” reincarnation (as China did recently in Tibet). The pragmatic lesson concerns those wars of religion. Partly because of their obsession with keeping church and state separate, Western powers (and religious leaders) have been too reluctant to look for faith-driven solutions to religious conflicts.

From the Wall Street Journal on the fact that a world sans religion would still abound in deceit, power mongering and selfish manipulations (the least analytical of the lot, read like an op piece but an interesting idea):

If there is one agreed-upon point in the current war of words about religion, it is that religion is a very powerful force. Perhaps you believe, with that vigorous atheist Christopher Hitchens, that "religion poisons everything"; or, with the Christian historian and sociologist Rodney Stark, that religion created modern science and ended slavery. Is religion powerful? I suppose it often is. After all, if people were not religious -- or, to take a Gibbonesque view of the matter, if people did not want to be thought of as so -- no one would use religious language to promote political or social or ethnic goals. That those seeking to acquire or keep power do use such language, and regularly, indicates that religion has influence. But the idea that without religion people would stop seeking power, stop manipulating, stop deceiving, is just wishful thinking of the silliest kind. Though it may seem ironic for a Christian to be saying this, it's time to talk less about the power of religion and remember instead the dark forces in all human lives that religious language is too often used to hide.

From the Atlantic on the shallowness and the paradoxical broadness (read secularity) of religiosity in Americans:

Americans are not only more religious than Europeans; they are more religious than the citizens of some Latin American countries. If proof is needed that religion will remain a dominant force in history for a long time to come, the fact that the world’s most affluent society is also well up among the faithful would seem to provide it. When the president says that his decision to invade another country was influenced by a call from God, or when school boards decide to include creationism in their curriculum, it appears safe to conclude that Americans are not living in the world envisioned by Marx or Freud. But one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity. For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths. The most important religious phenomenon in the United States, however, has nothing to do with the number of atheists. It concerns another trend that, like modernization, is changing the trajectories of religion worldwide: the creation and spread of a free religious marketplace, which partly (though by no means completely) revives religious devotion wherever it reaches, but also tends to moderate the religions offered within it.

From the New Yorker on the inefficacy of prayer and why a benevolent God (if he or she exists) permits suffering to carry on...

Antique and abstract it may be, but thinking about theodicy still has the power to change lives. I know this, because it was how I began to separate myself from the somewhat austere Christian environment I grew up in. I remember the day, in my late teens, when I drew a line down the middle of a piece of paper, on one side of which I wrote my reasons for belief in God, on the other my reasons against. I can’t remember the order of my negatives now, but the inefficacy of prayer was likely at the top. Here was a demonstrable case of promises made (if you have faith, you can move a mountain) but not kept (the mountain not only stays put but suddenly erupts and consumes a few villages). During my teens, two members of my parents’ congregation died of cancer, despite all the prayers offered up on their behalf. When I looked at the congregants kneeling on cushions, their heads bent to touch the wooden pews, it seemed to me as if they were literally butting their heads against a palpable impossibility. And this was years before I discovered Samuel Butler’s image for the inutility of prayer in his novel “The Way of All Flesh”—the bee that has strayed into a drawing room and is buzzing against the wallpaper, trying to extract nectar from one of the painted roses.

Wordle art created from text in the above post

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