Friday, October 24, 2008

Religion is Ridiculous?

Ridiculous, and worse. So say the new atheist books: In *God is Not Great*, Christopher Hitchens does not mince words, calling religion "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Now Bill Maher's movie *Religulous* lampoons the plausibility and social effects of all religion, ominously concluding that the world will end if religion does not end. But I suggest that social science data point to a different conclusion than do the new atheist anecdotes of hypocritical and vile believers.

Many in the community of faith gladly grant the irrationality of many religious fundamentalists - people who bring to mind Madeline L'Engle's comment that "Christians have given Christianity a bad name." But mocking religious "nut cases" is cheap and easy. By heaping scorn on the worst examples of anything, including medicine, law, politics, or even atheism, one can make it look evil. But the culture war of competing anecdotes becomes a standoff. One person counters religion-inspired 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta with religion-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Another counters the genocidal crusades with the genocidal atheists, Stalin and Mao. But as we social scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Maher and the new atheist authors present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion's associations with human happiness, health, and altruism. The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries. Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful. In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

This finding 'that the religious tend to be more human than heartless' expresses the help-giving mandates found in all major religions, from Islamic alms-giving to Judeo-Christian tithing. And it replicates many earlier findings. In a Gallup survey, forty-six percent of "highly spiritually committed" Americans volunteered with the infirm, poor or elderly, as did twenty-two percent of those "highly uncommitted." Ditto charitable giving, for which surveys have revealed a strong faith-philanthropy correlation. In one, the one in four Americans who attended weekly worship services gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.

Is religion nevertheless, as Freud supposed, and Maher's film seems to assert, an "obsessional neurosis" that breeds sexually repressed, guilt-laden misery? Anecdotes aside, the evidence is much kinder to C. S. Lewis's presumption that "joy is the serious business of heaven." For example, National Opinion Research Center surveys of 43,000 Americans since 1972 reveal that actively religious people report high levels of happiness, with forty-three percent of those attending religious services weekly or more saying they are "very happy" (as do twenty-six percent of those seldom or never attending religious services). Faith (and its associated social support) also correlates with effective coping with the loss of a spouse, marriage, or job.

Maher would surely call such religiously-inspired happiness delusional. But what would he say to the* *surprising though oft-reported correlations between religiosity and health? In several large epidemiological studies (which, as in one U.S. National Health Interview Survey, follow lives through time to see what predicts ill health and premature death) religiously active people were less likely to die in any given year and they enjoyed longer life expectancy. This faith-health correlation, which remains even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, is partly attributable to the healthier lifestyles (including the lower smoking rate) of religious people. It also appears partly attributable to the communal support of faith communities and to the health benefits of positive emotions.

These indications of the personal and social benefits of faith don't speak to its truth claims. And truth ultimately is what matters. (If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe? And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve?) But
they do challenge the anecdote-based new atheist argument that religion is generally a force for evil. Moreover, they help point us toward a humble spirituality that worships God with open minds as well as open hearts, toward an alternative to purposeless scientism and dogmatic fundamentalism, toward a faith that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

article written by David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College and author of A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

*Sightings* comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Economic Crisis

"Is it possible for someone to please explain in simple English with simple examples how this crisis came to be?" Here at Crikey, we like to help. So we bring you without further ado, the first (and possibly last) episode of the Wall Street crisis explained. The first instalment is brought to you by fellow Crikey reader Tony Stott, and is titled, The parable of the stock market and the monkeys:

Tony Stott writes: Once upon a time in a village, a man appeared and announced to the villagers that he would buy monkeys for $10 each. The villagers seeing that there were many monkeys around, went out to the forest, and started catching them. The man bought thousands at $10 and as supply started to diminish, the villagers stopped their effort. He further announced that he would now buy at $20. This renewed the efforts of the villagers and they started catching monkeys again.

Soon the supply diminished even further and people started going back to their farms. The offer increased to $25 each and the supply of monkeys became so little that it was an effort to even see a monkey, let alone catch it! The man now announced that he would buy monkeys at $50! However, since he had to go to the city on some business, his assistant would now buy on behalf of him. In the absence of the man, the assistant told the villagers.

"Look at all these monkeys in the big cage that the man has collected. I will sell them to you at $35 and when the man returns from the city, you can sell them to him for $50 each."

The villagers rounded up with all their savings and bought all the monkeys. Then they never saw the man, nor his assistant again, only monkeys everywhere!

Now you have a better understanding of how the stock market works.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lord of the Rings

A recent holiday afforded me space to watch the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, followed by a re-reading of Tolkien’s original books on which the films were based. These two classic works share a common thread but differ significantly in depicting the journey of Frodo and his companions in the battle for Middle Earth. It is a difficult exercise to turn a classic and well-loved book onto the screen – the different media requires words to be translated into visual form. The screen offers in background formations that which the text may take many words to describe, while much background history and poetry of the book do not lend themselves easily to the screen. Peter Jackson’s rendition is a classic in its own right, but many significant and creative aspects of the book have been omitted.

The relationship between book and movie makes for an interesting reflection, particularly for those faiths which bear a strong relationship a book. The Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic faiths are themselves grounded in texts, much of which takes the form of story. The living out of the truths of these texts is itself an act of translation from one form into another – from the written word to the lived world. The balance to be struck between faithfulness to the text and relevance to the lived world is an enduring challenge of interpretation and application, between idealism and lived realities.

The lived world is never identical to the written world, yet the truths of one can readily be applied into the other. This challenge faces not only the film producer, but all people of faith - the battle between spirit of the text and the imagery and words. Judgements must be made about the supremacy and centrality of particular episodes within the text. It is impossible to translate any book to the screen in full satisfaction of every viewer. Words evoke different images and emotions, stories and events tap into different memories for each reader. What emerges is the fruit of a dialogue between imagination and memory, literal word and figurative meaning, subject to reinterpretation after each expression. Re-reading the books helped provide contexts for particular actions and differences in the movie – the death of Saruman in the movie obviates the need to explain the purging of the shire on Frodo’s return which the book details. The omission or reshaping of particular pericopes results in loss of imagery and context for particular actions.

Whilst the film-maker seeks to make a faithful retelling of the original story in its original setting, the life of faith seeks to incarnate the spirit of the text in an entirely different context. In this enactment, some stories will hold greater sway, and those which are overlooked pose new questions and challenges which might ultimately change one’s perspective. To relive the spirit of the whole text requires interpretive cues and frameworks which enable one to live faithfully, yet tentatively towards the ideal.

Far from being a stricture to the life of faith, the presence of a book provides a continuing interpretive and reflective resource for every believer. The life of faith is ever a dialogue between text and action, image and reality. In this dynamic tension lie the seeds of reflection on actual events and frameworks for future action and a basis for reflecting on what is, and for shaping what might be.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

I Cannot do this Alone

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you:
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me…
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before me.
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friday, October 17, 2008

An old warning

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.
Thomas Jefferson 1802