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Is Britain a Christian country? And who cares?

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I have not had time to write about my thoughts concerning David Cameron’s recent comments that Britain is a Christian nation. If you know me, you know I disagree. My colleague David re-blogged a very interesting post by Tom Rees (first published on Epiphenom)… and I shall now do him the same privilege.

It is called Who thinks Britain should be a Christian country? and contains the brilliant conclusion that:

by emphasising the importance of Christianity for British identity, Cameron is appealing to the racists, rather than the religious, in his constituency

I have also read another (American) article today on the growing constituency of those who just don’t care about religion, God, “spirituality” or whatever.  Originally published in USA Today, you can access it here on the Huffington Post website. Although I am clearly interested in the social dimensions of religion/nonreligion, and plan to devote my life to studying these, I also couldn’t give a damn about the truth of anyone’s claims… I just don’t see how it is relevant to my life. The arguments of New Atheists or the advocates of various faith positions or spiritualities ultimately have a very hard time penetrating this wall of indifference… and generally the harder people try, the less likely the wall is going to disappear.

An atheist nativity

An atheist nativity.

Just a quick reblog for you today. You’re probably wondering why I haven’t commented on Christopher Hitchens’ death yet… Or on David Cameron’s ridiculous comments about Britain being a Christian nation… Quite simply I haven’t had the time.

Soon, perhaps…

Merry Christmas!

Rethinking Secularism – A Seminar Discussion, Santa Barbara

The Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, Santa Barbara

 presents

 Rethinking Secularism – A Seminar Discussion

Friday, November 18, 2011 – 12:00 noon, Orfalea Center seminar room – 1005 Robertson Gym

 With:

Craig Calhoun, President, Social Science Research Council, and Prof of Sociology, NYU

Jonathan Van Antwerpen, Editor-in-Chief, The Immanent Frame, SSRC online magazine

Mark Juergensmeyer, Director, Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies

 Comments by:
Benjamin (Jerry) Cohen, UCSB Political Science
Wade Clark Roof, UCSB Religious Studies
Giles Gunn, UCSB Global & International Studies

 The speakers will discuss the background and content of the multi-year project of the Social Science Research Council on the crisis of secularism that resulted in their recently published, co-edited volume Rethinking Secularism (2011 Oxford UP). The project (and the volume) involved an interdisciplinary group of leading theorists and scholars, including the philosopher Charles Taylor, the literary theorist Talal Asad, the political scientist Peter Katzenstein, the sociologist Jose Casanova, and many more. The project focused on the central issues of how ”the secular” emerged historically, how it is now constituted and understood in different ways around the global, and how it has presented an analytic challenge for the social sciences, the humanities, and international affairs.


Christian Minister ‘bored’ by the ‘bland majority’

I have just read the following ‘reflection’ from Lillian Daniel, the senior minister of the First Congregational Church, UCC, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Have a read of it yourself and try and guess what might have got my heckles up:

Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.

August 31, 2011

Matthew 16:18

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Reflection by Lillian Daniel

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

Prayer

Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.

As someone who studies religion, this is admittedly a similar conversation that I dread (however, I have yet to have this conversation on a plane – maybe this only happens in the US). My current conversation runs as follows:

– What do you study?

– Religious Studies

– Oh, so you want to be a priest, or a Religious Education teacher?

– <Sigh>. Religious Studies is not the same as Theology. Religious Studies is a social science. It makes no comment on the truth claims of religious individuals or institutions, but considers all people and their ‘beliefs’ worthy of study. For instance, I have written a lot about contemporary atheism, and I currently study the nonreligious from the perspective of Religious Studies and would generally advocate a movement away from labeling individuals as ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’ as in almost every case, both labels can be shown to be inaccurate, and they don’t tell us very much about what being (non)religious might mean to that individual.

– So, you want to be the new Richard Dawkins then?

– <Sigh> Did you listen to anything I just said?

However, this was not the same conversation Lillian Daniels purports to have encountered.  I’m not going to get into whether or not her beliefs are more valid than those of the man on the plane. However, it is interesting to see how Daniels labels this gentleman as part of the ‘bland majority of people’, whilst seeing herself as part of a ‘real human community’. I am curious to know:

  • how she defines real;
  • what gives her a right to make this assertion;
  • and how she feels that making this sarcastic diatribe will encourage individuals like this gentleman to decide that he actually wants to do as she presumably wishes and join her church…

Maybe I am getting the wrong impression here, but it seems that Daniels does not want individuals like this to be part of her ‘brave’ community. If so, why does she bother trying to engage with them online? Perhaps this is because her community would become the ‘bland majority’ if it were, in fact, the majority. Perhaps it is because her worldview is threatened by individualism. I find it personally encouraging, however, to see the leader of a mainline Protestant institution exhibiting the same tendency to sarcasm and ridicule as the rest of the ‘bland majority’.

Most importantly, however, this is a prime example of someone defining their terms to suit their own agenda. As I have just been discussing with my friend Suzanne, this is all about power… Daniels is defining her sort of belief as worthy of attention and engagement, but the beliefs of others as bland, boring and unworthy. This unjustified behaviour is one of the main objections I have to inter-faith dialogue (although I see many positives as well): groups of ‘religious’ individuals get together and talk politely about what they believe, all the time acknowledging that whilst they may have nothing else in common, at least they are ‘brave’ enough to believe in ‘something’ and belong to a ‘tradition’. This is a prime example of the Western Christianised bias to see religion as being a ‘monogamous’ commitment to some established tradition, which does not scan with non-Western traditions, and with the scene portrayed by the 21st century world at large.

We mustn’t commit the faux pas of tarring an institution, movement or group of individuals with the same brush as their leaders. However, blandness is fine by me :)

The Day the World Changed – Conversation – Edinburgh

THE DAY THE WORLD CHANGED £6 (£4)

Saturday 27 August, 9.30am – 10.30am

St John’s Church (Venue 127), Edinburgh

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11 what is the legacy of that day and the conflict which ensued? Is the predicted ‘clash of civilisations’ being played out? We welcome Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative in Manhattan and visionary leader of the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ – who was at the eye of the storm last September as US public opinion wrestled with the bitterness of 9/11, the threatened burning of the Quran, overseas wars in Muslim countries and growing Islamophobia at home. Can the US exorcise the ghosts of 9/11? In conversation withProfessor Hugh Goddard from the Alwaleed network of centres promoting mutual understanding between the World of Islam and the West.

In partnership with the Prince Alwaleed Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the University of Edinburgh. www.alwaleed.ed.ac.uk

 For further details and tickets:  www.festivalofspirituality.org.uk

Cows and Fish… Atheists and the Church… and Abortions?

Proper blog posts are still a long way off… but here is a selection of interesting things I have spotted on the internet over the past week or so:

A worrying discussion about abortion in the state of Kansas.

A church that mistakenly advertised for an atheistic organisation

Another atheist complains about an infringement on church-state separation in the US.

Apparently fish can use tools!!!! Does this cause any ‘vegetarians’ who eat fish to reconsider their position?

Understanding the current situation in the Middle East… with cows. My personal favourites are:

Palestine
You had two cows that were lost decades ago. Lament them.

Israel
You have two bulls. Pretend they are helpless calves.

And finally, the periodic table of atheists… chuckle.

Enjoy!

 

 

Explaining Islam to the Public

I have just read the following superb post from Edward E. Curtis IV, entitled Explaining Islam to the Public. Whilst I suggest that you have a look yourself, I have pulled out what I consider to be the most relevant bits… mostly on Shari’a Law and Violence.

He begins with a cautionary tale on how Scholars of Islam were suddenly called upon to become public spokespeople in the decade since 9/11:

“Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. […] The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution.”

He continues with a response to the Ground Zero Mosque fiasco, ‘shedding light on Muslim contributions to the histroy of the United States’ and concluding that:

“It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

He then enters into an extended discussion of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post on addressing their proposed ‘myth’, that “Mosques seek to spread shari’a law in the United States”.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life. […]

My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

Getting rightly annoyed about the one way process of this question and answer approach, he continues:

Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do.  But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Postpiece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

And finally, on the widespread conception that Islam is a very violent religion, and the clash of interests between the USA and ‘Islam’:

There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991, when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power.

[…] we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

A thoroughly engaging post, which contained almost nothing I could disagree with. Here’s hoping as many people as possible read it. I’d also suggest reading some sections from my Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam. Enjoy.

College becomes US’s first to offer major in secularism

I am very glad to see that this is happening, though am surprised I have not heard about ti before. I love how the comments on this article, and even the article itself, seem to misunderstand the point. People will not be going to Pitser College to ‘Learn Secularism’ in the same way that people go to a Madhab to ‘Learn Islam’ or to a Bible College to ‘Learn the Gospel’. They will be going there to learn about secularisation…

I am did a Religious Studies undergraduate degree… I learned about religion. Along the way, I learned a lot about secularism, did a dissertation on atheism, and am currently researching the nonreligious. None of these things entail agreeing with that position… nor is it anything to do with preaching, or even legitimating.

By learning about nonreligion, we can expand our knowledge of religion. Just like this works the other way around. We do not make judgements on which is the default position, or on which is the right position…

Here’s to hoping more of these degree programmes appear across the globe. A step in the right direction Phil Zuckerman :)

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor (CNN) — I don’t know whether to be surprised that it happened or surprised that it took so long: a California college has become the first in the nation to offer a major in secularism. The New York Times reported this weekend on the move by Pitzer College, a liberal arts institution in Southern California that’s one of seven Claremont Colleges. Some back story from The Times: The department was proposed by … Read More

via CNN Belief Blog

The Effects of ‘Partying’ on Religiosity

This site is worth a browse… even just for its sheer craziness:

http://spirituality.ucla.edu/findings/religious-measures/religious-skepticism.php

I don’t doubt the value of some of the research, or the credentials of the scholars involved… but I couldn’t help but laugh when I read the following:

“Students tend to become more religiously skeptical during college if they engage in a good deal of partying, watch a lot of television, participate in a study abroad program, or if their parents go through a separation or divorce. Religious skepticism also tends to increase if the student attends a college where the student body is highly liberal politically.”

Religious parents be warned, eh?

Leading atheist publishes secular Bible

This sounds interesting,,,

Essentially it’s just a compendium of Grayling’s favourite writings which he believes provide inspiration, consolation, etc etc.

We could probably all do this ourselves… if only we had the time. And he’s a very intelligent bloke…

Whatever, I know I shall be reading it at some point… definitely for academic reasons, if not also for personal interest

Leading atheist publishes secular Bible By Jessica Ravitz, CNN The question arose early in British academic A.C. Grayling’s career: What if those ancient compilers who’d made Bibles, the collected religious texts that were translated, edited, arranged and published en masse, had focused instead on assembling the non-religious teachings of civilization’s greatest thinkers? What if the book that billions have turned to for ethical guidance wasn’t tied to commandments from God or any one … Read More

via CNN Belief Blog