Saturday, September 20, 2008

Atheism, Superstition, and the American Present

Not all atheists are superstitious.... the very thoughtful die-hard, hang-on-till-we-go-extinct ones don't tend to be. But Ms. Hemingway has her finger on a pulse that I find as a growing trend in American culture among the masses.

There is a curiously finger-pointing at religion in our culture, but not just any religion. It's the "Christian" religion that keeps getting put into the boxing ring, stuffed with straw, sans boxing gloves. And when it falls down it gets propped up again for another round. So Jesus is rejected as irrelevant, not because good evidence to follow him is lacking, but because he can be labeled as 'religious' (which connotes 'private' and 'irrelevant'). Then all sorts of strange things follow.

This article, "Look Who's Irrational Now," which I found this afternoon in my weekend edition of the WSJ, speaks to a wide-ranging, growing disease of American unreason.

Jonalyn and I find as we engage with media, in our travels, in our speaking and writing, that G. K. Chesterton was right: Those who say they believe in nothing are very susceptible to believing in anything.

I am wondering if being superstitious will one day be widely accepted as 'normal' and not as an insult. If thoughtfulness and evidence will become the strange thing; if science will one day be ignored as it gets in the way of what we want and what we fear.

For all scientific and technological age we boast, modern humans have become a peculiar breed. We use technology to suit our passions but find irrelevant the very things technology stands on: a 'real world.'

Today, we see superstition poking out its head in phrases like 'spiritual, but not religious,' which usually amounts to an amalgamation of Eastern thought mixed in with Western productivity. Many are prone to believe the universe actually gives you things if you just desire them (like "The Secret") or that God is an impersonal force and we need to reach toward an enlightened consciousness (like in "The New Earth"). And if you hang around this boutique religion long enough, you'll also find out they hi-jack Jesus into a Buddhist-believer, offering us a 'Christ-consciousness' so you can achieve your full potential. Your material prayer flags of various colors will be caught in the wind and blow spiritual prayers across the countryside (and you won't have to do the hard work of encountering a real God and bringing your petitions)....

All that to say, you should read this article. It is the most succinct explanation I have found of this issue that we are seeing daily of irrational superstition replacing a rational look at the supernatural.

And these superstitious attitudes are very much in the church too. We are secularists about faith and superstitions about prayer. We think Jesus is about heaven and his making life easier and we rarely get a larger picture of the heavenly invasion of the Kingdom of God into the kingdoms of men to set things right-side-up. We forget that gratitude is not first a feeling in the Bible, as it is in "The Secret," but an action toward a larger Person who alone has the ability to give all good gifts. We fear radical love (it might make people feel validated in their sin) and we fear radical unity (it might make people feel validated in their doctrine)....

Jonalyn and I are working on a forthcoming book on this topic of making the most of spiritual small-talk in today's world by helping the church weed through superstitious ideas in our own lives, and engaging one another with a robust view of a Jesus who is spiritual on one hand and deeply human on the other. And that's, to me, is the only rational way forward... even rational enough for atheists to consider.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Palin, Religion, and how Secularism is out of touch

Jonalyn sent me this article she found on "What's the Difference between Palin and a Muslim Fundamentalist? Lipstick"

Listing abortion, God, creationism, and every other thing secularists hate about religious ideas, the author saves his worst grievance for last with this remark, the one that makes us all gasp with horror at the audacity of Palin's views:

The most noxious belief that Palin shares with Muslim fundamentalists is her conviction that faith is not a private affair of individuals but rather a moral imperative that believers should import into statecraft wherever they have the opportunity to do so.

There it is - a private faith is the highest virtue and must not be touched at all costs. Making faith public is worse that even stopping science and abortions. Quite an assertion.

I recommend you read this article, not because it is helpful, but because it is an example of how unreasonable secular 'reason' has become. Not only does this author equivocate between Palin's views and fundamentalist Islam, but he also blows it out of proportion. What is even worse is that this author believes what he is saying.

Teaching creationism alongside evolution (and other views) in the public school classroom is not the same as banning it (which is what his Islamic examples did). And there are people who are non-religious who also think abortion should be radically limited from it's abuses today.

But as for private vs. public faith, the author of this story has certainly made his faith public. He's pushes it on the reader. It's amazing how easy it is to play the hypocrite. Every single politician that has ever taken office has used his faith in something (be it God, the human spirit, or whatever) to push through laws and regulate the people. The Founding Fathers did the same (even the Declaration of Independence makes the audacious claim that the "Creator" endowed humans with rights).

For an intelligent discussion on religion in the public square, I recommend this dialog between two preeminent philospohers, Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff: Religion in the Public Square.

Palin thinks everyone needs to have a heart right with God. This is different than the comparison that the author makes that Khamenei, only replacing "God" with "Islam." At least in American you have the freedom to say which God you believe in. When Palin says such things, it is speaking the language of her audience but is also a call to weed out corruption. For Khamenei, he's speaking from a context outside of freedom of conscience and refers to a specific religion. What is more, if God does exist, I would think he would want us to use our resources wisely and make us less dependent on those who don't. Is the author against that virtue as well? On this accounts (as well as his several other points), the parallel just cannot be made. Some people may not like Palin's remarks, but to equate them with fundamentalist Islam (which is just shy of using the word 'terrorist') shows he's out of touch and stretching concepts to fit his prejudice.

Makes me also wonder what the author thinks of Obama's "faith."

Would this author enjoy being called a fundamentalist Christian because he shares the idea that caring for the poor is important? Or would he like it if he agreed with Christains that humans should be treated fairly and with dignity? We can all find things we have in common and wedge in assumptions that do not fit. Just because serial killers breath oxygen doesn't mean everyone who breathes oxygen is a serial killer.

A thoughtful reader will get this. And articles like this are written to stir up the religiously uneducated and fearful. One encouraging thing to me is that while much of the secular media says evangelicals are out of touch, well, the statement can be volleyed as a return of favor. Wow, how's that for two movements with something in common!

It should be required reading every year for those in journalism to read the Society of Professional Jouralists' Code of Ethics, including "Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Feminism... and beyond

The range of definitions of feminism are broad. First wave (1800s) and second wave feminism (1960s) both promoted women as oppressed by men and overlooked for their full human, though unique, status. Third wave feminism responded to the second wave by deconstructing the feminine into postmodern cultural construction.

They each have their own merits and research. And it would be a shame to overlook the pre-first wave feminism brewed among the Quakers that secularist history fails to recognize. God forbid, followers of Jesus may again get something right.

What is most unfortunate is how this word "feminism" has been dragged, drugged, shunned, celebrated with rage, and used to an excuse to push a woman's weight around. In working to humanize women, many have used it to dehumanize everyone else.

Sexism is degrading genders other than your own. Racism is degrading ethnicities other than your own. If I said I was a 'masculinist,' I would likely be labeled a 'chauvinist.'

If we follow those same lines, a 'feminist' means someone who degrades genders other than the feminine. The victim becomes obvious. And this is why I believe many who believe women are fully human shy away from using the word "feminist." We automatically connote, just by how words are used, that a feminist is an elitist even if others have stretched the word and it's various studies in different ways.

Some feminists are elitists. I hate entitlement rhetoric, the clanging voices that claim discriminiation because they are female (when those listening may be saying, no, it's because they are clanging).

For me, a feminist is one who thinks women are fully human and should be promoted as such. They have a mind, will, and emotions, just as the classicists described the faculties of the human soul. Because of this, they are capable, according to their qualities and character, of doing anything a mind, will, and emotion can do. If that means, scrubbing floors or running White Houses, then there's nothing philosophically (logically) out of bounds.

I think men are fully human too. And I dislike the idea that men should step aside and allow women to run the show. That's out of balance, dehumanizing. And that's how women have felt for a long time.

Where I see women abused, trampled, demeaned, mocked, I want to stand in the gap. This is feminist behavior.

Where theology makes dogmatic statements against women being fully human (often couched in terms of what women should and shouldn't do) from spurious interpretations of the Scripture, I want to stand in the gap. This is feminist behavior.

When women are boxed into categories that do not fit all women, I want to stand in the gap. Plenty of women feel like outsiders because they don't wear pink, refuse to demean themselves with ostentatious flirting, and hate heels. It is feminist to ask for sanity in the discussion and allow each woman to flourish as she was made.

Many men think they stand in the gap for women, yet fail to take that stand when they deprive women of human functions by calling them "male functions" without qualification. We would do well to rethink Paul and his view of a healthy marriage and leadership in the church. Can we bear the logical contradiction? Should we claim either the Scripture is illogical or that we are unallowed to renew our minds? This is the tension that stretches me in engaging my community and the Scripture with honesty and compassion and every human faculty God endowed me to use in this pursuit.

Instead of worrying about labels, I think we need to refresh this one. Both in the church and out of it, women need to be lifted up, not torn down, by men. This includes the way we joke, the expectations we have of each other, the roles we assign as 'masculine' and 'feminine,' and the way we cut down other men with feminine language. Most recognize the moral taboo of using the "N" word. Maybe we need to recheck our desensitivity when using "girly" or "sissy" or "womanly" when referring to men who may not like Ultimate Fighting and may prefer, like older forms of masculinity, poetry to blood.

Yet, I'm also a masculinist. I don't like to see men put into boxes that don't fit them. Just as much damage is done to men in this area as is being done to women. We need to stand in the gap and let the Messiah be the model that defines us all. We need to promote a healthy masculinity without slapping on end-of-argument adjectives, like "Biblical." That's like just another way of saying, "I'm right and you can't read." When our arguing gets to that point, we should pause and wonder if we've been engaging in an ungodly monologue.

I find it typical, yet odd, how many people, when they hear that women should be given full equal status to men, not just in the workplace, but everywhere else (including our own consciousness), assume this is degrading to men. Or, on the other hand, they think it's degrading to those women who have suffered under the hand of masculinity and have lived to tell about it? Were their scars in vain? Let's not hold onto a false martydom (sometimes called 'tradition') in the name of enslaving future people.

I believe neither women should be above men nor men above women. We must stop the reactionary tendency to make one gender better than another. And in that, maybe we need a new word, an idea that even those 'in the know' have failed to promote as a natural way forward. Perhaps we need a concept that allows for men and women to stand shoulder to shoulder, each bringing their various gifts.

Eden painted a picture of it, a picture the Messiah redeemed. And once again, the Scripture could be the cultural torch-bearer in the unfolding of this century. The 21st century may be touted the "century for women." But we can do better than to wait for the 22nd century to figure out that was a bad idea. We'd be better off jumping beyond the cutting edge and claim the 21st century for both genders working together. That's our future hope; a creedo to start in our homes and communities and let it trickle into the world.

But we need a word for it....