Empathy is all the rage these days, from studying it in academia to explaining its origins in pop science to bemoaning its absence in politics. The Big Questions seem to include what does it mean to be empathetic, how does empathy differ from compassion and generosity, how do we develop empathy as children or adults, and so forth.
And where, oh where does religion fit in with empathy? I thought this seemed like a great question for Civilized Conversation, since we like to tackle topics that most people already have made up their minds about. Religion (especially organized religion) is either tribal and empathy-smothering or the ultimate source of compassion and love. Everybody can cite religious texts, historical examples, and/or personal experience to prove – prove, I tells you – their POV.
What do you think? I’m not sure yet myself. Here are a few optional background readings on empathy and its possible relationship to religiosity. I will start us off with an amateur’s distinction between spirituality, faith, and religion and working definitions of empathy and compassion. We can blow up those definitions right away if you want to.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Religion and empathy:
- The “Golden Rule” (do unto others…) is doctrine in eight major world religions. Recommended.
- Jesus’s Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, etc.
- Buddhism: Compassion is its core.
Religiosity and empathy:
- Religious people are more compassionate than non-believers, but reason is not in conflict with compassion. Recommended.
- But, you do NOT need religion to have empathy.
- In fact, empathy is a personality trait and religiosity doesn’t increase or decrease how much of it you develop. Recommended.
- Religious children are less altruistic.
- Religious doctors show more empathy to their patients.
- Politicians: Is contempt for the poor a religious value – or just bad theology?
Is empathy in general overrated?
- Against empathy. Recommended, but long.
NEXT WEEK: #MeToo – What does sexual harassment mean today?
The United States is growing more secular. Per several recent large-scale studies, about 25%-30% of us have no formal religious affiliations and report that religion plays no significant role on our lives. As many of you know, this represents a large increase in just the last 10 years in “Nones,” to use the term coined by one of the studies. Almost 40% of the Millennial generation are Nones. In the sense that fewer Americans are using religion as a guide for their lives and pray and go to church regularly, we can say that our country may be beginning the transition to secularism that has long characterized other rich countries.
But, not so fast. First, 80% of the country still believes in God and many of Nones – especially those pesky Millennials – say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” They’re hardly Richard Dawkins. Christians are down to 75% of the population. But, there has been no headlong rush towards atheism or hostility to religious faith (except to Islam – sigh.). Moreover, there has been NO sharp decline in the level of religious practice or belief among those Americans that remain religious. In other words, secularization has occurred because there are fewer religious people, not because religious people have grown less devout.
Finally, so what? What real differences does having more, mostly-young mainly non-religious Americans really make to our society? It is this last question I thought we could talk about on Monday. What are the cultural, sociological, and political effects of this type of movement towards secularization in America? With the holiday rush I have no time to prepare any boring remarks to start the meeting. So, we’ll go right into discussion and you can provide them yourselves. 😉
I will see you on Monday and then at our next meeting on January 8th.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- 2014 CivCon mtg: Will atheism ever be popular in the United States?
- Report 2017: America’s Changing Religious Landscape. See 2-page summary up front. Recommended. (San Diegans are 2/3 Christian (1/3 Catholic), and over 1/4 non-affiliated.)
- The decline of “White, Christian America.” Recommended.
- Just don’t overestimate all of this. Among highly religious Americans, religion affects their daily lives a lot.
- Decline is
- The world is becoming MORE religious, not less. Recommended
NEXT WEEK: No meetings 2/25 or 1/1.
If you don’t know what the Prosperity Gospel is and how popular it has become you should. President Trump has been associated with this controversial set of religious beliefs for years. A prosperity Gospel preacher gave the invocation at his inauguration and another one advices Trump.
Moreover, Trump voters’ belief that he embodies the virtues promoted by the prosperity gospel probably explains a lot of his shockingly- high level of support (over 80%) among White U.S. Evangelicals. There are a lot of prosperity gospel-friendly Americans. According to one study (see link below) something like one in five churches in the United States preach a version of the prosperity gospel and about one in six American Christians can be described a lose adherents to its main tenets.
What tenets are those? What is the prosperity gospel and how did it originate in the United States? How Christian is it (that’s fiercely debated)? How American is it (very)? What does that tell us about the interrelationship between the Christian creed and the American creed? Why does the prosperity gospel ring true to so many low-income White Americans and African-Americans? Why are prosperity gospel churches mushrooming abroad, especially in poor but up and coming regions of the world like Africa?
I know most of us in Civilized Conversation are secular in outlook. But, what are the major critiques of prosperity gospel-like thinking from within Christianity? Many Christian leaders – from Rick Warren to Jerry Falwell! – have fiercely denounced the prosperity gospel as unchristian and even heretical. Much of the ire has focused on some of the movement’s leading figures, like Joel Osteen, who runs one of the largest churches in the country in Houston. Pope Francis has roundly condemned this doctrine.
This isn’t exactly my area of expertise. But, if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that the millions of regular Americans that don’t get much media attention or cultural respect matter, too. So, here are a few readings on the basics of the prosperity gospel philosophy and some critiques of it. Our religious topics are among our best meetings, I’ve always thought. I’m looking forward to it.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
What is the Prosperity Gospel?
- Wiki’s Prosperity Theology entry; basic explanation. Recommended.
- Longer explanation + did prosperity gospel suckers help to create 2008 housing crisis? Useful if you have time.
Trump and the Prosperity Gospel –
- He is mainstreaming, to be blunt, heresy.
- He’s just continuing the GOP’s long love affair with the Prosperity Gospel. Recommended.
Some specific critiques –
- A progressive Christian hammers the prosperity gospel as unchristian.
- John Oliver goes for the throat (H/T Jeremy or was it Scott?) Fun.
- Pope Francis loathes it.
- A former supporter, now dying: It has some virtues but ignores the Christian requirement to acknowledge our own frailty and limits. More on this point. Either.
- Prosperity Gospel thinking helps explain Americans’ dislike of the poor. Recommended.
- Worse, it is the poor that get scammed by it, says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. .
- In defense of the Prosperity Gospel.
NEXT WEEK: Is the American diet unhealthy?
Happy Passover! Monday’s Jewish holiday seems like a good night to pose Aaron’s topic question: What does it mean to be Jewish today? Aaron said that he wanted us to consider in particular how the two most dramatic and disruptive events of the 20th century changed Judaism and Jewish identity.
Of course, sharing historical events – no matter how harrowing or horrible – is not the only shaper of a people’s identity. We also could discuss what modern Judaism “is.” Is Jewishness a religion? In some ways no. As one of the links explains, the idea that Judaism is a “religion” like Methodism or Lutheranism is a modern notion. To my father’s father, being a Jew was who he was. Judaism wasn’t just a sect to which he belonged. Plus, in America, less than one-half of Jews say they believe in God.
Are Jews a nationality or ethnicity? They have no common language nor geographic origin and most of them don’t live in Israel. Israel’s Rabbinate defines who is a Jew pretty narrowly, too, and for the moment (changing it has been proposed) Israel is not formally a “Jewish state.” Is Jewishness its own culture? American Jews do tend to share common moral and political values, but not a lot of day-to-day cultural practices. Maybe we’re a People, whatever that means.
As a half-Jew on my father’s side I’m not sure what being Jewish means, either. It’s a great discussion idea, especially since we have a few Jewish (or perhaps, “Jewish”) group regulars.
Below are some optional readings on Jewish identity. The first ones are some analyses of survey results, so at least we have some idea of what American Jews think about their Jewishness. I added some think pieces on Jewish identity including several focused on the role of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel in Jewish identity.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- How do American Jews define what it means to be Jewish? Recommended
- Differences re: identity between…
- Mavens ponder Jewishness:
- Some issues:
- Can you be Jewish and not believe in God?
- Non-Jews being “Jew-ish” is a thing. Oy!
- U.S. Jews have abandoned Israel. (Conservative POV).
- It’s time to move beyond defining Jewishness as Holocaust + love of Israel.
- [Update Saturday: Apropos also to next week, see this re the Middle Earth-like battle between anti-Semites and Jewish appointees in the chaotic Trump White House.]
NEXT WEEK: Is an American Fascism Possible?
We haven’t done a meeting on religion in a while, so I thought a topic on religion’s role in politics would make for a nice, wide-ranging discussion. It also gives us a partial reprieve from the constant bombardment of Trump Administration news. (Partial because he is rolling out many policies that are favorites of the religious Right and that could alter the role of organized religion in politics in substantial ways.)
Obviously, for lots of reasons religion has always been very intimate with politics in the United States and is going to stay that way. Almost two-thirds of Americans say religion is either important or very important in their daily lives. By placing limits on any particular sect’s political power, the 1st Amendment arguably encourages healthy competition among religious POVs for political influence. Our high (until now!) immigration levels ensure religion stays popular and vibrant. Voters are going to keep rewarding politicians that affirm their piety and justify policies in religious terms, and people of faith will keep boldly organizing to see their values represented in politics.
Still, might this be changing in the 21st century? As you know secularism is on the rise, especially among young Americans. About one in five U.S. adults say religion is not important to them, a three-fold increase in just 20 years. Public support for explicitly faith-based politics/policies has been trending (very slowly) downward. The religious Right is not what it used to be, and the religious Left never seems to organize effectively.
On the other hand, religious conservatives are the foot soldiers of the Republican Party. They voted in droves for Donald Trump and are about to be rewarded handsomely for helping to put the GOP in complete control of the federal government and of 33 state governments. Trump’s outrages may be energizing religious progressives. They are especially outraged over his immigration policies and – maybe – they can unite to oppose the coming large cuts to the social safety net.
The following discussion questions are among the things we could discuss on Monday. I will start us off by summarizing the major changes Trump is making to appease the religious Right. Some are big deals. Then, we can debate any of my discussion questions or anything else related to the role religion does or should play in our political system.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Public: What role does religion play in forming Americans’ political beliefs and influencing their votes and political participation? à What role “should” it play? à Is religion’s influence over our politics waxing or waning?
- Partisans: How powerful and comparable are the religious Right and Left these days?
- Politicians & Policies: How big a role does religion play in politicians’ decision-making and policymaking?
- Issues: What are big current issues re
- Free exercise / religious liberty?
- Govt establishment of / support for religion?
- Discrimination against, for, or by religious Americans?
- Specific policy areas; e.g., repro rights, health care, immigration, education, foreign policy?
- Future: Will religion’s role in our politics decline or increase? Why/so what?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The Public, religion, and politics –
- The political leanings of major U.S. religious groups.
- Americans hear lots of political opinions from the pulpit. Recommended.
Religious Right and Left movements –
- Religious conservatives were being consistent in backing Trump! But backing him will kill off the religious Right. Recommended.
- No, the religious Right is here to stay.
- Can the religious Left lead a Democratic revival? Dems need them (long, Lefty).
Trump and hot issues –
- His planned executive order on religious freedom is celebrated by religious Right, hated by Dems. Recommended.
- Johnson Amendment: Repealing it same + it’s a huge deal. Recommended.
- In defense of religious liberty. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Is U.S. global leadership collapsing?
President Trump has all but declared war, at least a cold one, on Islam. So far, it’s just a rhetorical war, and the man’s actual foreign policy is harder to predict than his domestic policies, which was our focus last week.
Regardless of our constant obsession with every minor action and utterance of our new president…
[Update Sunday night – You all know I usually try to keep us from wandering too far for too long off-topic. But, how can we fixate on Turkish politics at a time like this, given the worldwide reaction to Trump’s EO on refugees? Let’s start with that before we get into our topic. BTW, this Administration’s immigration policies might all by themselves have some influence on the future of political Islam.]
…the rest of the world hasn’t gone away. Never has. Never will. About 40 of the 200 countries in the world are Muslim-majority nations. Many of them, especially the 22 Arab nations, are in the early stages of what promises to be a decades-long or centuries-long transition from authoritarian, one-party dictatorships to…well, to something else. Possible outcomes in these countries for the next few decades range from a painless move to liberal democracy (very unlikely, I’ve read) to a tragic region of failed states and all-against-all civil wars like Syria, Libya, and Iraq have endured (less likely, but nightmarish). Where in between they end up and how awful the road getting there will be are some of the most important questions of the 21st century.
That’s why I wanted us to discuss what’s going on in Turkey. Turkey? Well, as you may be aware since 2002 Turkey has been run by an “Islamist” political party known as the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. This 15 years is far longer than any other Islamist party has been allowed to rule anywhere else. Under its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP won democratic elections a half-dozen times and survived a military coup attempt last July. Just a few years ago Turkey’s AKP was hailed as the world’s only successful model of a liberal Islamist political movement that accepted the rules and limits of democracy.
Boom. Splat. If you follow the news, you know this has all been blown up. Erdogan has steadily moved Turkey downhill towards authoritarianism and tyranny for a few years now. He has used the coup to finish off democracy, crushing the opposition parties, the military, and the courts that stood as the last major roadblocks to Turkey becoming just another Arab thugocracy.
Does Turkey’s downfall mean that hope for a moderate version of political Islam was an illusion all along? If so, many (albeit not all – e.g., India) of those 40 Muslim-majority countries may have to kiss democracy goodbye for a long, long time, since Islamism is far more publicly popular in these very conservative countries than liberalism is.
I’ve been reading a lot on this subject lately, including this book and this book and some journal articles. So, I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief description of what has been happening in Turkey and why it matters. Also, I will identify several of the major arguments we will be working with concerning whether moderate Islamism is/is not sustainable and is/isn’t compatible with democracy.
- Turkey – Why do recent events in Turkey matter? — A brief history of modern Turkey and its version of Islamism. — Why did people used to say the AKP was a model for moderate Islamism? — Why has Erdogan dismantled Turkish democracy and become a tyrant?
- Islamism – What is Islamism, anyway? What separates moderate Islamists from the radical/revolutionary and/or violent ones?
- Lessons: What should the West learn from Turkey’s failure re:
- Whether Islamist movements can be trusted to accept democracy?
- How badly past/present Arab dictators (Mubarak, Assad, Saddam, Kaddafi, etc.) screwed up their countries and make democracy so hard?
- The future of the region?
- USA: What can/should we do about any of this (Turkey, Syria, ME, etc.)? [Hint: Trump’s “take their oil” since “to victors belong the spoils” gets an F.]
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- What’s happened and why: Short version Good.
- Better, deeper: Long version.
- More on the USA-based Gulen movement.
Islamism and liberal democracy –
- A short history of Islamism.
- Islam and democracy are incompatible for foreseeable future, but all is not lost. I loved his book.
- A Tunisian Islamist disagrees.
- The limits of the “Islamic” label. Fareed Zakaria.
- The Middle East’s worst problem in one map. You see the point.
USA Policies –
- We need to call out the zealots and support reformers in the Middle East. Conservative POV, kind of.
- Donald Trump resembles an authoritarian Middle Eastern leader.
NEXT WEEK: Have America’s Elites Failed Us?
I have been reading a lot of religious history the past few years. So, I thought we could explore the relationship between what have been called the “two Jesuses:” The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History. How do both secular and religious people think about and reconcile the two? Do they even try?
Seeking out the historical Jesus” has been an entire field of scholarly study for more than a century. Since there is almost no mention of the man outside of the Bible, experts analyze the text of the New Testament to try to determine which parts are more likely to be authentic and which might have been added decades later by the Bible’s many authors.
Taken far enough, this method has led some non-Christians to argue that the Historical Jesus was very different from the Christ of Faith. Thomas Jefferson was one such person (albeit he was still a Christian). He rewrote the Gospels for his own use, excising all of the supernatural stuff. No miracles. No afterlife. No resurrection. No claim by Jesus that he was divine. To Jefferson, Jesus was the world’s best ever moral philosopher, but only that. Today, secular people love this notion because they prefer their Jesus as an ethical teacher, not the risen God or Holy Spirit or whatever.
The historical Jesus can also refer to the evidence that he actually did or did not exist, based on clues pulled from non-Biblical sources like Roman historians, archeology, and one’s opinion on how likely it is that the man around whom an entire faith revolves was just made up by men writing less than 50 years after the made-up events. (One of this week’s links below summarizes the arguments against Jesus ever existing. But, FYI, my understanding is that this is a tiny minority POV.)
My interest, FWIW, is broader than just separating historical fact from Apostolic exaggeration. People have been arguing about what Jesus really meant to say for 2,000 years, obviously. But, I wonder how do Christians and the other great ancient religions deal with the uncertainty inherent in relying on 1,000+ year old sacred texts that might or might not accurately reflect the thoughts of God/their prophets?
On Monday I won’t have much to say by way of introduction. This topic is a bit beyond me. Still, maybe read a few of the links below, or just show up and we can dig in.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Did Jesus really exist?
- The Historical Jesus:
- Which Jesus should matter?
- The Gospels’ accuracy:
- The Gnostic Gospels:
- 52 books left out of the Bible but rediscovered in 1945.
- How they’re different and show a different Jesus from the one in the New Testament. Recommended
- Optional and long, but fun:
- New Yorker essay on the Jesus revealed in the Gospels.
Next Week (8/22): Why has economic productivity slowed recently? Is it permanent?
It’s a particularly apt time for us to discuss the moral justifications for war. Monday is Memorial Day, sure, and for several years we have been agonizing over whether there is a moral imperative to intervene in Syria’s civil war and/or use U.S. ground troops to destroy ISIS.
But, several recent developments sweeten the pot for us. Today (Friday) President Obama visited Hiroshima, and he offered no apology for the atomic bombs. Just last month the Catholic Church decided to formally abandon (wow) its long-standing Catholic Just War Doctrine after a 3-day meeting convened by Pope Francis. That doctrine lays out the conditions under which a war may be started and conducted and still be moral. Francis is said to be working on a new encyclical on war and violence which will bring doctrine “closer to Christ’s teachings.” And, of course, on any given day Donald Trump tells cheering crowds that he would revive torture, murder terrorists’ families, and just annihilate all of our enemies without regard to the moral costs to innocents or to us.
The exact details in Just War Theory are, I figure, up to Catholics to decide for themselves. But, I thought the Just War Doctrine would serve as a nice stepping off point to explore the moral justifications of war more generally because the moral questions the Doctrine seeks to answer are the same ones we wrestle with any time we contemplate use of military force. As was noted when we debated the causes of modern wars last year, armed conflict in the 21st century is evolving in some important ways. I ask you: Do the moral justifications for war need to evolve with it, to better reflect a new century of stateless terrorist networks, hybrid revolutionary-terrorist-criminal group like ISIS, failed states, cyber attacks, and drones?
Below are some readings on Just War philosophy and these emerging issues in war and morality. I’ll see you all on Memorial Day evening. A new topic list for June – September will be available.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Catholics: What is Catholic Just War Doctrine? What moral questions does it address and when does it say war can be a moral act?
- Laws: How do the international Laws of War and U.S. law permit wars to be started and fought?
- Presidents: How did Presidents Obama and George W. Bush do so? How different? What is Hillary’s/Trump’s POV?
- Public: Do Americans agree on the moral justifications for waging and conducting wars and their aftermaths? Do conservatives and progressives really disagree much? Why do they cheer Trump’s bloodthirsty remarks?
- You: When do you think war is justified? Self defense only? Defend our allies? Preemptive and preventive war? Stop nuclear proliferation. Humanitarian intervention? What’s fair in drone use, cyber defense/offense, Gitmo, torture, etc.
- 21st century: Do political changes (like terror networks and failed states) and technological developments (like cyber warfare and drones) change the moral calculus / moral limits on war?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Just War Theory basics:
- An expert explains it in 2012 at NYT: Part 1 and Part Two. Recommended
Or, see this 2015 Wash Post explainer: One. Recommended.
- Much more detail on just war philosophy, if you want it.
Obama and just wars:
- Obama’s POV on when war is morally justified. Recommended.
- The Obama Doctrine: An amazingly candid (but optional very long) interview with Obama 3/16 at Atlantic Monthly.
- Are the international Laws of War under siege or gaining ground? Recommended.
- ISIS and just war theory.
- Is drone warfare moral warfare? Read the one you disagree with.
Next Week: Are there better ways to police the police?
Let’s call this one another “David bites off more than he can chew” topic. I got the idea from reading a wonderful little book – Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World. The American Buddhist author gently defends religion from both fundamentalists and atheists by arguing that the world’s major religions are compatible with modernity. She says that, stripped of their archaic baggage and recent fundamentalism, the major global religions have plenty of room for tolerance, human rights, social justice, and democracy. Great book.
Still, upon further reflection, I think we have to be a little careful here, for two reasons. First, “Are there any universal religious principles,” begs a lot of questions. When is a principle a religious one? When people or doctrines say it is? How do we know a value or principle isn’t a product of something else, say, evolutionary biology or psychology or socialization? Similarly, how much universality is enough? When a principle is common to all/most/many/certain faiths? What about modern or still-contested ideas, like church/state separation or human and LGBT rights? Can they be both recent and controversial and justifiable by ancient religions?
Finally, the idea I originally had in mind would ask: Universal principles about what? About God’s existence and nature? About whether some truths are revealed rather than empirically-verifiable? About how to lead a moral life, or treat other people (ethics)? About sex and family, murder and war? Do any of us know enough about world religions to compare them so? Not eye.
A second reason to be cautious in the way we generalize about universal religious values is that a lot of people are not very cautious when they do this. We are all aware of the “Islam is inherently evil” tidal wave being surfed by Donald Trump and religious Right’s insistence that upholding LGBT civil rights violates their religious freedom. But, progressives can be lazy, too, like when they say all religions are deep down the same. I agree with the scholar I linked to below tat says this trivializes religion. Also and as Jim Z. can attest, whether human rights principles are universal values or a Western invention being imposed on developing countries is a big issue these days in its own right.
Anyway, below are a few articles that make claims about the universality of religious values, plus some simple statements of faith from a few well-known religions.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Universal Moral Values?
- There are 10 universal human values. Reasonable to you?
- The basics of whether a universal human nature exists.
- More links from our 2015 mtgs on a universal human nature and what science tells us about good and evil.
Universal Religious Principles?
- There are seven of them, says this guy. Not bad.
- The Golden Rule is universal to all major faiths.
- All religions are NOT the same and it harms us to insist they are. Recommended.
- Long, highly optional article: Are human rights universal rights?
Some specific (but simple) faith statements –
- Judaism’s 13 Principles and 10 commandments
- Islam: Its 5 Pillars and Fundamental Articles of Faith, from Islam 101.
- Buddhism’s 4 Noble Truths.
- Hinduism’s 5 Principles and 10 Disciplines, part of Hinduism For Beginners.
Next Week: Fixing our juvenile criminal justice system.