In a new century of dizzying changes, the Middle East remains the world’s most unstable and destabilizing region. More than a dozen large and strategically important countries were frozen in time for half a century by their cruel, post-colonial autocrats and the corrupt, hypertrophic states they created to cling to power. A great thaw is inevitable and can only be welcomed. Despite the violence and disappointments of the aborted Arab Spring five years ago, the Ancien Régimes’ days are all numbered. The urgent question we will consider on Monday is what will replace them?
The consensus I read is that, at least for a while, the heirs to power in many of these nations will be “Islamist” political parties. Islamism, or political Islam, refers to the philosophy that the legal and political systems in a Muslim country must be based on Islamic principles. Obviously, since no society ever agrees on exact religious principles, there is no single Islamist set of beliefs or unified movement (despite the dreams of Al Qaeda and ISIS). Each country has multiple, competing Islamist parties and/or social movements that represent different philosophies, sects, ethnic groups, and societal interests.
Are any of them compatible with democracy and a peaceful foreign policy? Well, so far the most radical and even revolutionary and terroristic Islamist movements have gained the strongest positions. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and – most hideously – ISIS and other Al Qaeda offshoots in Syria and parts of Sunni Iraq. And let’s not forget the crusty old radical Shiite regime in Iran and the new one we created in Iraq, or the radicalized messes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But, there is hope. More moderate Islamist political parties are sprinkled throughout the Middle East. Most notably, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has won elections in Turkey for a decade, mostly in a democratic manner. Still, I’m not sure any one is confident that Islamist political parties can become or remain democratic – especially in the traumatized, divided, and chaotic nations they will inherit all over the Middle East.
So, I thought we could start with the most basic and probably most important question: What are the sources – the causes – of radical Islamism? I’ll open with some brief remarks on (1) the main strains of radical Islam, and (2) conventional wisdom on the main drivers of that radicalism. I hope we can discuss the role religion plays in spurring Muslim radicalism without getting stuck in the stupid gear that our political system is stuck in, “Is the Islam religion itself the sole cause of radicalism and terrorism, Y/N?” Islam plays a big role, sure. But, what role, why, and what else contributes?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Islamists are poised to dominate the 21st century Middle East – at least for a while. Recommended.
- Islamism: What is it + a brief history. Recommended.
- What are its main tenets? By an ex-radical.
- Causes of the most radical variants of Islamism:
- Saudi Wahhabism is a huge driver. Ironically, ISIS’s big goal is to replace Wahhabism as the voice of Sunni Islam. Recommended.
- Modernity: Radical Islamism is mainly a reaction against modernity and Western power. Recommended.
- Thanks, post-WWI European mapmakers!
- In Western societies alienation + propaganda can turn Muslim immigrants towards Jihad.
- Conservative POV:
- Islam itself is the main cause of Islamic radicalization. (
Reasonably nuanced, actuallynasty and shallow – I apologize)
- A short debate on whether Islam is the problem. (Useful – With Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
- Islam itself is the main cause of Islamic radicalization. (
- The future:
- Will Islamism die when Arab autocracies die?
- Or will the Saudi-Iran Cold War keep fanning the flames of Islamism? Recommended.
Next Week: The Supreme Court and the 2016 election.
Happy Religious Freedom Day! January 16 commemorates the adoption in 1786 of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a pioneering law protecting religious faith and practice. Since then, the contours of and limits to religious liberty in our country have, like all other constitutional rights, evolved.
Since the at least the 1960s, state laws often have allowed people to claim an exemption from some secular laws in some circumstances based on their personal religious objection. Conscience clauses are common in education (opt-outs for vaccinations and sex education), health care (refusing to participate in abortions), and in other areas.
I had us discuss this topic in 2013 because conservatives had begun a political campaign to expand the scope of what they term ‘religious freedom” laws into new areas, like marriage equality and LGBT rights. I timed our meeting to coincide with oral arguments in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court case. In that case, the owners of a big craft chain store argued that their first amendment religious liberty included the right to disobey the Obamacare mandate to cover all effective forms of contraception in its employee health insurance plan.
A few months after we met, SCOTUS ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor. The Court’s reasoning was…innovative, to say the least. It said that the religious freedom of the companies’ owners extends through the corporate veil, all the way to the earned benefits of its employees. Hobby Lobby had the first amendment right, the Court said, to dictate which forms of contraception its health care plan would pay for, solely on the basis of its owners’ personal religious beliefs. Progressives immediately grew suspicious that SCOTUS had opened the door to new corporate abuses of power and/or new ways for conservatives to ignore law they didn’t like.
Don’t worry, said the Court. This ruling really is a narrow one. It applies only to “closely-held” companies and only to the specific forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby’s owners believed were immoral. If in the future other claimants tried to use this decision to make more outlandish religious claims – outlandish in the Court’s eyes, I guess – SCOTUS would not be receptive.
Well, guess what? In March 2016, SCOTUS will hear a new case in which a religious non-profit employer wants out of the Obamacare contraception mandate, too. The Court might use its ruling to open the religious conscience exemption door even wider – perhaps much wider. And it’s not just the Supreme Court. Since Hobby Lobby, congressional conservatives have introduced the First Amendment Defense Act and the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, both designed to protect conscientious religious objectors to federal LGBT laws. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio cosponsored both these bills and Donald Trump just said he would sign the latter. On the state level, GOP-controlled governments have tried to enact similar laws.
You see my motive for this topic revisit. Maybe all of these efforts to expand religious conscience laws to protect lost culture war battles will fade away or be contained by ether the courts or public opinion. (Maybe some are even sensible – we shouldn’t dismiss the whole idea of expanding conscience clauses out of hand, IMO). But, I doubt it. I think conservatives’ conscience clause/ religious freedom movement is major a new frontier of our 21st century culture wars.
On Monday, I’ll open our meeting with a little more info on what conservatives have planned in this area and a bit of the reasoning supporters and opponents use.
Discussion Questions –
- What is a religious conscience clause and what is its moral and constitutional justification? Historically, what were their limits?
- How did (or, did) the Hobby Lobby ruling change the limits of religious conscience?
- How do conservatives want to expand this part of the law? Do their ideas have merit?
- Is DavidG wrong: Are conservatives not going to keep the pedal to the metal on this issue?
- Are there other ways to split the baby on these tough moral questions; e.g., more federalism, or defining the limits to religious exemptions in a single, federal law?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- A short history of use of these types of laws in the USA. Recommended
- What’s coming in 2016:
- What progressives fear/want:
- Religious conscience movement is our new culture war battlefield. The article that prompted this topic idea.
- GOP-run states are passing laws that allow people to claim exemptions from a wide range of laws they don’t like on the basis of their religious beliefs. Recommended.
- What conservatives fear/want:
Next Week: Solutions to California’s Water Woes (yeah, yeah, it’s raining).
For your holiday consideration we have this interesting topic idea of Bruce’s. At last week’s meeting on the Cold War we all got to talking about cults a little bit and it and I began to get a sense of how hard it is to sharply delineate cults from religious sects. In 10 minutes of discussion, I think I heard a half dozen or so different definitions of a religious cult, such as a sect that:
- Changes or ads to Christian scripture. (Lace said this is many evangelicals’ definition of a cult);
- is centered on a single charismatic leader rather than on ideas or theology;
- enriches its leader(s) in a corrupt fashion;
- has plenty of ideas, but bizarre ones;
- isolates members from the broader society and shuns ex-members; and
- Is itself shunned by the mainstream.
Sounds reasonable to me. Except those characteristics helped to define many of our major faith traditions at one time or another. Were they cults? If so, what made them stop being cults? If not, what is the difference between and IHOP, the one described in the last link, below?
This week’s links are pretty basic, a few definitions of a cult I found in the few minutes of research I had this Christmas week. Peruse them if you have a chance and I hope to see a good number of you on Monday.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Definitions of a cult:
- Post-Waco: Cults in recent U.S. history.
- Why do Southerners consider Mormonism to be a cult?
- Escape from IHOP.
Next Week: Is China destined to be our adversary?
This is Filip’s first topic idea and he will run the meeting if I can’t make it back in time from out of town. We have discussed atheism several times in the past. (Here, for example.) But, I like Fil’s wording because it cuts to the heart of atheism’s challenge to religion: That people believe in God because they want to, based on some psychological or biological need.
Many of you all are practicing atheists, if that’s not an oxymoron. So, no need for me to set up the topic idea, either here or on Monday. Instead, I’m taking this week off after all of the recent long, complex topics and weekly intro posts lately. I’m sure it will be a great meeting,, like all of our religious-themed ones are.
Still, out of habit, here are a few readings on the subject of the basic arguments for and against God’s existence, plus a few dealing with one author’s idea of what needs a human-created God might fulfill for society. It’s a pretty good read, IMO.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- “Existence of God” entry at Wiki.
- A 1-hour video debate on whether God is a human invention.
- In a 6–minute video, a Christian Apologist denies God is a human invention. Note: “Apologetics” means arguments in defense of religion.
- A good defense of atheism, from an economist I admire.
- The Evolution of God – A book positing that our idea of God’s nature keeps changing as humans’ psych/sociological needs for God evolve.
- UPDATE: How likely you are to believe religion is useless as opposed to useful depends on what kind of an atheist you are. Which one of these 6 types are you?
Next Week: Who is to blame for Iraq and Syria?
I’ve been wanting to talk about the Sermon on the Mount for a while. No matter what your religious views, this sermon by Jesus as chronicled in Matthew 5-7 arguably is the most influential ever recorded utterance by a human being. I think it’s commonplace to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the core statement of Christian values and Jesus’ main guidance to Christians on how to live and act. I feel that our group’s discussions of religion are always at arm’s length. We focus on historical and structural factors that influence the action of religious people, but never on their actual avowed beliefs. So, this should be interesting.
But, very hard. They’ve been debating what Jesus meant in his sermons for 2,000 years, obviously. Even the simple, straightforward language of the Sermon on the Mount gets complicated in the interpreting. Opinions differ even on who Jesus’s advice was meant for, much less what he meant. It will help us to know a bit about the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and when and how and by whom the Gospels were written. But, no one “knows” for sure what Jesus meant in every respect, of course. Differences in interpreters’ denomination and faiths lead to different interpretations, too.
What could we ever add to all that? I propose we all start by reading the Sermon on the Mount. It is not long and I’ll bet some of us never have red it or haven’t in years. Beyond that, I’ve found a little bit on the historical context of the Jesus movement and the world he lived in. And, I’m going to skim through a book I once red on the subject, What Jesus Meant, by the Catholic historian Gary Wills. (See links for a review of it).
- What is the Sermon on the Mount? Who wrote it (in Matthew) and what’s in it? How sure are we that it is faithful to what Jesus said?
- Context: How does knowing the historical context of the Sermon help us to understand what was meant; e.g., the Jewishness of both Jesus and his audience, conditions in ancient Israel, etc.?
- Was it meant to be taken literally, or does it use figures of speech?
- Was it presenting a minimum requirement, or a picture of perfection?
- Were its commands timeless, or for a specific period?
- Did it extend the Law of Moses, or entirely replace it?
- Was it for everyone, or only a chosen group?
- Politics: Is there a political message? Was Jesus a political revolutionary, or is that inaccurate?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Wikipedia entry briefly explains Sermon on the Mount’s basic content, historical context, and schools of thought on what it all means.
- Full text: Read one.
- The much shorter Sermon on the Plain, from Luke. The “social gospel” believers are very big on this one.
- We know very little about the historical Jesus.
- A few commentaries I found, FWIW:
- The importance of the “Jewishness” of the Sermon on the Mount and of Jesus’ challenge to Judaism. (A Jesuit site) Recommended.
- Via Lace: A pastor she loves has a series of podcasts on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. Some good history and context in, for example, this one and this one..
- Book I read, What Jesus Meant: Reviewed at Slate and by the NYT. NYT piece recommended.
- Political uses: President Obama has invoked the Sermon on the Mount as a statement of progressive values.
Next Week: What Is Intelligence?
We first talked about Pope Francis in June 2013. Just a few months after he was elevated to the position. That meeting focused on the many problems facing Catholicism. In the pre-meeting post, I listed them as the:
- Need to reconcile Church doctrine and practice with the modern world without alienating Catholics in traditional societies that now make up the bulk of Church membership.
- Loss of moral authority stemming from the worldwide sexual abuse and cover-up scandals.
- De-Christianization in Western countries, especially in Europe and especially among young people.
- Loss of authority over American Catholics.
- Shortages of priests, nuns, and other church officials.
- Challenge in developing countries posed by other religions, particularly evangelical Christianity.
Certainly, no single pope could be expected to turn the tide against many of these long-term, structural problems. Also, the pope has limited freedom to make bold changes even if he wants to do so (opinions vary on how much fundamental change Francis really wants). Francis is constrained by the Vatican bureaucracy; the global network of Cardinals, Archbishops, and other Church officials; and public opinion of multiple laities all over the world.
Despite all of these obstacles, this pope has made a lot of bold moves and excited a lot of people with hints of broader reforms. I thought we could discuss some of these moves and what might and might not be coming.
I’ll try to sum up Francis’ biggest and most controversial actions to pen the meeting, assuming I’m able to do the reading. I think the Vatican is a great example of how hard it can be to make international organizations – even one that is not democratic – work.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What have been Pope Francis’ biggest changes?
- How have others centers of power in the Church responded to Francis’ moves, and what does that say about the difficulties he faces?
- What changes has Francis signaled that he will NOT make?
- What will American Catholics think of Francis’ new-ish direction? Will it go far enough for them?
- The Catholic Church’s center of gravity is moving from Europe and North America to the global South. How will that change the Church? How does that constrain and empower Francis?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- PROBLEMS: Monday’s Mtg post June ‘13: Links to material on Catholicism’s biggest challenges and speculation on how Francis might govern.
- CONSTRAINTS: The pope is not the church! We should stop obsessing over who is pope.
- Who is Francis? A book review at the NYRB.
- The Pope’s “gentle revolution.” (Rolling Stone) Recommended
- He is embracing and accelerating the shift to the global South, which will revolutionize Catholicism.
- Francis’ views on sexuality are complex.
- He’s a revolutionary and it’s about time! Andrew Sullivan on the meaning of Francis. Long, but a must-read.
- CONSERVATIVE POV: Francis is a radical and is leading the Church astray from its traditional principles. (Douhat NYT)
Next Week: The Changing Definition of Whiteness.
Ho, ho, ho! Just in time for Christmas, I thought we would tackle a question that probably is on the minds of one minority of Americans this time of year: Atheists. Will atheism, or at least agnosticism, ever become common in this country? How about just socially acceptable? The usual argument that it will be is pretty familiar to you, I imagine. As societies get richer and better-educated, they tend to grow more secular. To most atheists, this is because the need for supernatural answers to life’s questions declines as people get more ecucated and feel more in control of their lives, so the need for religion declines along with it.
Maybe. But, doesn’t this kind of assume not only that religion is bunk – that there is nothing out there that calls to us, we just imagine it – but also that religion’s only appeal to us is magical? What about its ethical appeal? And, if the relationship between wealth, education, and religion is so straightforward, then how do we explain why the United States is still so highly relgious compared to other rich countries? It sounds like we need to ask some other questions here.
DIUSCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Why are people religious in the first place? What is the difference between being religious and being spiritual?
- What causes societies to grown less religious over time? How do they change as a result?
- Why have Americans resisted the secularization that has overtaken other countries? Is it cultural factors? Economics? Inertia? Events? Why are Millennials so much less religiousa than older generations, even than the Baby Boomers?
- What would we gain and lose by secularizing like Europe has? Will it realy be all good? Will we grow even more socially and politically-divided than we are now?
LINKS (only a few, due to my computer crash)
- [UPDATE: I know it’s late, but please read these two fascinating explanations of what atheists can do to help their own cause with the public that despises them:
- Atheism is growing in the United States. Worldwide, it is now the third-largest “faith,” so to speak.
- But, American atheists still are a despised minority – and absent from society in many parts of the country. They are among the least liked religious groups.
- In a 2012 XMAS meeting, we discussed whether atheists and religious folk will ever get along. My post had some thoughtful links, IMO. Recommended.
- Religious people DO tend to be less intelligent than non-religious people. But, maybe we should not read too much into that. Recommended.
- OTOH, education makes people less religous.
Next Week: Should Euthenasia Be Legal?
Carl and Jim Z. wanted to lead a meeting on this most basic of Western dilemmas: Can religion and science be reconciled? They will kick us off with a short introduction on the topic. Here are some links via Carl, plus a few of my own.
Links – Via Carl
- “The Fundamentals” – a statement of 20th century fundamentalist Christian precepts.
- Major court cases re: The teaching of creationism versus evolution.
- One case of particular importance, Edwards v. Aguillard from 1987.
- Via David:
- Science and religion ARE compatible. Or, No, they are not.
- Only 28% of high school biology teachers consistently follow national scientific guidelines when explaining the evidence for evolution and the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology.
- Is belief in evolution in America now more a partisan than a religious divide?
Next Week – A biggie: What is “Constitutional Conservatism?”
Believing in our imminent doom is not a fringe position in the United States. Roughly one-half of American Christians say they believe the Apocalypse will come in their lifetimes. People in other parts of the world believe this, too. But the U.S. is kind of ground zero (ha) for Apocalyptic fervor, and has been for centuries. (Note: I’m referring to the end of the world as described in Revelation. Other cultures have their own end of the world myths, but unless somebody knows a lot about them AND people want to discuss them, I’d like to keep focused on the variant of apocalyptic thought that drives millions of Americans).
Since this is such a secular group, I thought it would be fun to discuss why so many Americans seem to be comforted by the knowledge that the world will end – perhaps very soon – in fiery doom. Is it just that they all believe they will be among the saved, or are other things going on?
The articles below offer some opinions on that, and on Monday I’ll quickly regurgitate some of their views and then we can either break out the sackcloth, or maybe conduct a semi-structured inquiry into how many of us (and which of us) hold apocalyptic views, what it is they actually believe, and why.
The articles below clarify some of these questions and offer some answers. What do you think?
Discussion Questions –
- How many Americans believe in an impending apocalypse? What specifically do they believe?
- Where do they get these views from? What does the Book of Revelations actually predict?
- Not everybody shares the same exact apocalyptic beliefs. What are the major sub-varieties of apocalyptic belief? For example, what is the difference between pre-millennial and post-millennial dispensationalism and why should we care?
- Why do people believe in all of this? Is it just that because the Bible says so? Or, are there important social and psychological motives that drive apocalyptic thinking?
- So what? How does having millions of citizens believing in our imminent doom affect our politics and society?
- What is the Book of Revelations actually about and what’s in it? (PBS Frontline)
- Why do people like to believe in this? (from Chronicle of Higher Ed.) A must-read.
- Because it’s psychologically comforting. (Scientific American)
- U.S. obsession with the Apocalypse has been growing in the last decade and it’s harming us. (Salon)
- [Update: Fear of Armageddon is a growth industry, sweeping pop culture in the last decade. Skim this to get the idea.]
- A long – one-hour! – radio show with a more sympathetic look at some of these true believers. Listen to this someday, it’s cool. (from NPR’s This American Life.)
NEXT WEEK: Can our political system still adapt to solve problems?