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?
Just a short post this week. I always schedule a religion-related topic for our meeting before Christmas. I thought that talking about Christian values/ethics would be timely, what with the recent statements and actions by Pope Francis that may signal a stronger emphasis on social justice and less focus on sexual and family issues. Also, I wanted to frame the discussion as future-oriented. What do Christian values mean in the 21st century, a century of growing global and U.S. diversity; the rise of poorer countries to the ranks of global powers; secularization, at least in the West; universal (and universalizing!) social media; and perhaps climate-induced crisis?
This topic phrasing lets us discuss both what Christian values are (they’re supposed to be eternal and unchanging, of course, but no one has ever agreed on them exactly); and how they might apply to changing circumstances in the future. The Catholic Church is not the only one of the world’s thousands of Christian denominations facing the need to stay relevant in the new millennium..
Discussion Questions –
- What are Christian values, as you understand them? List a few? How do you know this?
- Read the Sermon on the Mount, below. Regardless of whether you think this really happened or are really Jesus’ words, what do you think of the values expressed?
- Okay, now what about Christian values/ethics as they actually have been practiced. Faithful to the source? Need we add any more values to the list, good or bad?
- Is the 21st century fertile ground for Christian values/ethics, or will the world as it gets richer and more educated lose its faith?
- Which Christian values, if any, will still matter in the next 100 years?
- The Sermon on the Mount, from the book of Matthew. It’s only 8 pages long – double-spaced! – and is usually considered the core of the Christian faith. A must read.
- But, skim this to get an idea of the vast diversity in American Christianity; hundreds of denominations, thousands of non-affiliated congregations, etc.
- Pope Francis and the American Right: Is modern American conservatism in conflict with Christian values? A rebuttal well worth reading is here.
- Faith In a Globalized Age, by former U.K. PM Tony Blair.
NEXT WEEK: U.S. Foreign Policy After the War on Terror: Now What?