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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
I think this will be the first topic we’ve done suggested by Ali. It’s a good one. Already I’m learning that how Europe came to dominate the globe in the last 200 (as opposed to another region of the world, like Asia or Africa or Latin America) is a hugely controversial topic. You may, like me, know a bit about the “how the West beat the rest” issue from reading one of the popular history books on the subject that have been written in the last 20 years. Maybe you read Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond), or Civilization: The West and the Rest (Niall Ferguson), or maybe you’re old-school and prefer Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic theory. There are many other theorists and theories, it seems.
Even if you’ve never pondered the reasons for the West’s century+ of dominance, you’ve got to admit it’s an intriguing question. Why did Cortes and Pizarro sail west and conquer the Aztecs and Incas and not the other way around? Why didn’t India colonize Great Britain? What lurched Europe forward and held the rest back? And, what do the answers tell us about the 21st century, with China and India and others becoming major powers in their own right while other countries still lag or go backwards?
There are many theories. Ali asks us to consider one that has been debated for a century, albeit sometimes with discomfort: Was the key reason for its success simply that the West had a superior culture – or at least a culture that led much more quickly to industrial and military development? Other theories discount culture. They say the reason for Western dominance had more to do with geography, resource endowments, financial organization, or just plain luck or path dependency (I’ll explain what that is).
Anyway, I’m looking forward to another good meeting that integrates history, sociology, and politics. Ali: If you want to open the meeting just let me know. Otherwise, I’ll do a brief summary of the main schools of thought to the extent I’m familiar with them.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The West got there first because it had…
- Favorable geography and natural resources: The Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis. Recommended.
- Two specific resources: Coal to fuel their machines, and access to the vast resources of the New World. If not for these, Europe would not have surged ahead and conquered.
- No (Niall Ferguson). It was six big cultural and technical advantages: Competition among its many small nations, rule of law and property rights, science, medicine, consumerism, and a better work ethic. Recommended.
- More detail on Protestant work ethic.
- These six other/same factors (Jack Goldstone).
- Colonialism. Colonization destroyed indigenous scientific revolutions and infrastructure. Recommended.
Next Week: Why are so many rhetorically–valued jobs so low-paying? (Zelekha’s idea)
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.