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.
It started on June 5, 1967, and was all over by June 10. In response to Egyptian military mobilization and naval blockade, Israel’s air force attacked Egypt pre-emptively. Syria and then Jordan joined in, backed by other Arab countries, and Israeli ground forces fought and won on three fronts. An armistice (not peace) was signed on June 11.
As you know, the Six Day War transformed the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To quote a 50th anniversary NYT retrospective the war “tripled Israel’s landmass overnight and gave it dominion over the lives of more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” It also gave Israel control of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, killed off pan-Arabism, and set the stage for five more decades of war and strife. Just for starters.
I don’t really have an agenda on this one. I know there is a lot of historical controversy concerning a number of revisionist histories of the Six Day War and its immediate aftermath. I just don’t follow these issues closely enough – nor do I have the time – to link to all of the major POVs and arguments. I just thought it would be interesting to try to take a half-century perspective on the war’s legacy. Perhaps some of you are well-versed in this particular era.
Here is some general background on the Six Day War and a few retrospectives.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- [Update: Here’s a good article recommended by Ali.]
- ABCs: Wiki’s Six Day War entry.
- NYT on anniversary, inc. new scholarship on the war and its legacy. Recommended
- Six Day War was a watershed moment in Middle East history in ways you might not guess. Recommended.
- The War changed Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Recommended.
- But, was it a “just war?”
NEXT WEEK: What should Americans be nostalgic about?
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?
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.
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?