Belief and its Discontents

In this day of self-driving cars and instant, world-wide video conferencing, it is difficult to believe we still prejudice belief in God.  Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation isn’t exactly what I thought it would be.  Leigh Eric Schmidt is an historian, so this is an historical treatment.  Specifically focusing on four characters from the nineteenth (to early twentieth) century (Samuel Porter Putnam, Watson Heston, Charles B. Reynolds, and Elmina Drake Slenker), Schmidt focuses on a term I’d seldom heard before his book, “the village atheists.”  These men and women objected to the preferential treatment accorded to Christian believers in a nation founded on religious equality.  In the epilogue Schmidt shows that we are still not a nation committed to fairness.

The only crime these people committed (and two of them were clergy) was honesty in their search for the truth.  This was an actionable offense into last century.  Such was the hold of biblical religion in America that holding public office, being on a jury, or even protection under the law was disallowed for those who questioned the existence of the Almighty.  For sure Schmidt has picked out some colorful characters to sketch, but their common theme was that they were simply following where reason led.  In America this was a crime.  Secularists today who claim it’s not still haven’t come to terms with the power of religious ideology.  A deep distrust of the unbeliever remains, even after the four horsemen of earlier this millennium.

For me the question comes down to honesty.  Belief shifts over life, depending on your circumstances and your outlook.  Most people unreflectively stay with the religion into which they’re born.  Those who study it learn to ask questions and the result is belief that may shift over time.  Making what you believe a measure of your integrity is therefore a temporary thing.  This is well illustrated in Village Atheists; some of these people began as fervent ministers.  They, however, were honest about their thought process and were counted criminals.  You have to wonder about a religion that punishes honesty.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that evangelicals have no trouble with Trump’s incessant lying.  To be honest is to be vulnerable.  The people profiled in this study, tried for things we would have trouble believing count as a crime (consider what 45 has been able to get away with), came out of their trials with integrity.  It would be great if the same thing could have been said about their accusers.

Stranger Things

Albert Camus preferred the label “absurdist” to “existentialist” to describe himself. The problem with labels is that we don’t always get to pick our own. As a young man fascinated with existentialism, I was introduced to Camus as one of their number that I should read. Categories, of course, are only abstractions to complex realities. So, for learning about existentialism Camus was recommended reading in those days. I selected The Stranger. So many years have passed since then that I only recollected a single part of the plot. Coming back to it as an adult is like walking down that beach a second time, unaware that you’ve just been down this way and something bad happened last time. Existentialism is like that.

Meursault is little effected by life. He has no strong opinions since, at the end of the day, everything seems pointless to him. He sheds no tears at the death of his mother because death is to be expected. When a heat stroke confuses him sufficiently he unintentionally kills a man. At his deposition the examining magistrate finds Meursault’s atheism inexplicable. In the face of the possible consequences of his actions, such indifference leads him to refer to the prisoner as “Mr. Antichrist.” Awaiting his execution, Meursault has a final confrontation with the priest that has come to his cell unbidden. The prisoner is convinced that even on death row he believes more sincerely than the man of the cloth. Camus’ story is surreal but realistic. A parable for his day and ours.

I’ve lamented before about the decline in philosophical literature. Taking philosophy straight requires the kind of concentration that I lack on the bus or before going to bed. Novels like The Stranger express such ideas in digestible form. The reader identifies with and despises Meursault. Why doesn’t he do something to help himself? Boredom and indifference will literally kill him. He is, however, steadfast, and that is something to admire. Along the way existential ideas are woven into the character’s thoughts and dialogue. Everyone is like an actor in a play—they did not write it, they simply perform the roles assigned to them. When it’s all over they end up in the same place. Absurdism and existentialism aren’t very far apart. They’re both categories devised to help us comprehend the enigma that we confront in books such as The Stranger. Meursault can’t give the chaplain any false belief since, as he notes, those who believe have more need of convincing than those who don’t.

Act of Balance

They call it the green-eyed monster. Jealousy. Under its weightier name of envy, it becomes a deadly sin. I often wonder if envy isn’t behind the debate that seems to have atheists and believers in religion talking past one another. Each seems to want, it appears to me, what the other has. Atheism has emerged in this new century as the current brand of intellectualism. Those who rely on reason alone don’t require comforting ideas such as God or salvation to get along in a world that has learnable rules and no magic. On the other hand, as an article by Barbara J. King on NPR points out, some religionists (Alister McGrath, while good for illustrative purposes, may not be the most representative choice) insist that atheists miss out on the meaning of life. Goal-oriented behavior, which we all understand, in a traditional monotheistic context is a divine mandate. We want to get to a better place either here on earth or after we die, and God has given a set of rules to follow to enable us to get there. Along the way, nature veritably drips with the dewy beauty with which God has infused the universe. Those Mr. Spocks among us miss it all, for their non-nonsense approach to reality.

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It’s pretty clear, as I’ve traced it out here, that the believers envy the reputation of solid rationality readily claimed by scientists. We all would like to be able to prove we’re right. Pointing to a law of physics and declaring, “this law can never be broken” carries a satisfaction that is rare in the theological world. Still, I wonder if some atheists aren’t just a little jealous of the teleology of having a goal set by someone else. Heaven and Hell may be passé, but you have to admit that having challenging rules laid out is somewhat invigorating. Doing something because you “should” can infuse a sense of meaning into life. Some people, if they could just do what they wanted, would opt for no more than eating, sleeping, and meeting biological necessities. They sometimes claim religion gives them the motivation to do more. It can make a difference if a deity takes the initiative.

You’ll never, however, be able to prove a religious point empirically. Gravity pulls things downward as surely as sparks fly upward. And we can send a person into space to prove it’s true. No astronauts, as far as we can prove, have ever seen God in space (RIP, Edgar). Reason and emotion, religion and science, thought and action—these things need each other in order for a balanced life. Problems arise, it seems to me, if we take an extreme position. Life is complicated, and simple answers just don’t apply. Perhaps if we allowed for a bit more balance, we might all find life just a bit more satisfying.

What You Pay For

VampireHunterWhen a friend pointed out the easily missed 2001 film, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, (well before Seth Grahame-Smith came up with the same role for Abraham Lincoln) I knew I was duty-bound to see it. As regular readers know, although I’m not a fan of gore or violence, I have a soft spot for vampire movies. Vampires, although often evil, are frequently presented as conflicted characters. As former humans they have some level of sympathy for their victims, while at the same time, all people are objectified for the vampire. We are food. This low-budget, independent film didn’t promise to deliver on many levels, but as the end credits show, they did shoot enough film to be able to cut out a few bloopers. The story, in as far as there is one, has Jesus fighting lesbian vampires in modern-day Ottawa (where the film was shot).

Not that the film was serious enough to invite critical dialogue, I did wonder what Jesus had to do with the whole thing apart from the shock value. There were a few cute moments, as when the “atheists” pile, clown-like, out of a car for an extended fight scene, but the lead could have been any character apart from one scene where a miracle does occur. Jesus fights with his fists, not with supernatural power. Tossing in Mary Magnum and “professional wrestler” El Santo, the movie came close to the screwball level of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s difficult to critique a film where logic isn’t held accountable for the plot—the only thing to keep the film going is the action of a particular scene. And that, as I’ve intimated, can’t be counted on.

Interestingly enough, Jesus is treated throughout the film in a positive way. Although he doesn’t use supernatural powers, he is the “good guy” and is even tolerant of alternative lifestyles as long as love is the basis of relationships. The movie is biblically literate, using the Good Samaritan in a scene that underscores the accepting nature of the new millennium Jesus. The vampires don’t add much to the lore of the monster. They can be out in daylight because it is cheaper to shoot film that way, but the plot does come up with an explanation for it. Vampirism, at the end, can be healed by prayer, and when Mary Magnum, El Santo, and Jesus go their separate ways at the end, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about.

And a Blessed New Year

A new year is always a time for predictions and prognostications. Although the religious basis for New Year’s Day is often deeply sublimated, the changing of the year is one of the oldest and most widespread holidays worldwide. Since every beginning is also an ending, experts look forward to see what might be coming. A story by Nadia Whitehead on NPR presents the opinion of Pew Research Center that over the coming years the growth rate of Islam will surpass that of atheists, based partly on procreation trends. At the same time Christianity will continue to grow, but at a slower rate than Islam. This sacred number crunching suggests that by mid-century Muslims will represent the largest world religion, surpassing Christianity for the first time. As the article states, this is merely a projection based on current trends, and new developments could completely change the dynamics. I’m sure this trend will distress some people, but popular understanding of Islam is biased through media tactics to glean more readers.

Equally troubling to some will be the suggestion that atheism, considered by many to be enlightened, simply won’t keep up. Even though the trend is growing, particularly in Europe, and to some extent in the United States, those who side with no-faith tend to have fewer children than those who do. Religions have often seen procreation as a divine mandate, leading to the kind of growth figures businesses envy. Large families with children taught the family faith from the cradle ensures rising numbers, all things being equal. Again, it comes down to the numbers. Since history of religions is not a growing field of study, many may not realize that major religions have peacefully coexisted for millennia. Globalization, however, brings differing value systems into swift and intimate contact.

Coexist

In addition to organic growth rates, religions also grow through proselytization. Some groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have been phenomenally successful in their missionary efforts. Atheists often try to convert through reason or rhetoric. Religion tends to appeal more to the emotional needs that all people share, regardless of how deeply they are repressed. Reason, in the face of personal tragedy, is cold comfort. Not many people are willing to be steely about it, to “toughening up” when fate deals a cruel blow. Better to counterstrike with a caring deity or two. Religion is so basic to humanity that it is difficult to understand how major universities and centers of learning are trying to cut back on its study. And if it might be suggested that mine is a typical humanities-lover’s response, this time I can point to the numbers. Check with Pew; you don’t have to take my word for it.

Make Believer

SmthgFunnyMy brother is way cooler than I ever hope to be. While I was busy learning all a tween and teen could about the Bible, he was listening to Lou Reed and David Bowie and Black Sabbath. Since the “door” between our rooms was only a curtain, I heard the forbidden sounds and, despite myself, had to admit that I liked what I heard. In fact, I once gave a lecture on Christian influence in secular rock music, and found many students staring at me in surprise for knowing so much about such debased music. In any case, when my brother recommends a book I know it will always be an adventure. Thus I came to read Corey Taylor’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven: (Or, How I Made Peace with the Paranormal and Stigmatized Zealots & Cynics in the Process). I didn’t want to admit to my brother that I’d never heard of Corey Taylor and that I couldn’t identify a Slipknot song even on Spotify, but the book sounded interesting, blending as it does bad-boy attitude with ghost hunting. November seemed a perfect time to read it. It could lead to some street cred on the bus.

It is difficult to distrust people like Taylor who write with absolutely no pretension (I’m a working-class kid, too). You know that what you’re getting is the real deal. It is also clear that like my brother and many rockers, Taylor is of above-average intelligence. Being smart can sometimes feel like a curse, and Taylor lashes out in several ways during the course of his narrative. He finds it odd to be an atheist who believes in, and has personally experienced, ghosts. I’m not sure that he would find it comforting to know that such a position is not at all as rare as he seems to think it is. Science deals with neither gods nor ghosts, and the average person is left to their own devices to decide who might speak with authority on such issues. Where are we supposed to look when scientists refuse to address such things? Personal experience is a powerful influence.

As with most books by opinionated, brash extroverts, it is difficult not to find yourself liking the writer. Trust may be too strong a word, but I do believe that Taylor writes without guile. After all, people have experienced ghosts for as long back as we’re aware. Why should it be any different for a celebrity? Is Taylor’s house haunted? (Or, more accurately are his houses haunted.) That’s a question no one can answer with certainty. Ghosts are beyond our realm of knowledge. Although plumbers can use scientific instruments, until actual scientists try to explain the immaterial we will be left to choose whom to believe. A metal singer can know just as much as a priest. Or even more, depending on the context.

Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.

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Credo

One of my seminary professors, who shall remain nameless, averred in class that Christianity in the first centuries was popular because it was exclusive. Like a country club. If just anybody can get in, why would you want to join? I’ve come to disagree with said professor’s analysis, but I have to admit there are cases where the idea does apply. Country clubs, for example. Organizations that intend to improve society, however, have it in their best interest to have doors as wide open as possible. Otherwise it’s a kind of hypocrisy. If Christianity wanted to make a better world, it soon realized, all takers should be welcome. That paradigm broke down fairly quickly, but at the beginning, I have the sense that all were welcome. So I was pleased to hear that the Boy Scouts have dropped their ban on gay troop leaders. Making a group that sets out to do a good deed a day exclusive heterosexual seems awfully backward. After all, gay leaders are nothing new. Why try to be exclusive?

Of course, the Scouts continue to disallow atheists. This is a fairly common, if medieval, marker of personal integrity. The Elks, last I heard, had few entrance requirements. One of the few stipulations, however, is that you have to believe in God. I don’t know how that plays out for Hindu Elks. Perhaps the more the merrier. Somehow, I doubt it. Exclusive belief entry requirements are a way of weeding out questions before they’re raised. Sheltering those inside from baleful influence among hoi polloi. We are better because we are different. Granted, these organizations go back to a time when theism, of sorts, was virtually a given in American society. Times have changed. Boy Scouts, it seems, are dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

I’ve always been impressed, by contrast, with the Girl Scouts’ openness. No creedal requirements are in place. Atheist girls, Buddhist girls, girls who climb on rocks, any girls are allowed to join. The last three presidents (including Obama) have been Boy Scouts. Two prior presidents have been as well. You might think the organization could meet its pedigree requirements with ease. In my view, they might look to the girls to take a cue on how to make the world a better place. When I was growing up, I knew no atheists. I remember attending a funeral of a family friend who hadn’t been a church goer, and that was pretty traumatic. As an adult I know many atheists and I trust them as much, if not more than, some of the religious I know. Would they be able to lead Boy Scout troops well? I have a suggestion—why not ask the Girl Scouts and find out?

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Secular Seminary

The Nones have it. A recent article by Alana Massey from the Washington Post puts it well. We are cultural Christians living in a secular world. My mind often goes back to the fate of those trained by a system that proves itself to be false. We are seduced by religion at a young age, and we readily accept what our culture and our clergy tell us is true. Some, like yours truly, can’t rest without knowing the truth. We press on to seminary, then to graduate school, only to find that the answer is more questions. No church will hire you. No college will either. You’ve invested your youth in finding the truth and you’ve come up empty. There’s a comfort in the old liturgies, but they ring hollow nonetheless. I know many clergy feel this way but can’t admit it. What you sign on the line declares that you “believe” and if you’re honest you could lose a livelihood into which you’ve invested everything.

So I’m thinking, why not found a secular seminary? There are atheist churches beginning to appear. Those who would lead congregations of the unfaithful must have some training, mustn’t they? A secular seminary curriculum wouldn’t need to differ much from that of the standard churches. The secular should understand the Bible. You need not believe, but you’re naive if you don’t understand it. They should also know the history, the non-theology, and the way to lead a service. Pastoral care could be taught, even as it is for those who attend seminary. You need not be a believer to care for other people. In a secular society that requires some spiritual nurture, this is the obvious solution.

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There must be plenty of wealthy people out there willing to buy their way into peace of mind. If there’s no Heaven to own, perhaps purchasing tranquility here on earth would suffice. The numbers of those attending church is falling. The number of those desperately unhappy is rising. We have trouble believing the myths any more and science leaves us feeling cold. Maybe it is time to take seriously the concept of secular seminaries. There are seminaries for all denominations except the most conservative. Perhaps it is time for the most liberal to pony up as well. The Episcopalians have always said they wanted an educated clergy. When clergy are educated the crisis only deepens. It seems to me that this may be the cusp of a worthy idea. If so, perhaps there is hope for a sacred secular society yet.

Driving the Point

“I drive my car, it is a witness. My license plate, it states my business.” The words are from a song by one of the most creative Christian Rock groups ever, Daniel Amos. While I don’t listen to Christian Rock much anymore, I’ve always appreciated the fresh outlook of this particular band, which was, at least in the ‘80s, ahead of the curve. The lyrics came back to me when reading about a legal suit in New Jersey concerning vanity plates. Like many states, New Jersey has rules against offensive words being spelled out on license plates. When a woman applied for a license reading “8THEIST” it was rejected as “offensive to good taste and decency,” according to a story in NJ.com by Thomas Zambito. Trying the application with “BAPTIST” led to no objections. Others have tried other variations on the word “atheist” and have come up with rejections as well. In a country that prides itself on religious freedom, this is ironic, to say the least.

I’m a bit too pragmatic for vanity plates, or even bumper stickers. Having had to commute long distances after being dismissed from my post at Nashotah House, I often thought that I didn’t want people to know too much about me by the decoration of my car. The culture wars, played out a few years ago by Jesus fish, Darwin fish, Jesus sharks eating Darwin fish, and so on, seemed an opportunity for aggression to me. Already when I’m driving and someone cuts me off or does some dangerous maneuver in traffic, they frequently bear some paraphernalia advertising Jesus on their bumper. Maybe it’s a prayer for protection that allows for stupid driving. It certainly isn’t a witness to the “others first” theology that characterized Jesus’ teaching.

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Is it an affront to decency to be an atheist, or only to advertise being one? The culture wars that plague the United States are based on instant prejudices that make decisions about a person without bothering to witness their behavior. Behavior, after all, is the true measure of goodness. Even higher education is not immune to this system, especially in religion departments. We only want to be surrounded by those who believe like us. Somewhere in this unholy mix is the neglected idea of doing the right thing. Ours is a culture in love with appearances. We object when Muslims want to build a mosque. We object when Roman Catholics run for President. Weren’t not even sure that we really trust the Presbyterian next door. Our differences, one of the historic strengths of this country, have become a liability. Especially when behind the wheel. How different driving would be if we’d just assume that no what the vehicle says, it is piloted by a human being just like us, no matter who they believe the co-pilot might be.

Commandments by Committee

Something about the holiday season seems to bring out atheistic activism, or at least media interest in atheism. Now that we’re safely in 2015, I suspect things will quiet down a bit until the next major religious holiday comes along. Ironically, since I was a child I’ve heard about how secular Christmas, in particular, has become. Reactions to this have led to “Christmas wars” that give the lie to sleeping in heavenly peace. In any case, back in December CNN ran a story on the atheist ten commandments. This was just before the holidays, but just after the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, so it was a story sure to capture human interest. The atheist commandments were chosen by a committee, and, of course, have no binding value. Many of them are more precepts than commandments since, it seems, you need a deity to command all of humanity. Nevertheless, the number 7 commandment has a very biblical sound: “Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated.”

More interesting than the list, in my way of thinking, is the form of delivery. The ten commandment format is an obviously religious one. Atheists have long tried to make the case that non-belief is not the same as immorality, and there can be little doubt that this is correct. One need not believe in order to be a good person. Yet, the force of the symbolic ten commandments comes from a divine mandate. Committees, as efficient as they may be, don’t have the same kind of authority. You can hear it now—“Why should I listen to you? Who are you to tell me what to do?” With God there is always the threat of eternal damnation or the sending of plagues. Commandments by committee appeal to reason.

The ten commandments—here I mean the traditional ones—haven’t fared especially well among the faithful. Survey after survey shows many people don’t know all ten well enough to cite them. Some, such as the one against coveting, are hard to demonstrate or prove one way or the other. Honoring parents, in some extreme cases, seems sinful in itself. What doesn’t count as a graven image? So my question is, who has the authority in a post-Christian world to give commandments? The religious certainly won’t take advice from atheists, and religious leaders disagree among themselves about what the deity demands. No committee, it seems, can capture the true essence of divine demands. Perhaps it is a matter of boiling the ten down to one (similar to number 7 cited above) and getting our leaders to truly believe this before imposing it on all.

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Trial and Error

DivinityOfDoubtI’m not a fan of true crime. It seems that daily life has enough drama for me without reading about the truly dark aspects of human behavior. Nevertheless, I appreciate those who spend their life taking on perpetrators of evil. I haven’t read any of Vincent Buliosi’s true crime books, but I was curious about how a famous trial lawyer would treat the question of God. Bulgiosi’s recent book, Divinity of Doubt: The God Question, is a glimpse into an active, agile mind that is innately curious about the issue of the divine. Neither believer nor atheist, Bugliosi makes a strong case for agnosticism. He has no time for the nonsense of many religious beliefs, and like a lawyer, won’t let shoddy excuses such as “it’s a mystery” justify unacceptable answers. Many Christians (especially) would find his unrelenting logic a little distressing. If we accept reason, he fairly demonstrates, the God of traditional Christian design is not possible. Still, he acknowledges that religion has very positive aspects.

Before the angry atheists can begin laughing, however, Bugliosi turns his sharp mind to the arguments of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris to show how none of them really make a strong case for atheism either. He notes, as Dawkins does at one point, that proving the absence of God (or anything, for that matter) is not logically possible. There’s always the possibility that, beyond the edge of what you’re arguing, the object in question may lurk. Nevertheless, a strong case might conceivably be built, but Bugliosi declares that it hasn’t. Many atheists attack religion and think they’ve destroyed God. Not that Bugliosi is a friend of God. Indeed, to borrow a title from one of his nemeses, C. S. Lewis, he might have called his book God in the Dock.

Divinity of Doubt is one of those books that throws many questions open. Being an agnostic, of course, Bugliosi is fine with that. Although the book is enjoyable and thought-provoking, there are a few uneven parts. It is difficult to keep logical rigor at fever pitch continuously. Some, no doubt, will find his doubts about evolution puzzling. Others (or the same) may find his understanding of death a little under-developed. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to read a clearly thought-out account of how the proof and disproof of God are equally problematic. Some things you just can’t know. Don’t say that it’s a matter of faith, however; Bugliosi won’t let you get away with that. At times funny, written with verve and wit, this account keeps the reader moving along, even though most people will find something to seethe at along the way. Don’t let it lead you to crime, though, because you wouldn’t want Bugliosi on the prosecution against you.

Growing Up

WakingUpI am in two minds about Sam Harris’s Waking Up. Literally. I haven’t read Harris since The End of Faith, and I have to admit that I found Waking Up to be a very engaging book. I can’t agree with everything Harris writes—that’s an occupational hazard of acquiring advanced degrees—but to have a scientist, an atheist no less, praise spirituality felt incredibly genuine. Spiritual experiences happen. I’ve had a few doozies over the years. I’ve also read a number of scientists who tell me they’re all an illusion. Harris admits that consciousness is a mystery. His use of “mind” instead of “brain” won me over from the beginning. I discovered that the atheist can also be a seeker. Dogmatism, of whatever stripe, is the enemy.

Harris has considerable experience meditating. This is no activity for posers or wimps. It is, despite minimal physical demands, hard work. Throughout the book we get the sense that Buddhism is among the least objectionable religions, when divested of its myths. I do wonder, however, if demythologized Christianity was ever given a fair chance. From my own experience, some of the selflessness advocated by Harris can be found in taking aspects of Christianity seriously. I understand, I think, Harris’s objections to religion. It can, and does, lead to horrors both obvious and subtle. Yet, every once in a perhaps great while, it does offer redemption. Meditation, for example, has its roots in religious practice. It is this that Harris calls spirituality. And it is good.

A Guide to Spirituality without Religion is an apt subtitle for this brutally honest and open book. Harris’s knowledge as a neuroscientist endows his ideas with great authority. He opines, and he is not alone, that meditation demonstrates that “I” is only an illusion. This loss of self will haunt me for some time. For decades I is all I seem to have. Still, I am pleased to find an open-minded scientist on this same path I tread. Raised to be both spiritual and religious set the trajectory of my otherwise logic-driven life. You can’t go back and change all that, but you can grow up. To read of Harris’s spiritual experiences in the geography of great spiritual masters as well as in the laboratory instill in this reader a profound hope. Whether or not this reader is merely an illusion. There may be morning after this long night, after all.

Centuries and Millennia

This past week I had a look at Christian Century. It has been about a century since I’ve read it, so I noticed quite a few changes in that time. Magazines in general, I’ve noticed, have been on a weight-reduction program. They are thinner and more direct than they used to be. Also, the last time I looked at Christian Century, perhaps in my college days, it was still assumed that Christianity was the dominant paradigm for American society. Church attendance wasn’t stellar, but it seemed pretty solid. In my town, in any case, pretty much everything was closed on Sundays. There was a sense of status quo ante, perhaps it was just that social changes of the sixties and seventies were taking a while to settle into the cracks. My college town was pretty far from the forefront of theological, or even social developments, and enough other places must have still been as well. There was no denying that you had great odds of finding Christians, self-professing, in places outside the halls of government.

Christian_Century_Dec_2010

It was almost sad that Christian Century felt so diminished. Inside I was surprised to see so many ads and reviews concerning themselves with secularism and/or atheism. Attempts to understand, or convert, were the foci of seminars and books. Get things back to the way they used to be. A century ago. One gets the sense that subscriptions might have slipped a bit. The consensus is breaking up. Too much information—too many choices. People aren’t sure what they will choose after all. The Christian Century seems to have been the nineteenth or twentieth. We are sadder but wiser.

It could be that I’m misreading this whole thing. After all, a couple of the articles were written by big name scholars teaching at big name institutions. One of them, however, is admittedly not a Christian. Those who are are, it seems, trying to learn about this sea change that happened around them while they perhaps supposed everything was progressing as normal. Growing up where I did, I know that I was unaware that people could not, in great masses, not go to church. That other religions were not but minor blips in an otherwise uniformly Christian country. Considering the posturing of many televangelists, I’m not the only one who thought so. It may be that another Christian century is to come. Or even a millennium. Until that happens, however, the institutions that look backward instead of toward a future approaching very fast will feel, I suspect, that a century quickly slipped by and left them wondering in its wake.

Religion Is Fundamental

One of the books on my shelf growing up was a cheap paperback entitled How to Be a Christian without Being Religious. The idea appealed since having to do all that “religious” stuff seemed kind of like Catholicism or some other formal system of behavior rather than a kind of organic relationship with God. Ironically now, fast forward an indeterminate number of years, and the “spiritual but not religious” demographic is quickly rising. From the secular side. As a sign of this new direction society seems to be turning is the Hart and Crescent Award, designed for Girl and Boy Scouts who are members of a nature religion. Perhaps the most widely recognized religion of this category is Wicca, the modern incarnation of witchcraft, according to some, simple nature religion according to others. The award, according to the website, is open to any young person who completes the requirements to learn about the earth and earth religion.

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Also worthy of note is a story in last week’s Time magazine about atheist churches. Ministers from a number of traditions, disenchanted with belief systems that just don’t match what we know of reality are starting to form congregations of unbelievers. This may distress some materialists who find no reason to be spiritual, but the fact is, people naturally are. The article cites, for example, Bill Maher who stands against the idea. There is security in numbers, and in a society where people find themselves increasingly isolated from others, joining together on a Sunday morning for time with likeminded non-believers may not be such a bad thing.

One aspect of Josh Sanburn’s article has me a little puzzled, however. He notes that Richard Dawkins has torn religion apart in his books, and yet, here it is. Dawkins and Maher and other vocal atheists seem to believe that religion has brought us nothing but evil. How quick we are to forget that civilization itself is typically defined as having a formal concept religion, as well as several other components of what it means not to be “savage” or “barbarian.” That religion may not be Christianity. It may be Wicca. It may be the Houston Oasis and its atheistic system. People need common cause. Reason is great, indeed marvelous as far as it goes. People, however, are not entirely rational. They can be spiritual without being religious. And they can be religious without being believers. If you persist in it, your Scout can even earn an award for caring for the earth. And that should be no cause for complaint.