Cathedral Round-Up #16: Infiltration of the Church?

Disclaimer: I am an atheist, so I am in no position to tell Christians how to run their religion.

That said, it seems pretty obvious even to me that mainstream Christianity has launched itself off the deep end and bears little resemblance to “Christianity” as it has been practiced for most of its 2000 or so years.

The Pope is a really nice guy, from the Guardian
The Pope is a really nice guy, from the Guardian

The thing we have now is Niceianity. Let me emphasize that “nice.” Most of the folks involved are, as far as I can tell, very kind-hearted people. Take Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church. Oliveto lead Glide Memorial, which I am familiar with because they serve nearly a million free meals to the homeless every year. (SF has a lot of homeless people.) That’s really nice.

Thing is, I’m not convinced that God is “nice.” The God of the Old Testament routinely acts in ways that the average modern person would probably describe as “not nice,” like killing the firstborn sons of the Egyptians or pretty much the entire Book of Job.

As a parent, I always have my kids’ best interests at heart, but I am often not “nice” from their perspective: I make them go to bed when they want to play; I make them do their homework when they want to play; I even make them go to the grocery store when they want to play, because I’m an evil person who wants to get food so I can cook dinner.

Parenting cannot be understood through a child’s understanding of “nice.”

And if there is such a thing as God, I don’t think it (he, whatever) can be understood via our particular current concept of “nice.” (Obviously I am not saying you should go out and be mean. Obey your notions of good behavior.)

One of the interesting things about Christianity is its history of schisms. For example, back in the late 1700s, the Shakers split off from the Quakers:

[Shakers] looked to women for leadership, believing that the second coming of Christ would be through a woman. In 1770, [Shaker leader] Ann Lee was revealed in “manifestation of Divine light” to be the second coming of Christ and was called Mother Ann.[6]

(More about the Shakers.)

Shakers, what with their communal lifestyle, female equality, female preachers, female incarnation of god, and near zero fertility obviously bear much in common with today’s feminists. The difference is that Shakers did not pretend to be Anglicans or Catholics or Methodists: they were just fine with being their own thing.

Let’s talk about infiltration.

Podesta email 6293, calling for a "Catholic Spring"
Podesta email 6293, calling for a “Catholic Spring”

According to Wikipedia:

Dr. Bella Visono Dodd (1904[1] – 29 April 1969[2]) was a member of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA) in the 1930s and 1940s who later became a vocal anti-communist. After her defection from the Communist Party in 1949, she testified that one of her jobs, as a Communist agent, was to encourage young radicals to enter Roman Catholic Seminaries.[3] …

Dodd testified before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). She said: “In the 1930s we put eleven hundred men into the priesthood in order to destroy the Church from within. The idea was for these men to be ordained, and then climb the ladder of influence and authority as Monsignors and Bishops”

Dodd told Alice von Hildebrand that:

“When she was an active party member, she had dealt with no fewer than four cardinals within the Vatican who were working for us, [i.e. the Communist Party]”(Christian Order magazine, “The Church in Crisis”, reprinted from The Latin Mass magazine).[7]

Dodd made a public affidavit which was witnessed by a number of people, including Paul and Johnine Leininger.

In her public affidavit, among other things, Dodd stated:
“In the late 1920’s and 1930’s, directives were sent from Moscow to all Communist Party organizations. In order to destroy the [Roman] Catholic Church from within, party members were to be planted in seminaries and within diocesan organizations… I, myself, put some 1,200 men in [Roman] Catholic seminaries”.

von Hildebrand confirmed that Dodd had publicly stated the same things to which she attested in her public affidavit.

(I don’t know anything about this lady. Maybe she was just a crazy person trying to get attention by crying “Communist ploooot!” But see also Operation Spectrum, Singapore.)

"The Bishop of Stockholm has proposed a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers." (Swedes.)
“The Bishop of Stockholm has proposed a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers.” (Swedes.)

About a year and a half ago, I posted excerpts from an article about Stanford University’s new Dean of Religious life, Jane Shaw, who is notable for being both the first woman and the first gay person to hold the position:

“Q. At Grace Cathedral and at Oxford, you led programs far afield from what might be considered religious: Hosting forums with politicians, activists and authors; bringing in atheists and believers; and commissioning artists-in-residence to create plays and installations. What’s your guiding light?

A. I don’t think I am a very churchy person, if that makes sense. I have always been interested in how you engage people in discussing questions of ultimate meaning, really—values, ethics, spirituality, all that stuff. …

Q. What new directions will you bring to Stanford?

A. …It is certainly my desire to make sure that Memorial Church is a place for extremely lively intellectual engagement, a place where possibly difficult issues can be discussed, a place where ethical and spiritual issues can be discussed. I am hoping we’ll have different sorts of people preaching here as guest preachers, not just clergy.”

That same issue of Stanford Magazine had another article focused on insulting people who believe in Hell. As I concluded back then:

According to Stanford, a gay woman who isn’t very “churchy” but likes discussing ethics is one of the country’s best religious leaders, and the 60% of Americans who believe in Hell are literally insane and make trouble for everyone else. …

Now, let’s try to imagine a contemporary article from any sort of respectable college or university… that conveys the inverse: respect for people who believe in hell; disrespect for gays, women, and people whose faith isn’t based on Biblical inerrancy.

Can you? Maybe Harvard? Yale? Oberlin? CalTech? Reed? Fine, how about BYU? No, probably not even them.

I can’t imagine it. A hundred years ago, maybe. Today, no. Such notions are completely incompatible with the beliefs of modern, upper-class people.

I know many perfectly decent folks who believe in hell, and think they should be respected, but “be decent to people who hold denigrated religious beliefs” is not actually my point. My point is that the American upper class, academia, and the people with a great deal of power and influence over the beliefs of others clearly agrees with Pastor Shaw’s religious beliefs (when it is not outright atheist). Upper-class liberals in America are their own ethnic group with their own religion, culture, morality, and endogamous breeding habits. Conservatives are the out-group, their religious views openly mocked by the upper class and banned from the halls of academic thought.

Wikipedia has an article on R. Guy Erwin:

R. Guy Erwin is a U.S. Lutheran clergyman. … He is also the first openly-gay bishop in the ELCA, and has lived in a committed same-sex relationship for 20 years. He and Rob Flynn were married in August, 2013.[2]

Bishop Erwin received the B.A.degree from Harvard College in 1980. He holds the M.A., M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University. From 1993–1999 he was Lecturer in Church History in the Yale Divinity School (YDS) where he taught History of Western Christianity as well as courses on Martin Luther, the Pietists and other specialities. During the 2006–2007 academic year he was Visiting Professor at YDS while on sabbatical from California Lutheran University where he has taught since 2000.[3]

And then there's this...
And then there’s this.

Note: I don’t actually think there is anything “wrong” with being gay–there might be, there might not be, I am agnostic on the issue. I favor letting gay people get married and am pissed that we’ve spent so many decades fighting over the issue when we could be dealing with real problems, like the heroin epidemic.

But I also respect the rights of religious people to think homosexuality is a sin to believe what they believe without me interfering or telling them not to.

500 Clergy support gay United Methodist Clergy who Came Out:

A letter from 500 openly LGBTQ clergy, future pastors and faith leader in a number of different denominations offered “much love and light” to the 111 United Methodist clergy and candidates who came out as gay on May 9.

“Though we come from different traditions, you are our family in Christ and our siblings in the common struggle to live fully and authentically into our God-given identities and callings,” states the letter posted on the website Believe Out Loud, an online community that empowers Christians to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) equality. …

“We are here because God has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised,” the 111 United Methodists write in what they call “A Love Letter to Our Church.” The signers come from across the United States, and one signer is from the Philippines. They identify themselves as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex” in the letter. …

[Matt Berryman] is the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates for the church to be more inclusive. The network has coordinated publicity of this and other challenges to church law as part of the group’s “It’s Time” campaign.

“Since 2012, we’ve decided we would be the church no matter what,” Berryman told United Methodist News Service. The majority of delegates at the 2012 General Conference voted against a proposal to say United Methodists disagree whether homosexuality is against God’s will.

“Jesus came preaching a way that is narrow, and the way we live out that narrow way is to disrupt systemic injustice.”

Basically, official Methodist doctrine teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Disagree? Join a church that doesn’t tech that. For goodness’s sake, there are about 2,000 different Christian denominations. Surely you can find one that agrees with you. Or start your own church, and invite all of the gay people to come and worship with you.

But don’t go infiltrating a church whose doctrines you explicitly disagree with.

As Justin Martyr wrote in his First Apology: “No one is allowed to partake (of the Eucharist) but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”

Meanwhile the United Church of Canada is actually struggling to remove a pastor who has outright declared herself an atheist:

One Sunday in 2001, she stood up in front of her congregation, as usual. But instead of a normal sermon, she declared that she no longer believed in God. …

Much to her surprise, neither the congregation nor the church board were bothered by this. Many even confessed that they, too, had their doubts. And so they carried on, without God.

But now, the church’s top brass say they’ve received too many complaints about Vosper and have launched an unprecedented investigation to determine whether she’s fit to keep her job. …

“I won’t bow out. Because if I leave, that ruling stands and my colleagues are at risk. It’s like I’d be running to safety, and everyone else gets blown up,” she said.

Vosper’s saga couldn’t have come at a worse time for the United Church, which is already hemorrhaging devotees. Its membership has shrunk more than 60 percent since 1965, when it included more than one million. 

Maybe there’s some kind of connection here between your church being run by atheists and hemorrhaging members?

Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape

More liberal Christian groups are hemorrhaging faster than the more conservative groups. Mainline Protestants, like Methodists, have lost half their members from the Silent Generation to Millenials.

Why exactly so many people are becoming atheists remains a mystery to me–I tend to blame it on electricity, but maybe I’m reaching. At any rate, I think that if you’re going to be religious, there has to be something that you actually believe. A doctrine. A theology. Just saying something like, “I believe in my heart in believiness and love and unicorns,” doesn’t seem to work.

In my personal experience, a lot of churches over the past few decades have been trying to take the Kumbaya approach, by which I mean stripping out all of the unpleasant-seeming parts of religion in order to attract new members. Latin mass? Gone! Fasting? Not necessary! Penitence? Hey, let’s sing about Jesus instead!

Ironically, I loved Sunday School as a kid, but was pretty meh on Youth Group. Sunday School was appropriately geared to a 5 yr old kid who found “Jesus Loves Me” comforting. Youth Group was an intellectual, moral, and religious wasteland. I wanted to read the Bible and discuss theology. Instead, we listened to “Christian rock” and ate pizza. There’s nothing wrong with pizza or Christian rock, but they alone don’t lead to god.

Had I received something resembling an intellectual religious guidance, I might have kept believing.

Anyway, back to schisming vs. combining, according to Wikipedia, the following groups of churches have arrangements for:

  • mutual recognition of members
  • joint celebration of the Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion/Eucharist (these churches practice open communion)
  • mutual recognition of ordained ministers
  • mutual recognition of sacraments
  • a common commitment to mission.
  1. The Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India, and the Philippine Independent Church.[23]
  2. The Churches of the Porvoo Communion.[25]
  3. The Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada[23]
  4. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and each of the following: the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America,[23] the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church[26] and the Moravian Church in America.
  5. The Leuenberg Agreement, concluded in 1973 and adopted by 105 European Protestant churches, since renamed the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe.[27]
  6. The Moravian Church and each of the following: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church USA.[23]
  7. The United Methodist Church with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the African Union Methodist Protestant Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church.
  8. The United Church of Christ and each of the following: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Reformed Church in America.
  9. The United Episcopal Church of North America and each of the following: the Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Province of Christ the King, and the Diocese of the Great Lakes.
  10. The Anglican Province of America has intercommunion with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Church of Nigeria.
  11. The Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland have established full communion and are working toward interchangeability of ministry.[28]

Meanwhile most American Christians are, by their own admission, heretics:

Seven out of ten respondents in LifeWay’s survey affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons but one God, and six in ten agreed that Jesus is both human and divine. Their orthodoxy—and consistency—ended there. More than half went on to indicate that Jesus is “the first and greatest being created by God,” a heresy known as Arianism, which the Council of Nicaea condemned in 325 A.D. …

Rather, bizarre contradictions like this illustrate how many Americans don’t understand or even care what the Trinity means (although they say they believe in it, likely out of habits learned growing up in church).

The responses to other questions were no less heterodox or headache-inducing. Seventy percent of participants—who ranged across socioeconomic and racial backgrounds—agreed there’s only one true God. Yet sixty-four percent also thought this God accepts the worship of all religions, including those that believe in many gods. …

Over half said it’s fair for God to exercise his wrath against sin, but seemed to waffle about which sins deserved wrath (not theirs!). Seventy-four percent said the “smallest sins” don’t warrant eternal damnation, in contrast to Jesus’ brother, who when writing at the Holy Spirit’s inspiration taught that even one infraction of God’s law is enough to sink someone. But really, what did he know?

A full 60 percent agreed that “everyone eventually goes to heaven,” but half of those surveyed also checked the box saying that “only those who believe in Jesus will be saved.” So either these folks are saying everyone will eventually believe in Jesus, or they hired a monkey to take the survey for them.

13 Religious Women to watch in 2012 –most of these women are notable only for their secular endeavors (some of which are significant,) not for their theological, religious, or otherwise doctrinal work.

In many ways, I think Niceanity has been a central part of Christianity from the beginning. It is a reasonable interpretation of Christian theology (I am not really in a position to declare any Christian a heretic–that’s God’s job.) But I can’t escape the sense that mainstream Christianity is trying to shed entirely the notion of a Biblical God, of any kind of doctrine or belief beyond a vague belief that belief is good. And even if they’re right, I just don’t think religion works that way.

 

Cathedral Round-Up #15: Duke

Duke literally looks like a cathedral
Duke literally looks like a cathedral

For this month’s Cathedral Round-Up, I decided to look beyond the Ivies at Duke University, North Carolina. For my non-American readers unfamiliar with our less famous institutions, Wikipedia states:

Duke is the seventh-wealthiest private university in America with $11.4 billion in cash and investments in fiscal year 2014.[9]

Duke is consistently included among the best universities in the world by numerous university rankings,[10][11] and among the most innovative universities in the world.[12] According to a Forbes study, Duke is ranked 11th among universities that have produced billionaires.[13][14] In a New York Times corporate study, Duke’s graduates were shown to be among the most sought-after and valued in the world,[15] and Forbes magazine ranked Duke seventh in the world on its list of ‘power factories’ in 2012.[16]

Duke’s research expenditures in the 2014 fiscal year were $1.037 billion, the seventh largest in the nation.[17] In 2014, Thomson Reuters named 32 of Duke’s professors to its list of Highly Cited Researchers, making it fourth globally in terms of primary affiliations.[18] Duke also ranks fifth among national universities to have produced Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Goldwater, and Udall Scholars.[19]Ten Nobel laureates and three Turing Award winners are affiliated with the university. Duke’s sports teams compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the basketball team is renowned for having won five NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championships, most recently in 2015.

It’s always good when your college is good at playing keep-away.

From Duke Magazine’s special all-language-articles edition:
The Power of Pronouns:

This past February I was invited to give a lecture at a Duke seminar called “LGBTQ Activism and History.”

[People declared their preference to be addressed with gender-neutral pronouns]

I’ll admit all this seems newish and complicated to me. It was only a few months ago that a neighbor’s teenage daughter explained to their parents and friends that they were “pan-sexual” (the sexual attraction to a person of any sex—male or female—or gender—masculine, feminine, or somewhere in between). Now the request was for us to use gender-neutral pronouns. We tried but flubbed it, until finally the thirteen-year-old exclaimed, “Please respect my pronouns” —and the light went on. What they were saying was, “Please respect who I am.”

Please stop having deep discussions with your neighbor’s barely pubescent teenage daughter about who she wants to bang. It makes you sound like a creep.

We don’t let 13 yr olds drive cars, work, live alone, vote, sign contracts, or have sex, because 13 yr olds are idiots who are still dependent on their parents to take care of them and keep them alive. Children should be treated with kindness and compassion, but we don’t respect their ideas on adult matters for the same reason we don’t let them live on their own.

The Places Words Go:

Intersectionality, a concept that started in academia and became popular among grassroots activists, recently has exploded in broader culture. … So when Hillary Clinton, on March 6, 2016, tweeted that: “We face a complex, intersectional set of challenges…” it signaled intersectionality’s full entrance into the mainstream.

Yet, what does it mean for this discourse, which originated in black feminist circles, to now enjoy popularity in a variety of contexts and uses? …

Clinton’s usage of intersectional language, while maybe well-intentioned, displays the slippage and de-radicalization that attends many popular uses. Intersectionality becomes a matter of drawing connections between multiple problems and multiple solutions. Losing sight of larger structural critiques of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy, the problems become about discrimination and about a lack of opportunities or parity for various identities within our economic system. Instead of challenging neoliberal policies that prioritize privatization and investment, the market—by including everyone and improving the stakes of those already within it—becomes the foundation to break all barriers. …

Daniel José Camacho is a master’s of divinity student, pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In related news: Can an atheist lead a Protestant Church? A battle over Religion in Canada:

The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a dynamic, activist minister with a loyal following at her Protestant congregation in suburban Toronto. She is also an outspoken atheist.

“We don’t talk about God,” Vosper said in an interview, describing services at her West Hill United Church, adding that it’s time the church gave up on “the idolatry of a theistic god.” …
Ordained in 1993, the 58-year-old Vosper says she began questioning God’s existence 15 years ago and openly came out as an atheist in 2013.

Vosper said that the United Church has a tradition of “pushing the envelope” and pulling down barriers — in accepting the ordination of women, embracing the LGBT community and performing same-sex marriage. She said her views about religion have evolved. After initially rejecting the idea of a supernatural god and the idea of god as “the father,” she moved eventually to rejecting God completely. Instead, she preaches values, including justice, compassion and love. …

Like other mainstream denominations, the United Church of Canada, founded in 1925 as a merger of several denominations, has seen its numbers fall sharply in recent years. It reported having 436,292 members at the end of 2014, less than half the 1,063,951 it had at its peak in 1964.

Long story short, the church is struggling to remove her on the grounds that being an open atheist is kind of counter to the basic founding documents of the church:

“It’s tough on the United Church because we’ve created this mantra of inclusiveness and now it’s been tested. It goes against the grain to tell somebody that you have to leave.”

A Way to Protect All Ideas:

I attended two conferences, interviewed ten women, met another fifteen remarkable women, and produced twenty YouTube videos in eight short weeks just to answer one question: How do we address online hate speech while maintaining free speech?

Well, that certainly sounds like a randomized, large-N, unlikely to be biased sample of people.

I would like to think I began my research as an objective bystander. … As much as I hated the dangers women faced online, I also abhorred content-based censorship. I thought my desire to protect both women and speech online would ensure my objectivity.

Then the interviews began and my objectivity faltered. I listened as women told me how their ex-boyfriends non-consensually shared nude photos of them online; …

Conservatives have been telling women for years that it’s a bad idea to send naked pictures of themselves out into the world. Guess they were right.

I noticed a common theme to these stories: men using online hate and violence to silence women. I could barely fathom why hate speech intended to silence women was acceptable, but censorship of same hate speech is unacceptable. So I used my voice to speak against hate speech; I proudly declared myself a feminist in a YouTube video.

Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), my declaration didn’t end the misogynistic speech. While the First Amendment guarantees protection from Congress silencing my feminist speech, there would be no guaranteed protection against a cyber-mob trying to silence me with rape and death threats. …

It’s not enough to protect freedom of speech from a government violation. We must also protect the freedom of speech of the disempowered from the empowered.

That’s not easy, but I realized that it is marginally easier when we speak together. That was the most rewarding part of my summer research: meeting all the women who, supported by their tight-knit community, courageously and collectively speak out against online hate.

Meanwhile in the real world:

Trump Supporter Beaten with a Crowbar:

Police in Northern New Jersey say a 62-year-old man was beaten with a crowbar outside a restaurant for wearing a T-shirt in support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. …

The victim was treated on the scene for injuries to his forearms, hands and thighs shortly after 6 p.m., the website reported.

“The motorist inquired why [the man] was wearing the shirt, directing profanities at him,” Bloomfield Police spokesman Ralph Marotti said, the New Jersey Star Ledger reported Tuesday. “The [victim] continued to walk away as [the] motorist followed him.”

Trump supporter sucker punched to the ground by Mexican at Trump Rally in San Jose:

I’ve yet to find any articles in Duke Magazine about respecting people’s right to walk in public without being viciously beaten for their political beliefs.

Did Electricity kill Religion?

Let it go...

They say electricity drove away the fairies. Does it kill all belief?

I find it a lot easier to be absolutely terrified when it’s pitch black out. The last time that happened, I was in a national forest in the mountains, trying to find my way back to my car. My imagination, being mine, was convinced that the woods were full of thieves and I was about to be dead.

As a kid, prayer had a wonderfully soothing effect on my fear or the dark, but my devout spirituality cratered mid-highschool.

Every angry, nostalgic nerd claims that things were better back when he was a kid. Original Star Trek was better; the latest movie in an unholy abomination. Han Solo shot first; the new movie is an unholy abomination. The video games were awesomer, the school curriculae were smarter, the Christmas lights were merrier.

Even Santa Claus was way better when I was 5.

Does everything go to shit with time? Or do we just look at the world through different glasses when we’re little kids? Do we just believe more? Are there monsters under the bed, or just in our imaginations?

We adults don’t fear the dark–and why should we? Look at all of our lights. It’s 2 AM, and I can see my hands! I could write this post on notebook paper without even straining my eyes.

But when the electricity is gone and I’m left in the real, true, dark, suddenly the all of the emotions–not just the fear–come back. They’re stronger in the dark. In the childhood of dawn, we still believe there are things that go thump in the night, but in adulthood and the noonday sun, we’re atheists.

What was life like before electricity? When candles were a luxury?

It is pretty easy to massively over-estimate the amount of light people had at night. I see it frequently in fiction–characters easily reading or noticing each other’s expressions by candlelight.

Candles and fires don’t give off all that much light. And they are costly. Nights were dark. And long.

Nature_trees_dark_night_forest_moon_1920x1200

As much as I enjoyed Christmas as a child, I never felt like it had much to do with winter. When I grew up, I moved to a latitude where the winter sun had set by 4 pm, the rivers froze, and I walked home each night through this icy darkness. When the town strung up Christmas lights and handed out hot cocoa, what a welcome relief they were! So that’s why we lit candles in the winter, took comfort in their light.

When I visit my relatives in the country, I am suddenly confronted with the Milky Way; uncountable thousands of stars thrown like jewels into the darkness. Who has not beheld it and felt the majesty and awe of the universe?

When I look at the stars, I feel as if I am about to fall off the Earth and tumble headlong into the universe, the infinite void.

And from this unutterable blackness, this void, this trembling fear at the universe, do we draw our belief all things mystical. Is this where the idea of gods and ghosts and demons came from? (Angels, I suspect, could only have come at dawn.) When you grandmother tells you a ghost story in a pitch-black house while winter rages outside, what choice do you have but to believe her?

But then the lights came on… and belief flickered off.

The Decline of Religion part 4

Upon further reflection, I’ve decided that all of that other stuff (parts 1, 2, and 3) is probably small potatoes and the biggest, most important thing driving the surge in atheism is information technology/mass media bringing people into contact with millions of other people.

Since religious belief is probably driven by some kind of neural feedback loop that basically results in people doing whatever the majority of people around them are doing, if you live in a world where everyone you talk to is Catholic, you’ll probably be Catholic, but if you suddenly switch to a world where you are watching TV and movies and talking to people on FB and Twitter and whatnot and some of them are Catholic and some are Protestant and you can even follow the Dalai Lama’s FB feed, suddenly you aren’t surrounded by Catholics anymore. Now your feedback loops cannot pick out any dominant religion for you to follow, and without the belief-experience feedback loops going on, you start to feel nothing at all.

In other words, all of those crazy Christians who homeschool their kids and refuse to let them watch TV because they don’t want them exposed to the sinful, fallen world are actually correct. Being around godless atheists all day will turn their kids into godless atheists. Except their kids grow up and join the world anyway, so it’s not really a great strategy.

Anyway, back on track: Once upon a time (about 70 years ago,) most people (at home and abroad!) got the vast majority of their functional information about the world from their parents and other members of their immediate community. We call this vertical transmission. With most of the people in a community adhering to a single religion, people were religious.

Since then, the rise of mass media communication has massively increased the amount of information people get horizontally (or laterally.) This brings people into massive numbers of people not from their own communities–thus all meme-plexes that were passed vertically through communities are under intense, novel competition from horizontally passed meme-plexes.

So Ireland, once an overwhelmingly Catholic country that rejected divorce back in 1987, just legalized gay marriage. Why? Because atheism has suddenly completely triumphed in the past 30 years–probably because the Irish started interacting with a bunch of people who weren’t Catholic via the internet.

(Hilariously, though, “Closer to Dublin, British-ruled Northern Ireland has refused to join the rest of the United Kingdom in recognizing same-sex marriage. …the majority right-wing Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, to which he still belongs, voted down same-sex marriage in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the fourth time in three years.

Much of the opposition there is rooted in religious convictions, based in evangelical Protestantism. The Catholic nationalist Sinn Fein party supports gay marriage in Northern Ireland, but has not been able to overcome the opposition.”–from the NY Times.)

Note that this does not mean that the modern meme-plexes (ie, Progressivism,) that are succeeding at horizontal transmission are “better”, more moral, or in humanity’s or your personal self-interest. It means that this particular environment (mass media/information) favors meme-plexes that are optimized for horizontal transmission over meme-plexes that are optimized for vertical transmission, and religion happens to be (in most cases) optimized for vertical transmission.

Without ethnicity, religious identity disappears. (part 3)

Without ceremony, religion is empty.

Without children, it’s pointless.

Without a strong sense of ethnicity, religious identity disappears.

This is part 3 of a series on the Rise of Atheism. Parts 1 and 2 are here.

 

Different religions exist because different cultures exist. (Culture, of course, is just another word for ethnicity.)

There’s not a whole lot of difference between what Jews, Christians, and Muslims officially believe–we’re talking about a couple of prophets and whether or not one guy is the Messiah. Heck, some Jews think/thought Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah, but no one considers these folks not Jewish. Mormons are polytheistic, but they still consider themselves Christian.

There’s no particular reason–theologically speaking–to consider the three separate religions at all. We only do so because the adherents of these religions insist on it. In fact, just try suggesting to a Jew or Muslim that their religion is practically indistinguishable from the other’s and see how they react. While you are at it, try suggesting to a Pakistani that Urdu is actually just a dialect of Hindi.

The big difference between Muslims, Jews, and Christians is that they are different ethnic groups–Muslims marry Muslims, Christians marry Christians, and Jews–actually, Jews are marrying non-Jews at a tremendous rate, but I bet that’s mostly atheist Jews. Religious Jews still favor other Jews.

In short, religion is ethnicity.

This works as long as you believe your own culture/ethnicity actually exists. If you stop believing that your culture exists, well, you stop believing in the individual bits of it, too. Note that you can have a culture without being particularly aware of it–different American groups definitely have distinct cultures, but aren’t particularly aware of it.

Catholics marry other Catholics and Lutherans marry other Lutherans under the assumption that there is something that it means to be a Catholic instead of a Lutheran. If you regard Catholics and Lutherans as basically identical, then you have no particular reason to marry one or another or even identify as one or another. You just become a generalized “Christian.” And if you stop seeing much difference between Christians and other god-believing folks, then why bother with that distinction? Aren’t you all just theists?

Next thing you know, you’re attending the Unitarian Universalist church, being preached to by an explicitly atheist minister about the wonders of global harmony. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing.

Note that in the graph a posted a few weeks ago:

 

Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’
Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’

Protestants, Evangelicals, and Catholics have all lost a third to half their members over the generations, but Historically Black Churches have not. Blacks still see themselves as a coherent ethnic group, with strong church affiliation. Whites with some form of ethnic identity also still tend to attend church (or synagogue.) But whites who have effectively lost their ethnic identity do not.

White Americans have generally lost much of their ethnic identity because “white” is not an identity whites like to promote (“white pride” is generally regarded as offensive,) and few of them have much in the way of memories of their grandparents or great-grandparents who might have immigrated from some other country.

I myself am descended from 12 or 13 different ethnic groups, and have to go back to the early 1700s before I find an immigrant in my family tree. (And since some of my ancestors were Indians, I can take the “American” line back as far as science will let me.) Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some other immigrants in the 1800s, but I haven’t yet–despite a fair amount of research, reading family histories compiled by my grandparents, etc. At this point, the most accurate thing I can say is that my ancestors came from the American South.

Without any strong ethnic identity, people stop identifying with any particular church. And the endpoint of that is atheism.

Without Children, Religion is Pointless… (Part 2)

Without ceremony, religion is empty.

Without children, it’s pointless.

Without a strong sense of ethnicity, religious identity disappears.

This is Part Two of a series on the decline of religion. Part One is here.

 

People go to church because they have kids. It happens almost mechanistically. People go to church when they are little kids, because their parents force them to. Then they move out of the house and stop attending–even the devout ones. A decade later or so, they have kids of their own and start feeling the yearn for some sort of religion in their childrens’ lives–something to teach their kids the ethical norms, values, and traditions of their culture–and so they head back to the church of their childhood.

Remember, religion isn’t just a bunch of factual statements about god. If it were that, there wouldn’t be a lot to say. It’s not something people logically believe, because if they did, the children of Muslims in Pakistan would be just as likely to turn out Christian as Muslim. Religion is about culture/ethnicity–it’s a specific subset of culture/ethnicity that happens to sometimes involve a deity. That is, Pakistanis like Allah just like Finns like Deathmetal.

People want to teach their kids to be good people, to be good members of their communities and follow the values of their ancestors, and this is where religion comes in. People go to church specifically for the purpose of getting someone else to spend half an hour trying to cram civilization into their kids teach their children morality, culture, etc. Heck, we even invent extra deities (Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny,) to reward and punish children, just to get them to behave.

 

The fewer children people have, the less need they feel for church. People who have no children have little need for it at all–after their period of non-church attendance as young adults, they will most likely continue not attending church for the rest of their lives. People with one kid feel some slight need for church, but can survive without it. People with multiple children are eager to send them off to Sunday school for a half hour while they go enjoy the relative peace and quiet of a nice little worship service.

But with birthrates dwindling, smaller households become increasingly atheistic over the generations.

 

Of course, you may object that there is an obvious causality in the other direction–some religions are explicitly natalist. Mormons, Hasidic Jews, Quiverfull Christians, and Muslims come immediately to mind. However, these groups are a minority among Americans; they can’t explain the overall tendency of religious Americans to have more children. Thus, it seems more likely to me that either the kinds of people who want lots of children also happen to be the kind of people who want to go to church, or that having lots of children actually drives people to go to church.

 

Stay tuned for Part 3, Religious Identity is Ethnic Identity.

Without Ceremony, Religion is Meaningless… (part 1)

Without ceremony, religion is empty.

Without children, it’s pointless.

Without a strong sense of ethnicity, religious identity disappears.

 

Part 1:

So continuing my reflections on why religious belief has decreased so much in the past few decades:

I theorize–this was originally someone else’s theory, so I can’t take credit for inventing it–that the feeling of the divine presence that people feel at worship or festivals is due to the feedback effects of watching everyone around you experience this at the same time–those “mirror neurons” at work, making you experience inside your head the emotions you’re reading on other people’s faces.

This is the power of crowds–the same power that makes grown men willing to pay actual money to sit in a big stadium and watch other grown ups play a children’s game of keep-away, and feel absolutely exhilarated by the experience instead of mortified. The power that makes peaceful people in big groups suddenly torch cars, or feel suddenly patriotic after singing the Star Spangled Banner together.

Once, totally randomly, I happened to park in the middle of an anti-Fred Phelps rally and had to walk along with it to get wherever I was going. (Probably dinner.)

The rally was fun. There was this great sense of togetherness, this electric excitement running through the crowd. A sense of being united in a common cause, something bigger than oneself.

“This must be why people liked the Nuremberg Rallies so much,” I thought. Only those involved half a million people instead of a few hundred. (As fun as they are, I think I will continue to generally avoid political rallies, because I’m not so keen on thinking other people’s thoughts.)

I have also experienced charismatic religious events, back in the days when I was a religious kid. That was an interesting Episcopal church, I gotta say. Anyway, so you know that thing you do with the laying on of hands and praying for the person in the middle of the hands and then you all feel the Power of God and the person in the middle faints (and maybe is healed or whatever)? Yeah, that is pretty fun, too. I mean, I don’t think it works if you don’t believe it–if you don’t believe in god, you’d probably just stand there feeling very uncomfortable while everyone else around you is falling over or making weird noises. But if you do believe, then you get to partake in the experience with everyone else.

And this is where ritual and ceremony come in. It probably doesn’t particularly matter what kind of ritual you have–you can wave around lulavs and etrogs or dance around the May pole or sing hosannas together–the important thing is that the ritual be meaningful to you and involve other people who also find it meaningful. Then every time you do it, you can access both your previous mental states from the past times you did it, and also the mental states of all the people around you, creating the collective experience of deep religious feeling.

It is no accident that many religions encourage their members to worship and study together, rather than apart. For example, Judaism requires a minyan–a group of ten people–for prayer, worship, reading the Torah, etc. It’s not wrong to do these things alone, it’s just seen as superior to do them together. “It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever ten Israelites are assembled, either for worship or for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them.” (From the Wikipedia page.)

From Christianity: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20

I bet other religions have similar calls to group worship, since group worship is a pretty common occurrence. Individuals of great genuine religiosity may be able to function this way, especially if they spend much of their time reading religious literature and praying and the like, but for the average person who isn’t inclined toward reading, this is probably the fast road to atheism. Luckily for Protestantism, the denominations quickly figured out how to have group religious experiences that rival or exceed Catholicism’s in effectiveness.

These days, however, the same intellectual impulse of, “Why do I have to be around other people to be religious? I can be just as religious at home as at church!” is probably leading a great many people to drift away from religion, leading inevitably to non-belief, since the emotions of others were a critical component of faith all along.

(What’s that, you thought you knew more about how religion works than thousands of years of religious tradition? You thought you could defy Gnon with your “logic” and “reason”? Gnon does not care about logic. Defy, and you will be annihilated, whether you like it or not.)

And as the number of atheists grows, even religious people are increasingly surrounded by people who do not believe, and the amount of belief they can access is thus decreasing. We’ve gone from a society where virtually everyone was Christian and religious expression was seen as a totally normal and welcome part of everyday life, to a society where close to half of young people (the people I typically am around,) are openly non-religious and want nothing to do with that (and even many of the people who claim to be religious make no regular signs of it.) This makes it hard to take religious belief seriously, as people increasingly associate genuine belief with low-class out-groups they don’t want to be part of. (Unless you are part of a prole out-group, in which case you’re probably proud of your religion.)

 

(This might make aspie people particularly bad at religion, because they are [speculatively] less capable of using these feedback structures to internally experiencing other people’s emotions.)

Stay tuned for Part 2: Without Children, Religion is Pointless.

Has Christianity Selected for an Atheistic Upper Class?

I’ve been trying for a while to figure out when atheism became mainstream in the West. Sometimes I answer, “Around the end of the English Civil War,” (1650) and sometimes I answer, “Late 1980s/early 1990s.”

Medieval Europeans seem to have been pretty solidly Christian–probably about as Christian as modern Muslims are Muslim.

Modern Westerners are highly atheistic–even many of the “Christians”. So what happened?

I speculate that the upper classes in France, Britain, and the Colonies (and probably that-which-would-become-Germany and a few other places I’m less familiar with, like the Netherlands,) were largely atheistic by the 1700s. Look at the writings of the Enlightenment philosophers, the behavior of the French nobility, the English distrust of any kind of religious “enthusiasm,” German bishops actively encouraging Jewish settlement in their cities and attempting to protect the Jews from angry peasant mobs, various laws outlawing or greatly limiting religious power passed during the French Revolution, the deism of the Founding Fathers, etc.

By contrast, the lower classes in NW Europe and especially America retained their belief for far longer–a few isolated pockets of belief surviving even into the present. For example, see the Pilgrims, the Counter-Revolution in the Vendee, maybe German peasants, televangelists in the 80s, blue laws, and Appalachian snake handlers in the ’50s, etc.

So how did that happen? I propose that the upper class and lower class followed different evolutionary trajectories (due to different conditions), with strong religiosity basically already selected out by the 1700s, meaning the relevant selection period is roughly 500-1700, not post-1700s.

During this time, the dominant religion was Catholicism, and Catholicism has generally forbade its priests, monks, nuns, etc., from getting married and having children since somewhere abouts the 300s or 400s. (With varying levels of success.)

Who got to be an official member of the Church hierarchy? Members of the upper class. Peasants couldn’t afford to do jobs that didn’t involve growing food, and upper class people weren’t going to accept peasants as religious authorities with power over their eternal souls, anyway. Many (perhaps most) of the people who joined the church were compelled at least in part by economic necessity–lack of arable land and strict inheritance laws meant that a family’s younger sons and daughters would not have the resources for marriage and family formation, anyway, and so these excess children were shunted off to monasteries.

There was another option for younger sons: the army. (Not such a good option for younger daughters.) Folks in the army probably did have children; you can imagine the details.

So we can imagine that, given the option between the army and the Church, those among the upper class with more devote inclinations probably chose the Church. And given a few hundred years of your most devote people leaving no children (and little genetic inflow from the lower classes,) the net result would be a general decrease in the % of genes in your population that contribute to a highly religious outlook.

(This assumes, of course, that religiosity can be selected for. I assume it can.)

Since the lower classes cannot join the Church, we should see much more religiosity among them. (Other factors affected the lower classes, just not this one.) If anything, one might speculate that religiosity may have increased reproductive success for the lower classes, where it could have inspired family-friendly values like honesty, hard work, fidelity, not being a drunkard, etc. A hard-working, moderately devout young man or woman may have been seen as a better potential spouse by the folks arranging marriages than a non-devout person.

Religiosity probably persisted in the US for longer than in Europe because:
1. More religious people tended to move from Europe to America, leaving Europe less religious and America more;

2. The beneficial effects of being a devout person who could raise lots of children were enhanced by the availability of abundant natural resources, allowing these people to raise even more children. NW Europe has had very little new land opened up in the past thousand years, limiting everybody’s expansion. The European lower classes historically did not reproduce themselves (horrific levels of disease and malnutrition will do that to you), being gradually replaced by downwardly-mobile upper classes. (There are probably regions in which the lower classes did survive, of course;)

3. By the time we’re talking about America, we’re talking about Protestant denominations rather than Catholicism, and Protestants generally allow their clergy to marry.

The Rise of Atheism

Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’
“Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’”

 

While I question the data on Catholics, the overall numbers look accurate. This is not surprising–frankly, anyone who is surprised has been living under a rock–though I do have to constantly remind myself that even in my generational cohort, over 50% of people claim to be religious, because I find the notion vaguely unbelievable. (Even when I was a kid attending church, I noticed that my fellow “religious” kids didn’t act like they really believed in all of this god stuff, so how religious can all of those people really be?)

The interesting part is simply the phenomenon: society is becoming drastically less religious (even members of the older cohorts are becoming less religious over time.) (I suppose the other interesting part is the insulting hostility of the comments on the piece toward religion/religious people. Is it really necessary to constantly insult the majority of people in the country?)

The big question: WHY?

(I have my own theories, but I’d love to hear yours.)