Category Archives: Religion

Passing the Buck

As I write this Hurricane Harvey is, finally, leaving Houston and southeast Texas in its wake and heading towards Louisiana. During the several days that the hurricane inundated the Houston area there emerged many stories of heroism, harrowing escapes and increasingly desperate attempts by leaders to cope with a level of flooding never seen in their community’s history. In the midst of all

In the midst of all this the pastor of a very well-known mega-church, Joel Osteen, came under mounting criticism for not opening the doors of his church, a building that was once a coliseum that housed the Houston Rockets, to help the displaced and desperate residents of his city. His church’s initial reaction was to post pictures of their facility showing that it was inaccessible due to flooding, but then some local folks visited it to check it out for themselves and found that the facility was indeed accessible and pretty much dry compared to other parts of the city, and they shared that info (with pictures) on social media and the pressure on Osteen and his church mounted. Eventually, they did open the church as a shelter and to collect donations of clothes and sundry items, which is great, but the fact that the leader of one of the largest congregations in the country took so long to make it happen is a stain that will be hard to wash off.

So how did Osteen proceed to try to wash that stain? He appeared on the Today Show and promptly tried to pass the buck. Here’s a quote from the interview with him: “(The city) didn’t need us as shelter then,” Osteen said. “If we needed to be a shelter, we certainly would’ve been a shelter right when they first asked. Once they filled up, they never dreamed that we’d have this many displaced people, (and) they asked us to become a shelter. I think this notion that somehow we would turn people away or we weren’t here for the city is about as false as can be.”

You can see the interview for your self here.

He went on to say that the church was concerned for people’s safety because the building had flooding issues in the past. That’s all well and good, but here are the problems with his reaction:

  1. What kind of church leader waits to be asked to help?
  2. What kind of leader of any stripe tries to shift blame during a crisis?

To be clear, it’s a good thing that the church has rallied and is contributing, especially given the resources it can bring to bear. I’m pretty certain it would have, eventually, even without the pressure of the criticism from social media. But Osteen himself showed some real deficiencies of character and leadership in how he responded to the crisis itself and the criticism that resulted.

I Don’t Wanna Be Anyone’s Wrapping Paper

This piece from Quillette Magazine hit home with me in so many ways, but more than anything it articulated why I’ve never registered with any political party: I simply don’t want to identified by the labels attached to the parties. Here are some excerpts that will, hopefully, outline what I mean:

Labels suck.

Conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian, green. These words have come to mean nothing about the folk that embody them. In our era of career politicians, it would be like saying a quarterback drafted by the Oakland Raiders is irresistibly  —  unequivocally  —  a “Raider” in his style of play. He’s not; he’s just a guy throwing a ball whilst wearing their black jersey…

As a corollary, political labels seem not just irrelevant but also treacherous. The wrapping paper of your Christmas gift may delight you… it still doesn’t tell you what’s inside the box. And that, matter-of-factly, is the gift with which you’re bequeathed; the wrapping paper soon squeezed and discarded. To think, and vote, using labels grants us a false sense of security and prohibits the unmasking of (most) politicians for what they are: virtue-signalers to their base, peddling false and reductive narratives  —  often devoid of context and policy. It’s a cunning sleight of hand, abetted by the mainstream media, that leaves a great number of us agreeing with people with whom we would otherwise disagree. And the principal reason why this occurs is because of labels.

It’s not only the politicians  —  as a system  —  that are to blame for this upside-down world. It’s us all, callous bearers of that almost archaic duty: citizenship. Too often we favour the collective over the individual, group think over free thought, headlines over trends. We reflexively embrace our fellow [insert your label] without examining how we ever wound up ascribing to their “ideology” or “party.” In the practice of political faith, no matter the denomination, we are either fundamentalists or atheists. We subscribe to all the commandments or none at all. When is the last time you met a Democrat in favor of the Second Amendment or a Republican supporting abortion? Religion was once described by Christopher Hitchens as “a surrender of the mind.” Increasingly, so is political partisanship. Truth and sense, historical perspective and systemic thinking, matter less than jersey colour. We relish the chance to define and affirm our sense of self in proclaiming, say, our liberal credentials or conservative pedigree. Politics shifts from a practice (“what”) to an identity (“who”).

You don’t have to work hard to test this theory. Simply post a hot-button political story on your Facebook timeline and watch your friends react exactly as you’d expect them to based on their labels, i.e. their party affiliations. It’s truly remarkable.


Picture linked from Attributed to Brendan Smailowski/AFP

A silly non-consequential example that appeared on Facebook this week was related to the picture of Kellyanne Conway sitting on a couch in the Oval Office (see above) in what some people thought was an inappropriate way. Of course many “liberal” friends jumped all over it and then many “conservative” friends accused them of overreacting, and in the midst of that came this comment from a “conservative” that to me defined irony: “Why? Because liberals believe every photo/meme that they see on facebook is the gospel truth. That’s why.” This from a member of a group of people that spent eight years gleefully sharing every idiotic anti-Obama (including Michelle) meme you can imagine.

Here’s the thing: I have no idea if that particular “conservative” friend ever shared one of those anti-Obama memes, but she has identified herself as a member of that tribe so by default I’m assuming she did. That’s what happens when you identify yourself closely with a political party – you give people permission to assume that you believe whatever line that party is spouting. You can claim you’re an independent thinker all day long, but by raising your hand and saying “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” you’re giving the world permission to assume that you believe everything that party espouses until you can prove otherwise. That’s why you’ll never see me join a party; I’m certain I’ll disagree with at least 25-50% of the policy positions that any party takes so I’m just not going to have my name associated with it.

As for the argument that people turn off their brains and just toe the party line, I’m pretty sure that if you asked anyone whether that’s true they would say, “Absolutely it’s true, especially with members of <insert opposite party name here>. Of course some members of <insert good guy party name here> do that too, but mostly the hard core nutjobs. Me and my friends aren’t like that.” Then they’ll fire up Facebook and start sharing idiotic memes as soon as your conversation is over.

A Life is a Life

Two stories that have captivated people this last week have involved horrific crimes, and unfortunately those crimes have exposed a real weakness in our society that could actually promote more crimes just like them in the future.

In the first a man in Chapel Hill, NC, killed three young adults, who were his neighbors in their condo complex, in what the police have characterized as a dispute over a parking space. Because the three young people who were killed were Muslim the initial reaction of many people in the community was that it must be a hate crime, that the killer must have targeted them for being Muslim. Indeed, their families have asked the authorities to investigate it as a hate crime, and if the killer was found to have been engaged in a hate crime then the punishment would be more severe.

In the second story the depraved humans who make up ISIS beheaded over 20 Egyptians of the Coptic Christian faith in a move that was obviously intended to not only continue the group’s campaign of terror but to provoke Christians into a fight, to drive a wedge even deeper between the members of the Muslim faith who aren’t crazed jihadists and Christians, and to recruit even more depraved jihadists to join their side, and not inconsequentially, to juice their fundraising.

What’s truly disturbing about these stories, beyond the horrific nature of the crimes themselves, is our continued practice of assigning greater value to them because of who the victims were. We act as if the killings are worse because the victims are Christian or Muslim and we think they were killed because of it, as if that’s somehow worse than being killed for walking into the bank when it just happened to be getting robbed by someone with an itchy trigger finger. We don’t say it, but we imply by our reactions that we believe that because someone from our faith, our tribe, was killed that the tragedy is greater. That those three or twenty lives were somehow more tragic to lose than if they’d been from another tribe.

As hard as it is to see past our emotions it’s imperative to be honest with ourselves and realize that as long as we assign greater value to one killing because of who the victim is, or the sect/race/family they are from then we are dividing ourselves and perpetuating the very thing that enables the ISIS’s of the world. If anything we should be more enraged that three young lives were lost to a petty neighborhood dispute than to the interminable sectarianism that has defined humanity since the beginning of time. We should be equally horrified by the massacre of all people everywhere, no matter their race or religion or tribe, because a life is a life, and any life lost to inhumanity is a crime against us all.

That of course is what institutions like religion and government are supposed to do – to help us overcome the very base emotions that define the human being – but instead they are used by many of those very humans to continue the cycle of strife and death that we seem helpless to escape. Sadly, this will likely never end as long as people walk the Earth. We are simply too human.

Church, the Most Segregated Place in America

From a piece written about Dean Smith by Charles Pierce comes this paragraph with a sentence that rings uncomfortably true:

His father integrated a high school team in Kansas in the early 1930s. Smith himself walked into a Chapel Hill restaurant as part of the first great wave of protests in the 1950s. He tried to recruit Lou Hudson, and then he did recruit Charlie Scott, blowing up the color line in the Atlantic Coast Conference forever. He brought Scott home to dinner, and he brought Scott to church, always the most segregated place in America, even, alas, today. (Emphasis mine)

Unfortunately he speaks the truth, and of all the places it shouldn’t be it’s the church. Any church.

Airing of Grievances Coming to a Commission Meeting Near You

A front page article in the July 15, 2014 Wall Street Journal makes the point that the recent SCOTUS ruling allowing prayers before public meetings is an opportunity for atheists too:

The former president of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York, Mr. Courtney says he plans to give a four-minute speech highlighting the notion that the country was founded on the authority of the people, and the importance of ensuring Americans of all types are heard.

He will be the first atheist to address the Greece town board. Before the Supreme Court ruling, the town board allowed a Wiccan priestess to deliver an invocation.

While Mr. Courtney disagrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling, he takes some comfort in his view that it weakened what he calls Christianity’s “de facto monopoly on invocations.”

“In a sense, it has opened the door for a bit of a free-for-all,” he says.

The article also mentions the Pastafarians who are planning to offer their own prayers. Personally I’d like to see observers of the Festivus holiday take their turn at the podium to air their grievances. Not familiar with Festivus? Check out the video clip below and you’ll get it.

Our own Forsyth County Commission’s case is mentioned in the article of course. That case has irked me long enough that I can’t stomach giving it another minute of my life to think about, but I will say this: the true test will be when the commission is faced with having to entertain an invocation from a hard core satanist. It’s one thing to listen to a non-believer offer up generic messages of inclusion and cooperation, but it’s an entirely different ballgame to listen to someone ask them to accept guidance from the devil. I wonder if they’ll take their own advice offered to the non-believers who’ve complained about the invocations in the first place – just step out of the room if you don’t like it?

Recognizing Faith

From Jeri Rowe's excellent piece about Canterbury School's Father Finnin:

“I hope they come to realize that faith isn’t something you have to create,’’ he says. “It’s something you recognize. Theology and God surrounds us already. So, it’s not a matter of creating it. It’s a matter of stopping and recognizing it and being aware of it. It’s not about introducing the divine in everyday life. It’s about recognizing it and letting everyone be aware of it."


From "A Prayer for North Carolina" comes an excerpt of a prayer Fred Bahnson imagines saying forty years from now:

The boy takes his first bite of bread. It’s sweet and moist and has a strange flavor. “Mace,” his grandfather says. The boy is secretly thrilled that he gets to eat and drink real food in church. Yellow beeswax candles with red crepe paper are handed down the pew. The room goes dark. A lone candle is lit, then another, and another, until the light reaches the boy. His lit candle is one of hundreds, and as he holds up his light and munches his bread and sips the sweet, weak coffee, he feels there is no place else he would rather be than here.

The memory of this meal — its peace, its fullness, the knowledge of God’s presence — will follow the boy for the rest of his life. When the boy becomes a man, he will attend a North Carolina seminary, but instead of becoming a preacher he will travel to Mexico to work with Mayan coffee farmers, sharing simple meals of tortillas and sweet, weak coffee. While there he will discern a call from You, perhaps the clearest call you have given him to that point in his life. A call to feed people. The boy-man will go to Chatham County to a small permaculture farm, where he will begin to learn the agrarian arts. He will meet his bride, and together they will help a church start a communal food garden for the hungry — an acre of vegetables and fruit in northern Orange County — and for the next four years the man will lean fully into his calling to feed people.

On the LDS Hit List

Let's start with a little background: when my parents were married my dad was Mormon and my mom was Methodist. Mom converted to being a Mormon a couple of years into their marriage and for the first eight years of my life our family was very active in the church. Then my parents got divorced and left the church. For years afterwards the church would call our house and invite me and my younger brother back to church without my mom with whom we lived. Understandably, I declined.  

All of my adult life whenever I've moved my name has eventually ended up on a list in the local ward (kind of like a Catholic parish) and I've started to get regular visits from the missionaries. I've always been cordial and have even taken the time to sit and chat with them, give them my background story, give them something cold to drink and then sent them on their way. The visits were usually about six months apart and generally not too bothersome so I didn't feel compelled to do anything about it, but that all changed over the last couple of months.

For some reason the local ward in Clemmons has decided to ratchet up the visits.  Our household has had three visits in the last month, and unfortunately for my wife I haven't been home for a couple of those. She was born and raised Catholic – I converted to Catholicism soon after we were married – and we now attend a Moravian church. Literally, there's no reason for her to talk to these young people other than she's married to me. Last week the missionaries showed up and my wife had finally had it. She asked the young ladies to leave us alone (the last few months our missionaries have been young ladies) and was curt enough that one of the young ladies started crying. She asked what she was supposed to do about our situation and talked about how stressed she was being away from home and of course my wife felt terrible about it. She commiserated with the young lady, explained it wasn't anything personal, but that we just desired to be left alone. That's when it got weird.

According to the missionaries the only way to stop the visits is for me to meet with the local bishop (think priest/lay minister) and fill out paperwork requesting that I be removed from their list. That of course floored my wife, but she took the bishop's information and it's sitting on our kitchen counter where it will continue to sit until I act. I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to do, but I do know this: I don't respond well to unreasonable demands and this most definitely feels unreasonable.

Here's what I'm likely to do in the short term:

  • Contact the bishop and ask him to remove me from their list immediately. 
  • If he refuses I'll put up a no soliciting sign on our property and doors and tell him that any representative from the church, missionaries or otherwise, who set foot on my property without being invited will have the sheriff called on them and I'll ask that they be charged with trespassing
  • Under no circumstance will I meet with him, in much the same way I won't meet with a salesperson to fill out paperwork to get him to stop selling to me.

That's about as far as I've gotten. I should note that I really respect these kids who leave home for two years to do what they consider their calling in faraway places, and I really don't want to have to take out my frustrations on them, but if the LDS is going to demand I jump through some silly hoops to get my name off of some list I never put myself on then their messengers will have to deal with it.

That Prayer Thing Again

Some folks in these parts wonder what the big deal is about county commissions or city councils inviting clergy to pray and then allowing the clergy to deliver sectarian prayers. After all most of the prayers are Christian and most of the citizens are Christian so what's the issue?

First of all, the government represents all of the people, not most of the people, so any time a government is in the position of favoring one religion over another it is in fact not acting fairly with all of its citizens. There's simply no compelling reason for an atheist or agnostic to be required to listen to prayers sanctioned by their elected leaders while attending one of their meetings. Obviously those same atheists have to accept that any citizen has the right to pray, and to do so in public if they want, but since the county commission or city council is the sole governing body for the things that directly affect its citizens (property taxes, school funding, land use, zoning, etc.) every person should have the opportunity to address that body without having to be subjected to a religious address.

Then there's what we might call the hypocrite issue. That's a polite way of pointing out that a lot of people who condone the practice of sanctioned prayers do so only if the prayers meet their standard for appropriateness. To wit this story from the NC Legislature:

A Republican legislator in North Carolina told a constituent that she has misgivings with an Islamic prayer being conducted before a legislative meeting because she doesn't "condone terrorism," the Raleigh News & Observer reported Wednesday.

In an email exchange obtained by the News & Observer, state Rep. Michele Presnell (R) was responding to a constituent who asked her if she is comfortable with a prayer to Allah taking place before the meeting. 

“No, I do not condone terrorism," Presnell responded to the constituent. 

Yeah, it's hard buying the whole idea that there's no reason for anyone to be uncomfortable dealing with an elected body that explicitly endorses prayer. It's reasonable for an atheist, agnostic, Buddhist or Muslim to assume that they'd get different treatment because of their beliefs and that's just not fair.

I’ll See Your Bible and Raise You a Torah

There's a proposed bill in the NC senate (SB 138) that would allow local school boards to offer elective courses in Bible study at their high schools.  This would probably cause some consternation with folks who see this kind of thing as violating the separation of church and state, but quite honestly if it's an elective that seems to be a bit of a stretch. On the other hand it does seem to put the state in the position of favoring one religion over others since it doesn't include other religious texts like the Torah or the Koran.

If the intent of the course is not to indoctrinate students but to study how the the Bible has influenced society then it could be seen as a legitimate educational effort rather than an effort to indoctrinate non-religious or non-Christian students.  And if that's the case then why not write the bill so that school's could offer similar courses to study the Torah, the Koran or other religious texts that have obviously had a tremendous impact on our world? 

Perhaps it would be helpful to look at the text of the bill to see if we can discern the intent. Here it is:

5 The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts:
6 SECTION 1. G.S. 115C-81 is amended by adding a new subsection to read:
7 "(g4) Bible Study Elective. – Local boards of education may offer to students in grades
8 nine through 12 elective courses for credit on the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), the New
9 Testament, or a combination of the two subject matters. A student shall not be required to use a
10 specific translation as the sole text of the Hebrew scriptures or New Testament and may use as
11 the basic textbook a different translation of the Hebrew scriptures or New Testament approved
12 by the local board of education or the principal of the student's school. A course offered by a
13 local board of education in accordance with this subsection shall (i) follow federal and State
14 law in maintaining religious neutrality and accommodating the diverse religious views,
15 traditions, and perspectives of the students of the local school administrative unit and (ii) not
16 endorse, favor or promote, or disfavor or show hostility toward any particular religion,
17 nonreligious faith, or religious perspective. Courses may include the following instruction:
18 (1) Knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are
19 prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including
20 literature, art, music, mores, oratories, and public policies.
21 (2) Familiarity with the contents, history, style, structure, and societal influence
22 of the Hebrew scriptures or the New Testament."
23 SECTION 2. This act is effective when it becomes law and applies beginning with
24 the 2013-2014 school year.

At first blush it seems innocuous enough, but you still have to ask why other prominent religious texts aren't included.  By not including them it's easy to see how people would assume the underlying intent is to introduce Christianity to the public schools, and as mentioned before it definitely seems to put the state in the position of favoring one religion over another.

Let's end with a fun scenario game:

  1. Bill becomes law.
  2. School district decides to offer Bible elective at its high schools.
  3. Two-thirds of the way through the course a teacher, who's a Baptist, goes out on maternity leave and the replacement teacher is a Mormon.
  4. Parents of several students demand either a different teacher be assigned to the course or that their children be allowed to transfer out of the class without penalty. Their argument is that they don't want their children being fed "lies" by that "cultist."

Wouldn't it be fun to be a fly on the wall of the principal's office that day.
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