Tag Archives: religion

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 Piximus.net. 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.

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?

Should Colleges Teach Religion?

Marshall Poe makes an interesting argument for colleges to use religion to teach their students how to live:

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that all religions, if seriously practiced, do precisely what this “religion” had done for me: They teach you how to live. It is true, of course, that clerics often tell their flocks to believe things that are frankly unbelievable. And some even tell the faithful that if they don’t believe these incredible things they will suffer some harsh penalty, like going to hell. But most clerics of my acquaintance are not very interested in fire and brimstone. Rather, they are interested in making sure those in their care are spiritually fit. The way they do this—and, so far as I know, always have—is to give people a higher purpose and a set of guidelines necessary to pursue that purpose. They bring order to the thoughts and actions of people whose thoughts and actions are naturally disordered. They give people a way of life.

It was in this way that I became convinced that college classes in religious practice might help suffering undergraduates learn to live successfully. The classes would at the very least introduce undergraduates to the idea that there were practical ways to alleviate their suffering. They would plant the seed. Even if the students chose not to follow the practice they had learned, their recollection of it would remain in store for the day they would need it. The day would inevitably come and when it did, they would have someplace to turn for help.

This promise—that teaching religious practice might help students now and in the future—is, I think, reason enough try it. Before it can be tried, however, we have to address several objections to putting religious practice into the curriculum…

American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team. When they get pregnant. When their divorced parents just won’t stop fighting. When they are too sick to get to the hospital. When they lose their scholarship. When they’ve been arrested for vandalism. When they hate themselves so much that they begin self-mutilating. When they’re thinking about suicide. When they force themselves to throw up after every meal. When they turn to drugs for relief from their pain. When they’ve been assaulted or raped. When their mind is racing and cannot stop. When they wonder about the meaning of it all. When they are terrified by the question “What do I do next?”

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.
Related articles

Bill would create Bible study elective for high schools

Fox News Tries to Demote Christianity

Fox News' flagship personality, one Bill O'Reilly, has tried to demote Christianity from a religion to a philosophy – apparently in a battle fought in the War on Christmas. Jon Stewart, Comedy Central's flagship personality who happens to be Jewish, is there to set Fox and Bill straight:



Imposing Religion

In reading an article that a friend sent to me I found this quote from President Kennedy:

I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

With a slight change it adequately reflects my view on the proper role of religion in American society:

I believe in a citizen whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition of citizenship.

Two Ears, One Mouth

Kim Williams, a friend I met through the local social networking scene, has written a very thought provoking piece at his blog Wishful Preaching:

One day a religion professor – a educated, kind and openly Christian man – suggested I take the risk and talk with one of the better known atheists on campus. He suggested I NOT talk with him with the intent of changing his mind, but rather seek to listen and understand why and what he believed. I forced myself to listen, to ask questions and allow myself to hear another point of view.  At one point he said, "I don't believe in God." Seeking to be open, I asked him, "Tell me about this God you don't believe in." He talked for an hour or more . When he was done I could honestly say to him, "It is interesting. I don't believe in that god either." When spent many hours together over the following years talking about our personal beliefs and similar hopes and fears. He never came to believe as I did (perhaps he did admit a few times he had grown to be more agnostic than atheist),  and I never lost my faith (although I did learn some difficulties with my beliefs). We would both agree, however that we were better because of the friendship.

Perhaps there is something to fear in the failure to listen to others of different beliefs and traditions – that's scary!

Reading this I had multiple thoughts, the most prominent being a question I first asked in my late teens/early adulthood – how is it that the people I find most personify the positive qualities associated with religion are often atheist or agnostic? If being a "believer" is a prerequisite for being a good person then my eyes and ears were lying to me, because I could see for myself that it wasn't true. Heck, some of the nastiest people I've ever met have never missed a day of church so obviously the reverse could be true as well. Over time my belief system evolved to incorporate this bullet point – The fact that people without faith in a higher being could be among the great people in the world is in itself proof of some kind of higher being. 

I know that last sentence sounds like a pretty lame piece of philosophy that your average 14 year old would come up with, so maybe it would be better to explain it this way. I think it's a mistake to say that an atheist or agnostic is not a believer. They simply don't believe in God or a higher being the way I do; I think they believe in humanity, in the basic goodness of people, in the idea that mankind is a net-positive for the world. If you think about it their faith, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary (war, capable people parking in handicapped spaces, reality TV), is as great or greater than the faith of those of us who believe in a higher being. In the end their faith in humanity affirms my faith in a higher being.

The other thought I had while reading Kim's post related to the old saying "you have two ears and one mouth for a reason, and you should use them accordingly" and with the propensity of some folks to constantly proselytize. What I truly loved about Kim's post was that he engaged in the conversation with his friend without the intent to "convert" him or to convince him of anything. Instead Kim engaged him to listen and to learn and in the end I think they both gained immeasurably from it. By using his ears Kim did more to exhibit his faith than he could have done with a million hours of proselytizing, and I think there are quite a few folks out there who could learn from his example. 

I’ll See Your Bible and Raise You a Pagan Spell Book

Last month a public elementary school in Buncombe County, NC was in the news because the school's administrators allowed Bibles to be distributed to students. Here's an excerpt from a story in the Asheville Citizen-Times:

Jackie Byerly, principal at North Windy Ridge, defended the availability of the Bibles. She said they were not handed out, and students had the option to take them. She checked with Superintendent Tony Baldwin and was given permission to make them available.

She said the Bibles arrived Monday morning from a local group of Gideons International, and the box containing the books was opened in the main office. Byerly said the students picked them up during their break time.

“If another group wishes to do the same, I plan on handling that the same way as I have handled this,” she said.

When I read that last quote I said to myself, "Self, I sure hope someone calls her on that." Thankfully my wish has been granted.  From today's news:

Ginger Strivelli delivered on her promise to bring Pagan spell books to North Windy Ridge after the intermediate school made Bibles available in December. She said school officials said they would allow for the availability of her materials, just as they did the Bibles from a local group of Gideons International.

When Strivelli brought the Pagan books to the school Wednesday morning, she said she was told “a new policy is being crafted.”

In all fairness the policy review is a direct result of the backlash from the Bible incident so I don't think this is necessarily an anti-Pagan move by the school system. I'd be seriously worried if they didn't have a policy review.

Having had three kids go through public schools I can tell you that elementary school was an interesting experience – the kids were like sponges soaking up what the adults at school spilled out of their mouths and I can tell you there were a few times I wondered what their teachers were thinking. My favorite example was when my son, who was in 1st grade at the time, asked me who I was voting for in the 2000 election.  I asked him why he wanted to know and he told me he really hoped I'd vote for Bush because his teacher told him Al Gore killed babies in Vietnam.  Seriously.  After several similar experiences through the years I came to the conclusion that elementary school teachers should stick to the same rules we have for polite party conversations: whatever you do don't talk about religion, politics or sex.

Religion, Education and Money

The New York Times has an article that highlights the percentage of college graduates that each US religion has, and the percentage of members of each religion who have a household income greater than $75,000.  

The least educated or affluent? Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptists.  

The most educated or affluent? Hindus, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Anglicans/Episcopalians. 

The most average? Mormons, Lutherans and Catholics.

From the article:

The most affluent of the major religions — including secularism — is Reform Judaism. Sixty-seven percent of Reform Jewish households made more than $75,000 a year at the time the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life collected the data, compared with only 31 percent of the population as a whole. Hindus were second, at 65 percent, and Conservative Jews were third, at 57 percent.

On the other end are Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. In each case, 20 percent or fewer of followers made at least $75,000. Remarkably, the share of Baptist households making $40,000 or less is roughly the same as the share of Reform Jews making $100,000 or more. Overall, Protestants, who together are the country’s largest religious group, are poorer than average and poorer than Catholics. That stands in contrast to the long history, made famous by Max Weber, of Protestant nations generally being richer than Catholic nations.