bookmark_borderSpirituality in Higher Education

I stumbled on the web site for a project engaged in studying Spirituality in Higher Education, based at UCLA. It gives an interesting look at the state of religion on US college campuses, both with regard to students and faculty.

Now, I don’t know how much to trust their findings. Many of the publications and reports I’ve looked at on their web site are permeated by a combination of saccharine spirituality-speak and the equally stupid language that academics lodged in schools of “education” favor. They’re funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Their primary purpose is to “Provide a framework for colleges seeking to expand opportunities for students to explore spirituality.” And a couple of years ago I took one of their surveys of faculty. I remember the questions as rather blatantly leading toward “more spirituality” kind of responses. (On the other hand, halfway through I was so pissed at what I perceived to be their angling for affirmations of religion in the classroom that I was determined to finish the survey in as negative a way as possible.)

Still, there is some interesting, possibly even accurate material buried in their reports, even though they constantly spin their information to make it look like college faculty spend half their free time in prayer. For example, a recent news release called “Strong Majority of College and University Faculty Identify Themselves as Spiritual” also shows that much of the high religiosity is due to religiously-affiliated institutions; faculty in public institutions are significantly cooler toward religious influences on education. And both natural science and social science faculty are coolest toward religion among the professoriate. As they damn well should be.

Overall, however, as with just about anything the Templeton Foundation touches, the end result seems to be propaganda rather than knowledge. Their helpful conclusion? “These findings suggest that highly spiritual faculty, compared to their less spiritual colleagues, are not only more likely to employ teaching methods that directly engage their students, but have also been better able to integrate their personal and professional lives.” Maybe so—it’s as with a lot of the Templeton-funded “research” that shows that religion leads to increased happiness, better sex lives, and a killer tennis game. I don’t see anything intrinsically objectionable with such claims, but I’m less than fully confident in the competence of the people who are doing the studies.

bookmark_borderHow Europe could get religion again

Take a look at Polly Toynbee’s column in The Guardian (major British newpaper) last week. She has many interesting things to say about the official religiosity emanating from Britain lately.

It also gets me thinking about how irreversible European secularization really is. I’ve generally been impressed with the work of sociologists such as Steve Bruce, who argue that since the institutional structures that help reproduce organized religion in Europe have been severely disrupted, the population has been losing interest in religion and the decay of religion is now quite irreversible. But that still leaves open the possibility of revival if religious institutions manage to adapt to their new circumstances (something they seem to be doing better in the United States). If I can speculate (and what are blogs for, after all), I can see two (non-independent) mechanisms that may turn the tide of secularity in Europe:

  1. Top-down political efforts such as those of the Blair government: The political climate affects institutions. If the trends Toynbee denounces continues—more faith-based education, more government deference to religious communities, clergy being recognized as the moral experts in society—we may yet see the day when talk of Britain’s de-secularization is in the news.
  2. Reaction against Muslim immigrants: Muslims are not just directly bringing religion back to Europe with their overwhelming levels of belief, they could provoke a religiously-colored reaction among the native population. They could embrace their own ancestral varieties of religion as a means of cultural defense.

As I said, sheer speculation; I wouldn’t make any predictions. And living in a religion-mad country like the United States, I wish I had the problems secular Europeans face. Still, I have to wonder if European secularity will turn out, in the long run, to be a lull between episodes of religious fervor.

bookmark_borderReligions don’t deserve special treatment

A.C. Grayling writes under this title at Guardian Unlimited:

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule.

It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason, as between them Kierkegaard and the tale of Doubting Thomas are at pains to show; their example should lay to rest the endeavours of some (from the Pope to the Southern Baptists) who try to argue that faith is other than at least non-rational, given that for Kierkegaard its virtue precisely lies in its irrationality.

On the contrary: to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so.

Read the rest here.

I’ll just note that his overall point applies equally well to atheism–that one’s religious identity doesn’t intrinsically demand respect from those who believe otherwise, and should not be given privileged treatment. Grayling would no doubt agree, since he uses atheists in one of his examples, observing that “there are nice and nasty Christians, nice and nasty Muslims, nice and nasty atheists.”

bookmark_borderTaliban Take Two

Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church said at a political rally in Nashville yesterday:

“‘We have every intention of out-praying, out-thinking, out-working, out-serving and out-loving our opponents,’ Sutton said. ‘And we will by the grace of God make this a Christian nation.'” [link]

Dominionism is alive and well…

bookmark_borderHow not to understand Islam

I’ve been getting questions about what’s wrong with trying to figure out Islam by sitting down with the Quran. I’ll go ahead and start a new heading—this deserves a significant rant, not burying in a comment on an entirely different topic.

Indeed, this is especially worth talking about, since trying to understand Islam by reading the Quran seems to be a favored practice among many nonbelievers. Sam Harris does it: read the Quran, point out that it contains a large number of disgusting (not to mention demented) passages about the sadistic punishments that await infidels, and say that Islam is an inherently terroristic religion etc. etc. Jim Lippard points out a similar argument by one Fred Woodworth. It’s hardly unique—this sort of thing is standard in naive (and I emphasize: naive) anti-Islam polemics.

What’s wrong here? First and foremost, it ignores how most Muslims approach the Quran. Very few Muslims flip open a Quran and read through it to get their God’s commands for their lives. That would be a most peculiar thing to try and do anyway: the Quran is, by and large, a remarkably opaque and incoherent document if taken at face value. Sitting down and figuring out what the Quran says is simply unworkable. You try to do that if you want to get confused, or if you’re the stupider variety of nonbeliever who thinks ripping through an ancient text and selecting out the lunatic bits produces great insights.

The vast majority of Muslims only make heavily mediated contact with the Quran. The various centuries-old scholarly traditions of Islam are central to their experience of religious prescriptions. Muslims do not read the Quran in the way that Protestants read their Bible translations. In fact, a typical ordinary Muslim may never read the Quran. Many are incapable of doing so, because even if they are literate it is not in classical Arabic. Using translations is not common practice. So ordinary Muslims depend heavily on their local religious scholars, leaders of Sufi orders and similar brotherhoods, officially sanctioned clergy, and other mediating institutions. The Quran is their sacred object, but their understanding of what it demands is entirely dependent on their local religious culture and institutions. Even the rootless modern born-again Muslims who have become visible in “fundamentalist” circles lately are not an exception. They say they’re ridding themselves of the accretions of tradition and going back to consult the sacred sources directly. But they do no such thing—it’s impressive how they regularly end up reaffirming the standard framework of religious interpretation. That is no great surprise. Without the context set by traditional understandings, which they take thoroughly uncritically, they’d be lost.

If you want to understand something about real varieties of Islam, not the phantom “Islam” that comes out of a contextless reading of the Quran, there’s no alternative to doing some serious studying. I don’t mean spending half a lifetime on it—there are a good number of scholars whose job it is to study Islam. They’re not all apologists, and they generally have interesting things to say. Read a book or two, and I don’t just mean Islam-bashing books. It is, after all, possible to be a critic of Islam without frothing at the mouth in the process.

Indeed, that’s part of what’s disappointing about garbage like what Sam Harris puts out. He writes as if there is no scholarly work being done on the Quran or Islam at all. He doesn’t have to agree with it, but even if he thinks current scholarship about Islam is too apologetic in nature, he has the burden of arguing against academic views. There is no excuse for ignoring it and charging in with quotations from the Quran. As a result, Harris looks like a fool to anyone who has a serious, scholarly interest in Islam. And to the extent that skeptics of religion endorse such rants against an “Islam” very few Muslims would recognize as their religion, we collectively look like morons with an axe to grind.

bookmark_borderInfidel Bestsellers

After reviewing The God Delusion yesterday, I checked how it was doing on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Number 8—not bad. Also intriguing: Sam Harris’s latest is number 6. Better than Thomas Friedman’s silly The World is Flat (9), but worse than Bill O’Riley (2—sigh).

One reaction I have, naturally, is envy. I just received the sales report on the first six months of my latest book, Science and Nonbelief, and it seems it’s already sold 250 copies. Whee. (OK, so it’s obnoxiously priced at $65. Still…)

Besides that, though, I don’t know what to make of having two infidel books in the NYT top ten. What is it—more people are curious, sick of religiously-inspired violence, fed up with the Religious Right and willing to check out its opposite—what? Still, even if it’s probably just a flash in the pan, it doesn’t hurt if the wider world occasionally notices that not everyone is a “person of faith.”

bookmark_borderThe God Delusion

I got hold of and immediately read through The God Delusion last week. As always, Richard Dawkins is a delightful writer. I recommend the book to everyone. It’s a more popular-oriented book rather than something that presents detailed examinations of various versions of “God,” but that makes it all the more valuable. And it does not lack in substance—Dawkins sketches some interesting arguments that I found thought-provoking, even if I ended up disagreeing with a few.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The God Delusion before I picked it up. Especially in anti-creationist circles, Dawkins has an ambiguous reputation, since he goes out of his way to denounce all religion, including liberal faiths that are the main force in resisting fundamentalism. In some of his short, op-ed types of writing (such as his column in Free Inquiry) he has occasionally put forth ideas that seem simplistic at best. So the public image of Dawkins has been too close to the stereotype of an abrasive atheist who has only a superficial understanding of religion. Not quite as bad as an unscholarly bigot such as Sam Harris, but an eyebrow-raising figure nonetheless.

This book should work against that stereotype, though it probably will not. In the less-constrained format of a book, Dawkins has a chance to develop some of his ideas further, and in many cases, he persuaded me that there was more to his point of view than I might have first thought. And even though he cites Sam Harris favorably, Dawkins at least does not endorse Harris’s lunatic right-wing anti-Islamic jihad. Certainly, as a hardcore nonbeliever, I sat down as someone inclined to agree with Dawkins’s overall point of view. But I also came up thinking that Dawkins says a lot of sensible things that I had not given much thought to before, and that even when I was inclined to disagree, I learned something nonetheless.

Let me give a couple examples of points of disagreement. Dawkins insists that it’s a very bad thing to call a child a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child”—they’re too young to know their own minds or make a mature decision about such a matter. Speaking of a Christian child, to Dawkins, makes as much sense as talking about a Marxist child. I find myself unconvinced. It’s not that Dawkins does not have a point—in a liberal, individualist environment where we conceive of education as opening up possibilities and favor intellectual positions achieved after mature reflection, the whole business of “Muslim child” and so forth does seem out of place. But religions, particularly communitarian religions rooted in pre-modern social ideals, do things differently. When we have identity formation within a strong community, when children take on nontrivial roles within a religious environment, and when the children themselves deeply believe and perceive their world in terms of a whole package of supernatural notions, it seems legitimate to identify the children with their religion. The children are a significant part of their religious community; in a very real sense they belong to the community that molds their identity. So very often “Christian child” is descriptively useful in a way that “Keynesian child” can never be.

I also remain dubious (though less so compared to before I read the book) about Dawkins’s main argument against intelligent design. He says that design is never a good explanation of complexity, since it invites the question of who designed the designer, and the designer must then be even more complex than its creation. There is a good point here, which Dawkins captures brilliantly in his description of how Darwinian evolution raises consciousness about issues concerning possible design. Given Darwinian evolution, it becomes distinctly odd to think of an intelligent designer on high. This is perhaps most obvious not in forms of creationism but in attempts at theistic evolution, where the blind, bottom-up Darwinian process and the top-down creator/designer sit together very uneasily.

Still, I think Dawkins tries to make his argument do too much work, almost turning it into a silver-bullet argument against God, a sort of metaphysical disproof. I think that’s way too strong. I don’t see much that is inherently unacceptable in tracing complexity back to an intelligent, perhaps more complex source. Especially since theistic views (involving either ID or more liberal ID-lite) almost always involve some dualism about minds, their explanations of complexity naturally have a top-down nature that seems to me to make good sense within that context. It just happens that at present, design explanations are a complete failure in biology, and indeed in natural science as a whole. Design does not work, but this is different from saying that it is inherently unworkable.

In other words, I agree that the gross failure of design ideas is a significant reason to doubt there is a God. But this is a failure to describe the world as we find it—not some inherent logical defect in design-based explanations. Ours could have been a top-down world, where the lesser forms of complexity we see did not emerge from bottom-up processes, but were shaped top-down by purpose and intelligence. It could be that all complexity is traceable back to an ultimate source with limitless intelligence and potential for generating complexity. This is almost certainly not so. Darwinian evolution is a very important part of the overall argument that should make us recognize that this is not so. But Dawkins should ease off on his claim of having a silver bullet against the legitimacy of intelligent design as an explanation. There is no such thing.

After the obligatory nitpicking, however, I should return to my main theme. The God Delusion is a good book. It is fun, thought-provoking, and refreshingly plain-spoken in a world where religion usually commands an automatic attitude of deference. Read it, and enjoy it!

bookmark_borderBush just using Christians, says former faith office leader

Cross-posted from my blog.

MSNBC has the story, about David Kuo’s new book, Tempting Faith:

More than five years after President Bush created the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, the former second-in-command of that office is going public with an insider’s tell-all account that portrays an office used almost exclusively to win political points with both evangelical Christians and traditionally Democratic minorities.

The office’s primary mission, providing financial support to charities that serve the poor, never got the presidential support it needed to succeed, according to the book.

He says some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders were known in the office of presidential political strategist Karl Rove as “the nuts.”

“National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy,’” Kuo writes.

More seriously, Kuo alleges that then-White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman knowingly participated in a scheme to use the office, and taxpayer funds, to mount ostensibly “nonpartisan” events that were, in reality, designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted races.

Hat tip to stranger fruit.

bookmark_borderJames Dobson Shrugs It Off

The news about Mark Foley is over a week old now. And unless you’ve been up on Mars wandering around with the rover, you know that Foley was the Congressman from Florida who recently resigned after news broke that he had been sexually harrassing 16-year old boys. It’s a fact of life that sexual predators have always been with us. Sadly, Foley’s particular case, while pathetic, isn’t exactly shocking. But what is shocking, and the reason this story has caught on and refuses to die, is the allegation that the House leadership knew about Foley’s behavior and looked the other way. According to Foley’s chief of staff, senior GOP members of Congress knew about Foley since at least 2003 after an episode when Foley got drunk and paid a visit to the House page dormitory after hours. (See TPM’s excellent chronology of events.)

Like many other infidels who have watched the religious right hypocrisy over the years, I waited to hear what James Dobson would say. After all, he is the point man for family values among evangelicals. (As an aside let’s be absolutely clear about one point: “family values” is a code word for a creepy sort of male white superiority — a hearkening back to a so-called golden age when white suburban nuclear families ruled the world, minorities knew to keep their place, and non-traditional gays, atheists, artists, musicians, poets, philosophers and liberals tred lightly at the margins of society.) I wasn’t the only one waiting for Dobson to say something. Paul Krugman of the New York Times wrote:

“It will be interesting, by the way, to see how Dr. Dobson, who declared of Bill Clinton that ‘no man has ever done more to debase the presidency,’ responds to the Foley scandal. Does the failure of Republican leaders to do anything about a sexual predator in their midst outrage him as much as a Democratic president’s consensual affair?” [link]

An honest question. After several days of silence the Great Man finally responded to Krugman’s question:

“In fact, it does outrage me, Mr. Krugman,” Dobson said. “We condemn the Foley affair categorically. And we also believe that what Mr. Clinton did was one of the most embarrassing and wicked things ever done by a president in power.” [link]

Dobson goes on to say that news of Foley’s indiscretions were “released by liberals” just before Congress went into recess. Never mind that there is absolutely no evidence for it. The creepy amoral thing about it is Dobson’s attempt to smooth over growing evidence that Foley’s colleagues covered for a pedophile. Notice how Dobson ignores Krugman’s main point and instead focuses on his condemnation of Foley’s behavior. Dobson was foaming at the mouth to call Clinton “wicked” for having an affair — something that probably millions of married men and women do every year. But he is surprisingly calm and cool when several Congressmen look the other way and permit several years of sexual harrassment of teenage boys.

The rest of Dobson’s public press releases have focused on a strange conspiracy involving liberals and the media who are trying to prevent “values voters” from voting for Dobson’s party of choice. Elsewhere he suggested strangely that those darned boys were making the whole thing up. Once again Dobson proves that he is little more than a political animal, a shameless charlatan who cares more about power and influence than the poor and helpess. What would Jesus do?

bookmark_borderTurning Muslim in Texas

There’s an interesting documentary on Google, Turning Muslim in Texas, about a number of Southern Baptists converting to Islam, often because they don’t think Christianity is conservative enough.

It’s one of those things that feed my suspicion that moral critiques of conservative religion have an element of futility about them. The submission, the strictness, the stifling sense of pre-determined order—those things that grate on liberal sensibilities are also exactly what are attractive to large numbers of people. On top of it, religions are extremely flexible, so there’s a faith out there that is bound to fit any moral sensibility; you just have to shop long enough to find it. So just exactly what is a secularist moral perspective supposed to end up criticizing? Faith as a kind of intellectual sin? Maybe, but that’s bound to be even more futile than denouncing the oppressive aspects of conservative religion.