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October 30th, 2014

Pope Francis reaffirms belief in evolution

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Addressing the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 27, Pope Francis stated that the Big Bang and evolution are not only consistent with God and creation, but in fact require a divine presence. Over at The Independent, Adam Withnall reports:

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

He added: “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment.

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Writing at Religion News Service, Josephine McKenna notes:

Unlike much of evangelical Protestantism in the U.S., Catholic teaching traditionally has not been at odds with evolution. In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic doctrine. In 1996, St. John Paul II endorsed Pius’ statement.

Some wondered if Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wanted to change that when he and some acolytes seemed to endorse the theory of intelligent design, the idea that the world is too complex to have evolved according to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, a close associate of Benedict, penned a widely noticed 2005 op-ed in The New York Times that said “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process … is not.”

Francis’ speech is in line with Catholic doctrine, established since Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis, and extended further by John Paul II’s 1996 speech, also before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which he noted that “new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.” Even Benedict XVI, who has been characterized as less accommodating towards evolution, said in 2007 that the debate between creation and evolution was an “absurdity” since the two can coexist.

Read the full reports on Francis’ speech here and here.

October 24th, 2014

CFP: Religion, Gender and Body Politics

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The “Interdisciplinary Innovations in the Study of Religion and Gender: Postcolonial, Post-secular and Queer Perspectives” project has announced its final conference, initiated and coordinated by Anne-Marie Korte (Utrecht University) and Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds). This conference on “Religion, Gender and Body Politics” will take place February 12-14, 2015 at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Keynote speakers will include Minoo Moallem, Yvonne Sherwood, Ulrike Auga, Scott Kugle, and Sarojini Nadar.

From the call for papers:

In this conference we want to explore why and how the gendered body has become a highly contested and constitutive site of dynamic secular and religious (identity) politics, ideologies and practices in contemporary societies worldwide. In this we suggest to regard the body as simultaneously an empirical entity (e.g., the human or animal body), a discursive practice (e.g., the body politics or the body of Christ), and a focus of technologies of the self (e.g., ecstatic or ascetic bodies). The body as a contested site in contemporary societies is often the body of a gendered, sexual, religious or ethnic other (e.g., women, LGBT’s, migrants, or colonial others). These discursive practices of “othering” presuppose a clearly defined “we” superior to the “other”, thereby reinforcing related dichotomies (e.g., West-East, male-female, religious-secular, straight-gay) and their power relations. The disciplining of bodily practices appears to take place mainly at the level of institutionalised religion and secularism where ideologies and politics of gender, sexuality and ethnicity are imposed. However, when we look at how people live their bodies, creative and non-normative body practices can be identified that question, resist or inform these ideologies and politics. The deconstruction of the normative regulation and representation of the body should therefore not be investigated along the lines of the public-private divide, but in a manner that questions this divide and that is attentive to the ways in which lived religion and lived secularism permeate the until recently virtually uncontested boundaries between the visible, public and institutional on the one hand and the invisible, private and personal on the other. We aim to question the ways in which intersecting ideologies of religion, secularism and gender materialise through individual and collective body-politics drawing from a range of contemporary critical perspectives in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, such as postcolonial criticism, post- secularism and queer theories. With these critical perspectives, we want to challenge persisting dichotomies in the study of religion and gender, like the public/private and religious/secular binaries, and Western and heteronormative dominant models of knowledge.

Click here for the full CFP and information on how to submit paper titles and abstracts.

October 22nd, 2014

Futures of the American Religious Past

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On January 3, 2015, as part of the winter meeting of American Society for Church History, four interlocutors will speak on TIF contributor John Lardas Modern‘s book Secularism in Antebellum America, and Mark Noll’s book America’s God, with comments from both authors.

Why now? In her 2013 ASCH presidential address, Maffly-Kipp described the field of church history in the midst of a “transitional moment.” Tensions are mounting between more traditional ecclesiastical paradigms and the theoretical developments of religious studies. Readers of this blog know that American religionists feel these tensions especially strongly. New works like Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, among others, put pressure on many of the commitments and conventions of our discipline.

Yet though American religionists may greet the arrival of Secularism with caution, they cannot easily ignore it. Modern responds directly—if not always affectionately—to church historians and to Mark Noll in particular. The book is deliberately provocative, posing all sorts of challenges to the central paradigms of our field.

The event will be held at the New York Hilton from 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM. Read more about the panel here.

October 21st, 2014

Conference: Toward a Critique of Secular Reason?

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LeuvenOn December 10-11, 2014, the Institute of Philosophy (KU Leuven) will host the international conference Towards a Critique of Secular Reason? in Leuven, Belgium. The conference aims to explore the meaning of the concept of secularization in 20th and 21st century thought.

The notion of secularization has often been used to define or characterize the nature of modern culture. Today, however, the validity of this concept is questioned ever more radically. The conference wants to take a step back from these recent discussions by examining the history and philosophical scope of the concept of secularization itself: What does secularization actually mean? More specifically, what does it mean for societies, theories, ideas or concepts to be secularized? Although secularization is often reduced to a political or sociological concept – designating the separation between church and state or the decline of religious belief – this conference aims to explore its meaning from a much broader and decidedly interdisciplinary perspective. In this regard, secularization appears as a theoretical concept with important implications for the study of intellectual history, metaphysics, religion, literature and politics alike.

Participation is free, but registration is required. For the program and further details on the conference read more here.

October 20th, 2014

Millennial storytelling

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The Immanent Frame editor-at-large Nathan Schneider recently talked to radio host Krista Tippett for her Peabody Award-winning show “On Being.” In the interview, the fourth in a series on “The American Consciousness,” Tippett and Schneider discussed Schneider’s writing; the intersections of technology and religion; the Occupy movement’s legacy; and the growing influence of “nones”—Americans who don’t identify with any religious group.

“Could the growing number of non-religious young people be a force for the renewal of spiritual traditions?” Tippett asks. “How might the Internet of the future look utterly different from the Internet of now? And what did the Occupy movement really tap into—and what has it become below the radar?”

Listen to the podcast or read a transcript, and check out the rest of Schneider’s work for TIF here.

October 17th, 2014

A “pastoral earthquake” in Rome?

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On October 13th, the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, an assembly convened by Pope Francis, released a relatio post disceptationem—a snapshot of the discussion thus far—that has triggered much coverage and debate across the media landscape. As church leaders try to determine what exactly makes a Catholic family, the document seems to signal a softening stance on, among others things, divorce, homosexuality, and unmarried cohabitation. While reasserting Catholic doctrine that proclaims the “irregular” nature of such relationships and families, the document also acknowledges their “positive elements,” and frames the pastoral challenge as follows:

It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

Longtime Vatican journalist John Thaviswho called the document’s release a “pastoral earthquakehas an excellent breakdown and summary of the relatio on his blog. He notes in particular the document’s emphasis on the gradualness which advocates patience and understanding for individuals to walk their own paths towards salvation.

In particular, the section of the relatio initially titled “Welcoming homosexual persons” has caused a stir. It originally reads:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

The shift in tone on homosexuality (though not in doctrine or teaching) has been greeted with enthusiasm by some observers, such as GLAAD and the Reverend James Martin, who called the document “a stunning change in the way that the Catholic church speaks about gay people.” But not all responses have been positive. Critics have described the language of the document as confusing—how can Catholicism avoid “any language or behavior which might be construed as discrimination” (section 46) if biblical and doctrinal teachings are very clear on some of these issues? R. R. Reno, the editor of religion journal First Things, describes such framing as a “route to the dictatorship of relativism,” while other commentators have stated that the document “[dilutes] Church teaching.”

The unofficial English translation of the document from the Vatican has added another complication. The synod, which was conducted in Italian instead of Latin, first created controversy by translating the word valutando as “valuing,” as opposed to “considering” or “weighing.” Then just yesterday, the translation underwent new edits, changing “Welcoming homosexual persons” to “Providing for homosexual persons,” and replacing “fraternal space” with “fellowship” and “precious support” with “valuable support.” It should be noted that the original Italian remains unaltered.

Many media outlets have highlighted the document’s section on homosexuals, including The New York Times (“At the Vatican, a Shift in Tone Toward Gays and Divorce”) and BBC (“Catholic synod: Vatican family review signals shift on homosexuality”). Given that the document is not so much a formal statement on theology as the minutes of a meeting, writers such as George Weigel at The National Review and Tim Stanley at The Daily Telegraph have criticized the coverage of the relatio as overstating its significance.

Meanwhile, church leaders themselves, including those at the synod, disagree about the document’s content. Some clergy have pressed for clarification on specific sections. Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, has said that the relatio was “[lacking] a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium,” while Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, emphasized that it is a “draft document,” one that would need “major reworking.” Indeed, on October 14th, the Vatican released a statement emphasizing the relatio‘s status as a “working document,” saying that it does not want to create “the impression of a positive evaluation” of same-sex relationships or cohabiting couples.

Pope Francis looms large in discussions over the relatio, as he convened the synod and picked many of the committee members. Perhaps not surprisingly, the document largely calls for dialogue, listening, and understanding, in keeping with Francis’ policy of more discussing pastoral care and less affirming doctrinal puritysee his “who am I to judge” or “shepherds living with the smell of sheep” comments. Popes can choose what teachings to emphasis and what issues to downplay, and Francis’ papacy has been different in image and tone from his predecessor. But without any meaningful changes to catechism on these sensitive topics, it remains to be seen whether Francis will actually usher in a “Vatican Spring.”

October 16th, 2014

A response to Borja Vilallonga

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Over at his Academia.edu page, Thomas Pfau responds to Borja Vilallonga’s review of his book Minding the Modern:

In the 1,745 words that comprise his “response” to Minding the Modern, Vilallonga does not once engage or contest my various accounts of any of these figures. Neither does he pay attention to (or, perhaps, summon the requisite intellectual generosity and acumen) to identify my book’s conceptual architecture. He thus fails the most elementary standards of what it means to offer a critical and considered response to intellectual work done by someone else. For to do so one must begin by restating the book’s objectives, identifying and appraising its methodological procedures, its organization, and its various claims. Only when these steps have been taken in clear and dispassionate form may one proceed to articulate whether the book succeeds or, if not, how it may be said to fail on its own terms, rather than those that the reviewer happens to have espoused.
Read the full response here.
October 15th, 2014

Mapping “American values”

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PRRI-logoThe Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS) have recently teamed up for a foray into “digital religion,” in the form of an ambitious mapping project called the “American Values Atlas” (AVA). The PRRI and SSRS conducted 50,000 telephone interviews in 2013, and built their results into an interactive map that they promise will “deliver an unprecedented level of detail about the United States’ cultural and religious landscape.”

The map is designed to show the connections between three “topics”—religious affiliation, demographics, and politics. Users can compare:

Religious affiliation, by religious tradition or Christian denominations

Demographic information, by traits such as race and ethnicity, age, gender, marital status, educational attainment, household income, and health insurance status,

Political information, by party identification, political ideology, and voter registration status

Searching by the religious tradition category (under the topic religious affiliation)  in Ohio, for example, reveals that while the largest single religious group is “White evangelical Protestant” (21%), an equal percentage of respondents described themselves as religiously “unaffiliated.”

The AVA also offers a “Highlights” section, with summaries of particularly interesting or noteworthy survey findings. We learn, for example, that a full third of American Muslims live in the South:

Thirty-four percent of American Muslims reside in the South, mostly in just two cities: Atlanta (4 percent) and Washington, DC (6 percent). In contrast, fewer than 1-in-5 Muslims live in the Midwest (17 percent) and the West (18 percent). Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Muslims live in the Northeast, predominantly in New York City (23 percent).

We also learn that marriage rates vary widely among religious groups:

If you’re single, you may want to try visiting your local Buddhist center; more than half (54 percent) of Buddhists are single. This may be because Buddhists are, on average, much younger than other Americans. At the other end of the spectrum are Mormons. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Mormons are currently married, 16 points higher than the national average (48 percent).

The AVA is particularly noteworthy for its wealth of data on minority religious groups in the United States—Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, for example—which the team contends are often excluded from broad narratives about religious change in America. In addition, data collection for the project is ongoing: PRRI and SSRS expect to conduct 50,000 new interviews each year, in order to provide an up-to-date portrait of changing American values.

October 2nd, 2014

In whose name? ISIS, Islam, and social media

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Commentators routinely remark on the sophisticated use of media by the organization that calls itself the Islamic State, but in the past few weeks many Muslims have been using the Twitter hashtag #NotInMyName to offer a counter-narrative about Islam. The campaign began earlier this month with a video released by the London-based Active Change Foundation, featuring British Muslims speaking out against the organization (variously known as ISIS and ISIL), which, they say, does “not represent Islam or any Muslim.” A recent tweet using the hashtag stated that, “ISIS is not a representation of Islam. My religion is based upon principles of respect, love and harmony.”

Response to the #NotInMyName campaign has generally been positive, but some Twitter users have expressed reservations. A few suggested that the social media response to ISIS atrocities was too muted: “A mild rebuke, all things considered,” tweeted New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson, who went on to compare the campaign to the “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

Others objected to what they perceived as background presumptions of collective guilt that oblige Muslims—but not, for example, non-Muslim U.S. or British citizens—to repeatedly publicly disavow violence: “I do & don’t like the #NotInMyName campaign. It’s right to speak out but it sends out the message we are to be held accountable every time.” The latter sentiment has since spawned a rival Twitter meme of Muslims satirically “apologizing” for such cultural achievements as algebra using the hashtag #MuslimApologies: “I’m sorry that we gave to the world Algorithms through which PCs, FB, Twitter etc are built on!”

Still others used the phrase “Not In My Name”—popularized among objectors to the last Iraq war—to denounce another military intervention in the Middle East: “Sickened that we’re going to war again. Actually, am furious.” Nevertheless, the campaign won plaudits from President Barack Obama, who referred to it in a speech before the U.N. last week: “Look at the young British Muslims who responded to terrorist propaganda by starting the Not in My Name campaign, declaring, ‘ISIL is hiding behind a false Islam.’”

Reactions were ambivalent, though, when, on September 10, the White House tweeted the following remarks from the president’s speech promising military action: “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents.” “Psst. . . I think that’s what the ‘I’ stands for!” one user replied. Another wrote, “Always amusing to watch non-Muslims lecturing Muslims on what Islam is and isn’t.” Why was the message better received when delivered by young British Muslims than when echoed by the president of the United States?

Presumably part of the answer is that the #NotInMyName campaign appears to represent a grassroots intervention by self-identified Muslims in the normative debate over what constitutes true Islam, whereas the President’s message came across as a strategic political maneuver by an outsider. By denying that the Islamic State is Islamic (or, for that matter, a state), Obama sought to fend off the potentially damaging perception that the U.S. is engaged in a war against Islam, or that Muslims as such are the enemy—perceptions that would not only have played into ISIS’s propaganda campaign but also put Muslim Americans at risk of hate crimes. The claim that no religion condones the killing of innocents is no doubt tendentious—who is truly innocent is often in dispute—but the rhetoric allowed the president to position the United States as religiously tolerant, and ISIS as “a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

But on what authority—in whose “name”—does Obama, the president of a country whose constitution has long been interpreted to prohibit government from interfering in religion, speak when he enters into the debate over what constitutes Islam or religion? Is he not only the country’s “commander in chief” but also its “theologian in chief”? Though a minor footnote in the history of American civil religion, the affair serves to remind us that terms like religion are invested with political significance, and that states, even (or perhaps especially) when they claim to be religiously neutral, have an interest in how such language is deployed. The struggle against ISIS is, among other things, a struggle over definitions, which is to say that it is a struggle over the authority to control meanings. Moreover, the comparatively open space of social media is increasingly a site of conflict in that struggle. Is ISIS Islamic? What is at stake is not a factual question but a normative one with global political implications.

A German-language version of this article will appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the Bulletin des Zentrums für Religion, Wirtschaft und Politik.

September 30th, 2014

Religious exemption in the National Football League

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During last night’s victory over the New England Patriots, Kansas City safety Husain Abdullah, a practicing Muslim who once missed the entire 2012 season for the pilgrimage to Mecca, intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and returned it for a touchdown. After scoring, he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conductspecifically excessive celebration in the form of “going to the groundfor sliding to his knees and praying. Or in GIF form:

The National Football League has been disparagingly called the “No Fun League” for its policing of celebrations over the years, such as the recent ban on dunking over the goal posts. However, the “going to the ground” rule actually has a religious exemptionnamely for “praising the Lord.” One such example came during Super Bowl XLV, where Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings knelt down in prayer after a touchdown and was not penalized.

Multiple commentators from across the web have highlighted the inconsistency in penalizing Abdullah, noting in particular former quarterback Tim Tebow’s outspoken Christianity and his practice of genuflecting. But while the treatment of Islam (and other faiths) compared to Christianity certainly deserves an extended discussion, bringing up Tebow’s actions (and his lack of punishment) perhaps misses the point. His prayers always occurred on the sidelines when he was not on the playing field, meaning that they were not covered by the excessive celebrations rules. Abdullah, for one, believed that his penalty was for his slide and not his prayer.

Instead of a statement about different religious beliefs, the penalty was more likely the result of the NFL’s complex rule book as the league attempts to regulate everything about the game and its players, from celebrations to player conduct. At a time when the NFL is already under heavy scrutiny, the league reacted quickly, as NFL Vice President of Football Communications, Michael Signora, released a statement on Twitter, saying that Abdullah should not have been penalized, and reaffirmed the religious exemption: “Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.”