Posts Tagged ‘belief’

February 3rd, 2015

Comments don’t replace the news

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Pope Francis has called the Internet a “gift from God.” If that’s the case, one has to wonder what message the Almighty wanted to send with this kind of present. The Internet does many good things for religion, such as informing people about each other’s faiths and providing a forum for serious discussion about them. But the same medium that can foster understanding also spreads polarization and deepens existing prejudices. This divine gift sends some decidedly mixed messages.

For a reporter like me, feedback from the public used to consist of occasional letters to the editor, maybe a phone call or a discreet word from a source not completely satisfied with a report. Now, the publication of an online news story is often only the beginning of a long series of exchanges with readers. Some of these are enriching experiences—opportunities to learn more about the subject or to discover leads for further reporting. But many are, frankly, a nuisance and a waste of time.

January 26th, 2015

When readers respond

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Writing about religion in the digital age means that your readers respond. They have, of course, always responded; but in an age of stamps and paper, it required some effort. Now, it requires almost none. I still have the slender file of the paper letters people sent me after my first book came out in 1989. In 2012 I posted a short piece on CNN’s Belief Blog: “If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy.” There were more than 7000 comments. I couldn’t even read them.

Mind you, I didn’t want to. Readers can be unkind—perhaps because the swiftness of the digital writing process means that readers can blurt out the first vehement thoughts they might have edited away if they had to go to their typewriter and type out text on paper, or because the anonymity of posting means that the normal constraints on meanness disappear, or because people think they’re having a conversation just with other posters, and don’t really think of the writer as a fellow creature at all. Whatever the reason, people say horrible things in online posted comments. One gem from my Belief Blog essay: “This lady is (usually) crazy.”

December 16th, 2014

The Supreme Court’s faith in belief

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We stand unitedThis summer, the Supreme Court was once again at the center of the American culture wars. The media and many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum saw the Burwell v Hobby Lobby decision as a case of religious freedom versus women’s rights. The headlines blared: “How the Catholic Church Masterminded the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby Debacle,” “Can Corporations Go to Hell?”, “Hobby Lobby: Does God Hate Obamacare?” and “Hobby Lobby case: Religious freedom’s worth more than $35.”

The court, which ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby, was no less divided than the press. The two outspoken former prosecutors on the bench, Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor, pulled no punches in their rival opinions.

February 11th, 2014

The secular in non-Western societies

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The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the wider Islamist movement of which it is an instance, are in many ways a secular phenomenon. If we define “secularity” not only as the weakening of religious belief, but also as the idea that faith becomes one option among others; and “secularization” as the process of institutional and functional differentiation of modern state structures and the resultant marginalization of religious authority, then the Brotherhood, similarly to other Islamist entities, can be seen as a product of modernity and the “secular age.” This transpires in two ways. First, for the Brotherhood, “Islam” is an identifiable set of beliefs that can be actively implemented and used as guidelines to reform society. Second, the parameters of the political order it proposes are defined by the context of the secular, modern nation-state.

October 28th, 2013

Odd to each other

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It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.

August 21st, 2013

Religion and the environment

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Climate change and the environment can be contentious issues, particularly in American politics. Despite political differences, weather events such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires in the United States have highlighted environmental issues for impacted communities, including various religious groups and faith traditions. In recent years religious individuals and organizations have become increasingly vocal about various environmental issues, and the following roundup presents some of the latest perspectives from different faiths.

August 7th, 2013

Emergent feminism among Orthodox Jewish women in Israel

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Allison Kaplan Sommer and Dahlia Lithwick write at The New Republic write about the struggles of an emergent form of feminist protest among Modern Orthodox Jewish women in an Israeli city. The article profiles a struggle against the unofficial gender segregation that these women are sometimes pressured to comply with.

July 22nd, 2013

Religious progressives in the US

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The new Economic Values Survey carried out by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institute has surveyed the American religious landscape according to a new set of criteria and found a significant number of religious progressives, particularly within younger generations, suggesting an increase over time.

July 10th, 2013

Is the increase in the non-religious a “bad thing”?

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A new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that an increasing number of American adults identify as religiously unaffiliated, and nearly one half of respondents said that the increase in non-religious individuals is a “bad thing” for American society.

July 3rd, 2013

Igbo Jews: A Lost Tribe of Israel?

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Over at CNN, Chika Oduah writes about the assertion by Igbo Jews that they are descendants of Jacob and one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, noting that the claim is highly disputed by some.

March 26th, 2013

Credulity: Enchantment and Modernity in the 19th-Century U.S.

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The Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University is co-sponsoring a conference later this week on “credulity.”

November 13th, 2012

On the freedom of the concepts of religion and belief

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This short piece attempts to come at the current debate on law and religious freedom from two unusual angles. I end by looking at the strange and revealing positioning of “religion or belief” in current legislation in England and Wales. And I begin by putting a different spin on religious freedom by exploring the terrifying freedom of the concepts of religion and belief. We have never needed the rise of Al Qaeda, so-called Islamicism or a hardline religious right to terrify us with a resurgent specter of specifically religious (as opposed to purely “political”) “terror.” Instead of bearing down on us like some old specter of the Turk or Moor at Europe’s gates, the terror of religion emerges—or insurges (if “insurge” can be made into a verb)—from within the normative conceptualizations of religion in the so-called modern West.

October 5th, 2012

Scientology not a religion?

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According to a recent poll by 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair, a majority of Americans do not believe that Scientology is a real religion.

August 7th, 2012

Loss of faith in religious institutions

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NPR recently reported on a Gallup poll, which showed Americans’ faith in organized religion and religious institutions has declined.

May 2nd, 2012

Religious freedom as crisis claims

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Adopted in 1950, Article 17 of the Indian Constitution legally abolished untouchability—the ancient Hindu system of social discrimination—forbade its practice in any form, and made the enforcement of any discrimination arising out of this disability a criminal offence. At the same time, the Indian Constitution guaranteed freedom of religious belief and practice under Article 25 and autonomy of religious institutions under Article 26. The discussion of Employment Division v. Smith in Winnifred Sullivan’s post and subsequent comments reminded me of the very substantial jurisprudence surrounding Article 26.

April 6th, 2012

Christian genealogies of religious freedom

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As a historian of religion, much of my recent work has focused on tracing the genealogy of what we call religious freedom in developments internal to European Christianity. My goal has not been to frame a normative theory of what limit ought to be placed on the freedom of religion—whatever this word is taken to mean—in any contemporary jurisdiction nor (apart from the effect of British colonialism on India) to trace the very different histories of the modernization of cultural traditions in other parts of the world, as these traditions have been shaped by the complex forces of economic development, nationalism, and technologization.

April 5th, 2012

Love’s ladder’s God

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It was their final conversation. She would soon die, although neither of them knew it at the time. St. Augustine and his mother waited for a ship that would take her across the sea, to Africa, where she had raised him. She had always prayed he would become a Catholic; now, after many years, he was one. “There we talked together,” he writes in his Confessions, “she and I alone in deep joy.” This common joy stemmed from their shared company, but also their shared belief in God.

April 3rd, 2012

What is religious freedom supposed to free?

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What is religious freedom supposed to free? That is, what is the operant understanding of “religion” behind the claims of religious freedom such that religion requires its own forms, practices, and concepts of freedom under the law? Is there something about religion that gives freedom of religion either a privileged or a peculiarly worrisome character different in kind from artistic, political, or sexual freedom? And to this list, why not add occupational, associational, or, say, economic freedoms?

March 28th, 2012

Durkheim and belief

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This Friday, March 30, at 12:30pm, the Committee for the Study of Religion at the City University of New York Graduate Center is hosting a lecture by Steven Lukes with the title “Is Durkheim’s Understanding of Religion Compatible with Believing?” The lecture marks the centenary of the publication of Émile Durkheim’s classical work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

March 1st, 2012

Believing in religious freedom

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Like a good movie, the story of international religious freedom offers something for everyone. It pits cowardly oppressors against heroic saviors. It is a story of the triumph of international law over those who fail to adhere to global norms and standards. It is a story of secular tolerance versus violent religion. And today especially, it is a story of the need for the U.S. government and its friends to “convince” others—particularly Muslims—that they should endorse a particular model of religious liberty as a template for organizing and democratizing their politics and societies.

October 3rd, 2011

Atheism and religious art

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The Guardian has been hosting a series of posts on the question of whether faith is necessary in order to appreciate religious art. A post by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin highlights the recent work of atheist artist David Mach to contest the assumption that religious art is necessarily made by believers

July 19th, 2011

Religious and secular foundations of human rights

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A post at the New York Times philosophy blog “The Stone” reflects on the differences between religious and secular underpinnings of human rights. The author, Anat Biletzki, critiques the argument that human rights are impossible without religion, or, particularly, belief in God. Instead, she asserts that the secular basis for human rights is in fact more faithful to humanity than religious justifications, which she defines as rooted in the authority of a superhuman creator (i.e., God) rather than in the value of the human.

March 30th, 2011

Adrift on common dreams

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What a strange, provocative experience it has been to dwell with Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon during these unsettling months. The seams of public life seem especially frayed of late—a precariousness underscored by disasters natural and political that keep coming. And yet ours is the radiant moment of endless possibility so central to Lofton’s subject, whose chief promise is that of a self that matters, that experiences abundance and becoming. It was with this coexistence in mind that I plunged into Oprah’s world.

December 13th, 2010

Can life be better than bearable?

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At The Stone, philosopher Sean D. Kelly muses on Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and considers contemporary culture in light of Nietzsche’s epidemiology of modern nihilism. Aside from the oddness of seeing Nietzsche analyzed in the The New York Times, there are a few particular issues one could take with Kelly’s brief essay.

November 29th, 2010

Love and reason

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Anyone who has entered the labyrinth of A Secular Age should welcome this volume as a guide. Its contributors unwind many threads—some leading deeper inside, others promising a way out—but this series of posts can follow only one. Taking up Taylor’s distinction between traditions of transcendence and those of immanence, while remaining sensitive to its subtleties, William Connolly divides these traditions still further, observing that they are constituted not only by the beliefs they affirm about the world but also by the emotions they cultivate toward the world thus affirmed. Not content to delineate merely abstract possibilities, though, he adds that “each tradition is equipped to honor Jesus by offering a distinctive interpretation of his calling and mode of inspiration.” Accepting his invitation, this post (and those to follow) will attempt to offer such an interpretation—from the perspective of the Heraclitean tradition.

November 4th, 2010

Indifference we can believe in

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Why is it so difficult to treat religion as just another cultural phenomenon?

October 12th, 2010

Ross Douthat responds to James K.A. Smith on the Pew Religious Knowledge Survey

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In his New York Times blog, Ross Douthat comments on James K.A. Smith’s response to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey in our recent “off the cuff” forum.

October 5th, 2010

Surveying religious knowledge

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Following the release last week of the results of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, which was widely reported as having demonstrated Americans’ considerable lack thereof, we invited a dozen leading scholars to weigh in on the survey’s significance.

What, we asked, do the results of Pew’s quiz tell us about knowledge—and ignorance—of religion in the United States? And how important is the sort of religious knowledge that the survey tested to American public life?

August 27th, 2010

A. S. Byatt on literature, religion, and social media

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The Guardian met up with A. S. Byatt, author of Possession, to talk about, well, a number of things. It is simply too brilliant to miss. Highlight: “Why can’t people just be quiet? [. . .] I’m sure it’s a religious matter. You only exist if you tell people you’re there.”

June 28th, 2010

Gauging irreligion in the heart of Europe

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Conventional wisdom states that the Czech Republic is the least religious society in the West. At The Guardian, Dana Hamplová discusses the historical origins of the Czechs’ famed secularity, which reach back before Communism, and highlights the abiding forms of religious activity in the former Soviet satellite.

June 28th, 2010

Stephen Prothero on inter-religious difference, again

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Charles Gelman has already posted here on Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One, but a new interview with the author, published at Religion Dispatches, may be of additional interest. In it, Prothero clarifies his book’s location and argument, and he discusses its reception and intended audience.

June 24th, 2010

The making of a student of religion

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Last week I wrote about the conversations I get into when I tell people what I do. Answering that I study religion usually leads to a conversation about it—a topic about as uncomfortable as politics during an election year. One of the first things people ask me in these conversations is what I believe. This question comes in a lot of forms, and every answer I give is an educated guess meant to quickly defuse any tensions. Sometimes I’m not particularly religious; other times I was raised Christian; and sometimes I’m simply an atheist.

June 21st, 2010

Religion, science, and the humanities: An interview with Barbara Herrnstein Smith

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Barbara Herrnstein Smith is a distinguished literary scholar at both Brown and Duke, who, since her undergraduate days, has had a special interest in the uses and misuses of scientific psychology. Her latest book, which stems from her 2006 Terry Lectures at Yale University, is Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion (Yale, 2010). It explores the ways in which contemporary cognitive science and evolutionary psychology are being called upon to, once and for all, explain religion. Also, don’t miss her contributions to The Immanent Frame’s discussion “A cognitive revolution?
June 19th, 2010

The dangers of spirituality?

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CNN profiles the growing “spiritual but not religious” population, contrasting the views of some who fear that the spiritual turn is symptomatic of a decline in meaningful commitments with those of others who are more sanguine, if not enthusiastic, about its significance.

June 11th, 2010

Antihumanism and religion

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One of the things that intellectual historians show us, although often only implicitly, is the fluidity of the terms of debates that we take to be self-evident.  In An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought, Stefanos Geroulanos shows us this fluidity by focusing on the French history of objections to (and reformulations of) humanist discourse from 1929 to 1952, a history that suggests that the rigidity of the categories of “religion” and “humanism” in Anglophone discourse is exceptional and unnecessary.

June 8th, 2010

Stephen Prothero on inter-religious difference

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Garrett Baer interviews Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.

June 4th, 2010

God, science and philanthropy

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Nathan Schneider profiles John Templeton and the Foundation he built, in The Nation.

May 17th, 2010

Religions and rights: An interview with Richard Amesbury

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Though currently on sabbatical at the University of Zürich, Richard Amesbury teaches religious and philosophical ethics at the Claremont School of Theology, where he is is involved in establishing a new School of Ethics, Politics, and Society. He is the author of Morality and Social Criticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Faith and Human Rights (Fortress, 2008), as well as  numerous articles. His interests reach across many themes and fields in which the concept of “religion” is constructed and mobilized, from human rights law to civil religion to the New Atheism.

May 10th, 2010

The belief of or in God?

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Recently, there was a brief back and forth at Cif Belief between Michael McGhee and Stephen Clark. The former, a self-described secular humanist, is currently on the philosophy faculty at Liverpool University, where the latter, “a professing Christian,” is Professor Emeritus.

April 20th, 2010

‘What funeral?’ A response to Eddie Glaude

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Eddie Glaude’s proclamation that “The Black Church is Dead” has had a vast ripple-effect across the Web. Recently, Candice Benbow, over at Selah and Amen,  offered a lengthy assessment of Professor Glaude’s article.

April 12th, 2010

College Professors not as non-religious as one would think

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Sociology of Religion has just published a study by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons on US professors’ belief in God. Unsurprisingly, the American professoriate is less religious than the general population. But as the study shows, 35% of those surveyed believe absolutely that God exists, while another 17% believe so with some reservations, which is not small by any means.

April 8th, 2010

“The Death and Life of the Black Church”

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At, Eddie Glaude, Jr. and Josef Sorett discuss what it means to be black and Christian in the present, “post-soul” moment.

April 7th, 2010

It’s all about reconciliation: A conversation with Tariq Ramadan

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I had the opportunity to sit for a conversation with the Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan at the end of the 2009 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Montreal. Ramadan is a public intellectual who has been a figure of both much praise and much condemnation, occasioned by controversial statements and positions that have cast him alternately as courageous and dangerous. As an activist, Ramadan continues to call for European Muslims to resist the encumbrances of minority status and to strive to play a central role in European public life as engaged and active citizens. Through his writings and lectures, he speaks both with and on behalf of Muslims in the West, as well as for Islamic revival in the Muslim world. He is active in the academy and in various grassroots engagements, lecturing extensively on social justice and the necessity of inter-cultural dialogue. Ramadan describes his work as at once protecting “Muslim identity and religious practice” and encouraging the European Muslim “to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.”

April 5th, 2010

Taking stock of the rage against God

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At the Guardian‘s Comment is Free blog, Madeleine Bunting offers a stocktaking of the “God debate” since the publication of Dawkin’s The God Delusion. She focuses mostly on publications by British writers, including Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong. With a sense for paradox that would make Chesterton proud, Bunting concludes that, in a kind of dialectical inversion, the New Atheists’ attempt to make religion unacceptable had the effect of spurring more interest in it.

March 11th, 2010

Not much has changed—and should it?

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We need to be clear about what is happening in the field before advocating for any specific changes. To that end, I would like to look at Smilde and May’s findings through a thicker interpretive lens. The sociology of religion has actually changed very little in the past thirty years. For example, the number of religion articles in top journals and the percentage of those articles focused specifically on Christianity, Protestantism, and the US, have remained constant. While some of the changes reported in the paper are shown to be statistically significant, they are often so small as to be substantively insignificant. So, rather than reacting to a supposed change in the sub-discipline, we should instead be debating whether we want to change what is, by all appearances, a relatively stable field.

February 27th, 2010

The pig is not the problem

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Regardless of their stance on secularization, both classical and market-based positions take modernity for granted as the starting point for meaningful theorizing about religion. Both perspectives largely agree on modernity’s core features, and both are dominated by a substantive, neo-Weberian approach to religion as an object of study, focusing on self-identified religious groups and institutions. In this approach, religion provides coherent and bounded belief systems to which individuals commit through a process of rational assent, and which they find appealing for reasons of elective affinity with a religion’s capacity to make sense of the contemporary social environment and to orient behavior in effective ways to achieve desired ends.

From this perspective, the religion that thrives in the modern world, to borrow (and perhaps misuse) a metaphor from Mary Douglas, is a pig that has learned to chew its cud, an ill-fitting social form transformed into something that fits, albeit precariously, in the modern order.

February 25th, 2010

Faith from the NIH

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When Francis Collins was appointed director of the National Institutes of Health last year, he stepped down from leading the BioLogos Foundation, which “explores, celebrates, and promotes the harmony of modern science and the Christian faith.” But the position won’t stop him from releasing a new book with HarperOne next month, entitled Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith.

February 24th, 2010

Disaster, religion, and resilience

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Most of us seem to know intuitively that resilience matters for post-disaster recovery, yet we also know that Haiti desperately needs the international community to create opportunity for advancement. In this essay, I try to answer two questions. First, what are some of the social sources of resilience? And second, how can the state and international organizations identify and acknowledge these sources of resilience, thus amplifying the positive effects of disaster relief and rebuilding efforts in Haiti?

February 22nd, 2010

Spirit quest

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At the New York Times, Charles M. Blow weighs in on new data showing that “Young adults are looking for spirituality but not necessarily through organized religion,” a topic being explored in depth by the SSRC’s project on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.

February 17th, 2010

Pink ouija board targets young girls as spiritists or spiritual victims

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Courtney Bender explores the criss-crossing lines of gender, power, and spirituality in the controversy surrounding Hasbro’s release of a hot pink ouija board, marketed for young girls, explaining the centuries old link between spiritual mediums, their devices, and gendered spirituality.