Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Changing Religious Affiliation: Two Perspectives

In many of my blog posts, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has played a noticeable role as a useful resource in analyzing the makeup of the American religious and political landscapes. Today, I will take a look at two responses to a newly-released survey from the folks at Pew, entitled “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” In the full report, just fewer than 3000 responses are gathered on questions of when, how, and why Americans moved from one title of faith to another; by gathering data on a person’s childhood, teen, and adult religious affiliations and utilizing a focus on the reported reasons for shifts in faith specifics, the survey aims to provide tools for better answering how one’s faith –or faith-shifts- is tied to external circumstances of his or her life.

The first response to the new survey at which I pointed my attention comes from a post on, by guest writer Michael Bell. Michael breaks down “inflows” and “outflows” of adherents by church affiliation -Catholics, Evangelicals, historically black Protestant, mainline Protestant, and The Others (he makes a nice Lost reference, too) - and he also provides a cool graphic that illustrates his descriptions of flow of worshippers between institutions (see right). Linked below, my response delves deeper into the analysis that Bell provides on the topics of where the overall religious population is headed, and what worries Christian institutions may have now and in the future.

Secondly, I examined the viewpoint from the opposite side of InternetMonk’s Christian perspective at, written by Hemant Mehta (I love when one of someone’s names contains all the letters of his other name). Hemant asks, “Why are the religious unaffiliated becoming religious later in life?” My response piggybacks off Hemant’s analysis of what religion has to offer that the secular life does not, at least at this time in American history.

"Michael Bell: Looking at the Pew Forum's 'Changes in Religious Affiliation' Data"

Hey Michael,

You provide a good, thorough breakdown of the new Pew survey results, and I am interested to hear the analysis of these data from an informed Christian perspective. Your next post will have a lot of fun hypotheses, I’m sure: the full report of the survey shows how deep the Pew Forum folks went in trying to determine exactly why a person would “switch faiths,” which, when analyzed critically, should provide a better picture on the relationship between one’s faith and all the other things that are going on in one’s life, which I think is what you may be trying to get at in this project of poring over the survey results.

I thought your co-worker’s question was interesting, about whether based on this data can we ask when religion will be extinguished in America (extinguished is kind of a harsh word, but I guess it fits the perspective). I agree with your take, that this question makes many assumptions: of course rates of inflow and outflow will not remain constant, and I have to think that there are widespread cultural signifiers that act on these flow rates in ways that might not be clear, even given this survey. It would be interesting to see what these rates were like 25, 50, 100 years ago; surely then somewhat significant predictions could be made as to what the religious landscape in America will look like in the future.

As someone who was raised Presbyterian, fell out of it in my teens, and now am unaffiliated (under which category would “Jedi” fall?), seeing data informed by paths similar to mine not only piques my interest, but makes me enthusiastic about gaining insight towards why we believe the things we do, and how much control we do or do not have over our beliefs. All that fun stuff. Keep up the good writing and analysis.

"Why Are the Unaffiliated Becoming Religious Later in Life?"

Hemant, first time reader here who digs your take on the Pew survey results. I have read analysis on other sites from a Christian perspective, which focused on the outflows of people from religious affiliations into having no religious affiliations, so it is cool to read a breakdown from the atheist perspective where you are flipping that around.

Your conclusion that atheists are “hurting ourselves if we shun all the positive things churches provide just because we find their beliefs so irrational” is right on, in my opinion. As someone about to finish college, I’ve often thought about the opportunities for working for religious institutions and how those opportunities are not exactly available in the secular world. Sure, there are spiritual counselors and charity or social workers, but the job of a pastor, for example, is so clear cut and well-defined: teach from scripture, relate your spiritual counseling to the outside world, help the needy, and so on. In thinking about this, I’ve wished for a “church” that offers a position like that, only without the scripture behind it. Does Unitarianism provide the answer?

The concluding sentence of your post is key: I’m not sure if they Pew results back this up, but surely there is a large group of people who become regular attendees of a religious institution because they feel they need to raise their kids in “that kind of environment,” one that provides the teaching of morals from some power that is not the childrens’ parents as well as a sense of community. So I agree: there exist options other than buying into attending church, which should be the most serious of commitments, to raising your kids. Don’t say you’re religious when you’re only at church for familial, perhaps non-spiritual reasons.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Traditions, Newer and Older: Opening Day Edition

Rejoice, for the Lord’s grace is indeed great on this day.

What has me so pleased with the date on the calendar? Why, only the fact that today is one of, if not the sole possessor of the title of, my favorite days of the year: it’s Opening Day! That’s right, the first day of the Major League Baseball season is finally come, and the anticipation of the upcoming six months of drama, determination, and brand new sets of data, combined with the sense of purity that comes from a clean slate for all thirty teams, is enough to make any fan of the game giddy about a new year’s first pitches.

While I sit in a pool of my own unbridled enthusiasm, some folks around the country are a bit uncomfortable with the opening week of the season: many Catholics -who according to my last post are as thoroughly American as, well, baseball- are facing a conflict of religious observance versus the opportunity to observe their home teams for the first time this year, as some teams are holding their home openers in the most solemn time period of Good Friday; namely, the Detroit Tigers have caught ire from the local Catholic community over perceived insensitivity to Catholic worshipping needs. I responded to a post on the Christian spirituality website,, examining the reactions of religious leaders to the scheduling of Opening Day on Good Friday.

At the same time, baseball is being represented in a whole new way in an upcoming film called Sugar, from the same people responsible for one of my favorite movies of the past five years, Half Nelson. Today’s post features responses to bloggers covering social aspects of the very grand game of baseball.

"For Catholic Ball Fans, a Good Friday Choice."

The conflict in decisions that has arisen at the start of the baseball season for Catholics, specifically in Detroit, has received quite a bit of attention this spring, even appearing as a headline on for a number of days in late March; this post sums up the issue well, especially from the religious leaders’ viewpoints. The quotes from the leaders all seem to agree on the strict importance of experiencing Good Friday as a day that should be a solemn observance of the suffering of Jesus Christ, and according to the quotes this leaves a clear “yes-or-no” decision for Catholic baseball fans who face the possibility of attending Opening Day festivities at their favorite team’s ballpark.

Having had the opportunity to be at the stadium for my team’s opening home game in past years, I feel I have an appreciation for the feelings that arise en masse on these days of celebratory festivity. There is a marked note of excitement and rewarded anticipation that is unlike any other game on the regular season schedule, not to mention the thrill of being able to go home and tell friends and family that you were among the first however many thousand people who were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of their team’s first appearance of the year in their home city. The main conflict that appears here between the opportunity of attending a baseball game in these unique circumstances and paying one’s faithful religious dues is that Good Friday’s solemn tone should not be mixed with a grand celebration, with certain Catholic leaders calling this possible mix “insulting.” While that may be true in consideration of Good Friday as one of the two or three most important dates on a practicing Catholic’s calendar, I wonder if there is any possibility for compromise between baseball and church in this example: Opening Days do create an environment of social cohesion around a concept that a sizable amount of people consider nontrivial, and the value in this for a city of people may be understated by many, which church leaders should consider in the light of their own viewpoints. However, this may be truly an instance in which people will need to decide how to show their faith on a person-to-person basis, but the church may have a point: Good Friday comes once a year, while there are eighty more home games after Opening Day.


To hear that the minds behind Half Nelson, a personal favorite, have collaborated again and put their efforts into telling a story framed by baseball should be exciting for any fans of these writers' previous work and baseball. Though I have not seen their new movie Sugar, the reviews featured on this page and around the internet, like this film's page on Rotten Tomatoes, hint that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made a character study every bit as interesting and deep as in their previous film. One review on this page that I think rings true is Henry Stewart's for Reverse Shot, who points out the film's portrayal of baseball as "a religion that unifies Dominican and American cultures through its popularity and prevalence in each"; from what I understand, to many Dominicans baseball plays as large a role in daily life as one's faith may play, and I will be interested to see the "spiritual representation," if you will, of the game of baseball in the main character in Sugar.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Breaking Down Data: Sociopolitical Views by Religious Affiliation

In discussions about the shape of America’s religious landscape, the most common assertion is that the United States is a Christian nation with Christian values. A typical phrasing of this claim often sounds something like the quote from Bishop E.W. Jackson, Sr. in this Wall Street Journal article, which reads, “To deny that the country is fundamentally Christian in its culture and its heritage is just not true.” Yet in that same article, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, points out that America is a pluralistic nation; indeed, America may boast the widest spread of religious belief within its population of any country in the world. But throughout this decade, and especially so in election years, political headlines focusing on tendencies of the greater electorate have spotlighted Christians, and Evangelicals -who constitute one-fifth of the voting population- in particular. What would be interesting to study, then, given the multitudes of religious groups in the United States and the tendency to default that the nation’s voice is inherently Christian, and more specifically Protestant, is this: which religion can say that its members share opinions closest to that of the “Average American”? Using data from last year’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, we can take an in-depth look at the social and political views of Americans broken down by their religious affiliation. Furthermore, by comparing the responses of each religious group to the total population’s response to questions posed in the survey, we can establish some basis as to which religious affiliation’s social views most closely mirror the national average; that is, the viewpoints espoused by an average American.

In its Social and Political Views (PDF) section, the Pew survey categorizes the respondents to its questions into fifteen separate religious or non-religious affiliations: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, historically black Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Unaffiliated, and Religious Unaffiliated. These fifteen groups effectively make up the entire American population, showing the wide swath of belief systems that exist within the country. Those being surveyed were asked a series of questions intended to gauge how they felt about certain tenets of American society, such as how threatened they feel their values are by Hollywood, as well as their views on hotly debated issues like the acceptance of homosexuality and the legality of abortion. The Hollywood prompt read as such: “I often feel that my values are threatened by Hollywood and the entertainment industry,” to which the respondents had the option to agree, disagree, or do neither. For this specific prompt, 42% of the total population agreed that Hollywood was threatening, while 56% disagreed and 3% did not know or refused to answer. By comparison to the national average, 67% of Mormon survey participants agreed that the entertainment industry threatened their values, twenty-five points above the national average and the highest percentage of “Agrees” to this question; Atheists had the lowest percentage of “Agree” responses, with 19%.

By showing the discrepancies between national average responses to the Pew survey questions and responses of each group of believers or non-believers, I wanted to come up with an answer to which affiliation was the "most American" in their opinions. I will put it this way: if America had to send a member of one cohort to talk to an extraterrestrial who was curious about the social and political values of our country, which religion would be best suited? My method was to choose a number of prompts compiled in the survey that were well suited to providing good data for studying this question; I would then list the national average percentage response to one option of each prompt (for example, what percentage of respondents replied with “Agree” to the aforementioned Hollywood question), take the absolute value of the difference in percentage points between the national average and the responses of each group, and then find the average difference across the eleven prompts that I picked. Whichever group had the lowest average difference can be said to be closest to reflecting average American sociopolitical viewpoints, while those subsets with the highest average differences are groups that are far outside the mainstream of American sociological thought. The questions that I chose were ones that stuck out as representative of the most important political topics; these questions also had a sizable difference between the highest percent of positive responses and the lowest: I often feel that my values are threatened by Hollywood and the entertainment industry; I am satisfied with the way the political system is working in this country; I describe my political views as conservative; I describe my political views as moderate; I describe my political views as liberal; I worry the government is getting too involved in the issue of morality; I think abortion should be legal in most/all cases; Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society; Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth; If given a choice, I would rather have a smaller government providing fewer services than a bigger government providing more services; The best way to ensure peace is through military strength (INSTEAD OF: Good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace).

These questions, the "total population" percentage responses, and the percentage responses of each affiliation were entered into an Excel file, which can be downloaded here. Once I had input all the data, I proceeded to calculate a “difference average,” or the average discrepancy between the total population response and the response of each affiliation. As stated before, I took the absolute value of the differences in percentages for each prompt, with the exception of prompts 3, 4, and 5, the “political views” questions: for these, I divided each difference by three before including it in the sum to be averaged, because there were three possible responses to one basic question, being “Describe your political views.” Once all the religious affiliations had their own total sum of discrepancies, their sum was divided by 11 to create the "difference average." To recap, the lower the difference average, the closer the religious affiliation is on the whole to the sociopolitical views of an average American. The averages were a bit surprising:


Difference Avg.





Black Protestant




Secular Unaffiliated







Jehovah's Witness


The graph at right shows the spectrum of American sociological opinion by affiliation of belief. The x-axis is chopped up into three sections, by means of how far away each affiliation was from the mean Difference Average in terms of standard deviations: the average Difference Average was 10.82, with a standard deviation of 5.45. The first group can be said to make up mainstream religious thought; the second group ranges from just outside the mainstream to "slightly less than radical"; the third group is on the fringes of American sociological opinion-holding.

According to this method, the group whose viewpoints most reflect that of the American population are Catholics, an affiliation that makes up 23.9% of the American population, according to Pew, yet has only elected one of their own as President (so, when ET comes with some tough questions, an average Catholic seems to be best suited to give him or her answers). Even more surprising is the fact that Evangelicals appear to have more radical social beliefs in America than both Muslims and Hindus, which makes more sense upon inspection of the data: on three separate questions –those regarding abortion, homosexuality, and evolution– Evangelicals’ responses were at least twenty-four percentage points away from the national average. The groups displaying the most radical viewpoints are not necessarily a shock, as we never really see too many atheists, agnostics, or Jehovah’s Witnesses on our mainstream news networks, or being elected to office for that matter.

What these results tell me is that there is a well-defined mainstream of religious thought in America, and it is indeed Christian. However, it is comprised of moderate Christian voices: these are people who are skeptical of Hollywood and the political system, who are moderately conservative in their politics, and who for the most part accept the ways of life of others, as reflected in their overall above-average acceptance of homosexuality and abortion rights. It is this mainstream, along with members of historically black Protestant churches who fall barely outside its current, that comprise a bit more than half of the United States population, with Evangelicals present for another 26.3%. It is a bit unnerving that Evangelicals have the potential to hold a large sway on the political process with what might be called “moderately radical” sociopolitical viewpoints; however, as the last election may have shown, when the mainstream is flowing for the most part in one direction, that will be where the end results are found.

Monday, March 2, 2009

God Speaks: Does Not Have Human Voice

Something that bothers me about the Christian perspective in my country is the belief that God has human qualities and human tendencies. My issue with the idea that God listens to us, understands us in personal terms, or judges us using our own, constructed morality comes from my belief that people created this deity – not the other way around. I know this hammers at the deepest foundation of the Christian faith, but it does not have to raze the religiosity of folks of this conviction; more on this at the end of the post. My mindset comes from thinking about the history of our world in what I consider an honest, evidence-informed way: the planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago, humans came along about a million years ago in some form, and our minds evolved into their own capacities of imagination. From this we gained curiosity and innovation, and the initial step in answering the great mysteries of the world and the universe was to create all-powerful beings that resemble ourselves.

The universe is a vast place. Hundreds of billions of galaxies vast. It, like Earth, is evolving, has evolved over billions of years. Those hundreds of billions of galaxies each have hundreds of billions of stars; how could we think that we are the most significant form of life in the grand scheme of the universe? We happened to evolve on a planet that happens to be the perfect distance from the star it is orbiting, and the further away from our home planet our scope gets, the smaller we realize we are, relative to the infinitude of our existence. To believe that the force behind this never-ending reality and its natural processes enforces the morality of one intelligent species orbiting one star is extremely self-serving and narrow minded.

I prefer Albert Einstein's philosophy of religion. Einstein was a deeply religious person, reverent towards the arrangement of natural laws that govern the movements of celestial bodies and Earthly nature alike; to paraphrase, he described his religion as "veneration for this subtle, intangible, and inexplicable force beyond anything we can comprehend." When asked if he believed in God, Einstein replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings” (Max Jammer: Einstein and Religion, Princeton University Press 1999, p. 49). Good and evil are strictly relative to human needs and desires, and the universe continues to churn whether we are present or not; "life flows on within you and without you," if I may. The viewpoint that the force that moves the stars judges our every action creates an environment of irrational fear and a debasement of humans' intellectual capacities.

This weekend I made the drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix and back. As will happen on most long drives in America, I came across a fair amount of Christian-influenced billboards, bumper stickers, and license plate holders: a representation of the marriage of mainstream organized religion in the United States and the commercialization that permeates every facet of the country (sorry to go all Peanuts). I saw a "God Speaks" billboard for the first time in a while: those all-black posters with white writing that are signed by God. The message on the billboard enforced the idea that God is just as annoyed with the human experience as humans are: something akin to this God Speaks advertisement, which reads, "Keep using my name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer. -God" (see right). I think that neither what language comes out of our mouths, nor the marginal time added to our commutes are a concern of God's (to repeat, I do not think "concerns" really figure into the deistic picture); furthermore, I would argue that this specific mental image of the supreme power does not leave room for higher human spiritual fulfillment; if a deity is sitting around for all time and making me slightly irritated at traffic congestion, simply because I said two or three specific words out of frustration or sleep-deprivation, then this deity should not be perceived as all-wise or all-powerful. Put in another way, the God of these billboards (I believe He has a sizable marketing and advertising budget) reinforces the anthropomorphic psychological deity, and I do not believe that a God who is simply a human in omniscient form leaves much allowance for spiritual evolution or transcendence to higher religious planes of being, experiences of which we are certainly capable.

Christianity, in my opinion, has the potential to be larger than its myths. I was raised Presbyterian, attending church every Sunday until the age of fourteen. I consider myself, at present, a relatively moral person - I enjoy helping people out, I try to turn the other cheek, I am not violent - and I credit the Christian environment for imprinting many of these feelings and intuitions unto me. What I do not fondly remember in my childhood experience is the acceptance of the myth-stories of the Bible at a literal level: using metaphors including heaven and hell and the virgin birth as truth, the veracity of miracles, tales of resurrection. I wish for the Christian populace to completely utilize the moral goodness of Jesus' message, while muffling the symbolic and mythological, turning these tales into background noise. My argument is that religious people do not need to accept the thaumaturgic as a precursor to either spiritual fruition or moral goodness; the powers of God can be much more subtle and completely inexplicable, as Einstein would have it, and we can still feel a veneration for the concept of life itself, without confusing ourselves into too narrow scopes of understanding.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Getting Religion: How Private or Public?

Last week, I established this page as an insight into why certain individuals, groups, communities, and societies are more prone to exercise their spiritual feelings than others, given their own external circumstances. The idea of certain areas of the world being better suited for individualized religious practice, and others needing communal efforts in bringing forth the religious experience and extracting its benefits, is an important concept in analyzing humanity’s total religious and spiritual capacities. Indeed, in the United States alone there exist wide swaths of personality types whose psychologies may demand different types of religious practice, ranging from a completely personal practice, like individual meditation, to a community use, exhibited in ways like the concept of the megachurch. This week, I explored the blogosphere – religion vector – and found two posts that touch on the way religion can teeter back and forth between being a personal tool and a societal endeavor. Blogger Mollie of, a site devoted to better informing media members on how to cover religion, rips into a recent Newsweek cover story in her post, “Sola scriptura minus the scriptura,” and in doing so reveals some arguments circulating about the merits of homosexual versus heterosexual unions in this country. I also reply to a post by Pastor Brian Heron of the Portland Christianity Examiner entitled, “Have people heard enough of the Christian Voice?” which talks of Brian’s difficulties in spreading the Christian message in a more individually-driven community like Portland, Oregon. My responses to each post can be found below and at the respective sites.

"Sola scriptura minus the scriptura"

No matter how universal a concept seems – in this case, the heads of familial union need to be gender-opposite – there will always be fringes of society who do not fit the definition, and to make one absolute law that marginalizes these people because of a widely-applicable conception of humanity is unfair. The Christian argument that “marriage is built on the biological differences between men and women” is specific to a long-passed time; how sure can we be, at this point in human evolution, what those biological differences are? Reader Paul (comment #16) argues that men and women are hardwired for different things, but take a look at the large groups of people, men and women, who do not in any way fit a description of those hard wirings: the women who have never felt an inkling of child-rearing instincts, the men who have never felt the need to instinctually protect their territory. I believe that we have evolved, or are evolving, past these natures that bound our concepts of what each gender is “supposed” to do or accomplish simply because of gender assignment. Given that there are humans that exist whose psychologies and biologies differ from the whole “penis goes into vagina” idea, one cannot use the argument, “Men are meant for this, women are meant for something else.” The fact that this other human psyche exists makes it, by definition, completely natural. That is the only prerequisite for something to be deemed “Natural”: it exists! Existence equals naturalness. And because it is completely natural, at this point in human history, for a man to not be brutally strong and for a woman to not be compassionately mother-like, but for those two people to switch intuitions and roles, one cannot say that marriage must be between “a man” and “a woman,” because there is no such thing.

Saying that marriage must be a heterosexual union in order for it to be a strong societal foundation also ignores the millions of cases of poorly-matched heterosexual marriages in the United States, the ones that result in societal ills like household violence or maladjusted children. To argue that two thoughtful, compassionate men or two wise, loving women could not raise children in a better way than a thoughtless, terrible man and his irresponsible wife, simply because of sexual preferences, is a blind and ignorant way to analyze human relationships.

"Have people heard enough of the Christian voice?"

It is unique, on a national level, to hear a Christian reverend’s voice speak frankly about the perception of mainstream non-churchgoing Americans toward purveyors of the Christian experience. I am sure that the attitude you have in being honest with the merits of proselytizing in any sense are informed by your living in Portland, OR, as the community there seems to be more inclined to be self-aware than in many other parts of the country. Does this overwhelming feeling exhibited by the general public influence your opinions on how public or private the religious feeling and experience should be? To put it another way, do you see greater merit in religion being a personal endeavor more than it is a group- or community-driven system, given your circumstances of being in a more intellectually, individually independent community? Is it possible for Christianity to be a completely personally-examined religion, or must scripture be followed – I do not know mine so I will not try to cite it – in regards to the importance of the church?

What place does proselytizing have in the worldwide spiritual community, at this point in human history? I would argue that this effort, whether Christian or not, is indicative of a political undertaking much more than it could be argued to be spiritually driven; the core of religiosity is one’s own experience of the divine/transcendent-human relationship, and the idea that this is created best by recruitment to a group-enacted religious worldview is questionable. Is it not more meaningful for a person to have a religious experience, some communication with what can be said to be God, on the means of their own accord, rather than seeing a person become the “marginal spirituality added” to a long-existing institution? Or is this simply a case of an individual mind reacting to a group-driven religious world?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Religion and Morality: What's the Difference?

Are religion and morality mutually bonded? Can someone be a “good person” with strong moral character if he or she is not religious in a traditional sense? According to the 2007 results of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a worldwide survey of opinions on social, political, and moral issues done by the PewResearchCenter with over 45,000 interviewees, the majority of people worldwide would argue that a person cannot have good values and be moral without being
God-revering. The worldwide responses to the question, “Which one of these comes closest to your opinion? ‘Number 1 – It is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values,’ OR, ‘Number 2 – It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values,’” show a divided worldview on what the role of religion on morality constitutes, specifically and noticeably between Europe and the majority of the rest of the world. In that majority, the results of the survey show a firm stance in the mindsets of most South American, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian peoples that belief in a deity is needed by the human mind in order to value life and humankind, with countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia containing zero to one percent of their population that would argue one could have right conduct or distinguish between right and wrong without an internally-deified compass (see graphic on the left). To glean information from these results, questions must first be asked of the wording and definitions implicit in this portion of the interview: do the religions of the world all have similar structures when it comes to coded morality implicit in their faiths? Furthermore, what universal basis can there be for right conduct or good values?

At a time when atheists in England are using their resources to advertise the idea of no God – while religious groups counter by doing the same thing with slightly altered language – and humanist groups in the United States similarly trying to spread the idea of goodness and kindness sans religious faith, the makeup of the world’s perception of what “being moral” means becomes striking. The idea of a universal baseline for good conduct at this point in human history seems impossible. Taking the example of an advertisement created by the American Humanist Association (AHA) this past holiday season, which read: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” the public responses in the United States show how wide the range of perception towards the human ability to decide what is right and what is wrong happens to be. The AHA defines its group philosophy as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.” The holiday advertisements seem simple and straightforward enough: try to be good to people, because it will create a happier society, they argue; in this message, it is the hope of the AHA that the absence of a reigning deity goes unnoticed. The response of certain religious voices in America dashes those hopes using language that could not be more different from that of the humanist perception. Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association (AFA), an organization representative of the more conservative and traditional Christian worldviews in America, replies to the argument, “It's a stupid ad. How do we define 'good' if we don't believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what's good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what's good, it's going to be a crazy world.” The concluding sentence of Wildmon’s response strikes at the core of the religion-morality issue: are human beings as individuals responsible enough, on a moral and spiritual level, to create their own parameters and boundaries concerning good action versus evil action?

“If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.” Going back to the Pew survey, the strength of Mr. Wildmon’s statement may be called into question. Analyzing which countries tend to believe that individuals can discern between right and wrong without the guidance of God leads to important realizations and understandings about why different countries have different levels of religiosity; for instance, the PewResearchCenter’s data shows a link between the Per Capita Gross Domestic Product of a country – the level of wealth – and that country’s “Religiosity Score,” which is, according to the survey, “a three-item index, with 3 representing the most religious position. Respondents were given a 1 if they believe faith in God is necessary for morality; a 1 if they say religion is very important in their lives; and a 1 if they pray at least once a day.” The graph on the right shows that, “consistently, poor countries receive higher scores on the scale… On the other hand, wealthy countries tend to receive lower scores.” The reason the statements of the American Family Association – regarding the need for theism in moral divination – may be lacking in a solid perception of the worldwide human condition is that religiosity, on a nation-by-nation, cultural scale, is outside the control of individuals and largely a result of socioeconomic, philosophical, and historical circumstances; different populations are meant to tend more towards individual morality or towards utilizing morality that is conceptualized in a group setting, at any point in history.

Although no absolute terms can be created for good values, it is obviously plausible for a kind, warm-hearted person to not be directly informed by religious canon or ideals. However, the current period of human history has shown institutionalized religion to be the driving force behind the idea of “being moral,” and so to say that this form of religion need not have any role in informing populations on the difference between right and wrong is too, at this point of humanity, misguided in a way that does not recognize the millennia of circumstances leading to current perceptions of how humans can possibly be good to each other. Humans will probably never have a universal morality, but both mindsets of how to arrive at Goodness can share the same space, with only a difference of religious faith separating them.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Starting a Blog: Deep Interests

For a senior in college with no clear career aspirations, and school concentrations that point in different directions, starting a blog aimed toward professionalism and scholarly integrity is a most challenging endeavor. My deepest interests, however, have guided me to a blog focused on human rights in our world, and my academic interest in world religions will inform this blog’s examinations on social action movements taking place around the globe. In order to maintain a blog that may be held to the highest standards of website evaluation, I have searched the web for related sites of the utmost professional and academic integrity; on the right side of the page, find my Linkroll, which contains links to top religion and social action commentary and organization sites of the internet. To find these sites, I used blog search engines Technorati and Google Blog Search, as well as internet directories such as the Internet Public Library. The sites I have chosen to help inform me on my own posts range from news sources to outlets of thought and interaction on the topics of religion and social action, to organizations dedicated to the examination of human rights and social justice worldwide. Sites like Harvard University’s Pluralism Project and serve as academic bastions of religious thought and relevant discussion of religion. Large organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Fellowship of Reconciliation offer news on their efforts in the fight for social justice as well as updates on human rights struggles currently taking place worldwide. Specific news sites that I have found to have superior religion commentary, like the Dallas Morning News religion blog, have been included. Lastly, social action sites that aim to prompt movements of social justice via the internet, like A Force More Powerful and, are available for examination. My decisions of link inclusion were influenced most heavily by the Webby Award criteria, as well as the IMSA blog evaluation assessment criteria. I hope for this blog to find its own unique form as it is consistently updated, and for it to provide valuable commentary on humanitarian efforts in our modern world.
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