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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