Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is Sister Joan (and All Others Who Believe in God) Delusional?

Why are people who show the most evidence of firmly believing in and being committed to God not taken more seriously by atheists?

There are many noted people who made significant life changes because of what they resolutely believed was direct experience of God.

Within the Christian tradition, a hastily made “top 10” list would include people such as:
· ** Hildegard of Bingen (from 1141)
· ** Francis of Assisi (from 1205)
· ** Julian of Norwich (from 1373)
· ** Ignatius of Loyola (from 1521)
· ** Teresa of Avila (from 1527)
· ** George Fox (from 1643)
· ** Blaise Pascal (from 1654)
· ** John Wesley (from 1738)
· ** C. S. Lewis (from 1929)
· ** Thomas Merton (from 1941)
  --and many others lesser-known, but perhaps no less changed.

But people such as these are dismissed as superstitious, irrational, or even delusional by those who are ardent atheists—such as Jerry A. Coyne.

Coyne (b. 1949) is a professor of biology at the University of Chicago. His book Why Evolution Is True was on the “Best Sellers” list of the New York Times in 2009. In May of this year his new book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, was published.

Back in 2006, Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion was a bestselling book. In it the British biologist argued that belief in a personal God qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.

Dawkins highly recommends Coyne’s book (found here):
The distinguished geneticist Jerry Coyne trains his formidable intellectual firepower on religious faith, and it’s hard to see how any reasonable person can resist the conclusions of his superbly argued book. Though religion will live on in the minds of the unlettered, in educated circles faith is entering its death throes.
But has Coyne been adequately “scientific” in his research? He considers many religious fundamentalists and examples from splinter religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology. But he doesn’t consider people of deep faith based on direct experience of God, such as the people in the list above—or such as Joan Chittister.

This month I have been reading some of Chittister’s writings, especially her superlative Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir (2004). Sister Joan (yes, she is a Catholic nun, born in 1936), has struggled through life questioning dogmatism and institutional religion (Catholicism).

But without question, she is a woman of unflagging faith in God. A biography of Sr. Joan, by Tom Roberts, will be published tomorrow, October 1. Its title: Joan Chittister: Her Journey From Certainty to Faith. 
And Sister Joan certainly has been, and is, a part of “educated circles.” She has a Ph.D. (from Penn State University), is the author of over 50 books, and has been a research associate at Cambridge University.

Coyne doesn’t consider people like her to be worthy dialogue partners, though. He declares that “anything useful will come from a monologue—one in which science does all the talking and religion the listening” (p. 260).

And while he doesn’t say so explicitly, Coyne, like Dawkins, seems to think that Sr. Joan, and all others of us who believe in God, are delusional because of our faith in God, which cannot be adequately authenticated by scientific evidence.

But why does Coyne, or any other militant atheist, have the right to make a judgment about the psychological condition of Sister Joan—or of anyone who claims to have personal and meaningful experience of God?

Why should she have the richness of her experience denigrated by the paucity of his experience?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Who Are "the Crazies"?

He probably wished later he had used a different word, but last month the President made reference to “the crazies.”
According to Associated Press,

At a Democratic fundraiser Monday night [Aug. 24] in Nevada, Obama declared himself ready for the challenges he faces this fall in dealing with a Republican Congress that disagrees with him on the budget, energy policy, education and much more.
Obama said that as he’d ridden to the fundraiser with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, they’d done some reminiscing and spent some time “figuring out how we are going to deal with the crazies in terms of managing some problems.”
He didn’t identify exactly who the two of them had defined as “crazies.” 
Although he was by no means the only one to do so, Missouri 6th District Representative Sam Graves took it personal, for he thought the President was referring to those who opposed the Iran nuclear deal.  
In his September 14 email to his constituents (of which I am one), Rep. Graves wrote, “A few weeks ago, President Obama said that those of us who oppose his Iran deal are ‘crazies.’ What’s actually crazy is that our President trusts Iran with a nuclear weapon.”
Well, the opponents of Iran deal may or may not have been who the President had in mind, but that is not what he said. But it is clear, and disturbing, what Rep. Graves said.
According to the website,
After many months of principled diplomacy, the P5+1 — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany — along with the European Union, have achieved a long-term comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran that will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful going forward.
So, on what basis does Rep. Graves, and his many Republican cohorts in Congress, say that the President trusts Iran with a nuclear weapon?
And why would we think that a farm boy from northwest Missouri (as I am also) knows more about this deal than the President, the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Chancellor of Germany, and the presidents of China, France, and Russia?
In addition, the Iran nuclear deal has been praised by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as 29 of “the world’s most knowledgeable experts in the fields of nuclear weapons and arms control” (according to the New York Times).
Of course, maybe “the crazies” the President had in mind are those, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, who (again) are threatening to shut the government down next month—this time because of opposition to Planned Parenthood.
Cruz and most of the Republican presidential contenders, especially Carly Fiorina, are so opposed to Planned Parenthood because of their opposition to abortion.
But according to Planned Parenthood’s 2013-14 financial report, more than 95% of their expenditures went for STD/STI testing and treatment, contraception, cancer screening and prevention, and other health services.
Three per cent of their expenditures went for abortion services, but none of the funding for that came from the federal government. 
Planned Parenthood's 2013-14 Financial Report
So maybe those who want to shut down the government over this issue can be thought of as “the crazies.”
Or, perhaps the President was thinking of those who still, after all these years, think that he is a Muslim and not born in America. According to a recent poll, 29% of the U.S. population—including 43% of Republicans and 54% of Trump supporters—believe Obama is a Muslim.

There is, sadly, no shortage of “the crazies.” 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Listening to the Pope

Most of us Protestants, perhaps, have not paid a lot of attention to what the Pope has said and done through the years. But things have changed somewhat since Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope in February 2013.

Choosing Francis as his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis has often been a topic of conversation, even for those who are not Christians as well as for Protestants.

The Pope is especially much in the news now because of his visit to Cuba, which began yesterday, and to the United States, which is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, the 22nd.

President Obama is scheduled to welcome the Pope in a ceremony at the White House at 9:15 on Wednesday morning. That will be followed by a parade along 15th Street, Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, NW.

People wishing to see the pontiff were invited to line the streets around the Ellipse and the National Mall as he rides by in the Popemobile.

That parade, scheduled to begin around 11:00 a.m., is free and open to the public on a first-come-first-serve basis. However, spectators have to pass through security, with gates opening for the Ellipse and the National Mall at 4:00 a.m. and closing at 10:00 a.m.

It seems remarkable to me that people would begin lining up at 4 a.m. for a parade that wasn’t scheduled to start until seven hours later.

On Thursday morning the Pope is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress, which will be broadcast live. Three previous popes have come to the U.S., the first being Paul VI in 1965. This will be the first time, though, for a Pope to address Congress.

It will be interesting to hear what Pope Francis has to say there—and to how the members of Congress will respond. If he talks about matters related to anti-abortion and/or homosexuality issues, that would put him at odds with many Democrats.

On the other hand, if he talks about global warming, income equality and the problems of capitalism, and the immigration issue, which is more likely, he will spur strong disagreement from many Republicans.

At the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis was very highly regarded around the world. Even by February 2014, Gallup found that 76% of the people in the U.S. still had a favorable opinion of him.

By July of this year, though, that rating had fallen to 59%—and among conservatives there was only 45% approval. By comparison, in April 2008 Pope Benedict XVI had an approval rating of 63%, and for his 27 years as Pope, popular John Paul II had an average approval rating of 72%.

Francis’ popularity decline is partially due to what he has said about climate change, economics, and immigration.

It used to be that there was considerable opposition/criticism of the Pope, especially by Protestants, because of his religious beliefs. And certainly there are many things Pope Francis believes/teaches about Christianity that I don’t agree with.

Now most opposition to or criticism of the Pope is because of his stance on social and economic issues. And I agree with him on most of those matters—mainly because I think they are in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.
Pope Francis has said, “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.” And he has repeatedly called for solidarity with the poor. 

Congresspeople, and all of us, need to listen well to what the Pope says.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


In my recent article about Jane Addams, I mentioned that she was one of the co-founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. That organization, now 95 years old, has been much appreciated by some people and much maligned by others.

According to their Twitter page, “The ACLU is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law firm and advocacy organization devoted to protecting the basic civil liberties of everyone in America.
The ACLU has had a long and meritorious history of advocating for basic freedoms—especially freedom of speech and freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion—of individuals and groups in the United States.
Yet, some Christian groups, such as the Liberty Institute, charge the ACLU (along with the federal government) as being “aggressive opponents of religious freedom.”
And in June of this year, Ken Ham, the founder and CEO of the ultra-conservative Answers in Genesis, wrote on his blog that the ACLU “have consistently showed that they are hostile towards Christians and Christianity.”
These are just two of many examples that might be given of conservative Christians criticizing the ACLU—and that criticism goes all the way back to 1925, for the ACLU was behind John Scopes challenging the law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools of Tennessee.
To counter the ACLU, in 1990 the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) was founded by Pat Robertson, an ordained Southern Baptist minister whom Wikipedia refers to as a “media mogul.” (The similarity of the acronym was intentional.)
As you know, or would guess, the ACLJ is a politically conservative organization linked to the religious right. From the beginning it was associated with Regent University School of Law in Virginia, also founded by Pat Robertson
Since 2000, though, the ACLJ has been headquartered in Washington, D.C., and when I visited there I was impressed with its proximity to the Supreme Court Building, whose entrance is just a four-minute walk away.
Since 1992 the leader of ACLJ has been Jay Sekulow (b. 1956), who has an undergraduate and a J.D. degree from Mercer University, which was associated with the Georgia Baptist Convention until 2006.
Sekulow is a sharp, articulate spokesman for ACLJ. I have heard him speak, and chatted with him briefly, a couple of times, and I have also heard him a (very) few times on Bott Radio, where he has a 30-minute program five days a week.
His program is called “Jay Sekulow Live,” and Bott Radio calls it “a bold half-hour program addressing the problems of Christian rights in the workplace, school and marketplace of ideas.”
Through the years, most of those active in the ACLJ have reaped the benefits of “white privilege,” and it seems that they are now doing all they can to maintain “Christian privilege” as well.
That is a major difference between these two organizations: whereas the ACLJ primarily is an advocate for the religious freedom (as they understand it) of Christians, the ACLU is an advocate for the civil liberties of all Americans.
Recently, the ACLU of Kentucky has been quite active in the Kim Davis dispute that has been in the news so much. In early July they filed the initial lawsuit against Davis, the marriage license-refusing county clerk.
(I have been surprised, though, that the ACLJ has not become directly involved in the Kim Davis affair, as I expected them to.)
So, which most deserves support, the ACLU or the ACLJ? The former, I believe, for they seem to be the ones more actively seeking to love “neighbor” as “self.”