On doubt

I’ve been reading a couple of books lately that rock, which I’ll get to later, but in the meantime, this little Garrison Keillor essay about Easter and doubt is very much worth a look. Despite being sort of Minnesotan, I’ve never been a big Prairie Home Companion fan, but Keillor’s writing is almost always worth the time. http://www.salon.com/opinion/keillor/2008/03/19/easter/.


My Yom Kippur

For the Jews, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. I don’t pretend to know why, or what day Yom Kippur actually is. I’m also not a Jew, so technically, this might be cultural appropriation. But by cracky, today is my Yom Kippur.

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I had an epiphany this evening that can’t be ignored. I was reading E. J. Dionne’s new book, Souled Out, which is one of the many books I was thinking about in my previous post, “A New Age.”


Souled Out is about “reclaiming faith and politics after the Religious Right,” according to the subtitle.  Dionne’s opinion is that the Religous Right (distinguished from those who are both faithful and political by their representation of religion as “a realm of cultural combat in which only abortion and gay marriage matter”) is done, and that people of faith are tired of being told that they must either hate gays or be unChristian.

“I would insist… that believers eventually get around to asking whether what they believe is true,” Dionne writes. “…few believers are blind automatons who never subject their beliefs to serious inquiry. Mother Teresa was not alone among believers in asking why she was not hearing from God.”

Here is the main point of my atonement. Without knowing it, I have always nursed a secret arrogance about believers. I have always believed (without realizing it) that I was smarter, stronger, more flexible and open than those who believed. Religion of all types has worried me, and I have taken that worry too far.

I don’t take back a single post I’ve ever written on this blog. I have believed and meant everything I’ve ever written, and that’s not what I feel I should atone for. What I feel I should atone for is the dark jewel of judgment that I’ve feared in others but tonight found in my own jewelry box. Why did I believe that most believers were judgmental morons, while knowing some of the most fantastic people in my life were believers? Julie, Tina, Mary, Wendy, Deb, Dawn, Sarah, Mike, Buddy, Michele, Gail, Heather! Why did I assume that all these people were exceptions to the rule, believers who questioned, that I had had the good fortune to meet, while still nursing this unexamined belief that believers never questioned?

I know some of the reasons, of course. Being agnostic means being told repeatedly that you’re not paying the least bit of attention to what’s all around you. Being unchurched means being told that if you’d just come to church… And being gay means being told that you’re bound for hell, hated by God, and have no choice but to change or deny who you truly are if you’re going to be re-embraced by God.

But that’s not the true reason I’ve felt this way. I’d love it if any of it were, and I’m sure that all of it helped me to justify it. But the fact is that I’ve been just as tribal as those I accused of tribalism. I assumed that those like me were intelligent and questioning while those not like me were not, even if they would like to be.

Without going on further, because that would sound like justification: I apologize. I atone. I ask forgiveness. I was wrong, and I hope to stop being wrong.

Christian agnostic?

I found a new blog that I might just love. It’s called The Christian Agnostic, and it’s written by Candace Chellew-Hodge, a self-described recovering Southern Baptist who is an associate pastor at a United Church of Christ church in South Carolina. Not only did she turn out as a liberal Quaker on the “What’s your theological worldview” quiz, as I did on the Belief-O-Matic quiz, she has read the Tony Jones book I just mentioned in my previous post. (By the way, I turned out as an emergent postmodern on the theological worldview quiz. I’m also being tested to determine whether I’m hypoglycemic. It’s self-knowledge day at the Agnostic household!)

Anyhoo, she seems irreverent and funny, like so many cool Southerners I know. Check out her post about heaven and hell, it’s good for a laugh (especially the last line).

A new age?

I was at the bookstore this morning with a bit of time to spare, and so I got to do what I love to do: wander the aisles and peruse the titles. I do it at the library, also. To wander among books just puts me at rest. Anyhoo, I included the religion section in my perambulations and I couldn’t help but notice that there were quite a few books that had to do with the insufficiency of religion as it’s practiced today.

None of these were screeds against the faith in question. All were “why this isn’t working” kind of treatises. For example, Tony Jones’s book, The New Christians, caught my eye. It discusses the emergent church movement and how young evangelicals “have decided to recreate church for postmodern times.” Another book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, by Ibn Warraq, explains where (in the opinion of the author) Islam went wrong. “It is well to bear in mind while reading this book the distinction between theory and practice; the distinction between what Muslims ought to do and what they in fact do; what they should have believed and done as opposed to what they actually believed and did,” Warraq begins.

Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but it’s nice to think of times like these as at least potentially groundbreaking. Karen Armstrong’s The Axial Age describes how religion changed massively and yielded monotheism, Confucianism, Greek philosophy and Buddhism. It was a time of massive religious and spiritual invention, and to this little agnostic, it seems like we could use a bit of that kind of thing today.

By the way, did anyone see “I Am Legend,” that movie with Will Smith about how a virus turns humans into rabid maniacs? I’m not sure I’d recommend it, but it had a neat little dialogue about God and science near the end. I don’t know if it meant to, but it left me with the impression that the author of the screenplay thinks science and religion can get along just fine.

Oh, for…well, you know what I mean

Really? We need a movie called “The God Who Wasn’t There“? Anybody cares what Richard Dawkins thinks about God, now that he’s admitted that he doesn’t need one and nobody else should either? Seriously. Boring. And dumb. I’m just saying.

 I know, I know. But despite (because of?) my agnosticism, I’m finding RD more annoying all the time. I’m suppose to welcome his polemicism when I find fundamentalist types of all sorts to be tedious and not all that thoughtful? Can’t! Sorry!

Anyway. More that’s less crabby later.

Religion and education

Wow. I’m reading more from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, and the educational differences are fascinating. When asked “What is the last grade you completed in school?” there were some interesting differences among the faiths.

Over half of Muslims said that graduating high school (32 percent) or less than high school (21 percent) was as far as they had gone. That’s wild. But even wilder is that 70 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses fit into those two categories! I’ve never had the impression that either faith fails to emphasize education, or is associated with significant poverty in America, but there has to be something going on when the numbers are that high.

On the other end of the spectrum, the top three groups represented among the college-graduate or postgraduate crowd were Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. Respectively, 50 percent of Buddhists, 59 percent of Jews, and 74 percent of Hindus had either college or postgraduate degrees. Remarkable. Now, the sample sizes were smaller for these three faiths, not a surprise since they are a small portion of the overall population, so this finding may be a little less reliable than the previous one. But that doesn’t make it unreliable.

Overall, every faith but one showed what is probably a typical pattern for any demographic when it comes to education: Most are high school graduates, and the rest are more or less equally distributed among “less than high school,” “some college,” “college graduate,” and “postgraduate,” with postgraduate usually being the smallest category. But the Hindus bucked that one. Nearly half of them had a postgraduate degree, and more of them were in that category than any other. (Same deal with the Jews, now that I look more closely; more than one-third of them had a postgraduate degree, more than any other category.)

Seriously, the study is worth a look. My guess is there will be a lot of research building on this survey in the years to come.

The religious landscape of the United States

That’s the ambitious aim of a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. They interviewed 35,000 people to find out who believes what and where in America. How cool is that? And the study is super user-friendly.

With the click of a button, you find out that the three largest groups are Evangelical Protestants (26 percent of those surveyed), Catholics (almost 24 percent) and unaffiliated (16 percent). What does unaffiliated mean? They were quite precise, actually. That group is made up of atheists (1.6 percent), agnostics (2.4 percent) and unaffiliated (12.1 percent). Of those who said unaffiliated, that includes secular unaffiliated (I suppose that means not agnostic but not religious either?) at 6.3 percent and religious unaffiliated at 5.8 percent.

 The survey also recorded changes in affiliation, and here the Catholics were the biggest losers. Although one-third of the country was raised Catholic, it says, less than one-quarter still is, and apparently it would have been even worse if it hadn’t been for immigration. (Makes you wonder: How many Catholics out there support the idea of a giant wall between us and Mexico, not knowing that Hispanic immigrants have helped keep their faith numerically strong over the years?)

Oh, and now that I’ve read further, “unaffiliated” means that the respondent said “nothing in particular” when asked what his or her religion was. The secular unaffiliated say that religion is not very important in their lives, while the religious unaffiliated say that it is either somewhat or very important in their lives.

There are a kajillion interesting findings in the survey, and I’ll keep reporting on it (unless you want to read it for yourself; in which case, click here), but here’s my favorite tidbit so far. It’s probably not a surprising picture to many of you, and it’s not exactly surprising to me, but it’s revealing, I think.

The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics.

Crazy, no? I’m a Colorado girl, so it appears you can take the girl out of the west, but… 🙂 Anyway, it’s interesting to think of the three corners of the country all mixing together in the middle. But I wonder why the West is so unaffiliated/agnostic/atheistic? It’s definitely got that self-reliant, live-and-let-live attitude. And there might be some remnant of the lawless, we-make-our-own-rules kind of ethos that the Wild West was known for. I always think of a quote I once heard from then then-governor of Wyoming, which is about as west as you can get (culturally, that is, along with Montana) and is also a fairly conservative, Republican kind of state. Dick Cheney hails from there, and so did former secretary of the interior James Watt. (If I remember right, my dad knew him at the University of Wyoming.)

Anyway, when Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998, the Lou Sheldon creeps headed to Casper to protest at his funeral. In a conservative state like Wyoming, you might expect him to be at least tolerated, if not welcomed. But no less than the governor of the state (who, by the way, recently endorsed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee) made his feelings on the subject clear.

Gov. Jim Geringer said officials cannot stop the group from coming to Casper, but he wants them to know their presence is not wanted.

“They’re just flat not welcome,” Geringer said. “What we don’t need is a bunch of wingnuts coming in.”

Public Safety Director Art de Werk said precautions are being taken in case Phelps and his 15 or so associates show up.

“We won’t allow any kind of disruption of the services, period,” de Werk said. “I’m sure this will raise some freedom of speech issues and so on, but we have to do what’s right, and essentially my first concern in this case is that the family … and the mourning process that they’re in is not interfered with.”

I’m sure not all Wyomingites felt the exact same way about the Shepard case, but the fact that the governor of the state felt free to speak so forcefully about Phelps suggests that he probably knew they would agree that he didn’t fit with the kind of things they believed. Live and let live.

Wow, I’m rambly today, no? Back to the study for more tidbits…