Archive for February, 2008

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…

Also: Atheist Fundamentalism? Really?

I just noticed the blurb quote from The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Devine. It’s on the cover:  “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths [authors of The Dawkins Delusion] show why.”

Atheist fundamentalism? Tell the truth. Have you ever put those words together in a sentence? I sure haven’t.

Updated to add: And divisions in the ranks among the atheists? Who knew that not believing in God would be so divisive among the nonbelievers?

Yes, yes, I know. I’m not making fun of atheists for being atheists. Most likely, as an agnostic, I’m closer to their end of the spectrum than religious folks. It just never occurred to me that there might be different ways to be an atheist, although I suppose it should have. 🙂

Another epiphany, but perhaps not a dumb one

So just so you’ll know, I love libraries. I loooove them. I feel calmer when I’m at a library, and I feel calmer when I’m headed for a library. When I get irritated about paying taxes, I think about libraries. This may make me a nut, but the smell of a library book has always been like smelling salts, or fine wine, to me.

Having said that, the Minneapolis Public Library rocks. I’m thinking of the downtown location, because the building was just finished in 2006 (I think) and it’s such an improvement over the old 1960s building that I don’t care when it was built.

Anyhoo, today I was perusing the new books section and I found a book called The Dawkins Delusion? It’s all about “atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the devine.” Which, I must say, is awesome. I have a friend who is an atheist, but she just kind of doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t feel the need to form societies or write books about how dumb people who believe in God really are. Unlike Richard Dawkins. I posted about The God Delusion once before, noting that he had managed to annoy me within 20 pages, despite the fact that I wasn’t disposed to dismiss his atheist arguments out of hand.

Well. Within a page of The Dawkins Delusion, I had had an epiphany.

So I was born in 1969. So I was only conscious and aware, probably, as of 1974 or 1975. And in The Dawkins Delusion, the introduction mentiosn that in the 1960s, some (many? whatever) people believed that science was going to replace God.  “Back in the 1960s, we were told that religion was fading away, to be replaced by a secular word,” write authors Alister McGrath and Hoanna Collicutt McGrath.

What?

See, here’s the deal. As the child of agnostics and the 1970s, I never heard this sort of thing. Granted, I heard more about science than about religion, but I never heard that science was “replacing” religion. I heard that science was making discoveries, and that religion had made mistakes, but I never heard “screw religion, it isn’t worth bupkis.”

It occurs to me, see, that I might be a member of the first generation to get that science and religion don’t have to be enemies. While older folks might hear a lot of scientific and religious arguemtns in those terms, I just don’t, and I’m guessing that people my age and younger don’t either. At least, not necessarily. I don’t require religion to take a back seat, or science to rule the world. I want to know which is more reliable for one question or another, but I don’t see either as “fading away” or “taking over the world.”

Are there other people who see it this way? If so, why do we constantly hear about how science has failed us all? Science can’t do everything, but it’s the reason we have penicillin, after all. And religion can’t do everything, but hello, the Ten Commandments come in pretty handy from time to time. Why don’t those of us who don’t see the need for a mortal conflict between science and religion speak up more often?

Fallen?

Argh. I just tried to read a book that I was really interested in. Huston Smith is a genius, as far as I’m concerned, and I loved his The World’s Religions. And so last night I started reading The Soul of Christianity, which is intended to describe “a path between culturally rigid, intolerant evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity and nontranscendent, liberal Christianity.” Sounds fascinating, right? Right.

Well, I ran into a snag right away. Smith begins with a discussion I’ve often heard, how science purported to replace religion and turned out not to be able to do that. I actually agree, but I’m of the opinion that science and religion can work together and that proponents of religion don’t need to be all “na na na na na, science, you suck!” any more than proponents of science need to claim that religion is irrelevant.

But the real snag was something he mentioned in passing. He described proponents of science as “conveniently forgetting that humanity is fallen and in need of redemption from its sinful nature.” It occurs to me that this might be Reason # 11 for why I’m an agnostic. I know the Biblical basis for this belief, and I know the historical basis for it. But I simply can’t share it.

I don’t think that human beings need God because they’re fallen. I think we need God because our job in life is to rise. Whatever you think about evolution, history tells us that we’ve been trying for millenia to be better and failing pretty frequently. But it also tells us that our belief in God has made a huge difference. Or our faith in humanity, or innate sense of justice, or the prophets who have come forward to push us forward by a few centuries in terms of justice and compassion.

But I object to the idea that humanity is fallen. A child needs help, instruction, and time to learn to be a good person. They start out with nothing and they improve and fall back, improve and fall back, and do their best to transcend the amoral state they’re born into. Or they don’t, and cause harm. But how deeply negative to think that humanity needs to apologize for some fallen state! We may need to be saved from ourselves, often from a catastrophic failure to transcend ourselves. But fallen? Can’t go there. However, I also can’t be very articulate about why. So I’ll return to this subject later when I’m less spluttery.