Religion, Non-Religion, and the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 17, 2020

The divide between religious and non-religious people is highlighted by the pandemic. At a recent “Freedom Rally” in Fresno, a woman said she was not afraid of the virus. If she gets sick or infects someone else, she said, it is “all part of God’s plan.”

This represents a dispiriting theology. It is not God’s will that people die from this disease. Scientists know how to stop its spread. It makes no sense to ignore science and blame God.

The conflict between faith and science rages on. Some turn to prayer. May 14 was an international day of prayer, celebrated by Pope Francis and Muslim leaders. Two months ago, President Trump declared March 15 as a national day to “pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” May 7 was another National Day of Prayer. At the May 7 event at the White House, no one wore a mask, including the choir.

In response to all of this praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation declared May 7 as a National Day of Reason. They claim the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. They argue, “irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemics have often prompted religious turmoil. In ancient Athens, a terrible plague turned people away from religion. The historian Thucydides reported that at first the Athenians asked the gods for help. But when prayer had no effect, the people saw the futility of religion.

As the disease spread, general lawlessness broke out. People expected to die soon, so they focused on enjoying themselves in the present moment. They gave up on honor and were not worried about punishment for crime. Thucydides explained that there was no longer any fear of the gods or of the laws.

Something similar occurred during the Black Death. The Italian poet Boccaccio recounts that people made merry and drank themselves silly, since death appeared inevitable. People generally disregarded “the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine.”

The good news is that our pandemic is less severe. The Athenian plague killed one-third of the population. The Black Death killed over half of Europe. Things are better today thanks to modern science. We know how to prevent and treat the bubonic plague. Scientists also know how to prevent COVID-19.

But will faith wane in this crisis as it did in Athens and Italy? When prayer proved ineffective, some people gave up on religion — but not all. Religion is resilient, as recent data show. The Pew Center reports that the COVID-crisis has strengthened the faith of people who were already religious.

But the pandemic has not driven the nonreligious back to religion. Indeed, a growing religious exodus is already well underway. A fourth of all Americans are not religious and a third of those under 40 are nonreligious.

Religion can’t compare to science when it comes to understanding disease. But a religious attitude may be useful for creating solidarity and compassion. History shows that in a pandemic people may selfishly focus on short-term pleasure. But the turn to selfish individualism undermines cooperation and helps the disease to spread.

If religion encourages people to cooperate, care for the suffering, and work to prevent disease, then science and religion can work together. A carefree attitude of partying like there is no tomorrow will undermine cooperation. But the same is true when religious people refuse to cooperate in the name of religious liberty.

In a free country, of course we have the right to pray or to party. But we should be smart about exercising our rights. We can party safely and with social distance. We can also pray, while loving our neighbors and wearing masks.

Thucydides once said that good sense is undermined by haste, passion, and a narrow mind. We do better when we broaden our perspective and think more carefully about science, history, and ethics. We also need a more sophisticated theology that does not blame God for human failure. We must think about the impact that our choices have on others. We should acknowledge that science actually works to save lives. And whether we pray or party, let’s do it wisely.

Religion and Education

Are education and religious liberty mutually exclusive?

Fresno Bee, May 5, 2017

College education generally makes us less religious, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Educated Christians are more likely to go to church on a weekly basis than uneducated Christians. But college graduates are less likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives.

College graduates are also more likely to be atheists. Fifteen percent of those with advanced degrees do not believe in God, while only 6 percent of noncollege grads are atheists. Meanwhile, 42 percent of those without college education think that religious scriptures should be taken literally, compared with 14 percent of those with college degrees.

Science education make religious fundamentalism difficult to sustain. The Earth is a speck among hundreds of billions of stars. Our species evolved long after the dinosaurs went extinct. The land was once covered by ice powerful enough to carve out Yosemite Valley. None of this is recorded in ancient scriptures, which teach that the gods have a special interest in this planet and in human beings. 

HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGY ALSO CHALLENGE RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM.

Traditional accounts of the soul are also being explained away. Biomedical science locates consciousness in the brain. And evil is explained in neurological or psychological terms instead of as a matter of demonic possession.

History and anthropology also challenge religious fundamentalism. The ancient Chinese or the Aztecs never heard of the Christian scriptures. Nor do Christian scriptures mention these ancient civilizations. This makes simplistic declarations about God difficult to understand. When we say “In God We Trust” in our diverse world, which God are we are talking about: Jehovah, Allah, or Quetzalcoatl?

Even within the Christian tradition there are disputes about God and revelation. Mormons, who comprise about 2 percent of the American population, believe that the Book of Mormon is a holy Christian scripture. Other Christians claim this is false.

Scriptural interpretation has evolved over time. The book of Joshua explains that God held the sun still in the sky in order to allow Joshua’s troops to slaughter their enemies. But after Galileo debunked the geocentric model underlying this story, it has been subject to reinterpretation.

Others have questioned the morality of a God whose miraculous power is used to slaughter an enemy. Evolving moral standards have led many Christians to reinterpret scriptures that contain morally problematic passages about slavery, the subordination of women, homosexuality, polygamy, divorce, and so on.

Religious belief has often been flexible and subject to reformation and reinterpretation. Religions evolve to take in new information and reflect new norms. We make sense of ancient texts in light of modern ideas.

Atheists may view all of this as an argument against religion in general. And indeed, a quarter of Americans have left religion behind – either affirming atheism or simply giving up on organized religion.

But religions are persistent. The diversity and flexibility of religious belief is a key to this persistence. Religions that don’t adapt go the way of the dinosaur. No one worships Zeus or Quetzalcoatl any more. But Christianity thrives because of the variety of Christian denominations. There are over 200 different versions of Christianity in the US. You can pick an interpretation that suits your preferences.

LIBERTY ALSO ALLOWS PEOPLE TO CHANGE RELIGIONS.
INDEED, ABOUT A THIRD OF AMERICANS CHANGE THEIR RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION.

Religious liberty thus helps religion to persist. Liberty allows for innovation and development. Liberty also allows people to change religions. Indeed, about a third of Americans change their religious affiliation.

In the free marketplace of religious ideas, religions sell themselves to people and reflect changing tastes. Catholics no longer say Mass in Latin. Protestants have embraced pop music. And Western faiths have incorporated meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices from Eastern traditions.

In the modern democratic and capitalist world, we value educated and informed choice. We want informed consent in health care, in financial transactions and in elections. We should also value informed choice when it comes to declarations of faith. In a democratic culture, we ought to learn about other faiths and shop around. We also ought to leave each other alone to pursue the religious quest in our own way.

Things may have seemed simpler when a common piety was enforced on the uneducated masses. Freedom and science do undermine traditional religious conformity. But modern democratic people have faith in the power of education and religious liberty to make this a better world.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article148835959.html

Celebrating the Virtue of Secularism

Is secularism a danger or an opportunity?

Fresno Bee, May 28, 2016

  • Secularism allows religious and nonreligious people to coexist
  • Science, reason and secularism foster innovation and technology
  • Secularism and godless communism are not the same thing

Nonbelievers are coming out of the closet. The number of admitted atheists and agnostics in the U.S. has nearly doubled in recent years – from 4 percent of the population in 2007 to 7 percent in 2014. Roughly one-fourth of Americans do not have a religious affiliation. In England, non-religious folk now outnumber Christians.

This is seen as a sign of a robust secular system in which nonbelievers are free to express themselves. But some view secularism as a danger. The Rev. Franklin Graham recently complained, “Secularism and communism are one and the same. Secularism is godless. Secularism is taking over our country.” Pope Francis has warned that secularism “has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.”

Franklin Graham-Prayer RallySecularism is not relativism. Secularism is a political system grounded on basic principles of liberty and toleration. These principles allow for a free choice of religious belief – or disbelief. But secular principles are not weak or relative. Secular political life rests upon fundamental claims about the human right to freedom of conscience.

Graham is right that secularism has taken over our country. Secularism became the law of the land when the First Amendment was ratified in 1791. In the subsequent two centuries, we have worked out the details of a political system in which the law states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Graham is wrong to suggest that secularism is necessarily godless or to equate it with communism. Communist governments sought to eradicate religion. But our secular system protects the freedom to worship God, so long as religion does not become entangled with political power.

SECULARISM … CELEBRATES THE FACT THAT IN A FREE SOCIETY
THE FAITHFUL AND THE FAITHLESS CAN WORK TOGETHER.

God-fearing people should support secularism, since secularism allows them to pursue their faith in their own way. Public religious power is curtailed in our system. But individual citizens are free to practice any faith they want – or no faith at all.

NDR_slide2016-2Robust secularism does allow non-religious people to be more vocal. Rationalists and agnostics are finding their voices. One example was the recent call for a “National Day of Reason” on May 5. The Day of Reason idea was initiated by a congressman from Silicon Valley, Rep. Mike Honda, as a response to the National Day of Prayer. In defense of the idea, Honda explained that the success of Silicon Valley was based on “the scientific method and the application of reason.”

Honda has a point. The innovative spirit and technological prowess of Silicon Valley is related to our secular system. Many of the scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are immigrants who come from diverse religious traditions but who share the common language of science. It is difficult to imagine the same sort of entrepreneurial efflorescence and technological prowess developing in non-secular nations such as Saudi Arabia.

Atheists are more vocal under robust secularism. They are displaying growing social power. An atheist donor gave the University of Miami a $2.2 million endowment for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics. The donor, Louis J. Appignani, stated that he wanted to “eliminate discrimination against atheists.”

OUR SECULAR SYSTEM PROTECTS THE FREEDOM TO WORSHIP GOD,
SO LONG AS RELIGION DOES NOT BECOME ENTANGLED WITH POLITICAL POWER.

That’s an important cause in a country where several states have constitutional language preventing atheists from holding office. For example, the Constitution of Tennessee stipulates, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishment, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” Laws like this remain on the books in Tennessee and seven other states, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled over 50 years ago that such laws violate the secular spirit of the Constitution.

Atheists obviously benefit from an inclusive secular society. But the same is true for a wide variety of faiths that have been discriminated against in the past and which suffer discrimination today.

Secularism is opposed to discrimination. It allows for the peaceful coexistence of diverse religious and non-religious people. The fear that secularism is relativist or communistic is misplaced. Secularism rests on the bedrock of liberty. It permits religion and non-religion to flourish. And it celebrates the fact that in a free society the faithful and the faithless can work together, as they do in places like Silicon Valley.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article80280257.html#storylink=cpy

Gratitude

Giving thanks allows us to reconnect with the good in life

Fresno Bee, November 28, 2014 

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Half Dome Thanksgiving

The holidays provide an opportunity to reflect upon gratitude. Our gift-giving rituals allow us to practice the art of giving thanks.

Gratitude is important for living well. Gratitude affirms life and connects us to others. It can even help us feel in tune with the cosmos. Gratitude is kindness reciprocated. It is the resounding echo of love and generosity.

Research in positive psychology has shown that gratitude is linked to happiness. We become happier when we acknowledge what we’ve got to be thankful for. Gratitude also builds and sustains relationships. If you want to feel better and have more friends, learn to say “thanks” often.

As with other virtues, gratitude should be sincere. Insincere expressions of thankfulness are fruitless. Ingratiating flattery is an inevitable part of social life, where schmoozers use gratitude as a tool. But we are social animals, who are pretty good at detecting phoniness. Only sincere gifts and honest gratitude bear the fruit of friendship.

In the end, love and gratitude rest upon the honesty of genuine social relations. True friendship cannot be faked. And gratitude only develops when you really do have something to be grateful for.

In addition to connecting the virtue of gratitude with other virtues such as sincerity and honesty, the world’s wisdom traditions link gratitude with modesty. The Roman Stoics taught that we should not expect much from life and that when something good happens, we should be thankful. Gratitude develops when we see that simple goods are easily obtained. Nearly everyone has something to be grateful for: health, friends, or life itself. Gratitude grows when we view life as a gift, to be lived simply, honestly, and sincerely.

Gratitude also rests upon moderation of desire. Riches, fame, and power tend to stimulate desire, making us feel — oddly enough — ungrateful. Immoderate desires cause ingratitude, leaving us “spoiled.”

Spoiled people are narcissistic. If they give thanks at all, their gratitude is insincere. They expect to receive; but they don’t feel grateful for what they’ve been given. They become resentful when they don’t get the goods they feel they deserve. Resentment builds as acquisitiveness and ingratitude grow.

The solution is modest simplicity. We should expect little and be thankful for much. This helps us recognize love and kindness in simple things.

Ungrateful resentment is a defect of love. Spoiled people have not learned how to love — either how to receive love or how to give it. The art of gratitude aims to receive love with grace and return it with joy.

Christian ethics helps connect gratitude with love. Christians celebrate a loving God, to whom a sort of cosmic gratitude should be given. Religious gratitude points beyond the social world and the simple goods of life toward divine love that gives us the benefits we enjoy.

Such an idea will cause atheist eyes to roll. Atheists often argue that religious thanksgiving is based upon fear of God or a superstitious desire to curry favor with a mercurial deity. Believers might respond by saying that joyful thanksgiving is not fearful and submissive but, rather, a celebration of the goodness of God.

Believers may also suggest that atheists miss out on something important when they do not feel the cosmic sort of gratitude associated with prayers of thanksgiving directed toward a loving God. The atheist may respond by saying that gratitude can be directed to society or to the natural world, which sustains and inspires us. One can acknowledge that life is good without also thinking that it is a gift from God.

This theological dispute should not distract us from the importance of gratitude and love in human life. We are finite and needy beings, whose basic desire for love is only satisfied by a gift from another. Just as you can’t kiss by yourself, you can’t really say thanks by yourself. “Thank you” points toward another person.

Whether the object of our thanks is God, the cosmos, or our friends and family, gratitude reminds us to see love and appreciate kindness. In this difficult world, love and kindness are never guaranteed. That’s why we should be grateful when good happens. And that’s why we should let the good reverberate by saying thanks.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/11/28/4259153_fiala-on-ethics-giving-thanks.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Take care in making judgments about morality

Fresno Bee

March 21, 2014

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html

A report published last week by the Pew Research Center concludes that many people think that belief in God is essential for morality.

In the U.S., 53% of respondents believe that belief in God is essential for morality. These numbers are higher in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The numbers are high in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, where only 37% link belief in God with morality. In European countries the numbers are lower. In France only 15% affirm the religion-morality link.

This data seems to correspond with research done by Will Gervais and other social scientists who indicate that nonbelievers have a bad reputation. People tend not to trust atheists. They don’t want their children to marry one. They are reluctant to hire one. And many will not vote for one.

These sorts of surveys are interesting — but limited. Morality and religion are complicated topics. We should be careful about reducing a millennia-long conversation about religion and morality to a few factoids taken from public opinion polls.

The morality-religion linkage is quite complex. One approach — the Divine Command theory of ethics — holds that morality is based upon God’s commands, understanding moral rules as created by God’s will. Related to this is a claim about moral knowledge: that without a revelation from God, we would not know the moral rules. Furthermore, the motivation to be moral is thought to come from hope for an eternal reward or fear of final judgment.

Critics of atheism may think that since atheists do not believe that there is a judging God, atheists have no reason to be moral. They may think that since atheists reject revelation, they can have no knowledge of morality. And they may think that without God as the source of morality, morality becomes completely groundless.

But this overlooks much. Many religious people do not simply ground morality in God’s literal commands. They interpret and apply moral rules using reason and common sense. It is also true that many atheists are not anti-religious zealots who think that there is nothing to learn from religion or traditional morality. Indeed, many atheists are careful and attentive students of religion.

Atheists and theists can agree that morality makes life easier and better. Murderers, rapists, liars and adulterers lead difficult and miserable lives. Generous, truthful, caring and courageous people tend to be happier. Eternal rewards and punishments raise the stakes. But morality and happiness are closely linked in this world.

A further problem is posed by religious diversity. Those who maintain that belief in God is necessary for morality still have to explain whose God and which morality. Even within a religious tradition such as Christianity, there are big disputes about morality. Christians themselves disagree about a variety of issues, from gay marriage to abortion to the death penalty.

Disputes about religion and morality are deep and contentious. In a world of religious diversity, a broadly tolerant and humanistic approach to morality may be our best hope for finding common ground. We might agree, for example, that everyone is entitled to believe what they want about religion, so long as they respect others’ right to the same freedom of belief. Belief in God is not necessary for belief in religious liberty.

As our awareness of religious diversity increases, we must avoid simplifying the morality-religion question in the way that the Pew Center poll does. Simplistic thinking and stereotyping of this sort can foster intolerance.

Atheists are not necessarily immoral. Nor is it true that religious people are close-minded bigots. Such gross generalizations are disrespectful, unkind and unhelpful. Despite our fundamental differences, we are each struggling to make sense of life and live it well. If we acknowledged our common struggle to live well in a difficult world, we might learn to be more tolerant, generous and caring toward those who do not share our understanding of religious or moral truth.

A global morality of respect for persons and love of our neighbors is fundamental to a free and peaceful world. Morality in this sense is not the exclusive possession of any particular religion (or non-religion). Instead, it is a condition for cooperation among people who disagree about life’s hardest and most important questions.

 

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html#storylink=cpy