Religion Today

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Preventing Terrorism by Studying Humanity


The big news on the ISIS front last week was the identity of “Jihadi John,” the guy who has been cutting off heads in the ISIS videos. He is Mohammed Emwazi, who grew up in London, immersed in British culture. He attended the University of Westminster, earning a degree in computer science.
Computer science at the undergraduate level works to create certain habits of thought. In both writing software and building hardware, the tools and the objects created follow rules. Once the student understands the rules and their interaction, they can make something that works the same way every time.
Computer science is a type of engineering, and there is a striking link between terrorists and engineering. Terrorist leaders usually have a higher degree, and that degree is more likely to be in engineering than in any other field. Two of the masterminds of 9/11 were engineers. Further analysis in 2009 by professors Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog revealed 44 percent of known educated terrorists had engineering degrees.
How can we explain this link? A lack of job opportunities provides a partial explanation, pointing to a frustration of expectations and a need to seek other options. But, why turn to Islamic terrorism?
In a nutshell, engineers do not study enough humanities or social sciences. Most engineering education contains few courses that teach about human beings as individuals and as groups. The engineering curriculum is notorious for requiring as many courses as possible in the technical area and for resisting any course not providing directly relevant knowledge. But, so what?
Engineering is like computer science; it builds things. To build successfully within the physical world, engineers must work with an extremely complex array of rules.
Engineering’s ability to build reliable bridges, roads and skyscrapers, or more cool things like space rockets and iPhones, repeatedly demonstrates how engineers have mastered the physical, chemical, and other rules of materials, and put them together in increasingly useful ways.
Is human behavior equally rule driven? Do individuals and groups have that same predictability and reliability? No, of course not. None of the humanities or social science disciplines would claim that.
To be sure, fields from political science and sociology to literature and religious studies make general observations about the character of human activity, but those observations focus on how humans make choices from the variety of possibilities before them, rather than follow biologically hard-wired rules. Study in any field reveals the wide variability of human activity and belief.
Religions, however, are different. Available to most of the world’s people, even those lacking education, religions lay out guidelines for belief and behavior. Religions claim their rules apply universally and are reinforced by a god -- or gods -- in both the natural and the supernatural worlds.
Religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, for example, organize humanity into those who belong and those who do not, providing instructions for how members should behave among themselves and how they should treat outsiders.
In western religions, those distinctions are often formulated in terms of sin, of whether a person’s behavior is good or evil. And true justice, as defined by the religion, can only be found within the religion.
Of course, every religion contains many groups with different guidelines. In my small hometown, the phone book contains 44 different churches. That is 44 different sets of guidelines about good and evil. Think about how many options there are among the billions of the world’s people!
So, “Jihadi John” receives a higher education that teaches him how to think with rules, but exposes him neither to modes of thought that lack such rules or to ways of thinking about humanity.
When John finishes his degree and fails to find a job, he starts thinking about human beings and injustice -- especially injustice to himself. Where does he turn? To his religion, for it is the only relevant mode of thought he knows.
Led in his naiveté by radical Muslim recruiters, he follows the rules they teach him to their logical end. God has divided humans into the good and the wicked, a.k.a. the believers and the infidels. God has ordained that, although the infidels control the world, the believers will overcome them and the wicked will be eliminated. So, he concludes, literally, off with their heads.
What can prevent this scenario? As leading engineering colleges such as MIT and Harvey Mudd have understood, more education in humanistic disciplines, learning how to think about human nature and society, and learning that humans do not conform to a limited set of precise rules. That would provide some way, other than religion, to think about the character of human life.
Note: This essay draws from Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, “Why are there so many Engineers among Islamic Radicals?” European Journal of Sociology 2 (2009): 201-230.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How to Think about Religious Freedom

The Bill of Rights’ First Amendment aims to prevent the government from restricting the freedom of individuals to believe and worship as they see fit. It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This does a good job of keeping federal, state and local governments from interfering with the rights of individuals, but it does not keep individuals from interfering with one another’s rights. In order to prevent that interference, and to provide balance between the religious freedoms of different individuals and groups, government has been forced to pass laws about religious matters.
In response to the increasing legality of gay marriage, many states have established laws based on the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), bipartisan legislation signed by President Bill Clinton.
These state laws purport to protect businesses from being forced against their beliefs to provide services to gay couples. This is especially contentious for those who supply cakes, photographs and wedding services to couples getting married. A Christian baker in Colorado recently refused to bake a cake for a gay couple because he considered homosexuality a sin.
Rather than debate the specifics of the various cases and positions on them, which have already received extensive public argument, I want to lay out what I see as four main issues to consider when thinking about religious freedom. These differences identified may not have a legal status, but they will help us reflect on the degree of compromise necessary to maintain the most religious freedom in our society.
First, what level of religious practice is being considered? Practice can stretch from private, silently held beliefs to their vocal or written expression to actions that put beliefs into practice or worship. It is one thing, for instance, to believe that homosexuality is a sin; it is another thing to wave placards stating that belief.
And what kind of beliefs are being put into practice? Beliefs about worship, about how one relates to one’s god, differ from beliefs about morality, which are about how one relates to other people.
Second, how visible are religious activities? Some religious activities, like prayer, can be done in the privacy of one’s room, shared with family, performed communally in a church or out among the general public. Does one’s right to pray differ among these locations? Should it?
Third, do the religious activities cause harm? One’s religious activities, by and large, should not hurt other people, prevent them from relying on public services or in any other way restrict their rights. Should a Christian doctor refuse to treat a Jewish or Hindu patient because the latter believes in the wrong god(s)? Can a hotel clerk refuse to rent a room to an unmarried couple because he or she believes in the sanctity of marriage?
Fourth, are individuals acting as themselves or as representatives of governments or corporate entities? People play different roles in society. The same individual can be a parent, a child, a friend or a boss. The First Amendment already makes clear that government officials cannot show preference to a religion.
So, Kelvin Cochran, the Atlanta fire chief who recently passed out his religious book to everyone in his department, was violating this rule. However deep in his own convictions, he was supposed to act as a government official, not as a religious individual. There is a difference between his self and his role.
Furthermore, people who work for a company represent that company when they are on the job. They are expected to follow the company’s policies, even down to the dress code, and present the company’s interests in the best light, interacting with their customers in accordance with company guidelines. While on the job, they are not supposed to act in accordance with their own beliefs.
Each of these four areas needs to be considered when thinking about whether and how an individual, or a group of individuals, can act in accordance with their religious beliefs. When the four considerations are brought together in different situations and circumstances, the results will differ, sometimes allowing individual religious freedom and sometimes not. It is the complications in trying to evaluate a specific action in light of these four potentially conflicting concerns that cause so much confusion about religious freedom.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Charlie Hebdo's True Goal

The Muslim terrorists who murdered the staff at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, claimed to be retaliating for the magazine’s attacks on Islam and on Muhammad, its founding prophet. Islam was not Charlie Hebdo’s only religious target. Jews, Catholics, the Pope and even Jesus were often subjects of the publication’s cartoons.
The killings of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are horrific, both for the loss of life and for the shockingly appalling way they were carried out. And the “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) phrase brought together the people of France, and indeed people around the world, in mourning, resolution and protest.
But, as David Brooks pointed out in his New York Times piece last week, most of us are not Charlie Hebdo. The satirical publication is widely hated in religious and political circles of all stripes. And before the murders, so few French people read it that it was in serious financial difficulties.
The publication launches rather sophomoric attacks on just about everything that some segment of western society holds dear. If you were not offended by something in one issue, wait for the next one. A recent sketch featured the Holy Trinity in an explicitly sexual ménage a trois, while another made fun of gay marriage. Many of its graphic covers could not be displayed on the magazine shelves of American shops.
But Islam and Catholicism were not Charlie Hebdo’s primary target, even when they were the cartoons’ subject matter. Jonathan Turley pointed out in his Jan. 8 New York Times essay that the French government, in recent years, has passed legislation that restricts the free speech of French citizens. Charlie Hebdo worked to push back against these new laws.
The new restrictions on speech gained ground in France after the worldwide protests (and deaths, both planned and accidental) over the Muhammad cartoons in 2006. France and other European nations passed a variety of laws restricting anti-religious speech, in part, out of a concern for public safety.
But since then, actress Bridget Bardot has been sentenced for criticizing gays and Muslims in a letter to the French president, while fashion designer John Galliano was convicted and fined for making anti-Semitic remarks in a café. The “speech police” have gone beyond public speech to monitoring semi-private and private speech here; whether or not you agree with these speakers’ views, this is an insidious development.
This situation reminds us of a truth that America’s founding fathers recognized: Namely, freedom of religion is linked to freedom of speech, even though speech can be for or against particular religions or religion in general. Our Constitution’s First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” The free exercise of speech and religion go hand in hand.
Of course, even in America, freedoms are not absolute. The rights of a single individual must be balanced against the rights of every other individual, as well as against the rights of various groups, including religious and ethnic groups, educational institutions, governments and so on. We usually refer to this opposition as the individual vs. society. The question is, where do you set the fulcrum to ensure the correct balance? This is the ongoing debate.
In western countries, where the Enlightenment has freed us, as Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, for government rule “of the people, by the people, for the people,” we put the fulcrum quite close to the individual side of the bar. To move the balance toward the society end of the scale, as France has done by protecting religious groups from criticism, not only removes freedom of speech about these groups, but freedom of speech within the nation as a whole.
If one group can be protected from criticism, then other groups can be protected (e.g., businesses, politicians, government). It becomes only a matter of legislative whim. The ability to deprive people of their freedom of speech thus strikes at the very heart of democracy and the French value of Liberté.
By its extreme satirization of religions, Charlie Hebdo worked to create a safe place for free speech, where average French citizens could discuss and debate without fear of arrest or accusation. It aimed to re-establish the fulcrum of free speech way over on the side favoring individual rights.

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Friday, January 09, 2015

The Great Moral Debate

The biggest ethical debates in American society have been issues where there is not an obvious right or wrong, where one side is not definitely good and the other side obviously wicked.

Indeed, the most difficult moral struggles our society has faced over recent decades are ones where Christian churches have been prominent on both sides. This was certainly true for the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the women's rights movement of the 1970s. For both of these, churches were on the forefront of both sides of the debate. Why was this? How can Christians who all follow the teachings of Jesus Christ disagree so passionately over the practice of those teachings?

At the risk of oversimplifying these difficult ethical issues, I want to suggest that they are actually part of a larger moral debate that has been going on since the start of Christianity and will probably continue until its end (and perhaps beyond). I refer to the debate between moral principles and moral answers.

What do I mean by this? In the gospels, Jesus presents most of his ethical teachings as principles. Usually, they are given in the form of short, wise sayings, such as "love your neighbor" or "judge not, and you will not be judged." Other times they are given as parables, such as when the young man to whom Jesus said "love your neighbor," responded by saying, "who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told him the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A moral answer comes from the application of a moral principle to a particular circumstance. For example, an acquaintance angers me. Should I hit him? The application of the moral principle "love your neighbor" gives the moral answer that I should not. In this particular situation, the answer is "do not hit!"

So, what is the “Great Moral Debate?” Over the years, generations and centuries, Christians have taught both moral principles and moral answers. Moral answers serve well for guiding behavior when the answer is already known (I know I'm not supposed to hit others). But, guiding behavior by moral answers, requires learning lots of circumstances and the appropriate moral answer. What happens when one encounters a circumstance for which there is not a learned answer?

Moral principles, by contrast, are more flexible, and one principle might cover a number of situations (including unexpected new ones). Loving my neighbor, for example, also indicates that I should help people in trouble, as well as refrain from hitting them.

But, the problem with moral principles is that they come without clear instructions. There is no clear-cut delineation of circumstances in which to apply them, for instance. When the young man asked Jesus who his neighbor was, he was expecting a clear definition. Instead, Jesus answered by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus thus increased the possible definitions of "neighbor" rather than limiting them.

So, how does the distinction between moral principles and moral answers address our opening question of why serious Christians take opposing sides on ethical issues? The difference comes from whether the Christians respond to an issue with a learned answer or with the application of a principle. To the question of whether women should take a speaking role in worship services, for example, the apostle Paul gave the moral answer that women should keep silent in church.

Today, many Christian denominations have looked at the issue of women’s roles again and applied the moral principle of equality -- of everyone being equal in the eyes of God. In those denominations, women have become ministers, priests and, in some, even bishops. Both sides gave a Christian response to the issues, but one side gave a moral answer while the other applied a moral principle. The Anglican Church in England, for example, just appointed its first female bishop in December.


In the newest moral dilemma in America, gay marriage, different Christian denominations are again on different sides. So, watch for the “Great Moral Debate” behind the scenes, the one between moral principles and moral answers.

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Why did Joseph live in Galilee? (column for 12/27/2014)


When Caesar Augustus decided to conduct a census of the Roman Empire, he did not send interviewers door-to-door to count each village’s residents, as is the practice in the USA’s census taking. Instead he required each man to return “to his own city.” In Luke’s gospel, chapter two, this accounts for why Joseph leaves his northern home in Galilee and undertakes a week-long journey with his wife-to-be to the town of Bethlehem, which is in southern Judea.

But why is Joseph in Galilee in the first place?  If his ties to Judea are so strong that he must return there for the census, what could have motivated him to ever leave it? Although we cannot give a definite answer, there is a sequence of historical events that may indicate why Joseph, a descendant of David’s royal house, a house identified with Bethlehem of Judea, lived in Galilee. In short, the answer is that a century or less earlier, Joseph’s ancestors took part in a mass migration of Judeans to settle in Galilee.

The story actually begins in 732-722 BC, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel, which included the regions of Galilee and Samaria. The book of Second Kings relates in chapter 17 how the inhabitants were carried off to Assyria in exile. A few years later, residents of other regions of the empire were brought to Samaria and settled there. 

Galilee’s situation after the conquest has long been unclear. Was it treated like Samaria, which 2 Kings specifically mentions, or was it treated differently?

Archaeologist Zvi Gal has recently discovered that Galilee was emptied of population by the Assyrian conquest and essentially remained desolate until the beginning of the first century BC.  His on-the-ground examinations of the occupation history of 80 different Galilean sites showed a six-century break in habitation. Other archaeological investigations confirm this conclusion.

So where did the Galileans of Jesus’ day come from? 

The ancient historian Josephus indicates that in 104-103 BC, the Maccabean king of Judea, Aristobolus, took control of Galilee on his way further north to conquer the Itureans who lived west of Mt. Hermon. His successor, Alexander Janneaus, sent thousands of Judeans north to settle Galilee and farm its rich agricultural land during his 25-year reign. Not only did this give Judeans access to an increased amount of agricultural products, but it also solved an apparent crisis of over-population in Judea.

Archaeological evidence also makes it clear that these new inhabitants were from Judea, for the excavated finds from the first centuries BC and AD follow the same characteristics as those of Judea. In particular, Galilean finds reveal the same concern for ritual purity with regard to the Jerusalem Temple typical of Judea. The finds characteristic of Judea and Galilee that differ from the surrounding regions include: immersion pools for purification baths, stone drinking vessels which protect from impurity, the practice of ossuary burial, and an absence of pig bones in the waste heaps.

If Joseph’s family came to Galilee by this scenario, then it is quite possible that it was his grandfather who migrated from Judea to Galilee in the early decades of the first century BC. Or, it could have been his great-grandfather. In addition, the same scenario may apply to Mary, but her engagement to Joseph caused the gospels to record only his family lineage, and leave hers out.

The implications of this repopulation of Galilee during the first century BC are quite significant, for it indicates that the people called Galileans had lived in that area for less than a century at the time of Jesus’ birth; they did not represent a centuries-old population of that area. Their identity was still primarily Judean and had not yet been transformed into a Galilean distinctiveness.


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White Christmas (column for 12/10/2014)

OK, admit it. You like the Christmas song, “White Christmas.” Or at least you did until you heard it too many times as muzak.  Well, maybe I am overdoing it. But even if
only half of us enjoy the song, that fact illustrates the piece’s popularity and success. In fact, this song may be the best-liked song in the USA, and not just for Christmas. It has been recorded more times, and those recordings have sold more copies, than any other song.

The popularity of “White Christmas” is more than just a interesting tidbit to be remembered for the Christmas edition of the Jeopardy quiz show. It reveals how a large part of America has thought about Christmas for over half a century.

Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1942 for the film “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; it won Berlin an Oscar. In 1954 a second film along the same theme was released with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. To help promote the film, they named it after its featured song, “White Christmas.”

The 1950s were a pivotal time in twentieth-century America. Young people returned from WWII, got married, and started families. Families required places to live, which led to a boom in new houses and new neighborhoods. And these families were religious and required places to worship near them. In response, more churches (and synagogues) were built in America during the 1950s than in any other 10-year period of our history. People attended the new churches in droves and for those who could not, the new technology of television devoted Sunday morning to religious programming.

In this context, it may come as a surprise that “White Christmas” was such a popular song. It had no religious content. It did not mention the gospels’ Christmas story, nor even refer to worship, a church, or anything that could be construed specifically Christian. Instead, the words recall the glistening of snow, the sound of sleigh bells, and writing Christmas cards. The last two lines even sound like a greeting card, “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”

Nor does the film “White Christmas” fill in the religious elements lacking in the song. The film emphasizes the importance of seeking and holding on to relationships after WWII, in particular, finding marriage partners. The two male leads, both song-and-dance men, are ex-soldiers and still single. By the movie’s end, they have found women who love them and who the movie implies they will marry. The film telegraphs the message that Christmas is a time for families, and the holiday’s special character helps create them.

The film neither emphasizes nor even mentions the religious aspect of Christmas. The closest the film comes are references to bells, once referring to sleigh bells and the other time to “merry bells,” rather than to church bells. The show’s other songs avoid mentioning the word “Christmas,” singing about “Snow” and “Happy Holiday.”

So how should we interpret the popularity of the secular song “White Christmas” with the high level of American religiosity in the 1950s?  The answer is simple: American society was comfortable acknowledging and even celebrating all aspects of the Christmas holiday. To talk about family, snow and Christmas cards at one moment did not mean that a person did not talk about Jesus, Mary and the shepherds at another. To say “Happy Holiday” in one breath did not mean that a person did not say “Merry Christmas” in another.


The explicitly religious character of the holiday did not block out elements that lacked such links. America’s heightened religiosity of the 1950s was inclusive and multifaceted; it allowed for a wide variety of religious and non-religious expression and did not find it threatening.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let’s Reschedule Thanksgiving!


With more than five feet of snow in Buffalo, N.Y., and temperatures having fallen into negative territory across most of the northern states, winter has arrived, no matter what date the calendar labels as the season’s official start. Forgotten are August’s grain harvest and September’s apple picking. We are bundled up against the winter wind, shoveling our walks and winterizing our vehicles.

So, why are we only now celebrating Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is supposed to be a harvest festival. If it commemorates the first harvest of the Pilgrims after they landed in Massachusetts Bay in 1622, then the last Thursday in November is the wrong date. While the exact date of the Pilgrims’ feast is unknown, the two contemporary records of the event make clear it took place in thanks for the harvest gathering just completed.
Since Massachusetts is quite far north in the United States, then the harvest would have been completed by early September. If we include the pumpkin harvest, which ripens latest, the date could have been late September, perhaps the first week of October. None of these possibilities gets close to the start of November, let alone the end.
The real problem with Thanksgiving is that the date was set before our modern, school-based calendar and it really ruins the fall schedule. Coming three months into the four-month fall semester, it places a three-day holiday just one month before an even larger Christmas break. And because it is so long, it prevents a decent fall break halfway through the fall semester, when it would do the students some good.
At the time the date for Thanksgiving was established, school was the last thing on anyone’s mind. There was no national requirement for universal education, even at the primary level. By 1900, only two-thirds of the states required or funded public education. Now that the school calendar shapes the year’s rhythm, we should align Thanksgiving with it.
As a teacher, I find that Thanksgiving prevents a strong push with a solid final unit. If I start before Thanksgiving, then the big break occurs and students forget half of what they learned. If I start afterward, then there is not enough time.
And pity the poor music teachers trying to get the kids ready for the Christmas concerts. Just a week or two from the big event, they disappear from rehearsals for half a week.
And there is no real reason Thanksgiving has to take place in late November. It does not commemorate any specific religious event, like Christmas or Easter. One can “give thanks” anytime. To the extent that one gives thanks for a harvest (the Pilgrims’ or our own), it is appropriate any time from late August to October.
Why is Thanksgiving celebrated when it is? For the early decades of our nation’s history, Thanksgiving was a state celebration, with different states celebrating at different times. In the 1820s, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the influential “Godbey’s Lady’s Book,” began an annual campaign to establish a national holiday.
Her promotion gradually gained a following until, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln decreed a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Lincoln saw this as a way of celebrating the importance of national unity during the Civil War.
Yet, Lincoln established the holiday for only one year. He and his presidential successors inaugurated a tradition of proclaiming the holiday each year afterward. It was not until Congress voted during 1941 to establish a permanent holiday, at the instigation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that we have Thanksgiving as we now celebrate it.
So, the presidential link to Thanksgiving lies in the emphasis on national unity during war. Thanksgiving is important, but their emphasis is not thanksgiving for the harvest, but for the nation and for the sacrifice soldiers were making for it. Again, this is an important reason to be thankful, but not one that requires any specific date.
So, let’s move Thanksgiving to the middle of October. That way, harvest will be over and the crops stored away. It will be late enough to eat pumpkin pie, but not so late that winter will be upon us. The festival will take place in the middle of the fall, so it will fit nicely into the school calendar and provide students with a much needed break, helping them concentrate better the rest of the semester.

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