Religion Today

Friday, August 07, 2015

Triumph of Abrahamic Monotheism?

Just a couple years ago, the world’s population reached 7 billion. This took place through a centuries-long process of growth and migration -- the same process that formed the distribution of the world’s religions as we now know them today. The current result of that process is somewhat surprising in that more than half of the world’s people follow one of just two religions: Christianity and Islam. These two monotheistic religions comprise the two largest religions in the world.
Christianity and Islam both trace their origins back to the Jewish Patriarch Abraham. The biblical book of Genesis tells how, during the second millennium B.C., Abraham and his household of 80 people followed a god known as Yahweh. Abraham’s family grew into the People of Israel, who formed Judaism, the earliest monotheistic religion, and worshipped Yahweh only. Later, in the first millennium A.D., both Christianity and Islam drew upon Judaism to create new religions worshipping this same God.
Christianity migrated as it expanded. After its origins in the first century in Palestine, it became the religion of the Roman Empire. That established Christianity in the lands around the Mediterranean Sea and then brought it into Europe. When the European nations began colonizing other continents in the mid-second millennium A.D., they carried their religion with them, with the result that the population of three continents became almost entirely Christian: North America, South America and Australia. Christianity also has become the largest religion in the southern half of Africa.
After its origins near the coast of the Red Sea in the seventh century, Islam quickly moved into the Middle East and the northern half of Africa. From there it went east, colonizing the Indian sub-continent and moving farther east into Malaysia and Indonesia, which today constitutes the most populous Muslim nation.
Today, Christianity comprises just under a third of the world’s population, around 2.3 billion. Slightly less than a quarter of the world’s population follow Islam, roughly 1.6 billion.
If we look at a map of the world showing where members of these Abrahamic religions reside in comparison to those of Eastern religions, the impact is even more striking. Christianity or Islam dominate every continent except Asia­ -- and even there Russia and the Middle East belong to the Abrahamic side. About 13 percent of the world’s land area is occupied by members of Eastern religions, while almost 87 percent is dominated by Christianity or Islam.
Of course, this land area view is somewhat misleading, because Asia is home to two of the world’s most densely populated, large countries, India and China. At more than 1.2 billion people each, these two countries contain more than a third of the world’s population between them.
India is in fact home to the world’s third largest religion, Hinduism, which counts about a billion adherents and roughly 14 percent of the world’s population. Asia is home to most of the world’s Buddhists, but guesses about their population are highly uncertain and range around 300 million-350 million.
This is where we reach the limits of our ability to count more precisely, however. Hinduism may be the third largest religion, but it is smaller than the number of people around the world who follow no religion at all. About 16 percent of the world’s population do not attach themselves to any religion. These range from committed atheists to agnostics and secularists to people who check “none of the above” on surveys of religious belonging.
We should not forget communism’s work to stamp out religious belief in China, Russia and other countries, nor the rise of secular and scientific worldviews in Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. The ability to perform a more accurate count might lower each religion’s population a few percentage points. But it would not in the end change the general picture.
Is this a triumph of monotheism? I would not characterize it as such because there is no unity. Islam and Christianity are highly suspicious of each other. Within each religion, large groups do not even recognize other groups as belonging under the same religious umbrella. Evangelical Christians do not recognize the Mormons as Christians even though they are called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Don’t forget that Protestant Christianity was formed through the rejection of the validity of the Catholic Church. In Islam, there is ongoing Sunni questioning of Shiite and Sufi forms of that religion.
So, rather than a single, large monotheistic religious umbrella, monotheism is simply a category that contains numerous, squabbling members. Indeed, the world’s largest Christian nation, the United States, also is the home to the world’s largest variety of Christianities, all of whom would rather remain separate than join together.
Note: Numbers in this essay are based on information found at and For a dynamic graphic illustrating the growth and movement of world religions, go to
Flesher is a professor in the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Department. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at To comment on this column, visit

color coded map of religions
Members of the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam together dominate more than 80 percent of the Earth’s land area. (Dbachmann, Wikimedia Commons)

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Tale of Two Tours

mportant religious buildings, such as synagogues, mosques, temples or cathedrals, derive their significance from their members’ activities in the building. Believers may gather there for worship; they may make personal pilgrimages to it; they may believe that their god dwells there. In other words, the building’s fame and attraction comes from its role as a place of religious activity for its religion’s adherents.
So, what about tourists, people who travel away from their homes to visit important places? Tourists who visit religious sites, as opposed to pilgrims, do not come to worship and rarely belong to the religion associated with the site. They come to a cathedral or a temple because it is famous. They wish to see it and learn more about it; they rarely want to participate in the religious activities held there.
So, how does a place of religious importance treat tourists?
Some religious places allow in no one not belonging to the religion. That was true with the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and it remains true for the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
Other places give the tourists a tour. The character of that tour reveals what the religion, or at least the religious officials who run the site, think is important for visitors to learn.
Take Westminster Abbey in London, for instance, the church linked to the British Houses of Parliament. Thousands of people visit it every day. Its tour is a well-oiled business that describes the building’s history and its place in British history. Highly trained guides lead groups around the entire, large building.
The guides are experts in the church’s history and in its relationship to the government and the monarchs. They know the significance of every tomb, memorial and monument, and can provide key information about everyone buried in the church, from king or queen to poet, playwright or scientist. They can explain the purposes of every side chapel and cloister.
Buildings as old as Westminster require ongoing upkeep, and the wear and tear of the many daily visitors just adds to the building’s deterioration. To pay for the building’s maintenance, the church has numerous money-raising ventures, from entrance fees to the bookshop and the gift shop, to say nothing of the café. In this, the Abbey is just like the many palaces, castles, manor houses and other historical buildings throughout Britain.
Between the historical presentation and the fundraising, Westminster’s ongoing role as a place of worship is nearly invisible. Tourists often fail to realize that three to seven worship services take place daily, including at least one celebration of the Eucharist.
The Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City provides a completely different presentation.
Tourists can keep their wallets in their pockets because there is nothing to buy: no food, no souvenirs, no books and no entrance fees.
The tour guides are quite different. Instead of trained, older professionals, the guides for Temple Square are college-age missionaries. They know the Square, from the Temple itself to the Tabernacle and other buildings, but are not extensively versed in its history. Indeed, being able to give detailed historical information is not their job, and they sometimes simply tell questioners they cannot answer a question. The tourists’ curiosity about the past may be better satisfied by the short videos viewed on the tour.
The tour guides at Temple Square make up in faith and friendliness what they lack in historical knowledge. Their task is to provide an understanding of the Mormon religion, the place of the Temple in that religion and, perhaps most importantly, to give a sense of the vital immediacy of their beliefs in their own daily lives. There is no “hard sell,” but the tour guides mention their faith when relevant, and the tour itself ends comfortably in a contemplative room before a large statue of Jesus Christ, with the two guides each giving a minute or so of “witness” about their religion.
The treatment of tourists at these two religious sites could not be more different. At Westminster Abbey, the guide delivers a historical message of English/British continuity and importance, religious and otherwise, to which the visitors will always remain outsiders. At the Mormon Temple, by contrast, the guides deliver a personal message, one that links the founding of Salt Lake and its Temple to the guides themselves and, through them, the offer is made to the visiting outsiders that they can become insiders, too.

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Religious Freedom, Gay Marriage and the Hobby Lobby Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 27 declared gay marriage legal in all 50 states. Most Americans agree with this decision. However, a significant minority of Americans believe their religion teaches that homosexuality is morally wrong. They fear the legalization of gay marriage will lead to discrimination against them, requiring some of them to participate in gay activities against their conscience.
Their fears are not unfounded. Just a week after the Supreme Court decision, an Oregon court fined a bakery owned by an evangelical Christian couple $135,000 for refusing to supply a cake for a lesbian wedding. Cases like these have led to calls among conservative Americans for a “religious freedom” exemption that would allow employees and businesses to deny service to gays.
More cases like this are occurring, and Christian business owners have publicly stated they deny service to gays. Several state legislatures are considering bills to allow religious-based discrimination.
Can there be a right to deny service to people on the basis of religious beliefs?
In the short term, there will be lots of debate, passing of laws, boycotts and court cases. But if we look 10 years down the road, when the dust begins to settle, the answer will probably be yes, but not in the way religious adherents now hope for.
Current legal decisions and precedents suggest that the right of “religious refusal” of service (to coin a term) will not apply to individual employees. It will be restricted to a limited class of businesses. This limited class will consist only of businesses owned by families or individuals. The reason for this is the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in June 2014.
The Hobby Lobby corporation is owned by a family of evangelical Christians. They challenged the Obamacare law asking to set aside the requirement to provide contraception as part of their company-sponsored health care package, claiming contraception was against their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court decided in their favor, thus setting the owners’ religious beliefs ahead of their employees’ standing before the law.
That decision set two important legal precedents. First, with regard to family-owned companies, when the owning family’s religious beliefs conflict with their employees’ legal rights, the family’s religious beliefs prevail. Second, the employees are subordinate to the religious-based policies set by the family (or individual) who owns the company. That is, the business determines the policy concerning the refusal or granting of service to gays on a religious basis, and the employees must carry it out. The employees’ moral or religious beliefs are irrelevant.
Consider the employees’ situation in light of the debate over the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed in March 2015. Indiana’s RFRA law was written to permit “anti-gay discrimination” against customers on the basis of religious belief. After protests by individuals and big business, the legislature rewrote the law to prevent such discrimination. Perhaps the most important factor in the legislators’ reversal was that companies from Apple to the NBA, from Subaru to Eli Lily, warned Indiana they would boycott the state otherwise.
The involvement of America’s leading companies in the Indiana fracas revealed that most have formulated gay-friendly policies because they understand that gays and their supporters comprise a significant part of their consumer and worker base. If an employee at one of these companies refused service on the basis of personal religious beliefs, he or she would be fired.
The Hobby Lobby decision indicates that the only companies who could gain the right to engage in religious refusal of service to same-sex individuals or couples would be those to which religious behavior can be attributed. Since companies in and of themselves are not religious entities (they do not pray, worship, take communion, attend Mass or “get saved,” for instance), most cannot meet any criteria of religious belief or adherence. How could the “religion” of a public company owned by hundreds or thousands of stockholders be determined?
That is why the Hobby Lobby decision grants only private companies owned by individuals or families --who can have religious beliefs and behave in a religious manner -- a right of religious refusal over their employees. Only these businesses can decide to have a company policy of religious refusal and require their employees to implement it.
Of course there is another type of institution that has religious beliefs and practices. It is not a business but a religious organization: churches, mosques, synagogues and so on. These organizations will be allowed to make policies concerning religious refusal or granting of services to gays. And, again, their employees will have to follow those policies.
So, a decade or more down the road, current law points to a situation in which there will be no religious freedom for individual employees that will allow them to refuse or grant service to same-sex individuals independent of company policy. The right of religious action will be limited to a small class of companies and institutions, and their policies will require their employees practice religious refusal or not. While on the job, employees will lack the right to act in accord with their own religious beliefs.

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

What the Gay Marriage Vote Reveals about Catholic Attitudes in Ireland

Last week, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legalize gay marriage. The vote was 62 percent to 38 percent, with all but one district voting in favor. Rural as well as urban districts, senior citizens as well as young people voted for legalization.
Most United States’ news reports celebrated the vote’s positive side, the gay community’s happiness, and the way the vote unified nearly all sectors of Irish society.
But there is a darker side. Since Ireland is 84 percent Catholic, the vote is seen as an overwhelming rejection of the Catholic Church. This is not surprising. In the last 30 years, weekly Mass attendance in Ireland has dropped from nearly 90 percent to less than 20 percent.
Why this sudden change? It is largely due to the revelation of three horrific practices of the church. As each one came to light, Irish Catholics at first disbelieved but gradually accepted that the church had failed them.
First is the priestly sex-abuse scandal in which a few priests raped and molested hundreds, even thousands, of children over decades. While the acts of these priests were bad enough, church officials in Ireland, as in the United States, failed to halt these crimes. Instead, they covered up the deeds and moved the perpetrators to new places. Rather than removing these criminals, the church enabled them.
Second are the revelations of the church-run state orphanages and reformatories, where rather than being loved and cherished, children routinely were beaten, abused and raped. The Irish government’s 2009 Ryan Report found that thousands of children in these institutions, run by nuns and monks, were often terrorized. According to the report, “ritualized beatings were routine” in girls’ facilities, and rape and molestation were “endemic” in boys’ facilities.
The Irish church and religious orders have refused to assist in investigations, have denied the revelations and shown no remorse or contrition.
Third are the facilities for unmarried mothers. Since the late 1700s, unmarried mothers were sent to so-called “Magdalene” laundries, where they worked as unpaid laborers cleaning clothes. Sometimes they spent their entire lives in the institutions. The last laundry was not closed until 1996.
There also were mother-baby institutional homes around Ireland. Both types of institutions were rife with abuse, beatings and a lack of human decency. Hunger and filth were rampant, and the nuns regularly treated their charges in a degrading fashion.
Furthermore, since 1993, authorities have uncovered more than 4,000 bodies in unmarked graves, including 800 in a sewer near the home in Tuam, that were disposed of by these homes and laundries. The lack of human decency indicated by such treatment and the continuing refusal of religious institutions to provide any information about them has angered the Irish people immensely.
These practices by the Catholic Church in Ireland that have come to light have robbed the church of its moral authority in the eyes of its parishioners. So it is not surprising its teachings about homosexuality were ignored in the vote on gay marriage.
But there is a silver lining. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin observed after the vote, “We (the church) have to stop and have a reality check … I ask myself, most of these young people who voted yes are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I’m saying there’s a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the church.”
Actually the Catholic Church got its message across just fine. In Ireland, the church runs more than 85 percent of the schools, and in those schools it teaches about Christ’s love, that all people are equal before God, and that all sins can be forgiven. For decades it has taught its students the principles of how to be good, how to love “your neighbor” and how to follow a moral and upright life.
The Irish took the principles of love and equality before God and applied them to the question of gay marriage. The Catholic attitudes they learned in school helped them decide that gays should be allowed to marry, just like everyone else.
This attitude of equal treatment for all people, including gays, is not unique to Irish Catholics. Catholics in many parts of the world are in favor of gay marriage. In America, polls since 2010 have shown that a majority of Catholics accept gay marriage, more than any other Christian group. And, as Frank Bruni pointed out in his New York Times essay of May 27, 2015, many Catholic countries already have adopted gay marriage, including Spain, Portugal, France, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Religion in Wyoming and the West: The Religious Landscape Survey

The Pew Research Center for Religion and the Public Life has just released a new survey about the religious identity of Americans. The researchers interviewed more than 35,000 people so that they were able to provide results not just for the United States as a whole, but also for each state. This is the first time that a scientific study of Wyoming’s religious character has taken place.
The big story for Wyoming is that the state has a large percentage of people without religious affiliation. More than a quarter of the population, 26 percent, checked the box labeled “none of the above” when asked what religion they belonged to.
Before looking more closely at Wyoming, it is worth a moment to take a look at the United States overall and the Western region generally. The national headlines from this study will be that the number of “nones” has grown 7 percent since this study was first done in 2007. Across the nation, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated has increased from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. The West has the highest percent of unaffiliated of any of the four regions of the country at 28 percent.
Although America is growing more secular, this should not arouse panic among the religious. If 23 percent are unaffiliated, that means about 77 percent or more have a religious affiliation. Even the data from Vermont, which has the highest number of nones at 37 percent, show that 61 percent of the population is religious and 54 percent follow a form of Christianity.
In this light, the data show that 66 percent of Wyoming’s people adhere to Christianity and about 4 percent follow other religions, with Buddhism being the most numerous (7 percent did not answer this question). So, even though a quarter of Wyoming’s population claims no religious affiliation, 70 percent do. That’s well over two-thirds.
Wyoming’s religious character stands out when we look at it in the context of the other Western states. Wyoming’s percentage of nones is lower than the average for the West, 26 percent vs. 28 percent. Indeed, it is third lowest in the West, with only New Mexico (21 percent) and Utah (22 percent) being lower. But that is still a high number, for no state in the Midwestern or Southern regions has a higher percentage of religiously unaffiliated people.
More significantly, Wyoming has the highest Protestant population in the West. It has the highest number of mainline Protestants (16 percent, tied with Idaho) and the third highest number of Evangelical Protestants (26 percent). At a total of 43 percent, this puts it far ahead of all but Montana, Colorado and Oregon, which are only a couple of points behind.
If you picture the United States map, you will realize that Montana, Wyoming and Colorado make a north-south line and, just to the east of them, are North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. These Midwestern states, like the rest of the Midwest region, have a high percentage of Protestants, ranging from 49 percent to 57 percent. So, the Protestant character of Wyoming and these other two Western states derives from Midwestern influence.
By contrast, Wyoming’s Catholic population is certainly not following the lead of Western states like California or the Southwestern states. In those states, the Catholic population ranges from 21 percent to 34 percent, while Wyoming comes in at just 14 percent. That is well below the national average percentage of Catholics per state. Indeed, it is lower than any state in the Midwest or Northeast regions.
Interestingly, Wyoming is more influenced by Mormonism. At 9 percent, Wyoming has the third highest Mormon population in the West (after Utah and Idaho) and, indeed, in the entire USA.
So, Wyoming’s religious character is overwhelmingly Christian (66 percent) and solidly Protestant (43 percent). Its Evangelical Protestants make up the largest religiously defined group (27 percent).
This is closely followed, however, by those who identify with no religious tradition or organization (26 percent). Only 6 percent of these registered as atheist or agnostic; the other 20 percent selected “nothing in particular.” And, although the number of Mormons in Wyoming ranked third highest in the nation (9 percent), that was still outnumbered by the Catholics (14 percent), even though the state ranked among the lowest in the nation in that category.

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Christian Morality, Gay Marriage and Divorce

While the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether it should legalize gay marriage, the debate continues over whether Christian business people, and others holding religious disagreements over gay marriage, have a right to deny gays wedding services like cake baking, celebratory flowers and photography. This debate centers on laws called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) recently passed by states such as Indiana and Arkansas with the intended purpose of providing that ability.  
It is impossible to predict the high court’s decision or even the future of RFRA laws, but there is another way to address the issue of whether Christians need such an exemption. Of course, not all Christians object to gay marriage; those who do tend to belong to denominations and independent churches that claim to base their beliefs on the Bible.
This type of American Christianity, often called evangelical or born-again Christianity, believes that Jesus -- God in human form -- provides salvation to humanity, and his teachings are paramount. Evangelicals who object to gay marriage claim to be following moral beliefs laid down by Jesus. But, are they really?
Not obviously. Jesus never expresses an opinion about homosexuality, let alone gay marriage. None of the gospels give so much as a hint.
But, born-again Christians, as a group, believe that Jesus would have disagreed with gay marriage if he had said anything about it. Given this belief, how should modern Christians act with regard to gay marriage?
Jesus had clear views on one aspect of marriage, namely, divorce. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us his view; and Matthew does it twice. Jesus is against divorce. A look at how modern Christians handle Jesus’ views on divorce should reveal a model for Christian behavior with regard to gay marriage.
Jesus holds that God does not approve of divorce. Moreover, divorced people who remarry, according to Jesus, are guilty of adultery. In Mark 10:11, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This view is reiterated in Luke 16 and Matthew 19.
Given Jesus’ clear and strong statements about the sins of divorce and remarriage, born-again cake bakers, flower arrangers and wedding photographers should be refusing to participate in the weddings of divorcees.
No such refusals have come to light.
Why not? Because evangelicals, born-again Christians and other biblically based Christians divorce frequently. Indeed, their divorce rates seem higher than those of other Americans.
According to a 1998 study by the evangelically oriented Barna Research Group, 29 percent of Baptists, by which the study means Southern Baptists and independent Baptists, have been divorced. Only members of non-denominational Protestant churches, mostly Pentecostal or evangelical, divorced at a higher rate: 34 percent.
By contrast, only 21 percent of atheists, Catholics and Lutherans had been divorced. They were below the national average of 24 percent.
Christian organizations heavily criticized Barna for this study for not taking into account mitigating factors. Most born-again Christians marry much younger than other demographic groups, have less education at the time of marriage and are often poor. All these known factors make divorce more likely.
When Barna studied divorce rates again in 2008, they changed their survey methodology. This resulted in an average overall divorce rate of 33 percent, and most Christian groups registered within a point or two of that number. Only Catholics were significantly lower, at 28 percent. (Atheists were at 30 percent).
Both Barna studies of American Christians and divorce indicate that Christians get divorced as frequently as, or perhaps more frequently than, non-Christians. Jesus’ express views on the matter make no difference to divorce among today’s Christians. A third of them willingly violate his explicit statements.
So, if modern Christians engage regularly in practices that Jesus forbade, then those Christians should not have the right, based on their religious beliefs, to deny services to people who engage in practices that Jesus neither forbade nor even expressed an opinion. As Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Robot Morality

In research worthy of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot,” Bertram Malle is working to design a moral robot. Malle is the co-director of Brown University’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative, and his approach is to create a robot that can learn moral behavior from the people around it. Ideally, you would surround the robot with morally good people, and the robot would learn ethical beliefs and behavior from them.
Like a child and its parents, the robot then would be taught morality and behavior by the people looking after it. Of course, there would be no need to limit the teachers to just two people. Once beyond the basics, robots could even crowd-source their ethical education. When two principles it learns come into conflict, the robot could seek guidance and feedback from those it knows.
But what happens if the robot falls in with the wrong crowd? Perhaps the robot gets stolen by a criminal gang that teaches it how to be a thief or a murderer.
To avoid such a scenario, the robot should be equipped with a set of core rules that would guide its learning. Like Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” the guidelines would direct the robot away from doing harm and evil and toward doing good. The key question, then, is what are those rules?
Malle indicates these rules would need to include the prevention of harm to humans, like Asimov’s Law 1 “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm,” as well as guidance concerning the politeness and respect required for smooth human interactions.
Another rule that would be needed is to treat all people the same, that is, according to the same ethical principles and behavior. As Malle puts it, “we can equip robots with an unwavering prosocial orientation. As a result, they will follow moral norms more consistently than humans do, because they don’t see them in conflict, like humans do, with their own selfish needs.”
The problem with human morality Malle identifies here is the selfishness of each individual. Selfishness often prevents humans from doing what they consider to be the morally correct act. Robots would not be diverted from moral behavior by selfishness because they lack a self. They have as much self-awareness as a TV or a refrigerator. They would be a moral machine, always behaving ethically, without any personal needs or desires to sidetrack them.
But there is a second problem with human morality, namely, to whom should ethical behavior apply? Humans are always joining with other people in groups, and people often treat members of these groups differently from those who do not belong.
Family members treat each other differently from the way they treat non-family members. Friends behave differently toward each other than toward mere acquaintances.
We conduct our relations with members of our religious organization differently from those who do not belong, or more importantly, from those who disagree with our religion. The fracas in Indiana about religious freedom and discrimination against gays is a case in point.
Other groups affect our behavior toward others. During an election, we behave differently toward members of different political parties.
Some people treat members of certain racial groups or ethnic groups different from those of our own. Just think about our current national argument over white police shooting black citizens, or the problems surrounding Hispanic immigration.
Once robots are programmed with the rule to treat all people the same, without regard to their group membership, these problems would be avoided. Since robots have no more self than a pickup truck, the human tendency to identify their self with groups would not take place. Robots would have no reason to treat Hispanics or Asians differently from whites. They would not behave toward evangelical Christians with one set of moral standards, toward Catholics with another and toward Muslims with a third.
In other words, robots would be more moral than human beings. Their ability to perform in a morally consistent manner toward everyone they meet would be superior to our own.
Of course, research into robotics has not yet reached the ability to program robots in this way, but scientists like Malle are working toward that goal. It is sobering to think, however, that robots could outperform humans not only in raw calculating and thinking power, but also in terms of ethical behavior.
Note: This essay draws from “How to Raise a Moral Robot,” by Bertram Malle, livescience, April 2, 2015 (

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Religious Freedom and Christianity

There may be a lot of smoke, but the fire is pretty small. The nationwide political tempest around Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is much bigger than the law itself deserves.The bill’s proponents touted this as law to “protect” the religious rights of Christians (in particular) who do not want to support gay weddings because they do not believe in same-sex marriage. The bill’s opponents argue that it is a license to discriminate.
Neither is correct. An RFRA law is a tool that allows the accused in a discrimination lawsuit to use religious belief as a defense. It does not require the judge or the jury to agree that the belief provides the defendant a compelling reason to discriminate. In the 20 years since the first RFRA was passed (in federal law), no court case has been successful in permitting anti-gay discrimination.
In other words, RFRA laws provide no automatic right to discriminate on a religious basis. All they do is provide the mechanism for a case that would determine whether a person’s belief rises to a threshold sufficient for such discrimination. Never have anti-gay views, in any form, risen to that threshold.
Of course, future court cases may be different. But, it will be a long and arduous legal process, and the outcome may well be that RFRA laws do NOT permit religious discrimination against homosexuals by individuals or corporate entities.
Since the Indiana law gained national attention, a lot of ink (both physical and virtual) has been spilled discussing it. RFRA laws have become a political symbol in the ongoing national debate over same-sex marriage but, given their actual wording, they are a rather hollow symbol.
Why do Christians need protections from homosexuals? The president of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, gave one common answer: “The government shouldn’t force religious businesses and churches to participate in wedding ceremonies contrary to their owners’ beliefs.”
Are Christians so fragile that they are harmed by being employed in weddings they do not theologically agree with? 
Jesus taught his followers to be tougher than that. Should they be oppressed through violence or compulsion, they should not rise up and resist. If hit on one cheek, they should offer the other. If forced to walk a mile, they should go a second (Matthew 5:38-42).
Jesus continued this set of ideas by concluding, “Give to him who begs from you.” How does this apply? When a same-sex couple asks a Christian photographer to photograph their wedding, he or she should say yes, and be glad they are willing to pay!
Jesus consistently taught his devotees to love their neighbors. When questioned about who was a neighbor, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. A Samaritan, a class of people despised by Jews, stopped to help a Jew who was beaten when no one else would. He even paid for medical treatment (Luke 10:25-37). And Jesus’ moral for this story? This is what a person must do to “inherit eternal life.”
Just so that his followers would not mistake his point, Jesus even required them to love their enemies, saying that otherwise they were no better than tax collectors (Matthew 5: 43-47).
When he describes his role in the Great Judgment, Jesus makes clear that he is on the side of the oppressed, of those who suffer discrimination. He identifies with the oppressed and says, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
So, what would Jesus do? It is clear, from his own words, that Jesus would not approve of Christians discriminating against anyone. Those who do are in danger of losing their access to eternal life. Instead, they should be helping those they disagree with, even when they disagree with the outcome.
In the end, the question facing American Christianity is what do Christians want to be known for? Is Christianity the religion of discrimination, of treating people as second-class citizens, or is it the religion of loving neighbors and enemies as Jesus taught?

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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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