Religion Faces Economics, The Dismal Science.

The Methodist denomination has a committee devoted to its economics. The Committee’s latest report makes more sense than anything I have seen for dealing with the Methodist’s, and other denominations including Catholic’s, declining membership.

Economics is often called “The Dismal Science” because it gives the truth to people who do not want to hear it. In this case, a loyal Methodist economist told his denomination it will be gone in 15 years if something does not change.

Methodist churches mostly are in the wrong locations, new locations are needed, and the Denomination needs to attract a wider racial diversity. Yet, he stated, these by themselves will not save the Denomination.

The denomination’s “infrastructure”, its bureaucracy, seminaries, bishops and conferences are unsustainable. There is a proposal to address this.

The proposal is to move toward a denomination with an infrastructure that uses more volunteers. Money is earmarked for study and implementation of a volunteer driven Methodist denomination.

There are a couple of things that make this economics-based report striking. First, it is a realistic admission that the changes taking place in Christianity are permanent and require something other than platitudes and prayers.

Second, a 15 year life projection is a brief time to make adjustments to the new reality. It means dramatic success is needed membership growth and cost cutting within the next very few years to offset the decline. Methodists will be competing with all other denominations to attract racial minorities.

In spite of the dismal report, facing reality is always a good thing to do.

[A link to this discussion is in comments.]


Gay Rights are Helping Abortion Rights.

The abortion rights case called Roe v Wade used privacy as the argument for abortion rights. This right to privacy has been a staple in arguments against sodomy laws and for early homosexual rights.

Privacy was an attractive concept to use in the early 1970’s.  Justice Blackmun liked his doctor friends and thought they should decide about abortions.

Justice Ginsburg has criticized the Roe decision that relied on privacy because it said nothing about a woman’s right to manage the timing of her children that she may have a life and career opportunities equal to that of a man. Equal rights, not privacy should have been used she believes.

In gay marriage privacy has been replaced with the equal opportunity argument. The more the equal opportunity argument has been used, the stronger the case for gay marriage has become.

The equal opportunity argument is beginning to be used in abortion rights. It cannot replace privacy too soon.

Anti abortion zealots have been successful in adding ridiculous costs and requirements making abortion more expensive and less available. These raise equal opportunity issues.

If Roe was overturned and law enforcement was given the responsibility to monitor all pregnant women to seen that their fetuses were adequately cared for inside women’s bodies, many women’s opportunities for work would be sacrificed. They would be even more at a disadvantage competing with men than they are now.

Use of the equal opportunity argument could become anti abortion zealots worst enemy.

[A link to this legal argument can be found in comments.]

The Internet and Religious Transparency.

Along with the latest Pew numbers about numbers leaving the faith is the apparent increase in pastors/priests who have become skeptics of the faith.

It seems safe to say that the availability of information on the internet has allowed millions of people to look into the claims made by the faith.  Young people in Islam  questioning its claims as well.

Religion thrives best when it can keep secrets. When people can see behind the curtain there is trouble.

It appears the internet has changed not only ordinary people, but many who make their livings as clergy as well. Think of the priest/pastor who went to seminary, has a library of books he read there, is provided with information from normal channels about new books and sermon topics and continues through his/her career as is expected by his church.

Then, the internet brings that clergy member new ideas and information he/she may never have encountered before. In some cases, it changes minds.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sponsors a website for clergy who no longer believe but are must stay in their profession to make a living. I have heard there are some hundreds of subscribers. The link says this may be the canary in the coal mine.

A recent book tells the stories of these clergy. If the faith’s case in weak for the general public, it seems inevitable more clergy will find it so as well.

The internet has helped some groups in world society but harmed religion.

[A link discussion transparency in religion is in comments.]

A New Term: The Benedict Option.

Saint Benedict lived in the 500’s and advocated living the faith in seclusion. It was withdrawal from the frustrations of worldly life.

The religious right has begun to discuss a reversal of it last few decades of deep involvement in politics. The Moral Majority launched by Jerry Falwell featured an optimism and faith in the concept of majority. Surely it is true, the thinking went, the political majority thinks like us. All we have to do is follow the rules and we will prevail.

As time went on, the Moral Majority offices were boarded up. The issue that brought in more money than any other for the Moral Majority, homosexuality, has turned to be a weapon against conservative Christianity. Courts, the institution conservative were certain would rule in their favor, have not had only spotty victories.

When Ireland chose to hold a national referendum on gay marriage, it must have seemed like the last straw.

The likes of the Southern Baptist Convention has been preaching lately that Christians do best when they stay apart. It might be time, the thinking goes, to withdraw from politics and live separately according to our beliefs. This kind of thinking has been expanded to what is called, “The Benedict Option”.

In the Benedict Option, conservative Christians would not only seem like a separate society, but might largely be one. The separation might not be like the Amish, but more like orthodox Jews. Some groups are already finding some version of this lifestyle.

Viewed from the secular society, this seems like a good idea.

[A link to an article discussing this issue can be found in comments.]

Who Has Attained Moral Superiority?

Today’s news carried a little lesson. If you are in a religious or political group that claims for itself the moral high ground, best you keep that to yourselves. That is, you are welcome to think of yourselves as superior, but don’t crow about it in public.

One of the stories is about the reality show which lauds the Duggar family with 19 children. From what I know of the show, the message is that this family is morally superior because it doesn’t use birth control, the daughters are required to wear only skirts and they must be below the knee.

Now we learn the oldest son molested his sisters when he was a teenager. The parents have know of this for years. The show has been pulled off the air.

Seemingly unrelated is a national referendum is on gay marriage in Ireland. Conventional wisdom is voters will approve gay marriage. There is only one reason this first of its kind national vote is being taken. It is the child abuse and money scandals of the Irish Catholic Clergy.

Ireland’s Catholic Church has dominated its politics ever since Christianity took over from paganism. The Catholic Church was deeply involved in preventing all kinds of progressive legislation from passing in its parliament. The dramatic exposure of the Church’s dark side let loose a pent up resentment from its years of holy posturing.

The irony is that so many of the faithful sneer at nonbelievers because, believers say, nonbelievers have no moral compass.


What if There Was no Nature.

I mentioned yesterday that from what we know of the ancient world at the time of the Bible it was a period of superstition, imposters, religions similar to those that preceded it  and competition among tribes and clans. Propaganda was used to impose the will of some groups over others.

It is an interesting exercise to envision a world where there is ignorance of nature. When the normal things we associate with nature happened they were attributed to gods.

Thus, rain would have been the god pouring water he had stored for this purpose on us. Lightening and thunder was god himself expressing anger. Shorter or longer days was the god expressing his pleasure or anger. Dreams were the god was speaking to us. These observations would not have been seen as systems of nature god had put there but the observed whims of some god.

This is all related to what in the Bible are miracles. A god that speaks as lightening and thunder or stores up water to pour on us when angry could do anything. Among the things he could do is bring dead people back to life, walk on water and instantly cure the sick or kill a fig tree. Doing what we call miracles would have seemed very reasonable to someone who thought their god was already doing deeds beyond imagination.

When we read the Bible, we must remember the original writers and readers were mostly ignorant about nature.

What Was It Like Back in Jesus’ Time.

One of the places believers and nonbelievers part ways is in the way they assess what went on 2,000 to 6,000 years ago.

Nonbelievers point out the none of the miracles referred to in the Bible happen today. There is no one walking on water or feeding thousands out of one person’s lunch bag or being resurrected.

Believers treat those events as evidence their religion is the one that is true and can save them from death. Which of these is the most accurate reflection of what took place 2,000 years ago in one tiny area of the globe?

As with all things religious, there are disagreements. I like the series of modern scholars who carefully trace what was written in nonreligious material to what is in the Bible. Author and ancient literature scholar Richard Carrier described the period of the Bible in this way:

From all of this one thing should be apparent: the age of Jesus was not an age of critical reflection and remarkable religious acumen. It was an era filled with con artists, gullible believers, martyrs without a cause, and reputed miracles of every variety. In light of this picture, the tales of the Gospels do not seem very remarkable.

Another scholar, Bart Ehrman, has written an entire book that traces the fake names attributed to writings of that time. In the Bible itself are authors who try to pretend they are Paul. Paul himself warns readers that he himself is writing some of the work attributed to him.

All of this leaves many of us with skepticism.

What Do the New Pew Numbers Mean for the Future of Christianity?

Pew numbers, and other surveys, have been cranking out roughly the same numbers for several years. What people say about their attitude toward the Christian faith mirrors roughly what churches report in the membership numbers and church attendance, decline.

It must be acknowledged these numbers only reflect the present and recent past. Cultures drift in directions no one can predict so the numbers in Christianity could turn around.

There are some interesting things to note. One is that the interest in Christianity, so far as anyone knows, has reached the lowest level in U. S. history.

Another has to do with liberal branches of Protestantism versus evangelical branches. The evangelical denominations show steady numbers while all other branches, liberal and Catholic, show declines. Some, or perhaps all, of these better numbers for evangelicals ignores a demographic difference. Evangelical average one child more per family than liberal or main stream Protestant denominations. Without this higher birth rate evangelical branches would show a decline as well.

Catholics, main line Protestants and Southern Baptists all show similar numbers.

Those who identify as atheists are a growing but still small slice. A larger group are those who say they do not identify with any branch of the faith, “nones”. Then, there are people who identify as “Christian” but say they a.) seldom if ever attend church and b.) regard religion an “unimportant” in their lives.

Add together the atheists, nones and “not interested don’t participate” and it represents over 50%.  That’s amazing.

[A link discussing the Pew study can be found in comments.]

How Could It Be That Most People at the Time of Jesus Were Not Followers?

We are supposed to believe that when Jesus returns we will all recognize that this has happened. That is hard to accept. At the time the human Jesus was supposed to have lived there were plenty of people, if we are to believe the Bible, who did not see him as a god.

So far as anyone can tell, the unknown people who wrote the Bible lived after the time Jesus was supposed to have lived. Their accounts of Jesus are not first-hand observations. In their efforts to propagandize, they had encountered plenty of skeptics.

Skeptics were so hard to convince the Bible recommended tricks be used. Paul said pretend you are a Jew if that helps. Be all things to all people.

In Matthew 13 the writer explains that Jesus spoke to parables so outsiders would not understand what they attributed to him. The idea was to allow many meanings by many people. It was rather similar to the trick Paul used.

The lesson is that if it were a straight forward simple fact that the character in the Bible called Jesus was actually a god, there would be no doubters. But, the Bible’s authors knew there were good reasons to doubt and the art of salesmanship was needed.

In Matthew 13, the Biblical authors seemed to be looking for an out. If people did not understand it was because they already did not believe.

That there were doubters at the time of Jesus makes it obvious there were, and remain, valid reasons to be skeptical.

Having Politics and Politicians Decide Abortions Can Surprise.

Two years ago Iowa prolifers put into law that right-to-life Governor, Terry Branstead, would sign off Medicaid funded abortions. These are abortions resulting from rape, incest, threat to the life of the mother and fetus medical problems. This past week, the Governor requested and the legislature agreed to take the language out of Iowa law. Iowa was the only state in the U. S. with such a requirement.

I’m sure the law was passed because right-to-life politicians believed Iowa’s Medicaid was funding abortions resulting from lies about the rape, incest and health of the mother and fetus.

Right after the legislation was passed two years ago, an unanticipated thing happened. The University of Iowa hospital said it would pay the Medicaid portion of all such abortions. The Governor was never asked his views on even one abortion. Now, these abortions will be funded again by Iowa Medicaid.

There could be a couple of lessons about abortion politics from all this. One is that abortion politics can be unpredictable. Certainly, it was not predicted that the University of Iowa would take over funding. It was not predicted in South Dakota, either, that voters would turn down a state-wide law prohibiting abortions.

Another lesson is the resolve to keep abortions and abortion funding available. I think that if Roe were reversed, there would be a massive fund raising effort that would fund the transportation of patients to whereever abortions were available.

Medicaid funding of these abortions has returned to Iowa along with some sanity in politics.

[Attached is a link to an editorial in the Des Moines Register about this topic.]