A Convesation With Students

I had a long visit with some local college students the other evening.  It is not everyday students are interested in talking to an old guy like me.

The event was attended by people of all ages.  After a little small talk one students ask, “Is it true you are with the Red River Freethinkers.”  That opened the floodgate.

The first question was, “How can I tell my parents I no longer believe in Jesus or God?”  I told him to wait awhile to be sure he knew where he stood on this matter.  Sometimes people, while they are young, change their views on things, I said.   He said he had been through all that and was very confident about his decision.

A beautiful young woman began explaining her journey to nonbelief.  She said it started with thinking about hell.  She began to wonder why clergy and people of deep faith are so certain about hell.

“I mean, all of us do some good things and bad things.  Do they get different weights or what?  And then there is this whole thing about the cross that is such a stretch.  Someone died a couple thousand years ago for sinners that are alive today?   And, if I believe and worship that person, I get a pass on all sins?  How can anyone be sure of all that? This is  going to be tough on my parents.”

I wish there was some magical way to make it easier for these students and their parents to navigate their ways through disagreements over faith.

Why Are There Still Atheists?

It is a wonder that there are atheists.  It is hard to be out of sight of a church steeple in any town in the United States.  That visual advertising is everywhere. 

Children by the millions are carted off to Sunday School every week.  Presidents of the United States end every speech with “God bless you.  God bless America.”  For many Christians, to be an atheist is just not normal.  There  is something wrong with you.

Yet, atheism remains a permanent part of our culture.  And, the number appears to be growing while that of Christians is not.  What has gone wrong?

To me, it is that the society has become more inclined to think for itself while most of Christianity prefers that people do not.  Clergy are called “preachers” because they preach.

Why are people are less likely to accept and adopt the mandates of authorities? Is it the computer, the smaller more permissive family, the broader number of choices in everything from breakfast foods to TV channels, the change from a rural to an urban society?  Whatever the cause, the Christian leadership needs to find a way to connect to an anti-authority  society. 

I don’t see much adjustment to the new circumstances.  Instead, the faith likes to repeat its old message: This faith is about sin and the punishment for it.  You were born a no good sinner.  To redeem yourself, do as we say.

That is why there are still atheists.

Our Local Bishops are Comedy Material

Recently, our two local Catholic Bishops released a list of not-for-profit organizations that people should not give money to.  Among these were organizations which provide health services for women and food for poor people.  To get on the Bishops’ bad list they only had to have a whiff of  association with abortion or gay rights.

The Bishops struck me as so outrageous that they were almost paradies of themselves.  They seemed like Old Testiment characters that were for stoning children and approving slavery.

In today’s Fargo Forum, letter writer Jeanne F. Dotson said she wondered if the Bishops “…have ever suffered from breast cancer…parented a child who is physically or mentally disabled..been raped or abused…suffered from an ectopic pregnancy or other life-threatening, life-disfiguring or life-taking event?” 

We often think of our governments as being out of step with the problems of the ordinary person.  Church leaders, on the other hand, have had the reputation of understanding life at the street level.  For some reason, the tables have turned.

If clergy like the Bishops want to engage in micro managing peoples decisions about voluntary donations, I think it would be helpful for them to first have some actual experience with life outside the Bishops’ residences.   While experience on the street does not inform a person on every facit of ordinary life, it surely must do more broadening of one’s perspective than being a lauded and isolated Bishop.

The good thing is that when people in “authority” demonize groups, ordinary citizens often step up their support of these same groups.  That’s what I’m doing.

Christian Advocacy and Smoking

In my field of economics, the is a word called “externalities”. Externaities happen when there is a transaction between two people, or an activity by one person, and others are affected. 

The field we call “pollution” is about externalities.  If we who drive cars actually paid for all the externalities we push onto others, it would cost far more than it does now.  

For a hundreds of years, some people smoked in the presence of others who did not and the smoke, or externality, was tolerated.   When data came along showing that there was actual health damage in the externality, smokers lost their rights in most public places.  

Today their is an article with an interview with the Dean of the Law School at Liberty University, Matthew Staver.  He registers a strong complaint against all the restrictions that have been placed on advocacy of Christianity in public places. These are prayers before public meetings, Christian displays and so on. He says these Christian expressions do not hurt anyone but do restrict the ability of people to express their faith.  

I’ve never seen the term “externality” applied to this Christian expression.  But, it is a thing that, like smoking,  some other people don’t want to be around. While anti-smoking advocates had health data to help them, people who do not like public expression of religion have some legal levers to pull.

To some extent, religious expression in public places is following the same pattern as another externality, smoking.

The Christian Religion’s Shifting Sands

When discussing various “sins”,  I like to use the metaphone of the Leader Board in golf.  Golfers with lower scores do not make the Leader Board.

In my lifetime, several sins that were on the sin Leader Board have slipped off, working in the farm fields on Sunday, playing cards, dancing and alcohol.  These perfectly good sins are ignored today.  If they were people they would hire public relations experts to put themselves back into play.

Sins on the Leader Board today are homosexuality and abortion.  This must be in part because they are great fund raisers.

Even though many devout Christians say their faith “never changes”, the changes are taking place right under their noses.  Those trying to stop these changes are like tooth picks in front of a bull dozer.

One of the changes going on today is a shift from emphasis on the Biblical writer “Paul” to an interpretation of the Biblical character, Jesus.  Those leading and endorcing this change see the two characters differently from theologians of past times.

Jesus, these advocates say, was a person who accepted people as they were.  Looking at the faith in this way presents the most legitimate way of representing the overarching message of the Bible.

Paul, on the other hand, was an argumentive character.  And, there are those who find the writing style of work attributed to some of “Paul’s” writing to vary, suggesting that he did not write all of it.

To understand the “message” of the Bible, you have to stay tuned.

Atheists and Christians Have Different Senses of Community

What is it that makes a person part of what we call “community”?  Here I’m using the word as it applies to an area. 

Wherever people live, there are individuals who take ownership of and feel connected to that community.    What is it that they do?

The simplest thing is picking up a piece of trash blowing by.  Then, there is volunteering to help people less well off, or, for projects that help the general community more than it helps they themselves.  Of course, there is always the gift of money, or, the payment of taxes toward projects, causes and goals that do not improve their own lives directly.

There is another that is especially important.  This is making others, people unlike themselves, feel that they, too, belong in the community.

It is in this latter activity that many people of faith differ from most nonbelievers.  It is the nonbelievers, for example, that are most likely to want a Ten Commandments monument to be removed, prayers at public meetings discontinued and Christian symbolism eliminated because it promotes a religious view that excludes other members of the community.  It is the local Christians who are most likely to insist that the exclusion of people who hold views different than their own is a good thing for a community.

I wish it were possible for all people of faith to develop this fuller sense of community.

Don’t Believe in Hell? You’re Fired!

I can’t remember ever believing in the concepts of heaven and hell.  So it is hard to understand the enthusiasm some folks have for the idea that others are going to hell. 

They so love this notion of hell for others that they cannot tolerate suggestions that hell might not exist, or, that those they dislike might not go there.  This is not just theological hair splitting, it’s log splintering.

I’m talking here about the doctrine of the “emerging church” and the competition it presents to the old order.  The enthusiasm for keeping hell on the theological leader board is so great a Methodist pastor was asked to leave his church because he posted on FaceBook an endorcement of Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins.” Bell believes sinners are loved and accepted by Jesus.

Chad Holtz was the Pastor of a rural church in North Carolina.  He had come to question whether there is an “eternity of torment”.  He said of his former congregation, “I can understand why the people in my church aren’t ready to leave that behind.”

I suppose the hell concept is just another of those ideas that separates us.  If you believe in it, it is so logical to you that to think otherwise is beyond the pale.

If you don’t believe in it, the concept of spending eternity in something like a fire pit is so rediculous, it is not worth a second thought. 

I can relate to Pastor Holtz.  To talk about something that seems far fetched is not worth whatever pittance he was being paid.

The Old Rule on Race: Separate but Equal. Too Liberal for Anti-Gay Politics

I’ve referred often here to Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Seminary.  While he is regarded by some as an intellectual, I sometimes find his political and religious views so primative it is chilling.

During the last few decades of segregation, the segregationists argued that separate but equal was “fair”. They had come to realize that equal was an American attribute.  It was necessary to separate the races because if they got to know each other they might intermarry. This was was forbidden by their “faith”.  While the old race rules seem stark and brutal to us now, it is actually more enlightened than Albert Mohler’s view on gays.

Today, Mohler was critical of remarks President Obama made to an LGBT group. In those remarks the President said, “…I support ensuring that committed gay couples have the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country.” 

Later in his remarks he said, “You will see a time in which we as a nation finally recognize relationships between two men or two women as just as real and admirable as relationships between a man and a woman.”

These statements set Mohler off.  In his view, giving the same financial, property and relationship rights to gays is unjust.

Mohler’s views about gays does not quite rise to the moral and ethical level of the segregationists’ separate but equal.  He likes the separate, but not the equal.

What’s Your Religious Take on Japan?

From what I’ve read, these are heady times for people who insert religious meanings into ordinary events.  By ordinary events, I mean earthquakes and the resulting tsunami.  The nuclear meltdown is pretty ordinary too in that it has happened a few times before.

The end-of-times preachers have been doing well.  They’ve been predicting the end for a long time and now  it’s send money if you want to learn how not to be left behind.

Then, there are the ones who skipped right over the end-of-times to get to naming and punishing sin.  These are Glenn Beck, who said it might or might not be punishment, and Tokyo Governor, Shintaro Ishihara, who said it was punishment but then apologized.

What this country needs is a national contest called, “This Event is IT.”  Contestants would be graded on the most creative interpretation of scripture.  They would need to find exact scripture and apply it precisely to the event that just happened.  For example, since there was no nuclear reactors in the Bible, one would need to find scripture that referred to it in some way other than naming it directly.

The contest would not be that simple to administer actually.  That is because Christianity is not the only religion that has an end-of-times and punish those I don’t like message.  In the spirit of equal opportunity, other faiths would have the chance to provide their own interpretations of ordinary events.  If their faith does not have the world ending in fire and calamity, they could enter whenever the sign was right.

The winner would get to start his/her own television ministry.

Serve Up A Plate of Generosity, Hold the Message

Perhaps some readers are old enough, like me, to remember that period of U. S. history called “The Ugly American”.  Perhaps there was a book with that title.  I do remember it was about U. S. behavior toward other countries and how that behavior resulted in an unfavorable image.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know everything there is to know about persuasion and salesmanship. Probably no one knows everything about it because it falls within the realm of art, not science. But, I think there are some nice rules to follow in most cases.

One is that when you are writing to someone, thanking them for a donation, don’t put another donar request and envelope in with the thank you card.

Another has to do with spreading influence and good will by our government.  That is, when we are doing good deeds in other countries, like when disastor strikes, let them know who sent the aid but don’t tell them  our captialism and democracy is better than whatever system they use.

In the case of  religion, I just read that Rick Warren is orgainizing aid to Japan, and trying to use the aid to convert the forlorn victums of the tragedy to Christianity.  My guess is that sending the aid without the message would bring move converts than forcefeeding people your religion.

Having said this, I need to find out if the atheist fund, established by Richard Dawkins, is including a message of nonbelief.  If it is, that should stop too.