On Twitter this morning, the Huff Post seeks your Ash Wednesday Selfies:
On Twitter this morning, the Huff Post seeks your Ash Wednesday Selfies:
The most important recent development in American religion is the rise of the “Nones,” the increasing number of Americans–it may now be 20% of all adults and 30% of young people–who tell pollsters that they have no religious affiliation. Perhaps surprisingly, most Nones are believers. They reject organized religion, not faith. In fact, the Nones overlap greatly with another much-discussed category of Americans, the “Spiritual But Not Religious,” or SBNRs.
Even the SBNR label doesn’t completely capture things. It’s necessary to dig a little deeper. At the Oxford University Press blog, theologian Linda Mercadante, author of the recently released Belief Without Borders, has a helpful guide to the various kinds of SBNRs in America today. Mercadante has interviewed hundreds of SBNRs over a five-year period, she reports, and a very large number are best described as “casual” SBNRs. For them,
religious and spiritual practices are generally approached on an “as-needed” basis and discarded or changed when no longer necessary. Spirituality is not felt to be the organizing center of their lives. Many of the “casuals”—especially younger ones—had little or no religious exposure either as children or adults.
In other words, it would be wrong to understand SBNRs or Nones principally as “seekers.” Nor are they hostile to religion. They just don’t care much about it. Better, perhaps, to call these people something else–something more descriptive. “Religious Indifferents” is a phrase that comes to mind.
If we really are looking at a significant and growing percentage of Religious Indifferents in America, the implications for religious liberty could be profound. Consider the politics of religious accommodations. A minority religion that seeks an accommodation in the legislative process needs allies, people who understand why it is important to honor the minority’s religious convictions. Sometimes, the best friends a minority can have are adherents of other religions, who see it in their interest to lobby on behalf of the minority. By banding together, religions can achieve results they might not be able to achieve on their own. This dynamic, as well as the traditional American commitment to religious liberty as a fundamental right, explains how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993.
Large numbers of Religious Indifferents would change this dynamic. First, Indifferents are unlikely to seek accommodations for themselves. If you don’t care very much about religion, you’re not likely to oppose state action for religious reasons. Second, and more important, Indifferents will not likely feel much affinity for believers who do have religious objections to government policy. If you don’t take religion seriously, yourself, you’re not likely to understand why others do. What’s the big deal, anyway?
Some observers, like Rodney Stark at Baylor, think the numbers of Nones/SBNRs are exaggerated. And many younger Americans who are Indifferents now will no doubt join religions as they get older. If Mercadante is correct, though, the politics of religion in America could be in for a significant change.
This week’s collection focuses on religious law and critiques. Steve Smith argues that Ronald Dworkin misunderstands theistic versions of morality; Oren Gross contrasts Jewish and secular ideas about amending the law; Martin Gardner addresses what Mormon Church doctrine has to say about retributive punishment; and Gustavo Kaufman takes on the UK Supreme Court’s decision in the Jews Free School Case. We also include Ian Bartrum’s assessment of the US Supreme Court’s grant of cert in Town of Greece, the legislative prayer case.
1. Steven Douglas Smith (San Diego), Is God Irrelevant? Smith reviews Ronald Dworkin’s posthumous work, Religion without God. Smith maintains that Dworkin misunderstands the disagreement between theists and non-theists. The divide is not between people with different views of morality, he says, but “between those who think that the universe, including the world of humanity, is the product of a loving and intelligent author or designer who created it according to a plan and for a good purpose, on the one hand, and on the other those who reject the belief in any guiding intelligence and any encompassing and mindful plan. That is a difference with profound implications for most of the great issues of life (including, almost certainly, issues implicating law and politics).”
2. Ian C. Bartrum (University of Nevada-Las Vegas), The Curious Case of Legislative Prayer: Town of Greece v. Galloway. Ian Bartrum considers why the Supreme Court granted cert in this case, currently under review, and why the Solicitor General has sided with the town. He infers that some of the Justices may hope to use the case to abandon the endorsement test, and that the Administration has intervened to limit the potential damage.
3. Oren Gross (University of Minnesota), Venerate, Amend … and Violate. This paper compares secular law, which people may amend to meet new circumstances, with divine law, which, in theory, people may not amend. Using Jewish law as an example, Professor Gross examines the way in which rabbis have justified deviating from the text of religious law in extraordinary situations.
4. Gustavo Ariel Kaufman (Independent), Racial Discrimination vs. Religious Freedom in the JFS Decision. Kaufman reviews the UK Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in the “Jews Free School case” from 2009, which held that a Jewish school’s decision to exclude a child based on parentage violated racial anti-discrimination laws. Kaufman argues that the court’s decision disparages religious freedom and contradicts European law.
5. Martin R. Gardner (University of Nebraska), Viewing the Criminal Sanction through Latter-Day Saint Thought. This paper addresses criminal law from the perspective of the doctrines of the Mormon Church. Specifically, the author argues that the church’s doctrines of agency and pre-mortal existence support some aspects of retributive theory.
Earlier this month, Penguin Books India agreed to recall and destroy copies of a book by American scholar Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Penguin did so in order to settle a four-year old lawsuit by a Hindu activist group, Shiksha Bashao Andolan, alleging that publication violated Indian law, which forbids insulting the religious beliefs of a class of citizens. In a statement, Penguin maintained that it had an obligation “to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be.” Doniger concurred, stating that Indian law is “the true villain of this piece.”
The main complaint seems to be that Doniger’s book presents a hypersexualized, distorted version of Hinduism. Here’s Shiksha Bashao Andolan’s president, Dinanath Batra, in a Time magazine interview, describing what his group finds objectionable:
Doniger says [in the book] that when Sanskrit scriptures were written, Indian society favored open sexuality. The jacket of her book shows Lord Krishna sitting on the buttocks of nude women. She equates the shivlingam, worshipped all over India by millions, with sex and calls it an erect penis. She calls Gandhiji strange and says he used to sleep with young girls.
What I find most interesting in this controversy is the incomprehension each side has for the other. The activists, with Indian law on their side, think they are striking a blow for cultural and religious freedom. They are standing up to tactless outsiders who mock sacred things. Most Western observers, by contrast, are simultaneously repulsed and amused at the notion that people would find Doniger’s book off-putting and actually try to stop its publication. The activists must be rubes and obscurantists. The condescension comes through very clearly in the questions Time put to Batra, including the last one: “Don’t you worry that your objections might seem outdated in today’s modern world?” Batra’s answer is revealing, too: “We are not against modernity, but we are against westernization.”
Once again, we see the conflict between the values of WEIRD cultures–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic–and those of more traditional societies. WEIRD cultures stress individual expression and fulfillment; traditional cultures value authority, community, and sacredness. To someone from a WEIRD perspective, it’s impossible to believe that serious people could be morally outraged by Doniger’s book, or think destroying the book a proper response. By contrast, people embedded in a traditional Hindu culture find Doniger’s interpretation disgraceful and foreign–an insult that should not be borne.
Of course, cultures aren’t uniform. Some Indians have WEIRD values; some Westerners are traditionalists. Some well-known Indian writers objected to Batra’s lawsuit; here in the US, the Hindu American Foundation issued a statement basically endorsing Penguin’s decision. But, on the whole, the WEIRD/Traditionalist divide is a useful way to understand our world. It explains many current controversies, like blasphemy prosecutions in Pakistan, proposals to ban circumcision in Scandinavia, anti-homosexuality laws in Africa, and the dispute over Doniger’s book.
As I’ve written before, it seems to me that three possibilities exist. First, WEIRD values will come to dominate worldwide. WEIRD culture has many benefits, and America projects it around the world relentlessly, through movies, advertising, the Internet, and so on. Second, Western culture will become less WEIRD. This could happen, too, especially if large numbers of people from traditional societies immigrate to the West. Third, and most likely, WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures will continue to face off against one another for the foreseeable future, with inevitable clashes and occasional compromises. Buckle your seat belts.
The Berkley Center at Georgetown will host a panel discussion tomorrow, “Is International Religious Freedom Policy Becoming Respectable?”:
As a young woman in 1968, American Wallis Wilde-Menozzi moved to Rome, leaving behind a troubled first marriage and a tenured faculty position in the UK. In The Other Side of the Tiber, she reflects upon that experience and the decades that followed, in which she developed as a writer, married again and raised a family, and became acculturated to her new home. Her metaphor for remembering is the Tiber, the river that runs through Rome, carrying with it the residue of earlier times and civilizations. Like the river, she writes, one’s memories are always a fluid part of one’s present.
The book is not only a personal memoir, though. A major theme is the contrast between the American and Italian ways of doing things–between a Protestant, progressive, rule-of-law society that exalts individualism and looks relentlessly to the future, and a Catholic, traditional one that rejects the idea that people can disregard the past and create their own identities. (“There is no such thing. We are always accompanied by ancestors.”) Each way has advantages and disadvantages. Americans are often shocked by what they see as the casual lawlessness of Italian life–”there is a breathtaking gap,” she writes–”a metaphysical canyon, between what is considered moral and what is considered legal in Italy”–which, no doubt, contributes to economic and political stagnation. On the other hand, there are qualities of community and public forgiveness to compensate. Italians are dismayed by American free-market economics, which often seem heartless and uncivilized, and by Americans’ lack of real appreciation for history. One of the most interesting episodes in the book is Wilde-Menozzi’s account of teaching American students in Siena. The students seem unaware of even the recent history of their own country, to say nothing of the ancients. She attributes their ignorance to the cost, and emptiness, of higher education in the US.
Wilde-Menozzi often gets nostalgic for the leftism of her youth, when she read Gramsci and Pasolini, and she tends to find feminist implications in everything, from Etruscan statuary to the annual August holiday, the Ferragosto. But, ideology aside, her writing is often lovely, and her images remain with you. (She is admirably spare in conveying, without detail, the pain of the sexual abuse in her childhood and her tense relationship with her mother; the theme of mothers is a recurring one in the book). On sfogliatelle, the Neapolitan pastries that must be done in a certain way: they are “a conscious effort to deny time its novelty.” On the the mosaics at the fourth-century church of Santa Costanza: their creators “imagined permanence, and yet, how could they have imagined us, so far away in time, still delighted by them?” And on the infinite regress of memory: “Italy is a story that always starts with ‘In the beginning there was already something before what you think is the beginning.’”
Napoleon Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)
‘What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Enough with the snow, already.
Today is Presidents Day in the United States, a national holiday. Actually, that’s not quite right. Officially, the federal holiday is still called Washington’s Birthday, and that’s the official name here in New York, too. (Who knew?) But, unofficially, America uses this day to commemorate all its presidents–including, especially, two born in February, George Washington (February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12).
I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when I saw in my twitter feed this afternoon Pew ‘s list of American presidents and their religious identities. About one-quarter have been Episcopalians; several have been Presbyterians; only one, John Kennedy, has been a Catholic. Pew lists three as having no religious identity: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, in particular, is an interesting case. People have been fighting over his religious identity since just after he died. He never formally joined a church. But some people who knew him said that, although he had been skeptical about organized religion in his youth, and may in fact have written an atheist pamphlet at one point, he became receptive to Christianity during his time in the White House, especially after the death of his son. One report says he was about to join the Presbyterian Church right before he was assassinated. Others who knew him, however, said they noticed no such transformation.
In his definitive 2003 study, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, historian Richard Carwardine surveys the evidence and, in the end, says that Mary Todd Lincoln probably had the best assessment. Her husband, she explained, was never “a technical Christian.” In particular, he seems not to have accepted the divinity of Christ. On the other hand, almost everyone who knew him agreed that he was “naturally religious.” Those lines in the Second Inaugural Address were not just for show. Lincoln believed that the universe was governed by an omnipotent God who worked things out for His own righteous, often inscrutable purposes. And Lincoln thought the better part of wisdom was to submit to God’s plan.
So, was the Great Emancipator a None? I leave it to you, gentle reader.
On February 25, the CUNY Institute for Education Policy in New York will host what looks to be a fascinating discussion on tax credits for primary and secondary education–including education in religious schools. Past CLR Forum Guest Ashley Berner (left), the Institute’s Deputy Director, will be one of the panelists. Here’s a description:
For most Americans, “public education” has meant the traditional neighborhood school. That once-unassailable image is changing, however, as states and districts have begun to sanction a wider array of schools such as magnets and charters, and new school funding mechanisms such as tax credits and vouchers – stirring up controversy in the process.
There are important arguments on each side. To its defenders, the dominant model reflects democratic governance structures, advances citizenship formation, is ideologically neutral, and should be preserved with minor adjustments. Innovators, for their side, believe that the expansion of educational options yields better academic outcomes and more diverse classrooms, extends choice to more families, advances pluralism, and aligns the United States’ school system with those of other democratic nations.
New York is now considering a bill that creates an Education Investment Tax Credit to stimulate up to $300 million in charitable donations for public classrooms and for K-12 scholarships for students to attend Catholic, Jewish and other private schools. Please join us for a lively discussion of the bill’s benefits and limitations in light of international education systems.
For details, please click here.
Here is the latest evidence of the clash between contemporary human rights norms and traditional religions. Last week, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child reported on the Vatican’s compliance with an international treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, which virtually every UN member, including the Holy See, has ratified (though not the US), lists universal rights of children, including the right to be protected from discrimination; the right to be free from violence, including sexual abuse; the right to health and welfare; and so on.
The committee had blunt words for the Vatican. With respect to the sexual abuse crisis, it complained, “the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.” The committee had several suggestions for how the Vatican could do better job, including the immediate removal of “all known and suspected child sexual abusers” and referral of cases “to the relevant law enforcement authorities.”
Critics complain that the that the committee did not sufficiently acknowledge the steps the Vatican has taken to address the crisis. I’ll leave that question to others. Whether or not the Vatican’s response has been adequate, everyone agrees that sexual abuse is a violation of children’s rights. But the committee also addressed subjects on which everyone does not agree. It suggested that the Vatican alter its positions on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality in order to meet its obligations under the Convention.
For example, the committee stated that the prohibition of abortion “places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls”and urged the Vatican to amend canon law to “identify circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.” It expressed “serious concern” about the Vatican’s policy of “denying adolescents access to contraception.” The Vatican must put “adolescents’ best interests” ahead of other concerns, the committee said. And the committee expressed concern that the Holy See’s disapproval of homosexuality may lead to discrimination against LGBT children and the children of LGBT parents. It recommended that the Holy See amend canon law to recognize diverse family arrangements.
As my former colleague Julian Ku explains, these recommendations don’t follow clearly from the text of the Convention, which lacks “specific language about LGBTQ rights, the appropriate circumstances for abortions, or birth-control education.” On the contrary, Ku says, the report is based upon an “aggressive” reading of the treaty. And the recommendations obviously conflict with fundamental teachings of one of the world’s great religions. Given these facts, shouldn’t the committee have dialed it back a bit? Why push an aggressive, contestable interpretation of a treaty that purports to be universal, notwithstanding the inevitable conflict with the Catholic Church and other traditional religions?
There are probably two explanations. First, to the committee, these recommendations seem morally incontrovertible. Who could doubt that children’s best interests call for liberalized abortion, unrestricted access to contraceptives, and the recognition of same-sex marriages? From the secular human rights perspective, these propositions are frustratingly obvious. The idea that one might in good faith define “best interests” differently–that many world religions in fact do define “best interests” differently–doesn’t make sense. The committee simply cannot credit the other point of view.
Second, the secular human rights regime believes it is at the brink of final victory in these matters. (It has believed so for about 50 years now.) The forces of obscurity are in retreat and religion no longer dictates people’s lives, at least in the civilized West. The Catholic Church, in particular, is on the ropes, a victim of its own sins and intransigence. Why not put an end to its obstructionism once and for all? This would help the cause of progress, and actually be a good thing for the Church, too.
The committee no doubt expected the negative reaction of the Vatican to last week’s report. But it may have been surprised that so many in the elite media objected too. The Economist criticized the report for being sloppy and taking positions on issues where consensus is lacking. The Atlantic‘s Emma Green complained that the report inappropriately critiqued deeply-held religious beliefs. And the Boston Globe‘s John Allen argued that the report would only confirm the opinion of skeptics that the UN is motivated by politics and secular ideology. Perhaps the final victory is still a ways off.