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Quote of the Day: What Has Organized Religion Been Up To?

The last few decades sure have been bad ones for organized religion. Conservative Christians have decided that the sum total of the Bible is about reestablishing the sex and gender mores of the 19th century. Liberal protestantism is so unassuming that hardly anyone even remembers it exists. The Catholic Church has been responsible for the deaths of millions in Africa thanks to its mindless belief that God hates condoms. Much of Islam has been taken over by the toxic Saudi strain. Israel has turned into an apartheid state. Hindus in India are apparently now dedicated to creating a religiously pure state. And even Buddhists have been acting badly lately.

Meanwhile, science keeps churning out new wonders. Cell phones. The internet. Cures for cancer. Robotic prosthetics. Solar panels on rooftops. Talking computers. Antidepressants. Google Maps. Cheap genome sequencing. Virtual reality. Machine learning. Meatless meat. Missions to Mars. Electric cars. Fiber optics.

Seems like no contest to me. But who’s winning?

— Kevin Drum, Mother Jones, Organized Religion Is Having a Bad Few Decades, August 18, 2019


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    Carol Dworkowski

    Science has also given us weapons of mass destruction and the technological means to destroy Earth’s delicate biological balances.

    A couple of decades ago, when I was younger and had more energy, I was involved in three spiritual/religious study groups. Each one of them included a physicist, one of whom had worked with David Bohm. A major positive (and exciting) development in our time is the reconciliation of religion and science and the reconciliation of both the “hard” empirical sciences and the “soft” social sciences within the scientific community (i.e. the new field of sociobiology) :

    The old maps of reality, into which spiritual traditions have been integrated, often do not inspire people to be loyal to their tradition. Between the advances of both quantum physics and transpersonal psychology, we can no longer be at home in the old time religion. ~Rabbi Michael Lerner

    For many of us the religion vs science controversy is a false dichotomy, like so many other old controversies, created by a Cartesian dualistic mindset.

    “The blustering televangelists, and the atheists who rant about the evils of religion, are little more than carnival barkers. They are in show business, and those in show business know complexity does not sell. They trade clichés and insults like cartoon characters. They don masks. One wears the mask of religion, the other wears the mask of science. They banter back and forth in predictable sound bites. They promise, like all advertisers, simple and seductive dreams. This debate engages two bizarre subsets who are well suited to the television culture because of the crudeness of their arguments. One distorts the scientific theory of evolution to explain the behavior and rules for complex social, economic and political systems. The other insists that the six-day story of creation in Genesis is fact and Jesus will descend from the sky to create the kingdom of God on Earth. These antagonists each claim to have discovered an absolute truth. They trade absurdity for absurdity. They show that the danger is not religion or science. The danger is fundamentalism.” ~Chris Hedges, (I Don’t Believe in Atheists)

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      Karen the rock whisperer

      “One distorts the scientific theory of evolution to explain the behavior and rules for complex social, economic and political systems.”

      This obviously refers to atheists, at least some atheists, and it’s undoubtedly true of some. Evolutionary psychology is a very new, often-speculative science with lots more ideas than data, yet they seem to be making a bit of progress.

      Can completely natural processes explain the development of complex human systems? There isn’t any reason to believe they cannot. That we currently don’t understand doesn’t mean we won’t be able to understand some day. Even if we’re never able to understand how people develop these systems, it doesn’t mean some supernatural entity was involved. “We don’t know” NEVER implies “God did it”.

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        Carol Dworkowski

        Darwin’s theory of evolution has itself evolved. While Evolution still supports a dynamic, rather than a static, worldview, new theories differ some of Darwin’s “how” details and often with one another. The question of evolutionary development has become much more complex and the consequences of embracing an evolutionary perspective differ according to which theory one accepts as foundational on the subject.

        There is no doubt that religious institutions, like all institutions are rarely enthusiastic about fundamental changes in belief or practice:

        My own opinion is that people who have a problem with evolution, (progressive Christians and Jews don’t, neither do Muslims) have more of a psychological problem with the dynamic world view implied by evolution than they do with the potential theological challenge of reconciling the biblical creation stories with the scientific evidence.

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    Religion v science isn’t a false dichotomy to those of us actually brought up in fundamentalism with mythology thrust upon us as truth while teaching us nuggets of apologetics in order to convince us to ignore the vast amounts of evidence otherwise.

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      Carol Dworkowski

      I am not unaware of the fundamentalist experience. I was an adult (early 30’s) single parent convert from a non-religious background in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. The MS Lutheran Church is (or maybe was–it may have evolved) fundamentalist, It is also German. I had a bible thrown in my direction during an adult bible study class because I did not interpret the meaning of the Scriptures from an orthodox Lutheran perspective. I was able to bear it for about six years because there was a small contingent of Scandinavian Lutherans there (American Lutheran Church–ALC Synod, who were much kinder and more empathetic than the German Lutherans. My favorite elder was raised in the ALC tradition. The study booklet for one adult class was titled Fundamental Christian Beliefs. Gordon leaned over and whispered to me, “I’ll bet its more “fundamental” than “christian.” He was right. Although they would never admit it, The Missouri Synod is more Calvinistic than Lutheran. None are so blind as those who will not see! The Catholics call it “invincible ignorance.”

      Then I married a Polish Roman Catholic and became a member of a Catholic parish pastored by the Redemptorist Order, a confraternity of contemplative (mystical) priests. Theological beliefs were important to them, of course, but Christ-like behavior was more important. For the first time I began receiving spiritual as well as theological formation and came to realize that we do not have to think alike to love alike. St. Mary’s was far from a perfect parish, but the imperfections were handled more humanely, that is from a relational reconciliation rather than a primarily legalistic perspective. Lest anyone mistakenly think that I am trying to convert them to Catholicism, I must say that after moving from MD to NC, my first move was to find the Catholic Church. It took two Sunday Masses for me to realize that Mother of Mercy was not going to work for me. Pray, pay and obey is not my spiritual style.

      We don’t have to think alike to love alike, but, unfortunately “being right” seems to be more important than being kind in fundamentalist religious communities. People get shamed and blamed, when what they most need is to be embraced and comforted when they are vulnerable and grieving after realizing that they have unintentionally injured others by their behavior.

      I would probably get along fairly well in a Universalist Unitarian Church, but I am trinitarian for philosophical as well as theological/spiritual reasons. I have found a faith community, but I not going to identify it because I believe that it is as welcoming and loving as it is because the senior minister is, like myself, a convert from a non-religious background and, should he leave, there is a high degree of probability that the congregation would go back to being a conventional, nominally religious social club. I have no intention of formally joining any more churches. I take my commitments seriously and having to choose between remaining as a divisive factor or compromising my integrity is just too painful, almost like a divorce, which I have also experienced more than once.

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    Hi Carol, you were fortunate to find a faith commu it that you like and to be able to choose it as an adult. Being a child raised in fundamentalist Christianity, being told from a small age that you are damned to hell for eternal torment if you do not believe a certain way, embrace the entire litany of inconsistencies and outright lies contained in an inerrantist and literalist view of the Bible, and being forced to attend a school where your grades and your pathway to escape through higher education are dependent on regurgitating said beliefs was incredibly psychologically damaging. Children lack the agency and analytical abilities to handle such full scale indoctrination. I was an intelligent kid who chose to go to a secular university, and I struggled immensely to handle all the damage that had been done. Most of my peers from school are still fully immersed in fundamentalism and raising their kids the same way. A handful of us were able to claw our way out. It infuriates me when fundamentalists try to force public schools to teach religious indoctrination disguised as “cultural” viewpoints or “another side”. Religious indoctrination has no place in public education. Parents have every right to send their kids to religious schools – but they should pay for it. Honestly, I would prefer that my taxpayer dollars not go toward religious school education through school vouchers and such, but I suppose I have no control over that. Anyway, end rant – I have just been in the South dropping off my daughter at college and am reminded again how pervasive evangelical Christianity is in certain parts of the country. I literally feel like my part of NJ is a separate country from the Bible belt.

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      Carol Dworkowski

      I am sorry that you and so many others had to go through that. Whenever I hear formal Christians say how glad they are to have been raised in a church, I always think to myself, “and I am glad I wasn’t.” I don’t say anything, though, because their experience is as valid as mine and there are some healthy, caring churches.

      Have you heard of Church PTSD? There is such a thing, but it is hard to form a support group for those coping with it because as soon as the word reaches the fundamentalists they try to infiltrate the group to re-evangelize. That sort of aggressive behavior is pathological and is really only about them not the people they target. ” More to be pitied than condemned” may apply here; but the behavior should still be challenged and rejected.

      I suppose blogs like this one have the potential to meet the need for nurturing that all of us who have experienced psychological/emotional traumas need. I call us the “Scar Clan” people:

      I had a bumper sticker on a car that finally died and had to be replaced that read: I support the separation of church and hate. As soon as any politician cites his or her religion as a qualification for political office, I immediately eliminate them as someone who merits my vote! Although I have found an inclusive faith community, I live in Beaufort Co, Eastern North Carolina–Trump Country! Franklin Graham is touring the State and his rallies will undoubtedly be packed. That “love your enemies” commandment is a real challenge sometimes.


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    Karen the rock whisperer

    Religion vs science is truly a dichotomy. The scientific method involves examining the world/universe/cosmos by coming up with ideas about how it operates and then testing those ideas against evidence. Religion operates on claims about reality that are either refuted by evidence or are untestable. They are two completely different ways of thinking.

    Now, we humans are masters of cognitive partitioning, and many of us can be practicing scientists and also religious believers. A former professor and good friend of mine is a Christian and also a very fine geologist. Rational, skeptic thinking about everything in our lives is seriously hard work, and can get in the way of our survival. When somebody yells “Fire! Evacuate!” our first impulse is to escape, not investigate what might have prompted that yell; if it were otherwise, we might never have made it as a species. So we need to understand our own thinking.

    Finally, even many nonbelievers find wisdom in the old texts. I don’t happen to be one of them, but YMMV.

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    Carol Dworkowski

    You are correct, they are two different ways of thinking; but I believe they are complementary rather than oppositional.

    Science deals with empirical facts that are rationally analyzed. It is the means by which we obtain knowledge. However, empirical facts have no meaning until they have been subjectively interpreted which opens them up to human error.

    Religion is more intuitive, it is “sensed” rather than seen. It is the source of wisdom by which we choose how to apply our knowledge,

    Religious beliefs can also be tested by putting them into practice and observing the results. If our spiritual practices have a sustained life-enhancing effect , they are probably correct, if they have life-diminishing effects they are probably incorrect. The problem is that circumstances are a better test of our choices than abstract principles.

    No general principle can decide each concrete case; always secondary principles and special circumstances enter into consideration. –David Spitz, The New Conservatives

    Post-modern epistemologists realize that we can never achieve 100% certainty in our beliefs; but we can arrive at a high degree of probability and this limitation of the human intellect applies to both scientific theories and religious dogmas.

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    “Post-modern epistemologists realize that we can never achieve 100% certainty in our beliefs; but we can arrive at a high degree of probability and this limitation of the human intellect applies to both scientific theories and religious dogmas.”

    Carol, this for me sums up the problem. Science invests in the probable, indeed it can only ever strive towards the most likely explanations, even in matters seemingly certain, such as evolution or germ theory. Religion deals in certainty and is constantly trying to fill the uncertainty gap that science leaves behind. That’s what makes the dichotomy between science and religion. It’s an unbridgeable gap, and people and organisations that try to bridge it (the Templeton organisation comes to mind) simply confuse things and give misleading hope.

    Having said which, I see no harm in benign religion (though benign is often the opposite of the reality) and I appreciate that you can take a reasoned and very different view.

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    Carol Dworkowski

    Conventional popular Western European religion deals in certainty. Contemplative (mystical) religion is more Socratic (knowing that we do not know is the beginning of wisdom). It is often described as “knowing by unknowing” and is called apophatic or negative theology as distinct from the more conventional cataphatic or positive theology.

    Catholicism HAS a mystical spiritual tradition. The Eastern Church IS a mystical tradition, as are most non-christian Eastern Religions. That is why those of us who are contemplatives feel that we have more in common with Buddhists and sometimes even Hindus than we do our own christian co-religionists.

    I received my theological and spiritual formation from a contemplative Catholic Religious Order, the Redemptorists or more formally The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. They also introduced me to the Traditions of the Orthodox Churches of the East. I am more of an Eastern than a Western Christian and I am considered to be a heretic or an unbeliever by most Protestants. Of all the People of the Book (Bible), Christians, Jews and Muslims, only Western Christians usually consider right beliefs (orthodoxy) to be more important than right behavior (orthopraxis).

    The Mysteries of faith are like the sun, we cannot gaze directly into them; but they illuminate all else. -Orthodox Churches of the East, Apophatic Tradition

    The mysteries of faith are to be apprehended, not comprehended. ~Source Unknown

    I and, other contemplatives that I have known, have no problem working with kind people of good will whatever their religious faith or lack thereof may be.

    Actually, I believe that, unless we become complete and utter nihilists, we are all people of faith. It does not have to be faith in God. It can be a simple faith in the ultimate goodness and value of life in spite of the prevalence of (sometimes undeserved and sometimes self-induced) pain and suffering. Most people have this natural faith in times of relative socioeconomic/political stability. During transitional historical periods of rapid change like ours, nihilistic despair increases. Since there is a human tendency to externalize our pain and pass it forward, there is an increase in violent behavior towards oneself and/or others. Suicides and mass murders are a predictable consequence of the loss of a sense of meaningful purpose, communal belonging and having to struggle for mere survival in a society that rewards, rather than constrains aggressive, predatory behavior.

    We’ve been here before. It has still not become as bad as it was at the time of the 16th century Protestant Reformation/Schism. This, too, shall pass. The passing may be incredibly painful, like the passing of a kidney stone, but it will pass. Lessons will be learned and books will be written and there will be a time of relative stability, peace and the creative construction of new human institutions to meet the challenges of deeper scientific insights and advanced technology until the next period of rapid evolution in human consciousness occurs. Stephen J. Gould called this evolutionary process “punctuated equilibrium.” Gould was a popularizer of the developing theories of the evolutionary process and his books are a good resource on more recent developments in evolutionary thinking even though much has continued to evolve since his death in 2002.

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    Steven Gould, the well known evolutionist,famous for his theory of punctuated equilibrium, a theory now largely discounted by modern evolutionists, also coined the phrase ‘overlapping magisteria’. This was an attempt to reconcile religion and science, but is now seen as nothing more than a sop, and in some ways was perhaps one of the driving forces behind the modern rise in atheism.

    The problem is that, whilst quite clearly many scientists are fervent believers, this belief, to quote Jerry Coyne, requires that they leave their reason at the church door every Sunday. You say that religion deals in certainty, yet everything about religion is uncertain. On any occasion that religion claims certainty, it gets hung out to dry, to the extent that I can think of no point that all believers agree on. Even where religion does make a claim, if it’s ‘of this world’ then it’s eligible for scientific testing, from the effectiveness of prayer, to near death experiences, to miracles. Indeed every one of these areas has been subject to study and results are fairly conclusive that the religious claim is not valid. When it comes to matters spiritual it’s the same. Whilst I don’t deny that most humans, and all cultures, identify with things they regard as spiritual, it is now clear that the word is one used to describe simply a state of mind. In other words, neurology better explains spirituality than anything supernatural.

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      Carol Dworkowski

      I met Stephen Gould at the home of a friend of a friend. My impression was that he was an agnostic, more of a cultural Jew than a religious jew. He was also a very humble person, I never would have guessed, if I hadn’t previously been told, that he was a Harvard professor.

      He was a reconciler by nature. “Overlapping magisteria” was an attempt that satisfies the desire of many of us for a reconciliation of what some of us consider an unnecessary conflict between science and religion. Punctuated equilibrium has not been widely accepted in the scientific community, but neither has it been disproven and it offers a possible explanation for the gaps in the fossil evidence that is cited as empirical proof of evolutionary development. It is the absence of “missing links” that literal creationists claim as “proof” that evolution is not a “scientifically established fact.”

      I also like Gould’s theory on spandrels ) which speculates that there is more to evolutionary development than mere utilitarian adaptation.

      Valid theological beliefs should never be irrational, However, given the limitations of the human intellect, they may be meta-rational. Metaphysics, ( the philosophical category that addresses the fundamental nature of Reality and Being, cannot be objectively validated by empirical evidence, but only by observing the generic traits manifested by all existences. There are realities that are not directly accessible to our empirical senses. We do not see the wind, but we can know its speed and direction by observing its effects. This is what the Eastern Orthodox Church(es) mean when they teach that the Mysteries of faith are like the sun, we cannot gaze directly into them; but they illuminate all else.

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Bruce Gerencser