Unbelief on the Move, thank the good Lord!

News worth noting: the number of American who claim no religious affiliation (the Nones) has passed the number of white evangelical Christians, according to an ABC/Washington Post Poll.

Year                              2003         2017

White evangelicals     21%         13%

No religion                   12%          21%

This is a trend that’s been building for quite some time and will continue to build because the percentage of under 30s who count themselves among the Nones is 35%.   It’s noteworthy because it begs the question that is the subject of Seven Sacraments for Everyone: if you’ve given up on religion, where does your moral code come from? God or the gods deliver the faithful their marching orders through Holy Writ and its interpreters, those priests, pastors, imams, rabbis, and gurus who instruct the average Joe, Yusuf, or Rajeev on what is right and what is wrong. But if you’ve given up on all that, where do you go for some idea of a moral code? Do you look into your heart? But hearts are different. They’re influenced by culture and temperament. Is it possible that there can be a range of moral codes out there in the world, that what’s wrong for me can be right for you? Some say yes.

But on the big moral questions, the answer must be a resounding “no.” We have to find a universal moral code, applicable to everyone, especially as the world grows smaller through our technological innovations. When people on different continents are connected ever more closely via the media and transportation, we’ve got to make sure we’re tuning into the same moral wavelength or the connections become collisions —fatal collisions.   If we care anything about peace, we have to have some solid common ground to stand on.

Philosophical common ground is what is lacking so much in the Middle East, as the fight over the physical ground continues. Who has the right to own the land where Abraham and Jesus walked? If you look at the Holy Scriptures or listen to the religious leaders, you’ll find support for whichever side you’re on, and this method of determining what’s right will dig us deeper and deeper into the quagmire that is the Middle East.  Netanyahu is getting his support from those Jews who believe that narrative of divine real estate and also from evangelical Christians who point not just to Genesis, but to the book of Revelation as guidance for their stance on things like making Jerusalem the capital of Israel and the Palestinians be damned… literally, they would say.

With the Nones on the move in America and even stronger in much of Europe there is hope that eventually we will be able to synchronize our moral codes, focusing on those joyous experiences that we all share by virtue of our membership in the human race.   Among the most important is belonging to a group, but not just a localized group, a family, a clan, a gang, or Us, the Chosen People, but the entire neighborhood, community, country–the world.  At that point we may be able to override the momentum that has brought the Middle East to the brink of blowing itself up and the whole world with it.

But all this will take time.


The Guru and the Evangelist

If you want to get the wheels of your mind a-whirling, try watching Wild, Wild Country and Come Sunday back-to-back on Netflix.   The first is the story of Osha (Baghwan Sri Rajneesh), the guru who wanted to create a paradise on earth in Oregon in the 1980s and the second the story of Carlton Pearson, the Pentecostal preacher from Tulsa who came to the realization that there was no Hell and was booted out of his church as a result of his revealing that….um… secret.

Both these stories are fascinating, and what ties them together are the images of the congregations gathered around their main men by the thousands, listening raptly as they sermonize, philosophize, theologize, and mesmerize. Each of the two flocks is looking for a leader, someone to trust, to tell them what to do, what to believe, and they are convinced they have found them in the person of this hirsute, sanpaku-eyed oracle, and the urbane, telegenic preacherman.   These well-meaning men and women, these votaries of divine love have unburdened themselves of Reason, and filled that spot in their brains with a blind trust in the Master/Minister.   The images of both groups of disciples rapturously chanting, singing, dancing and carrying on in general around their leaders is enough to make a Humanist shake his head in wonder. They are, as the ancient Greeks used to say, ecstatic- ex statis—out of themselves. They’ve arrived at a different place through the power of the group and of their faith in the Beloved Leader. Those same Greeks called it being en-theos (enthusiastic)—having the god within you, and Dionysus never had it as good in ancient Athens as Osho and Bishop Pearson did at the height of their careers.

What is it in Homo sapiens that craves this super-powered mentor-figure? Is it that our self-awareness has revealed the dark places of the universe so clearly that without some strongman to support us, we would drift into a kind of madness? Over and over again we see it: masses of people seeking the answers and finding it in the latest charismatic man-of-words.

But the story of Carlton Pearson shows how far mentor-worship will go: only as far as it doesn’t butt up against a sacred text or two. So when Pearson concludes that a merciful God would never send the victims of Rwandan genocide to hell simply because they had never been “saved” in the Pentecostal sense of the word, he loses his congregation, or a large part of it. The Bible says “Only through Christ” can you avoid the flames of Hell, and that’s the end of it for many people—no asterisks for genocide victims who never hard of Jesus or for little children who can’t talk yet. They too must burn.

Bishop Pearson has opted out of that group.  He’s now editing the Bible and has come up with something called the Gospel of Inclusion.  I’m not sure what that entails, but it’s perhaps what I would call “universalism”—the idea that there is no single path to the Divine, and that divinity can be approached by paying attention to the seven universal sacraments—the peak experiences that are part of being human–no sacred text needed.

Thomas Carlyle, the Church and the Sacred

An op-ed piece in the New York Times today reminds us of the power of the Church to satisfy the longing to be part of a group–the Sacrament of the Group as I call it in my book.  Writer Margaret Renkl explains that she has periodically given up on the Catholic Church for various reasons I have mentioned in this space in the past, but she is nevertheless still drawn to it.  She misses the congregation, the babies, the prayers for peace, the feeling that you’re on the same track with like-minded people.

She writes:

“I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.”

The sacred can be found all around us, of course.  It doesn’t have to start with the idea of a God, or gods, it’s inevitably part of who we are as human beings.    Divinity is simply in us, in our thoughts and actions and connections to the world.   For example, Renkl notes that she often feels that God is more present when she’s taking a walk in the woods than when she is in the church building itself (the Sacrament of Nature).   She also misses the singing at Sunday mass (the Sacrament of the Arts).  Our connections with nature and with the arts are essential parts of our humanity and bring us closer to a sense of the Divine, as do the other sacramental aspects of our human existence.

Renkl’s observations are an echo of the so-called “Clothes Philosophy” of Thomas Carlyle.  It goes like this: clothes determine the appearance of men and women, yet underneath those clothes is a body–a body much more real than coats and dresses.  In the same way  our institutions like the Church are merely “visible emblems” of the spiritual forces they represent.   Even in his day (early 1800s) Carlyle found the Church was worn out and almost worthless, but the Spirit beneath the Church’s “clothes” was still there and needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Where can we go with these kinds of sacred longings if we’re not happy with the churches we grew up with?  How can we keep the Spirit alive?  There are a few alternatives, and they are growing. Places like the Humanist Hub in Boston offer a regular meeting to the non-theists, the “Nones” out there who want to find like-minded people ready to acknowledge the need for the Sacrament of the Group. To the theists I would say, that a humanist’s conception of the Divine is not far removed from yours–it’s two sides of the same coin, or as  Carlyle put it:  “the name of the Infinite is GOOD, is GOD,” .

Raw Courage in Iran and Slovakia

With all the silliness and tragedy in the news lets take time to honor raw courage.   In Iran this week a woman named Narges Husseini was sentenced to two years in prison for taking off her headcovering in public. Her crime according to the government: “encouraging moral corruption.” Moreover, the government has stated that she is in need of “long-term medical treatment” and a psychiatrist.

Well, someone is delusional here all right. Would it be

a) a woman who doesn’t want to wear a head covering.


b) those who believe that an angel from God came in the 7th century and gave the order that women must cover their hair, along with other ethical guidelines, like men may marry girls as young as nine years old, and rape women they capture in war.

And speaking of corruption, dozens of demonstrations broke out in Iran earlier this year protesting that very thing. Not the “moral” kind (though corruption is always a moral issue, isn’t it?) but the kind involving bribes, kickbacks, cronyism—the usual suspects when it comes to government officials and shady deal-making.

To stand up in public and wave your headcovering on a stick in a country like Iran is an act of tremendous courage.  She must have known what would happen to her, and to others who followed her example and now, sadly, she goes to prison.

Then there is Slovakia where investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were executed by unknown killers. Kuciak, hot on the trail of corrupt government officials and mafia bosses, must have known the danger, but didn’t let that stop him. He paid the price.   Tens of thousands of outraged citizens have taken to the streets, jangling keys as they did when the Iron Curtain fell, demanding an end to corruption and organized crime.

To remind you of where these sorts of street protests can lead, look at Syria 6 years after the first protests against the Assad regime broke out.   It takes incredible courage to head for the streets knowing there may be tear gas and bullets waiting for you.   It’s an even greater act of bravery to take on the powers-that-be and ruthless murderers as Kuciak did and as his fellow members of the fourth estate are doing now as they follow through on what he started to honor his name and his courage.   Let’s hope the government falls and some real change can occur.

And let’s hope that Iranian women and Muslim women succeed in gaining ground in their fight for basic rights in the face of theocrats and fundamentalism

Lest we forget, dear reader, the Bible also orders women to cover their heads when praying (First Corinthians) but how many Christians think that’s important anymore? Some for sure, but others have edited the Bible, essentially saying they don’t believe every verse is an order from the Almighty.     Islam take note.



Calling All Exorcists! Demons on the Loose!

The news out of the Vatican this week is that there’s a shortage of exorcists. The answer? A big training program to take place this April in order to bring the supply up to a level with the demand.   Apparently in Italy there are about half a million cases of demonic possession a year and only about 200 priests available to drive those demons out. The number of cases of possession has tripled there recently, according to one exorcist, because of the popularity of fortune tellers, tarot, and witches. The exorcists will learn the Catholic rites and be sent on their way, armed with the cross and holy water to do battle with the forces of evil.

Are you shaking your head at this? Are you thinking what a bunch of silly mumbo-jumbo? You would not be alone in our increasingly secular world. But the interesting thing is the superstition angle.   If you’re not an ardent Catholic, you would look on this whole demonic possession thing as some ancient attempt to account for what we today would attribute to a psychological disorder. The abnormal mind was a mystery back then, so our ancestors pulled a Being out of thin air, fashioned it in their own image, called it the Devil, gave him a mission, and voila, he’s still with us today, living not in in the minds of the mentally ill, but rather, the skeptic would say, in the minds of gullible Catholics.

But if you are a serious Catholic, you would say the superstition works the other way around: it’s the people going to a tarot reading, or an astrologer, or trying to tap into the collective unconscious who are, sadly, being lured into a superstitious swamp, led by none other than the very Devil they claim to scoff at. One German prelate, Helmut Moll, an expert on exorcism, admits the existence of psychological illness, but adamantly insists that possession is just as real. The priest has to work with the doctor to differentiate the two, he says, but each has a different, but important task to do.

Two versions of reality! What’s a confused 21st century seeker to do? Well, if our education system were working properly, you’d hope they’d ask, “Is there any evidence that your view is the correct one?”

The Catholic: (thrilled that he will now win the argument) Oh course there is!   Look at what Jesus did in the Gospels! There it is in black and white! Straight from the pen of unknown scribes who wrote decades after Jesus died and who I’m sure would never make up these stories.

The Astrologer: (equally thrilled)  Of course there is!  My predictions are correct 30% of the time!

The Seeker: (silently places his Bible and his star chart in a box and sends them to the national Museum of Curiosities)

G.B. Shaw on Right-Wing Christians

I heard a powerful speaker yesterday at the Humanist Hub, just off Harvard Square. Eugene Scott is a writer for the Washington Post whose specialty is religion and politics. One of the things he said especially struck me: you have to divide American Christians into two camps. In the first group are those you could have a conversation with and perhaps come to some agreements with about public policy. These are thoughtful people, not too happy with Trump, who might be willing to admit that the Bible is not a word-for-word dictation from the Deity.

The second group of Christians are people who will never be convinced to change their thinking on anything. They feel threatened by social change, they like Trump, facts are fake news, and their heads are stuffed firmly into the far-right sands, unable to contemplate the world the rest of us live in. They want nothing less than a return to what they think made America great in the past. They want a Christian nation, a Roy Moore nation, where we fix the problems facing us by putting prayer back in the schools.

This parallels what George Bernard Shaw had to say in a short piece from 1932 called The Black Girl in Search of God, in which he excoriates the hide-bound Christians of his day for not being able to distinguish the fact that there are several “Gods” in the Bible, each an improvement over the one that appeared before it. The God of Noah was a primitive God, an angry God, Who wiped out virtually the entire human race and then was appeased by Noah’s offering of the “sweet savor” of burning flesh.   The God of Job, on the other hand, was on familiar terms with the Devil, was philosophical, argumentative, and tolerant. “People who cannot see the difference between these two Gods cannot pass the most elementary test of intelligence: they cannot distinguish between similar and dissimilars.” Later, the Bible introduces us to the God of Micah and of course Jesus—each more different still.

In his typical style, Shaw does not mince words when it comes to religious extremists: “People whose education in [science and history] is derived from the Bible are so absurdly misinformed as to be unfit for public employment, parental responsibility, or the franchise.” In other words, fundamentalist Christians cannot be expected to vote with any discernment. As Eugene Scott said, you pretty much have to give up on ever trying to convince them of anything: they are blinded by the Bible and Breitbart News.

So where does that leave us? I would hope that the Seven Universal Sacraments would provide some relief from this schizophrenic society outlined by Shaw and Scott. We share common ground in the physical world and we need to find common ground spiritually and politically.

The other place it leaves us is the public schools.  The homeschool movement along with the Christian schools are worrisome.   What is actually being taught there?  If we don’t support public education and create safe spaces where “similar and dissimilars” can be analyzed and discussed, where our citizens can be taught to think instead of simply believe, where we can engage religious fundamentalists in some kind of meaningful dialogue, then we’re going to remain stuck in Trumpland, sniping at each other, lurching from protest to protest, waiting for the next scandal, stupidity, or slaughter.

It’s a lot to fix.

Iranian Women Remove the Hijab: Is It the End of the World?

What are we to make of the women in Iran who are taking off their head coverings and waving them on sticks in public? Are they…

  1. dire threats to the very foundation of the Iranian nation
  2. misguided young people acting childishly
  3. noble freedom fighters to be admired for their courage

29 have been arrested that we know about, and it remains to be seen whether the gesture will spread like wildfire as more and more women throw off the symbol of their servitude, or whether it will peter out, relegated to the many failed attempts of reformers through the ages to alter religious customs and strictures.

Their bravery is considerable. We know they are fined at the very least, but are they also harangued, beaten, tortured?   Are they called whores? Molested? Sentenced to lengthy jail terms? And what is their argument when confronted by the men who run the country, the ultra-islamists who point to the verse in the Holy Qur’an that clearly backs up their belief that women must cover their hair? Could they ever convince their jailers that there are good reasons to throw off the head coverings and let each woman dress as she pleases?  The argument might go something like this:

Woman: The covering is uncomfortably hot.

Islamist: It’s in the Qur’an that you have to wear it.

Woman: It makes me feel like a second-class citizen.

Islamist: It’s in the Qur’an, don’t you understand.   The Blessed Prophet wrote that you must wear it.

Woman: That was 1,400 years ago. Times have changed.

Islamist: You are wrong. His words came from Allah, to be respected for all time. Are you saying that Allah came to you with a message that his Prophet was mistaken when he wrote that 1,400 years ago? Have you lost your faith?

If you look more closely at the hijab arguments of an Muslim apologist, the parsing of words, the minutiae, it’s remarkably like the arguments from Catholic holy fathers with regard to the finer points of their rituals and why they must be performed just so and not any other way.   Any change is a hole in the dyke that will weaken the entire structure, built up carefully many centuries ago to hold back the pounding waves of sin and chaos that threaten to overwhelm our race.  Or in short, it’s the Word of God. Believe it.

An interesting way to approach the hijab issue would be a Muslim trying to convince a non-Muslim to get on board with Islam. There are many good arguments for embracing Islam including a sense of peace, a spiritual connection with the universe, a rejection of materialism, wealth, and lewdness.  But how do you convince a heathen that Allah spoke to Mohammed and Mohammed is the one who wrote it all down in the 7th century?  Look into your heart?  Intuition?  Faith, faith, faith…..! A tall order.  The question raised by the women of Iran is, basically, can we edit the Qur’an and agree that much of what is a part of Islam is of tremendous value, but other parts are reflections of an ancient culture, not the mind of God at all, but the desire of men.

So what it comes down to with the hijab is this: If you believe that centuries ago the Creator of the Universe told His Prophet everything we all need to know about how to live our lives, then there is no point in arguing. The head covering stays on, the disgruntled go to jail.

But if you believe that positive change is possible, and the way to gauge whether a change is positive or not is by whether it delivers benefit to individuals, then you have made the transition from a faith-based philosophy to one based on the Greater Good.


What a Good School Should Be: The House of Joy (Baan Unrak) in Thailand

A few years ago Baan Unrak came to my attention. It’s a place in Thailand on the border with Myanmar where mothers and children fleeing war and poverty can find a home.   The founders have built an amazing refuge by all accounts—the name means “The House of Joy”–and its residents are lucky to have found this sanctuary ( link to website.)

But what struck me most recently as I visited their website, was their school, based on something called “neohumanism.” This is a philosophy brought into being by an Indian, Shrii P.R. Sarkar, who espoused a holistic education based on universal love—not just love for all humanity, but really universal love: for animals, plants, and the inanimate world as well.  High-minded ideals indeed! But what got my attention was how similar it was to some other educational movements, like the Waldorf Schools, and the Basic School of Ernest Boyer.   In fact, no matter what the starting point, it would seem that any good system of education would want the kinds of things that neohumanism aspires to:

ecological and social consciousness

practical and personal skills

knowledge of self and world

joyful learning through the arts.

Moreover, it would be accomplished through an integrated curriculum led by teachers with great personal integrity.  The end result would be young people who were able to make their way in the world in a healthy way, with a solid sense of the importance of their connections to the forces of nature we live under, the earth we live on, and the people we live with.

The opposing point of view would be an educational system built on competition, on control and domination. It’s us vs. the universe, so we’d better learn how to contend with it and wrest some personal benefit out of it as best we can, even at the expense of others.  This would be a very Ayn Rand kind of position and without a doubt it has its upsides.  Some children thrive on competition and can be pushed to do their best in that scenario, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone.  Competition means winners and losers, and what do you do about the losers?  I suppose the answer would be to allow nature to take its course : let them be content with low self-esteem and a low-paying job–it’s survival of the fittest.

The House of Joy offers something different, and lets hope its message spreads around the globe.

Pope Francis and the Lord’s Prayer: The Devil is in the Details

This week Pope Francis made an announcement: the version of the Lord’s Prayer that we all had to learn in our various tongues contained a bad translation of one line: “lead us not into temptation.” It should be don’t let us “fall into” temptation, because God is good, and would not “lead us” into temptation, as if He were engaged in some sting operation for the FBI, just waiting for us to snatch at the bait before leaping out with a big “Ah ha! Just as I suspected!” and consigning us directly to the appropriate level of hell. No, He does not work that way, Francis tells us. Rather it is the Devil who is out there leading us to temptation, working against all that God wants for us, slipping little enticements our way, hoping we will forget the precepts of parent, priest, and parochial school for just one minute of sinful pleasure, whether it be a lurid leer at a coveted co-worker or some private worship of His rival god, Mammon.

For those who suspect that the Devil may be a figment of someone’s imagination rather than an actual intelligent being of some kind, Francis’ textual concerns are somewhat disheartening, playing as they do into the superstitious aspects of religion that get us bogged down in pointless arguments about miracles and other parlor tricks that are reported to have occurred two millennia ago. The reaction to Francis’ pronouncement has already ranged from scorn to puzzlement to thoughtfulness.  Verily, in good sooth, “the devil is in the details” of this prayer, one of the pillars of Christendom.

But if we reframe Francis’ thoughts, it’s not so far out there for someone of a humanist stripe to accept, because what he’s really saying is we can make bad choices and good choices in life, and what we want is to avoid the bad and head toward the good. Whether it’s God helping you to lean in one direction and the Devil prodding you in the other with that infamous pitchfork of his, is something that shouldn’t distract us from the point that we need to exercise some moral judgment in our lives on a daily basis, and the gauge for making those choices has to be the Greater Good, which is rooted inevitably in avoiding hurt to others, and bringing as much joy as possible to those around us.   Old Nick, Beelzebub, and Co. are those selfish genes in us all, the impulse to have it all for ourselves, the bestial instincts that helped us survive the rigors of natural selection as we climbed up through the evolutionary branches.   Once we became self-aware a different ethic arose and God, in the form of the Greater Good, was born, you might say, or we were born again in God, if that is more to your liking.   However you think of it, the result is the same in the end: get out there and spread compassion to make the world a better place.

An interesting side note is that the phrase “The devil is in the details” derives from a much earlier German saying: “Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail”—it is not the Devil, but God who lives in the details.  Focussing on getting the little things right can bring us closer to our higher selves.  It’s the zen of washing dishes, of being mindful in all of our daily tasks and interactions.



Pope Francis in Myanmar Gets It Right Again

It can drive you crazy how the media takes a story and focuses on the wrong thing.   Take the Pope’s visit to Myanmar, for example.   The headline from all the news outlets was all about how he did not use the word ‘Rohingya” to refer to the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed in that largely Buddhist nation.   The media needs a storyline and they’ve certainly got an important one in the misery of these poor people, now barely surviving in refugee camps.   A solution to the problem is desperately needed, but by focusing on this terminology issue, they diverted us from the most important thing that the Pope said:

“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building.”

What an earth-shaking statement!  The leader of the Catholic Church wants to find common ground with other religions to build a better, more peaceful, more tolerant, more united world!  What a difference from the bad old days when Protestants and Catholics went to war over an argument about the communion bread and the Faithful slaughtered whole cities in the name of the All-Merciful Creator.  If only today’s fundamentalists around the world could buy in to Francis’ statement we’d be halfway to heaven on earth.

The Pope is essentially signing on to what the Enlightenment was all about back when Voltaire told us it’s so easy to get distracted by unimportant things like how you should dress to please God, or what foods God told us not to eat.   If only we could all latch onto the big things, like we’re all searching for a meaning and purpose in life, and religion is a road that gets us there, each religion a different path to the same ultimate place, a place where we recognize the common humanity in each other while honoring the differences.

The Rohingya crisis is a version of the same problem that the United States is facing on its southern border, where over a period of decades or even centuries, poor families have sought a better life in a neighboring country where they can find work.   Are they citizens or not?  We haven’t figured out how to deal with that yet and neither have they.   How much of what is driving this comes from the difference in religions, and how much from simply being different?   Whatever the answer, as the international community works to try to help the situation, let’s hope that Pope Francis’ appeal to our higher selves will not get lost.