atheists

Jordan Peterson's secular approach to the soul and the sacred (Part II)

Jordan Peterson's secular approach to the soul and the sacred (Part II)

It isn't every day that a University of Toronto psychology professor is asked to perform a wedding.

Then again, Jordan Peterson has outgrown the role of bookish academic, evolving into a digital-culture guru whose fame is measured in millions of online clicks.

The logical thing to do was hit the Internet and get ordained. Within minutes, the author of the bestseller "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" was the "metropolitan" of his own church -- with a one-doctrine creed.

"If you are a member of my church, you cannot follow stupid rules. That's a good rule, because it's an anti-rule rule," said Peterson, during an Orthodox School of Theology forum at Toronto's Trinity College.

This 2017 event -- "Resurrection of Logos: The Divine, the Individual and Finding Our Bearings in a Postmodern World" -- offered the scholar's unusual mix of science, art and theology. What matters to online seekers is that it's on YouTube, where debates about ultimate issues never end.

Not all rules are stupid, stressed Peterson. Consider this one: Don't tell lies.

"You certainly know when you lie, and you know how to stop doing that. So, I would say … stop lying. Try it for a year and see what happens," he said. "It also means that you have to not act in a way that you wouldn't speak truthfully about it."

Attempting to live a good life, he stressed, will force many people to realize that they are not inherently good.

"You cannot conceive of how good a human being might be until you can conceive how evil a human being can and will be," he said. "The pathway to Paradise is through hell. … If you don't go there voluntarily, you'll go there accidentally. So, it's better to go there voluntarily, because you can go with hope."

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even chilly ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral 50 score.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country and it's getting stronger. … This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."

Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

Seeking a logical key to unlock mysteries of atheist Christopher Hitchens

Seeking a logical key to unlock mysteries of atheist Christopher Hitchens

The Shenandoah Valley was a spectacular place to spend Labor Day, even when rushing by car from Washington, D.C., to a public debate in Birmingham, Ala.

It helped that Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation had a lively conversationalist in the passenger seat during that 2010 road trip -- atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens. And as the mountains rolled past, they worked their way deep into St. John's Gospel.

Taunton called this exchange a "Bible study." Hitchens called it "mutual textual criticism."

So here was the author of "god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," reading glasses perched on his nose, reading some of Christianity's most cerebral words in his rich British baritone, a voice abused by countless cigarettes and smoothed by rivers of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch. He kept a glass -- damn the highway open-container laws -- locked between his knees throughout the drive.

Thus Hitchens read: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." At one point, Taunton suggested that Hitchens record this text to sell as an audiobook.

"With that voice, Christopher would have done an amazing job. … You can only imagine the shock this would have caused among atheists and Christians, alike," said Taunton, reached by telephone. Hitchens, however, "knew that he didn't have much time left and he had so much that he wanted to do."

The Shenandoah road trip is a pivotal scene in Taunton's new book, "The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World's Most Notorious Atheist," which is causing fierce debates on both sides of the Atlantic.

Military chaplains on Sexual Revolution front lines

It was in 1775 that General George Washington authorized chaplains in the Continental Army. "Purity of Morals," he wrote, three years later, provided the "only sure foundation of publick happiness in any Country" and thus was "highly conducive to order, subordination and success in an Army." "Purity of Morals" might have provided unity during the American Revolution, but chaplains face more divisive issues decades after the Sexual Revolution.

"No Catholic priest or deacon may be forced by any authority to witness or bless the union of couples of the same gender," wrote Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio, in guidelines released last month (.pdf). "No Catholic priest or deacon can be obliged to assist at a 'Strong Bonds' or other 'Marriage Retreat,' if that gathering is also open to couples of the same gender. A priest who is asked to counsel non-Catholic parties in a same-gendered relationship will direct them to a chaplain who is able to assist."

The archbishop's missive followed a remarkably similar memorandum from Southern Baptist Convention leaders, including former U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains Douglas Carver, a retired two-star general. It stressed that Southern Baptist chaplains must teach that "all forms of sexual immorality," including adultery, homosexuality and pornography, are "equally destructive to healthy marital relations."

However, the document's main purpose was to offer guidance on issues emerging after Pentagon decisions to embrace same-sex marriage and to allow gays and lesbians to openly serve in the armed forces.

Southern Baptist chaplains, stressed the guidelines, could not "conduct or attend" same-sex union rites or join in counseling sessions or retreats that "give the appearance of accepting ... sexual wrongdoing." The document also drew a stark line between the work of SBC chaplains and those representing liberal traditions, saying they should not lead worship services with any clergyperson who "personally practices or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct."

While one Army manual says chaplains are not obligated to perform duties "contrary to their faith traditions, tenets and beliefs," other regulations stress that all chaplains must be willing to provide "religious support" for all personnel in their care.

The "Chaplain Activities in the United States Army" volume notes, for example, that while chaplains "remain fully accountable to the code of ethics and ecclesiastical standards of their endorsing faith group" this does not relieve them from their duty to provide "adequate religious support to accomplish the mission."

Thus, it's significant that Army materials promoting the chaplain-led "Strong Bonds" program indicate that its mission is to help all soldiers -- singles, unmarried couples and families -- thrive in the "turbulence of the military environment."

It will be impossible for doctrinally conservative clergy to avoid same-gender couples and families in that context. Thus, it's time for some chaplains to quit, according to a manifesto from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers entitled, "Didn't Southern Baptists Just Resign as Military Chaplains?"

"The SBC policy is encouraging because it is an honest representation of the previous unwritten anti-gay stance of the SBC, ... but is discouraging in that it does not take full responsibility and resign explicitly from a military chaplaincy they clearly do not wish to partake in," said the MilitaryAtheists.org analysis.

"The policy as written may potentially be copied by other endorsing agencies who share the same view of scripture. If other agencies follow suit, potentially 50 percent of military chaplains may be affected."

Clearly, the nation's two largest churches do play crucial roles in the chaplaincy program. A mere 234 priests serve the 25 percent of all military personnel who are Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention has more than 1,500 approved chaplains, more than any other faith group.

America's military leaders will have to decide if doctrinally conservative chaplains will be allowed to honor their religious vows or not, said the Rev. Russell Moore, leader of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a forum last week.

The current trend, he said, is to view chaplains as "carriers of the American civil religion, in a way that seeks to counsel and to do some religious duties but not to actually be Roman Catholics or Evangelicals or Latter-day Saints or Muslims or what have you. I think that is troubling. ... I believe in religious pluralism in the public square where everyone comes as he or she is into the public square for more dialogue and not less."

Fewer Protestants, but better Protestants?

After decades of sobering statistics about rising intermarriage rates, falling birthrates and their declining flocks, eventually Jewish clergy began talking about a future in which there would be "fewer Jews, but better Jews." Faced with sobering evidence that the number of priests was falling, along with statistics for Confession and weekly Mass, many Catholic leaders started talking about a future in which there would be "fewer Catholics, but better Catholics."

Now, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Protestant leaders should start preparing for a future in which there will be "fewer Protestants, but better Protestants."

For the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations. Meanwhile, the surging tide of Americans rejecting ties specific religious groups -- the so-called "Nones" -- appears to pose a new threat to the declining "seven sisters" of liberal Protestantism. These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

This survey shows that "it's going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment," said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, after a briefing at the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association of America. This research was a cooperative effort with the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. It also appears that young people who are rejecting traditional faiths -- during the past five years in particular -- are quitting organized religion altogether, rather than joining progressive institutions.

"It's going to be hard for something like a 'fewer Methodists, but better Methodists' approach to work because these mainline churches are already so small and there are so many of them," said Green. "The mainliners will have to find their niche. But who are they? What do they believe? Do they know?"

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans -- especially the young -- are now willing to say that they do not believe. The Pew Research Center numbers indicate that millions of Americans are no longer willing, as was common in the past, to remain lukewarm members of religious bodies in which they were raised. Other key survey findings include:

* One-fifth of the U.S. public -- a third of those under 30 -- are now religiously unaffiliated, for a total of 46 million Americans. The unaffiliated have risen from just over 15 percent of the adult population to nearly 20 percent in five years. More than 70 percent of the unaffiliated called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.

* Many "Nones" fit the "spiritual, but not religious" label used by many researchers, with more than two-thirds -- including some self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics -- saying they believe in God or a "higher power." More than half claim a deep connection with nature.

* In 2007, 60 percent of those who said they "seldom or never" attend worship services continued to claim some tie to a religious tradition. But today, only 50 percent in this camp retain such a tie -- a 10 percent drop in only five years. At the same time, 88 percent of the "Nones" said they are not interested in considering future to ties to religious institutions, either liberal or conservative.

* The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters -- with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

Hail Marys for Hitch

One of the last things Thomas Peters does each day is face the Cross of St. Benedict that hangs over his bed and say his evening prayers. The sobering final phrases of the Hail Mary prayer have recently taken on a unique relevancy: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

A month ago, the conservative Catholic writer challenged readers of the American Papist website to join him in praying one Hail Mary a day on behalf of the iconoclastic atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been stricken with esophageal cancer, a disease which leaves few survivors.

"I am going to begin praying ... for the salvation of his eternal soul," wrote Peters, "that God will be with him 'at the hour of his death,' that God will help his unbelief in this life, and that those he has led away from God will come back to His infinite love and mercy. I am in no way praying for him to die, I am praying for him to live eternally."

Peters is not alone and Hitchens knows it. While some believers hope that he suffers and dies, post haste, the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" told CNN that he has been surprised that others -- who are "much more numerous, I must say, and nicer" -- are praying for his healing, both body and soul.

This has been one of the strangest side effects of Hitchens' journey across the "stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." This is a zone in which almost everyone is politely encouraging, the jokes are feeble, sex talk is nonexistent and the "cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited," wrote Hitchens, in a blunt Vanity Fair essay. The native tongue in "Tumorville" is built around terms such as "metastasized," phases such as "tissue is the issue" and quotes from the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Most of the inhabitants also do quite a bit of praying -- for themselves, for their loved ones and even for suffering people they have never met.

Hitchens told evangelical broadcaster Hugh Hewitt that he remains convinced these prayers "don't do any good, but they don't necessarily do any harm. It's touching to be thought of in that way."

The bottom line, explained Peters, is that his faith asks him to "pray for everyone, even those who hate us. ... Hitch just happens to be a famous public enemy of the faith, so more people know what is happening in this life, so more people are talking about why it's good to pray for him."

While it is "absolutely horrible" that anyone would pray for Hitchens to suffer and die, he added, many believers may find it hard to do more than pray for "God's will to be done." That is the "safe prayer" that is always appropriate.

Meanwhile, a quick Internet scan reveals that some believers are, predictably enough, praying for Hitchens to be converted to Christianity for the sake of his own soul. Others are specifically praying that the scribe who -- with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins -- is called one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheism will not only convert, but also become an apologist for faith. That happened decades ago with an atheist named C.S. Lewis, after all.

"Ultimately, I simply will pray that Hitch has a good and holy death," said Peters. "I really do not care if he has a public conversion. I care that he, somehow, has a private conversion and that he will be reconciled to God."

As much as believers love these kinds of "foxhole conversion" stories, Hitchens is convinced he will not surrender. However, should rumors spread that he has "hedged his bets," the writer has made several public statements warning his admirers that if such cry to the Almighty were to take place, they should ignore it.

"If that comes it will be when I'm very ill, when I am half demented, either by drugs or by pain and I won't have control over what I say," he told CNN. "I can't say that the entity that by then would be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing. But I can tell you that -- not while I am lucid. No, I could be quite sure of that."