Category Archives: Proselytizing

Born Agains Be Gone

When I’m flipping through the cable TV channels, sometimes I catch a few anecdotes from Wayne Dyer with his latest book pitch, “Excuses Begone.”  When I hear him trying to make it sound so easy, I picture Samantha on “Bewitched” just wiggling her nose to make anything appear or disappear.  Well, that’s what I’d like to do with those Born Agains.  To be clear, I’m not wishing them dead, I’m just wishing their behavior (and attitude) would be gone.  And I know I’m not the only one.

Here’s how one person described it (p.24):  “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”  When I heard that quote I had to buy the book.  Well, that was an unfortunate impulse, but I’ll share the few things of interest here so you don’t make the same mistake.  (Don’t even check it out from the library.)

unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity, is written by David Kinnaman aunChristiannd Gabe Lyons.  They researched what 16-29 year-olds think about Christianity with a few statistics about all adults throughout.  Though this research was clearly biased, I found their conclusions interesting because they were so unflattering to the authors’ own orientation – as the book flap says, “Christianity has an image problem.”

In 16-29 year-olds, 57 percent know “Evangelical Christians” and 49 percent have a bad impression (p.23).  The three most common perceptions of Christians by this age-group are anti-gay/91%, judgmental/87%, and hypocritical/85% (p.25).  These “perceptions” are based on interaction with Christians, as the authors describe, 85 percent of young “outsiders” say they have had significant exposure to Christians.  In other words, these are not just random perceptions, but a result of personal experiences.  That makes it much more than an image problem.

The authors start on page one by characterizing folks of other religions/no religion as “those outside of Christianity” and then shorten future references to “outsiders.”  I was repeatedly disturbed that they didn’t see this distinction as demeaning.  Throughout the book the consistent assumption is that not only are other religions wrong, but so are other kinds of Christians.  The Born Agains see themselves as the sole moral authority for the world and the only acceptable interpretation of Christianity.

In case you dozed-off, here’s how I would summarize this book: the Born Again authors are shocked and dismayed that there are so many people who think that their exclusive club is hypocritical and judgmental.  They want to learn from their “data” so they can do a better job of converting more of us “outsiders.”  Even as they write about arrogance, their underlying assumptions have tremendous hubris.  Here are examples of the authors’ rationalizations: “Keep in mind that part of the reason Christians possess a bad reputation is because our faith perspectives grate against a morally relativistic culture…Christians are known as judgmental because we address sin and its consequences…Christians should identify homosexual behavior as morally unacceptable because that is what Scripture teaches,” (p.34).  In that last sentence the authors leaped from interpreting data as the Barna Group (which Kinnaman runs) to interpreting the Bible, and without attribution, neither on Biblical scholarship nor Bible passages.  (I remind you that on the gay issue, Jesus did not say one thing in the Christian Gospels.)

Born Agains are so sure they are right and the rest of us “outsiders” are wrong that some of them turn their arrogance into full-time jobs, fund-raising from each other to proselytize the rest of us.  One couple, now middle-aged, has done this with relatives for over 30 years without ever having to work for a living.  They still make regular visits to an elderly retired couple, a school teacher and a tradesperson, who donate more money every year than they spent on the education of their own children.  One of the donors is now exhibiting signs of dementia – but that doesn’t stop the tireless fund-raisers from asking for additional support, above and beyond the regular amount.  They have even sent one of their children to fund-raise for a “mission” trip to Paris.  Nice work if you can get it.  I will take a Secular Humanist’s ethics over these Born Again exploiters any day of the week.

I have written before (link below) about a more compassionate Evangelical, Rob Bell. who reminds us that whatever happens after death is “speculation.”  Two amazingly intelligent and compassionate Evangelicals are Bill Moyers  (public television) and  Jim Wallis (Sojourner magazine), so those folks do exist.  It seems that there are fewer of them and their voices are not as loud and intrusive.  They are willing to express their faith, but respect the faith of others, regardless of what shape that takes.  Faith is a part of life that can’t be proven, by definition, and so there are no absolutes.  The only ultimate truth is the one we choose for our own life.

“What the Hell?” and Rob Bell

By way of contrast, and to leave you with something more positive, I want to ask you to think about the Pueblos.  These Native Americans lived an apparently peaceful, agrarian life for over 2,000 years.  They didn’t have a word for religion because the lives and religion of the people were inseparable (“Treasures of the Past: Mesa Verde,” Mesa Verde Museum Association, Inc., 1993 video).  They minded their own business.  They lived their lives.  They didn’t need to convert anyone to anything.

Here is how I would pray to an inclusive, loving God.  Perhaps it will remind you of another famous prayer, after which I modeled it. – J.B.

Mother and Father, in heaven and earth
Making all things sacred
Your riches fulfilled, your preference for us
On earth, the same as heaven

Your providence meeting
Our earthly needs
Teaching forgiveness by forgiving

Guide us from fear
Protect us from harm
That we not forget all is connected

Your Spirit
Our Spirit
Forever
Amen

© 1999 J. Good

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Atheists in Foxholes

As it turns out, there are atheists in foxholes.  As reported in an AP story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the U.S. Army has 2,500 soldiers who describe themselves as atheist, and 101,000 who report no affiliation, out of approximately 548,000 (11/8/2009 “Faith and furor: Muslims say Ft. Hood gunman does not define Islam”).

When I mentioned to someone that I was reading a book about atheism she said, “Oh, it’s good to know the enemy.”  I admit it was my mistake for trying to have a sensible conversation with a Christian fundamentalist, but calling someone with different religious views an “enemy” is simply not very Christian.  I will return to the vitriol later, but I want to address what I believe are the essential issues first.

I finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  I am struggling to finish The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Both of these books were New York Times best sellers. Since I am a person with a life-long interest in religion, I never felt compelled to study atheism before now and reading both of these books was both challenging and disturbing, as I believe both authors intended.

Hitchens’ book was a brilliantly written page-turner while Dawkins’ book is occasionally amusing but primarily tedious.  For people of faith, or those even mildly interested in religion, it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of, or worse – hate, atheists.  Faith is the opposite of fear, so how intelligent, well-read atheists think should provoke consideration not anger.

The Hitchens’ book builds a convincing case for the negative impact of religion on social history and individual experience, especially in the treatment of children and when connected with politics.  Ordinarily I enjoy sarcasm, but the Dawkins’ book is so relentlessly facetious it was nearly impossible for me to appreciate his perspective.  While Hitchens hoped to influence readers, Dawkins’ was shameless in attempting to convert the faithful into godless.  I found Dawkins’ attempt at proselytizing no more or less offensive coming from an atheist than a born-again Christian.  (See my blog column “Missionary Go Home” 8/25/2010.)

I don’t see value in arguing over the existence of God.  That is ultimately an individual question.  No panel of theologians can prove the existence – nor can a panel of atheists disprove it.  I see theologians denying science or atheists disavowing the possibility of anything mystical equally non-productive.  The intersections that matter are when theologians try to dictate to science or atheists want sanitize culture of any presence of religion.  That time would be better spent by theologians speaking to their own followers and leaving the rest of us alone, and atheists limiting their arguments to the inappropriate influence of religion in this secular society.

Atheists make an important contribution to our culture by being the conscience of religion.  Religion does enjoy too much societal protection legally, financially, publicly, and tacitly.  For example, in a capitalistic country, tax breaks are an enormous practical advantage as well as a demonstration of governmental approval.  There is no real reason why churches should be tax-exempt any more than social clubs.  This will be a future column, but my short answer is that if churches or religious organizations are not contributing social services to those outside of their own group, there is no reason for exemption from taxes.  Locally, I see very little difference between the YMCA and LA Fitness, except that the Y has a better swimming pool and is tax-exempt.

I would distill these issues to a few basic questions.  Primarily, the pivotal question is: Do you believe in the supernatural?  If not, then any god arguments are irrelevant, as well as any discussion on humans having a soul or spirit.  Dead is dead.  That is not a subject that is possible to debate.  As impossible as it is to debate, it is pointless to be angry because that is someone’s point of view.  Both books had stories of hate mail and death threats.  There’s no excuse for any person of any religion to stoop to bullying atheists.  You discredit your own religion.  If someone else’s view is that threatening, then your faith doesn’t really amount to much, does it?

Often I conclude these columns with what I personally believe, and I am tempted to do so this time, but I resist that temptation because it is irrelevant.  I read an amazing book by Hitchens that deeply disturbed me in many appropriate ways.  He influenced my thinking but did not change my point of view.  I am grateful such a great thinker lived among us and was unafraid to ask difficult questions that make us uncomfortable.  I would like to say, rest in peace, but that would be disrespectful.  So, Mr. Hitchens, I celebrate your life and contribution to this planet by encouraging tolerance of atheists and promising to read more of what you wrote.

To the religious, I would say that a faith unquestioned is just stupidity.

-J.B.

Missionary Go Home – No Just Go Away

One of my favorite scenes from the “Sex and the City” TV series was when Charlotte wanted to convert to Judaism and the rabbi slammed the door on her.  That’s my kind of religious leader.  The Dalai Lama said, “You should be devoted to your own religion while nurturing a deep respect for other religions.”

I had a distant relative go to China on a “mission” to convert the heathens to Christianity.  This was organized by some group in the business of proselytizing on a regular basis.  The catch here was that they had to deceive the Chinese government into believing they were offering some social service.  I never heard what service that was.  Is there anyone reading this that also finds it ironic that these Christian missionaries were so willing to lie systematically about their intentions and activities in order to fulfill their “mission”?  From what I can tell, this did not for one moment create any ethical dilemma for those involved.  Deceit does not strike me as a Christian value.  Premeditated deceit is so much the worse.

Aversion to conversion is difficult for zealots to understand, but trying to impose your religion on someone else is just arrogance.  Working to convert people of other cultures is imperialism.  The other misguided and connected activity, which is necessary to support this scramble to convert, is the need for fund-raising.  Don’t kid yourself, being a missionary is profitable.  Since God doesn’t have a payroll for cash in this lifetime, the missionaries have to convince the faithful to support them financially.  They go to family, friends and churches to ask for money.  The faithful are happy to chip in because it’s all about God’s work, now, isn’t it?  I know of one church-going couple who spend more on missionaries every year than they ever spent on the education of their children in total.  These same folks are quick to judge the poor for being on welfare.

There is a difference when the faithful make a statement by taking action.  Public television’s Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly (“Season of Service,” 10/16/2009) had a story that demonstrated a mission of service that is indicative of compassion and respect.  I would say it is mission in action, and actions that are needed and welcomed.  More than 26,000 Christian volunteers cleaned schools, organized and operated dental and medical clinics, and offered many other services including free veterinary care.  Watch or read the story on the link below.  You’ll feel better about humanity – I promise.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/october-16-2009/season-of-service/4589/

This has been a news week when the raging controversy is whether or not there should be an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site.  The Pew poll was also released indicating how many people think the president is Muslim.  On weeks like this, it seems the Stupids are winning.  It is sad that not only is the rumor about the president untrue, it shouldn’t matter.  This is not, by design, a Christian nation.  It is a secular country designed to allow the free practice of any, all, or no religion(s). We would be better off with no missionaries except the likes of the “Season of Service” or Habitat for Humanity.  Show me what you believe and just stop talking about it.  True Islam is about compassion, and Christianity is the same.  If you define a religion by the fanatics, then all religions look bad.

So, missionaries, go home and stay away from mine.  Unless you want to roll up your sleeves and really make a contribution, we just don’t need you.  There is already enough judgmental arrogance to go around.  And if you want to offer social services as an example of the best of your religion, then come on.  Whatever religion you are and wherever you want to be, there is not one single spot in this world that couldn’t benefit from more compassion – especially Ground Zero.

Sex and Sports and Religion

Religion is not the only means for determining morality.  Religious folks don’t always understand that people without religious affiliation are still capable of being moral people.  The reverse is obviously true as well.  Religious people are capable of a complete absence of morality and frequently demonstrate lapses from ethical behavior.  In fact, it is essential to have a secular moral code so people of all religions (or no religion) living in the same society can survive each other.  The law isn’t always right, but it is a starting point.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s based on the “10 Commandments” or English Common Law.  It matters that we have a code of conduct that prevents us from killing each other.  Just short of killing each other, where should we draw the line?

Prostitution just doesn’t have to be illegal.  It’s all in the definition.  Is selling your soul a little bit every day to work in a cubicle while telling your lazy boss that she is a genius to protect your job prostitution?  How about having sex with your date only after an expensive dinner?  And then, of course, what about trying to barter sexual favors for sports tickets?  (A 6/24/2010 online story link is posted below.)  It’s time for “All Things Religious” to weigh in on this topic because of the newly launched blog by my friend who was convicted of attempted prostitution.

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/breaking/96991164.html?cmpid=15585797

I’m not going to comment, or base my friendship with her, on what she did or how she has reacted since.  I do want to comment on the rest of us.  I don’t think any of this would have been newsworthy if the tickets had been to the opera.  Sports enjoys a religious status that many people take for granted.  How many times have you seen people crying over a lost game?  How about street rioting from a team’s win or loss?  I have been researching the content of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Stories with religious content in the Sunday paper average less than five percent, which is roughly less than a quarter of one page for the front two news sections.  By comparison, the Sunday sports section is usually 15 pages.  Yet, there are more people in religious services every Sunday than attend all sporting events taking place in an entire week.  (I have a citation on this.  Comment below if you want to know more.)

The CNN article by John Blake (link below) asks better questions and has more examples than I have time for here.  This culture’s reverence of sports and the unholy mixing of religious proselytizing with sports attempts to elevate the temporal to the metaphysical but in fact demotes the divine to the trivial.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/wayoflife/05/25/God.sports/index.html?iref=allsearch

The only thing more potent than sports and religion is sex and sports.  That it is even possible to establish a blog on the topic is absurd – though I predict it will be well read.  Because we have the technology for Facebook and the opportunity for free blogs, doesn’t mean we have to talk about every Henry Miller moment that crosses our subconscious.  (For the record, I like reading Henry Miller.)  My erudite response to the sex and baseball blog is: YUCK!