atheism

Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Gothic first-person accounts of growing up in a Christian subculture have become modern Americans’ equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. They serve as a vast collection of subjective narratives, often focused on the horrors of authority figures who encourage virginity, offer awkward alternatives to pop music (or welcome it uncritically), favor novels about the Apocalypse and otherwise fill the cavernous spaces of megachurches with conformists.

It’s difficult to read such accounts without wishing for more details. In “Ecstasy,” which appears in the May 27 edition of The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes this about her life in a Houston megachurch she calls the Repentagon. Here’s a sample:

“Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.”

Sensible journalism questions should be obvious: Who deemed it the will of the Lord? Was this declaration from the pulpit? Did it come from one of those boorish pew-dwellers who think it’s comforting to say the Lord must have needed a few new angels in heaven? Was it someone who speaks only of God’s sovereignty but never of living in a fallen world where random deaths are happenstance? Did this assertion represent even a plurality among members of the Repentagon, which Tolentino, for reasons she does not specify, never identifies as Second Baptist Church, one of the Bible Belt’s best known megachurches?

Tolentino’s account stands out because it is not solely a story of deprivation and unresolved anger. This paragraph leaps off the page:

I have been walking away from institutional religion for half my life now, fifteen years dismantling what the first fifteen built. But I’ve always been glad that I grew up the way that I did. The Repentagon trained me to feel at ease in odd, insular, extreme environments, and Christianity formed my deepest instincts. It gave me a leftist world view — a desire to follow leaders who feel themselves inseparable from the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. Years of auditing my own conduct in prayer gave me an obsession with everyday morality.

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O, Canada! And no, this 'God optional' story isn’t from The Onion or the Babylon Bee

O, Canada! And no, this 'God optional' story isn’t from The Onion or the Babylon Bee

Maybe you saw this headline, or variations on it: “Clergy No Longer Need to Believe in God, Liberal Protestants decide.”

That looks like a satirical “news” headline from TheOnion.com or its religion equivalent, BabylonBee.com. However, it’s a real-life precedent set by the United Church of Canada — an event with considerable interest for religionists and journalists. The progressive UCC (not to be confused with the edgy United Church of Christ in the United States) has allowed ample flexibility on much else, but the optional God is brand new.

The Rev. Gretta Vosper (see www.grettavosper.ca), far more publicized in Canada than the U.S., is the pastor of West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario. She faced a church tribunal this month over her atheism. But a terse announcement Nov. 7 said Vosper and the UCC’s Toronto regional body “have settled all outstanding issues” and she “will remain in ordained ministry.” Further explanation of the deal is sealed by court order.

Vosper, who took over West Hill in 1997, says she “came out as an atheist” in 2001, stripping language about any supernatural God from prayers and hymns, followed by her 2008 book “With or Without God.” She openly embraced an “atheist” identity in 2013. Meanwhile, her congregation officially defined itself as “theists, agnostics and atheists” with “roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition” who seek truth and justice.

There’s no mention of any role in this for Jesus or the Bible

The UCC was formed in 1925 through a union of Canada’s Congregationalists, Methodists and a majority of Presbyterians. On paper, it still enshrines an orthodox founding creed that includes worship of “the one and only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being and perfections.” The United Church of Canada was a celebrated ecumenical milestone, the world’s first major Protestant union across denominational lines. In 1962, U.S. “mainline” Protestant churches launched a similar merger effort that fizzled.

As with U.S. “mainliners,” the UCC has suffered steady decline in numbers and vitality. By government data, Canadians identifying with this body went from 3,769,000 in 1971 to 2,008,000 in 2011. The number of congregations dropped a third over those years to the current 2,894. Currently, the church reports only 424,000 full “communicant” members and average attendance of 139,000.

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Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

No doubt about it. It's hard to get more Greek than the name "Dimitrios Pagourtzis." So, yes, I was not surprised to receive emails asking me the significance of the Greek Orthodox heritage (and ethnic dancing skills) of America's latest young student with guns and a mission.

Once again, we face questions about the contents of a gunman's head and heart, as journalists (and law officials) try to answer the always painful "Why?" question in the mantra, "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How."

The Orthodox connection is mentioned in most background stories about Pagourtzis. Here is a TMZ reference with a link to video. You will not, when viewing it, be tempted to shout, "Opa!"

The student arrested for gunning down 10 people at his high school appeared to be nothing more than a church-going dancer mere days before the shooting.

TMZ has obtained video of 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis participating in a choreographed dance for his Greek Orthodox church the weekend before he allegedly shot and killed 8 of his peers and 2 teachers.

Sources connected to the event tell us the dance was part of a larger Greek festival in a town about 30 minutes away from Santa Fe, TX where he went to school. 

In traditional, even elite, media this Greek Orthodox information is more likely to look like this -- care of The New York Times.

Investigators, meanwhile, are scouring his journal, a computer and a cellphone that Mr. Abbott said showed the suspect had been planning the attack, and his own death. ... 

In many ways, Mr. Pagourtzis was a part of the Santa Fe community. He made the honor roll. He played defensive tackle on a school football team that was the pride of the town. His family was involved in the Greek Orthodox Church.

As always, in this digital-screens world of ours, what a person does with his or her time in analog life (like dancing in an ethnic dance team) may not be as important as what the person expresses in social media.

It's interesting to note that the Times team did not include the following piece of social-media information about Pagourtzis -- which did make it into print at The Washington Post.

In the Facebook account, he described himself as an atheist and said, “I hate politics.”

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That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Was Freud correct or not in his anticipation of the demise of religion in “The Future of an Illusion”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Ah, 1927, the year of Lindbergh, “The Jazz Singer,” Mount Rushmore, Sacco and Vanzetti, Dempsey and Tunney, the Yankees and Murderers’ Row, CBS Radio and the BBC. And the year of British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell’s booklet “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

By coincidence, that same year Sigmund Freud applied his psychoanalytic theories to religion in “The Future of an Illusion.” Arguably, these were the 20th Century’s most influential atheistic books.

To over-simplify (which is what we journalists do), Freud (1856–1939) thought that belief in God arises from a neurotic childhood longing for a father-figure. Yes, religion provided certain comforts to our primitive ancestors. But that was wishful thinking. People in the age of modern science now have the ability to test and reject imaginative fantasies, embrace reality, and as a result become more psychologically healthy and mature.

Yet religion in fact hasn’t died out and it looks like it never will, to judge from all the evidence in the nine decades that followed Freud’s book. Contra his deathly forecast, religion survived and in many places has thrived. This is especially remarkable because the past century brought unprecedented political power exercised by atheists, which resulted in the most bloodthirsty effort in history to exterminate religious faith -- and many religious believers as well. Meanwhile, in free nations  public expressions of hostility toward traditional faith have never been so unimpeded.

Followers of Freud can correctly point out that since World War II Christianity has gradually slumped into widespread desuetude across western Europe, especially in urban centers. Yet sectors of vitality persist. The most notable are among immigrants from Africa and Asia, both Muslims and Christians.

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Stephen Hawking explored the universe: Were the mysteries of his heart newsworthy?

Stephen Hawking explored the universe: Were the mysteries of his heart newsworthy?

So here is the question of the day: Does it matter that famed physicist Stephen Hawking was -- as best one can tell from his complex and even impish way of expressing himself -- an atheist who still had moments when he could hint at doubts?

Does it matter that the mind that probed the far corners of the universe couldn't handle the mysteries of the human heart and that this pained him? After all, in an empty, random universe, there are no moral laws to explain the physics of love and attachment.

If you pay close attention to the major obituaries, it's also clear that Hawking's giant reputation and celebrity was the black hole that sucked some thoughtful coverage into nothingness.

On one level, I thought that some of the best material on Hawking's faith questions was found in a compact, logical sequence in The New York Times. As always, things begin with the book that made him a global phenomenon:

In “A Brief History of Time,” Dr. Hawking concluded that “if we do discover a complete theory” of the universe, “it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.” He added, “Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist.”
“If we find the answer to that,” he continued, “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God.”

But Hawking kept writing and, as always, his opinions grew more provocative.

Nothing raised as much furor, however, as his increasingly scathing remarks about religion. ...
In “A Brief History of Time,” he had referred to the “mind of God,” but in “The Grand Design,” a 2011 book he wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, he was more bleak about religion. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper,” he wrote, referring to the British term for a firecracker fuse, “and set the universe going.”
He went further in an interview that year in The Guardian, saying: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

So what is missing from that version of Hawking? What did the Times skip over in its main obituary?

The answer can be found over at The Washington Post, where the main obituary wrestled -- briefly -- with a faith angle in the other part of Hawking's life that produced headlines.

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When discussing Dawkins' dissing, journalists miss a major irony and lots of context

When discussing Dawkins' dissing, journalists miss a major irony and lots of context

Richard Dawkins is, arguably, the world's most famous atheist. He opposes religions of all stripes as "false," dangerous and anti-scientific. And while that stance has earned him the opprobrium -- and, presumably the prayers -- of many faithful people in many religious traditions, it's rarely gotten him bounced from a speaking engagement.

Until now.

Radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California, canceled an event featuring Dawkins -- in the video above, he uses the rather charming term "de-platformed" to describe it -- because the station didn't like the author's "assertions during his current book tour that Islam is the “most evil” of world religions, Twitter posts denigrating Muslim scholars as non-scholars and other tweets," as a statement from the radio station indicated.

This generated somemainstream media coverage, with The New York Times coming to the fore:

Henry Norr, a former KPFA board member, criticized Mr. Dawkins in a July 17 email to the station. “Yes, he’s a rationalist, an atheist and an advocate of the science of evolution -- great, so am I,” Mr. Norr wrote. “But he’s also an outspoken Islamophobe -- have you done your homework about that?”
Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which is based in San Francisco, also emailed the station last week. She said Mr. Dawkins’s comments give legitimacy to extremist views.
“KPFA is a progressive institution in the Bay Area, and an institution that reflects social justice,” she said in a phone interview on Saturday. “It isn’t required to give such anti-Islam rhetoric a platform.”
Quincy McCoy, the station’s general manager, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In a KPFA news broadcast on Friday, he said the station “emphatically supports free speech.”

Except, apparently, when that "free speech" offends followers of one of the three Abrahamic faiths.

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Devil's advocate: Religion News Service reports on Satanist pitch

Devil's advocate: Religion News Service reports on Satanist pitch

The Satanic Temple has gotten lots of coverage from the Religion News Service. But its most recent story digs deeper into the group and its founder, Lucien Greaves. Which is not to say that the article doesn't have a laundry list of flaws. 

Most of the 1,600-word article is drawn from an interview with Greaves. Some of it is pasted from previous coverage. It makes some shaky claims about the causes of the Satanist movement. And it allows Greaves to attack Christianity again and again, without seeking out the other side.

This update does seem less servile than, say, the summertime feature in the Washington Post. It does more explaining, less campaigning. RNS seems to use a double peg. One is Greave's meeting with the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, seeking allies and kindred minds.  And Missouri is the home of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, which sponsors the Good News Clubs.

Hence the playful lede:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (RNS) Lucien Greaves is the Good News Club’s worst nightmare.
Greaves is co-founder of the Satanic Temple, a group dedicated to church-state separation. And his organization’s latest campaign in launching after-school clubs for children, Greaves told RNS before a recent talk in Kansas City, is not so much about indoctrinating children into Satanism — he doesn’t actually believe in the devil as a real being, much less one to be worshipped.
Rather, the After School Satan clubs, as they are called, are about making a statement against the government providing facilities exclusively for Christian after-school programs such as the Good News Club.
A side benefit is that the publicity surrounding the After School Satan clubs is likely to bring far more attention — and maybe public understanding — to the Satanic Temple than anything else the group could do.

So we have a good summary of Greaves' grievance: not so much a defense of his faith, but attacking activities of another faith. And we have the story's first flaw: calling The Satanic Temple the "worst nightmare" of the Good News Club. That may sound cheeky, but RNS doesn't interview anyone connected with Good News.

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Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

When I last looked at the Rev. Gretta Vosper, the famously atheistic pastor in Toronto, I praised Canadian media for their measured coverage. "In the United States," I wrote, "we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric."

Well, I take it back. Now that a national committee of the United Church of Canada has recommended Vosper's ouster, the report from at least one American publication -- the Washington Post -- isn’t quite that fierce. Just cartoonish. And inferior to the writeup in a Canadian newspaper.

Let's start with the good first. The National Post, that Canadian paper, starts with a straight account of the facts:

A United Church of Canada minister who is a self-professed atheist and has been the subject of an unprecedented probe into her theological beliefs is one step closer to being removed from the pulpit.
Sub-executive members of the church’s Toronto Conference announced Thursday they have asked the church’s general council, the most senior governance body, to hold a formal hearing to decide whether Rev. Gretta Vosper, who does not believe in God or the Bible, should be placed on the disciplinary "Discontinued Service List."
"Some will be disappointed and angry that this action has been taken, believing that the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity," it said in a statement.
"Others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith. There is no unanimity in the church about what to do."

This is what Terry Mattingly likes to call the "American model" -- fair, straight, honest. Sad that we had to look outside America to find it.

The National Post continues to say that the conference committee found Vosper "not suitable" as a UCC minister for deserting her beliefs. The 700-word article also allows space for some back-and-forth:

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Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

If there is a God, he must be smiling on the New York Times.

The newspaper beat everyone else in announcing a planned chair for the study of atheism at the University of Miami -- said to be the first in the nation.

The 1,000-word article suffers, however, from a lack of secular-style skepticism. But let's look at the good stuff first:

With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair "for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics."
The chair has been established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, who has given grants to many humanist and secular causes -- though this is his largest so far. The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.
"I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists," said Mr. Appignani, who is 83 and lives in Florida. "So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate."

The article notes a rise of interest in atheism, including conferences, courses and even a journal -- and names names, like the American Humanist Association and Pitzer College's "Secularism and Skepticism" class. Another coup is a phone talk with uber-atheist Richard Dawkins in Britain.

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