I think this “morning newsletter” is part of the NYT’s increasing trend to Tell You What You Need to Know, or What the News Means—the latest trend to dumb down the news for the busy liberal American. Except this is probably something that the readers here either knew or suspected: that is, the Supreme Court is increasingly ruling in favor of religion. That’s no surprise with a conservative majority that’s largely Catholic, but the trend has gone on for seven decades now, which is worth knowing.
Here’s What You Need to Know from the latest NYT (click to read)
Here are the rulings in favor of religious arguments in orally argued cases, divided up by era and the presiding Chief Justice:
Actually, with yesterday’s ruling in favor of vouchers in Maine for religious schools, the Roberts court’s “anti-First-Amendment” score has risen to 85%. That’s nearly twice the rate under Earl Warren. But things didn’t change that fast until Roberts came in and the other conservative justices like Kavanaugh and Barrett joined him later. Now we have a punctuated equilibrium for coddling faith. We have a new liberal judge on deck, but that only means more 6-3 rulings, since the new one, Ketanji Brown Jackson, will replace the liberal Breyer.
Philbrick gives three reasons, none of which are surprising. These are direct quotes.
1.) Over the past few decades, the rise of the religious right has made religious freedom a political priority for Republicans. That shift has corresponded with nominations by Republican presidents of justices who favor religious groups even more frequently than previous conservative justices.
2.) Republican-appointed justices also have a better track record of timing their retirements to ensure that a Republican president will name their successor,. . . .
3.) Republican presidents choosing successors to justices appointed by Democrats. Clarence Thomas, one of the court’s staunchest advocates of religious liberty, replaced a liberal icon in Thurgood Marshall, as did Amy Coney Barrett, who took over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat in 2020.
DUH! #3 follows from #1 and #2, so it’s not really a different reason. The only thing that struck me was the trend and the rapid increase: the difference between the Rehnquist Court and the Roberts Court is a rise in 25% in the proportion rulings in favor of religion.
This is what we’ll have to expect in our lifetimes (if you’re older): a dismantling of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. All by 6-3 votes.
If you read the link, you’ll see it involves a public-school coach praying midfield after a football game. He’d been told to cool it with these displays, but couldn’t keep Jesus bottled up in him. He was fired for the implied coercion of students involved in public prayer (he’d previously prayed with the players, and been told not to). I can see that there is a “free speech” side of this, but what about a teacher who prayer in her classroom after the bell rings? At any rate, the Court has already signaled that it’s going to rule in favor of the “right to pray”.
But this isn’t nearly as irritating as what the court just did with the Maine law. In that case, all the citizens of Maine will be required to subsidize the education of Christians in an evangelical and homophobic school, one that probably teaches creationism as well. The coach kneeling by himself midfield neither breaks my bones nor picks my pocket, but the people of Maine are truly having their pockets picked.
Although prices are rising in America, belief in God is falling. The good news is that this appears to be part of a consistent trend of secularization. The bad news is that 81% of Americans still believe in God, and a bit more than half of those (42% overall) think that God hears prayers and can intervene to answer them (28% think God hears prayers but does nothing about then, while 11% think God doesn’t do either).
This is good news, and is detailed in a short article from Gallup. You can see it by clicking below, or going to the complete document, including methodology and the questions asked, at this pdf download site.
Here’s the trend since 1945. As Gallup notes,
Gallup first asked this question in 1944, repeating it again in 1947 and twice each in the 1950s and 1960s. In those latter four surveys, a consistent 98% said they believed in God. When Gallup asked the question nearly five decades later, in 2011, 92% of Americans said they believed in God.
A subsequent survey in 2013 found belief in God dipping below 90% to 87%, roughly where it stood in three subsequent updates between 2014 and 2017 before this year’s drop to 81%.
The fall from 92% in 2011 to 81% this year is pretty large. Since there appear to be no data between the late 1960s and 2011, the slow decrease shown in the line is just an interpolation. But there’s no doubt that the long-term drop is a real drop, and goes along with a lot of data showing that Americans are, as REM sang, “losing their religion.” Perhaps some day we’ll be as areligious as northern Europe.
Here are the data on whether God hears/answers prayers (as we’ll see below, conservatives and liberals give very different data). But the idea that God hears prayers and intervenes leads to immense theological difficulties. Does God refuse to answer some perfectly good prayers, like those of parents beseeching Him for the survival of their cancer-stricken child? There are many questions one could ask this 42% of Americans! Indeed, if you have the idea of God as a Man in the Sky with a Plan, one might think that a special request from someone for God to attend to their personal desires is trivial and solipsistic. So it goes.
Gallup broke the answers down by political party identification, ideological identification, frequency of going to church, and age. Here are those statistics (click to enlarge):
Of course those who go to church more often are more religious, with 99% of those who go to church weekly saying that they believe in God, and 74% saying that God hears prayers and intervenes. Republicans are more religious than Democrats, with independents pretty much smack in the middle. For overall atheism, the percentage is 7% for Republicans, 26% of Democrats, and 18% for independents. The same trend holds if you divide people by “conservative, moderate, or liberal” instead of political party, except that the percentage of atheists rises to 35%. (Remember, these aren’t “nones,” some of whom are religious, but people who don’t believe in God at all. Those are atheists.
Finally, younger folk tend to believe in God less than older folk, though there’s not much difference on the prayer issue. There’s another figure for the changes in these data since 2013-2017, but you can see that for yourself.
Fewer Americans today than five years ago believe in God, and the percentage is down even more from the 1950s and 1960s when almost all Americans did. Still, the vast majority of Americans believe in God, whether that means they believe a higher power hears prayers and can intervene or not. And while belief in God has declined in recent years, Gallup has documented steeper drops in church attendance, church membership and confidence in organized religion, suggesting that the practice of religious faith may be changing more than basic faith in God.
Whatever. The fact is that many measures of religiosity show that America is becoming more secular, and that can only be to the good. Just for fun, if you extrapolate a fall of 98% to 81% belief in 57 years, then America will become completely atheistic in about 270 years, or in 2293!
Here’s one of those hard free-speech cases, and it’s hard for even a diehard free-speecher like me. It comes from the Wall Street Journal (a news piece, not an op-ed); click to read:
This bears on freedom of speech, although Sweden has no U.S.-style First Amendment and I don’t know how they’d regard a case like this. Instead, I’d like readers to weigh in as if this case were in the U.S.
The skinny: Swedish/Danish right-wing politician Rasmus Paludan, head of Denmark’s anti-immigrant Hard Line Party, set fire to a Qur’an live on Facebook last month. He then announced that he was going to tour Sweden over Easter Weekend burning Qurans: a tour with burnings in different Swedish cities.
Now this is clearly a provocation and, if anything qualifies as “Islamophobia,” this does. It’s not that he has theological disagreements with Muslims, but is simply trying to provoke them by burning their sacred book. He is anti-immigrant, and most immigrants in Sweden are Muslim.
And provoke them he did: the April 18 WSJ reports just the threat of such a tour incited violence:
Police in Sweden said Monday they have arrested dozens of people following clashes over plans by a far-right Scandinavian politician to burn a Quran over Easter weekend.
Over the weekend, people rioted in several cities, throwing Molotov cocktails at emergency vehicles and burning trash cans and a municipal bus.
Four people were injured Sunday when police fired what they said were warning shots above the crowd. One of the people was a police officer who was lightly injured during the clash, said Asa Willsund, spokeswoman for the police department in the East Sweden region.
. . . .Since Thursday [April 14], there have been recurring protests and counterprotests on the stops of his tour, several of which have turned violent.
The riots turned the country’s political attention back onto longstanding tensions between Sweden’s immigrant population, which is largely Muslim, and nationalist parties opposed to Muslim immigration into the country. Sweden’s leadership has been largely focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the country considers renouncing centuries of neutrality to join the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
On Friday evening, Mr. Paludan’s supporters clashed with protesters in the central city of Orebro. The clashes spread into a broader riot, with 12 police officers injured and four emergency vehicles set on fire. On Saturday, hundreds of mostly young male protesters rioted in the cities of Malmo and Landskrona in southern Sweden, burning trash cans and throwing Molotov cocktails at police vehicles.
The riots prompted Mr. Paludan to cancel his stop in Landskrona, his party said on Facebook, saying the Swedish state could no longer guarantee his safety.
“We have seen violent riots before. But this is something else,” said National Police Chief Anders Thornberg. “It is serious violence against life and property, especially against police officers. It is very worrying and we will take strong countermeasures. This should not continue.”
I note that in a report from May 13 in The Daily Sabah, Paludan is continuing the Burning Tour—under police protection:
The leader of the far-right Danish party Stram Kurs (Hard Line) burned another copy of the Holy Quran on Thursday under police protection in Sweden.
Rasmus Paludan, who has dual Danish and Swedish citizenship, recently burned copies of the Quran in the Frolunda, Boras and Trollhattan regions of the southwestern province of Vastergotland, which has a large population of Muslim residents.
Around 100 police officers, as well as 10 plainclothes officers from the Swedish intelligence agency SAPO, accompanied Paludan to protect him against counter-demonstrators.
. . .Paludan has burnt the holy book in various cities in Denmark since 2017.
Riots broke out in the cities Malmo, Norrkoping and Jonkoping as well as in the capital Stockholm, leaving 125 police vehicles damaged and 34 officers injured, while 13 people were detained.
Now it’s clear from these reports that burning the Qur’an is not a criminal offense in either Sweden or Denmark, for the police protect the burners from the rioters. And I know that burning the Bible is not a violation of the First Amendment in the U.S., either. Here it’s usually done not to provoke, but to make a statement about Christianity. But intent doesn’t matter: what matters to the First Amendment is the likely outcome if violence could be imminent.
Because Muslims are far more easily inflamed by the burning of their sacred scriptures than are Christians, one could argue that burning a Qur’an in front of a group of Muslims in the U.S. violates the First Amendment because it will provoke predictable and imminent violence. As the Brittanica notes, this is “incitement,” and could be construed as one of the exceptions to the First Amendment (the short article on “permissible restrictions on expression” is a good primer on what speech is not protected):
As the Supreme Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the government may forbid “incitement”—speech “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “likely to incite or produce such action” (such as a speech to a mob urging it to attack a nearby building). But speech urging action at some unspecified future time may not be forbidden.
But this raises a First-Amendment problem. Perhaps it’s legal to burn the Qur’an on the Internet or in front of a group of like-minded bigots (see this article for that opinion), but is it permissible to burn it in front of a group of Muslims leaving the mosque on Friday? The latter is almost guaranteed to produce imminent lawless action, as it did in Sweden and Denmark. Would that make such public burnings illegal in America, but only those burnings that will inflame a certain group of religious people?
This may already have been adjudicated in the courts, but I don’t know. and can’t be arsed to find out. I tend to side with Sweden and Denmark here, as I think that no holy books are off limits from criticism, and that includes burning. But on the other hand, burning the Qur’an may be inciting imminent and predictable lawless action while burning the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita will not.
Of course burning the Qur’an the way Paludan did is an expression of bigotry, but even bigotry is permitted under the First Amendment. Here we have a situation in which, in principle, the same action may be either permitted speech or impermissible speech, depending on the religious group at hand. I suspect that what Paludin did would be legal in the U.S., but I don’t know.
Do weigh in with your opinion: Does an act like Paludan’s constitute impermissible speech when performed in front of one group of believers, but not another (Christians)?
I’m not sure why the NYT hired Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren to write a weekly column about her Christian beliefs in the Paper of Record, but it’s annoying. You don’t see a weekly column about humanism, or even a weekly personal musing about science, which at least has the benefit of being true. What’s clear is that the paper has some reason for this palaver: probably to cater to the spiritual feelings of its liberal readers.
But what’s also clear is that Warren is very careful to stay away from tendentious preaching and any form of Biblical literalism, though she does believe in Jesus and, I believe, the Resurrection. The Times readers like their religion to be more on the personal and spiritual side, especially with a patina of sophistication.
As a result, Warren, despite her inability to produce stirring or even well-above-average prose, has been called by Religion News “a rising star in Christian spiritual writing” for her “willingness to merge personal vulnerability with deep theological reflection”. Well, yes, the personal vulnerability is on tap, as it is in this week’s column about sin (see below), but the theological reflection isn’t deep. It’s superficial. I would much rather read about someone’s personal reactions to specific events than to the fairy tales that constitute Christianity. But somehow superficial thought and mediocre writing can be excused if it’s about religion.
Click on the screenshot to read.
I can summarize Harrison’s thesis in two sentences (my words)
None of us is perfect; we all screw up, make messes in our lives, and hurt other people. But the good news this Lenten season is that we can, just by recognizing our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, we can be released by God from self-flagellation.
She does throw in the “personal” vulnerability to show how she too is a sinner (all indentations below save one are Warren’s prose):
In college, through a string of failed relationships and theological questioning, I came to understand sin as something more fundamental than rule breaking, more subtle and “under the hood” of my consciousness. It was the ways I would casually manipulate people to get my way. It was a hidden but obnoxious need for approval. It was that part of me that could not rejoice in a friend’s big award or accomplishment, even as some other part told her, “Congratulations!”
This could be said of most of us, so there’s no real insight into human psychology here. Where the religion comes in is her theological doctrine that we are all BORN as sinners (my emphasis):
This is the first Sunday of Lent, a season in preparation for Easter when Christians often focus on sin and repentance. One of the things that’s most difficult to swallow about Christianity is the idea that normal, nice people are sinners, that we are born sinful and can’t elude being a sinner by being moral or religious enough.
This is palpable nonsense. We may be born and doomed, as humans, to do bad things when we grow up, but we are certainly not “born sinful”. What does she mean by that? An infant is not born sinful in any meaningful sense except the Christian one: we’re supposedly born afflicted with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.
Far, far better to reject that nonsense and just say that, as social beings evolved from small groups of primates, we sometimes act badly, usually out of inborn selfishness (perhaps the real “original sin”); and sometimes, in our modern and larger pack of primates, our selfish desires conflict with our need to keep good relations with our fellows. But if you said that it wouldn’t be religious. It would be humanistic.
The other aspect of Harrison’s column is the “forgiveness” part, and why it’s good to know that we’re “born sinful”:
The Eastern Orthodox practice of praying the Jesus Prayer has become important to me over the past few years. This prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is usually prayed repetitively and meditatively, again and again.
Notice that here she explicitly is asking for forgiveness from God. It goes on:
In praying it over and over, I noticed how strange and transformative it is to repeatedly identify myself as a sinner. I am not identified primarily as a mother, a writer, a woman or a priest. I am not primarily a Democrat or a Republican or a Christian. I am also not primarily an upstanding citizen or right or reasonable or talented or “on the right side of history.” Instead, again and again, in these received words, I call myself a sinner.
This recognizes that I will get much wrong. That as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful. As a mother, I will harm my children — the people I love and want to do right by most in the world. And it tells me that I will harm them in real ways, not just dismissible “well, shucks, we all make mistakes” kind of ways. As a priest, I will lead people astray. I will not live up to what I proclaim. I will fail. I will hurt people, not just in theory or abstraction. I will cause true harm.
Again, this is Harrison’s personal way to deal with her “sin”, but a humanist might say (you don’t have to say it over and over again) “Yes, I’m human: I screwed up and will screw up again. But I will try harder not to screw up and to be nicer to people.” That is not sophisticated humanism, but neither is Harrison’s pabulum Sophisticated Theology®. It’s her own personal mantra, and, to my mind, not a particularly useful one.
Finally, there’s the “forgiveness” bit. What’s clever about Harrison’s treatment here is that she must surely believe, as a priest, and as one who believes in original sin, that the Forgiver is God. But she seems to imply that it’s her congregation that forgives her. If the former, then she’s spreading Christian fairy tales; if the latter, well, it’s other humans that must forgive you—if you’re to be forgiven. And that is humanism.
But we’re not left to stew in guilt or shame. We aren’t just sinners; we are sinners who can ask for mercy and believe that we can receive it. Living in this posture is what makes forgiveness possible, which is the only thing that makes lasting peace possible.
Without a clear sense of right and wrong, we will end up endorsing injustice, cruelty and evil. But without an equally profound vision of grace, we will end up only with condemnation and an endless self-righteous war of “us versus them.”
After I kneel with my church each week, confessing that I have blown it, I am invited to stand and receive absolution and forgiveness. I’m then invited to “pass the peace” to those around me and extend to them the same mercy and forgiveness that I’ve received.
The Encyclopedia Brittanica (I can’t access the OED in Antarctica) uses this definition of “grace” in the religious sense:
If this is what Warren means by “a profound vision of grace”—and I’m pretty sure that’s what she does mean—then she’s saying here that true loss of our “sin”, our bad behavior, comes only from God’s forgiveness, not from human forgiveness. And note as well that Harrison has transitioned from the personal to the general here: she’s making a pronouncement that without a religious sense of “grace”, there is no conciliation for any of us with our fellow humans.
That, too, is wrong. One doesn’t have to believe in God to believe that there are ways to eliminate the division between humans. One way, of course, is through humanism itself: the notion that we are all brothers and sisters and must depend only on ourselves to right the wrongs of humanity. Warren’s “sermon” could be couched equally well—indeed, better—in humanistic terms.
What Warren has done is slyly slip her own Christian beliefs into a rather anodyne sermon about doing wrong and making up for it. And I still ask you, dear reader, why you think the NYT continues to publish these unenlightening religious musings. I really have no idea.
But she did get one thing right, noting above that “as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful.” In this column she does both.
Finally, Warren wants to hear how you’re praying for Ukraine! Below the article you can see this:
Like many of you, I have been praying for peace in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people. As we feel dismayed and often powerless as individuals to respond to the horror of war, it can be hard to know how to pray. Please share your prayers or with us at HarrisonWarrenfirstname.lastname@example.org the form below. We may mention some of your thoughts in next week’s newsletter.
Praying sure as hell is not going to help Ukraine. They need tangible human assistance, not pleading to a god. I wasn’t even tempted to fill in the boxes.
Reader Edward called my attention to a new video by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter with a specialty in the Old Testament (but she knows her Jesus, too). She’s my favorite Biblical scholar because she’s an out-and-out atheist and a strong skeptic, not accepting much of the Old Testament as true. As Wikipedia notes of her:
The main focus of Stavrakopoulou’s research is on the Hebrew bible, and on Israelite and Judahite history and religion.Stavrakopoulou supports the academic consensus that important figures in the Hebrew bible were not historical figures as represented in that text.[ She has further stated that she believes “very little, probably” of the Hebrew bible is historical fact, based on the arguments that ancient writers had an understanding of “fact” and “fiction” very different from a modern understanding, and that the Hebrew bible “wasn’t written to be a factual account of the past”; she concludes, saying she does not believe accounts of Moses and King David in the Hebrew bible to be factual, and that “as an historian of the bible, I think there is very little that is factual”. In her 2021 book, God: An Anatomy, Stavrakopoulou “presents a vividly corporeal image of God: a human-shaped deity who walks and talks and weeps and laughs, who eats, sleeps, feels, and breathes, and who is undeniably male. Here is a portrait–arrived at through the author’s close examination of and research into the Bible–of a god in ancient myths and rituals who was a product of a particular society, at a particular time, made in the image of the people who lived then, shaped by their own circumstances and experience of the world”. This book has been described by John Barton as showing that the non-corporeal God of Judaism and Christianity “was not yet so in the Bible, where God appears in a much more corporeal form”.
I bow deeply to Dr. Stavrakopoulou in Biblical expertise, but I’m wondering how she knows for sure that “the Bible wasn’t written to be a factual account of the past.” I’ll grant that it is fictional, but then why did Church fathers like Augustine the Hippo, Aquinas, and many others take both the Old and New Testaments literally? Were they unaware why the Bible was written? (Granted, some of these theologians saw both a metaphorical and literal meaning of Scripture, but the literal meaning was always there.)
That aside, Dr. Stav (pardon the shortening, but it’s laborious to write her whole name) is discussing her new book and Biblical worldview in this video with Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, an organization much less woke than the American Humanist Association. Her book, which comes out in a week in the U.S., is called God: An Anatomy , and got good reviews in the UK.
I could describe the high points, but I think the whole video worth watching, for you’ll see somebody the addressing the Bible as a work of historical fiction. She also has an engaging style of speaking, why is why she often appears on British t.v. and did a 3-part BBC special that you can find, in bits, on YouTube.
She describes the story of Job as as “God screwing over Job for no reason” (true!), and my favorite bit of chat is at 8:40: “Christianity in particular has done a tremendous job of trying to pretend that there a triune God and that God is one and then three at the same time—what a scam!” How refreshing is that? I wonder if her students are flummoxed when they take her classes and learn that they’re being taught by a total nonbeliever.
As similar nonbelievers, it’s our job to know more about religion than believers themselves, for you can always best them by knowing your Scripture. If you haven’t read the Bible—painful as it is—do it. And read Dr. Stav’s book.
She pulls no punches on Twitter, either:
Remember that stupid ‘research’ about the ‘real’ event shaping the biblical story of Sodom? Here’s why arse-about-face rubbish like that is not only problematic, but damaging 👇
I haven’t written about the hijab, burqa, or other forms of Muslim female covering for a while, simply because I’ve written about them so much that I have nothing new to say (for all the posts, go here). Now, though, the hijab is back in the news.
See here for a one-post summary of what I think, which is that the hijab (and similar garments) are forms of female oppression, are rarely “choices”, but that religious garments that obscure the face should not be banned except in situations when other religious symbols are banned, and in places like banks where one’s face should be visible. Overall, I share the feeling expressed below by Alishba Zaremeen, an ex-Muslim activist and feminist:
And a few more words about the “voluntary” nature of wearing hijabs. Many women, like Masih Alinejad in the video below, were forced to don the head covering at a young age and continue to wear it because of social or family pressure (Masih gave up Islam and her hijab, and is the world’s most active opponent of forced body covering). That is neither “voluntary” nor a “choice.” Of course some women truly do have a choice, and wear the hijab as a form of non-compulsory piety. That’s fine, but I believe that far fewer women who claim it’s their “choice” really had a choice.
Now for the news, reported in this BBC piece (click on screenshot):
What happened is the the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, started a pro-hijab campaign, emphasizing that the headscarf was a sign of freedom and “choice”. As the article notes (their emphasis):
Europe’s top human rights organisation has pulled posters from a campaign that promoted respect for Muslim women who choose to wear headscarves after provoking opposition in France.
The Council of Europe released the images last week for a campaign against anti-Muslim discrimination.
A slogan on one advert read: “Beauty is in diversity as freedom is in hijab”.
Several prominent French politicians condemned the message and argued the hijab did not represent freedom.
But some Muslim women who wear headscarves said the reaction showed a lack of respect for diversity and the right to choose what to wear in France.
France’s youth minister, Sarah El Haïry, said she was shocked by one poster, which showed a split image of one women wearing a hijab, and one not.
In an interview on French TV, the minister suggested the poster had encouraged women to wear headscarves. She said this message jarred with the secular values of France, which had expressed its disapproval of the campaign.
On Wednesday, the Council of Europe told the BBC that tweets related to the campaign had been deleted “while we reflect on a better presentation of this project”.
I too decry Islamophobia and feel that banning hijabs except in the most necessary situations is a violation of religious freedom, but images like the two below from the campaign don’t really convey the whole truth.
For example, there is no “diversity in dress” permitted in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. A woman who went out in shorts would be arrested. Even in Muslim families or communities in Europe, the hijab is not always optional. To use Alishba’s metaphor, images like these are equivalent to a campaign for “express your views by flying your flag” and then advertising it showing people waving Confederate flags.
How boring would the world look if everyone would look the same? Just look at Saudi Arabia or Iran compared to, say, Berlin or Paris.
In fact, the CoE doesn’t even hold the opinions expressed in the tweeted images:
The campaign was the product of two online workshops held in September and organised in collaboration with Femyso, a forum of Muslim youth organisations across Europe.
The wording of the campaign “reflected individual statements from people who took part in one of the project’s workshops”, the Council of Europe spokesman said.
The spokesman said the messaging did not reflect the position of the Council of Europe or its secretary-general, Marija Pejcinovic Buric.
The president of Femyso, Hande Taner, defended the campaign on Wednesday in an interview with the BBC.
She said “the campaign itself is still on” but added: “As for why the tweet was deleted, I can’t speak on behalf of the Council of Europe.”
Ms Taner said it was “really sad that the efforts of minority youth are being attacked and undermined” by politicians.
The reaction was “another example of how the rights of Muslim women are non-existent to those who claim to represent or protect notions such as liberty, equality and freedom”, she said.
Ms. Taner is partly right and partly wrong. First of all, it is Islam that largely abrogates the rights of Muslim women, who, even in Europe, are considered inferior to men and often relegated to domestic and child-rearing duties. Islamic pressure to wear hijabs is a violation of women’s rights. On the other hand, France does ban face coverings in public except during worship or traveling in a private car. Some could argue that this violates religious freedom. (For a counterargument in favor of the French law banning face coverings, see this article by Christopher Hitchens as well as his video clash with a Muslim woman in Australia.)
The Council of Europe made a misstep with this campaign. Promoting the hijab as a choice is disssimulation partly promoting the denial of women’s rights. There are better ways to combat bigotry against Muslims.
Why is a white Western man writing about the hijab? Because so few Western feminists do. Much of that is deliberate: we are supposed to ignore Muslim misogyny because they are “people of color.” That has been called “the bigotry of low expectations.”
The going-along with hijab mandates is the topic of Masih Alinejad’s eloquent and passionate speech below:
In her weekly New York Times column, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren makes two arguments. It’s not as bad as her other columns, as there’s actually some material for thought here, but, as usual, she winds up making bad arguments, and then touting the benefits of believing in God. Click to read:
Warren makes two arguments. The first is to point out what seems like hypocrisy when one considers “pro choice” people who don’t oppose abortion with “anti vaccine” people who object to getting shots. In both cases, says Warren, one is being asked to curtail one’s personal freedom (“my body, my choice”) for the benefit of society as a whole—or so she says. The implication is that this is doublethink:
At a protest against vaccine mandates, a hospital worker told New York’s Livingston County newspaper: “If you want it? Great. If you don’t? Great.” She continued: “Choice is where we stand. If you want it, we’re not against it. That’s your choice.” Those I know who have refused to get vaccinated or wear masks have echoed this same idea. They assure me that they aren’t telling anyone else what to do but that this is a matter of personal choice. They are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families.
“My body, my choice,” the rallying cry of the pro-choice movement, has been adopted by those opposing mask and vaccine mandates. People who are pro-choice have voiced outrage that their phrase is being co-opted, which in turn thrills those on the right who are using it.
In Vogue, Molly Jong-Fast said that the phrase, when used by conservatives who oppose vaccine mandates, shows that “for Republicans, it’s a case of government regulation for thee but not for me.” Of course, critics would accuse her of the same hypocrisy for being pro-choice but also favoring vaccine mandates.
What’s useful here is the inspiration to think about her premise: how far must we curtail our freedoms to help society What’s not useful—and she does say that “the complexities of abortion and Covid prevention are different”—is that the situations are not at all comparable in the nature of the “freedoms” curtailed. Unmasked and unvaccnated, you might be endangering strangers you come in contact with, and the masking will last only the duration of the pandemic. Shots are even less onerous, and protect more people than do masks.
Pregnant, you do not endanger society as a whole—unless, and this may be true of Warren—one thinks an abortion is committing murder. Further, you are bringing an unwanted child into the world who will require years of care, as reader Mike pointed out yesterday.
I’m pretty much in favor of unrestricted abortions, as I don’t see it as the equivalent of murder. Further, I also favor the termination of the lives of already-born infants who have invariably fatal conditions like anencephaly and will suffer horribly until the inevitable end. (Peter Singer has been demonized for holding this view.)
But you can think on your own about whether there is any “hypocrisy” in favoring vaccine mandates and also being pro-choice. It is food for thought.
The other argument is that only Christianity (she singles it out, but would probably add “religion in general”) gives us a moral basis for making self-sacrifice for the good of society.
Christian ethics call people to ideas of freedom that are not primarily understood as the absence of restraint, but instead as the ability to live well, justly and righteously. In Galatians, after an extended meditation on liberation, Paul says: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Freedom, for him, had a purpose and end, a “telos.” We are freed not to do whatever we feel is best for us individually, but instead to love our neighbors.
. . . .Over the past year as we’ve asked people to go into lockdown, cancel their travel plans or family gatherings, close or curtail their retail businesses, wear masks and get vaccinated, we are asking them to assume some level of financial and personal risk for the greater good — for strangers, for the elderly, for the immunocompromised, for the medical community. We can and should enact legislation like paid family leave, no-cost health care and other measures to support mothers, just as we support economic relief for those affected by Covid prevention. But we cannot deny that even if we seek to lessen the load, we are asking people to bear a burden.
How do you call a society committed to personal freedom and happiness to bear the burdens of others? Most of us intuitively grasp that there’s more to life than living for oneself and one’s own happiness or comfort. But we lack a positive vision for the purpose of individual liberty.
Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Catholic theologian, gave us the gorgeous and helpful phrase “arduous good.”
. . . . Consumer capitalism is not going to teach us about how to pursue arduous goods, nor is technological progress, nor is either American political party. Theoretically, religious communities are places that train us toward ends other than individual autonomy. They point us to something bigger and higher than ourselves, calling us to love God and our neighbors. However, this is unfortunately not always the case. Many religious communities have lost their ability to articulate an alternative to the sovereignty of personal choice and individual autonomy.
. . . But as a culture, we desperately need religious communities that do not parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the right or the left. We need a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families and the marginalized, the needy, the weak and the afflicted among us.
But the arguments she makes apply to secular humanism even more than to Christianity. After all, it is conservative Christians who “parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the Right” against abortion because it’s seen as murder, usually because the fetus is ensouled. Secular humanists have a diversity of views on abortion, and often considered ones. They don’t need the buttressing of ancient scripture and authority to arrive at a position.
As for “a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families, and the marginalized, the needy, the weak, and the afflicted among us,” what about that comes from religion? Was it Christianity that gave us income taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the other institutionalized forms of our sacrifices for those needier than we? And wasn’t it Jesus who said this (Luke 14:25-27)?:
25 Many people were traveling with Jesus. He said to them,26 “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life!27 Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower.
But let me admit that yes, studies have shown that Christians give more to charity than do nonbelievers. What I don’t know is whether how much of Christian charity goes to tithes or Christian organizations. And countering that, let me say once again that the countries of Northern Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, are largely atheistic societies whose members give much more per capita to help their societies than do Americans. That’s one reason taxes are so high, and why state does what private organizations must take over in America.
No, what we don’t need is more love of God to spur us on to be more socially conscious. We need governments like those of Denmark and Sweden.
I wonder how longer the NYT will allow Warren to continue spoon-feeding us pabulum. At least she has a bit of a point in this week’s column. But surely there are pastors or theologians out there who can give us more food for thought, even if they’re victims of the God Delusion.
I’m sure Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, is a very nice person, but she’s put herself in the line of fire when the New York Times hired her to osculate the rump of religion once a week in their opinion section. I’ve beefed about this osculation before, and it’s continued this week with her anodyne column on the pandemic, which ends with an outright lie (or delusion; take your pick). The thing about these nice, liberal clergy who publish in mainstream media is that you’re so taken in by their niceness—though I find her boring and predictable—that they manage to slip in some outrageous stuff about religion before you know it.
Well, Jesus wept, and you might too if you read her piece. But you can read it only if you’re a NYT subscriber, so there is no link. (If you want to subscribe, go here.) I receive each column in an email because I’m a masochist.
Here is her thesis:
a. The pandemic should be over now. But it isn’t and Pastor Harrison and her family, like many, have “had it.” She’s fatigued. She doesn’t like the emotional roller coaster of the last 18 months, which reminds her of the emotional roller coast that the captive Israelites had in Egypt, who were freed (yay!) and then had to wander in the desert for decades (boo!). No matter that that entire story is pure fiction.
b. We may not know how the pandemic will end, but we should simply trust in God, for all will be well. Why? Because the Bible tells us so. Jesus is coming back!
After her boilerplate kvetching about how she and her family have suffered during the pandemic, and yet the uncertainty is still not over, she looks heavenward and finds solace. This is her ending:
. . . . But each of our lives is locked in the present tense. We can’t skip ahead in our own stories.
It has become a cliché, a bumper-sticker pat answer, to say “Let go and let God.” But why should we? What evidence is there that trusting God is such a great idea?
Again and again, the church has answered: because we have been given the gift of knowing how the story ends.
Christians see Moses as prefiguring Christ. Jesus, like Moses, delivered his people. Through his resurrection, we were rescued from the oppression of sin and power of death. The end of the story is that Jesus makes, as the Book of Revelation says, “all things new.” The church proclaims that in the resurrection, we have glimpsed the Promised Land. We have seen that God has defeated death. We cannot know the path ahead for any of our individual lives, but we can read the big story of redemption back into our particular life and our particular moment.
In this new phase of the pandemic, we sit poised between celebration and continued suffering. We aren’t sure how to feel. We aren’t sure when — or if — things will go back to normal.
So what must we do? We grieve. We admit we are worn out. We do what we can to help (which for most of us is simply to continue to wear masks and get vaccinated). And we take up the practices of patience and perseverance amid uncertainty. Perseverance isn’t simply a “grin and bear it” stoicism, much less a call to deny our frustration, disappointment or anxiety about what lies ahead.
Instead the Book of James presents perseverance as an artist, with our own souls as its medium. Perseverance, James writes, must “finish its work in us” that we might become “mature and complete.” It forms and shapes a kind of wholeness in us that comes as a gift: We don’t know what the next hour brings, but God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story. So now, in the present tense, with all its grief and frustrations, we can bear whatever comes to us, even if it lasts longer than we’d hoped.
This is the kind of thing you read in an evangelical tract, not in the New York Times!
And what makes Pastor Warren think that her church has the right answer, or that any church has the right answer? Many faiths don’t promise us that the divine being will “defeat death”: give us eternal life. No, we do not know how the story ends, except in a heat death of the Earth five billion years from now. The Bible is a work of human confection, Jesus was not the Son of God, and he ain’t coming back. There is no Promised land of Heaven.
Yes, I’m an antitheist, because, really, look at the pabulum that Warren is dishing into our bowls: “God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story.” First of all, that’s not even logical. Yes, God has told us that in the end everything will be fine when Jesus (aka God) returns. But that doesn’t mean we can trust him for everything else! Remember, Jesus (who is God in human form) promised before he died that he’d return before some of those who watched the Crucifixion passed away. In other words, he said, “Hey, folks, I’ll be back within 80 years”. That was a lie! God lied!
And, after all, didn’t God allow the virus to ravage all of humanity, killing 4.6 million people already? And believe me, they weren’t all sinners. How is that supposed to engender trust?
All Warren is saying here—in fancy words and in the pages of the Paper of Record—is that we can lean on the promise of Jesus in hard times to make things right. I think Marx had a quotation about that, with the famous part (usually taken out of context) put in bold by moi:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
I remain baffled why the NYT purveys delusions like Warren’s to their readers.
UPDATE: I found this on FB, and you can verify the quote here.
I’m not writing this to diss atheist Greg Epstein, Harvard’s newly elected “chief chaplain” whom I wrote about a few days ago. By all accounts he’s a terrific guy who does a great job. But I have to issue a correction, as a reader who works at Harvard has characterized the New York Times article on Epstein (and hence my post, which drew from that article) as “misleading.” Apparently Harvard does have its own chaplain, who is religious (the NYT didn’t mention that), and Epstein was elected as a leader of the group of unpaid chaplains who deal with people from forty-odd faiths.
Here’s what the reader said, by way of correction:
The NYT article on Greg Epstein is somewhat misleading. It is true that Epstein is a widely admired chaplain within Harvard’s system, but he is not really the “chief chaplain.” Harvard has a two-tier structure of campus ministry. The university directly pays the staff of its Memorial Church, which is led by the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, Matthew Ichihashi Potts. Potts is an Episcopalian priest; his predecessors Jonathan Walton and Peter Gomes were both Baptist ministers. None are/were atheists! Potts is in effect the university chaplain, responsible for the pastoral care of the whole university community and for various ceremonial functions. At the same time, Harvard provides office space but not salaries to about thirty tradition-specific chaplains who are supported in various ways by their respective traditions. Epstein is the humanist chaplain within this structure, and he is also the elected chair of the group—which, as the article explains, gives him the authority to represent the group to the university’s leadership.
Well, I’ll be! There are over 40 university chaplains at Harvard and, according to this new article in the New York Times, they elected as their chief . . . an atheist! Click to read the news, which actually doesn’t surprise me:
Harvard has had a humanist chaplain for a long time, but several of the earlier ones were rather unctuous accommodationists. Nevertheless, the idea that there would be a chaplain who could serve the needs of the “nones”—people who don’t have a formal religion but could either be spiritual or believe in some divinity—is heartening. It’s not as good as an atheist chaplain, mind you, but it’s better than nothing. And, in fact, the new boss, Greg Epstein, raised Jewish, is an atheist, and has written a book about humanist morality: Good Without God. Here’s the Amazon blurb, which is a little too accommodationist for me, but I’m an antitheist and there is no chance that an antitheist could be a humanist chaplain at Harvard. After all, Epstein, who has a reputation as a good guy, has to deal with the problems of atheists and theists.
A provocative and positive response to Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other New Atheists, Good Without God makes a bold claim for what nonbelievers do share and believe. Author Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, offers a world view for nonbelievers that dispenses with the hostility and intolerance of religion prevalent in national bestsellers like God is Not Great and The God Delusion. Epstein’s Good Without God provides a constructive, challenging response to these manifestos by getting to the heart of Humanism and its positive belief in tolerance, community, morality, and good without having to rely on the guidance of a higher being.
So be it. You really don’t want a Richard Dawkins trying to give psychological or spiritual aid to someone who has a penchant for the numinous. And electing someone who could minister to nearly everybody, including nones and atheists, is a savvy move for Harvard’s chaplains, who elected Epstein unanimously. By doing this, no defined religion has privilege over the rest, with all faiths are on the same plane. The hope, probably misguided, is also that Epstein can bring different faiths together. (Remember, they’re still “faiths”!) His election is also a recognition of the rise of the nones, who now make up over 20% of Americans, surely more than the percentage of students adhering to most of the 40+ “real” religions with Harvard chaplains. Further, as the article notes, a survey of Harvard’s class of 2019 by the Harvard Crimson (the student newspaper) found that those students were twice as likely to identify as atheists or agnostics compared to their age peers in the American population as a whole. In other words, I bet about 50% of Harvard students are “nones.”
Which reminds me: the definition of “spiritual” in this article is unclear. It clearly could include God, but could also include me, since in some ways all of us could be seen as “spiritual people”. There should be a “spiritual spectrum” corresponding to Dawkins’s “God spectrum”. It would range at one end to those who are besotted with the divine, to those at the other end who are simply moved by great art and music (that would be me).
At any rate, here’s how Epstein operated at Harvard:
Mr. Epstein, 44, author of the book “Good Without God,” is a seemingly unusual choice for the role. He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus. Yet many Harvard students — some raised in families of faith, others never quite certain how to label their religious identities — attest to the influence that Mr. Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.
“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” said Mr. Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005, teaching students about the progressive movement that centers people’s relationships with one another instead of with God.
. . .To Mr. Epstein, becoming the organization’s head, especially as it gains more recognition from the university, comes as affirmation of a yearslong effort, started by his predecessor, to teach a campus with traditional religious roots about humanism.
“We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein said. “We are each other’s answers.”
Mr. Epstein’s work includes hosting dinners for undergraduates where conversation goes deep: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? He previously ran a congregation of Boston-area humanists and atheists who met in Harvard Square for weekly services that centered on secular sermons. In 2018 he closed that down to focus his time on building campus relationships, including at M.I.T., where he is also a chaplain. Mr. Epstein frequently meets individually with students who are struggling with issues both personal and theological, counseling them on managing anxiety about summer jobs, family feuds, the pressures of social media and the turbulence endemic to college life.
“Greg is irreverent and good at diffusing pressure,” Ms. Nickerson [a Harvard student who transitioned from Catholicism to humanism] said, recalling a time he joked that if her summer internship got too stressful she could always get fired — then she would have a good story to share.
Yes, there are woo-sters in Epstein’s flock, as well as deists, but there are also atheists, humanists, and those questioning religion in general. Epstein will listen to them, but not give them answers, which they must find for themselves. And that’s the way it should be.