Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Will save your soul for food

A story in the NY Times deals with another hard-hit group of victims of the recession: preachers. The number of available pastoring jobs has not kept pace with the numbers of individuals answering the “call” to set themselves up as custodians of souls.
Preaching has always struck me as a fairly cushy gig, consisting largely of comforting the afflicted with platitudes and parsing the word of God on Sunday – which may be why there’s such a glut of job seekers in this segment of the market. (The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reports that there are more than 600,000 ministers in the U. S. but just 338,000 churches.)
My advice to these particular unemployed, short of counseling them to remember Jesus’s precept about tomorrow taking care of itself, would be to do what so many others do when they can’t find anyone to hire them: go into business for yourself.
Start on any street corner. “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I.” (Jesus again.) Voila! You’re a church, and therefore tax-exempt. Pass the plate. If you take in anything, you’ve made money your very first day in business, and it all went into your pocket. How many entrepreneurs can say that?
Build on that rock, no matter how inconsequential. The key to success, as in any other business, is to give people what they want. Entertainment, in this case, with a little hellfire and damnation thrown in.  Work up some good stories, develop a sound delivery, and you’ll be on your way. If you’re good enough, you’ll be able to get people to let you sleep and eat in their homes.
Maybe you think I’m being facetious. But why should you expect someone to hire you if you can’t do the job on your own?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Russelling, part 2

Bertrand Russell’s 140th birthday was yesterday. (See yesterday’s entry.)
   “I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue,” Russell wrote. “I think all the great religions of the world—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam—both untrue and harmful.” 
   The problem with religion, Russell thought, was that it was based on faith instead of evidence. “A habit of basing convictions on evidence,” he wrote, “…would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering. But at present, in most countries, education aims at preventing the growth of such a habit…” (Are you listening, you purveyors of creation “science”?)
   In 1925, Russell published a small book called What I Believe. In it, he wrote that there were forces making for happiness and ones making for misery in the world, and he classed religion among the latter. He likened religion—religious dogma, that is--to a kind of armor that shielded its wearer against “the shafts of impartial evidence.”    
   “Fear is the basis of religious dogma,” he wrote. Fear of nature gave rise to religion, and the fear of death—and life—perpetuates it. “Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad.” Russell said that while he didn’t welcome death, he had no terror of it, even though he denied the possibility of immortality. “Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”
   A major defect of religion as Russell saw it was its individualism; the defect, if it is one, is even more glaring today, when everyone claims to have a personal relationship with God. The dialogue, or duologue, between one’s soul and God was, Russell granted, at one time a thing devoutly to be wished, because to do the will of God, which led to virtue, was possible and even desirable in a society dominated by the state.
   “This individualism of the separate soul had its value at certain stages of history,” Russell insisted, “but in the modern world we need rather a social than an individual conception of welfare.”
   In short, Russell might have put it, ask not what God can do for you; ask what you can do for your God.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Russelling with religion

   Bertrand Russell, the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was born on May 18, 1872. He is best known for his works on logic, knowledge, and mathematics; his A History of Western Philosophy is an elegant and entertaining overview of the thoughts and thinkers of the Western world from pre-Socratic times down to his day. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
   In 1927 Russell gave a speech in London called “Why I Am Not a Christian.” He defined a Christian as one who a) believes in God and immortality, and b) believes, at the very least, that Jesus Christ was “if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men.”
   Addressing the first condition, Russell laid out some of the arguments for the existence of God. In short order he demolished:
·        The First-cause Argument. “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause,” Russell said. “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God.”
·         The Argument from Design. (Everything in the world has been created so that we can live in it and appreciate it, and if it weren’t made just so, we could not live in it.) “It is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world…should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years,” Russell said.
·        The Moral Argument. (There would be no right or wrong unless God existed.) Russell pointed out that if God created both right and wrong, then there was no difference in quality or truth between the two, and therefore it became meaningless to say that God is good.
   Turning to the second condition, concerning the character of Christ, Russell first admitted that Jesus said some wonderful things, among them “Turn the other cheek,” “Judge not lest ye be judged,” and “Sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.” But he noted that he was consistently less than wise, as he firmly believed that his second coming would happen within the lifetimes of those he was addressing. And because he believed in hell, and angrily condemned those who did not heed his warnings about eternal punishment, Russell judged Jesus to be far less than a paragon of virtue. In fact he placed Socrates and Buddha above him.
   “The Christian religion, as organized in its churches,” Russell concluded, “has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world…
   “When you hear people in church debasing themselves…it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings…"

And finally:
            “A good world needs knowledge, kindliness and courage; it does not need…a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”    

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Doubt as an operating system

   An article in the New York Times some months ago noted that 12 percent of Americans define themselves as “Nones”—those adhering to no religion—and many of these “Nones,” to make a lame pun on the term, are throwing off the habit of organized worship but not necessarily their belief in God.
   The author, Eric Weiner, says that we need an entrepreneur, in the mold of Steve Jobs, to invent “not a new religion, but a new way of being religious.” This new “operating system,” as Weiner calls it, would, among other benefits, celebrate doubt and elevate humor to an exalted component of worship. No less a champion of the faith than G. K. Chesterton, Weiner points out, said that “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”
   Jesus himself was a doubter and a wag of the first order—well, waggish at least in relation to the comedic standards of the day. His parables about the plank in your own eye and the camel going through the eye of a needle were intended as knee-slappers, but to his constant chagrin his audiences were a somber lot—they needed to be roused from the dead, like Lazarus.
   We see the same over-seriousness as to religion today, Weiner says, perhaps due in part to its association with politics, a decidedly earnest business. Many people, he suggests, would hold on to their religion if the politics weren’t part of the package.
   As to doubt, Jesus was a steadfast practitioner—in particular, he fretted over his followers’ lack of faith and staying power—which enabled him to clearly identify the chief doubters in his midst. And then, of course, near the bitter end, he doubted his own fortitude for the ordeal to come, not to mention the necessity of it all.  One can imagine him in the garden, first praying to be let off the hook, and then going resignedly to his doom, with a smile--maybe even with the Aramaic equivalent of “Let’s do it!” on his lips. What can you do but laugh?
   Weiner notes that only seven percent of “Nones” call themselves atheists. That may be because we (I consider myself a “None”) doubt that the atheist knows the “truth” any more than does the True Believer, or it may be because, for one reason or another, as Weiner says: “We may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.” 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Our prayers are with her

About a year ago, a Nashville woman came up with an iPhone app for the prayerfully challenged, as reported in Nashville’s City Paper. Laura Landress’s Prayermaker is available at the Apple store – somehow appropriate to us Luddites, as it was a apple, you’ll recall, that led to our common downfall.
Prayermaker enables users of different faiths (so far, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, New Thought, and Protestant) to create personalized prayers to offer up to their deity of choice.
“It fills a need to help people find the words to pray when they need those words,” Landress said in a brief Q-and-A with the paper. “The idea came from a desire to help people have a prayer life that is easier to have on a regular basis.” If this is as eloquent as she gets, let’s pray that she’s not the one writing the prayers.
If we’d come up with the idea, here’s the interview we’d conduct with ourselves.

Why would anyone buy your Prayer Home Companion? Isn’t the idea of prayer is that it’s supposed to be heartfelt?
Why does anyone buy a greeting card? They’ve got a feeling in their heart, but they may have a problem putting it into words.
So you’ve got a prayer for every occasion?
We’ve got all the major ones covered. Prayers for success, prayers for health and well being, prayers for world peace or an end to poverty…
Then where does the personal part come in?
Well, within our framework of main categories, users can choose from hundreds of subcategories to custom design a prayer for their specific needs.
It sounds like a cookie-cutter approach to prayer.
Not at all. We provide our users with a whole multitude of ways to express their individuality.
Give us an example.
How about I show you one? Here’s our Home screen. Let’s create a prayer for our Uncle Joe, who’s got cancer. We touch the “Sickness” button here, then, from the pull-down menu we choose “Diseases,” then either “Fatal Diseases” or “Possibly Fatal Diseases,” then “Cancer.” If we wanted to specify the type of cancer, that’s an option.
Now we’re prompted to choose the prayee: “Self,” or “Other.” We select “Other,” and now we see our choices are “Relative,” “Friend,” or “Other.”
Can we look at the “Other” menu?
Ok. We’ll touch “Other,” and we see a long list of choices, like “Celebrities,” “Complete Strangers I Read About and Was Moved By,” and “General.”
That’s where we would go to request a cure for cancer.
I see. Back to Uncle Joe.
All right. We’ll back out of this screen and choose “Relative.” Now we select “Uncle,” and it brings up a series of questions designed to create a profile of our Uncle Joe. Here’s where we encourage users to get creative. After they’ve filled in the basic info on Uncle Joe, they’ll see prompts like “Choose three of the following adjectives to describe your uncle,” and a long list of adjectives, plus the option to provide their own.
They can either answer these prompts or elect to skip them. So their prayer can be as simple or elaborate as they want to make it. In any event, with so many choices available, every prayer will be unique. The idea being to make sure that your prayer makes it through to God.
Makes it through?  
Just think of how many prayers your God – whoever He might be – has to listen to every day. The more professionally crafted the prayer, the more likely it is to catch His ear, wouldn’t you say?
Maybe so. We’re done now?
Just about. We touch “Create Prayer,” and wait a few seconds…and our custom-made prayer pops up for our review. Now we can Edit, Send, Save, or Cancel the prayer. If we select Send, the prayer is sent and we’re offered the option of sending this prayer again or another one at a specified date and time, of which our phone will remind us.
Where does the prayer get sent?    
Where else? Everybody’s on Facebook.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Thou shalt read this

   Faddish moderate unbeliever Alain de Botton, the author of Religion for Atheists, has published something called “Ten Commandments for Atheists.” They’re not exactly commandments—actually, they aren’t commandments at all. They are virtues, ones that de Botton considers worthwhile for every infidel to cultivate.
   Why he calls them commandments is a little puzzling—the idea of issuing commandments wouldn’t make sense to atheists, would it, since no one can be said to be in charge? Besides that, his list is rather lame, and doesn’t even address the atheist in particular. His virtues are the old standbys (empathy, patience, politeness) with a few amorphous ones, like “self-awareness” and “resilience,” thrown in.
   Still, it might be salutary for non-believers to contemplate some rules of conduct. The following are definitely not commandments, just a few suggestions.
   THOU SHOULD NOT imagine that thy nonbelief is something particularly original or daring. If you see bad things happen and can’t conceive of a good God that would allow it; if you see that the statement “God created everything” leads to the question “Who created God?” or if you consider that the alleged architect and designer of the universe might have done a lot better, keep in mind that millions of the devout have had such thoughts, and, far from ignoring them, have tried to make room for them in their faith.
   THOU SHOULD recognize that to believe “There can’t be a God” is as lazy as to avow “There must be a God.” No one has the facts; all the data isn’t in yet.
   THOU SHOULD allow for the possibility that we’re asking the wrong questions. To ask “Why would a good God permit evil?” or “How did the universe begin?” may be simply meaningless because it is beyond our power to find the answers, or to understand them if they exist. After all, everything doesn’t have to resolve around us, as Copernicus proved.
   THOU SHOULD not make thy unbelief a personal thing, or if you must, keep it to yourself. To be disappointed in God is as puerile as to be a cheerleader for Him.
   THOU SHOULD NOT, above all, kill the curiosity in thyself, or seek to kill it in anyone else. “To seek God is never in vain,” said St. Bernard, “even if you do not find Him.”