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Archive for November, 2010

Introduction

The dominant religion in America today is Christianity. However, it has been changing in size (diminishing numbers of adherents) and character for a very long time. There are many other religions in America; but focus in this Blog will be on Christianity.  I have decided to initiate a three-part series on religious beliefs in America including its conceptual diversity, and some demographic characteristics of groups by religious/nonreligious affiliation. In addition, what people believe about God, Christianity and various aspects of the Christian Bible is also covered.

However, the most important part of this three-part series will be (Part III) to explain why people believe as they do. People’s cherished beliefs usually are based on their values. But why people hold the beliefs (or values) they do is seldom explained or addressed. In this first Part (Overview), I critique a recent book, Four Gods (2010), which describes the diverse conceptual ways Americans currently view God. It will be followed by highlight material from the 2008 ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey), some sociological facts on religion in America, pertinent research including the relationship of intelligence to religiosity or religious beliefs, an informative section on Atheism, and an historical look at how early and modern Christians view Christianity. In Part II what specifically people believe will be covered in terms of biblical stories and other aspects of Christianity.

In Part III material will be presented as to the BIG QUESTION–Why do people believe as they do? For the religious and the nonreligious alike, what I’m about to share with you should help you understand the psychological and sociological nature of American’s religious beliefs.

Background

From a 21st Century Perspective

 The word superstition is one of the most provocative words in the dictionary. Well, how is it defined? It is defined as:

 1.  irrational belief: an irrational, but usually deep-seated belief in the magical effects of a specific action or ritual, especially in the likelihood that good or bad luck will result from performing it. 

2.  irrational beliefs: irrational and often quasi-religious belief in and reverence for the magical effects of some actions and rituals or the magical powers of some objects. 

Superstition has always been a part of culture, usually learned from individuals, small social networks like the family, and is reinforced when larger social entities become involved, such as communities and large nation-states. When many superstitions become institutionalized and integrated into a cohesive social entity they take on a new name—it’s called religion. Early man believed in the existence of spirits; later man largely during the Axial Age (800 B.C. to 200 B.C.) adopted a new concept that was parallel to a world ruled by spirits. And that new concept was the idea that the world was ruled by invisible entities called Gods (For example, Greek, Roman and Egyptian Gods). That idea became further refined into the belief that there was just one god (Monotheism). Beginning a few hundred years ago a new concept was being discussed, especially during and following the Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment. And that concept was the belief in no God or gods, called Atheism.

Belief in a God or spirits (or many Gods i.e., polytheism) has always been, like all superstitions, a cultural phenomena. The origin of religion itself goes back some 200,000 years ago to it’s beginning with Animism. All belief systems are a product of Culture; and culture is a set of customs or beliefs obtained from learning in social groups. This was as true during the Axial Age as it is today.

Recently, two sociologists from Baylor University published a new book (2010) called America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What That Says about Us. Their book presents data on religious beliefs today centering on the type of God conceptualized by many people who profess to believe in a God. The typology the authors use draws upon the finding that religious people, primarily Christians, have differing beliefs about the character of the God they believe in.

Paul Froese and Christopher Bader argue that many of America’s most intractable social and political divisions emerge from religious convictions that are deeply held but rarely openly discussed.

Drawing upon original survey data and in-depth interviews the authors argue that America’s cultural and political diversity is due to these differing opinions about God. Their typology falls into four distinct groupings. These four distinct groupings are: The Authoritative God–who is both engaged in the world and judgmental; The Benevolent God–who loves and helps us in spite of our failings; The Critical God–who catalogs our sins but does not punish them (at least not in this life); and The Distant God–who stands apart from the world He created. The authors suggest that these four conceptions of God form the basis of our worldviews and are among the most powerful predictors of how we feel about the most contentious issues in American life.

I found the use of the typology used in the book to have value in shedding light on the notion that interpretation of religious concepts (like the character of God) is far from a universal belief “in a sky God who judges you.”

In other respects however, I dispute many of the statements made in the book mostly because the religious views of the American people were not accurately accounted for by the authors sampling design.  Several other scientifically constructed surveys such as ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) in 1990, 2001, and 2008 produced quite a different profile in religious beliefs than that found in the Four Gods study. The ARIS time-series results found that Christians, as a group, are declining in number in deference to other non-Christian viewpoints. And, in fact, other data suggest that Christianity has been declining since 1900.

It turns out the methodology in Froese and Bader’s study was lacking, i.e., sampling was not randomly done and there were self-selecting individuals in some locations. Prior research on the topic was not presented for the reading audience to review, and the tone and many comments in the book suggested religious bias in the authors. Funding for their project was from the Templeton Foundation, a very conservative organization that has been heavily criticized for its biased agenda by funding research that attempts to force-fit religious paradigms within science and vice-versa. It’s like trying to integrate or combine Logos with Mythos. Basically, they are two different things, with different purposes. They also inaccurately stated that atheists comprised only 5% of the population. That is contradicted by every ARIS survey taken since 1990 (See ARIS Survey for 2008 following).  Also, the idea that people have differing conceptions of God is hardly new. Early Christians had varying views on God and what Jesus Christ was all about.

What follows in the next section is a more accurate portrayal of religious beliefs in America.

AMERICAN RELIGIOUS IDENTIFICATION

SURVEY (ARIS) 2008

Principal Investigators: Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar

Highlights

 The 2008 ARIS survey was carried out during February-November 2008 and collected answers from 54,461 respondents who were questioned in English or Spanish.

The American population self-identifies as predominantly Christian but Americans are slowly becoming less Christian.

• 86% of American adults identified as Christians in 1990 and 76% in 2008.

• The historic Mainline churches and denominations have experienced the steepest declines while the non-denominational Christian identity has been trending upward particularly since 2001.

• The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

34% of American adults considered themselves “Born Again or Evangelical Christians” in 2008.

The U. S. population continues to show signs of becoming less religious, with one out of every five Americans failing to indicate a religious identity in 2008.

• The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008.

• Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

One sign of the lack of attachment of Americans to religion is that 27% do not expect a religious funeral at their death.

Some Sociological Facts Regarding Religion Today

One major theme of this Blog is that there has been a significant social decline in Christianity. And since 1900 the number of people who regard themselves as Christian has declined by 13%. In terms of other demographic changes the following has been observed:

Since the late 19th century, the demographics of religion have changed a great deal. Some countries with a historically large Christian population have experienced a significant decline in the numbers of professed active Christians. Symptoms of the decline in active participation in Christian religious life include declining recruitment for the priesthood and monastic life, as well as diminishing attendance at church. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of people who identify themselves as secular humanists.

Other interesting sociological facts include the observation that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today, and is nearly universal in many countries from western Africa to Indonesia, where there are close ties between government and religion.It is also noteworthy that Hinduism is undergoing a revival. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism are the religions with the largest number of adherents in the Far East, and have greatly influenced spirituality in the West, particularly in the United States. Among major world religions Hinduism is the fastest-growing religion in the United States.

Intelligence and Religiosity

 One of the things psychologists and sociologists do is study respectively individual and group behavior. Much social science research has been conducted since the early part of the 20th century. One area that has received a fair amount of research and evaluation is intelligence and religiosity.

In 2008, intelligence researcher Helmuth Nyborg examined whether IQ relates to denomination and income. His results, published in the scientific journal Intelligence, demonstrated that on average, Atheists scored 5.89 IQ points higher than Dogmatic persuasions. “My hypothesis is that people with a low intelligence are more easily drawn toward religions, which give answers that are certain, while people with a high intelligence are more skeptical,” says the professor. Many other studies have been conducted on intelligence and religiosity. Burnham P. Beckwith paraphrased and summarized the following from The Effect of Intelligence on Religious Faith, Free Inquiry, Spring 1986. He reported on several studies between 1927 and 2008. These pre-Nyborg studies included the following:

1. Thomas Howells, 1927
Study of 461 students showed religiously conservative students “are, in general, relatively inferior in intellectual ability.”

2. Hilding Carlson, 1933
Study of 215 students showed that “there is a tendency for the more intelligent undergraduate to be sympathetic toward … atheism.”

3. Abraham Franzblau, 1934
Confirming Howells and Carlson, tested 354 Jewish children, 10-16. A negative correlation was found between religiosity and Terman’s intelligence test.

4. Thomas Symington, 1935
He tested 400 young people in colleges and church groups. He reported, “there is a constant positive relation in all the groups between liberal religious thinking and mental ability…There is also a constant positive relation between liberal scores and intelligence…”

5. Vernon Jones, 1938
He tested 381 students, concluding “a slight tendency for intelligence and liberal attitudes to go together.”

6. A. R. Gilliland, 1940
At variance with all other studies, found “little or no relationship between intelligence and attitude toward god.”

7. Donald Gragg, 1942
He reported an inverse correlation between 100 ACE freshman test scores and Thurstone “reality of god” scores.

8. Brown and Love, 1951
At U. of Denver, tested 613 male and female students. Mean test scores of non-believers = 119, believers = 100. Percentile NBs = 80, BBs = 50. Their findings “strongly corroborate those of Howells.”

9. Michael Argyle, 1958
He concluded that “although intelligent children grasp religious concepts earlier, they are also the first to doubt the truth of religion, and intelligent students are much less likely to accept orthodox beliefs.”

10. Jeffrey Hadden, 1963
Found no correlation between intelligence and grades. This was an anomalous finding, since GPA corresponds closely with intelligence. Other factors may have influenced the results at the U. of Wisconsin.

11. Young, Dustin and Holtzman, 1966
Average religiosity decreased as GPA rose.

12. James Trent, 1967
Polled 1400 college seniors. Found little difference, but high-ability students in his sample group were over-represented.

13. C. Plant and E. Minium, 1967
The more intelligent students were less religious, both before entering college and after 2 years of college.

14. Robert Wuthnow, 1978
Of 532 students, 37% of christians, but 58% of apostates and 53 percent of non-religious students scored above average on SATs.

15. Hastings and Hoge, 1967, 1974
Polled 200 college students and found no significant correlations.

16. Norman Poythress, 1975
He found Mean SATs for strongly antireligious (1148), moderately anti-religious (1119), slightly antireligious (1108), and religious (1022).

17. Wiebe and Fleck, 1980
They studied 158 male and female Canadian university students. They reported “nonreligious S’s tended to be strongly intelligent” and “more intelligent than religious S’s.

Student Body Comparisons-

1. Rose Goldsen, Student belief in a divine god, percentages 1952.
Harvard 30; UCLA 32; Dartmouth 35; Yale 36; Cornell 42; Wayne 43; Weslyan 43; Michigan 45; Fisk 60; Texas 62; N. Carolina 68.

2. National Review Study, 1970 Students Belief in Spirit or Divine
God. Percentages: Reed 15; Brandeis 25; Sarah Lawrence 28; Williams 36; Stanford 41; Boston U. 41; Yale 42; Howard 47; Indiana 57; Davidson 59; S. Carolina 65; Marquette 77.

3. Caplovitz and Sherrow, 1977
Apostasy rates rose continuously from 5% in “low” ranked schools to 17% in “high” ranked schools.

4. Niemi, Ross, and Alexander, 1978
In elite schools, organized religion was judged important by only 26%, compared with 44% of all students.

Studies of Very-High-IQ groups.

1. Terman, 1959
Studied group with IQ > 140. Of men, 10% held strong religious belief, of women 18%. 62% of men and 57% of women when claiming “little religious inclination,” while 28% men and 23% of women who claimed it was “not at all important.”

2. Warren and Heist, 1960
They found no differences among National Merit Scholars. Results may have been affected by the fact that NM scholars are not selected on the basis of intelligence or grades alone, but also on “leadership” and such.

3. Southern and Plant, 1968
42 male and 30 female members of Mensa. Mensa members were much less religious in belief than the typical American college alumnus or adult.

4. William S. Ament, 1927
C. C. Little, president U. of Michigan, checked persons listed in Who’s Who in America: “Unitarians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Universalists, and Presbyterians are … far more numerous in Who’s Who than would be expercted on the basis of the population which they form. Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics are distinctly less numerous.”

Ament confirmed Little’s conclusion. He noted that Unitarians, the least religious, were more than 40 times as numerous in Who’s Who as in the U.S. population.

5. Lehman and Witty, 1931
Identified 1189 scientists found in both _Who’s Who_ (1927) and American Men of Science (1927). Only 25% in AM of S and 50% of those listed in Who’s Who reported their religious denomination despite the specific requests to do so, “religious denomination (if any).” Well over 90% of the general population claims religious affiliation. The figure of 25% suggest far less religiosity among scientists.

Unitarians were 81.4 times as numerous among eminent scientists as non-Unitarians.

6. Kelley and Fisk, 1951
Found a negative (-.39) correlation between the strength of religious values and research competence.

7. Ann Roe, 1953

Interviewed 64 “eminent scientists, nearly all members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences or the American Philosophical Society. She reported that, while nearly all of them had religious parents and had attended Sunday school, ‘now only three of these men are seriously active in church. A few others attend upon occasion, or even give some financial support to a church which they do not attend… All the others have long since dismissed religion as any guide to them, and the church plays no part in their lives…A few are militantly atheistic, but most are just not interested.'”

8. Francis Bello, 1954
Questionnaired or interviewed 107 young (<= 40) nonindustrial scientists judged by senior colleagues to be outstanding. 87 responded. 45% claimed to be “agnostic or atheistic” and an additional 22% claimed no religious affiliation. For 20 most eminent, “the proportion who are now a-religious is considerably higher than in the entire survey group.”

9. Jack Chambers, 1964
Questionnaired 740 US psychologists and chemists. He reported, “the highly creative men [jft- assume no women included] … significantly more often show either no preference for a particular religion or little or no interest in religion.” Found that the most eminent psychologists showed 40% no preference, 16% for the most eminent chemists.

10. Vaughan, Smith, and Sjoberg, 1965
Polled 850 US physicists, zoologists, chemical engineers, and geologists listed in American Men of Science (1955) on church membership, and attendance patterns, and belief in afterlife. 642 replies.

38.5% did not believe in afterlife, 31.8% did. Belief in immortality was less common among major university staff than among those employed by business, government, or minor universities. The contemporaneous Gallup poll showed 2/3 of US population believed in afterlife, so scientists were far less religious than typical adult.

From Beckwith’s concluding remarks:

Conclusions

In this essay I have reviewed: (1)sixteen studies of the correlation between individual measures of student intelligence and religiosity, all but three of which reported an inverse correlation. (2) five studies reporting that student bodies with high average IQ and/or SAT scores are much less religious than inferior student bodies; (3) three studies reporting that geniuses (IQ 150+) are much less religious than the general public (Average IQ, 100), and one dubious study, (4) seven studies reporting that highly successful persons are much less religious in belief than are others; and (5) eight old and four new Gallup polls revealing that college alumni (average IQ about 115) are much less religious in belief than are grade-school students polled.

I have also noted that many studies have shown that students become less religious as they proceed through college, probably in part because average IQ rises.

All but four of the forty-three polls I have reviewed support the conclusion that native intelligence varies inversely with degree of religious faith; i.e., that, other factors being equal, the more intelligent a person is, the less religious he is. It is easy to find fault with the studies I have reviewed, for all were imperfect. But the fact that all but four of them supported the general conclusion provides overwhelming evidence that, among American students and adults, the amount of religious faith tends to vary inversely and appreciably with intelligence.

There are no entirely satisfactory measures of intelligence, nor even satisfactory definitions of what is to be measured. Intelligence seems to be something, though, and every tack we take in trying to catch the elusive winds of thought carries us further toward workable definitions. Is intelligence a good memory, the ability to sculpt, make a diving catch in center field, play blindfold chess, construct sentences of “learned length and thundering sound”, or time a punchline?

SAT tests, IQ tests, success in life, measures of fame and esteem in peer groups all fail to give that satisfying, final readout of how smart or stupid any given person is. The evidence we have indicates that the more we know about the real world, the less likely we are to believe in an imaginary one.

  WHO ARE THE NONBELIEVERS AND ATHEISTS?

Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of dieties. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists.

The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning “without god”, which was applied with a negative connotation to those thought to reject the gods worshipped by the larger society. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope. The first individuals to identify themselves as “atheist” appeared in the 18th century.

Today, about 2.3% of the world’s population describes itself as atheist, while a further 11.9% is described as nonreligious. Between 64% and 65% of Japanese are atheists, agnostics, or do not believe in God. In Australia the percentage of atheists is close to 25%. In Europe, the estimated percentage of atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers in a personal god ranges as low as single digits in Poland, Romania, Cyprus, and some other countries, and up to 85% in Sweden (where 17% identify themselves as atheists), 80% in Denmark, 72% in Norway, and 60% in Finland.

Atheists tend to lean toward skepticism regarding supernatural claims, citing a lack of empirical evidence. Atheists have offered several rationales for not believing in any deity. These include the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from nonbelief. Other arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to the social to the historical. Although some atheists have adopted secular philosophies, there is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere.

In Western culture, atheists are frequently assumed to be exclusively irreligious or unspirtual. However, atheism also figures in certain religious and spiritual belief systems, such as Jainism, and some forms of Buddhism that do not advocate belief in gods. Hinduism also holds atheism to be valid, but difficult to follow spiritually.

Diversity of Opinion in Early Christianity

 There was no New Testament for early Christians. The books that were eventually collected into the New Testament had been written by the 2nd century but had not been gathered yet into a widely recognized and authoritative canon of Scripture. The best way to determine if early Christians held differing opinions about Christ and Christianity is to know what their beliefs were and how they differed.

For example, according to Erdman, “The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all in the theological beliefs embraced by people who understood themselves to be followers of Jesus.”  Erdman goes on to cite an impressive offering of different beliefs among early Christians of the second and third centuries. Among those Christians, some thought there was just one god, and others believed there were two gods. Some thought there were thirty and some even believed there were 365.

There were Christians that thought God created the world; other Christians thought or believed that this world had been created by a subordinate, ignorant divinity. (Why else would the world be filled with such misery and hardship?). Yet other Christians thought it was worse than that, that this world was a cosmic mistake created by a malevolent divinity as a place of imprisonment, to trap humans and subject them to pain and suffering.

There were Christians in the second and third centuries who believed that the Jewish Scriptures (the Christian “Old Testament”) was inspired by the one true God. Others believed it was inspired by the God of the Jews, who was not the one true God. Others believed it was inspired by an evil deity. Others believed it was not inspired.

In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus was both divine and human, God and man. There were other Christians that argued that he was completely divine and not human at all. (For them, divinity and humanity were incommensurate entities: God can no more be a man than a man can be a rock.) There were others who insisted that Jesus was a full flesh-and- blood human, adopted by God to be his son but not himself divine. There were yet other Christians who claimed that Jesus Christ was two things: a full flesh-and-blood human, Jesus, and a fully divine Christ, who temporarily inhabited Jesus’ body during his ministry and left him prior to his death, inspiring his teachings and miracles but avoiding the suffering in its aftermath.

Finally, there were Christians who believed that Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world. Others believed that Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world. There were other Christians who said that Jesus never died.

At the time the New Testament was written (The Gospels that were included in the New Testament were all written anonymously), and later assigned the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as reputed authors, there were other Gospel books that were becoming available as sacred texts that were being read and revered by different Christian groups throughout the world.

But all these other Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses were viewed as heresy by the orthodox religious authorities of the day. As rich and as popular as these books were among early Christians, they were excluded from becoming part of the sacred scriptures or canon of Christianity. What eventually became the 27 books of the New Testament is only a subset of all Christian literature that was once available to all Christians.

At the root of the development of orthodox views only of Christianity–was politics, even in the ancient world. Holding a conservative orthodox view of Christianity today is, as it was in early Christianity, to see only one view of Christianity. Just because it’s a politically derived set of canonized scriptures doesn’t make it any more descriptive of the historical Jesus than if the literature of those branded the heretics of Christianity had succeeded instead in dominating the sacred texts of Christianity.

Modern Day Differences of Opinion

Despite the orthodoxy of winning the battle to control the scriptures of early Christianity, large differences today exist among the world religions and the many denominations within Christianity itself.

Any particular church’s doctrine may be at great variance, not only with other world religions and other denominations within Christianity, but with the very tomb of religious cannon itself that they promote as their source of authority–the Bible. We see wide variation of opinion regarding Christian doctrine. Differences of opinion are the rule where the Bible is concerned, not the exception. One group that has received a lot of media attention is known as the Jesus Seminar. This is a group of academic scholars who question the truth behind the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith.

According to Lee Strobel,

The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith: the Jesus Seminar believes there’s a big gulf between the two. In its view the historical Jesus was a bright, witty, countercultural man who never claimed to be the Son of God, while the Jesus of faith is a cluster of feel-good ideas that help people live right but are ultimately based on wishful thinking.

One of the great apologists for Christianity was C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). Many younger generations may more likely remember C.S. Lewis for his creative fictional work, “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” C. S. Lewis was one of the great defenders of the Faith since his conversion to Christianity in 1931. There were many Christians at Oxford in the 1940s. Many, like Lewis, felt that both the pros and cons of the Christian religion should be discussed openly. This led to the foundation of the Socratic Club. C.S. Lewis served as its president until 1954 when he became a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge University, England.

Many scholars today probably would dismiss Lewis’ logic as nothing more than Socratic debate double-talk, or that his underlying assumptions about the relationship of natural to supernatural things or events made no sense at all. There was one statement in the Preface to Lewis’ book that did make a lot of sense. That is, Walter Hooper wrote, in the preface to Lewis’ book, God in the Dock, “Regardless of one’s education, it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” The methodology, of course, of knowing what something is about, should be based on observation, knowledge, and interpretation of the facts and assumptions made.

Interpretation of the bible itself is made further difficult by the conflicts between various texts. There are texts within the New Testament that conflict with one another as well as conflict with those sacred texts that were rejected by the Orthodox Church. These rejected texts may have been more representative of who Jesus was and what Christianity was about than those texts that eventually became the “Orthodox view” of the bible people read today. For example Elaine Pagels reports in, Beyond Belief–The Secret Gospel of Thomas, “Christian mystics, like their Jewish and Muslim counterparts, have always been careful not to identify themselves with God. But the gospel of Thomas teaches that recognizing one’s affinity with God is the key to the kingdom of God.” Pagels goes on to say that,

Orthodox Jews and Christians, of course, have never wholly denied affinity between God and ourselves. But their leaders have tended to discourage or, at least, to circumscribe the process through which people may seek God on their own. This may be why some people raised as Christians and Jews today are looking elsewhere to supplement what they have not found in Western tradition.

Will Christianity Decline in the 21st Century?

It is a fact that there has been a 13% decline in the number of adherents to Christianity since 1900. And, it is very likely that the Christian religion will continue to decline as society moves further into the 21st Century.

This decline will force people to face the reality that previous explanations for how the world about us works—just doesn’t possess the influence they once did. Many people will find this upsetting, especially because their belief in a supernatural “sky God who judges you” is now being questioned like never before. As Christianity declines, many people in the religious community will believe that their values are being threatened and their influence diminishing.

I hope that such people will understand that social change throughout history is both normal and inevitable. Given the vast diversity of America culture today, I hope that most people will see both social change and diversity as an opportunity to redefine their perceptions regarding reality, and begin to focus on a more inclusive, rather than exclusive, set of values. Many people may wonder what caused the decline in Christianity. At this point in time eleven general causes have been identified.

The reasons for the decline include:

The growth of secularism and the changing religious landscape

The growth of Atheism

The influence of modern science on society

Social changes in beliefs

Global awareness of different cultures and other belief systems

Disdain for fundamentalism at home and abroad

Increases in educational level of the citizenry

Increasing unwillingness of people to accept naïve supernatural explanations

A modern information explosion in all areas of knowledge

A more liberalized, democratic, and less dogmatic society

And recognition that all values were up for grabs during the 20th century, including freedom from religion

Conclusions

This Blog has attempted to look at different religious beliefs and perspectives in America. Just as Americans are a very diverse group of people, so too are the religious beliefs of Americans. The more dogmatic among us view their beliefs as cast in iron or concrete. However, the facts demonstrate that religious beliefs are constantly changing. Social change is the poison conservatives fear the most, and revere the least.

The data in this Blog may be painful for some. That’s unfortunate. So, how do we overcome the social stranglehold religions have on a person’s ability to think clearly, factually, and logically? Bright people, especially very bright people, are not shackled by the chains of superstition or religious dogma because they are endowed, not just with high IQs, but more importantly, with a healthy skepticism. Those less endowed with gray matter between their ears grasp for certainty in their lives; there is nothing wrong with wanting certainty.

However, the mature adult, whether super-bright or not, needs to take responsibility for one’s own life. That takes courage and determination. Once fairy tales are dispensed with a kind of new freedom of the mind is achieved. However, that freedom has a price to pay. Erik Fromm wrote a seminal work during the 1940s, Escape from Freedom. In Escape from Freedom he writes that man strives for independence and individuality, in essence to be free.

History shows that freedom from external domination. According to Fromm, “The history of economic liberation, political democracy, religious autonomy, and individualism in personal life, gave expression to the longing for freedom, and at the same time seemed to bring mankind closer to its realization. One tie after another was severed. Man had overcome the domination of nature and had made himself her master; he had overcome the church and the domination of the absolutist state. The abolition of external domination seemed to be a necessary but also a sufficient condition to attain the cherished goal: freedom of the individual.”

But Fromm wondered why it was, despite the long history of wars and fighting to achieve freedom, people (like in Italy and Germany during World War II) were so willing to give up their freedom so easily to a charismatic leader or dictator. He concluded that people tend to want to escape from freedom and that this process is very much psychological. Freedom, while very welcome on the one hand, nevertheless presents the individual with too many choices he must confront in his life. A few can handle this freedom. Many cannot.

The reaction to such choice is often aloneness, isolation, and a desire to escape such freedom. Often the form that it takes is to submit oneself to a higher authority, a religion, or a charismatic leader. If aloneness is the price of individuality, “impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” As one submits, one realizes that the price it pays is giving up strength and the integrity of the self. Once again, according to Fromm, “This identity with nature, clan, religion, gives the individual security. He belongs to, is rooted in, a structuralized whole in which he has an unquestionable place. He may suffer from hunger or suppression, but he does not suffer from the worst of all pains–complete aloneness and doubt.”

During the twentieth century psychology, sociology, and anthropology gave society great tools for understanding itself. To this, we are all indebted. The eleven reasons listed above for what has impacted changes in Christianity all add up to one undeniable fact: Christianity is in trouble and will likely continue to spiral downward in size as fewer and fewer people buy indiscriminately into its primarily emotional, and correspondingly vacuous logical basis.

Part II of this series will show that religious people are still trapped inside the conundrum of ancient scripture and cultural thinking patterns of 2000 years ago. The one unfortunate thing about reliance on an ancient document for one’s direction in life is that many Americans rely on something they have very little knowledge of in the first place. Also, saying one should have faith—is a “cop-out.” What people need is not faith, but greater reasoning power. Whether one is talking about educational attainment, IQ scores, SAT scores, GPA, or attainment of great success in life, the evidence leans toward convergence of all these indices. That is, there is a convergence of the research evidence which shows that the more intelligent an individual is the less religious he tends to be. As quoted earlier in this Blog, “The evidence we have indicates that the more we know about the real world, the less likely we are to believe in an imaginary one.”

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In this Blog I’m making a recommendation for eleven movies to see and a couple of really neat places to visit. If you can take time from your busy schedule I’m sure you will be thoroughly rewarded for time well spent. 

 

Back in June, 2010 I recommended a few great movies including: Uncle Nino, Somewhere in Time, Where the Heart is, and Taking Chance. I hope you’ve had a chance to see them. From time-to-time I plan to share with you other movies I think you would really enjoy and find entertaining. Recently, I watched all of the movies I’ve listed below. They are very much worth your taking the time to see them. These movies are all 4-star plus movies in my book.

 

Three out of these eleven movies I recommend are about artists. Yeah! It’s true. I really identify with the artists of this world and have a real undying respect for their work. When some producer is willing to do a movie (usually some form of biography about an artist) I’m always one of the firsts to watch it. I like to see movies on the “Big Screen” but the last few years I do that less often because movie houses like to charge a trillion dollars for a bag of popcorn, not including a diet coke.

 

My Recommendations

 

Serious Drama 

 

Stolen

 

A detective deals with the loss of his own son while trying to uncover the identity of a boy whose mummified remains are found in a box buried for fifty years (2008). Josh Lucas is outstanding in his role, as are James Van Der Beek and Jon Hamm. This is a powerful, emotional movie that will cause you to feel the fear a parent would have with a child who has been kidnapped.

 

Bordertown

 

The film (2006) is based upon a true story surrounding the multiple murders of young women in Juarez, Chihuahua. Those of you who read my Blog on the Hidden Side of Immigration will immediately recognize the infamous nature of the city of Juarez, Mexico. In the movie two men brutally rape a young woman by the name of Eva Jimenez (Maya Zapata) and leave her for dead. She wakes up in, and crawls out of, her own grave.

Lauren Adrian who is played by Jennifer Lopez is an American journalist from the Chicago Sentinel who is assigned to cover the story of the murders in Juarez. Lauren is haunted by terrible memories of her own while she helps Eva, the only surviving victim.

Lauren is determined to catch Eva’s rapist. With the help of Eva and a Mexican newspaper editor Alfonso Diaz, (Antonio Banderas), Lauren goes undercover and poses as a Mexican worker to identify and trap the rapists. As she discovers hundreds of victims, she gains the trust of local factory workers but becomes a target herself. They catch one of the rapists, but the other escapes.  Then, only days before Eva is to testify against the rapist, Lauren is forced to leave Juarez to try to have her story published.

With Lauren gone, Eva flees to the United States but is caught by the border police and returned to Juarez. Lauren returns and while looking for Eva, encounters the rapist instead.

 

 

The Stoning of Soraya M.

 

This is one of the most emotionally powerful movies I’ve seen in a very long time. It is a drama set in Iran in 1986 and is centered on a man, Sahebjam, whose car breaks down in a remote village and enters into a conversation with Zahra, who tells him a story about her niece, Soraya, whose arranged marriage to an abusive tyrant led to a tragic ending. Without reading the credits, see if you can recognize at the beginning of the movie the actor who plays Sahebjam. I was not aware of who he was until the end credits; see if you can do better.

 

Green Zone

 

This movie is about discovering covert and faulty intelligence information. It causes a U.S. Army Officer to go rogue as he hunts for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq in an unstable region.

The 2010 movie stars Matt Damon as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson who plays Baghdad CIA Bureau Chief, Martin Brown. There are many good performances in this movie but Damon and Gleeson really stand out as two terrific actors. The recent historical back story to the movie’s plot makes it both intriguing and thought provoking. If you like action movies as I do you’ll find watching this movie very rewarding, and sobering at the same time in terms of its recent historical content.

 

Gran Torino

 

Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood, who also directed) is an embittered Korean War veteran who just lost his wife. He finds himself in the middle of a changing world. The formerly all-white neighborhood he once lived in is now mostly Southeast Asian and he has a Hmong family living next door. On his own family front he doesn’t get along with his sons, and is out of touch with his grandchildren, all of whom seem more interested in getting his house than anything else.

But Walt’s greatest interest is in his mint condition, 1972 Gran Torino. When the Hmong teenager next door, Thao, is challenged in a gang initiation ritual by his cousin and other gang members, to steal the Gran Torino, Walt nearly shoots him.

Soon, however, Walt realizes that he has more in common with his neighbors than with his own family, he becomes something of a neighborhood hero when he prevents gangbangers from forcing Thao into their car. He gradually takes Thao under his wing, teaching him a few things about life and helps get him a job.

Walt’s intervention has a price when the gang shoots up Thao’s house, and attacks his sister. Walt is determined to take action.

The script writing is fabulous and the script’s unexpected ending testifies to that fact. I’ve always liked Clint Eastwood for all his many roles and movies he directed and acted in. Clint Eastwood is now 80, and has seen and done it all in Hollywood.

 I like him best as an actor; others appreciate his ability as a movie director.  But by far his greatest talent is his uncanny ability to sniff out what makes a good story, and his story-telling genius that helps him translate a good story (David Baldacci’s Absolute Power comes to mind) into a great movie. And, for that reason above all else, I think you will see what makes Gran Torini a great movie, and top-notch entertainment.

 

 

Georgia O’Keefe

 

This movie is about American artist Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (2009). Joan Allen gives a nice performance in the movie as her subtle acting qualities gives the movie a nice handling touch to her dialogue in the script. There is an underlying tone of sadness to the story of Georgia O’Keefe.

You may come away with a different assessment than I did, but I felt that Stieglitz and O’Keefe absolutely loved each other but whose inner self-directed personalities made it impossible for them to live together. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not all that uncommon today. Opposite her (playing Stieglitz) is Jeremy Irons, who has always been a first rate actor and is very convincing in his role as the self-centered jackass.

 

Little Ashes

 

In the years that followed after World War I, life and values were changing in Europe. Spain during the decade of the 1920s was no exception. In 1922, Madrid was wavering on the edge of change as traditional values were challenged by the dangerous new influences of Jazz, Freud and the avant-garde. During this year Salvador Dali arrived at the university. He was 18 years old and determined to become a great artist. His bizarre blend of shyness and rampant exhibitionism attracted the attention of two of the university’s social elite – Federico Garcia Lorca and Luis Bunel. Dali is absorbed into their youthfully decadent group and for a time Salvador, Luis and Federico became a formidable trio, the most ultra-modern group in Madrid. However, as time passed, Salvador felt an increasingly strong pull towards the charismatic Federico – who is himself oblivious of the attentions he is getting from his beautiful writer friend, Magdalena. In the face of his friends’ preoccupations – and Federico’s growing renown as a poet – Luis sets off for Paris in search of his own artistic success. There are twists and turns in the lives of these three friends, but one of the turns made was totally unexpected for the famous Poet Lorca (2008).

 

 

Broken Trail (2 Discs—TV Miniseries)

 

Set in 1898, Print Ritter and his estranged nephew Tom Harte become the reluctant guardians of five abused and abandoned Chinese girls. Ritter and Harte’s attempts to care for the girls are complicated by their responsibility to deliver a herd of horses while avoiding a group of bitter rivals who are intent on kidnapping the girls for their own purposes (2006).

In todays urban modern life most of us don’t even know our neighbors and seldom interact, positively or negatively. What I was struck by in this movie was the stark contrast in temperament in relationships during social interaction despite living in a rather harsh and sometimes dangerous violent environment. In 1898, there was a rather formal politeness and gentility (even unexpected tenderness) between men and women as reflected in language and custom. However, getting someone to talk about their inner feelings (usually for one another) was just as difficult a hundred plus years ago as it is now. Broken Trail was an award-winning miniseries on TV. As soon as you start watching it you’ll see why.

 

 

Feel Good Movies and Fine Family Entertainment

 

Blind Side

 

A homeless black teenager, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) has drifted in and out of the school system for years. Then Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) and her husband, Sean (Tim McGraw), take him in, transforming Michael’s life and theirs (2009).

This was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron are outstanding in their roles. This is one movie where I think the casting director was an unsung hero. All of the actors, including supporting actors, mesh very well together producing a kind of human chemistry that goes way beyond people coming together to act. All the characters in this movie really make the entire movie work extremely well.

 

 

My Kid Can Paint That

 

Don’t bet your life on that! Your kid can’t paint the way Marla Olmstead does today as a 10-year old, much less the way she did as a 4 year old when she became such a national sensation. I’ve reviewed the film, evaluated the controversy, and looked at her paintings. As an abstract artist myself I came away from this movie convinced that Marla Olmstead is indeed the real McCoy —Yes, Marla Olmstead is the real McCoy. She is a true prodigy of color, form, composition and line. Her abilities are not a function of learning how to do it; they are a function of her feeling how to do it. What Marla Olmstead composes with paint is like a great symphony; what most children do with a paint brush in their hands is a lot more like playing chop sticks, not a symphony. Innate abilities are in some of us. I have a close 70-year old friend who possesses natural gifts. He has the uncanny ability to draw cartoons with pen and ink, draw landscapes with a pencil, and do oil painting with tremendous visual clarity. Unfortunately, oil painting doesn’t come that easy to me. I don’t have natural gifts in art like my friend; I have to work very hard at my craft. Marla Olmstead, like my friend, does have innate natural abilities. Go to Marla Olmstead’s website and see her paintings, and painting style, firsthand. You will be rewarded many times over.  

 

 

Leap Year

 

A woman who has an elaborate scheme to propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day, an Irish tradition which occurs every time the date February 29 rolls around, faces a major setback when bad weather threatens to derail her planned trip to Dublin. With the help of an innkeeper, however, her cross-country odyssey just might result in her getting engaged (2010). In many ways this movie reflects the age-old notion that opposites really do attract. This is a delightful movie and Amy Adams and Matthew Goode are a good match for these roles. I found Amy Adams, a red headed beauty, to be one actress worth watching. Her quirky yet innocent outlook on life and her adorable personality was very appealing in Leap Year. She has played other excellent roles in such movies as Enchanted (2007), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Doubt (2008), Night at the Museum, (2009), Julie and Julia (2009), and Moonlight Serenade (2009).    

 

 

In Memoriam

 

Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

 

Tony Curtis passed away on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at the age of 85. He will be remembered for a long time and he will be missed by those among us who enjoy movies and what breathes life into any movie or book—great characters.

Tony Curtis was an American Icon of the Hollywood Movie Industry. I enjoyed watching him act and in fact first saw him while I was in High School. I enjoyed his seedy role as Sydney Falco in the drama, The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in which Actor Burt Lancaster also was very convincing as the “sleeze-ball” New York City Columnist, J.J. Hunsucker.

I later bought the music from the movie in an old vinyl 78 RPM album format. That album I still own today, having kept every record (all 500 of them) I ever owned. Two other favorites of mine are, Some Like it Hot (with Jack Lemmon), and The Pink Submarine where Tony Curtis played opposite another favorite actor of mine, Cary Grant.

During his career Tony Curtis was nominated for Best Actor in 1958 for The Defiant Ones opposite Sydney Portier, who also received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe in 1968 for his role as Albert De Salvo in a very chilling movie, The Boston Strangler. The role he played as a psychopath was brilliant and demonstrated his great versatility as an actor for serious drama in addition to his outstanding performances in comedy roles.  How many of you remember his role as The Great Houdini with Janet Lee in 1953? I was 10 years old at the time and was captivated by all the stunts the real Houdini was capable of doing.   There are, and were, many great actors in Hollywood and elsewhere. For me, Tony Curtis has to be worldwide among those at the very top of the list.  

 

Full biographies of Tony Curtis’ film career can be found on the Internet if you are interested in more detail.

 

 

 

Some Fine Places to Visit

 

Two places I visited this year worthy of your time are the Charles Schultz Museum in Santa Rosa, California and the Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg along the California coast. These places are different venues but both are very enjoyable to see.

 

Charles M. Schultz Museum

 

Have you ever enjoyed the Peanuts comic strip and wondered about the cartoonist who could so easily translate all your feelings into a funny comment?  Then the Charles M. Schultz Museum will be worth a visit or two.  This museum used Schultz’s own comics to help chronicle his life and ideas.

 

In the museum are two scrapbooks which you can spend a lot of time reading. One scrapbook chronicles his life and family and one shows the history of his career.  It seems he wasn’t an overnight success.  This is amazing for a man who eventually won the Reuben Award for cartoonists not once, but twice.

 

Schultz once said that, “Drawing cartoons is a great way to share your ideas. A cartoonist is no different from any other type of artisthe or she wants to express him/herself. There is a joy in playing the piano or painting a wonderful watercolor. There is also a joy in communicating a thought, whether serious or funny, to another person (1996).” This museum is an enjoyable visit to the world of Schultz’s art.

 

Directions: From San Francisco, take Highway 101 North across the Golden Gate Bridge. On the north side of Santa Rosa, exit at Guerneville Road/Steele Lane. Turn left onto Steele Lane, then get into the right lane and stay there. Where the street splits, go straight ahead on West Steele Lane. After you cross Range Avenue and past the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, you’ll find the museum at the corner of West Steele Lane and Hardies Lane.

 

 

Botanical Gardens, Fort Bragg, California

 

 

Garden by the Sea…
A Rare Botanical Jewel on the
Mendocino Coast

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg, California is one of the most beautiful, relaxing spots on this earth.  It has had many years to flourish since being founded in 1961. Financed through grants from the California Coastal Conservancy these gardens now have one of the best collections of coastal flora.

If you’ve always wanted to grow rhododendrons this is the place to visit. Here you can see almost limitless possibilities and varieties.  The rhododendrons grown here are species that are unique to Southeast Asia and the Himalyas and require a foggy coastal climate such as the one California has.  Take the time to enjoy these fabulous plants because many are rare and difficult to find in nurseries today.

One of my favorite spots is the cactus and succulent garden.  These are plants that can be grown in the dry inner valleys of California but evidently they can grow along the coast as well.  This section always makes me want to go home and plant a cactus.

A short walk will take you to the bluffs overlooking the ocean.  On a beautiful day the breeze and sunshine along the ocean can make the prairie grasses and stunted pine trees seem like the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen.  There’s nothing like a walk along the California coast, and if you keep your ears open, you can enjoy the bird sounds of over 150 bird species; more than you can spot.

I highly recommend an afternoon at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens even on a foggy dreary day.  It can lift your spirits and bring out the sunshine a little. But, above all, just enjoy yourself and soak up the ambience of a truly beautiful place on earth.

Visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens yourself at:

http://www.gardenbythesea.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/home.home/index.htm 

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