David Brooks’ Rant on Emptiness of Secularism is Poppycock

By Daniel C. Maguire, ReligionDispatches.org,  February 4, 2015

Excerpt

New York Times columnist David Brooks is way behind the curve when it comes to post-theistic ethics and religion. In…“Building Better Secularists,” what he actually builds is a caricature of “secularists”…Brooks sees these poor secular creatures (who are inching toward majority status in our culture) as feebly—and thus far futilely–trying to build an inspiring ethic without the “God” prop…Brooks’ reflects a common syllabus of errors regarding ethics and religion without “God…” For starters, he says that the godly can draw from “moral creeds that have evolved over centuries,” but that those poor adrift secularists “have to build their own moral philosophies” starting from scratch. Nonsense!

Even Pope Francis invites atheists to join him on his Judeo-Christian moral mission. That …grand biblical moral vision is just as available to those who deny the “God” and afterlife hypotheses as it is to those who take those myths literally.

In any religion the moral core is one thing; the imaginative dogmatic superstructure is another…the moral core of Judaism and Christianity…is just as available to secularists as it is to the dogmatically orthodox.

Indeed many professing Christians might be dogmatically orthodox moral heretics. They take the dogmatic legends literally and fervidly but are less enthused about the moral demands of the tradition. Thus they would smite you for not taking literally such metaphors as Exodus, Virgin Birth, and Resurrection but will not join Isaiah in saying that the only route to peace is through the absolute elimination of poverty. (Isaiah 32;17)… Religion is a response to the sacred—whether the sacred is understood theistically or not. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism are godless, and yet they have been, and are, culture-shaping powerhouses of moral idealism… Increasingly, Christians, Jews, and others are at one with that sense of reality—as is modern science. There is good sense and abundant spiritual inspiration in that ancient poetry. Noisy debates about gods and goddesses should not distract us from moral wisdom that is so contemporaneously relevant that it might well have been written yesterday.

Full text

New York Times columnist David Brooks is way behind the curve when it comes to post-theistic ethics and religion. In yesterday’s column, “Building Better Secularists,” what he actually builds is a caricature of “secularists” which he then proceeds to scold. Brooks sees these poor secular creatures (who are inching toward majority status in our culture) as feebly—and thus far futilely–trying to build an inspiring ethic without the “God” prop.

Relax, Mr. Brooks, we are doing just fine. I write, incidentally, as a Christian atheist, something I describe more fully in Christianity Without God: Moving Beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative (SUNY Press 2014).

Brooks’ reflects a common syllabus of errors regarding ethics and religion without “God…”

For starters, he says that the godly can draw from “moral creeds that have evolved over centuries,” but that those poor adrift secularists “have to build their own moral philosophies” starting from scratch.

Nonsense!

Even Pope Francis invites atheists to join him on his Judeo-Christian moral mission. That epic moral vision that was birthed in ancient Israel and echoed into Christianity doesn’t require deity or afterlife beliefs, something the pope seems to get. And that grand biblical moral vision is just as available to those who deny the “God” and afterlife hypotheses as it is to those who take those myths literally.

In any religion the moral core is one thing; the imaginative dogmatic superstructure is another. Christianity’s dogmatic superstructure is especially replete with phantasmagoria…things like virgin births, dead people walking, and those resurrected people ascending straight up into the heavens (without ever going into orbit). Fortunately the moral vision of Judaeo-Christianity religion does not depend on such poetic fictions. The “God” and afterlife hypotheses add nothing to the moral core of Judaism and Christianity, and that moral core is just as available to secularists as it is to the dogmatically orthodox.

Indeed many professing Christians might be dogmatically orthodox moral heretics. They take the dogmatic legends literally and fervidly but are less enthused about the moral demands of the tradition. Thus they would smite you for not taking literally such metaphors as Exodus, Virgin Birth, and Resurrection but will not join Isaiah in saying that the only route to peace is through the absolute elimination of poverty. (Isaiah 32;17).

Nor are they, as was Jesus, “good news for the poor” or “peacemakers.” (Luke 4:18: Matt. 5:9)

In a splendid irony, secularists who walk the walk on these ideals might be more “Christian” than the “dogmatically” pure.

For Brooks, to be religious you have to believe in “God,” which is way off the mark. Religion is a response to the sacred—whether the sacred is understood theistically or not. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism are godless, and yet they have been, and are, culture-shaping powerhouses of moral idealism. As Professor Chun-Fang Yu says “Unlike most other religions, Chinese religion does not have a creator god…There is no god transcendent and separate from the world and there is no heaven outside of the universe to which human beings would want to go for refuge.” Increasingly, Christians, Jews, and others are at one with that sense of reality—as is modern science.

Literalism is suffocating. It smothers the moral dynamism of “religions,” which at their fiery core are classics in the art of cherishing, and a spiritual resource—for those who imagine a “God,” and for those who do not. The Exodus may not have happened and Moses may never have existed. He might, like Yahweh, be a composite of many personalities woven together with literary freedom.

“There was no mass Exodus from Egypt,” write historians Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman. Forget the fictional frogs and the sea engulfing the bad guys. What happened from 1250 to 1050 B.C.E. was not history but a psycho-political, epochal breakthrough of social imagination.* Outstripping Homer and Virgil in wit and wisdom, these Hebrew poets imagined a move from the one-percent rule of Egypt to the sharing society of Sinai where “there will be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4) and where the first experiment in a classless society achieved a success that sowed the seeds of modern democratic theory.

There is good sense and abundant spiritual inspiration in that ancient poetry. Noisy debates about gods and goddesses should not distract us from moral wisdom that is so contemporaneously relevant that it might well have been written yesterday.

Daniel C. Maguire

Daniel C. Maguire is a professor of ethics at Marquette University, a Jesuit institution, and past president of The Society of Christian Ethics. He is the author or editor of 13 books and some 200 articles and president of The Religious Consultation On Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, an international collegium of 80 scholars from all the world religions. His most recent book is Whose Church? A Concise Guide to Progressive Catholicism (New Press, 2008)

http://religiondispatches.org/david-brooks-rant-on-emptiness-of-secularism-is-poppycock/

Building Better Secularists

by David Brooks, New York Times,  FEB. 3, 2015

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed….

Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.

Secular people, he argues, value autonomy over groupthink. They deepen their attachment to this world instead of focusing on a next one. They may not be articulate about why they behave as they do, he argues, but they try their best to follow the Golden Rule, to be considerate and empathetic toward others. “

As he describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that the secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.

•Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

•Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

 

•Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.

The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.

One other burden: Past secular creeds were built on the 18th-century enlightenment view of man as an autonomous, rational creature who could reason his way to virtue. The past half-century of cognitive science has shown that that creature doesn’t exist. We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action…Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.

The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

Full text

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed. Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist, makes this case as fluidly and pleasurably as anybody in his book, “Living the Secular Life.”

Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.

Secular people, he argues, value autonomy over groupthink. They deepen their attachment to this world instead of focusing on a next one. They may not be articulate about why they behave as they do, he argues, but they try their best to follow the Golden Rule, to be considerate and empathetic toward others. “Secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others and helping those in need,” Zuckerman writes.

As he describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that the secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.

• Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

• Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

The tone of the comments couldn’t be clearer. There is a loud, pervasive disdain among the secular for the religious. If it doesn’t rise…

• Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.

The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.

One other burden: Past secular creeds were built on the 18th-century enlightenment view of man as an autonomous, rational creature who could reason his way to virtue. The past half-century of cognitive science has shown that that creature doesn’t exist. We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.

The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/opinion/david-brooks-building-better-secularists.html?_r=0

The American Creed

by Forrest Church, The Nation, February 5, 2005

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional will almost certainly be struck down in any ruling by the Supreme Court. Though the contested words “under God” were added for all the wrong reasons at the height of the McCarthy epidemic in 1954, the amended pledge nonetheless conforms to the Founders’ blueprint as expressed in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Should we somehow manage to discern Abraham Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” through the din of patriotic soundbites, we might seize this opportunity to reflect more deeply on American first principles.

In many quarters of the world today America is resented–even hated–for its perceived embrace of godless and value-free materialism and the felt imposition of this moral “decadence” on world society. The first American armed conflict of the twenty-first century is being cast by its aggressor in religious terms as a jihad against the infidel, with America blasphemed as “the great Satan.” Osama bin Laden proclaimed that those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were martyrs, servants of Allah dying for a holy cause–a view not restricted to terrorists alone. America is caricatured in much of the Muslim world as a godless society wedded to materialism and wanton in the exercise of its power around the globe.

To the extent that this caricature is justified, we have lost our way. American values go far deeper than untrammeled laissez-faire capitalism and have nothing to do with materialism. They rest on the firm spiritual foundation on which the nation was established. At its best, America witnesses to a deep belief in liberty and equality, with the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being posited at birth. These are religious principles, not arbitrarily fashioned but–in the mind of the Founders–grounded in nature itself.

Some argue that, as truth claims, all beliefs are of equal value (except, perhaps, the belief that all beliefs are not of equal value). By this reading, there are no overarching stories or visions of the good life through which our lives acquire meaning. Yet our nation enshrines a radically different truth–an American vision, if you will–from that espoused by fundamentalist-sponsored terrorism. From a religious perspective, this struggle, one that will continue into the indefinite future, is not between God and godlessness but between competing theological worldviews, with diametrically opposed conceptions of the role religion should play in society to advance the greater good.

It was an English author, G.K. Chesterton, who first said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” one set forth with “theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” He memorably called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” Though the American Creed as fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by the Continental Congress rests upon a clear separation between church and state, the body politic does have a soul. Chesterton assumed that the American Creed condemned atheism, since it secures human rights as inalienable gifts from God. The saving irony is that this same creed also protects atheists against the coercion of believers.

In An American Dilemma, a compendious study of American racism, another foreign observer, Sweden’s Gunnar Myrdal, recognized the self-correcting nature of what he too called the American Creed. “America,” Myrdal concludes, “is continuously struggling for its soul.” Pointing to the ongoing battle for civil rights, he recognized the tension between American ideals and their incomplete fulfillment. Yet unlike much self-criticism–which can glibly lapse into self-loathing–the critique of this thoughtful observer was charged with appreciation and hope. He read American history as “the gradual realization of the American Creed.”

The nation’s greatest moral leaders have viewed American history in the same light. Abraham Lincoln saw the Declaration of Independence as spiritually regenerative. The touchstone of what he called our “ancient faith,” its “sacred principles” establish the spiritual and political foundation for America. A century later–forty years ago–within sight of the memorials dedicated to Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a new generation of American citizens when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

The word “creed” sounds forbidding and ecclesiastical. The American Creed is neither, but it is steadfast in its principles and enduring enough to redeem the nation’s history whenever we stray from their course. Capturing the essence of the American experiment, the American Creed affirms those truths our Founders held self-evident: justice for all, because we are all created equal; and liberty for all, because we are all endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. America’s fidelity to this creed is judged by history. Living up to it remains a constant challenge. But it invests our nation with spiritual purpose and–if we honor its precepts–a moral destiny.

As understood by Lincoln, King and many others, America is a union of faith and freedom, in which faith elevates freedom and freedom tempers faith. The American Creed doesn’t impose parochial faith upon its citizens but protects freedom, including freedom of religion, by invoking a more universal authority. Though employing the language of faith, it transcends religious particulars, uniting all citizens in a single covenant. It treats believer and atheist alike, offering each the same protections, securing freedom both of and from religion. Equally important, it protects freedom from itself, tempering excesses of individual license by postulating a higher moral code. In America, faith and freedom wed to form a union greater than either alone is capable of sustaining.

Most Americans perceive no fundamental conflict between the practice of their own individual religious belief and the latitude given to their neighbors to practice theirs. At our best, we celebrate both what sets us apart (specific doctrinal convictions) and what holds us together (a common faith). Fundamentalists of the right and left struggle more than the average citizen with such ambiguity. Respectively seeking to expand the compass of their piety or to remove every vestige of it from the public square, they shape the national debate both on church and state, and on religion and politics. Negative images of each other, advocates for a Christian or a secularist vision of America alike misread the Founders’ script.

As an “ism,” secularism suggests a rejection of or hostility toward religion. Taken in this sense, it dates from the French, not the American, Revolution. If ours is explicitly not a Christian nation, it is nonetheless built on a foundation of belief, not on a foundation of skepticism. That church and state are separate in America, to the signal advantage of both, is an expression, not a rejection, of this belief. “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education,” George Washington once wrote, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington, who mentions Christ not once in the twenty volumes of his collected papers, alludes here not to the saving virtues of any specific dogma but to the highest attributes with which we are endowed at birth by the Creator.

In the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, “the separate and equal station” to which free people are entitled is guaranteed by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” According to the Founders, the rights with which we are endowed by nature are inalienable. Laws may abridge them, but such laws are without higher sanction. Dating back to the Greeks and emerging as the centerpiece of Enlightenment science and philosophy, natural law is read from the script of the Creation, which trumps all lesser revelations. To Jefferson, nature’s laws were self-evident–a late substitution in the Declaration of Independence for “sacred and undeniable.” And the rights they confirmed were inalienable (the original “inherent and inalienable” considered a redundancy). Its primary draftsman, Jefferson described the Declaration of Independence as “an expression of the American mind”–”the genuine effusion of the soul of our country.” Its preamble stands as a summation of our aspirations as a people. What is more, it accomplishes this with conscious intent. It proclaims itself to be the American Creed.

None of Jefferson’s propositions are original, but in 1776, when placed in the context of all previous government charters, Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths were unique in the history of statecraft. Never before had a government limited or bound itself in such a manner, or established itself on so republican and egalitarian a footing. The divine (or, if you would prefer, natural) authority for human laws is invoked in a strikingly novel way. “Equal and exact justice to all…of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political…should be the creed of our political faith,” Jefferson stated in his first inaugural address. “And should we wander from [these principles] in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

The nineteenth-century positivist philosopher Auguste Comte argued that the word “rights” should be struck from the political lexicon. It is a theological and metaphysical conception, he said, and should have no place in modern scientific discourse. Even American Presidents have not always been immune to Comte’s logic. Accepting the Republican nomination for Vice President in 1920, Calvin Coolidge said, “Men speak of natural rights, but I challenge anyone to show where in nature any rights existed.” That is what laws are for, Coolidge argued. Law creates and protects the rights it establishes.

Though expressive of the secular modernist gospel, this is an un-American concept, with un-American consequences. When the foundation for law is an arbitrary one, moral checks and balances are relativized. The rights Jefferson lists in the Declaration of Independence are certainly open to interpretation, but, according to our Founders at least, their metaphysical basis–grounded in nature itself–is not.

This American proposition has been controversial since the nation was founded. Concerned that such sweeping theological claims for liberty and equality would undermine the institution of slavery, John Rutledge of South Carolina dismissed Jefferson’s interpretation of natural law as having nothing to do with the workings of the state. “Interest alone is the governing principle of nations,” he argued. Three-quarters of a century later, Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens characterized Jefferson’s foundational principles as “fundamentally wrong.” He boasted, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Stephens once had quoted Proverbs 25:11 to Abraham Lincoln–”A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Here is Lincoln’s reply.

 The expression of that principle ["all men are created equal"] in our Declaration of Independence was the word “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver subsequently framed around it. The picture was made not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple, not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture nor apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken.

The meaning of American history sounds as clearly from the nobility of the Founders’ ideals as it does in the incomplete fulfillment of their promise. For this reason, Lincoln called us “an almost chosen people.” We demonstrate our greatness not by force of might or by virtue of our unquestioned economic dominance but through rigorous moral endeavor, ever striving to remake ourselves in our own image. When we have approached true greatness, we have been great not because we were strong but because we fulfilled the mandate of our nation’s creed.

Thomas Jefferson’s reputation has slipped in recent years. Growing scrutiny of his hypocrisy as a high-minded slaveholder and the late-rising star of John Adams have combined to tarnish his memory. Both of these revisionist schools enhance the understanding of our history and are therefore to be welcomed. But as we rectify the balance, we must not forget that Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence have contributed more to the rectitude of our nation than all other utterances combined. Acknowledging this debt, Abraham Lincoln said, “All honor to Jefferson…to the man who…had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth…and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”

Rather than becoming overheated about the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance, we would do well, as Lincoln did, to recapture its spirit. In fact, to commemorate the lives of those who died a year ago, we could do no better than to reopen the Gettysburg Address and follow Lincoln’s counsel: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Forrest Church is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City and author of The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer, St. Martin’s Press, which is the source of this article. His other books include God and Other Famous Liberals, The Seven Deadly Virtues and Everyday Miracles. posted February 5, 2005

This article can be found on the web at: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20020916&s=church

Screw Positive Thinking! Why Our Quest for Happiness Is Making Us Miserable

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / By Oliver Burkeman [1] December 4, 2012, Alternet.org

The following excerpt is from “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” [2]

The man who claims that he is about to tell me the secret of human happiness is eighty-three years old, with an alarming orange tan that does nothing to enhance his credibility. It is just after eight o’clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio, and — according to the orange man — I am about to learn ‘the one thing that will change your life forever.” I’m skeptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!, America’s “most popular business motivational seminar,” and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious.

“So you wanna know?” asks the octogenarian, who is Dr. Robert H. Schuller, veteran self-help guru, author of more than thirty-five books on the power of positive thinking, and, in his other job, the founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed entirely out of glass. The crowd roars its assent. Easily embarrassed British people like me do not, generally speaking, roar our assent at motivational seminars in Texas basketball stadiums, but the atmosphere partially overpowers my reticence. I roar quietly.

“Here it is, then,” Dr. Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading “MOTIVATE!” and “SUCCEED!,” seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. “Here’s the thing that will change your life forever.” Then he barks a single syllable — “Cut!” — and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ‘… the word ‘impossible’ out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!”

The audience combusts. I can’t help feeling underwhelmed, but then I probably shouldn’t have expected anything different from Get Motivated!, an event at which the sheer power of positivity counts for everything. “You are the master of your destiny!” Schuller goes on. “Think big, and dream bigger! Resurrect your abandoned hope! … Positive thinking works in every area of life!’

The logic of Schuller’s philosophy, which is the doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn’t exactly complex: decide to think happy and successful thoughts — banish the spectres of sadness and failure — and happiness and success will follow. It could be argued that not every speaker listed in the glossy brochure for today’s seminar provides uncontroversial evidence in support of this outlook: the keynote speech is to be delivered, in a few hours’ time, by George W . Bush, a president far from universally viewed as successful. But if you voiced this objection to Dr. Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as “negativity thinking.” To criticize the power of positivity is to demonstrate that you haven’t really grasped it at all. If you had, you would stop grumbling about such things, and indeed about anything else.

The organisers of Get Motivated! describe it as a motivational seminar, but that phrase — with its suggestion of minor-league life coaches giving speeches in dingy hotel ballrooms — hardly captures the scale and grandiosity of the thing. Staged roughly once a month, in cities across North America, it sits at the summit of the global industry of positive thinking, and boasts an impressive roster of celebrity speakers: Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudy Giuliani are among the regulars, as are General Colin Powell and, somewhat incongruously, William Shatner. Should it ever occur to you that a formerly prominent figure in world politics (or William Shatner) has been keeping an inexplicably low profile in recent months, there’s a good chance you’ll find him or her at Get Motivated!, preaching the gospel of optimism.

As befits such celebrity, there’s nothing dingy about the staging, either, which features banks of swooping spotlights, sound systems pumping out rock anthems, and expensive pyrotechnics; each speaker is welcomed to the stage amid showers of sparks and puffs of smoke. These special effects help propel the audience to ever higher altitudes of excitement, though it also doesn’t hurt that for many of them, a trip to Get Motivated! means an extra day off work: many employers classify it as job training. Even the United States military, where “training” usually means something more rigorous, endorses this view; in San Antonio, scores of the stadium’s seats are occupied by uniformed soldiers from the local Army base.

Technically, I am here undercover. Tamara Lowe, the self-described “world’s No. 1 female motivational speaker,” who along with her husband runs the company behind Get Motivated!, has been accused of denying access to reporters, a tribe notoriously prone to negativity thinking. Lowe denies the charge, but out of caution, I’ve been describing myself as a “self-employed businessman” — a tactic, I’m realizing too late, that only makes me sound shifty. I needn’t have bothered with subterfuge anyway, it turns out, since I’m much too far away from the stage for the security staff to be able to see me scribbling in my notebook. My seat is described on my ticket as “premier seating,” but this turns out to be another case of positivity run amok: at Get Motivated!, there is only “premier seating,” “executive seating,” and “VIP seating.”

In reality, mine is up in the nosebleed section; it is a hard plastic perch, painful on the buttocks. But I am grateful for it, because it means that by chance I’m seated next to a man who, as far as I can make out, is one of the few cynics in the arena — an amiable, large-limbed park ranger named Jim, who sporadically leaps to his feet to shout I’m so motivated!” in tones laden with sarcasm.

He explains that he was required to attend by his employer, the United States National Park Service, though when I ask why that organization might wish its rangers to use paid work time in this fashion, he cheerily concedes that he has “no fucking clue.” Dr. Schuller’s sermon, meanwhile, is gathering pace. “When I was a child, it was impossible for a man ever to walk on the moon, impossible to cut out a human heart and put it in another man’s chest … the word ‘impossible’ has proven to be a very stupid word!” He does not spend much time marshaling further evidence for his assertion that failure is optional: it’s clear that Schuller, the author of “Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking” and “Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do!,” vastly prefers inspiration to argument. But in any case, he is really only a warm-up man for the day’s main speakers, and within fifteen minutes he is striding away, to adulation and fireworks, fists clenched victoriously up at the audience, the picture of positive-thinking success.

It is only months later, back at my home in New York, reading the headlines over morning coffee, that I learn the news that the largest church in the United States constructed entirely from glass has filed for bankruptcy, a word Dr. Schuller had apparently neglected to eliminate from his vocabulary.

For a civilization so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task. One of the best-known general findings of the “science of happiness” has been the discovery that the countless advantages of modern life have done so little to lift our collective mood. The awkward truth seems to be that increased economic growth does not necessarily make for happier societies, just as increased personal income, above a certain basic level, doesn’t make for happier people. Nor does better education, at least according to some studies. Nor does an increased choice of consumer products. Nor do bigger and fancier homes, which instead seem mainly to provide the privilege of more space in which to feel gloomy.

Perhaps you don’t need telling that self-help books, the modern-day apotheosis of the quest for happiness, are among the things that fail to make us happy. But, for the record, research strongly suggests that they are rarely much help. This is why, among themselves, some self-help publishers refer to the “eighteen-month rule,” which states that the person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book — one that evidently didn’t solve all their problems. When you look at the self-help shelves with a coldly impartial eye, this isn’t especially surprising. That we yearn for neat, book-sized solutions to the problem of being human is understandable, but strip away the packaging, and you’ll find that the messages of such works are frequently banal. The “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” essentially tells you to decide what matters most to you in life, and then do it; “How to Win Friends and Influence People” advises its readers to be pleasant rather than obnoxious, and to use people’s first names a lot. One of the most successful management manuals of the last few years, “Fish!,” which is intended to help foster happiness and productivity in the workplace, suggests handing out small toy fish to your hardest-working employees.

As we’ll see, when the messages get more specific than that, self-help gurus tend to make claims that simply aren’t supported by more reputable research. The evidence suggests, for example, that venting your anger doesn’t get rid of it, while visualising your goals doesn’t seem to make you more likely to achieve them. And whatever you make of the country-by-country surveys of national happiness that are now published with some regularity, it’s striking that the “happiest” countries are never those where self-help books sell the most, nor indeed where professional psychotherapists are most widely consulted. The existence of a thriving “happiness industry” clearly isn’t sufficient to engender national happiness, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that it might make matters worse.

Yet the ineffectiveness of modern strategies for happiness is really just a small part of the problem. There are good reasons to believe that the whole notion of “seeking happiness” is flawed to begin with. For one thing, who says happiness is a valid goal in the first place? Religions have never placed much explicit emphasis on it, at least as far as this world is concerned; philosophers have certainly not been unanimous in endorsing it, either. And any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that evolution has little interest in your being happy, beyond trying to make sure that you’re not so listless or miserable that you lose the will to reproduce.

Even assuming happiness to be a worthy target, though, a worse pitfall awaits, which is that aiming for it seems to reduce your chances of ever attaining it. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” observed the philosopher John Stuart Mill, “and you cease to be so.” At best, it would appear, happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly. (We tend to remember having been happy in the past much more frequently than we are conscious of being happy in the present.) Making matters worse still, what happiness actually is feels impossible to define in words; even supposing you could do so, you’d presumably end up with as many different definitions as there are people on the planet. All of which means it’s tempting to conclude that “How can we be happy?” is simply the wrong question — that we might as well resign ourselves to never finding the answer, and get on with something more productive instead.

But could there be a third possibility, besides the futile effort to pursue solutions that never seem to work, on the one hand, and just giving up, on the other? After several years reporting on the field of psychology as a journalist, I finally realized that there might be. I began to think that something united all those psychologists and philosophers — and even the occasional self-help guru — whose ideas seemed actually to hold water. The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy. They didn’t see this conclusion as depressing, though. Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a “negative path” to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them. Which is a bewildering thought, and one that calls into question not just our methods for achieving happiness, but also our assumptions about what “happiness” really means.

Which is how I came to find myself rising reluctantly to my feet, up in a dark extremity of that basketball stadium, because Get Motivated!’s excitable mistress of ceremonies had announced a “dance competition,” in which everyone present was obliged to participate. Giant beach balls appeared as if from nowhere, bumping across the heads of the crowd, who jiggled awkwardly as Wham! blared from the sound system. The first prize of a free trip to Disney World, we were informed, awaited not the best dancer but the most motivated one, though the distinction made little difference to me: I found the whole thing too excruciating to do more than sway very slightly. The prize was eventually awarded to a soldier. This was a decision that I suspected had been taken to pander to local patriotic pride, rather than strictly in recognition of highly motivated dancing.

*   *   *

One of the foremost investigators of the problems with positive thinking is a professor of psychology named Daniel Wegner, who runs the Mental Control Laboratory at Harvard University.

This is not, whatever its name might suggest, a CIA-funded establishment dedicated to the science of brainwashing. Wegner’s intellectual territory is what has come to be known as “ironic process theory,” which explores the ways in which our efforts to suppress certain thoughts or behaviors result, ironically, in their becoming more prevalent. I got off to a bad start with Professor Wegner when I accidentally typed his surname, in a newspaper column, as “Wenger.” He sent me a crabby email (“Get the name right!”), and didn’t seem likely to be receptive to the argument that my slip-up was an interesting example of exactly the kinds of errors he studied. The rest of our communications proved a little strained.

The problems to which Wegner has dedicated much of his career all have their origins in a simple and intensely irritating parlor game, which dates back at least to the days of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who reputedly used it to torment his brother. It takes the form of a challenge: can you — the victim is asked — succeed in not thinking about a white bear for one whole minute? You can guess the answer, of course, but it’s nonetheless instructive to make the attempt. Why not try it now? Look at your watch, or find a clock with a second hand, and aim for a mere ten seconds of entirely non-white-bear-related thoughts, starting … now.

My commiserations on your failure.

Wegner’s earliest investigations of ironic process theory involved little more than issuing this challenge to American university students, then asking them to speak their inner monologues aloud while they made the attempt. This is a rather crude way of accessing someone’s thought processes, but an excerpt from one typical transcript nonetheless vividly demonstrates the futility of the struggle:

Of course, now the only thing I’m going to think about is a white bear … Don’t think about a white bear. Ummm, what was I thinking about before? See, I think about flowers a lot … Okay, so my fingernails are really bad … Every time I really want, like … ummm … to talk, think, to not think about the white bear, then it makes me think about the white bear more …

At this juncture, you might be beginning to wonder why it is that some social psychologists seem to be allowed to spend other people’s money proving the obvious. Of course the white bear challenge is virtually impossible to win. But Wegner was just getting started. The more he explored the field, the more he came to suspect that the internal mechanism responsible for sabotaging our efforts at suppressing white bear thoughts might govern an entire territory of mental activity and outward behavior. The white bear challenge, after all, seems like a metaphor for much of what goes wrong in life: all too often, the outcome we’re seeking to avoid is exactly the one to which we seem magnetically lured.

Wegner labelled this effect “the precisely counterintuitive error,” which, he explained in one paper, “is when we manage to do the worst possible thing, the blunder so outrageous that we think about it in advance and resolve not to let that happen. We see a rut coming up in the road ahead, and proceed to steer our bike right into it. We make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation, and then cringe in horror as we blurt out exactly that thing. We carefully cradle the glass across the room, all the while thinking ‘Don’t spill’ and then juggle it onto the carpet under the gaze of our host.”

Far from representing an occasional divergence from our otherwise flawless self-control, the capacity for ironic error seems to lurk deep in the soul, close to the core of our characters. Edgar Allan Poe, in his short story of the same name, calls it “the imp of the perverse”: that nameless but distinct urge one sometimes experiences, when walking along a precipitous cliff edge, or climbing to the observation deck of a tall building, to throw oneself off — not from any suicidal motivation, but precisely because it would be so calamitous to do so. The imp of the perverse plagues social interactions, too, as anyone who has ever laughed in recognition at an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will know all too well.

What is going on here, Wegner argues, is a malfunctioning of the uniquely human capacity for metacognition, or thinking about thinking. “Metacognition,” Wegner explains, “occurs when thought takes itself as an object.” Mainly, it’s an extremely useful skill: it is what enables us to recognize when we are being unreasonable, or sliding into depression, or being afflicted by anxiety, and then to do something about it. But when we use metacognitive thoughts directly to try to control our other, everyday, “object-level” thoughts — by suppressing images of white bears, say, or replacing gloomy thoughts with happy ones — we run into trouble. “Metathoughts are instructions we give ourselves about our object-level thinking,” as Wegner puts it, “and sometimes we just can’t follow our own instructions.”

When you try not to think of a white bear, you may experience some success in forcing alternative thoughts into your mind. At the same time, though, a metacognitive monitoring process will crank into action, to scan your mind for evidence of whether you are succeeding or failing at the task. And this is where things get perilous, because if you try too hard — or, Wegner’s studies suggest, if you are tired, stressed, depressed, attempting to multi-task, or otherwise suffering from “mental load” — metacognition will frequently go wrong. The monitoring process will start to occupy more than its fair share of limelight on the cognitive stage. It will jump to the forefront of consciousness — and suddenly, all you will be able to think about is white bears, and how badly you’re doing at not thinking about them.

Could it be that ironic process theory also sheds light on what is wrong with our efforts to achieve happiness, and on the way that our efforts to feel positive seem so frequently to bring about the opposite result? In the years since Wegner’s earliest white bear experiments, his research, and that of others, has turned up more and more evidence to support that notion. One example: when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly “relaxing” content. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss. Our efforts at mental suppression fail in the sexual arena, too: people instructed not to think about sex exhibit greater arousal, as measured by the electrical conductivity of their skin, than those not instructed to suppress such thoughts.

Seen from this perspective, swathes of the self-help industry’s favorite techniques for achieving happiness and success — from positive thinking to visualizing your goals to “getting motivated” — stand revealed to be suffering from one enormous flaw. A person who has resolved to “think positive” must constantly scan his or her mind for negative thoughts — there’s no other way that the mind could ever gauge its success at the operation — yet that scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts. (Worse, if the negative thoughts start to predominate, a vicious spiral may kick in, since the failure to think positively may become the trigger for a new stream of self-berating thoughts, about not thinking positively enough.) Suppose you decide to follow Dr. Schuller’s suggestion and try to eliminate the word “impossible” from your vocabulary, or more generally try to focus exclusively on successful outcomes, and stop thinking about things not working out. As we’ll see, there are all sorts of problems with this approach. But the most basic one is that you may well fail, as a result of the very act of monitoring your success.

This problem of self-sabotage through self-monitoring is not the only hazard of positive thinking. An additional twist was revealed in 2009, when a psychologist based in Canada named Joanne Wood set out to test the effectiveness of “affirmations,” those peppy self-congratulatory phrases designed to lift the user’s mood through repetition. Affirmations have their origins in the work of the nineteenth-century French pharmacist Emile Coue, a forerunner of the contemporary positive thinkers, who coined the one that remains the most famous: “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”

Most affirmations sound pretty cheesy, and one might suspect that they would have little effect. Surely, though, they’re harmless? Wood wasn’t so sure about that. Her reasoning, though compatible with Wegner’s, drew on a different psychological tradition  known as “self-comparison theory.” Much as we like to hear positive messages about ourselves, this theory suggests, we crave even more strongly the sense of being a coherent, consistent self in the first place. Messages that conflict with that existing sense of self, therefore, are unsettling, and so we often reject them — even if they happen to be positive, and even if the source of the message is ourselves. Wood’s hunch was that people who seek out affirmations would be, by definition, those with low self-esteem — but that, for that very same reason, they would end up reacting against the messages in the affimations, because they conflicted with their self-images. The result might even be a worsening of their low self-esteem as people struggled to reassert their existing self-images against the incoming messages.

Which is exactly what happened in Wood’s research. In one set of experiments, people were divided into subgroups of those with low and high self-esteem, then asked to undertake a journal-writing exercise; every time a bell rang, they were to repeat to themselves the phrase “I am a lovable person.” According to a variety of ingenious mood measures, those who began the process with low self-esteem became appreciably less happy as a result of telling themselves that they were lovable. They didn’t feel particularly lovable to begin with — and trying to convince themselves otherwise merely solidified their negativity. “Positive thinking” had made them feel worse.

*  *   *

The arrival of George Bush onstage in San Antonio was heralded by the sudden appearance of his Secret Service detail. These were men who would probably have stood out anywhere, in their dark suits and earpieces, but who stood out twice as prominently at Get Motivated! thanks to their rigid frowns. The job of protecting former presidents from potential assassins, it appeared, wasn’t one that rewarded looking on the bright side and assuming that nothing could go wrong.

Bush himself, by contrast, bounded onstage grinning. “You know, retirement ain’t so bad, especially when you get to retire to Texas!” he began, before launching into a speech he had evidently delivered several times before. First, he told a folksy anecdote about spending his post-presidency cleaning up after his dog (“I was picking up that which I had been dodging for eight years!”) Then, for a strange moment or two, it seemed as if the main topic of his speech would be how he once had to choose a rug for the Oval Office (“I thought to myself, the presidency is going to be a decision-making experience!”). But his real subject, it soon emerged, was optimism. “I don’t believe you can lead a family, or a school, or a city, or a state, or a country, unless you’re optimistic that the future is going to be better,” he said. “And I want you to know that, even in the darkest days of my presidency, I was optimistic that the future was going to be better than the past for our citizens and the world.”

You need not hold any specific political opinion about the forty-third president of the United States to see how his words illustrate a fundamental strangeness of the “cult of optimism.” Bush was not ignoring the numerous controversies of his administration — the strategy one might have imagined he would adopt at a motivational seminar, before a sympathetic audience and facing no risk of hostile questions. Instead, he had chosen to redefine them as evidence in support of his optimistic attitude.

The way Bush saw it, the happy and successful periods of his presidency proved the benefits of an optimistic outlook, of course — but so did the unhappy and unsuccessful ones. When things are going badly, after all, you need optimism all the more. Or to put it another way: once you have resolved to embrace the ideology of positive thinking, you will find a way to interpret virtually any eventuality as a justification for thinking positively. You need never spend time considering how your actions might go wrong.

Could this curiously unfalsifiable ideology of positivity at all costs — positivity regardless of the results — be actively dangerous? Opponents of the Bush administration’s foreign policies might have reason to think so. This is also one part of the case made by the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, in her 2009 book “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.” One underappreciated cause of the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, she argues, was an American business culture in which even thinking about the possibility of failure — let alone speaking up about it at meetings — had come to be considered an embarrassing faux pas.

Bankers, their narcissism stoked by a culture that awarded grand ambition above all, lost the capacity to distinguish between their ego-fueled dreams and concrete results. Meanwhile, homebuyers assumed that whatever they wanted could be theirs if they wanted it badly enough ( how many of them had read books such as “The Secret, which makes exactly that claim?) and accordingly sought mortgages they were unable to repay. Irrational optimism suffused the financial sector, and the professional purveyors of optimism — the speakers and self-help gurus and seminar organizers — were only too happy to encourage it. “To the extent that positive thinking had become a business in itself,” writes Ehrenreich, “business was its principal client, eagerly consuming the good news that all things are possible through an effort of mind. This was a useful message for employees, who by the turn of the twenty-first century were being required to work longer hours for fewer benefits and diminishing job security. But it was also a liberating ideology for top-level executives. What was the point in agonizing over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks — and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults — when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?”

Ehrenreich traces the origins of this philosophy to nineteenth-century America, and specifically to the quasi-religious movement known as New Thought. New Thought arose in rebellion against the dominant, gloomy message of American Calvinism, which was that relentless hard work was the duty of every Christian — with the additional sting that, thanks to the doctrine of predestination, you might in any case already be marked to spend eternity in Hell. New Thought, by contrast, proposed that one could achieve happiness and worldly success through the power of the mind.

This mind-power could even cure physical ailments, according to the newly minted religion of Christian Science, which grew directly from the same roots. Yet, as Ehrenreich makes clear, New Thought imposed its own kind of harsh judgmentalism, replacing Calvinism’s obligatory hard work with obligatory positive thinking. Negative thoughts were fiercely denounced — a message that echoed “the old religion’s condemnation of sin” and added “an insistence on the constant interior labour of self- examination.”

Quoting the sociologist Micki McGee, Ehrenreich shows how, under this new orthodoxy of optimism, “continuous and neverending work on the self [was] offered not only as a road to success, but also to a kind of secular salvation.

George Bush, then, was standing in a venerable tradition when he proclaimed the importance of optimism in all circumstances. But his speech at Get Motivated! was over almost as soon as it had started. A dash of religion, a singularly unilluminating anecdote about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some words of praise for the military, and he was waving goodbye — “Thank you, Texas, it’s good to be home!” — as his bodyguards closed in around him. Beneath the din of cheering, I heard Jim, the park ranger in the next seat, emit a sigh of relief. “OK , I’m motivated now,” he muttered, to nobody in particular. “Is it time for some beer?”

“There are lots of ways of being miserable,” says a character in a short story by Edith Wharton, “but there’s only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running around after happiness.” This observation pungently expresses the problem with the “cult of optimism” — the ironic, self-defeating struggle that sabotages positivity when we try too hard. But it also hints at the possibility of a more hopeful alternative, an approach to happiness that might take a radically different form. The first step is to learn how to stop chasing positivity so intently. But many of the proponents of the “negative path” to happiness take things further still, arguing — paradoxically, but persuasively — that deliberately plunging more deeply into what we think of as negative may be a precondition of true happiness.

Perhaps the most vivid metaphor for this whole strange philosophy is a small children’s toy known as the “Chinese finger trap,” though the evidence suggests it is probably not Chinese in origin at all. In his office at the University of Nevada, the psychologist Steven Hayes, an outspoken critic of counterproductive positive thinking, keeps a box of them on his desk; he uses them to illustrate his arguments. The “trap” is a tube, made of thin strips of woven bamboo, with the opening at each end being roughly the size of a human finger. The unwitting victim is asked to insert his index fingers into the tube, then finds himself trapped: in reaction to his efforts to pull his fingers out again, the openings at each end of the tube constrict, gripping his fingers ever more tightly. The harder he pulls, the more decisively he is trapped. It is only by relaxing his efforts at escape, and by pushing his fingers further in, that he can widen the ends of the tube, whereupon it falls away, and he is free.

In the case of the Chinese finger trap, Hayes observes, “doing the presumably sensible thing is counterproductive.” Following the negative path to happiness is about doing the other thing — the presumably illogical thing — instead.

Excerpted from “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” [2]by Oliver Burkeman, published in November 2012 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Oliver Burkeman. All rights reserved.

 

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Believers Beyond the Church: How the ‘Spiritual Not Religious’ Gospel Has Spread

By Matthew S. Hedstrom [2], Religion Dispatches [1]  November 9, 2012 

You can call them “unaffiliated,” as in a recent Pew poll, or “nones” — or even just “not very religious [5].” A new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute [6] divides this group further (and somewhat counterintuitively) into “unattached,” “atheists/agnostics,” and “seculars.” But whatever you call them, this ever-growing cohort of unchurched Americans makes up, at 23 percent [5], the single largest segment of Barack Obama’s “religious coalition” (compared to the 37 percent of white evangelicals who support Mitt Romney).

While we have yet to see a “Seculars for Obama” bumper sticker, the unaffliated are clearly having a moment [7]. Media analysis, however, has not gone very deep – there is a story here that goes beyond names and numbers.

Recent sociological work from Courtney Bender [8], Christian Smith [9], and others does help us understand who the current crop of unaffiliated are and what they do and believe. Yet we have precious little historical understanding of this critical and growing demographic. What are their roots? What religious, cultural, economic, demographic, and political processes shaped their sensibilities, habits, and makeup?

In order to understand these still-believing “nones,” we need to understand that much of the religious dynamism in the United States happens outside the church walls, and has for some time now. The “rise of the nones” is but the latest phase in the long transformation of religion into what we now commonly call “spirituality.” In my class on “Spirituality in America” at the University of Virginia, we use Leigh Schmidt [10]’s pathbreaking Restless Souls to trace this phenomenon over two centuries, from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s break with New England Unitarianism in the 1830s to the multibillion dollar spirituality industry of today.

Spirituality can mean many things, of course, and the language of spirituality is used by traditional religious adherents as well as the religiously unaffiliated. But only the “nones” have made it into a cliché: “spiritual but not religious.”

The history of American spirituality reveals that our commonplace understanding of spirituality—as the individual, experiential dimension of human encounter with the sacred—arose from the clash of American Protestantism with the forces of modern life in the nineteenth century. While religious conservatives fought to stem the tide, giving rise to fundamentalism, religious liberals adapted their faith to modernity, often by discarding orthodoxies in favor of Darwinism, psychology, and comparative religions.

The majority of today’s religious “nones” — those who claim no religion but still embrace spirituality – are engaged in the same task of renovating their faith for a new historical moment. And typically, they draw from this same liberal religious toolkit. Today’s unaffiliated, like the liberals of previous generations, typically shun dogma and creed in favor of a faith that is practical, psychologically attuned, ecumenical – even cosmopolitan – and ethically oriented.

This liberal spirituality, as it has evolved over time, has been deeply entwined with media-oriented consumerism. Of course Americans of all religious varieties have been deeply influenced by consumerism, but media and markets have particularly shaped the religious lives of those without formal institutional or community ties. The religiously unaffiliated might not attend services, but they “do” their religion in many other ways: they watch religion on TV and listen to it on the radio; find inspiration on the web; attend retreats, seminars, workshops, and classes; buy candles and statues, bumper stickers and yoga pants; take spiritually motivated trips; and, perhaps most significantly, buy and read books.

Since the 1920s, when the major New York trade presses first started offering nonsectarian religious books in significant numbers, books have been the most important conduit for spreading the “spiritual but not religious” gospel.

This dependency on the consumer marketplace, and especially books, has had significant consequences for the religious lives of all Americans, especially the unaffiliated. First, it has enhanced the tendencies within American religion toward a therapeutic understanding of the spiritual life. The profit-oriented commercial presses that came to dominate religious publishing naturally pursued the largest market possible for their goods, and seized on the non-creedal, nonsectarian, and psychologically modern forms of faith advanced by religious liberals as a common American religious vernacular. These trends have only accelerated from the 1920s to the present, such that now the line between religion and self-help disappears in the spirituality section of Barnes & Noble.

Second, spiritual consumerism has fostered a robust cosmopolitanism. Books allow readers entry into previously unimaginable religious worlds. Since trade presses entered the religion game with vigor, the lines of denomination and tradition have mattered less and less. The political and moral imperatives of World War II provided the greatest stimulus to such interfaith reading, and before long even the Protestant-Catholic-Jew formulation of the era could not contain American readers. What matters to the unaffiliated is not imprimatur but inspiration.

The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has observed [11], “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” The “cultural victory” Smith and others write about happened not because more Americans joined liberal churches, in other words, but because liberal religious values and sensibilities became more and more culturally normative. And no single cultural force has been more significant to this profound religious shift than the unabashed consumerism of the religious book business in the twentieth century.

Even as religious affiliations decline, religious books sales continue to rise, as they have steadily for more than a half century. In this ultimate spiritual marketplace, American religion displays its full shape-shifting vitality.

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election2012 [13],

media [14],

nones [15],

obama [16],

pew [17],

public religion research institute [18],

publishing [19],

spirituality [20],

unaffiliated [21]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/belief/believers-beyond-church-how-spiritual-not-religious-gospel-has-spread

Links:
[1] http://religiondispatches.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/matthew-s-hedstrom
[3] http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4838/god%E2%80%99s_law_is_the_only_law%3A_the_genesis_of_michele_bachmann/
[4] http://www.religiondispatches.org/subscribe/
[5] http://www.religionnews.com/politics/election/the-biggest-slice-of-obamas-religious-coalition-the-unaffiliated
[6] http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/10/american-values-survey-2012/
[7] http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/6493/does_record_number_of_religious_%E2%80%9Cnones%E2%80%9D_mean_decline_of_religiosity/
[8] http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2012/10/10/what-does-spirituality-mean-in-america-today/
[9] http://www.nd.edu/~csmith22/
[10] http://www.religiondispatches.org/contributors/leighericschmidt/
[11] http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/ReligionTheology/SociologyofReligion/?view=usa&ci=9780195371796
[12] http://www.alternet.org/tags/brookings-institute
[13] http://www.alternet.org/tags/election2012
[14] http://www.alternet.org/tags/media-0
[15] http://www.alternet.org/tags/nones
[16] http://www.alternet.org/tags/obama-0
[17] http://www.alternet.org/tags/pew-0
[18] http://www.alternet.org/tags/public-religion-research-institute
[19] http://www.alternet.org/tags/publishing
[20] http://www.alternet.org/tags/spirituality
[21] http://www.alternet.org/tags/unaffiliated
[22] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Is America Losing Its Religion?

The Guardian [1] / By Sarah Posner [2] October 10, 2012 |

Last weekend, hundreds of conservative churches participated [3] in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”, during which pastors preached about electoral politics and sent recordings of their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service. It’s a provocation: these pastors and their legal counsel hope to challenge the rarely-enforced IRS rule prohibiting candidate endorsements by tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, and take it all the way to theUS supreme court.

A new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life [4], which confirms previously observed trends of Protestant decline, accompanied by a rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans, casts serious doubt on whether the self-styled church freedom warriors are fighting a politically popular battle. Among the survey’s findings, two thirds of Americans (66%) believe churches shouldn’t endorse candidates. And 54% say churches should stay out of political matters entirely. Even a majority (56%) of white evangelicals agreed that churches should not endorse candidates.

Would these data cause the churches clamoring for a legal war with the IRS to pack their bags and go home? Of course not. In fact, in spite of these trends away from organized religion [5] and away from the entanglement of organized religion in politics, I would expect these culture war battles to ramp up – at least for the time being.

The religious right hasn’t spent millions [6] building up legal advocacy groups, pressing for conservative judicial appointees [7], and training lawyers and politicians to thump the Bible in legislatures and the courts for nothing. They’ve built an infrastructure to fight their battles, even as they lose public opinion wars. For their most ardent supporters, losing in the court of public opinion only serves as a call to redouble their efforts, to fulfil their call to carry out God’s plan for America.

But a provocation for secularists might emerge from these data: can they match the organization and intensity of their political adversaries?

Looking at the Pew survey, one wonders how long the religious right can continue to use the same battle plan. Yet, the data shows they are clearly losing the public. Another survey last week from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that while Mitt Romney [8] has the support of 80% of younger white evangelical millennials [9] (aged 18 to 25), this is a small and diminishing constituency: white evangelicals comprise only 12.3% [9] of that age group. That’s less than half their proportion of the 50 to 64 population. The Pew survey showed that while 32% of Americans aged 50 to 64 are white evangelicals, only 13% of those aged 18 to 29 are.

As Protestants have declined, percentages of Catholics have remained steady. While they are far less homogeneous politically than evangelicals (the Pew poll found Catholics favor legal abortion 50% to 45%, and same-sex marriage 53% to 37%), the generational trend lines might explain why religious conservatives are intensifying evangelical-Catholic alliances around issues like contraception coverage and same-sex marriage. This is further evidence that, despite demographic shifts, they’re not giving up without a fight – instead, shifting their strategy to frame these concerns as ones of “religious freedom”. If they’re a minority, they hope to reap political benefits from arguing at least that they are a persecuted one.

The Pew survey also found there are now as many “nones” as there are white evangelicals – each makes up 19% of the US population. But the generational trends are traveling even more starkly in a non-theist direction: 32% of 18 to 29 year-olds are unaffiliated, and 42% of those describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. That’s over ten points higher than the 21% of 30- to 49-year-old “nones” who describe themselves that way, and more than twice the 15% of 50- to 64-year-old “nones” who do.

That has to worry Republicans [10]. White evangelicals are the most sizable segment of their base and the unaffiliated – in particular, the atheists and agnostics – are the most sizable part of the Democratic base. Still, Republicans maintain a party identification advantage among Christians as a whole (with the exception of black Protestants and all Catholics, which includes Latino Catholics). Because Democrats [11], overall, have a party identification advantage over the GOP (48% to 43%, according to Pew), will those numbers make each party intensify their efforts to make religious voters happy, or encourage them to present a less religious case for election?

With a tight presidential race, and each campaign trying to peel away as many persuadable voters in swing states as possible, appeals to religion – including from the Obama camp – are likely to continue, if only to targeted audiences. Oddly, 67% of all groups, including nearly a third of “nones”, agree it’s important for the president to have “strong religious beliefs”. At the same time, though, 43% of all groups said it makes them uncomfortable when politicians talk about how religious they are.

The numbers are important, telling and potentially transformative for our politics. Yet, questions remain: there’s nothing in the Pew survey on public attitudes about religious freedom, church-state separation or the secular nature of our government. These are the issues around which the “nones” can organize. The religious right, whose leaders maintain America is in the throes of a revival, has spent decades mythologizing a “Christian nation”, denigrating and undermining church-state separation, and questioning the very American-ness of secularists.

While this is just one survey, and the “Christian nation” advocates retain their intensity and organization, there’s evidence here that an opening exists for a new revival: a secularist one.

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/belief/america-losing-its-religion

Links:
[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/sarah-posner-0
[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/08/us-usa-tax-pulpit-idUSBRE89700E20121008
[4] http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/religion
[6] http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/22/report-tracks-explosion-of-religious-lobbying-in-washington/?hpt=hp_t2
[7] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/08/republicans-judicial-activism-supreme-courts
[8] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/mittromney
[9] http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/sarahposner/6473/young_white_evangelicals_will_vote_romney,_poll_finds/
[10] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/republicans
[11] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/democrats
[12] http://www.alternet.org/tags/religion-0
[13] http://www.alternet.org/tags/religious-right
[14] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

The Ungodly Constitution: How the Founders Ensured America Would Not Be a Christian Nation

By Susan Jacoby, Free Inquiry – Posted on Alternet.org, June 19, 2012

When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, almost no one in politics or everyday life went around proclaiming, “I am a Christian.” If indeed you were a Christian—that is, someone who considers Jesus Christ the Messiah—you identified yourself as a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Baptist, a Catholic, and so on in excelsis in order to let others know where you stood in the vast American religious landscape.

Calling oneself a Christian today, by contrast, has a special, politicized meaning. For most people in public life, this self-identification suggests a particular form of conservative Christianity, a brand of religion that seeks not only to proselytize but to impose its values on others through the machinery of the state. The huge exception to this rule is President Barack Obama, who has been forced by the birther-paranoids to advertise his credentials as a Christian in order to refute the lie that he is a “secret Muslim.”

Once upon a time (until around 1980, actually), the appellation “Christian” used to mean “right-wing Protestant,” as a consequence of the historic animosity between many forms of American Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. That is no longer true, as demonstrated by GOP primary hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the darlings of Protestant fundamentalists, although they personify the cliché “more Catholic than the pope.” (In Gingrich’s case, the relevant pontiffs would be certain medieval and Renaissance vicars of Christ who produced numerous children through extra-pontifical liaisons.) Santorum is in fact a Catholic fundamentalist—unlike the majority of American Catholics, who do not accept either the notion of papal infallibility or the Vatican line on sexual behavior. Liberal Catholics, well aware of the political meaning of Christian in American politics, generally call themselves plain old “Catholics.”

Thus, when Santorum and Gingrich used their dog whistles throughout the Republican primaries to imply that Obama is not the Christian he claims to be, what they really meant is that he is not their kind of Christian. It has also become standard for politicians to offer a nod to “our Judeo-Christian heritage” in an effort to display theocratic inclusiveness. The slippery Gingrich never stumbled over this phrase, but Santorum often did, dragging Judeo out to four syllables so that it came out “Jew-day-ee-oh.” It is clear that this ecumenical platitude was not a part of the sanctimonious Santorum’s upbringing.

Was the United States founded as a Christian nation, meaning that the framers of the Constitution established a government whose laws would not only reflect but also enforce the rules of a particular brand of Christianity? No, period. The answer is as clear as Santorum’s pronunciation of Judeo is slurred, and the explanation can be found in the old (i.e., pre-1980) American practice of identifying oneself by denomination.

Denominational identification is as old as the earliest colonies in the New World, given that the first Puritan theocrats were fleeing persecution by adherents of another denomination—the Church of England. By the revolutionary era, doctrinal and intellectual distinctions separating one Christian denomination from another remained as immense as the gulf between the beliefs of a Jew and any Christian, or between any orthodox religious believer and a deist.

The founders did not want doctrinal differences to wreak civic havoc of the kind then evident throughout Europe. That is why they left not only Jesus but indeed any deity out of the Constitution. That the American population was and is overwhelmingly Christian is a fact. That makes it all the more remarkable that the founders did not establish a Christian government.

The Christian Right cannot point to a single mention of Jesus or Christianity in any of the nation’s founding documents and is forced to rely, for divine antecedents, on the line in the Declaration of Independence that talks about all men being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. But even if this were a statement of belief in a specific god rather than a general assertion of the philosophy of natural rights, it is most decidedly not a statement of faith in Jesus Christ.

In any event, it is futile to engage in debate with spokespeople for the Christian Right on this subject, because for them, the Christian origin of the American state is an article of faith that cannot be disproved by facts or plain English. Tell them, for instance, that the godlessness of the Constitution was taken for granted and attacked by conservatives at state ratifying conventions in 1787 and 1788, and they will point to the conventional “Year of Our Lord” dating of the document. This supposedly refutes hundreds of statements by angry ministers complaining about the absence of God from the document that would furnish the young government’s written foundation. As one cleric observed at North Carolina’s state convention, the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for public office in Article VI, Section 3 amounted to “an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us.” He was entirely accurate in his description of the potential effects of letting anyone, regardless of religious belief, run for public office. And when it came time to ratify the Constitution, he and his fellow theocrats were voted down in every state.

The ungodliness of the Constitution kept popping up in public discourse throughout the nineteenth century, most notably when a powerful group of Protestant ministers came to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and demanded that he support an amendment to declare Jesus Christ, not “We the People,” the source of all governmental power. Lincoln, a canny politician who knew when not to take on another battle in the middle of a bloody civil war, declined to take any action and instead went along with a move to placate the ministers by putting “In God We Trust” on a two-penny coin in 1864. Lincoln presumably viewed the inscription of trust in a deity on a coin as an innocuous action calculated to avoid the trouble that would surely be generated by a Christian amendment to the Constitution. Little did he know that nearly 150 years in the future, right-wing politicians would employ that slogan to attack the much older motto E Pluribus Unum.

Lincoln’s brand of compromise was described by Jon Meacham in Time magazine as “a long-standing covenant between believers and nonbelievers in which secularists live with public religious appeals and images in exchange for self-regulating moderation on the part of the faithful. It’s an ancient and wise accommodation that allows religion and politics to inform each other without promoting an eschatological war between church and state.”

In fairness, Meacham argues that extremists like Santorum had violated this unspoken and unsigned “covenant.” However, “self-regulating moderation on the part of the faithful” is a flimsy altar upon which to base any agreement regarding the separation of church and state. Had the founders believed in the capacity of the faithful for such “self-regulation,” they never would have prohibited religious tests for national office at a time when most state governments still had religious discrimination written into their laws.

One aspect of the imaginary covenant between religious believers and secularists began to break down in the 1960s, long before the rise of the Christian Right. Since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid and the expansion of federal aid to education during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, secularists have rarely objected to the expenditure of federal funds through religious institutions like hospitals and charities. This is hardly a symbolic matter. It is far more important than the symbolic victories won by secularists of that era in the Supreme Court on issues like school prayer.

The firestorm set off by the Obama administration’s effort to make Catholic institutions offer insurance policies that cover contraception was described by the media as a dispute over religious liberty. Religious liberty meant, to the Catholic bishops, the right to participate in federal programs and receive funds provided by all taxpayers while imposing their religious doctrines on employees and patients alike—whatever their religion or lack thereof. Not every religion wants to have the taxpayers’ cake and eat it too. Mormon charities, for instance, do not accept government money.

The ability of the religious Right to frame this dispute purely as a matter of religious freedom—meaning freedom for the most conservative forms of religion—is a direct result of the long erosion of the separation of church and state at the practical level of taxpayer funding. Throughout these decades of erosion, what was once the religious center has constantly been pulled to the right.

(It should be noted that the furor is also a consequence of the Catholic bishops’ inability to convince their own flock to follow the church’s lead on sexual issues. The bishops are attempting to reassert control over Catholic hospitals—some of them run by uppity nuns—where church doctrine has been violated for years when it comes to such matters as the morning-after pill for rape victims and abortions needed to save a mother’s life. But the split within the Catholic Church is not the subject of this article.)

There is no real answer to be found in the nation’s founding documents about this question, because the founders never envisioned an America in which the federal government would spend billions of dollars on health and education, whether through religious or nonreligious institutions. It is worth noting, however, that Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom—which later served as the template for the Bill of Rights—came into being in opposition to a proposal that would have taxed Virginians for the support of Christian teaching in the public schools. Virginia’s law, not the statutes of states that still had established churches, became the template for Article VI, which was supposed to ban religious preference within the government, and the First Amendment, which prevented government from favoring one religion over another. The issue in Virginia, then, like the national issue over the prerogatives of sectarian hospitals today, encompassed both religious freedom and money.

The bishops are not the least bit concerned about the freedom of non-Catholic (or, for that matter, Catholic) employees whose consciences tell them that contraception is just fine. They are not concerned about rape victims, whatever their religion, who will not only be refused the morning-after pill by their hospitals but also will not even be told about other nonsectarian hospitals that provide such services. They will not be concerned if someday the Vatican decides that living wills are a usurpation of divine and ecclesiastical authority and that everyone has a duty to go on living and suffering until some deity decides to pull the plug.

The question is not whether the United States is a Christian nation: it is whether church authorities adhering to a deeply conservative brand of Christianity (along with some ultra-Orthodox rabbis who do not speak for most American Jews, any more than bishops speak for most American Catholics or the Family Research Council speaks for most American Protestants) get to use taxpayer money to further their parochial agenda.

It is true that most American secularists tolerate a good deal more religious symbolism in public life than we would like, but it is sheer fantasy to suggest that we have signed on to any covenant that tolerates the expenditure of public money according to the prescriptions and proscriptions of canon law or general biblical laws.

Oh, wait. There really weren’t any biblical laws about contraception because there wasn’t any effective contraception. But then, biblical Israel was definitely not a Christian nation. It was, however, a theocracy, like every Christian feudal monarchy and nation-state that succeeded the Roman Empire. The founders made a noble effort to say goodbye to all that in order to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: a History of American Secularism (Metropolitan, 2004) and a forthcoming biography of Robert Green Ingersoll, to be published next January by Yale University Press. 

© 2012 Free Inquiry All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/155946/

Holy Book Learning – Americans are shockingly illiterate when it comes to religions — including their own by Christoper Shea

Boston Globe, March 4, 2007

Excerpt

This ignorance about basic religious and Biblical matters crosses all sorts of sectarian lines…  it’s about citizenship. Because religion isn’t going away — on the contrary, it’s booming — and because it is central to so many of the most important issues facing us today, knowledge of religion matters more than ever. “You need religious literacy,” he writes, “in order to be an effective citizen.”religious literacy has been held hostage in the culture wars between Christian activists, who believe nothing short of returning “Judeo-Christian” moral instruction to the schools will stop America’s moral slide, and secular activists wary of any mention of religion by public-school teachers… 

Full text

CRITICAL FACULTIES – . That’s a problem in today’s world, a BU professor argues. But it won’t be easily fixed.

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies and chair of the religion department at Boston University, thinks he may have found something that conservative Christians and liberal secularists can agree on: It’s not a good thing if students, whether religious or not, think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife — or stare blankly when a teacher (or President Bush or Hillary Clinton) refers to a “Good Samaritan.”

In his new book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t,” Prothero lays out the evidence of what he considers Americans’ paradoxical, and troubling, religious ignorance. According to various surveys conducted since 1990, half of all Americans can’t name even one of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the cornerstone of the New Testament. A majority can’t name the first book of the Bible (Genesis). This suggests a curious unfamiliarity with a text that two-thirds of Americans believe contains the answers to all of life’s questions.

This ignorance about basic religious and Biblical matters crosses all sorts of sectarian lines. In a survey from 2000, 60 percent of evangelicals, but only 51 percent of Jews, answered yes when asked whether Jesus was born in Jerusalem (the New Testament says he was born, as we’re reminded by all those Christmas carols, in Bethlehem). Less surprising, students do even worse when asked almost anything about religions besides Christianity. Prothero has replicated these findings in surveys of his own students at BU.

For Prothero, there’s a lot more at stake than basic cultural literacy of the E.D. Hirsch variety, though that’s an important part of his argument. (“I am convinced,” he writes, “that one needs to know something about the world’s religions in order to be truly educated.”) And his concern is not morality, though he believes it’s possible that students who are more knowledgeable about the Bible “would have smarter discussions about moral questions,” as he put it in a recent interview. Strengthening morality, he says, “is not my issue.”

Instead, it’s about citizenship. Because religion isn’t going away — on the contrary, it’s booming — and because it is central to so many of the most important issues facing us today, knowledge of religion matters more than ever. “You need religious literacy,” he writes, “in order to be an effective citizen.” When biblical teachings are invoked by politicians and activists on issues from abortion and same-sex marriage to poverty and global warming, how, he asks, can a person engage in political debate without at least some fluency in the language being spoken?

“For me,” Prothero says, “the hope is that we can have more and better political conversations. My hope is that a huge portion of the American population won’t feel disengaged from political debates because they don’t know enough about religion.”

Unfortunately, for Prothero, religious literacy has been held hostage in the culture wars between Christian activists, who believe nothing short of returning “Judeo-Christian” moral instruction to the schools will stop America’s moral slide, and secular activists wary of any mention of religion by public-school teachers. 

Prothero plunges straight into this thicket. He proposes that high schools require one Bible 101 course (given the Bible’s particular importance in European and American history) and one on world religions. These courses would, he stresses, abide by guidelines the Supreme Court has laid down: They would be objective and not “devotional.”

Prothero’s proposal dovetails with the agendas of several other organizations. The Bible Literacy Project, based in Front Royal, Virginia, has produced two reports, with funding from the Templeton Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports efforts to bridge the divide between religious and secular culture – one on what teenagers actually know about the Bible and one on what teachers at various levels think they should know. Yet it finds that only 8 percent of American schools teach the Bible in any way.

On the Bible Literacy Project’s advisory board sit such leading scholars as Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago and Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School. Its proposed curriculum, which includes a textbook called “The Bible and Its Influence” and a Bible of the student’s choice, has been praised both by the conservative evangelical leader Charles Colson and Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt.

The Project in Religion and Secondary Education at the Harvard Divinity School has also worked to make clear to teachers and administrators that teaching about religion in high schools is appropriate and desirable. It is co-sponsoring a conference next fall at which teachers can learn from scholars about the latest thinking on religion, and offers joint degrees in theology and education.

So are we all on board with Prothero’s project? Well, the middle ground of non-devotional Bible education may be more controversial than he thinks. The National Council for Biblical Curriculum in Public Schools, another group advocating “non-devotional” Bible courses, has attacked the Bible Literacy Project as the tool of secularists. Language on its website speaks of “reclaiming our families” while a letter posted on that same site, from the televangelist John Hagee, refers to the statements about theology in the Bible Literacy Project textbook as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” — and equates discussion of other religions’ creation stories with a celebration of polytheism.

Prothero says such fighting is a fringe phenomenon: “There is more conflict in theory than in practice.” Still, this remains a contentious field. Daniel Mach, a lawyer in Washington with the ACLU specializing in church-state issues, says Supreme Court precedent certainly leaves room for teaching the Bible in a non-devotional way. In practice, however, “the problem is that it is rarely taught objectively.”

Daniel Dennett, the Tufts philosopher and noted defender of atheism, has made the case that a course on world religions ought to be mandatory for high school students, given the enormous influence of faith. “The toxic forms of religion thrive only under conditions in which the ignorance of the young can be enforced,” he writes in an e-mail message. But, he adds, “a class that only taught the Bible would not be appropriate at all. It is important for students to compare the different religions frankly.”

And it’s not only church-state watchdogs and atheists who are skeptical about whether teachers can pull off the non-devotional tightrope walk. “My own sense,” says Mark Noll, an acclaimed historian at Notre Dame who is an evangelical Christian, “is that the Bible is a pretty explosive book. If students read it carefully, they’d be changed in a way that public schools couldn’t handle — and appropriately so.

TChristopher Shea’s column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail critical.faculties@verizon.net.
http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/03/04/holy_book_learning/

 

 

10 Great Things About America That Drive Conservatives and the Religious Right Insane

by Rob Boston, AlterNet, May 15, 2011

Religious Right groups and their frequent allies in the Tea Party talk a good line about respecting American values, but much would change if they had their way. They seek not to restore our country to some Golden Age (that never existed anyway) but to recreate it – in their own fundamentalist image.

An America rebuilt along Religious Right lines would be a very different place. And to get there, the theocrats among us first have to tear down some features of American life – some of which are longstanding. Here are ten things about the United States that drive Religious Right groups crazy:

1. Our history debunks Religious Right mythology: American history stands as a rebuke to the Religious Right. America’s founders established a secular government with freedom of religion and its necessary corollary, separation of church and state, built into the First Amendment. A “Christian nation” was not what the founders sought. How do we know this? They said so. Think about it: If an officially Christian nation had been the intent of the founders, the Constitution would prominently include that concept. It doesn’t.

And those Religious Right claims that separation of church and state is a myth? They’re a crock. As James Madison put it, “Strongly guarded…is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States.” Madison ought to know. He’s considered the Father of the Constitution and was one of the primary drafters of the First Amendment.

2. We support science: While polls show some confusion over issues like evolution, most Americans are big fans of science and are quick to rally around the latest medical breakthroughs and cutting-edge technology. Many religious people in America long ago reconciled their faith with modern science. But the Religious Right remains stubbornly insistent that any science that conflicts with its literalist interpretation of the Bible must go.

Religious Right activists hate science because it casts doubt on their narrow worldview – a worldview that teaches that all answers are found in a rigidly fundamentalist interpretation of an ancient religious text. To the Religious Right, evolution and the Bible can’t co-exist. They refuse to read the scriptures in a metaphorical or symbolic context. Since, to the Religious Right, evolution undercuts the Bible, evolution should not be taught in public schools.

3. America has a tradition of tolerance: Yes, we’ve fallen short of complete tolerance from time to time, but at the end of the day, most Americans believe in treating their fellow citizens decently, even if they have different religious or philosophical beliefs. But to the Religious Right, tolerance is entrance ramp on the highway to hell.

The idea that religions should strive to get along is dangerously close to the idea that all religions are on equal footing. This is bad, so says the Religious Right, because it leads people into “error” – that is, an embrace of any religion that’s not fundamentalist Christianity. Tolerance is ridiculed because it dares to suggest that a Unitarian, Buddhist, Jew, Hindu, Pagan or atheist might have an equal claim on truth alongside a fundamentalist.

4. We have a secular government: To the theocrats of the right, secular government, secularism and secular anything is the bogeyman of the moment. If you doubt it, just listen to some of our leading politicians (assuming you have the stomach for it). To most people, it just makes sense for government to remain neutral on theological disputes – remember the Middle Ages? To the Religious Right, such neutrality equals hostility toward religion and a “war” against Christianity.

Ironically, there is one place where the Religious Right backs secular government: Muslim nations. Those should be secular, of course – but only as a prelude to adopting fundamentalist Christianity.

5. The U.S. Constitution has endured: The Religious Right and the Tea Party claim to revere our basic governing document, the Constitution. So why do they treat it like a first draft? Just consider the list of amendments they’d like to add: pro-school prayer, anti-abortion, “parental rights,” fetal personhood, “traditional marriage,” the list goes on.

Why does the Religious Right distrust our founders? Maybe because the founders weren’t fundamentalists, and they dared to believe that the Bible could speak metaphorically yet still contain wisdom and insight. Consider this quote by Thomas Jefferson (from a letter to Benjamin Rush, May 21, 1803): “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.”

6. The nation has a legacy of freedom of religion: To the Religious Right, “religious freedom” means the right to use their religion to run other people’s lives. When it comes to groups they don’t like, ideas like liberty and freedom suddenly evaporate.

Consider the controversy over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan and efforts to block construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Normally, once religious groups comply with local zoning laws, get the necessary permits and so on, they can build houses of worship where they please. Yet Brian Fischer, a columnist with the American Family Association, argued recently that the Constitution grants religious freedom rights only to Christians and said we can legally shut down mosques. Where does this appear in the Constitution? It doesn’t. Fischer made it up.

7. Americans support reproductive rights: The ability to control your own body when it comes to reproduction is the ability to control your own destiny. It’s a big no-no to the Religious Right. God is supposed to control your destiny. Who are you to interfere with His plans? Although most people think of this issue in terms of abortion, it’s worthwhile to look a little deeper. Increasingly, access to birth control is on the chopping block as well. (See attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and bills in the state laws granting pharmacists a right to refuse to fill prescriptions for the pill.)

Throughout recorded history, religious prudes have been obsessed with sex lives of others. They clearly have issues. There’s just something kind of icky about it.

8. Gay people live here: Where to begin? Not only will gay people not stay in the closet or become straight, now they want to get married! You can be sure that Bible Belt fundamentalists, who have the highest divorce rate in the nation, aren’t going to stand for that assault on the sacred institution of marriage.

The bile the Religious Right spews toward gays is unfathomable. You have to call it what it is: Hate. And as polls show increasing numbers of Americans backing same-sex marriage, it’s only going to get worse.

9. Most kids go to public schools: These godless hotbeds of secular humanism actually receive tax funding! They’re known to teach evolution, and some even dare to talk about how they human reproductive system works in Biology class. Since not everyone has the time for home-schooling, it’s best to distribute vouchers, says the Religious Right.

Here’s Tim LaHaye, author of the popular series of apocalyptic potboilers “Left Behind” on public education: “I have a pet concern, and I think it is the concern of everyone in this room; and that is we are being destroyed in America by the public school systems of our country. And it was Abraham Lincoln who said, essentially, let me educate the children of this generation and they will be the political leaders of the next generation. And, folks, we have let the enemy come in and take over the greatest school system in the history of the world.” (So, Tim, what do you really think?)

10. We fund NPR and PBS: Sure, the Religious Right and the Tea Party said they wanted to cut off funding to public broadcasting to save a few bucks, but in reality, they just don’t like the elitist, left-wingery of “All Things Considered” and “Masterpiece Theatre.” Snobs listen to and watch that stuff!

Don’t even get them started on the Muppets. Bert and Ernie have a suspiciously close relationship. ‘Nuff said.

Of course, there are many other things the Religious Right dislikes about our country – consider women’s rights, for example. For all of their flag waving, some supporters of the Religious Right just don’t sound too happy to be here. I doubt they plan to leave soon, so we can expect they’ll keep working to change our nation. Be warned – this list is just a start.

Rob Boston is the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which publishes Church and State magazine.

© 2012 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/150946/

Do People Get Less Religious When Societies Grow More Egalitarian?

By Amanda Marcotte, AlterNet, June 25, 2012

Slowly but surely, religion’s historical monopoly on the human mind is breaking apart. On its surface, the reason seems straightforward: the rise of secular democracy and especially of scientific understanding should encourage more people to give up on religion.

In fact, recent research from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago shows that the picture worldwide is much more complex than that. While atheism is on the rise in many places in the world, others are seeing a rise in religiosity, creating a situation where the levels of belief and non-belief vary wildly depending on culture. A lot of it has to do with history and culture, but one intriguing thread can be pulled from the picture, which is that there seems to be a strong correlation between high rates of atheism and countries that prioritize economic equality and make higher investments in a strong social safety net, such as France and the Netherlands.

Could liberal policies help create non-believers? Previous research indicates that when countries embrace progressive social policy, that tends to create a decline in religious belief. The theory, often called the “secularization thesis” is that the combination of good education of its citizens and the fact that citizens can rely on the government instead of the church for poverty relief means that more people will turn away from religion. But could the reasons go deeper than that? Few people base their choice of whether to believe in God or not on something as simple as whether they can go to the church or the state in times of need. Perhaps it’s more that economic insecurity itself increases the desire to believe in God. And if atheists want to minimize the power religion plays in society, should they start by demanding a more secure and egalitarian society?

There’s a heavy body of research showing that the more stress and uncertainty people face, the more likely they are to engage in what psychologists call “magical thinking”: superstition, prayer, belief in the supernatural. In 2008, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky published a paper in Science demonstrating that when you remove the amount of control people have over their situation, they tend to engage more in “illusory pattern perception,” which is the psychological process that creates belief in the supernatural. Other research has shown the real-world effects of this psychological tendency, showing, for instance, that people living in war zones tend to engage in more magical thinking, such as carrying lucky charms or believing in the power of prayer, than those who don’t.

We can observe these effects in ordinary situations where people feel a lack of control. Take for instance, the sports fan who is usually a rational person but nonetheless refuses to wash his favorite jersey for fear that it will cause his team to lose. Or the usually non-superstitious person who, when playing dice in a casino, blows on the dice before rolling for good luck. When we don’t have control over outcomes, we sometimes try to regain that sense of control by imagining that we’re actually exerting control through unseen supernatural means. Religion has a lot more tradition and power behind it than everyday superstitions, but psychologically, the process can be similar. People look to supernatural means to exert control over situations they can’t influence through real-world means.

Living in a country with a poor social-safety net and high income-inequality means, for most of its citizens, living a life dogged with constant insecurity and a loss of feelings of control. People worry more about losing their jobs, and if they do lose their jobs, they worry more about becoming homeless or otherwise falling into poverty. People without guaranteed access to health care worry more about what will happen to them if they get sick. Parents in places where the education system is shoddy worry more about what’s going to happen to their kids. The less control they feel over their own destiny, the more tempting it is to conjure up a God who can save you in a society that doesn’t bother.

It’s not so much that people believe the church will come through for them in a pinch. It’s that belief in God gives them a sense of control they lack in their real-world lives.

Given these patterns, it makes sense that Russia was, along with Israel, at the top of the list of countries that had the biggest surge in religiosity in the past 20 years. A large part of that, of course, is due to the end of communism and its bans on religion, allowing people to recommit to faith. But other formerly communist nations, like the Czech Repubic and Poland, didn’t see such a surge in believers. In fact, the Czech Republic saw a surge in atheism in the past decade.

Of course, the two countries couldn’t be more different for ordinary citizens post-communism. Russia has been a swirl of political and economic distress, making it a notoriously stressful place to live. Life expectancy in Russia hovers around 68 years, about 10 years short of the standard in more stable, prosperous Western nations. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, was praised by the U.N. for its remarkably high human development index, which is a rough shorthand to measure the stability and standard of living for the average citizen of a country. Life expectancy there has reached 77 years, closing in on countries like Germany and France.

Atheists who aren’t content to simply not believe themselves, but who also want to increase the secularization of a society and the numbers of atheists, need to get behind a politically progressive agenda. Right now, the United States is seeing an explosion in income inequality, high unemployment, and ever more serious cuts to the social safety net. The inevitable result of this is more stress, and more feelings of loss of control among ordinary Americans. If they aren’t going to find safety and security in the real world, they’re going to turn their hopes to a supernatural one.

Religion’s grip on power is tightly entwined with the economic misfortunes of the people. If we want to build a more secular society, the first step is building a more equitable one.
Amanda Marcotte co-writes the blog Pandagon. She is the author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.

© 2012 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/156007/