On a summer night in a Western town of flat fields and hazy sunsets, a young woman stood outside a Greyhound bus with a ticket in her hand and a backpack over her shoulder. Boarding the bus, she said later, would be the hardest thing she had done in her 18 years.
Harder than saying a last goodbye to her mother, father, and five siblings that morning. Harder than the two years since as she tried to make a new life, alone, in a strange city.
Now 20, she asked to go by the name Samya. If her true identity were known, Samya believes, her family would seek her out and possibly kill her. They would certainly try to persuade her — if not force her — to come home.
Her parents, she said, think she is guilty of two serious crimes: She rejected a marriage arranged by her father, who came to the U.S. from the Middle East when Samya was an infant. And perhaps more serious to her parents: She has become an atheist.
On the road, listening to NPR's Terry Gross interview Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, and having recently spent two hours at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum seeing the Nazis photographed, not in the usual black and white, but in the full colors of the natural world, it occurred that the human impulse to be part of an exclusive group has deep, powerful roots in religion.
People join "true churches" for this same impulse, a motivation that could not be further from the intention of the Gospel, which, at the heart of its mission, contains the abolition of exclusivity of any kind.
Christ following is not about joining the best club, but about following where Christ leads, straight into the company of every person, no matter their situation or circumstances, in order to be a servant to them, one who lays down his or her life, like Jesus, for the life of the world.
We were made for Communion with God and our neighbor, who Jesus tells us is every person.
Scientology, National Socialism, and other cults, past or present, religious or tribal, are modern forms of Gnosticism. They say, in varying ways, "We have something (usually 'knowledge') not publicly available to everyone and you must join us, submit to us, to participate in our secret." It's important to recognize that this is also an offer of power.
The fragility of life. The servanthood of love. The (im)morality of war. The fundamentals of mercy and justice. The power of grace and forgiveness. The oneness of creation. The personal (and spiritual) toll of climate change. The nature of God and faith.
These are some of the spiritual themes explored in the mostly august field of nine contenders for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture -- Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
2012 was an extraordinary year for film. This year's Best Picture field is perhaps stronger than it's been in recent memory, replete with nuance and substance, each film presenting a uniquely compelling and memorable tale that both informs and reflects our culture, sensibilities, and challenges.
A few of the nominated films employ overtly religious ideas and language (Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Lincoln), while others tackle daunting ethical issues that speak to our deepest identities and values (Argo, Djano Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty), or explore the sacred landscape of friendship, family, and unconditional love (Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Silver Linings Playbook.)
For the next three days, we'll look at each of the Best Picture nominees, the stories they tell, and the spiritual questions (and answers) they offer.
I’ve been reading with interest about the “nones” and the increasing number of people who identify themselves as SBNR — spiritual but not religious. Though I try not to get sucked down Internet rabbit holes, I have to admit this one’s got my number. I think it’s because I identify with both groups in some real ways.
Like many people I know, I stand in the gap.
As a Catholic Christian, I’ve watched countless friends and neighbors walk out of the church. Some linger at the door on their way out with a wistful look, wishing things could be different. Others hit the ground running and never look back. I understand both exit strategies and have been tempted to join them, but I haven’t, not yet. I am spiritual, but also still religious, albeit reluctantly so at times.
As much as I appreciate the conversations that are going on, we “religious” aren’t going to change anyone’s minds by talking about it, by beating our breasts, or wringing our hands. The “nones” aren’t going to walk back into church, because someone tells them they should, or because it would be good for them. Shoulds are rarely effective with adults and if churches were actually good for them, in some tangible way, the “nones” would still be there in the first place.
I think the only way for churches to reverse the exodus of the “nones” is by becoming different churches.
Much has been made of the "rise of the nones" — that is, the increasing percentage of Americans who identify with no religion. It is a fascinating and undeniable trend, and one that should catch the attention of religious leaders.
I know quite a few Nones. Few of them were raised in the absence of any faith tradition. Instead, most were part of a Christian denomination at some point, but consciously made the decision to leave. What interests me about their stories is this common thread: The majority left Christianity because of the attitudes of a person, and that person was not Jesus. It was an overbearing parent, or a judgmental minister, or a congregant who told them they did not belong because they were gay or they were questioning or they had conflicted ideas. In many cases, it was a combination of these types of influences.
Something is wrong when we drive so many people away. I think a big part of that something is arrogance.
This raises the question, then, of how to be a public Christian, even an evangelical Christian (which is how I identify myself), without running the risk of arrogance.
I don't embody the ideal I'm about to describe in answer to that question, but I know some people who do. These are the people who made me want to be a Christian. What I see in them are three key attributes: They are authentic, unashamed and honest.
Worried about exposure to foul language, immodest dress, peer pressure, and other inappropriate behavior, Susan Brown didn’t want her two daughters attending public schools — even though she’s a substitute teacher in a public school in Minnesota.
Brown initially home-schooled her daughters until a friend told her about the Minnesota Virtual Academy, an online public school that is fully accredited. She liked the curriculum, and as a single mom relying on substitute teaching income, she preferred how the school provided the supplies instead of having to buy supplies herself as a home-school parent.
“You can’t give your kids an effective moral and religious upbringing if you only see them a couple of hours a day,” said Brown, a Catholic whose daughters, now in the 10th and 12th grade, started virtual school in the second and fourth grade. “When you’re at home with them, you can incorporate your beliefs into the day.”
Since Florida became the first state to try them in 1996, virtual public schools have enjoyed dramatic growth, with at least some of it coming from religious families. Like home-schooling parents, parents of virtual public school students like having their children home so they can integrate religion and values into the school day.
Despite a deep drop in the number of Americans who identify with a particular faith, the country could be on the cusp of a religious renaissance, says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll.
Grounded in more than a million Gallup interviews, Newport's new book, God is Alive and Well, argues that the aging of the baby boomers, the influx of Hispanic immigrants and the links between religion and health could portend a bright future for faith in America.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There will be, I assume, a thousand different ways to dismantle what it is that I am about to say. I get that. I respect it. I invite it. This is a conversation that we need to have and, thankfully, are having at a national level. That said, sometimes I wish we still lived in a time when talking about one's faith in public was considered inappropriate or rude. Sometimes, that is. Only sometimes.
Lillian Daniel has a new book coming out. I'll refrain from sharing my opinion about the book until after I have read it. You can read Robert Cornwall's review here. The book is entitled WHEN "SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS" IS NOT ENOUGH: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. There are some handy quick reviews on the amazon.com page. My favorite is from Shane Claiborne.
Lillian is as fed up with bad religion as anyone else, but she's also careful to celebrate good religion and good spirituality that brings people to life and makes the world a better place. May her book invite us to stop complaining about the Church we've experienced and work on becoming the Church we dream of.
“You’re a Christian? But you’re so nice!”
I’ll never forget these words, spoken to me by a friend of mine from my college’s theatre program. He was one of my more eccentric friends, more blunt than most, and he was also very openly gay. His exclamation of surprise may be the instance that I remember the most, but he certainly wasn’t the only person during my college years to express their surprise at the thought of Christians living by principles of love rather than intolerance, or at the very least, indifference.
There are a lot of emergent folk who shun creeds. They have let go of much of their free-range evangelicalism, but the anti-creedal posture still holds a principal place. Still, I am thinking about music and liturgy, spiritual formation (that troublesome word again, formation), and the creeds we keep in our hearts though no agency has "approved them for community use." Instead these creeds are "sanctified by use," if you will. Here's mine.
WASHINGTON — From the nuns to the “nones,” religion dominated the headlines throughout 2012. Faith was a persistent theme in the presidential race, and moral and ethical questions surrounded budget debates, mass killings, and an unexpected focus on “religious freedom.”
Here are 10 ways religion made news in 2012:
Suffer the children: Gun violence as a new “pro-life” issue
A shooting rampage that killed 12 and injured more than 50 others inside a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., couldn’t do it. Neither could a gunman who murdered six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. But a hail of bullets inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. – which took the lives of 20 first-graders, and six adults – was finally able to mobilize religious activists on gun control after years of failing to gain traction.
“Those who consider themselves religious or pro-life must be invited to see that the desire to prevent gun-related deaths is part of the religious defense of the dignity of all life,” wrote the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and contributing editor at America magazine.
A new report on global religious identity shows that while Christians and Muslims make up the two largest groups, those with no religious affiliation — including atheists and agnostics — are now the third-largest “religious” group in the world.
The study, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that more than eight in 10 (84 percent) of the world’s 7 billion people adheres to some form of religion. Christians make up the largest group, with 2.2 billion adherents, or 23 percent worldwide, followed by Muslims, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent worldwide.
Close behind are the “nones” — those who say they have no religious affiliation or say they do not believe in God — at 1. 1 billion, or 16 percent. That means that about the same number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide say they have no religion.
“One out of six people does not have a religious identity,” said Conrad Hackett, a primary researcher and demographer on the study. “But it is also striking that that overwhelming majority of the world does have some type of religious identity. So I think people will be surprised by either way of looking at it.”
CANTERBURY, England — New figures from the 2011 Census show that the number of people who identify as Christians in England and Wales has fallen by 4 million over the last 10 years.
The data shows that numbers fell from 37.3 million in 2001 to 33 million last year.
The statistics came as the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, claimed that English cathedral congregations are growing dramatically, challenging the claim made by secularists that the Church of England is fading in Britain.
The San Francisco International Airport has a yoga room, but no chapel. At least that’s what it looked like, when I was there a couple of weeks ago at six o’clock in the morning: The Yoga Room was obviously a point of pride, with extensive signage along the concourse, but there was no indication that there might be other kinds of religious — excuse me, spiritual — spaces.
It turns out that SFO does, in fact, have a chapel, though it is tucked away in the International Terminal, and is known as “The Berman Reflection Room,” which, as an entry on IFly.com cites, “provides a center for quite self-reflection and meditation.”
Assorted photographs from Flickr, if they can be trusted, depict the space as not much different than an airport gate, with carpet, lines of chairs and window-walls of glass, plus what appears to be a vestigial Chuppah-type structure, and some potted plants. (The website for a group called the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, incidentally, laments that it was asked to raise funds for the Berman Reflection Room, but not allowed to conduct any “programming” there.)
If the cliché that all trends move eastward from California stands, then the idea of airport chapels and other incidental religious spaces would appear to be in eclipse.
Which would be too bad, for I’ve always loved sighting the airport-chapel logo out of the corner of my eye, skidding my beat-up suitcase across the concourse, and entering a hushed space of—well, exactly what?
After November’s presidential vote, Catholics could cite ample evidence for their renewed political relevance while dispirited evangelicals were left wondering if they are destined to be yesterday’s election news. Yet their roles in American spiritual life may be reversed.
New research shows that Catholics now report the lowest proportion of "strongly affiliated" followers among major American religious traditions, while the data indicates that evangelicals are increasingly devout and committed to their faith.
According to Philip Schwadel, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in the 1970s there was only a five-point difference between how strongly Catholics and evangelicals felt about their religion.
By 2010, he said, that “intensity gap” had grown to around 20 points, with some 56 percent of evangelicals describing themselves as “strongly affiliated” with their religion compared with 35 percent of Catholics. Even mainline Protestants reported a higher level of religious intensity than Catholics, at 39 percent.
The results of yesterday’s election appear to show a “dramatic rejection” of the Religious Right, writes Dan Gilgoff on CNN’s Belief Blog.
“For many conservative Christian leaders, it was a nightmare scenario: Barack Obama decisively re-elected. Same-sex marriage adopted by voters in some states. Rigorously anti-abortion candidates defeated in conservative red states. On multiple levels, Tuesday’s election results seemed to mark a dramatic rejection of the Christian right’s agenda.”
Gilgoff also notes that Obama increased his support among white evangelicals in Ohio, and narrowly won Catholics nationwide.
SPOKANE, Wash. -- They stood in front of a shopping mall, shackled together, heads down, nameplates dangling around their necks, bearing the names of men and women who have died on America’s death row.
Cameron Todd Willingham.
Behind them, stood Victoria Ann Thorpe, dark makeup painted on her cheeks and a sign painted to look like blood stains waving above her head: “Their blood is on our hands.”
Somehow, despite Thorpe’s gory exterior, she’s approachable.
“Would you like information on the death penalty?” she asks shoppers as they exit the mall, unable to avert their eyes from the scene in front of them. She hands them a clipboard and one by one, they fill out postcards showing their support to abolish the death penalty in Washington. The cards will later be sent to state lawmakers. The group has also protested at Gonzaga University and so far has collected more than 200 signatures.
Thorpe, along with the Safe and Just Alternatives organization and The Inland Northwest Death Penalty Abolition Group, is seeking to pass a state law to replace the death penalty in Washington state with life without parole.
BOSTON -- The one thing that Afrah Farah will tell you about her genital cutting experience is that it happened. She doesn’t want to say how old she was, where it happened, or who was or wasn't with her.
Yet, despite the painful memories that the experience evokes and her concerns about people's reactions, Farah, said she knows she has to speak out.
“It’s basically a traumatizing experience. It’s traumatizing for every young girl that goes through that. It’s something that sticks in your memory, and physically,” said Farah, a Somali immigrant who came to the Boston area by way of Kuwait and Germany in 2007, and now works as a drug developer in a Massachusetts laboratory.
“There are millions of people who are affiliated with this procedure -- parents, grandparents, people in the community -- and to label them all as bad people or barbaric, that’s wrong. You will push them away. To solve a problem like this, you need to approach people with respect.”
Because of its severity and prevalence, female genital mutilation (FGM, or "cutting") is arguably one of the most important human rights issues in the world. It’s also become increasingly important in the U.S. as the number of immigrants from countries where it is practiced grows.