Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Part 1 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Next week, I start my first online course in sociology of religion at the University of North Carolina, and I’m about as nervous about it as when I first entered the college classroom 5 years ago as a new professor. Despite my trepidation, I agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks who wrote in a recent column that online education can certainly be done easily and quite poorly, but that when top schools start adopted online education, amazing things could happen.

Coursera, a free online education service has created partnerships with top institutes of higher education. My graduate school alma matter, Princeton, has one sociology professor, the famous ethnographer Mitchell Duneier, teaching introduction to sociology online for six weeks starting on June 11, 2012.

When I tell people I am teaching online, I get strong and opposing reactions like from “I think online teaching is awesome!” to “I think online teaching will never work.” Others are a bit more moderate, saying, “Well, I will have to wait and see more before deciding what I think.”

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“The 21st Century Will be a Century of Ethics or It Will Not Be”

In a recent post on Black, White and Gray, Wheaton sociology professor Amy Reynolds asked “What Makes a Development Expert?” Pondering who should be the next president of the World Bank, and what approach he or she should take to development, Reynolds argued that the end of development is the human person–or human development. She further argued that the next president of the World Bank should not only be a “technical” expert, but someone who understands how culture influences development.

My students’ final assignment for the semester was to read Reynolds’s post and the links about the different candidates, and then use our assigned class readings from Amartya Sen, William Easterly, and Carruthers and Babb to vote for the new World Bank President. In my class, Nigeria’s Ngozi won 20 votes, Kim won 8, and Ocampo won 3. My students cited Ngozi’s technical expertise in economics and her experience as finance minster as her most important qualifications. Those who voted for Kim liked that he had proven results that a piecemeal approach to development–tackling one main issue (HIV/AIDS) through community-based centers–could work.

We know now that the American candidate, Jim Yong Kim, the former President of Dartmouth College,  co-founder of Partners In Health, and former director of World Health Organization’s Department of HIV/AIDS, was elected President of the World Bank. The Economist mused whether Kim, whose approach to development has been grassroots, can bring effective change to an agency most known for its big-push approach to development.

I have  a great interest in varying approaches to economic development. After graduating from Yale in 1995, I worked for three years at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, founded by Nobel Peace laureate and two-time President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias. During my time there, I traveled throughout Central America and visited communities of former soldiers and guerillas in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. I went to graduate school at Princeton to study international development from a sociological perspective.  Although my interests took a different route, I still follow debates in economic development. The more I read, the more I realize that development does not just mean expanding markets,  generating greater macro-economic growth, or increasing personal incomes, but rather development requires both economic growth and a focus on promoting human dignity.

But do such discussions about human dignity occur in the large development organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? Yes, they do. In 2007, I was invited to a seminar on Faith and Economics by Princeton economic historian  Professor Harold James at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. When James introduced the public session of the Study Group on Faith and Economics, he remarked how the modern world seems to be marked by both the globalization of markets and the resurgence of religious activity in many parts of the world. Are these two trends connected? How does religion influence economic development? As the President of the European University Institute, Yves Meny, said what does it mean to talk about faith and economics when for many, economics is the religion of the times?

Each of the four leading figures present at this conference–Michel Camdessus, Anwar Ibrahim, Emma Rothschild, and Amartya Sen,  agreed on the basic point that economic growth in and of itself must be connected to promoting human dignity and they each made unique contributions to how this can be accomplished. For example, as the eminent economic historian from Harvard Emma Rothschild pointed out, the market does not create equity, yet classical authors like Hume and Montesquieu were concerned about the perverse effects that gross inequality could have on a democracy.

Although much contemporary writings on economics have separated the ethical and the technical, the study group participants pointed out how religious ideas and religious people contribute to generating an ethic to guide the distribution of wealth and the proper use of the fruits of wealth. For example, the Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked how most religions contain a missionary element that leads humans to encounter other humans and consider them in an ethical light. Although neither Professor Sen nor Professor Rothschild profess or practice a particular religion, they recognized how religious faith as a transcendental approach to life—or what Professor Rothschild called “an imaginative transposition”—leads one to put himself in the position of other human beings and consider how we should treat them.

The other two conference participants, Michel Camdessus, the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, are both religious believers. They became friends while working with the IMF and began to share their faith, finding many commonalities despite coming from different traditions (Catholicism and Islam). When he was Managing Director of the IMF, Mr. Camdessus (who is from France) worked hard to bring discussions of values and ethics to his work. He also met regularly with religious leaders and lay leaders of different religious faiths. In both the private and public sessions of the study group meeting, Mr. Camdessus recounted conversations he had with Pope John Paul II that led him to ponder a question the Pope put to him. After the fall of communism and the spread of market economies across the globe, the Pope asked him, “Upon what values are you going to build this new global society?”

During the rest of his time at the IMF, Mr. Camdessus reflected on this very question and he also took advantage of his many opportunities to meet with political and religious leaders to ask them the same question. The answers he came up with represent the beginning of a platform that people of various religious faiths or no particular faith could agree to. During the study group meeting, Mr. Camdessus argued that we need a global economic system that promotes human dignity. He outlined three values that he thinks world leaders and world citizens can agree to: 1) a sense of global responsibility to all countries; 2) solidarity to alleviate poverty; 3) a new sense of global citizenship to back a new global governance.

Mr. Ibrahim recounted how he has encountered many stereotypes against religious believers, in particular Muslims, in his work in international economics and development. For too many people, secularism has come to mean not just separation of church and state but also being anti-religious. He argued that faith can help bring back an ethical approach to economics. Rather than thinking of man as homos economicus, we should think of man as a universalist humanist. As Mr. Ibrahim pointed out, arguing that the theory and practice of economic development should include faith and religion does not mean that non-believers now become the excluded.

All the participants agreed that people can reach an agreement on values and ethics even if they start from different religious faiths or no faith at all. Professor Sen made a passionate call for greater dialogue about economics and ethics. Michel Camdessus’s closing words of advice or perhaps caution were: “The 21st century will be a century of ethics or it will not be.” In other words, the 21st century has shown us that technical progress in economic production, biology or science can enrich or endanger human life, making it crucial to ponder the values upon which we use our technical and economic powers.

Communism and Christianity through the Eyes of a Cuban Catholic

Part 4 in a series. Click here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

After watching Pope Benedict XVI’s March 2012 visit to Cuba, I have written a series of posts on Catholicism in Cuba, past and present. In this post, I explore what it means when the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in their 2006 Pastoral Plan that one major challenge they face is reversing the anthropological damage done by Communism.

One person I got to know very well in Cuba, Rodrigo, explained this concept to me through his personal experience as a pro-democracy political activist and a practicing Catholic and missionary. For Rodrigo, his political and religious conscience have long been intertwined. His parents were both Catholics and involved in politics. In fact, his mother fought in the guerilla forces against Fulgencio Bastista, but she defected from the movement when it became communist.

For Rodrigo, the Christian faith helps break the fear that the communist government tries to instill in people. As he spoke to me about his daily life, his work, his political activism, Rodrigo described the Cuban system as a “masked vigilance” and “intimidation.” Rodrigo told me of the many experiences he has had being stopped on the street and searched for counter-revolutionary material and the recent threats the government has made to evict him from his mother-in-law’s house because he has failed to register with the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.

“They are telling me that I am illegal in my house because I won’t register with the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. But why do I have to register with them? What they want is to make you afraid, they want you to know that they are watching you, they want you to know that they are controlling you. They have taken away about eight backpacks from me because I always walk around with a backpack and they think I am distributing counter-revolutionary material. They have called me down to the police station for questioning so many times, they have even told me they are ready to give me an eight-year prison sentence if they find me doing something they call illegal.”

Given the amount of pressure the government puts on people like Rodrigo and other political activists I spoke with, it is no wonder that so few people actively engage politics. “It’s very difficult to get over the fear, in part because nobody trusts anyone else. There are even spies in the church. But the best defense I have found is to show them [the government officials] you aren’t afraid of them.”

“Show” is the right word. As I talked to Rodrigo, I had no doubt that he does feel a tremendous amount of fear. Although his actions require much courage, he admits he feels great fear of going to jail. Other persons I have spoken to who are involved in politics in Cuba echoed Rodrigo’s words: they never stop feeling afraid, but once their conscience has been formed, they feel compelled to keep struggling against the system.

Another frustration of people like Rodrigo is that few other Cubans join political movements.

“For most people, it isn’t hard to awaken their conscience. They know this system is trash. Everything here is a farse, a lie. Everything here is hidden behind something else [enmasquerado]. People know that, but they don’t know how to respond.”

Rodrigo also spoke of awakening people’s conscience through religious instruction. Rodrigo’s parents brought him to church to be baptized as a child and they continued to attend church, although in secret, and his mother prayed at home. As his parents were both Catholics and political activists, he formed both his religious and political conscience early on in life. Although he has noted that greater evangelization efforts of the church and some openings to religious liberty have brought more people into the church, providing a deep and enduring Christian formation is not easy because catechists have to undo so much of what society has taught people.

“Education is Cuba is a political preparation,” Rodrigo explained. “The system here has robbed parents of their responsibility to educate their children. The education system tries to undermine Christian beliefs. This was more open earlier and now it is more hidden. But most people who come to church have been deformed by society. They don’t have a sense of the value of the human being, of individual liberty.”

Although it may be hard for an outside observer to understand, one of the common critiques of communism by those who have lived is that the people are taught that only the system, or in the case of Cuba the revolution, matters. Individual rights and freedoms are not protected, only the collective. Rodrigo admitted that most people who begin to go to church, even those that get baptized and receive other sacraments such as penance and communion, do not continue attending church. But for those who do continue past the basic instruction in the Bible and the sacraments, a church institute offers classes on human and civic formation.

“Although some people start attending church and still participate in communist organizations like the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, to be a real believer in Cuba is hard. According to the government, the believer in Cuba is not a trustworthy person. In part this is because the believer knows that freedom is; the freedom of God doesn’t fit with the type of freedom they say we have in Cuba. When we talk to people in the civic formation classes, we ask people if they feel free. They often respond no because they can’t travel outside the country, they can’t express their opinions, they can’t choose how to participate in society.”

When Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the importance of marriage and family in every homily he gave in Cuba, I immediately thought of Rodrigo’s words. Rodrigo and many other Cubans asked me: How can one live the trust, intimacy and love required of marriage if society promotes selfishness, materialism, and untruthfulness? How can one be faithful to one’s spouse when the way to get ahead is society is through lying, spying and snitching? Rodrigo is happily married and struggling to raise his three children, barred from working for the government because he speaks his mind. But in raising his family, teaching the Catholic faith, and giving people civic and political formation, he is undoing the anthropological damage caused by Communism in Cuba.

My conversations with Rodrigo and Laura since Pope Benedict XVI’s visit have given me great hope for Cuba’s future. Keep in mind that when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, many people expected Cuba to quickly open up, just like most of the rest of the Communist world. But, more than 20 years later, Cubans only have taken baby steps towards greater freedoms. For the first time since I visited Cuba initially in 1994, I can sense that big changes are coming. As the Cuban people’s consciences are better formed, as the Cuban people have greater access to outside information and ideas, the tide of change can’t be stopped. Slowly but surely, truth and freedom will win out over intimidation and fear in the hearts of Cubans.

A New Age for the Catholic Church in Cuba? From Survival to Planting Seeds

Part 3 in a series. Click here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

In recent two posts, I wrote about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba in March 2012. Now that a few weeks have passed, I reflected on the question: does this visit represent a new opening for the Catholic Church in Cuba?

Before answering that question, I will briefly summarize the history of the Catholic Church since the Cuban Revolution. The first 20 years after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 can be described as time of survival for the Catholic Church. With many of its clergy and religious expelled from Cuba,, the remainder harassed or sent to forced labor camps for “rehabilitation” into the new, communist society.

According to Margaret Crahan’s essay on Cuba in the book entitled Religious Freedom and the New Evangelization in Latin America (Paul Sigmund, editor), in 1960, Crahan states that there were approximately 723 priests in Cuba, by 1965 there were only 220. The number of female religious declined even more precipitously from 2225 in 1960 to 193 in 1965. Beyond the loss of its clergy and women religious, Catholic schools were all closed, the church’s buildings and property were nationalized.

That the Cuban Constitution officially made Cuba an athiest state and prohibited anyone who attended church from belonging to the Communist Party. Being barred from the party mean not being able to study or work. Given those penalties plus the decimation of church leaders and lands, religious practice in Cuba plumetted and those who did not abandon the faith went underground.

In the early 1980s, the Catholic Church in Cuban began to seek a re-birth. Following a five-year period of reflection at the parish and diocesan level, the clergy, religious and lay leaders of the church in Cuba came together in 1986 for the National Cuban Ecclesial Encounter, know by its acronym in Spanish, ENAC.

The final document of ENAC proclaimed:

“With an eye inspired by the faith, we have contemplated our past, reflected on our present, and eagerly projected ourselves into the future, leading us to discover the kind of church we want to be:

A Missionary Church: That hears the voice of her Master… who sends His church out to preach to all…confident that ‘the Spirit blows where he wills.’ We achieve this mission with a renewed and audacious way of being present among men and of undertaking pastoral work.

A Prayerful Church: Open to respond to the free and liberating action of the Spirit, whose prayer touches the profound knowledge of her poverty, of her need of God…. that has God as the only absolute one and who encounters through profound contact with the Word of the Lord the force and unity and the fire of his love.

An Incarnate Church: That shares with her people their struggles and the achievements, their anguishes and the joys. A poor church, stripped of power, longing to serve, who puts her trust in the renewing action of the spirit.”

Pursuing these objectives remained elusive due to the regime’s policies. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the Cuban government began to open a bit to the world. Perhaps to improve their international standing by responding to critiques of the lack of religious freedom in Cuba, in 1991, the Cuban government eliminated the prohibition on believers becoming members of the Communist Party, and in 1992, the constitution changed to make Cuba a secular, but no longer atheist, state (Crahan 1999).

Another symbol of Cuba’s opening to the world was the 1998 visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II (pictured here with the patron virgin of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity). As many friends in Cuba told me, after decades of government-controlled media and little access to the outside world, people flocked to see Pope John Paul II just because they wanted to hear something different. Pope John Paul II’s visit undoubtedly brought many seekers into the Catholic Church. Of the young, faithful Catholics I know in Cuba, only one was raised Catholic. The others had grandparents who were Catholic, but their parents never practiced because of the penalties. Curious to learn about religious ritual, faith, and as one person told me, what it really means to be free.

Despite the renewed interest in religion sparked by John Paul II’s visit, many of the seekers who came to the Catholic Church didn’t stay. Why? One Catholic in Cuba described how the “anthropological damage” done to Cubans through 50 years of communism, or what the 2006 Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops pastoral plan describes as a “context marked by a reductive anthropological model,” makes it hard for people to live the coherence, truth and openness of the Christian faith?

Why? In my next post, I return to Rodrigo, who I wrote about previously, to explain how communism has damaged human beings and human relations in Cuba. Answering that question helps understand the challenges facing the Catholic Church in Cuba as in seeks to expand its evangelization and social missions following Pope Benedict XVI’s March 2012 visit.