Silence: Golden or Deafening?

My wife spent this past weekend on a silent retreat—her first. Despite what it sounds like, such retreats are not entirely silent, of course. There is spiritual direction, a variety of instruction, a book-on-CD playing during meals, and daily Mass. But you’re not expected to talk, to spend time networking, making or renewing friendships, or trying to seem interesting. It’s like the opposite of going to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (and probably no shortage of Christian conferences, either). As a result, it can be quite disorienting at first. It’s as if you’re in a foreign place, because—in a very real way—you are. I went on one last June, with some hesitation and second thoughts, only to find it the finest few days I’d spent in a very long time.

Why is that? What is it about silence that intellectually attracts us, but in reality repulses us?

The 17th-century French mathematician, philosopher, and well-rounded intellectual Blaise Pascal—I think—observed that our miseries come from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room (I’ve misplaced my copy of the Pensées, so I can’t confirm this.) While that may be a stretch, Pascal was certainly onto something. The impulse to mitigate silence is not new. There are very few of us in this wired Western world who can truly relish unmolested quietness for more than, say, a few minutes. I work in a relatively-quiet office for hours a day, but it’s not the same. I’m working, plugged in, online, and available (but selectively responsive). Even when I’m alone at home, my tendency is to pull up a favorite Pandora station.

So while we are prone to fantasize about stealing a half-hour to just sit, or meditate, or pray—and complain about our inability to find or be afforded those minutes by a spouse or away from children—I suspect it’s often a fantasy, or a false front. We say that silence is golden, but live as if it’s deafening [Read more...]

The New Evangelicals?

Here’s an interesting article from yesterday’s New York Times.  It describes what it calls “New Evangelicals”… basically Evangelical Christians who value social justice.  Quoting Scot McKnight, it describes this group as follows:

“A sizable portion of evangelicals have left the right, so to speak, in what the theologian Scot McKnight called “the biggest change in the evangelical movement,” nothing less than the emergence of “a new kind of Christian social conscience.” These new evangelicals focus on economic justice, environmental protection and immigration reform — not exactly Republican strong points. The religious right remains a potent political force, but where once there was the appearance of an evangelical movement that sang out in one voice, there is now a robust polyphony.”

The article claims that 19% of the population fits into this category, but I think this number is way too high.  (They put into all evangelicals who don’t self-identify as the religious right).

Still, it’s interesting to see variation among Evangelicals and how this will play out in politics.

Thank you Ed Cyzewski

Non-Christian Asian Americans and Religious Tolerance

In earlier posts I’ve shown how difficult it is to get a good survey of religion among Asian Americans, and I’ve shown what we sort of know about the actual religious prevalence of this racial group. The one group I have neglected to mention are the religiously-affiliated non-Christians. In the following pie charts I illustrate data using the Pew Religious Landscape Survey 2008 of the estimated distribution of major world religions for the entire sample and within the Asian American sample. As you recall this was only translated into Spanish so, the Asian American findings pertain to those who are comfortable answering a survey over the phone in English. [Read more...]

Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? The Relative Unimportance of Non-Christians

Part 4 in a series on deconversion.

Going into this study of deconversion, I figured that interactions and relationships with non-Christians would be an important cause for people leaving. After, we’re sociologists, and we study how peer and friend relationships affect so many things.

However, in the narratives themselves, there were surprisingly few references to non-Christians leading the writers away from faith. We counted only eight in the fifty testimonies that we read. For example, one writer had a non-Christian friend loan him a book arguing against Christianity. Another had a family member who advocated against Christianity.

Far more commonly, non-Christians were mentioned as supporting the writers’ decisions after they had left Christianity. For example, the website from which we drew the narratives endorsed and supported the decisions of former Christians, but it did not seem to initially bring about these decisions.

As such, the narrative writers rarely described individuals outside of the church as helping bring about their deconversion. Rather, they described new relationships with non-Christians (exemplified by their participation in an online community for deconverts) as the consequence, not cause, of changes in their beliefs.

Why might non-Christians be mostly absent from these deconversion stories? One answer might be the insular social networks of some Christians, for several writers spoke of having had relatively few interactions or relationships with non-Christians. For example, a woman raised in the church wrote that she did not even know what the word “atheist” meant until she was in her twenties.

Generally speaking, then, [Read more...]

Dead Man Walking: An Evening with Sr. Helen Prejean in Durham

At the end of her talk to a packed house at Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, December 2, Sister Helen Prejean (whose work on death row was made into the award-winning film Dead Man Walking) lifted her arms out wide and said, “What does the Gospel of Jesus say? We have to show compassion for the victims of murder on one side of the cross and for the perpetrators of murder on the other side of the cross.”

The closest I have come to knowing a victim of murder and the perpetrator of that murder occurred around the death of Eve Carson, the UNC student body president who was murdered in the spring of 2008.

I was just finishing my course preparation when I received the email that the body of a murdered victim found near campus had been identified as the beloved student body president. Shocked and horrified, I stumbled toward my class on that bright sunny day wondering, [Read more...]


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