About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

Why do some Protestants teach “young earth” chronology?

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ANNE ASKS:

What is the explanation for today’s “young earth” movement among evangelicals?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question highlights the split between many Christians in science and a wing within conservative Protestantism that believes Genesis chapter 1 requires a “young earth” chronology with earth and all living things originating some 10,000 years ago, not the billions of years in conventional science.

Confusingly, this is — especially in news reporters — called “creationism” though Christians who accept the long chronology also believe God created earth and life. Most “creationists” also say God literally formed the world in six 24-hour days, immediately fixed all species and humanity without evolution, and caused a flood that covered the globe.

In the 19th Century, geologists shifted to the vast timeline that was later confirmed by measuring radioactive decay in earth’s minerals. Long chronology was essential for Darwin’s theory that gradual evolution produced all biological species.

Whatever they thought of Darwinism, leading evangelicals and fundamentalists originally saw no biblical problem with the new geology.

CreationPainterSome figured the “days” of Genesis meant long “ages,” the “gap” theory proposed a vast era between the first two verses of Genesis, and there were other explanations. The “old earth” was accommodated by B.B. Warfield, the 19th Century formulator of “inerrancy” (the Bible’s total accuracy on history); William Jennings Bryan, the famous prosecutor of Darwinism at the 1925 “monkey trial”; “The Fundamentals,” the 1910-1916 booket series that gave rise to fundamentalism; and later on by numerous Christian professionals in the American Scientific Affiliation.

Yet Gallup found in 2007 that two-thirds of grass-roots Americans (and not just Christians) think it’s “definitely” or “probably” true that God created humanity “within the last 10,000 years.” The expert on this is Ronald L. Numbers, who teaches the history of science at the University of Wisconsin and wrote “The Creationists” (expanded edition, 2006). He takes special interest as someone raised in the creationistic Seventh-day Adventist Church (though agnostic as an adult).

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How should we define — and assess — atheism?

DANIEL ASKS:

Is it becoming possible to be religious without believing in god? (the lower-case “god” is Daniel’s usage)

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This is partially a repeat from March 22, 2013, when The Guy posted “Is atheism a ‘religion’? Is the Pope Protestant?” That headline indicated the idea seems ludicrous on its face. Yet, as the item explained, things are actually somewhat complicated.

The Guy won’t repeat that material here. Meanwhile there’s intense interest not only in definitions but in atheism’s role in society, to judge from the 69 lively comments posted in response to The Guy’s June 21 item on the unhappy “track record when atheists wield political power.” As an admitted theist, The Guy would like to thank all atheists who responded. These matters obviously deserve another look.

First, can people be “religious” without belief in God, or a god, or gods? Yes, absolutely. This is not “becoming possible” now but has long been true. The Buddha lived perhaps 26 centuries ago and everyone agrees Buddhism is as much a religion as, say, Islam. The Buddha Dharma Education Association, among others, states flatly that true Buddhists do not “believe in a god.” Yet teachers like Kusala Bhikshu tell us “a lot of Buddhists believe in God” while others don’t.

Or consider the modern Unitarian Universalist Association, self-defined as a “religion” yet creedless. It explicitly welcomes atheists as members in good standing alongside those with a God-concept. Humanistic Judaism likewise designates itself as a “religion” but eliminates the Jewish God.

However, those are obvious exceptions. Most atheists have no involvement with “religious” groups, don’t consider themselves “religious,” and may feel the label is a slur.

One comment distinguished between ordinary atheists with a live-and-let-live attitude toward belief versus atheists who turn “religious” in their zeal to oppose “religion.” This referred to the recent “new atheist” authors and activists who not only argue against God but may demean religion and religionists as stupid or evil, or seek limitations on religious rights commonly recognized by democracies.

Since devout religion and convinced atheism wrestle with the same issues, The Guy suggests everyone call a truce and speak of atheism not as “religious” but as a “philosophy” or “ideology” or “worldview” or “metaphysical stance.” Comments?

On to the June question and answer about the historical facts when atheists exercise political power, which were calculated to provoke discussion and certainly succeeded!

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So, what religions use mind-altering drugs?

MICHAEL-ANN’S QUESTION:

While millions observed Easter Sunday or the Passover season April 20, some folks were celebrating the annual “4-20,” numerical code for the marijuana subculture. That coincidence caused Michael-Ann to wonder “how many religions use weed (and other mind-altering drugs) to reach spirituality?”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The best-known example is the Rastafarians, who are deeply rooted in Jamaica and among U.S. immigrants from that nation. Rastas, easily identified by their dreadlocks, smoke “ganga” in worship though they prohibit consumption of alcohol and coffee. Just last month Jamaica announced plans to decriminalize pot possession, which will foster this faith and reflects its influence.

Rastafarianism emerged from the 1920s “back to Africa” movement of Marcus Garvey, who taught that Jamaicans were the true Israelites in exile. A Garvey vision led to worship of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) as the earthly incarnation of God. (Selassie himself declined the honor since he was a devout Orthodox Christian who urged the Rev. Billy Graham’s first world evangelism congress in 1966, “Let us labor to lead our brothers and sisters to our Savior Jesus Christ, who only can give life in its fullest sense.”)

A smaller faith built around a different controlled substance received notice during the Supreme Court’s recent case on Hobby Lobby and mandatory birth control funding. The discussion referred to the court’s Employment Division v. Smith ruling (1990) involving two adherents of the Native American Church. This group, incorporated in 1918 in Oklahoma with several branches elsewhere, worships by eating hallucinogenic peyote. The court ruled that devotees’ religious liberty claims do not justify violation of state drug laws.

Several small marijuana sects have emerged lately, among them The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry (clever name since THC is the plant’s main psychoactive chemical), Greenfaith Ministry, Entheogenic Reformation Church, and Church of Reality (though “marijuana inspired” it officially “neither encourages the use of marijuana nor discourages it”). Will such New Age-y sects have much reason to exist if more states follow the lead of Colorado and (as of this week) Washington to freely allow recreational sale and use of cannabis sativa? Other similar groups have died out over the years.

The late biochemist and New Age figure Robert S. de Ropp surveyed the history of religions employing mind-altering substances. There’s evidence Rastafarian ritual stems from older practices in Africa. Ancient Mexicans used peyote and psychedelic mushrooms. South Pacific islanders consumed kava. Some devotees of the Hindu goddess Kali worshipped with drugs. Medieval terrorists in one Muslim faction were called “the Assassins” due to their practice named by the Arabic “hashishiyya” or “hashish users.” However, mainstream Islam has always strictly forbidden drugs and alcohol.

Biblical religion likewise stresses sobriety. Some advocates contend that God endorsed pot when he declared at the creation, “I have given you every plant yielding seed … You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29). Such wooden literalism would stupefy even a Fundamentalist since God obviously didn’t demand consumption of all species including thistles and poisonous plants.

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How does that HHS mandate ruling affect American religion?

THE RELIGION GUY EXPLAINS:

So far, no-one has yet posted a question on the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing certain religious exemptions from the Obama Administration’s birth control mandate. So The Guy is posting his own analysis of an important case that highlights the nation’s religious, moral, legal, and political divisions.

The case involved the Hobby Lobby craft stores and two smaller businesses wholly owned by evangelical Protestant families. They believe that because human life begins at conception it’s sinful to pay for intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “morning-after” pills that may constitute early abortion by (a disputed point) preventing implantation of fertilized eggs. Other Christians disagree. Justice Alito’s opinion for a spare 5-4 majority said such “closely held” commercial companies enjoy religious freedom protection just like churches and individuals.

Two religious denominations that favor total birth control coverage charge that the Court violated liberty rather than respecting it. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association said the ruling “dangerously diminishes the religious, moral, and legal rights of every American, but especially women,” and decried “the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.” Reform Judaism’s top four officials jointly declared that the Court majority “denies the religious liberty” of these women employees and “the compelling interest of ensuring all women have access to reproductive health care.”

The Protestant businesses were supported by the Catholic and Mormon churches, numerous evangelical groups, Orthodox Jews, a prominent Muslim educator, 107 members of Congress (mostly Republicans), and 20 of the 50 states. The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops said the Court upheld “the rights of Americans to live out their faith in daily life.” The public policy spokesman for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, hailed “an absolute victory for religious liberty” and for “common sense and conscience.”

The Baptist also accused the Obama Administration of “cavalier disregard of religious liberty” and lamented that not long ago no-one could have imagined such an attack on religious rights. That might sound overwrought, but traditionalists express alarm that getting all contraception without cost would overrule Constitutional protection of conscience. An April Kaiser Health poll showed 55 percent of Americans think companies should cover birth control “even if it violates their owners’ personal religious beliefs.” More broadly, last year’s Newseum poll found 34 percent believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in upholding citizens’ freedoms, up from 13 percent in 2012.

A few technicalities: Many articles said this ruling denies “access” to birth control, but the Court guaranteed that 49 years ago. Rather, the issue is whether women employees must pay $500 to $1,000 for IUD placements or the modest cost of the pills. Hobby Lobby opposes only those two methods and, like most Protestants, has no problems with the 16 other birth control options in the federal mandate. (The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress doesn’t actually mandate birth control coverage, which the Obama Administration added later.) Though some ridicule the idea that companies have rights the way individuals do, the Court cited well-established precedents for treating corporations as ”persons” for legal purposes.

The ruling was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by a Democratic House and Senate and signed by President Clinton in 1993, when the two political parties were more united on religious matters.

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Where does anti-Hitler hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer fit?

JOHN ASKS:

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer] was a hero and martyr for the faith, but is it possible evangelical Christians in America have lionized someone whose theology is not actually in sync with theirs?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Books by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) sell without letup, including no less than seven biographies since 2010, plus novels, plays, films, unending articles and even an opera. The German Lutheran pastor is one of the past century’s most revered authors with must-read titles like “The Cost of Discipleship,” “Life Together” and the posthumous “Ethics” and “Letters and Papers from Prison.” Moreover — yes — he’s lionized as a Christian martyr.

Everybody wants to claim this complex thinker as an ally, but where does he really fit? Was his theology “liberal” or “evangelical” or “neo-orthodox” or some mixture? Would he align with today’s political Left or Right? With absolutists or relativists in morals? Was he a pacifist or not? And, the latest fuss, was he gay or straight?

A quick rundown of his eventful life: Brilliant student trained in academically fashionable liberalism. Inspired to a different and deeper faith by African-American Christians during study in America. Fierce foe of Nazi anti-Semitism in the Protestant “Confessing Church.” Teacher in a close-knit underground seminary. German military intelligence officer working secretly as a double agent. Part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy and executed as a political prisoner days before Allied troops arrived.

Ample Bonhoeffer buzz results from the much-purchased and much-debated biography “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” Author Eric Metaxas is an evangelical successor to Charles Colson on “Breakpoint” radio commentaries and leader of Manhattan’s intriguing “Socrates in the City” lecture series. He previously wrote “Amazing Grace,” a biography of William Wilberforce, the devoutly evangelical Member of Parliament most responsible for abolishing the slave trade across the British Empire.

Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer continues that theme of uplifting Christian activism. It also typifies John’s concern, since this biography is criticized for playing up Bonhoeffer’s problems with liberal theology and his affinity with evangelical piety. (Metaxas did not answer a “Religion Q and A” e-mail seeking his response to critics.) Bonhoeffer was conservative enough that Theo Hobson at the Episcopal seminary in New York City calls him “fumbling,” “faltering,” and “dubious” in a history of liberal theology. Yale University poet Christian Wiman, author of “My Bright Abyss,” says Bonhoeffer’s story distinguishes him “from the watery — and thus waning — liberal Protestantism that has emerged since the 1960s.”

But Clifford Green, who organized the 16-volume edition of Bonhoeffer’s works, savaged Metaxas in the liberal “Christian Century,” charging that he “hijacked” Bonhoeffer by falsely portraying him as a conservative. In a 1993 evangelical journal article, historian Richard Weikart said the theologian was no conservative and followed up with the 1997 book ”The Myth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Is His Theology Evangelical?” Weikart, now teaching at California State University, Stanislaus, thinks Metaxas’s “counterfeit Bonhoeffer” ignores liberal thinking that breaks with conservative evangelicalism, for instance doubts that Jesus rose bodily from the grave or that the Bible presents literal history otherwise.

As for politics, David Timmer, religion chair at Central College, chides yet another biography for “using Bonhoeffer as a club to bash Republican policies.” Problem is, he says, the man’s actual political views “were far too complex to be easily assimilated to either the contemporary left or the right.”

Then we have this patheos.com headline: “Bonhoeffer Was Flamingly Gay — Deal With It.”

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The track record when atheists wield political power?

DUANE’S QUESTION:

He’d like to know what The Religion Guy was talking about in this from “Religion Q and A” on June 8: “When atheists seized governments in the 20th Century they fused their belief in unbelief with state power and enforced it with a cruel vengeance unmatched by the worst cross-and-crown tyrannies during Christendom’s bygone centuries.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Guy was thinking of hard facts about Communists holding political power. To explain the comment (which compared Communism with Christianity, not Islam) let’s first consider the most famous cruelties centuries ago when Christians dominated politics (events today’s churches would rather forget).

* The Crusades. Starting in the 11th Century, European Christian forces fought Islamic invaders over control of the Holy Land. The two religions suffered some 3 million deaths, according to necrometrics.com, where librarian Matthew White compiles estimates on history’s death tolls.

* The Spanish Inquisition. Historian R.J. Rummel figures from the 15th Century onward Christians executed 10,000 heretics, though many times that number died from abuse or disease while in prison.

*The anti-witch hysteria. In the 16th and 17th Centuries Germany executed 26,000 supposed witches, plus some 11,000 elsewhere in Europe, according to a University of Missouri – Kansas City scholar.

*The Thirty Years’ War. With this 17th Century European catastrophe, population estimates are sketchy but many millions died from battle or disease. As with many long-ago wars this one mingled national with religious rivalries, in this case Protestant vs. Catholic.

Plenty to repent of there. And we’d add millions more from the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities if Hitler’s regime acted out of Christian belief.

The tyrant himself was baptized as an infant and thus a Catholic on paper. However, the adult Hitler was a cynic who manipulated churches for political advantage and privately held Christianity in utter contempt as weak and devoted to Scriptures of the Jews he despised. Hitler and his henchmen don’t count as atheists either, since they felt nationalistic nostalgia for pre-Christian paganism. Admittedly, all too many German Christians tolerated or favored Nazi anti-Semitism.

Then for comparison, here’s the track record for some atheistic regimes on what White calls ”unjust, unnecessary, or unnatural” deaths:

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Do religions influence China’s atheistic rulers?

MADDIE ASKS:

How much of … eastern and western religions have had an influence on the [atheistic Chinese Communist] Party’s ideology?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Not much, on the surface, but there’s obvious affinity with Confucianism that the Communist authorities don’t admit. However — Is Confucianism a “religion” or a mere humanistic philosophy, since it lacks defined gods and supernaturalism?

Dr. G. Wright Doyle, director of the scholarly Global China Center, is currently in China researching Maddie’s issue and has edited a magazine issue on shifting Confucian-Christian relations (see below). He e-mails “Religion Q and A” that “on the level of daily practice” most Chinese see little ethical influence from Confucianism while on the theoretical level it’s hard to trace “conscious influences of Chinese traditional religions” on Marxism or Maoism.

However, he thinks ancient Daoism’s yin-yang dynamic of opposites does have a counterpart in Marxist embrace of Hegel’s dialectic in history and that Daoism complements Communism’s denial of “any absolute truth or abiding ethical standard.”

As for Confucianism, China’s Communists explicitly rejected it from the beginning. Yet Doyle says their “dictatorship fits well into the Confucian concept of the emperor as father and mother of the people” and with “hierarchical social structure that expects complete and unquestioning obedience from subordinates.” Confucianism also agrees with Communism’s this-worldly materialism and its communalism in place of individualism.

T.S. Tsonchev of the Montreal Review says “we can even argue that Communist China, in many respects, seems more Confucian than Marxist.” After all, Communism was an import from modern Europe while the ancient religions the party recognizes, even Christianity, were born in Asia. Oddly, the Party does not list Confucianism alongside its favored Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Tsonchev is among many who consider Chinese Communism a ”political religion” with its own Mao-worship, scriptures, doctrines, mythologies, icons, idols, and festivals.

The Party requires members to be atheists. Yet Doyle says many have “personal commitment to some form of religion, especially Chinese Buddhism and, recently, Christianity.” He remarks that Party members “at all levels contribute large sums of (ill-gotten) money to temples, either in order to procure personal peace and prosperity or to assuage a guilty conscience.”

State policy is defined in the Constitution and the Party Central Committee’s 8,000-word “Document 19? on “the religious question” (1982). Neither text hints that religions influence the Party or state, nor do they recognize that citizens might find value in faith.

Remarkably, the Constitution pledges “freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities.”

Ah, but what’s “normal” in Communist eyes?

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Which religions favor separation of church and state?

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/06/which-religions-favor-separation-of-church-and-state/

LISA ASKS:

Do all religions teach separation between church and state? If not, which ones and why?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Separation of church and state (the usual phrasing though “of religion and state” is often more accurate) is an achievement of modern politics and by no means a universal one. Among world religions, after long struggle Christianity helped create the concept and broadly favors aspects of it in most countries. Islam stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, often considering it alien if not abhorrent. Interactions between religions and governments through history are too complex to summarize but The Guy will sketch some high points.

America’s latest church-and-state fuss (analyzed May 10 in “Religion Q and A”) involves Supreme Court allowance of prayers before local council meetings, even in a town where most of them were explicitly Christian. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is alarmed, asking in a headline whether this ruling is “putting the country on the path to church-state union.”

Well, no. There’s a vast gap between brief civic invocations and any “union,” and America to a remarkable degree has avoided situations common elsewhere, for instance:

Many European states, whether in Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant countries, subsidize churches or Christian education. Clergy are tax-supported civil servants in such religiously diverse lands as Egypt (Muslim), Germany (Protestant and Catholic), Greece (Orthodox) and Israel (Jewish). Britain’s prime minister chooses all bishops for pro forma appointment by the monarch who heads the Church of England, and 26 bishops sit in parliament’s upper house. India’s national government is officially non-sectarian but at the state level Hindus use anti-conversion laws to hobble competing faiths. Clergy are sometimes heads of state, including two who were revered as divinities not long ago, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama and Japan’s Shinto emperor.

With Islam, the founding Prophet Muhammad was a political and military ruler and his faith has been closely intertwined with civil affairs ever since. Although the Quran says “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), some Muslim nations force religious law (Sharia) upon non-Muslims and in extreme cases threaten converts to other faiths with the death penalty. Iran is a dramatic example of “church-state union” that is oppressively theocratic.

In Jewish tradition, God deemed rule by autocrats to be problematic (see 1 Samuel: 8) but biblical kings arose and combined religious with civil functions. Jews had no nation-state of their own through much of their history. Modern Israel’s successful democracy practices religious freedom with certain privileges for Orthodox Judaism.
Christianity starts from Jesus’s clever and cryptic saying “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (included in three of the four Gospels). Scholars say that rather that spelling out which “things” are which, Jesus left it to individuals to apply the principle. But he did imply a certain distinction, if not “separation,” between the two realms. That concept was later developed in St. Augustine’s masterwork “The City of God” and Martin Luther’s idea of the “two kingdoms.”

Though born as an oppressed minority under Roman rule, Christianity eventually became heavily involved with government, often to its detriment. Matters changed fundamentally during the 17th Century. The Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant regimes (1618-1648) devastated Europe and roused cynicism toward the church. The English Civil War (1642-1651) had similar effects. While the Enlightenment fostered individualism and religious skepticism, demands for free conscience emanated from Protestant dissenters in Britain and its American colonies.

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