Study: Religious kids believe the Bible and other ‘fiction’

Is this Clutching at Straws Month? Because I don’t know how to dress or what to buy for it. I do know how to celebrate, though. Just publish a study that counters traditional beliefs. And don’t ask questions that might uncover flaws.

The latest example emerged this week in the July issue of Cognitive Science. Three researchers alleged that young children who are “exposed to religion” — gotta love that wording — have trouble telling fact from fiction.

This claim is in an appallingly brief, 291-word article in the Huffington Post — which, true to form, swallows and regurgitates the stuff without chewing. We’ll get to that in a bit.

First, here’s how it went down:

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic — in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.

“In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children,” the study concluded.

Now let’s dismantle this, starting with the sampling. I don’t often resort to italics, but c’mon — sixty-six subjects? I saw several times that many kids yesterday at one Vacation Bible School. A sampling of 66 children is pretty small for an attempt to generalize to all children.

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Pod people: Are all political liberals also on moral left?

Every now and then, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken take and I off in one direction when doing a “Crossroads” podcast and then — boom — we will suddenly veer off in what at first seems like a totally different direction. Radio is like that, you know.

That is certainly what happened this time around, big time. Click here to check out the podcast.

Wilken started out by repeating that question that I have been asking over and over during recent weeks, as the media storm over the so-called Hobby Lobby case has raged on that on.

You know the one: What should journalists call people in American public life who waffle on free speech, waffle on freedom of association and waffle on religious liberty?

The answer: I still don’t know, but the accurate term to describe this person — in the history of American political thought — is not “liberal.” Defense of basic First Amendment rights has long been the essence of American liberalism.

So what happened during the discussion?

Well, while we talked it suddenly hit me that this topic was, in a way, the flip side of the topic that I took on this week in my “On Religion” column for the Universal syndicate. That piece focused on some fascinating information — at least I thought it was fascinating stuff (as did Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher) — found in the new “Beyond Blue vs. Red” political typology study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

Before we move along, readers may want to surf over to the Pew site and take the short quiz that went along with the study. This will allegedly show where you belong on this new spectrum of American political labels.

The quiz is frustrating, but worth the time. Many people, including me, found some of the questions impossible to answer since the options were pushed so far to the political fringes. Take this question, for example:

“Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return”

“Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently”

No, there is no option in the middle that — hello experts in Catholic moral teachings — accepts the responsibility for governments to help the poor, yet allows for realistic critiques of whether the resulting programs are effective. In this case, along with the “What would Jesus do?” option, some readers may be left asking, “What would Daniel Patrick Moynihan do?

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Changing climate — of church views on the environment

USA Today has been eroding its standard of short, shallow stories. And for a complex newsfeature like its recent story on religion and global warming, that is an exceedingly good thing.

The article focuses on the effort to sell global warming to church people. Religion and the environment is an evergreen topic — I wrote a long feature on it more than a decade ago — but USA Today writer Gregg Zoroya takes the interesting tactic of leading with a rabbi in Kansas:

Rabbi Moti Rieber travels the politically red state of Kansas armed with the book of Genesis, a Psalm and even the words of Jesus to lecture church audiences, or sermonize if they’ll let him, about the threat of global warming.

“My feeling is that I’m the only person these people are ever going to see who’s going to look them in the eye and say, ‘There’s such a thing as climate change,’” Rieber says. “I’m trying to let them know it’s not irreligious to believe in climate change.”

He is at the vanguard of religious efforts — halting in some places, gathering speed elsewhere — to move the ecological discussion from its hot-button political and scientific moorings to one based on theological morality and the right thing to do.

An admiring nod not only to the canny rabbi, for combining verses from both testaments of the Bible, but also to Zoroya for grabbing our attention right from the lede.

The story does a great survey of the environmental wings in the various religious bodies, from Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to United Methodist. Zoroya’s also touches base with veteran para-religious organizations, including the Evangelical Environmental Network and Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. (He bobbles a bit, though, in mentioning an “Episcopalian” priest; it’s “Episcopal.”)

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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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Pod people: Sometimes editors really need to do the math

I have never been much of a math guy, but sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls.

For example, what essential thread runs through the following religion-beat stories? I am not arguing that this math hook is the only factor at play in these stories, but that this X-factor is a key piece in these puzzles.

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

* The Southern Baptist Convention has experienced a consistent, even if relatively small, decline in membership numbers. Baptisms have continued to decline. Meanwhile, the denomination’s work with Latinos and African-Americans provides a crucial boost.

* Christian colleges, like their secular counterpart, now face increasing challenges in enrollment — especially with the post-Millennial generation “cliff” looming ahead.

* Mormon numbers continue to rise. Same song, with new verses.

* Liberal Protestant churches continue a multi-decade demographic implosion, leaving a majority of congregations smaller, older and often (even with endowments from previous generations) swimming in red ink. The radical decline in the old mainline leaves a giant gap in American culture that provides an opening for evangelicals to grab the cultural spotlight.

* Jewish congregations, schools and social institutions face declining numbers, especially when it comes to finding families with children — the link to the future.

* Greek Orthodox churches in North America face a shortage of priests who are, well, Greek and Greek-speaking. Many parishes (some tense about this) now have convert or Slavic priests.

* Conservative denominations — think Missouri-Synod Lutherans, for example — face falling enrollments in some of their elementary, middle and high schools, especially older schools far from suburbs.

* Home-schooling families continue to wield an increasing amount of power in evangelical circles.

I could go on and on with this. However, there is one other story linked to this issue that recently drew major coverage — sort of — in The New York Times and was the subject of my “Crossroads” podcast chat this week with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in).

Can anyone guess the topic?

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‘Openly’ debating a key news issue in 2014 Summer of Sex

Faithful readers of this blog may have noted that your GetReligionistas rarely mention the names of reporters in our posts when we are critiquing news reports, unless a particular issue turns into a pattern that must be discussed.

There is a simple reason for this names-free policy and we have stated it many times: We have all been there in the press doing this difficult work.

We know that, far too often, reporters are assigned impossible stories and then given too little time and too little space. We also know that many errors and biases are actually edited into stories or reflect what is happening at the level of editors, more than the reporters. So we strive — as much as possible — to criticize news organizations, rather than individuals.

Praise, however, is another matter. We often end up mentioning Godbeat veterans who consistently get the job done right.

So readers will know that, when we see the “Peter Smith” byline, we know we are going to get a story that includes lots of basic reporting and, whenever possible, the people on both sides of hot debates are going to get to speak for themselves (as opposed to lots of vague “some” references and second-hand commentary). This is the case, once again, in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news feature on a key element in the annual oldline Protestant Summer of Sex rites.

The goal here is a high-altitude overview of the doctrinal angles in same-sex marriage debates, with special attention given to events in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Thus, the opening:

“Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week’s landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples — and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups — including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants — are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course. And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

The leader of the region’s United Methodists is immediately given a chance to explain why the judge’s ruling has, primarily, turned up the heat on debates for religious leaders, as opposed to settling the debate.

“The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn’t alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. “What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church.”

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. “I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they’re serving,” he said.

Cautious, but clear words there. And the state of the liberal Presbyterians and other members of the old Mainline Protestant world?

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Easter season, check … Chip away at basic beliefs, check

You know all of those news articles you see published every year at Ramadan that ask if Muhammad really heard from the archangel Gabriel?

No? Well, how about all the stories each Divali that cast doubt on the goddess Lakshmi’s ability to bless her worshipers?

No? Then how about those articles for Eastertime questioning whether Jesus really did rise from the dead?

Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding!

Yep, those come out every year.

Case in point: a feature in the Washington Post on how divisive is this central tenet of the holiest day of Christianity.

The story, actually from the Religion News Service, sets up the resurrection almost as a straw man. First it briefly states the doctrine; then the next four paragraphs try to chip away at it.

It’s “the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity,” the story says — “and a stumbling block for some Christians, and more than a few skeptics.” Then it questions whether the doctrine is really that important:

Did Jesus literally come back from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one — a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?

As Easter approaches, many Christians struggle with how to understand the Resurrection. How literally must one take the Gospel story of Jesus’ triumph to be called a Christian? Can one understand the Resurrection as a metaphor — perhaps not even believe it happened at all — and still claim to be a follower of Christ?

When a story poses rhetorical questions favoring one side, you get a strong feeling that the tracks have already been laid for this train.

The article tries to argue that the doctrine of a physical resurrection keeps some people from celebrating Easter:

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Glorious Pascha! The Baltimore Sun gets the key parts right

I keep saying this year after year, but it’s true. One of the greatest challenges for religion-beat specialists, season after season, is the long, steady march of feature stories that editors want you to produce linked to the major holy days in the various world religions.

Easter was always one of the biggest challenges for me, in part because it’s always on Sunday morning (or in the ancient churches, at the stroke of midnight and on into the early hours of morning).

That sounds really obvious, but think it through. That means this story has to appear above the fold on A1 in the biggest newspaper of the week, which means editors have to think very highly of this story. It will also need large and spectacular color photography, for the reasons just mentioned. From the point of view of most secular editors, Easter is also a much more explicitly RELIGIOUS season than, let’s say, Christmas. That’s a problem.

But back to the art issue.

Do you see the problem? How do you get large, spectacular Easter art when that art must be produced BEFORE the holy day itself? And what are most churches — liturgical churches, at least — doing in the days before Easter, when you need to shoot these photos? They are observing the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — beautiful, but solemn observances that, literally, offer visual images that are the exact opposite of what editors are going to want for that happy, happy Sunday A1 art.

In other words, it’s easier to report about Easter before Easter than it is to photograph Easter before Easter. You almost always end up with something that looks very fake and staged.

All of this is to say that I was rather surprised when I awakened from my post-Pascha (the Eastern Orthodox term for Easter) coma this morning (the service began at 11:30 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m., followed by a giant feast) and discovered that The Baltimore Sun had a produced a quite solid Pascha-Easter story for A1, a package that was way better than the norm.

The focus of the story was on the role of eggs in various Easter rites, but with the major emphasis on the beautiful “red eggs” tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy. The A1 art was a lovely picture of some children lighting beeswax candles at an icon stand on Holy Saturday, with lots of egg art inside the paper. This art was shot earlier in the week when the eggs were being dyed.

The story started with a general overview, before hitting the major themes:

Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.

How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter’s secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.

So you have your Catholic Easter egg hunts, symbolism-free Baptist services and mainline churches with hints of the ancient rites. Then:

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