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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Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?


CNN reports the Dalai Lama –the spiritual leader of Tibet — has urged his co-religionists  in Sri Lanka and Myanmar to halt the sectarian violence that has pitted majority Buddhist populations against Muslim minorities.

The assumption behind this story is that the Dalai Lama is a person of consequence whose words will carry weight with Buddhists round the world. What he says matters, CNN reports.

But does it? And if it does matter, to whom does it matter?

The attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have had the approval of Buddhists leaders and in some cases mobs have been led by saffron-robe clad Buddhists monks. The report from CNN cleanly and clearly reports on the Dalai Lama’s call for peace, but it neglects to mention (or perhaps it assumes) that Buddhism is a monolith, a unified system of belief whose leaders are universally esteemed by its practitioners.

The bottom line: What the CNN team is doing in this story is projecting Christian assumptions about a church and hierarchy upon a non-Christian institution. These assumptions make the story intellectually accessible to a Western reader, but present the issue in a false light.

The article entitled “Dalai Lama to Myanmar, Sri Lanka Buddhists: Stop violence against Muslims” begins:

(CNN) – Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has made a renewed call for Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to cease violence towards the countries’ Muslim minorities, in an address delivered on his 79th birthday. Speaking before tens of thousands of Buddhists, including Hollywood actor Richard Gere, the exiled Buddhist leader implored the faithful in the majority-Buddhist countries to refrain from such attacks.

“I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime,” he said in the Indian town of Leh. “Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

The article reports that “[r]ising Buddhist nationalism” in Sri Lanka and Mynamar “spearheaded by movements led by extremist monks” has led to communal violence in recent years. Details of the violence are given as are the Dalai Lama’s calls for peaceful coexistence between the faith communities.

And the story closes with an explanatory note that:

The Dalai Lama was speaking before the audience in Leh to confer Kalachakra, a process intended to empower tens of thousands of his Buddhist followers to reach enlightenment, his office said.

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Buddhists boldly bully buzzed Brits

The obnoxious Englishman abroad is a well loved story in the British press. The opprobrium once reserved for the British football hooligan abroad has now spread to his vacationing cousins. Cheap airfares and package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean, Florida and points East have given the Briton abroad a reputation for boorishness, lewdness, and alcohol-fueled vulgarity.

“They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit,” the mayor of Malia, a popular Greek resort, told the New York Times in 2008. “It is only the British people – not the Germans or the French”.

Are the British the world’s worst behaved tourists? I think Americans can still give the Brits a run for their money. Let me note the annual horror of Spring Break here in Sunny Florida in defense of my claim of American exceptionalism. Aesthetically speaking the sunburnt, tattooed, shaven-headed, bandy-legged Briton abroad is an unpleasing sight. And the men are even worse!

The British government keeps track of the bad behavior of Englishman abroad, publishing an annual report on consular support given to jailed tourists, football hooligans and other assorted louts.The British press has a love hate relationship with yobos abroad. The Daily Mail and other popular newspapers will run stories bemoaning bad behavior and vulgarity with headlines like: “Beer-swilling British women are branded the ‘ugliest in the world’.” However, British television celebrates the bad behavior with documentaries and series like Channel 4‘s “What happens in Kavos” — an English version of the soft porn “Girls gone wild” films distributed in America.

The news that a British nurse vacationing in Sri Lanka is being deported from that country due to a Buddha tattoo that state officials find to be offensive to Buddhist sensibilities is being reported along these lines — the clueless tourist acting in a way that insults the locals. The Guardian‘s story came from the French wire service AFP, which stated:

Sri Lanka has detained a female British tourist for having a Buddha tattoo on her right arm and ordered her deportation, police said on Tuesday. The unidentified woman was arrested at the country’s main international airport on Monday and appeared before a magistrate, who ordered her deportation, police said in a statement.

The statement said she had an image of the Buddha seated on a lotus flower tattooed on her right arm. “She was taken before the Negombo magistrate, who ordered her to be detained prior to deportation,” it said, adding that she was arrested shortly after her arrival on a flight from neighbouring India.

It did not say what charges were brought against her, but Sri Lanka barred another British tourist from entering the island in March last year for showing disrespect to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm.

Subsequent stories in the Guardian and other Western news outlets reported the woman’s name and provided a photo of the tourist showing off her Buddha tattoo. The Guardian also ran an opinion piece noting that the Buddha tattoo was offensive to Sri Lankans arguing:

The arrest and pending deportation of a 37-year-old British nurse, Naomi Coleman, from Sri Lanka for sporting a tattoo of a meditating Buddha on her right arm has once again raised the issue of tourists being woefully unaware of religious and cultural sensitivities in places they visit.

While alcohol was absent from this incident, the photos of the tattoo and its wearer, coupled with statements that the tattoo was considered offensive by Buddhists, slots this story into the ugly Briton abroad category.

But … is this all there is to say on this story? Are Buddhists offended by tattoos of the Buddha? Why is this offensive?

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What does it mean to be transgendered in India?

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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

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Read this story and weep! But ask a few more questions

Every now and then, I receive private emails, or emails sent through our contact link, that sound something like this: So why aren’t you guys writing about this story? You afraid to or are you just too prejudiced or only interested in stories that allegedly attack conservative Christians.

Then the email will include a link to a news story — almost all of them perfectly valid — that talks about an event or a subject in which a minority religious group (in the American context, in most cases) is being attacked or treated badly.

In other words a story rather like the following Associated Press report, which ran at the ABC News site under this headline: “ACLU Accuses La. School of Religious Harassment.” More on that in a minute.

Now the problem is that many of these stories are actually rather ordinary. They get the job done and there isn’t really much to comment on — negative or positive — in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of journalism. Here’s the bottom line: Most of the time, what these correspondents want to do is argue about THE ISSUE at the heart of the story, not a journalism issue in the new coverage.

Consider the AP story mentioned earlier. The events described in this story are so crazy — the church-state violations attributed to these educators so ridiculous — that it almost reads like something from The Onion.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing a school board in Louisiana, alleging officials at one of its schools harassed a sixth-grader because of his Buddhist faith and that the district routinely pushes Christian beliefs.

The lawsuit was filed against the Sabine Parish School Board … in U.S. District Court in Shreveport on behalf of Scott and Sharon Lane and their three children. According to the complaint from the ACLU and its Louisiana chapter, the Lanes enrolled their son — a lifelong Buddhist of Thai descent — in Negreet High School and he quickly became the target of harassment by the school’s staff.

So what is alleged to have happened in this case, at the hands of Superintendent Sara Ebarb, Negreet High Principal Gene Wright and science teacher Rita Roark? If half of this is true the ACLU lawsuit is a slam dunk:

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Pod people: Religion and mass shootings

The Crossroads podcast this week was devoted to discussion of covering shootings. And in the time since the horrible shooting in Washington, D.C., took place, we now have reports of another horrific mass shooting in Kenya. There is some amazing journalism being done as this massacre unfolds. I’d recommend reading this New York Times interview of Tyler Hicks, a photographer who ran into the mall as thousands fled. The pictures that accompany the piece will make you gasp and cry, so be forewarned. But I think there is an argument to be made that we should see these images and have the appropriate reaction to them.

At this point in the process, Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. The New York Times slideshow says that gunmen entered the mall in a coordinated assault and told Muslims to leave. They then killed, according to reports, some 39 people and are holding an unknown number of people hostage. There are reports that 300 people have been injured, ranging in age from 2-years-old to 78-years-old. I want to say this is absolute madness, and I think you know what I mean, but it’s important for us to know that this is actually a terrorist attack. It has a political aim. It wasn’t a lone gunmen. These things mean a lot about how we respond to a crisis. And religion is a major part of that story, obviously.

So what about the Washington, D.C., shooter who killed 12 people working at the Navy Yard? When we say that story is absolute madness, it has similarities and differences from the Kenyan massacre. The gunman in the D.C. shooting, who is deceased, was said to suffer mental illness, such as hearing voices. He is reported to have had paranoid thinking. Does it matter to the families and loved ones of the 12 people whose lives he snuffed out that day? Perhaps not, but when we’re communicating information to target audiences, we have a different discussion about an American madmen than we do about Somali militants.

Host Todd Wilken asked about media reports identifying the shooter as having ties to Buddhism. I defended those journalistic reports as being key to beginning to understand who the shooter was. We talked about the pushback some had over those reports. The key is that reporters don’t blame an affiliation to a religion without facts to back it up. Wilken noted that the story seemed to be moving toward issues of mental health. The question is what role religion plays in that story and how well reporters will be able to tease that thread.

Back to the Kenyan situation, we have another example of religion being identified with the shooters. In this case it’s militant Islam. How should that be treated in this story? I’m going to go ahead and argue that it’s important while a situation is ongoing for reporters to lock down the “who, what, where and how” before they get to the “why.” The “who,” in this case, is a religion story. The “why” is, too. But we have some time to get that latter issue right. Basic facts are most important in the midst of the crisis.

It is for this reason that Reuters didn’t really dive deep about Islamic terrorism in this breaking story, but did mention religion in the headline and lede. In “Stand-off at Kenyan mall after Islamists kill 39 in ‘terrorist’ attack,” we learn:

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Did Aaron Alexis fall into a hole in ‘American’ Buddhism?

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It’s a sad comment on our age that, in the first tense hours after the Navy Yard shootings (just over a mile down 8th Street from my office), discussions about cause and motive kept circling back to questions about religion. Everyone was waiting for the shoe to drop, especially during the hours when mainstream media outlets were reporting that there might have been three gunmen.

One gunman? All kinds of causes leap to mind. Three gunmen? That’s a different story.

Of course, information later began to bleed into public media about the background of Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter who was killed in this tragic attack. One of the most perplexing facts was that he was, at least at one point in his adult life, a practicing Buddhist.

Early on, many asked a fair question: Was this information relevant? If it was relevant, what did this faith connection mean? Would the information automatically have been relevant if the shooter turned out to be a Muslim from, let’s say, Detroit? How about a true fundamentalist Christian from Kansas?

You can sense tense nerves in an early New York Times report:

In recent years, Mr. Alexis dated a Thai woman and began showing up regularly at Wat Busayadhammavanara, a Buddhist Temple in White Settlement, Tex., a Fort Worth suburb. He had Thai friends, adored Thai food and said he always felt drawn to the culture, said Pat Pundisto, a member of the temple answering the phone there. …He was a regular at Sunday services, intoning Buddhist chants and staying to meditate afterward. On celebrations like the Thai New Year in April, he helped out, serving guests dressed in ceremonial Thai garb the temple provided.

At the temple, he met Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, who went on to open the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant in White Settlement in 2011, said the restaurant owner’s cousin, Naree Wilton, 51, in a phone interview. Mr. Alexis helped out at the restaurant in exchange for food and a room in Mr. Suthamtewakul’s house.

One of my first questions was this: Is there a rite or ceremony that officially signals that a person has “converted” to Buddhism? Journalists were saying that Alexis was “interested” in Buddhism, when the facts suggested that he was at one point actively practicing the faith and connections to a specific worshipping community were central to his life in Texas.

Next question: What happened when he moved to the Washington, D.C., area?

When writing about the connections between a given faith and a person who is — for good or ill — in the news, it is always wise to document, to the greatest degree possible, how this believer was linked to that tradition by facts on the ground. What congregation? Active in worship? Close ties to key leaders? Was the person following the work of particular writers or speakers?

As the religion angle was fleshed out, journalists began discussing another interesting angle: Aren’t Buddhists committed to peace and non-violence? Veteran members of the religion team at the Washington Post produced an interesting story focusing on that angle. The top of the story is quite blunt:

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Was the Navy gunman Buddhist? Does it matter?

YouTube Preview ImageSome 12 people were killed by a gunman at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yards on Monday morning. This being near the U.S. Capitol, reporters hit the scene early. Details came out slowly and sometimes incorrectly, even when sourced to D.C. police spokesmen. It was a difficult slog for reporters trying to figure out just what happened.

The Washington Post had a team of reporters on the scene, including Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein who lives nearby. She and the others did excellent work, getting stories from survivors that helped give a picture of the chaos and destruction that hit the military installation. At some point the shooter was identified as Aaron Alexis. Somewhat surprisingly, two journalists at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram actually knew him as their waiter at a favorite Thai restaurant. You can watch a video of them talking about the alleged shooter at the bottom of this story or embedded above.

Soon acquaintances were talking about what they knew about him, including that he was a regular worshiper at a Buddhist temple. Boorstein tweeted:

Suspect had been at least for a time a practicing Buddhist #navyyardshooting

She received some push back for tweeting this, which seems unfair. One person wrote, “Forgive me for thinking it’s of secondary importance at this early stage. It conflates his spirituality with his crime. I suspect deliberately.” Boorstein noted she was just sharing information, which is her job as a journalist.

It’s not that reporters always perfectly handle religious affiliation as it relates to news stories. But I think people would be hard-pressed to argue that religious affiliation is not a good piece of information to share, if well substantiated.

If the Post had been rushing to tie religious affiliation to motivation or make it the predominant fact of the case, that would be inappropriate — or would be inappropriate outside of any substantiating facts. But simply mentioning that someone had, at least for a time, been a practicing Buddhist? That’s simply sharing information that reporters have about someone of much interest. Again, this is all with the caveat that these pieces of information should be well sourced.

As for the Washington Post story on the alleged shooter, the religious affiliation was mentioned there, too. Here’s the relevant portion:

By Monday afternoon, a portrait of Alexis had begun to emerge. He lived until recently in Fort Worth, where he was seen frequently at a Buddhist temple, meditating and helping out. He was pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics as an online student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

But Alexis also had been accused in at least two prior shooting incidents, one in Fort Worth and one in Seattle, according to police reports.

The story then spends many paragraphs discussing those prior shooting incidents. But it returns to the affiliation with the Buddhist temple. An assistant to the monks at the Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center is interviewed:

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