No/Yes to government funding of churches

The secular world is amping up its call for restrictions on religion, but this past week they lost the battle over government funding of churches.

I found an urgent email in my inbox a few days ago from the Secular Coalition of America.  They urged me to email my congressman and ask him to vote no to HR 592, The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013:

Despite its unconstitutionality, lawmakers tomorrow will consider HR 592—a bill to amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, to allow houses of worship to directly receive taxpayer dollars.

There’s a reason houses of worship are prohibited. This bill would reverse years of Supreme Court precedent and directly conflict with the First Amendment to the Constitution. Additionally, permitting public grants for churches and other houses of worship would unfairly privilege religious institutions above secular institutions, many of which are not eligible for the grants.

This bill is primarily to help the disaster relief effort after Hurricane Sandy. It will provide aid to church buildings damaged in the storm as well as churches that are instrumental in rebuilding the community. But depending on what side of the secular line you are standing, this may or may not be a step in the right direction.

The amendment to the bill will look like this:

“(C) HOUSES OF WORSHIP. – A church, synagogue  mosque, temple, or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization, shall be eligible for contribution under paragraph (1)(B), without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.”

But while the secularists were in strict opposition to the amendment, many religious organizations couldn’t be happier. Many of these organizations have been in direct contact with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and are acutely aware of the need for government funding to rebuild as well as help their communities. Much like the Coalition, the Jewish Press pleaded with its viewers to contact their representatives and urge a yes vote on HR 592.

After Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of New York City and the surrounding communities last fall, many synagogues and other houses of worship became distribution centers for material goods and spiritual relief to those affected.  Many of those buildings sustaining enormous damage from the storm.  But because those types of non-profits are not specifically mentioned in the authorizing legislation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been unwilling to provide them with available relief funds.

The HR 592 bill was voted on by congress on Sept. 13 and passed with an overwhelming vote of 354-72. It was a bipartisan decision that will have religious organizations throughout disaster areas falling to their knees in praise. But the secular society is less than amused. After receiving the plea for no votes, 2,500 letters were sent, causing 12 representative to change their yay’s to nay’s. But it was far from enough.

Should the government provide aid to churches? Will this start the government down the path of monetary influence over church function and practices? According the Bill the money is not to be used for the “primary religious use of the facility.” But secularists see this as simply one more way for the church is being tied into government, thus breaking down the wall of separation between church and state.

But Christopher Smith, R-N.J., one of the bill’s lead sponsors, would say this is about something more than the separation of church and state. It’s about not discriminating against people and organizations when they are brought to their weakest moments:

“Today’s debate and vote is about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind. It’s about those who helped feed, comfort, clothe and shelter tens of thousands of victims now being told they are ineligible for a FEMA grant.”

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Mommies who don’t believe in God

Via the CNN Belief Blog

If mommies don’t believe in God the odds of them teaching their children to believe in God are slim. This seems logical, but as a recent essay by one of these mothers proves, it is more complicated than we think.

Deborah Mitchell decided when her children were young that she would not raise them to believe in an “imaginary God.” She would instead teach them to be moral and ethical because it makes them feel good about themselves, not because “God is watching.” She compared believe in God to belief in Santa, saying that she is unwilling to teach her two teenage boys what she does not believe herself.

After feeling secluded from her small community in Texas Mitchel decided to begin writing about her non-belief and how it has affected her parental style. She submitted a post, “Why I Raise My Children Without God,” to the CNN Belief Blog that hit home with many other parents throughout the United States.

In the post she wrote:

We are creating the next generation of kids, and there is a wave of young agnostics, atheists, free thinkers and humanists rising up through the ranks who will, hopefully, lower our nation’s religious fever.

She goes on to list a variety of reasons for her disbelief, including accusations that if there is a God, he is illogical, he is unfair, he is a bad parent, he is absent, he does not protect the innocent and the list goes on and on.

Mitchell asks the age old question all human beings will ask at least once: “Why does God let bad things happen?”

In an attempt to answer this question Ryan Barnett, an occupational lawyer and Methodist, wrote a respectful counter to her argument. His post, “Why I Raise My Children With God,” appeared a day later in the CNN Belief Blog. It detailed the necessity of God and the peace that comes with believing in Him. However, he also emphasized that nowhere does God say this life will be “a bed or roses.” (In fact God warns that hard times will come and they will be fierce)

Barnett tries to show the mysterious nature of God in his post:

One experiences God. You can tell me about what love is or feels like – but it defies an acid test. This is the mystery of faith. Our level of understanding is constantly changing. The fact that we did not understand basic concepts in physics years ago does not mean those laws were not present before our understanding.

Barnett brings up some good points and counters each of Mitchell’s accusations against God (although she may not be satisfied with many of them), but when it comes down to it can we really expect a woman to teach her children something she does not believe in. Something she believes to be a dangerous lie that will corrupt them?

“When we raise kids without God, we harm them,” Barnett said toward the end of his post. But no matter how much truth there is to this statement Mitchell does not believe she is harming her children. She believes she is protecting them from an unfair, narcissistic and absent God. Therefore, does the problem lie with her teaching habits, or does it lie in her perspective of God?

Read to this section of Mitchell’s  argument and honestly tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing if about something you don’t believe:

For over a year, I lied to [my three year old son] and made up stories that I didn’t believe about heaven. Like most parents, I love my child so much that I didn’t want him to be scared. I wanted him to feel safe and loved and full of hope. But the trade-off was that I would have to make stuff up, and I would have to brainwash him into believing stories that didn’t make sense, stories that I didn’t believe either… And so I thought it was only right to be honest with my children.

Should we ask her to profess what she does not believe? Or should we address the bigger issue – we live in a secular country with secular values and perspectives. This means as time goes by more mommies will recant what they were taught as children and they will love their children so much that they will not feed them the same lie their parents fed them. Mitchell sees belief in God as a lie and she does not want to pass on the lie to her children.

How do we respond to an argument like Mitchell’s? Do we tell her to forget her personal beliefs and just teach her kids what the rest of her community thinks is best for them? Or do we address the deeper issue of a limited and tainted perspective of God?

Side note: It is important to keep track of what the American public is reading and responding to – Mitchell’s post on the CNN Belief Blog has currently received 755,339 views, 64,758 recommends on Facebook, 7,681 shares and 9,339 comments.  Barnett’s post a day later has currently received 145,781 views, 1,215 recommends on Facebook, 376 shares, and 983 comments.

Nones losing speed

Via CNN Belief Blog

It seems the nones’ new found voice in society is not as prominent as we once thought.  While it is true the nones have taken up a much larger chunk of modern society, this past year’s increase fails to reflect that statement.

A recent Gallup Survey shows the nones may not dominate as much of society as previously reported:

The percentage of American adults who have no explicit religious identification averaged 17.8% in 2012, up from 14.6% in 2008 — but only slightly higher than the 17.5% in 2011. The 2011 to 2012 uptick in religious “nones” is the smallest such year-to-year increase over the past five years of Gallup Daily tracking of religion in America.

What does this mean about American society? I’ll refer you to one of my previous posts from a couple months ago. There are many theories drifting around, but as the past year has shown us, American culture is hard to define or categorize.  Those who thought the Romney/Ryan ticket was a slam dunk saw this in real time last November. And churches who reacted with astonishment upon hearing of the rapid influx of anti-churchgoers will also agree that society is hard to predict.

But varies groups will also react to and explain cultural surprises in different ways. The Christians see this downturn in nones as proof that Americans still have a desire to cling to God, however, nones will turn our attention to the fact that while their progression is slowing it is still progressing.

Ponder this quote from Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University:

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter whether one of these surveys – even a big one like Gallup – shows the number leveling off a bit this past year. First of all, the numbers for young Americans are still dramatically higher, and secondly, it is beyond dispute now that the “nones” are one of the largest demographic groups in the United States, and we’re going to stay that way for a long, long time.

It is important that we keep track of the fluctuations throughout the secular and religious culture in America. Only then will we understand what values we can expect to see from society.

This quote from the Gallup Study sums it up well:

The rise in “nones” partly reflects changes in the general pattern of expression of religion in American society today — particularly including trends towards more “unbranded,” casual, informal religion. And, although this “rise of the nones” has increased dramatically over recent decades, the rate of increase slowed last year, suggesting the possibility that there may be a leveling off in this measure in the years ahead.

Should we have more nones in Congress?

Via the CNN Belief Blog

For the second time since 2007 we have a religiously unaffiliated, or none, in Congress. Newly elected Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema claimed her none status for the Pew Forum’s recent survey of faith in the 113th Congress. Sinema’s presents isn’t really that much of a change however, because California Congressman Peter Stark was a public non-theist since 2007. He lost this years election, leaving Sinema as the lone none.

Stephen Prothero, writing a recent article in CNN’s Belief Blog, picked up on this, saying that the small increase of religious diversity in congress is not an adequate mirror of the religious diversity throughout America.

For all the talk of the election of 2012 inaugurating a new era in American politics, Protestants will continue to be over represented on Capitol Hill, where they will account for 56% of our representatives versus only 48% of American adults.

However, what seems to be swept under the rug by Prothero is the concept that members of congress are voted into office by the American population. He is frustrated at the lack of diversity, but like it or not, these are the people voters wanted in office. And is this such a bad thing?

The lack of nones in Congress says something interesting about the change of values in America. If, as the election and recent surveys seem to suggest, citizens are increasingly unaffiliated, why is the majority of congress still Christian? They were voted in by the American population, but so many were, and still are, heralding this election as the turning point in American values.

Greta Christina praised the advancement of the unaffiliated movement in her blog post, published soon after the election.

This election was, to a great extent, a referendum on secular values versus the values of the theocratic religious right — and secular values won. Atheists are not in opposition to American values. Atheists are on the cutting edge of them.

I do believe the election is a picture of where America is going, but we simply can’t ignore the fact that 56 percent of congress is Christian because Americans voted them in that way.  It wasn’t because of white supremacists  or the lofty 1 percent, or even because of Republicans – it was because that is what the people wanted. But Prothero says the lack of diversity in Congress is unacceptable.

This data shows that the much heralded “new America” is still years away. Yes, the Senate will be 20% female, but women are more than 50% of the population. And the U.S. Congress will still be far more Christian (87%) than U.S. adults as a whole (70%).

It’s getting to the point where people like Prothero wont stop at accusing members of state, religious groups or political conservatives of bigotry. Now he has gone on to accuse the American public of favoring the religious right.

Via the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life

So, for as “advanced” as Americans seemed to be after the election, it turns out that many of them still cling to the old ways. But this attachment to traditionalism is a prime example of the split in American values:

At least 70 percent, if not more, of Americans would say that a Christian/Protestant majority in Congress is a good thing. It means biblical values will be fought for and will win more than secular values, thus keeping American values from changing, at least for now. 

vs. 

At least 20 percent of Americans claim more unaffiliated congressmen is a small step in the right direction, but there is still far to go. The further America gets out from under the thumb of religious principles in politics the better.

Prothero’s comment, “when it comes to religion, the U.S. Congress doesn’t yet look like the voters who are sending them to Washington,” is true. However, what this seems to be saying is that American values are more complex than what is uncovered in a survey or an election. Perhaps voters are focusing on more than just religious conviction. Or perhaps when it came down to it, voters simply liked more of what they saw in the Christian candidate than the other guy. Which would suggest that American values come in line more with Religious/Protestant than with the unaffiliated.

Either way, it is obvious that voters put the people they wanted into congress, and Prothero should simply try and accept that this is the way America is, without turning it into a hostile takeover by the religious politicians.

Bill O’Reilly: ‘secularism erodes traditional power’

Oh Bill…

Remember my previous post, Secular Values = American Values?, well here is Bill O’Reilly’s take on the issue. However, O’Reilly, being a political man, uses the terms “traditional America” and “secular progressives.”

Watch this video and you will do one of the following: laugh, nod enthusiastically, howl in outrage, or simply turn it off cause you can’t watch anymore.

If you just want to hear a 2012 election analysis than by all means listen to the first 2 minutes. But don’t stop there! Please listen further! It really gets good around 2.20 minutes.

Now, I’m no expert, but I feel as though Obama’s C on the Secular Coalition of America’s scorecard does not make him the Secular Progressives’ “poster child,” All it really does is make him better than Romney.  There’s my small issue with that comment.

Anyways, some great stuff in this video!

You’re not bad, you’re just unlucky

In his recent speech, Sam Harris approaches the fascinating topic of freewill. But Harris took a position that honestly surprised me.

I expected him to take the stance of the narcissistic “I” and rebel against the religious doctrines that say God is in control of our lives. But instead Harris admitted that we have no control over our lives, but God has nothing to do with it. He rebelled, not against the notion of God being in control of everything, but against the idea that human beings even have freewill to make the right or wrong decision.

Instead, he says, the atoms and molecular makeup of our brains are not in our control. Who raises us and the experiences we have are not in our control. Our own thoughts are not in our control. Therefore, there is no such thing as freewill.

In other words, there is no such thing as the sinful nature of man, there is no such thing as taking responsibility for a wrong committed. There is just good luck and bad luck, and we are not in control of which one we get.

To me this sounds very depressing, but Harris has another interpretation. By removing all responsibility for the evil in a human being, and blaming it all on science and life experiences, we should have much less need to hate that person. After all, they have no control over what they do, they have no freewill so we should not judge them for the horrible acts done.

Harris even goes so far as to say that Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s son, was not responsible for the horrible and evil crimes he committed. Were he still alive, he would be a victim of his upbringing and genetic manipulation. He should be locked up so as to protect the rest of society, but he should not be held responsible for acts that were out of his control. WHAT!?

I anticipate that many Christians will have issue with Harris’s interpretation of life. I welcome comments in response to this video. It is definitely worth watching.

Secular values = American values?

Via Washington Post online

American values are changing. Or that’s what the secular groups are saying, and they might be right.

On Nov. 6, voters throughout America showed what they truly wanted, and to the chagrin of conservatives, they wanted gay marriage, abortion, marijuana, big government, and Obama. After the increase of the nones, is this another sign that the United States in moving steadily toward secular values? And if it is, should we be okay with this?

Greta Christina, an atheist blogger, seems to think this is the case, and she’s pretty happy about it:

“The political values that are most common among atheists — support for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, support for birth control and abortion, support for evidence-based drug policy, opposition to religion being intertwined with government, opposition to laws about sex being based on religion, opposition to laws in general being based on religion — are, increasingly, American values.”

We can look at this one of two ways: 1) America is sinking into the depths of sin and destruction and must, now more than ever, be shown the light. 2) America is finally coming out of the oppressive nature of a government influenced by religious intolerance, but  there is still much work to do.

The nones seem to be leaning in the direction of “still much work to do” and they are demanding to be heard by the government. As one of the biggest groups in America the nones played a major part in the 2012 elections. But for many, even though they may have voted for Obama, the religious leaning of the president is still too much for comfort. After all, he did only receive a C in the Secular Coalition of America’s scorecard. But he still marked better than Romney’s F. Obama is pro-gay marriage and pro-abortion, so naturally he is the better candidate for most nones.

Lauren Anderson Youngblood, communications manager with the Secular Coalition, said the Obama administration needed to start taking the nones more seriously.

“The numbers don’t lie. They are an indicator of our untapped potential and politicians who want our vote need to focus on making decisions as lawmakers with reason and science, not theology. They need to tone down the religious rhetoric and when they do mention religious groups, mention us too, because we too are constituents and Americans and we deserve inclusion in our government.”

Will politicians now become more liberal to appease the growing secular population in America? After all, if you believe in progressive ethics (as Christian seems to) that change as the culture and population change, than this would be a necessary, and right, mindset for politicians to have. What was unheard of and viewed as wrong, both in the Bible and in society, has now become much more widely accepted. Therefore, the values of the culture are slowly changing and the “progressive” morals are evolving with it.

So Christina’s point in her blog post is that American values are changing for the better. She would say we are climbing out of the intolerant dogma of religion, and accepting the new ethics that society is in the process of deciding upon. This seems like a dangerous path to walk down. If society decides, as a whole, that something is right, is it right? The acceptance of that particular value must not be the end of the conversation. Were the Aztecs right when the majority of their population decided it was necessary to sacrifice their citizens to the gods?  Was America right when we decided it was okay to treat African Americans as slaves?

Via UPI.com

Carl Coon, a progressive humanist, is adamant that progressive ethics is the way society must work. He claims that as society advances we gain the ability to make better decisions. In essence, we are becoming smarter so we no longer need to cling to the traditions of “old religions.”

There is a ferment here, but it is not aimless. There is a direction. A global society driven by exploding technological capabilities is seeking new consensuses about a whole new galaxy of problems.

So our values do change, and they are supposed to change – or so all these people keep saying.  And the election just showed all Americans what most of them were already thinking. “This election was, to a great extent, a referendum on secular values versus the values of the theocratic religious right — and secular values won,” Christina said.

But wait! I can think of at least 48 percent of Americans who would be dismayed at this prediction. If secular values equal American values then where does that leave the 48 percent, and maybe more, who oppose Obama, gay marriage and abortion? In other words, 48 percent still oppose secular values – their values haven’t changed. Many of them probably still believe in the “old-fashioned theism” and “old religions” Coon opposes.  Secularists would say this just means America still has far to go, but the reality may be that we have already gone too far.

Perhaps the view of the religious right can be summed up with this comment by Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“Clearly, we face a new moral landscape in America, and huge challenge to those of us who care passionately about these issues. We face a worldview challenge that is far greater than any political challenge, as we must learn how to winsomely convince Americans to share our moral convictions about marriage, sex, the sanctity of life, and a range of moral issues. This will not be easy. It is, however, an urgent call to action.”