Category Archives: Freethought (atheist, humanist, agnostic)

Why Ross Douthat thinks we’re ‘a nation of heretics’

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat doesn't mince words in his new book ``Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.'' RNS photo by Josh Haner/New York Times

By DANIEL BURKE
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) New York Times columnist Ross Douthat doesn’t mince words in his new book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.”

Since the 1960s, Douthat argues, institutional Christianity has suffered a slow-motion collapse, leaving the country without the moral core that carried it through foreign wars, economic depressions and roiling internal debates.

In its place heresies have cropped up — from the “God-within” theology of Oprah to the Mammon-obsessed missionaries of the prosperity gospel, says Douthat, a Roman Catholic.

In an interview with Religion News Service, Douthat explains his definition of heresy, why he thinks Mitt Romney and President Obama are both heretics, and why more Americans should argue about religion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: The idea for the book came to me late in the Bush presidency, when the debate over religion in America was generally dominated by the clash between the New Atheists — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett — and conservative Christians. In many ways, the debate over the existence of God is the most important debate there is, but I thought it would be useful to step back and consider what kind of shape American religion is taking.

Q: And what did you see?

A: In some ways, depending on what kinds of measurements you use — such as belief in God or spiritual experiences — the country might be more religious than ever. But that doesn’t mean that there are more traditional, orthodox Christians. Instead you have heresy: religions that draw on Christianity and yet are still miles away from the historic core of the Christian faith.

Q: How do you define heresy?

A: Looking at Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, there is an intellectual core in the Christian faith. Sometimes that core gets blurry in various places, but you have the Nicene Creed, the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the four Gospels are the best sources of information about Jesus of Nazareth. There are a lot of religious movements and ideas that diverge from that core enough to be heretical but not to be a different religion entirely.

All of this is totally debatable, and people can look at the same landscape and disagree about who a heretic is. But the term is still quite useful in describing the reality of a country that is neither traditionally Christian nor post-Christian in any meaningful way. We are in a zone between those two things.

Q: You’re not going to start another Inquisition are you?

A: (Laughs) Well, controversy is good for book sales. Obviously the hunt for heretics has a long and horrible history. An orthodoxy that doesn’t leave any room for heresy is dangerous and destructive; and a world that is all heresy and leaves no room for orthodoxy is dangerous as well. But I don’t see any particular danger in using the term to describe America today.

Q: I’ve read that you think both Mitt Romney and President Obama are heretics.

A: A lot of evangelicals and conservative Catholics will say straight out that they don’t think Mormons are Christians. If you flip that around, you find that Mormons themselves think that all evangelicals and Catholics are in a state of apostasy, that Mormons have the true Christianity. It can be an endless and pointless argument. They both claim ownership of the same religious tradition.

Q: What makes Obama a heretic in your view?

A: Obama’s personal religious beliefs are a little more opaque than Romney’s. He’s not part of a church or specific denomination. But the church (Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago) where he basically converted, or reconverted, back from agnosticism, is a church whose theology diverges and stands in judgment over the traditional Christian churches. The theology of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons is radical — and that’s the whole point. Black liberation theology is much more explicitly political and revolutionary than traditional Christianity.

Q: But is it heretical?

A: I think using the word just clarifies the distance — the very real theological distinctions — between Jeremiah Wright’s vision of Christianity and what a lot of traditional churches consider Christianity.

Q: Even if heretics are no longer burned at the stake, it seems that many Americans have an aversion to labeling others heretical, no?

A: And I would disagree with that very strongly. The promise of a liberal society is that we agree to a kind of truce where nobody will impose their religion on anyone else and the government will not set up an established church, or the Spanish Inquisition. But part of religious freedom is the freedom to have arguments about religious beliefs. People who take religion seriously should have serious public arguments.

Q: You quote Philip Rieff’s idea of a modern prophet who denounces the rise of a therapeutic, ego-driven faith. Do you see yourself in that role?

A: (Laughs) I don’t think I’m comfortable calling myself a prophet. I’m more comfortable calling myself a critic. Even though I use pretty strong language to criticize trends in contemporary theology, I also want to get at what it is about “Eat Pray Love,” for example, that so many people respond to. It’s very easy to be mocking and dismissive from a more highbrow perspective. But there is a coherent theological core at the heart of the prosperity gospel and the “God-within” schools, and I take them seriously.

Q: Why do you say this book was written in a spirit of pessimism?

A: As a practicing Catholic, I have an obvious bias in favor of institutional religion. But if you look at Christian history, the belief that everyone can follow Jesus on their own is not a particularly realistic approach to religious faith. It is a faith best practiced in community with doctrine passed down through generations. What makes me pessimistic is that all the trends in contemporary American life are toward deinstitutionalization, not just in religion but across the board.

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“Project Conversion” – A Lumberton man’s year of burying hatred by exploring 12 different faiths

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By AMANDA GREENE
WilmingtonFAVS.com

Andrew Bowen sat yoga-style in his armchair, absentmindedly fingering a set of Muslim prayer beads in his left hand as he talked about 2011 – his year of conversion.

But he’s not Muslim. In fact, the 29-year-old Lumberton resident doesn’t call himself by any of the 12 faiths he practiced for a month at a time last year.

Not Hindu (January). Not Baha’i (February). Not Zoroastrian (March). Not Jewish (April). Not Buddhist (May). Not agnostic (June). Not Mormon (July). Not Muslim (August). Not Sikh (September). Not Wiccan (October). Not Jain (November). And not Catholic (December).

Finding faith in God again was not Bowen’s aim. This young father of two was looking for faith in humanity.

The hardest decision

Bowen became a Christian in high school and took “a nose dive into fundamentalism,” he said. “It just ignited a furnace in me.”

As a teen, Bowen said he was extremely critical of faiths different from his own. Once when a pair of male Mormon missionaries visited his home, Bowen said he chased them down the street as they retreated on their bicycles.

After high school, Bowen met his wife, Heather, at East Carolina University.

The Bowens had two girls, Shaylie and Nevaeh, and thought their family was complete. But in 2008, Heather’s tubal ligation failed, and she was pregnant with their “miracle baby.”

But the doctors discovered the baby was behind her ovaries, an ectopic pregnancy which threatened Heather’s life.

And Heather and Bowen had to choose to abort the baby, something the couple never dreamed they would do. They were devastated.

“It was a really dark time. I went into a very deep state of depression,” Heather recalled.

Project Conversion

But Heather and her husband dealt with the baby’s death in polar opposite ways.

She bought a devotional Bible and was baptized at a local Baptist church. He plunged into a “two-year stint of just seething hatred toward God.”

The couple fought each time Heather wanted to talk about her growing faith. Still, deep down, Bowen worried his hatred would consume him.

“The best way I can describe it was flying down the road like a bat out of hell toward a wall,” Bowen said. “With any transformation, there’s a fire that has to be applied.”

So Project Conversion was born. He would study and practice one faith each month, guided by a mentor from each belief system. But this was no reality TV stunt.

It was an obsession – his own personal intervention.

“It was 110 percent balls to the walls for me,” Bowen said, describing his dedication to the project.

To find his mentors in late 2010, he had to look outside his tiny, mostly Baptist farm town. His Zoroastrian mentor lives in Chicago. His Jewish mentor lives in Charlotte. His Muslim mentor lives in Fayetteville.

Truthfully, Heather was skeptical about Project Conversion at first.

But she “saw changes in him. He was more patient. There was more of a sense of peace about him,” she said.

His first two weeks each month were spent intensely reading and learning a faith’s tenets and the last half was spent exploring the faith’s practices and rituals and visiting nearby congregations if possible. For his Sikh month, he spent five hours watching YouTube videos on how to tie a turban. During his Jewish month, he spent a weekend visiting different congregations with his Jewish mentor, journalist Michael Solender in Charlotte. He’s filled an entire bookshelf with holy books from his research.

Now as he’s writing a book and speaking about Project Conversion and blogging about the experience for Beliefnet.com, Bowen is still exploring all he’s learned.

“The most important thing I learned in Buddhism was how to wash dishes. Like there is nothing but this dish. It taught me finally to be quiet,” he said. “With the Mormons, the first thing I did was apologize. It was about humility and being one of them and serving them.”

Islam “showed me how much I was wasting in my life from food to activity. Bowing with the men in the mosque was astounding,” he said.

Catholicism was “a wellspring of expression and arts in worship. It was an ocean I could bury myself in for days and not come up for breath.”

The project also touched the lives of his mentors.

“It was energizing in that it allowed us to really put on the table and discuss conversations my wife and I wouldn’t normally have had with other people,” Solender said.

Bowen was one of the best students of Wicca Greenville resident Melissa Barnhurst has had.

“On the first week, he’d already run into tons of public backlash in the stereotypes against Wicca. But he stuck with it,” she said. “He gave it a lot more than some students who’ve come to wanting to become Wiccan.”

Meanwhile, his wife was still working as a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. Things were hard financially, at times, because Bowen wasn’t working.

And then there was November, Jainism and Heather’s least favorite

Andrew Bowen during his Jain month, November 2011. Photo courtesy of Andrew Bowen.

month. Bowen loved becoming a monk, meditating wrapped in his grandmother’s sheets, not bathing and walking with a broom to whisk away any creature in the Jain tradition of respecting all life.

“It was the not bathing or washing your hands,” she said. “The nurse in me was beginning to have a fit.”

Though he admits his experiment caused hardship, the couple had a deal. Bowen put his wife through nursing school. She carried the financial burdens through Project Conversion.

“It was entirely disruptive to our family. We argued more than we ever did, but my kids participated in celebrations, and my wife’s Christianity opened up a whole lot more,” Bowen said.

His wife agrees.

“Faith has become a constant topic in our house,” Heather said. “We may not share a faith. We may never share a faith, but there’s definitely a respect there.”

And now?

Bowen still meditates daily using various prayer books, and he attends Mass occasionally at a Catholic church in Lumberton.

At its essence, Project Conversion was about burying his hatred and learning tolerance.

“For so long, I suffered with ego so now I’m just going to make the faiths of others more beautiful to themselves,” he said. “I don’t think about God now. I just participate.”

VIEWPOINTS: Why do you think the church is losing young adults?

By AMANDA GREENE
WilmingtonFAVS.com

This week’s Viewpoints question had many of our writers really buzzing.

Why do you think the church is losing young adults?

A 2007 Lifeway Research poll found that about 70 percent of youth leave the church of their childhood after high school. About 35 percent of church dropouts said they resumed church attendance by age 30.

Some political analysts are pointing to a ‘God gap; with young people feeling alienated by politicians who incorporate their belief systems into ideas about policy.

Here is what WilmingtonFAVS’ writers had to say.

Victoria Rouch

Victoria Rouch

I blame arrogance and the incursion of religion into politics for driving young people away from churches. Religion should be – first and foremost – about strengthening their fellowship’s link with the Divine. In the past, churches were seen as places where those in need of guidance could gather for support in their spiritual walk. There they were encouraged and uplifted. The churches’ role in the community facilitated this; by encouraging the fellowship’s reaching out to the community, it encouraged charity and love. By being helped and uplifted during spiritual crisis, members learned the value of being part of a supportive community of like-minded believers.

But today, Christian churches seem to have turned away from providing spiritual support to becoming moral scolds. They’ve become huge, both in scope and in arrogance. Megachurches transmit three services a Sunday on theater screens. Preachers like Pat Robertson who have reached celebrity preacher status use their popularity to raise money from people often hard-pressed to send in the donations they’re asked to give. The popularity of these preachers has led too many of them to get into politics and seek to influence political races.

Young people at uncertain places in their lives may no longer see churches as a refuge or a place they can go for supportive environment of spiritual growth. Part of Jesus’ appeal to his followers – and to so many young people – was that he was a bit of a rebel. By loving the sick and needy and rebuking the Pharisees, he bucked the system of his day. Today, so many churches don’t buck the system but are part of it. That’s bound to make anyone cynical, especially young people.

David Scott

David Scott

I have a daughter, age 23, who like me, was raised as a liberal Christian. It has been very revealing to watch her religious evolution. As she grew older, we watched her belief system mature from one base on naiveté into critical thinking on her own. She began to observe the hypocrisy in the organized church and the requirement to accept blind faith instead of scientific and verifiable facts on which to base life’s decisions. She, like me, became more and more appalled at American Christianity’s silence when it came to social issues and our country’s addiction to perpetual war. And, not to become partisan, the church’s alignment with the hate-filled theology of neo-conservatism sealed the deal for my daughter and me. I believe in Christ’s philosophy, but I’m finding modern-day Christianity difficult to swallow.

Steve Lee

Steve Lee

As usual, a Buddhist perspective on this question will be something different. Dharmanet.org indicates that about 1400 locales in the US have some sort of activity that self-identifies as Buddhist. Very few of these, however, are institutions, churches, or temples that are places of worship. Many are retreat centers or groups meeting in homes. Considering the variety of teaching schools, lineages, and practices, it is difficult to reach any reasonable conclusions about growth or loss of practitioners. The general sense, however, is that Buddhism is growing rapidly.

Adherents.com—a growing collection of over 3,870 adherent statistics and religious geography citations—does provide some information about the growth of Buddhism. Of the top five largest religious groups in the US (self-identified through the American Religious Identity Survey), Buddhism has grown the most in the indicated time period.

On a local note, I can report a general increase in interest in Buddhism and a lowering of the average age of those engaged in exploring the Buddhist path to awakening. A local social media site for all things Buddhist, Wilmington Dharma, reports 40.2 percent of all those reached by the site are in the 18-34 year old demographic. Surprisingly, about 60 percent of that age group are males. The number of local practice groups has nearly tripled in the last five years.

Is this local growth all “Buddhist” in the sense of traditional religion? No. Buddhism is reinventing itself in the west, and Wilmington is no different in that regard. Much of the local growth is from people interested in mindfulness and meditation as tools for living. Traditional Buddhist practices rely heavily on such techniques, but the techniques are not the be-all, end-all to awakening.

Cynthia Barnett

Cynthia Barnett

I think young people, like many other thinkers today, are searching for something authentic. This spiritual search may take them away from creeds, rituals, dogma and even established denominations. They want a fresh look at what it means to follow Good, or God, in this world, and they want to discover it for themselves.

I like to think of church as a living idea, not limited to a building, service or doctrine. I’ve been taught that it’s the structure of Truth and Love; that it rouses us from material beliefs to spiritual ideas and gives us proof that it’s useful in our individual lives, our communities and our world. Church heals, and more. It gives purpose, meaning and unconditional love for us to express. So it’s up to us. That’s a challenge!

Clay Ritter

Pastor Clay Ritter

Why is the church losing young adults? There are a multitude of reasons, but one I would submit is this: Resistance to change on the part of church leaders.

The message should not change (truth is truth), but how we deliver the message can and must change. Young people are searching for truth. They want to make a difference in their world. Case in point: Candidate Barack Obama’s success in uniting the college vote – these kids wanted to make a difference!. But they see the churches of their parents as stale and not relevant.

As leaders, we must be willing to assess what is not working, and be willing to change it so we can reach the next generation. These kids WILL run the world after we are dead and gone, so we had better make sure that they have a foundation of truth, character and courage to carry into their high calling.

I read recently that Howard Hendricks was called in to assess a church that was declining in attendance, and this was his recommendation: “Put a fence around the church and charge admission to people that want to see how church was done in the 1950’s.”

All we need to do is look at Western Europe, where great churches that were the guiding moral compass in society are now being converted to restaurants and clubs.

Bottom line: truth will always be truth, and we should never seek to water down our core beliefs, which will only negate the power of our message. Style, delivery, communication mediums, music, these are things that are not core doctrinal values (if they are, then you have another problem altogether), and must be made relative to the culture we seek to reach.

Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens

The church is losing young adults because society is selling them a better story (a better life) than the church. Society knows what young people want. And the church, or churches, have refused to adapt. I’m not saying the church needs to invest in some sexy back-up dancers in worship or tell people Jesus looked just like Channing Tatum. But the church does need to sell young adults a better story. For too long the church has condemned young people for succumbing to the ways of the world. Instead, they should be loving young adults, despite their faults.

The church has condemned while society has accepted.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Shouldn’t the church be accepting the outcast, tattooed, gay, pierced, hurt and broken? The answer is, simply, yes. But this isn’t always the case. Young adults have grown up in a society where religious organizations have turned their backs to these people. And, in turn, young adults have turned their backs on the church.

If I didn’t not grow up in a family and church who, at their core, love God and people (no matter where they come from) I would probably be joining those young people who have turned their back on the church.

We can place the blame on the loss of young adults in the church on the church as a whole, but you ARE the church. If you want to see young adults coming to know Christ and get involved in the church, you have to love these young adults where they are.

Instead of condemning these young adults for what they’ve done, let’s open up our arms. Then we can share with the the incredible story that Christ offers them.

Laura Frank

Laura Frank

I have over 12 years experience working as a youth and young adult minister. I have seen this problem up close several times. First, this is not another conservative versus liberal argument. I once worked for a liberal-leaning pastor and church, and due to their resistance to change, the youth program died, and the young adults stopped attending. A vibrant theatre arts program that brought youth and adults from the church and from other churches together in Christian fellowship was also squashed. The theatre program -though highly successful and a great service project -proved to be too far out of the box of normal church ministry. It became obvious the people giving the most money to the church (the older population) had the loudest and most pervasive voice in the church going forward.
Youth need to have the freedom given to them in Christ to express their love and devotion to God in their own unique ways -they need to be accepted where they are at that moment. That can be through sports or technology and even from my experience -the arts.

If their individual ways of expressing their faith is not accepted in their church, they will leave and possibly never return to the faith. Their voices deserve to be heard. The church belongs to them just as much, even though they probably don’t give as much money.

Han Hills

Han Hills

In a word, information. The modern technological era has made available a huge variety of material online that exposes and demands the reassessment of differing viewpoints. In this environment, churches no longer have control over the information to which our youth are exposed. Through social networking, it is inevitable that the Internet generation reads, hears and sees alternative viewpoints which vastly contradict any singular dogma or rationale espoused at the pulpit. Since the earliest times, religious institutions have fought against the dissemination of information, fighting the translation and publication of texts, especially those that challenge often narrow and archaic viewpoints. Today, this is a battle they can no longer fight nor win. Young people can plainly see that those outside their own traditional faith are not an immoral enemy, but rather a collection of groups vastly similar to themselves. The argument could be made that the young still need social community, but again, they are increasingly finding this online. Blogs are the new pulpits, and social networking the new community for our next generation.

Christine Moughamian

Christine Moughamian

In 1969, my family relocated from Beaune to Chartres, France. I was 16. Both my parents found new jobs; my siblings and I went to new schools. Three months later, I had made new friends, got good grades and was my class mascot.

But deep inside, I was lonely. Something was missing in my life.

My parents didn’t give us a religious upbringing. One day after school, I took a chance and walked alone into the massive cathedral. I walked around the pews, then to the confessional. I knew I had to address the Catholic priest as “Father,” but I couldn’t make myself do it. I sat down in the tight wooden structure. It felt unfamiliar, almost scary.

I couldn’t see the priest’s face in the dark.

“Sir,” I said in a low voice, “I feel something’s missing in me. I don’t believe in God, but I really want to.”

In response, the priest told me to “make friends at school, get good grades and be happy.”

I left even more distraught than when I’d walked in.

God’s priest had let me down.

Looking back at that experience, I think the priest had good intentions, but also lacked appreciation for an adolescent’s drama. I was a “well-adjusted” teen. I did not need advice on how to “make new friends or good grades.”

But I did need guidance into spirituality to help me deal with a world of chaos and war. I needed to know: “How do I feel God’s presence in my life?”

In 2012 America, our society is even more frightening. Christians and “God’s representatives” must learn to address the reality and the poignancy of a young adult’s spiritual quest.

Andy Lee

Andy Lee

I am a mother of three. My kids are ages 20, 19, and 14. We were a military family who moved often, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch my kids respond to the different styles of worship and teaching in the many churches we’ve attended.

It’s quite simple. My kids need and desire a church where they can be themselves. Sing to music their generation listens to. Listen to preachers who make the message relevant to today. They need this in a church because our faith isn’t just about Sunday. Faith is 24/7. That’s why Sunday needs to resemble this generation’s “every day.”

The new church movement with rock bands and preachers in jeans and sneakers is really not very different from what Jesus did. The Pharisees were not pleased with his new “worship style” either. He healed people on the Sabbath and ate with sinners. Radical. We sing in the dark to the thump of a bass drum, a far cry from the churches of 50 years ago. But it is a place my kids want to be. It’s a church where they are growing their faith. Not mine.

Jesus told those questioning his methods that new wine cannot be poured into old wineskins. In the same way, the church must grow and evolve with each generation. We cannot force our style on them. The heart of the message does not change, but the format must.

My middle son has recently posted a video on Facebook that gives an answer to our Viewpoints question. Why don’t we ask a young person?

Praying for God to hurt someone is not illegal, judge rules

By DAVID GIBSON
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) Is it okay to ask God to do harm to another person? The theology of such “imprecatory prayer” may be a matter of debate, but a Dallas judge has ruled it is legal, at least as long as no one is actually threatened or harmed.

District Court Judge Martin Hoffman on Monday (April 2) dismissed a

Former Navy Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt has used imprecatory prayer against his critics. Religion News Service file photo courtesy of Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt.

lawsuit brought by Mikey Weinstein against a former Navy chaplain who he said used “curse” prayers like those in Psalm 109 to incite others to harm the atheist and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and his family.

Hoffman said there was no evidence that the prayers by Gordon Klingenschmitt, who had been endorsed for the Navy chaplaincy by the Dallas-based Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, were connected to threats made against Weinstein and his family or damage done to his property.

According to the lawsuit, Klingenschmitt posted a prayer on his website urging followers to pray for the downfall of MRFF.

“I praise God for religious freedom because the judge declared it’s OK to pray imprecatory prayers and quote Psalm 109,” Klingenschmitt said after the ruling, according to The Dallas Morning News. Psalm 109 calls for the death of an opponent and curses on his widow and children, among other things.

Hoffman’s ruling did not actually turn on constitutional questions as much as it did on Weinstein’s claims that the prayers incited the threats and vandalism.

Headshot of Mikey Weinstein. Photo provided.

Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who started the foundation to battle what he sees as undue religious influence in the armed forces, said Friday (April 6) that “a very aggressive appeal is highly likely.” He said he has received numerous death threats, had swastikas painted on his house, and that his windows have been shot out and animal carcasses left on his doorstep as a result of his activism.

“We are disappointed in the ruling because we believe the judge made a mistake in not understanding that imprecatory prayers are code words for trolling for assassins for the Weinstein family,” Weinstein said. “I don’t think the judge understood that these are not regular prayers,” he added, comparing imprecatory prayer to a radical Islamic fatwa.

Imprecatory prayers have a long if complicated history in religious traditions. But this type of prayer, and Psalm 109 in particular, has become a hot topic since President Obama’s election as a number of religious conservatives have invoked it against him.

In the most recent case, the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Kansas, Mike O’Neal, sparked an outcry in January when he sent Psalm 109 to Republican colleagues, writing, “At last — I can honestly voice a biblical prayer for our president!”

“Thankfully, the district court recognized that if people are forced to stop offering imprecatory prayers, half the churches, synagogues and mosques in this country will have to be shut down,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a legal advocacy group that helped defend the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches.

UNC-Chapel Hill scholar Bart Ehrman’s new portrayal of Jesus is surprisingly sympathetic

Bart Ehrman Photo from Religion News Service.

By YONAT SHIMRON
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (RNS) For years, nonbelievers rejoiced at the publication of a new book by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, relishing the professor’s pugnacious attacks on the cherished beliefs of evangelical Christians.

But in his latest offering, the University of North Carolina historian and author of such provocative titles as “Misquoting Jesus,” “Forged,” and “Jesus Interrupted,” targets the very crowd that formed the bulk of his audience.

In “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth,”

Jesus image via RNS archives

Ehrman soundly refutes the arguments — sometimes made by atheists, agnostics and humanists — that early storytellers invented Jesus.

As Christians prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, Ehrman, an agnostic, convincingly demonstrates in clear, forceful prose that there was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher of the first century who was crucified by Pontius Pilate. As for the so-called “mythicists” who argue otherwise, Ehrman has some choice words: “sensationalist,” “wrongheaded,” and “amateurish.”

“They’re driven by an ideological agenda, which is, they find organized religion to be dangerous and harmful and the chief organized religion in their environment is Christianity,” Ehrman said in an interview.

The fact that Ehrman is siding with Christians on the historical truth of Jesus does not indicate a change of heart, much less a conversion. Instead, he said, it’s an attempt to say, “history matters.”

But for fellow nonbelievers, who cheered Ehrman’s previous books as proof that evangelicals are wrong about many biblical claims, the latest publication seems like the beginnings of family feud, if not an outright betrayal.

Some have already suggested Ehrman is painting atheists with too broad a brush.

“I don’t personally know a single atheist who would deny that Jesus existed,” said Louise Antony, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It would be really unfair to suggest that it’s part of being an atheist to deny the existence of Jesus as a historical person.”

Yet Ehrman who said he spent a summer boning up on mythicist books, such as “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” and “The Jesus Mysteries,” sees a growing embrace of the position that Jesus was a fictional figure.

Ehrman said he had long received occasional emails from atheists and others asking him if he thought Jesus actually lived. Then last year, he accepted an award at a meeting of the American Humanist Association in Cambridge, Mass. While there, he was dismayed to find many humanists, who describe themselves as “good without God,” adhered to widely discredited notions that Jesus never lived.

It eventually dawned on him that the Jesus deniers were the flip side of the Christian fundamentalists he had long ago foresworn. Both were using Jesus to justify their relationship to Christianity.

“I keep telling Christians, they don’t have to be afraid of the truth,” said Ehrman. “The same thing applies to atheists and humanists. It’s not going to kill them to think Jesus really existed.”

Largely missing from the quarrel is an acknowledgement of how far atheists and agnostics have come.

“They’re squabbling over the existence of a man, not a messiah or a god,” said Ryan Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa. “No one is saying Jesus was God. If you step back it’s not that cataclysmic.”

If anything, said Cragun, who studies atheists, the sparring may be a sign the atheist movement is maturing. Meanwhile, evangelical Christians, watching from the sidelines, are enjoying a breather.

“I wrote Bart a note and said, ‘Thank you for doing our dirty work for us,'” said Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and an evangelical blogger. “This saves us some time.”

What do mythicists argue?

If Jesus really existed, mythicists ask why so few first-century writers mention him. These mythicists dismiss the Gospel accounts as biased and therefore non-historical. To many mythicists, the Jesus story is based on pagan myths about dying and rising gods.

What does Ehrman argue?

Ehrman points out that only about 3 percent of Jews in Jesus’ time were literate, and Romans never kept detailed records. (Decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, three Roman writers mention Jesus in passing, as does the Jewish historian Josephus.) Though the Gospel accounts are biased, they cannot be discounted as non-historical. As for Jesus being a Jewish version of the pagan dying and rising god, Ehrman shows that there is no evidence the Jews of Jesus’ day worshipped pagan gods. If anything, Jesus was deeply rooted in Jewish, rather than Roman, traditions.

Photos from Rock Beyond Belief in Fayetteville this weekend

Local photographers Louis Shackleton and Joseph Stewart documented the Rock Beyond Belief concert at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville this Saturday (March 31).

Here are some of the shots they took to compliment Contributor Han Hills’ Week of Reason for WilmingtonFAVS.

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The Week of Reason, Part 3 – Rock Beyond Belief

HP - Griffith Interview March 2011 - Scarlet A

Justin Griffith Interview March 2011 - Scarlet A (Photo credit: Valerie Tarico) via Wikipedia

By Contributor Han Hills

Old friends and new hearts. After the Washington D.C. Reason Rally and American Atheists Convention, it had been a long week for the Freethought movement. And many expected low spirits and low turnout at the Rock Beyond Belief concert at Fort Bragg on Saturday (March 31.) They were proved resoundingly wrong.

The event started as a response to a similar rally produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association on the same parade ground a few years ago. One man, Sgt. Justin Griffith, believed, for the sake of equality, there should be a secular concert to show the Freethought community could give just as powerful a response.

This was Rock Beyond Belief. Despite earlier rain, the sun shone down as around 2,000 people gathered to hear music, speeches and to simply settle back with friends. Unlike the Reason Rally, with throngs of the proudly unchurched, this was a simpler gathering of bunches of groups, relaxing and enjoying great entertainment and powerful messages.

Circling the grounds were booths from every major group, local and national, welcoming all and excited to see old friends return. The Student groups were there, as well, and everyone in the Freethought movement sent a strong and happy “hurrah” to the troops and all those gathered under tents around the field.

The speakers ranged from the headliner of the week, Richard Dawkins, along with the powerful voice of American Atheists‘ David Silverman, to Justin Griffith himself, who gave a moving and passionate speech on the importance of fairness and balance in our country’s military.

This was not, as had been portrayed in the press, an event about conflict, but rather a simple celebration of the rational non-theism so often hidden in our nation’s military. Many had predicted a large protest in response, but there were only a couple handing out pro-faith flyers.

There is no doubt that this event was a success.

What, then, was the point of an event like Rock Beyond Belief? It was simply to show this – our military services demand equality of faith and expression. This should mean, in the long term, that religious festivals of any kind have no place on the bases used by our brave men and women who give this country military service. Rock Beyond Belief was not intended to be the first of many, but rather a challenge to our military leaders to exclude religiosity in all forms from the governing of service members. Let us, in the future, have entertainment, but let it be without religion, be it Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist or other. Let our service men and women get on with the job of protecting our country and keep all religions back in the pulpit where they rightfully belong.

This was the message that Rock Beyond Belief intended to send, and they managed it with passion, noise and style. Bravo, to Justin and his team! We must hope that our military leaders hear the outcry far beyond the parade ground.

Editor’s note: Check back for photos from Rock Beyond Belief.

The Week of Reason, Part Two – The 2012 American Atheists Convention

By Contributor Han Hills

What better start could there be to this year’s American Atheists Convention than a national rally on the Washington Mall, which I wrote about in part one of this series.

This was a golden achievement and served as an obvious start to their annual convention in Bethesda, running from the end of the rally on March 24 to March 26.

After the resounding success of the Reason Rally, American Atheists held a free after party including “Debaptisms” performed by the always amusing Edwin Kagin. For many, humorous acts such as these serve to show, once again, that the symbolic practices of many organized religions hold very little significance in the real world.

At the conference, Richard Dawkins spoke about the folly that we should quietly respect the illogical and dangerous beliefs of our prospective political leaders. He strongly argued that it was both dangerous and unacceptable to hand the highest social power to men and women who openly vouch for laughably unproven and unfounded faith traditions, and that we need a caliber of leaders with real world understanding based in fact and not fiction.

The splendid and unashamedly blasphemous culmination of Sunday’s activity was a costume dinner, where attendees were encouraged to lampoon their favorite religious icons. I attended as a heavily robed black monk, rosary adorned. It was of no surprise to any present that our blasphemies went noticeably unpunished. The gods, and their creeds, seemed, as always, both absent and silent.

American Atheists are an unashamed group openly and proudly in conflict with the religious industry.

I left the conference with a newly revitalized will to attack injustice and irrationality wherever it should be found. American Atheists, as the name suggests, stand firmly in opposition to the influence of blind faith and dangerous power of organized religion. For them, there are no sacred cows and the toleration of even the smallest irrationality is not an option. This is a fight against a bloated and malignant emperor who must be shown publicly to have no clothes. In their eyes, this is a battle they must fight to the last and their numbers, particularly among the young, grow with each passing day.

Like many, I left the on a cold Maryland morning with a warrior’s resolve. Though I consider myself a compassionate Humanist, I cannot help but see the sharp edge of the debate, tempered by the glimmering intelligence of Dawkins and others. True, this is one end of a long continuum of non-theistic thinking but a powerful and increasingly popular one, especially among new online communities.

The next event in this amazing week of reason is the “Rock Beyond Belief” concert at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and I will report on this in the final part of my trilogy of posts.

The Week of Reason – Part one, Reason Rally

By Contributor Han Hills

This week a tide of reason swept the nation as freethinkers, young and old, came together to embrace a spirit of sense and sanity beginning to wake up the country.

It began with a true landmark event, The Reason Rally on the

Atheist blogger Greta Christina speaking at The Reason Rally in March 2012. Photo via Wikipedia.

National Mall in Washington D.C. on March 24. A powerful and famous group of Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers and others who have cast aside religion came out onto the public stage in our national capitol to greet a crowd officially estimated at 25,000, a figure beyond all expectations.

The greatest surprise, looking out on the crowd, was the overwhelming majority of young faces. Today’s Freethought movement is driven by America’s youth. Tired of repressive and nonsensical superstition, they reach for a future based on thinking, science and sanity.

Speaker were greats from the worlds of science, comedy, music and the arts including Richard Dawkins, Eddie Izzard, Bill Maher and Tim Minchin.

About halfway through the festivities, the clouds broke and the rains came, but it didn’t matter. The crowds stayed for more. There was something for everyone on the Mall that day. For the very young, a large team from Camp Quest, the new secular program for children of all ages, opened a huge tent to make learning fun. For all ages, there was the joy of being surrounded by the like-minded, the tolerant, and other open hearts unchained by tradition, sectarianism or dogma.

An astonishing phenomenon in recent years has been the growth of the Freethought community online, through Facebook and other social networks, and the thousands of passionate bloggers spreading the message of positivity, equality and visions of a bright future. For many old friends online, the Reason Rally was a first chance to connect in person. This was a rally forged in cyberspace that showed how easily this movement can move out with strength into the world.

In the crowd, the message was a clear and consistent one. This is a beginning, the surge forward of a genuine movement that will shape the future of our country in years and decades to come.

The Rally was organized by many groups from across the spectrum of Freethinking, Atheist and Humanist communities. The truth is those in this movement have far more in common than apart. Together they are becoming an important and growing social voice and voting block. This is a movement of the young and so a voice that is here to stay.

Groups such as American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association and especially the Secular Student Alliance, have seen their membership grow exponentially already this decade, and that trend looks only to continue. This is not just a movement against religion, though. Rather it represents a positive force of ideas for a positive future without repression.

Another large gathering of thousands is happening today (March 31), Rock Beyond Belief at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. It seems this community will not tire of gathering by the thousands to express their opinions and call for a new wind of sanity. Our nation’s elected leaders should sit up and take notice.

Do atheists have anything to learn from religion?

By KIMBERLY WINSTON
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) Stripped of its supernatural elements, does religion have anything to offer atheists? What can nonbelievers borrow from the organizations, practices and rituals of believers — without borrowing a belief in God?

According to Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, a lot.

In his new book, “Religion For Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion” he outlines an array of things he contends religions get right and that atheists can adopt to create a better, richer secular society.

“The starting point of all religions is that humans are weak and vulnerable and needing direction,” de Botton said shortly after arriving in the U.S. from his home in England to promote the book.

“But as I look at secular society, I see how we’ve been abandoned to make our own way through life and how challenging that is.”

Religion, de Botton writes, has a lot to say about how to live and love, caring for others, handling suffering, dealing with death and all the other universal experiences that make us human.

And while he is not suggesting that atheists adopt a belief, he argues that atheists ignore religion’s wisdom at their peril.

“The error of modern atheism,” he writes, “has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.”

For example, to help build a sense of community, he suggests atheists borrow the idea of a weekly, communal meal found at the heart of the Catholic Mass. Atheists could make pilgrimages — not to religious sites, but to places of renewal and meaning, such as a place of great natural beauty or silence or a secular retreat center.

The idea that has attracted the most attention is de Botton’s suggestion that atheists build their own temples. He has garnered financial and ideological support for such a site in downtown London. Early architectural drawings show a tower representing the age of the Earth bisected by a thin gold line to mark the time humans have existed.

“It isn’t about the worship of reason or atheism or the existence or non-existence of God,” de Botton said. “It is a space where ego is stilled and put into a wider context. It borrows (from religion) the concept that space is an integral part of getting you into the right frame of mind for something.”

The book has received mixed reviews. Writing in The New York Times‘ Book Review, David Brooks praised some of de Botton’s ideas — like his suggestion that museums be organized on universal themes, like compassion — while calling others “silly,” such as de Botton’s call for universities to reorganize to include a “Department of Relationships” and a “Center for Self-Knowledge.”

But the harshest criticism has come from within the atheist movement itself. In public and private, fellow atheists have accused de Botton of “betraying” atheism for suggesting religion has value. He was attacked in the British press by Richard Dawkins, best-selling author of “The God Delusion,” and in the blogosphere by P.Z. Myers, an American atheist and biologist.

“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,” Myers wrote on his blog, Pharyngula. “You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy.”

But de Botton said it is not the hard-liners he is trying to reach.

“I am talking to someone who finds themselves not in a position to believe, who has no intuitive sense of the presence of the divine,” he said. “That said, they are relaxed about that, they don’t hate religion, they know bad things have gone on about religion, but they don’t need to go on about it at every turn. They like the arts, the ethics, the best moments of religion. They are selective.”