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I'm working on other books these days. While I'll still update this blog as time allows, more frequent updates can be found at my personal site, joelgrus.com.

The Claremont School of Theology is in the news for its ambitious plans to create a new interdisciplinary theology program:

At a press conference this morning, we announced our agreement to co-create the first graduate consortium in the world that will provide theological education for Christians, Jews, Muslims, as well as students from other faith groups. Each group will maintain its own curriculum and have the opportunity to contribute to a unique shared interreligious curriculum designed to provide students with the experience of interreligious dialogue and study alongside students from other religious traditions.

I know what you’re worrying — if Christians are exposed to Muslim teachings, and so on, some of them might change their minds about what they’re studying! After all, isn’t that how education works? Someone goes to college thinking he’s going to study chemistry, and then he takes a philosophy course and switches his major, and then he takes another philosophy course and switches it back, and then he breaks too much glassware, so he switches to physics, and then he breaks a really expensive atom-smashing apparatus, so he switches to math, and then math is too hard, so he switches to sociology?

In secular studies that’s an OK thing to do. The chemistry department and the physics department might have different explanations for a few things, but at a deep level physics and chemistry complement each other. Believing the principles of chemistry doesn’t logically require you to disbelieve the principles of physics, nor vice versa.

Theology is different, though. You can’t logically believe both “Jesus Christ is both god and the son of god” and “Jesus Christ was just some dude with long hair.” That doesn’t work.

Fortunately, it turns out that “learning about other religions” doesn’t really mean learning about other religions:

Another truism is that interreligious dialogue is more about deepening the existing religious identity of an individual than it is about conversion to another religion. Furthermore, research shows that individuals who learn in religiously diverse environments usually do not convert to another tradition.

So basically, the classes about Islam “deepen” Muslims’ conviction that Islam is correct, and they “deepen” non-Muslims’ conviction that Islam is wrong. Similarly for the classes about Christianity, about Judaism, and about other religions.

This is, if you think about it, a pretty impressive thing to accomplish. Nonetheless, I’m not sure whether “strengthening students’ pre-existing superstitions” really should count as a “new paradigm for theological education.” Isn’t that what they’ve been doing for centuries?

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Times aren’t just tough for mortgage brokers and incumbent Senators. No, the economic downturn has hit closer to home (assuming you live near a church):

According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, there are more than 600,000 ministers in the United States but only 338,000 churches. Many of those are small churches that can’t afford a full-time preacher. Among Presbyterians, there are four pastors looking for work for every one job opening.

It’s got to be difficult finding out that your once-lucrative “divinity” degree now isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, and that you’d probably be better off if you’d taken fun classes about Judge Judy and “Star Trek” instead of all those seminars on “homiletics.”

But the even worse part is losing your “calling”:

says Proctor, “It’s hard for any man who is called to preach to sit in the pew.”

And here I’m not without sympathy. After all, I was called to be a Superbowl-winning-quarterback-turned-movie-star (you can’t prove I wasn’t), but every Sunday during the NFL season I also find myself sitting in the (metaphorical) pew. In fact, this year the Seahawks wouldn’t even let me into their so-called “open” tryouts.

Yet I made the best of God’s bad advice, and so I have confidence that these struggling would-be clergy can do the same.

Hopefully their divinity skills like “New Testament Greek” and “Denominational Polity” and “Biblical exegesis” will transfer to some of the more in-demand jobs right now, like oil-spill-scrubber and national-debt-counter and census spy.

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A recent poll in the UK revealed that the man on the street doesn’t think much of Islam:

# 58% associate Islam with extremism
# 50% associate Islam with terrorism
# Just 13% associate Islam with peace

Part of the problem is that people are getting information from completely biased sources:

# 57% obtain most of their information about Islam from the TV news
# 41% obtain their information about Islam from newspapers
# Just 3% get most of their information on Islam from Muslim organisations

After all, when you want to know about (say) the BP oil spill, you don’t go to the TV or newspapers. You want a website run by BP itself, since they’re the unbiased experts on the topic.

Accordingly, a bunch of Muslims have put together a site talking about how much they like Muhammad. It’s got video testimonials, inspiring quotes from modern-day scholars like H.G. Wells, timely examples from the Ottoman Empire and Muslim-occupied Spain, and a bright and cheerful color scheme.

The one thing it doesn’t do, alas, is provide any evidence to refute the poll results.

If people believe that Islam is associated with terrorism, it’s a complete non sequitur to respond that Muhammad was interested in Women’s Rights and Education.

For one thing, neither of these is particularly related to terrorism. More importantly, it doesn’t matter what Mohammed said. People associate Islam with terrorism because there are lots of prominent terrorist groups who explicitly claim Islam as their motivation. People think Islam has backward views on Education and Women’s Rights, because there are Islamic countries that have religiously-motivated backward policies on Education and Women’s Rights.

If your goal is to convince people that Islam and terrorism have nothing to do with each other, you might want to put up a webpage or two addressing the reasons why people think they do. (For extra credit you might consider condemning the people responsible for creating the impression, who — you’ll be surprised to learn — aren’t the TV stations and newspapers.) If your goal is to convince people that Islam is progressive on Women’s Rights, you might want to talk about the parts of the world where Islam is used to justify denying rights to women.

After all, even BP isn’t trying to deny that an oil spill is happening!

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Whether you’re in favor of interfaith marriage or opposed to interfaith marriage, the Washington Post has got both good and bad news for you. First, the good (or bad) news: interfaith marriages are occurring at higher rates than ever! The bad (or good) news: they’re also failing at higher rates than ever!

The former shouldn’t be surprising — a huge fraction of young people don’t even remember what religion they’re supposed to be and simply say “spiritual but not religious,” which inadvertently tricks their mates-to-be into believing that they’ve found someone compatible. (“Why, I’m also spiritual but not religious! What are the odds?”)

The second shouldn’t be surprising either. Once they get married and are forced to affiliate with a church (or synagogue, or mosque, or Hindu temple, or Mormon temple, or Scientology Celebrity Center), they have to start grappling with the fact that they believe horrifically incompatible things:

When Joseph Reyes and Rebecca Shapiro got married in 2004, they had a Jewish wedding ceremony. He was Catholic but converted to Judaism after they married, and they agreed to raise any children in the Jewish faith. However, after their daughter Ela was born, Reyes began to worry about the fact that she had not been baptized. “If, God forbid, something happened to her, she wouldn’t be in heaven,” he told me.

Naturally, this led to divorce proceedings and a hilarious legal battle involving photographs of secret baptisms, judge’s orders prohibiting exposure to non-Judaic religions, and lawyers insisting that there aren’t any “sharp lines between Judaism and Christianity.”

Now, if I were the one writing the article, it probably would have occurred to me to ask, “why would someone who believes that the unbaptized don’t go to heaven be willing to convert to Judaism? Why would he agree to raise his daughter in a manner that (according to his worldview) ensured her damnation? What sort of devil’s hold did this Shapiro girl have on him?”

Because this is an interesting question. If my girlfriend believes that the world is coming to an end in 2012 and that we should be hunkering down in the backwoods of Montana with lots of guns and gold and groceries and learning to generate our own electricity and grind our own flour and live off-the-grid (don’t tell her I told you she thinks that!), then if I don’t want to move to Montana I shouldn’t marry her. This has nothing to do with religion, it’s pure common sense (but I repeat myself).

This tension between “religion doesn’t matter to me” and “religion is very important to me” is something you see in a lot of people, and I found myself wishing that the article had dug deeper into this topic, which is a lot more interesting than dating advice from Lee Strobel.

I should confess that in the past I actually have dated religious people, and that most conflicts (e.g. “can you stop leaving your E-meter on the kitchen table?”) were pretty simple to resolve. Nonetheless, there were never any kids (or Kid-E-meters) involved, and things typically went awry as soon as the girls realized that my references to “your imaginary friend” and “your stone-age beliefs” and “that moronic house of morons that you and all those other morons go to every Sunday” weren’t intended affectionately.

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At this point you are probably well aware of tomorrow’s Boobquake, in which women (and any chubby men that feel like participating) will flaunt their breasts to test an Iranian cleric’s theory that immodest dress causes earthquakes.

However, if you look carefully, his claim is slightly different:

The prayer leader, Hojatoleslam Kazim Sadeghi, says women and girls who “don’t dress appropriately” spread “promiscuity in society.”

“When promiscuity spreads, earthquakes increase,” he says in a video posted Monday on YouTube, apparently of him leading Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, last week.

This makes my inner scientist worry. Maybe immodestly leads to promiscuity, but unless it leads to same-day promiscuity, then we shouldn’t expect to see an earthquake tomorrow even if Sadeghi is right!

There’s only one way to make sure the science works out. Promiscuity-quake! Who’s in?

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It’s hard to watch the news without hearing all about Goldman Sachs. It’s almost enough to make you wish for another Tiger Woods sex scandal, or some new lurid developments in the Amanda Knox case, or a Jon and Kate reconcilation, or maybe some sort of record-breaking “enneamom.”

Nonetheless, it seemed worth investigating whether there was any sort of religious angle, because it seems like there always is. And sure enough:

Lloyd Blankfein, the firm’s chief executive officer, told London’s Sunday Times last fall that he is just a banker “doing God’s work.”

Is Goldman Sachs just “doing God’s work”? I made a little table so we can check:

Goldman
God
earned $3.46 billion in most recent quarter earns almost this much in Germany alone!
gets alumni into influential government positions gets alumni into influential government positions
helped provoke subprime housing crisis helped provoke all-encompassing housing crisis
under assault by the SEC under assault by a federal judge
helped fuel the dot-com bubble helped fuel the loaves and fishes bubble
minions working to destroy civilization minions working to destroy civilization

Indeed, it looks like they pretty much are doing god’s work. I guess that means I need to add a new chapter to the book.

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One common complaint levied by those of us who write hilarious books mocking religion concerns the huge number of problems created by people trying to live life in the 21st century using rules written down by cavemen many centuries ago, long before the invention of indoor plumbing, refrigeration, internal combustion engines, the Nintendo Wii, “organic” certification, IUDs, and “fair trade” coffee.

For example, Jewish scripture predates the invention of bicycles and spandex, leading to silly conflicts when bike lanes run through religious neighborhoods. Similarly, Catholic proscriptions on contraception, which might have made sense back when people disgustingly used candy bar wrappers as birth control, seem pretty goofy now that actual condoms are available for free in the school nurse’s office.

And, of course, the Muslim idea that a woman should only be seen in public wearing a burqa might need rethinking now that go-carts have become popular:

The Muslim clothing the woman was wearing flew back as she sped around the track and part of it became entangled in the go-kart’s wheels.

She was strangled in a second and crashed the vehicle.

This is not only a go-kart-specific problem, either. The same could happen with a lawn mower, with a motorbike, with a roller-coaster or a Sit ‘n Spin or a Tower of Terror.

It seems pretty clear that the burqa isn’t appropriate apparel for the modern world.

I mean, I guess you could instead take the position that maybe women just shouldn’t be allowed to do any of those things, or maybe that women’s lives just aren’t that important, and a few strangulations is a small price to pay for the corresponding benefits of getting your life micro-managed by a bunch of scripture-interpreting zealots.

But religious people couldn’t be that callous. Could they?

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Of all the holidays, I think Easter might be my favorite. How can you not feel a bit awed when you think about how Jesus so loved the world that he came back from the dead in order to molest deaf children?

Unfortunately, the whole celebration is under a bit of a cloud this year, what with all the petty gossip about the Pope’s complicity in covering up sexual abuse by pedophile priests.

I personally think it’s a bit unfair for us to focus so much energy on his role in the sexual abuse scandals while ignoring his role in the Plame affair, in the Vince Foster murder, and in Abscam.

It doesn’t really matter, though, as it looks like the Pope will be able to use his diplomatic immunity card to get out of jail free:

“The pope is certainly a head of state, who has the same juridical status as all heads of state,” he said, arguing he therefore had immunity from foreign courts.

Now, obviously this isn’t on the same level as really egregious diplomatic immunity abuses like the end of Lethal Weapon 2 or the “Law and Order: SVU” episode about Romanian wife-smuggling or unpaid parking tickets. But it still puts him out of our reach, unless maybe we can spare some Marines from Afghanistan, which doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

That leaves our hopes in the hands of rank-and-file Catholics, who could quickly and peacefully put a halt to both the priests-touching-boys and the pope-covering-up-for-priests-touching-boys problems by quitting the church. Without parishioners, it would quickly go out of business and could be replaced by slightly less criminal churches. (This is what economists call “creative destruction,” although in today’s world there’s always the possibility that Tim Geithner or Ben Bernanke might decide the Church is “too big to fail” and try to save it using our tax dollars.)

There would be other benefits as well:

  • Springtime lunch options no longer restricted to crappy Quiznos Lenten menu
  • Sunday mornings suddenly free to watch “America Quilts Creatively” on PBS
  • No more germy Christ-blood sharing means slower spread of communicable diseases
  • Savings from not tithing could be donated to help pay off national debt
  • Prime Catholic real estate in Rome could be repurposed into something everyone can enjoy, like a Starbucks.
  • If we’re lucky, no more Dan Brown books.
  • Deep sense of satisfaction from no longer devoting life to false beliefs.

Catholics, won’t you think about it? If you won’t do it for me, then do it for the children! Or maybe for Dan Brown!

Oh, and happy Easter!

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Having settled the whole Irish abuse situation to everyone’s satisfaction, Pope Benedict has shifted his focus back to the delicate interplay between science and religion:

There is no opposition between faith and science, says Benedict XVI, who proposed the example of St. Albert the Great to illustrate this truth.

Well, of course! What better way to demonstrate the compatibility of science and religion than with the example of a man who lived 800 years ago, back in the heyday of science!

You might not be familiar with Albert, as for some reason *cough* anti-religious-bias *cough* they tend not to teach much about him in science class, but he was a real scientist’s scientist.

For instance, he was an earlier pioneer of alchemy, and (like Nicolas Flamel in the British versions of Harry Potter) he wrote a treatise on the Philosopher’s Stone. He discovered the depilatory effects of frog ashes. His theory of astrological talismans was centuries ahead of its time. He witnessed the creation of gold by “transmutation,” which even today’s scientists can’t manage. And he was even said to be interested in phrenology, which wasn’t even really popular until 500 years later.

So next time someone tries to tell you faith and science aren’t compatible, you just remind them that the 13th century says different!

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Yemen’s Next Top Cleric

Wow. I’ve been super-busy lobbying my congresspersons to send free $250 checks to old people, and they’ve finally come through, which means I can start again following news that isn’t about giving free checks to old people.

Just in time, it turns out, because it looks like there’s a lot going on.

For instance, the winners of the last several seasons of “Yemen’s Next Top Cleric” have taken a break from their lucrative modeling contracts to call apostasy on anyone who supports a ban on child brides.

(To be clear, I don’t think all of Yemen’s Top Clerics actually got their positions via reality TV. I’m sure some of them also won Dungeons and Dragons tournaments.)

At first blush it sounds a little extreme to advocate that your political opponents be beheaded, but (as I’ve learned while carefully following the free-checks-for-old-people debate) public discourse all seems headed in that direction anyway.

Meanwhile, it’s almost time for Passover, when we pretend that Jews built the pyramids and try to force supermarkets to locate in bad neighborhoods:

The groups are pressing Reyes to include not only carrots but also sticks in his proposed ordinance, urging him to use the city’s permitting powers to challenge grocers who locate in well-heeled neighborhoods but not poor ones.

Of course, we should probably exclude Whole Foods, as their CEO abused his position as CEO to write an op-ed piece advocating against free checks for old people. Although I did just buy there some really nice fresh-caught wild halibut, $16.99/pound, that I bet people in poor neighborhoods would really enjoy.

Finally, a number of you have asked why my book is not available in Canadia. The answer, sadly, is that in Canadia there are also penalties for offending the Top Clerics:

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable [sic] limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed.

However, I have it on good authority that Canadia was way ahead of the curve on the “free checks for old people” issue, so perhaps it all evens out!

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