Friday, February 29, 2008

Religion in America

I happened across an article in The New York Times the other day about a recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life called the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. (You can download the full 143-page report here.) They surveyed 35,000 adults and found that 44% of them were no longer affiliated with the religion they had grown up with (assuming you count shifts between Protestant denominations as changes). The results of the poll reflect only how respondents identified themselves; I'll be more interested in the results of the second part of this survey, which has to do with people's actual religious practice, and which will be released later this spring.

The poll found that Catholics represent 23.9% of the total population, a figure that's been relatively steady since the '70s. But it also revealed a somewhat dismaying fact: according to the survey, "Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic." Which I guess shouldn't be that surprising. If you don't understand the Catholic faith -- and a lot of Catholics don't, unfortunately -- it can seem like there's no reason to stay. If I'd have been a part of this survey a little more than a year ago, I'd have likely identified myself as a member of that separated one-third.

It was also sobering to be reminded, in the commentary in the New York Times piece, that a lot of people see religion as nothing more than a helpful political indicator:

"'I think politicians will be looking at this survey to see what groups they ought to target,' Professor [Stephen] Prothero [of Boston University] said. 'If the Hindu population is negligible, they won’t have to worry about it. But if it is wealthy, then they may have to pay attention.'"

People aren't usually so blunt.

Peter Gomes and being human

I said a while ago that I wished everyone could have the privilege of hearing Peter Gomes, Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, speak. Well, today is your lucky day. The website big think now has 19 videos of nothing but Gomes talking.

One of them is particularly relevant to my last post, so I'll share it. (It's less than two minutes long, so go ahead and watch it.)

Key quote: "It seems to me that science can never explain such things as joy, or happiness, or sorrow, even though they try to find the little nodes in the brain in which these emotions are alleged to reside."

Contrast Gomes's thoughts with another quote from Pinker:

"I don’t believe there’s such a thing as free will in the sense of a ghost in the machine, a spirit or soul that somehow reads the TV screen of the senses and pushes buttons and pulls the levers of behavior. There’s no sense that we can make of that. I think we are . . . Our behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain. On the other hand, when you have a brain that consists of a hundred billion neurons connected by a hundred trillion synapses, there is a vast amount of complexity that means that human choices will not be predictable in any simple way from the stimuli that have impinged on it beforehand."

Elevating rhetoric.

Of course, if you conceptualize the soul as an anthropomorphic creature pushing buttons and pulling levers (which Pinker helpfully mimes in the video), the idea of the soul or of free will is going to sound silly and nonsensical. But an argument from parody isn't very convincing or, as Pinker would say, rational.

Does Pinker really believe that saying "there is a vast amount of complexity that means that human choices will not be predictable in any simple way from the stimuli that have impinged on it beforehand" really gets to the heart of what it means to be human? When you start talking like that with respect to one of the fundamental mysteries of human existence, I've got to wonder whether Pinker is human.

I don't wish to denigrate scientific advances or the mind-boggling complexity of the human brain. Science is a wonderful tool for understanding the natural world, and the human brain is without a doubt the most amazing physical specimen our universe has to offer. But all the scientists in all the world could study the human brain for the rest of time, until they had discovered literally everything there was to know about the brain, and they would still be no closer to understanding love, or laughter, or mourning, or mercy -- in short, all the things that make us human. You can trot out all the evolutionary, psychological, sociological, anthropological, and neuroscientific explanations you want, and they may be quite rational, but they're also always going to fall just a bit short, because they're always going to sound, to the normal person, just a little bit inhuman.

Say all our "behavior is the product of physical processes in the brain," which are simply the result of external stimuli. Say free will is an illusion. Fine. But everyone (with the exception of university professors) knows that we have free will. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to know it. You don't have to do laboratory studies to prove it. It's what we live, every moment of our lives. We know that there is more to us than our physical bodies. We know that we are not just parcels of matter unfolding inevitably in time. We know that we have souls.

And to miss that, because you're too caught up in your own materialistic explanations of human behavior, is to miss the whole point of what it means to be human.

Reason VS. Faith: The Ultimate Showdown!

There's a relatively new website called big think that styles itself as a sort of "YouTube for intellectuals." It consists largely of brief videos in which people talk about their views on a wide range of important topics. There are a decent number of entries from some rather prominent politicians, professors, and other public figures. These are supplemented by a multitude of videos featuring obscure writers, chefs, and (seriously) yoga masters.

I was interested to see that there were contributions from a number of familiar (to me, at least) Harvard professors, including Steven Pinker, Daniel Gilbert, Michael Sandel, and Peter Gomes. Now, when it comes to the latter two, I'll listen to pretty much anything they have to say. Sandel teaches one of the most popular courses in the history of Harvard -- Justice -- which I took as a freshman; and Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, is one of the most strangely captivating speakers I've ever heard. Pinker, an experimental psychologist, is one of the superstars of the Harvard faculty, and has written several bestselling books, including and The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works; and Gilbert, also a professor of psychology, recently wrote a bestseller of his own, Stumbling on Happiness.

So I started watching some of Pinker's and Gilbert's videos, and I found -- somewhat to my dismay, but certainly not to my surprise -- that they were both saying some pretty ridiculous things about the relationship between reason and faith, as so often happens when otherwise intelligent people start talking about the relationship between reason and faith. For example, here are Pinker's opening words from his discussion of the topic:

"I think my own personal philosophy -- one that I think offers a sounder basis for knowledge and wisdom than religion -- is based on reason. Now, as soon as soon as we’re having this conversation, as long as we are trying to persuade one another of why you should do something or should believe something, you are already committed to reason. We're not engaged in a fistfight. We’re not bribing each other to believe something. We’re trying to provide reasons. We’re trying to persuade, to convince. As long as you’re doing that in the first place, you’re not hitting someone with a chair, or putting a gun to their head, or bribing them to believe something, you’ve lost any argument you have against reason. You’ve already signed on to reason whether you like it or not. So the fact that we’re having this conversation shows that we are committed to reason."

I'm not sure to whom, exactly, this valiant defense of reason is addressed. I don't know who these people are that Pinker thinks are trying to put forth "argument[s] . . . against reason." I've never heard anyone disparage, deny, or downplay the importance of reason. And yet Pinker speaks as if all religious people were an angry mob mindlessly chanting "Down with reason! Down with reason!"

Pinker's logic makes sense, however, once he explains his definition of faith:

"I think that the alternative [to reason] that many people appeal to, namely faith, is . . . immediately refutes itself. Faith means believing something with no good reason to do it."

Pinker's thinking is entirely self-consistent. Unfortunately, it's completely divorced from reality. I don't know a single person of faith who would say that there is no good reason for their beliefs. Of course, Pinker might interject with some definition of what constitutes a "good reason," but then he'd be verging on dogmatism, another thing that Pinker is adamantly against. (Of course, Pinker is just like everyone else who speaks out against dogmatism. It's not really dogmas that he hates, just other people's dogmas.)

Gilbert also chimes in with his explanation of what religion is:

"By religion we usually mean deism. We mean belief in something we absolutely can't see for which there's no evidence."

(Let's set aside the fact that, in reality, when we talk about religion these days we generally mean theism, not deism.)

Now, I subscribe to the Catholic Christian faith because I think that there are good reasons to do so. I think there is good reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead three days after dying on a cross, thereby giving pretty good evidence that His claims of divinity were true. I can't rationally explain why His tomb was empty, or why His apostles would suddenly be willing to die proclaiming Jesus' Resurrection and divinity, unless Jesus really rose from the dead. So I rationally deduce that Jesus did rise from the dead, and based on that rationally arrived-upon conclusion, I put my faith in Him as the Lord and Savior of the world. If someone claims to be God, and is willing to undergo an incredibly painful and humiliating execution rather than recant that claim, and then rises from the dead to back that claim up, I'm going to take that claim, and that person, pretty seriously. It would be entirely irrational not to.

Faith and reason are not, as Pinker and Gilbert suggest, competing "alternatives." They are, as Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Fides et ratio, "like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." Without reason, faith would be just groping in the dark, and without faith (say, in the legitimacy of reason), reason itself would never get off the ground.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Fr. Robert Barron on Lent

Fr. Robert Barron is a priest, professor, and theologian in the Chicago area, and he is generally awesome. He also has some thoughts on Lent that he would like to share with you:

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Prison ministry story

I got to write a story for this week's edition of The Catholic Northwest Progress about a wonderful woman who has devoted her life to ministering to people behind bars. I think it's a pretty interesting story, so you might want check it out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


A post by Jennifer on the blog "Et tu?" inspired me to think about our never-ending search for satisfaction and the purpose of the season of Lent. She writes:

"I'd forgotten about this until now, but up until a few years ago, almost every time something exciting or good happened I would feel a tinge of depression. No matter how great or exciting the situation, for some reason I could never quite feel fully happy about it. Just as my happiness would be about to reach a crescendo, something would make it fall flat, like when a singer just barely misses the high note. I didn't generally struggle with depression in this time in my life; it was just that for some odd reason whenever something particularly good occurred, it would trigger a vague sensation of despair somewhere deep down inside."

When I was at Harvard, I was in a Christian a cappella group called Under Construction, and as part of our semesterly concerts, we always put on a little skit, divided up into four scenes, that was intended to provoke thought about some aspect of the Christian faith. In the spring of my junior year, we wanted to explore the thought experiment, What would it be like if you got everything you wanted?

The skit centered around a person named Kevin (played, conveniently, by me) who dreamed of being a boxing champion. It followed him through his training to his gold medal victory in the Olympics and subsequent celebrity. In the final scene, Kevin, who has now turned pro, wins a bout to become the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. After all the celebration, Kevin sits alone in the middle of the stage, looking at the ground. His coach enters, beaming with pride.

"Congratulations, Kid," he says. "You did it. You're the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. You're the best there ever was. You worked hard -- you should be proud of yourself. You've got everything you ever dreamed of."

Kevin, who hasn't looked up through all this, turns his head and asks, quietly, "So . . . what do I do next, Coach?" Fade to black.

This seems to be the position we always end up in whenever we finally get whatever it is that we are sure will finally make us happy, content, fulfilled, satisfied. Whether it's a good education, a good job, a good family, wealth, fame, prestige, security -- it always leaves us wondering, Is this really all there is? Why do these things never satisfy us like we hope they will? Is there anything that can perfectly fulfill these deepest desires of our hearts?

The things of this world cannot finally satisfy us because we are not made for this world. God created us, and only God can satisfy us. As St. Augustine writes in his Confessions, addressing God, "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Only in God can we find the fulfillment of all our desires. And that is part of what Lent is all about. It's a time to remember that all our attempts to find fulfillment apart from God are ultimately futile, a time to turn to God and to turn away from all the things that keep us from Him and His perfect, infinite, intimate love. Lent is a time to really take to heart Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount:

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also." (Matthew 6:19-21)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, so you may see people walking around with black crosses (or, more likely, indistinct black smudges) on their foreheads. You may even have one yourself. If you're wondering what's up with this practice of putting ashes on foreheads, here's a little info from the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN):

"The liturgical use of ashes originated in the Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1). Job repented in sackcloth and ashes (Job 42:6). Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, 'I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes' (Daniel 9:3).

"Jesus made reference to ashes, 'If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago' (Matthew 11:21).

"In the Middle Ages, the priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying, 'Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.'

"The Church adapted the use of ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins. In our present liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes them on the foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying, 'Remember, man you are dust and to dust you shall return,' or 'Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.' As we begin this holy season of Lent in preparation for Easter, we must remember the significance of the ashes we have received: We mourn and do penance for our sins. We again convert our hearts to the Lord, who suffered, died, and rose for our salvation. We renew the promises made at our baptism, when we died to an old life and rose to a new life with Christ. Finally, mindful that the kingdom of this world passes away, we strive to live the kingdom of God now and look forward to its fulfillment in heaven."

Monday, February 4, 2008

Lent starts Wednesday

This Wednesday, February 6, is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, which will continue for 40 days (not counting Sundays) until Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, which will be celebrated this year on March 23.

UPDATE: I seem to have been mistaken, as I was afraid I would be, about the exact extent of Lent. It actually runs from Ash Wednesday and ends before the Mass of the Lord's Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday, at which point the Easter Triduum begins.

At Mass this afternoon, Fr. Garry said that Lent was probably his favorite season of the year, and I just couldn't relate. Though Lent has sometimes been a beneficial time for me spiritually, my overall gut reaction to it is rather gloomy. I think there are a few reasons for this.

One of my earliest childhood memories of Lent is of waiting in a long line to eat disgusting seafood at a Long John Silver's one cold Friday night, because Catholics are required to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. A good deal of my subsequent spiritual struggles can probably be traced back, in one way or another, to hush puppies.

In recent years, I have tried to practice the discipline of fasting during Lent, which involves eating one regular meal and two small meatless meals each day, with no snacking. I don't think this has ever turned out very well. I'm not a good faster. I tend to go back and forth between feeling bad because I'm hungry and feeling bad because I'm not being strict enough about my fasting. I can't say for sure, of course, but I don't think I've ever gotten any spiritual benefit out of my rather half-hearted attempts at fasting.

So for me, Lent has often felt like one long trial to be endured, waiting impatiently for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection at Easter, and the return to normal eating patterns.

But Lent is supposed to be so much more than that. It's supposed to be a time of spiritual growth, of drawing closer to God, of reflecting on our lives and striving to be better, of doing good deeds for others out of love, and of dedicating ourselves more fully to prayer. Lent is a solemn, penitential time, but it is also a time of great blessedness.

I like the opening few sentences of Pope Benedict XVI's Lenten Message 2008:

"Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters. In the Lenten period, the Church makes it her duty to propose some specific tasks that accompany the faithful concretely in this process of interior renewal: these are prayer, fasting and almsgiving."

So yeah. I'm going to try to take a better attitude towards the season of Lent this year. I haven't decided exactly what concrete measures I'll take, but I'm working on it, and I pray that this Lenten season will be a very blessed one.

If you're interested in some specific suggestions about how to observe the season of Lent, Tan Books has a pretty good document called "Pious Practices for Lent" that you can download for free from their website.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Stewardship story

For anyone interested in keeping up with my journalistic career or with the state of stewardship in Catholic parishes in the Seattle area (that should cover pretty much everyone), here's a link to my latest story in The Catholic Northwest Progress, the award-winning newspaper of the Archdiocese of Seattle. It's about how different parishes in the area are trying to encourage stewardship as a way of life among their parishioners. (To be honest, I wasn't 100% clear on the concept of stewardship when I was assigned this story, but it involves acknowledging all the blessings that God has bestowed upon us, and in gratitude giving back to Him of our time, talent, and treasure.)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A journey through John - 16:29-33

"His disciples said, 'Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure! Now we know that you know all things, and need none to question you; by this we believe that you came from God.' Jesus answered them, 'Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.'"

This is such a rich passage, it's hard to know where to begin. Jesus' initial words to His disciples are sobering, to be sure. The disciples have just expressed their exuberant faith in Him, but Jesus knows what's going to unfold during the next few hours. When Jesus is arrested and the chips are down, His disciples will abandon Him, deny that they even know Him. When being a follower of Jesus suddenly means weird looks, ridicule, and the possibility of persecution, Jesus' most loyal friends and followers will lose any sense of loyalty to Him. And we think, How sad.

I do this all the time, though. For all my idealism and big talk from the safety of my blog, my life is often one big denial of Christ. I don't like weird looks or ridicule -- real or imagined -- so I keep my mouth shut most of the time and effectively abandon Jesus. It's so easy to silently conform to the norms of a secular culture which sees religious belief as foolish at best. It's so easy to acquiesce to the ways of the world. It seems so inevitable. Who am I to go against the grain, to stand up and speak out against the anti-Christian sentiments of an "enlightened" society?

I have to remember that, luckily, I'm not alone, and that the decisive battle has already been won. Jesus has overcome the world.