Thursday, January 25, 2007

Pay Dirt: African Church Leader Warns of 'Disease' of Pentecostalism

African Church Leader Warns of 'Disease' of Pentecostalism
By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

The president of the All Africa Council of Churches, a fellowship of mainline Protestant, Orthodox and indigenous Christians, said Pentecostalism is a "disease" spreading across Africa, according to an AACC news release.

Speaking at the Ecumenical Platform of the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, the Rev. Nyansako-ni-Nku seemed to direct his remarks at a type of Pentecostal prosperity preacher who "gets richer and the congregation gets poorer."

The AACC news release also said that Nyansako, who is moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, exhorted "mainline churches (to) wake up to the challenge and provide direction; otherwise many people will follow these Pentecostal churches."

Pentecostalism has become an increasingly prominent force in African life, according to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The movement's growth has been dramatic since decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Pew, rising from 5 percent of the population in 1970 to 12 percent in 2005.

Pentecostals play a large role in politics, particularly in Kenya and Nigeria, and control numerous radio and television stations, according to Pew.

Nyansako said mainline pastors at the pulpit are "becoming bashful and instead of naming the demon which harasses people by name, they are willing to socialize with the mighty and the powerful to the detriment of the people who have placed their trust in them."

The AACC is a fellowship of 169 churches and Christian councils in 39 African nations.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Pay Dirt: Who Believes in God--and Why?

Who Believes in God--and Why?
Many say their own faith is based in reason, but others' beliefs are grounded in emotion.
By Michael Shermer

Why do you believe in God? I have been asking people this question for most of my adult life. In 1998, Frank Sulloway and I presented the query in a more official format—along with the question “Why do you think other people believe in God?”—in a survey given to ten thousand Americans. Just a few of the answers we received:

  • A 22-year-old male law student with moderate religious convictions (a self-rated five on a nine-point scale), who was raised by very religious parents and who today calls himself a deist, writes, “I believe in a creator because there seems to be no other possible explanation for the existence of the universe,” yet other “people believe in God to give their lives purpose and meaning.”
  • A 43-year-old male computer scientist and Catholic with very strong religious convictions (a nine on the nine-point scale) “had a personal conversion experience, where I had direct contact with God. This conversion experience, and ongoing contacts in prayer, form the only basis for my faith.” Other people believe in God, however “because of (a) their upbringing, (b) the comfort of the church, and (c) a hope for this contact.”
  • A 36-year-old male journalist and evangelical Christian with a self-rated eight in religious conviction writes: “I believe in God because to me there is ample evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe.” Yet, “others accept God out of a purely emotional need for comfort throughout their life and use little of their intellectual capacity to examine the faith to which they adhere.”
  • A 40-year-old female Catholic nurse with very strong religious convictions (a nine on the nine-point scale) says that “I believe in God because of the example of my spiritual teacher who believes in God and has unconditional love for people and gives so completely of himself for the good of others. And since I have followed this path, I now treat others so much better.” On the other hand, she writes that “I think people initially believe in God because of their parents and unless they start on their own path— where they put a lot of effort into their spiritual part of their life—they continue to believe out of fear.”

When Sulloway and I noticed the difference between why people believe in God and why they think other people believe in God, we decided to undertake an extensive analysis of all the written answers people provided in our survey. In addition, we inquired about family demographics, religious background, personality characteristics, and other factors that contribute to religious belief and skepticism. We discovered that the seven strongest predictors of belief in God are:
1. being raised in a religious manner
2. parents’ religiosity
3. lower levels of education
4. being female
5. a large family
6. lack of conflict with parents
7. being younger

In sum, being female and raised by religious parents in a large family appears to make one more religious, whereas being male, educated, in conflict with one’s parents, and older appears to make one less religious. As people become older and more educated, they encounter other belief systems that lead them to see the connection between various personal and social influences and religious beliefs. This helps explain the differences we observed in reasons people give for their own beliefs versus the reasons they attribute to other people’s beliefs.

From the responses we received in a preliminary survey, we created a taxonomy of eleven categories of reasons people give for their own and others’ beliefs. The five most common answers given to the question Why do you believe in God?:
1. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
2. The experience of God in everyday life (20.6%)
3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%) 4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
5. Just because / faith / the need to believe in something (8.2%)

And the six most common answers given to the question Why do you think other people believe in God?:
1. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (26.3%) 2. Religious people have been raised to believe in God (22.4%)
3. The experience of God in everyday life (16.2%)
4. Just because / faith / the need to believe in something (13.0%)
5. Fear death and the unknown (9.1%)
6. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (6.0%)

Notice that the intellectually based reasons offered for belief in God—”the good design of the universe” and “the experience of God in everyday life”—which occupied first and second place when people were describing their own beliefs dropped to sixth and third place, respectively, when they were describing the beliefs of others. Indeed, when reflecting on others’ beliefs, the two most common reasons cited were emotion-based (and fear-averse!): personal comfort (“comforting, relieving, consoling”) and social comfort (“raised to believe”).

Sulloway and I believe that these results are evidence of an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally motivated, whereas they see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven. By analogy, one’s commitment to a political belief is generally attributed to a rational decision (“I am for gun control because statistics show that crime decreases when gun ownership decreases”), whereas another person’s opinion on the same subject is attributed to need or emotional reasons (“he is for gun control because he is a bleeding-heart liberal”). This intellectual attribution bias appears to be equal opportunity on the subject of God. The apparent good design of the universe, and the perceived action of a higher intelligence in daily activities, are powerful intellectual justifications for belief. But we readily attribute other people’s belief in God to their emotional needs and how they were raised.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Pay Dirt: Atheists Challenge the Religious Right

Atheists Challenge the Religious Right
Growing religious influence in the US government has led some nontheists to take positions some describe as 'secular fundamentalism.'
By Jane Lampman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For some time, the religious right has decried "secular humanism," a philosophy that rejects the supernatural or spiritual as a basis for moral decisionmaking. But now, nonbelievers are vigorously fighting back.

Only a small percentage of Americans admit to being nontheists (between 2 and 9 percent, depending on the poll), but that equates to many millions. And religionists' role in debates over stem-cell research and evolution vs. intelligent design - as well as radical religion in world conflicts - have galvanized some atheists to mount a counteroffensive.

In bestselling books, on websites, and with a national lobbying effort, atheists and other nontheists are challenging the growing religious influence in government and public life. Some are attacking the foundations of religion itself.

Two particularly provocative books, in fact, hit the top of Publishers Weekly's religion bestseller list in December. No. 1, "The God Delusion," by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and No. 2, "Letter to a Christian Nation," by writer Sam Harris, are no-holds-barred, antireligion polemics that call for the eradication of all manifestations of faith.

"I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented," declares Dr. Dawkins, the famed Oxford professor who wrote "The Selfish Gene."

These offerings are so intolerant of religion of any kind - liberal, moderate, or fundamentalist - that some scientists and secularists have critiqued their peers for oversimplification and for a secular fundamentalism.

"They undermine their own case by writing in a language that suffers from many things they say are true of believers - intolerance, disrespect, extremism," says Alan Wolfe, a professor of religion at Boston College, who is a secularist and author of several books on American religious perspectives.

Yet the authors are anything but modest about their efforts to supplant faith with pure scientific rationality. While critics point out that religion is a genuine reflection of people's experience and will always exist, Mr. Harris suggests it could be equated with slavery, which once was widely acceptable, but eventually was looked upon with horror. He sees it as responsible for many of life's tragedies.

Harris first hit the bestseller bull's-eye in 2004 with "The End of Faith," and he says the responses to that book, particularly those from Christians, spurred his latest epistle.
A mere 96 pages, "Letter" may be dismissed by many for its condescending tone or overheated rhetoric. Yet its bold arguments offer a useful window into nontheist perspectives and could also startle some complacent religionists into a rethinking and refining of perceptions.

Many nontheists don't share this militant perspective, but have decided that keeping silent in religious America no longer makes sense. They are astonished that a majority of Americans question evolution and support teaching intelligent design in the science classroom. They are distressed over polls that show that at least half of Americans are unwilling to vote for an atheist despite the Constitution's requirement that there be no religious test for public office. And they contend that in recent years, Congress has passed bills and the president has issued executive orders that have privileged religion in inappropriate and unconstitutional ways.

As a result, seven organizations of nontheists - including atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and agnostics - began the Secular Coalition for America (SCA), a lobby seeking to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States.

"In some parts of the country, children are ostracized if someone finds out their families are atheists," says Lori Lipman Brown, SCA director. "We need to educate the public that people who don't have a god belief can be good neighbors and friends and moral and ethical people."

They also intend to stand up vigorously for their rights. "Some people want to go back to a time when religion was imposed, such as official prayer in public schools," she adds. "For someone to say they can't practice their religion appropriately if all schoolchildren are not required to recite a public prayer is very disturbing."

The SCA intends to lobby the new Congress to override a presidential veto on stem-cell research and to repeal land-use legislation and other laws seen as "privileging one religion over other religions or over those who don't follow religion."

Still, the group makes clear on its website that while it promotes reason and science as the bases for policymaking, it also supports religious tolerance.

"I have absolutely no problem with anyone believing differently than I believe, as long as they don't impose their religion on me or my government," says Ms. Brown, a former Nevada state senator.

To spotlight the prejudice against atheists holding public office - and to encourage atheists to "come out of the closet," SCA is sponsoring a contest to identify the highest US official who acknowledges being a nonbeliever. They expect to announce contest results in February.

Internet-based groups are also seeking to spread the atheist message, particularly among young adults. The Rational Response Squad (RRS) has chosen a provocative mode using the popular website YouTube. Their "blasphemy challenge" calls on young nonbelievers to create videos in which they renounce belief in the "sky God of Christianity" and upload it on the site; in return they'll receive a free documentary DVD, "The God Who Wasn't There," which includes interviews with Dawkins, Harris, and others. RRS is publicizing its campaign on 25 popular teen websites.

"We wanted to strike up more of a conversation about religion, and this was a way for people to show their nonbelief and encourage others to come out," says Brian Sapient, RRS cofounder.
Mr. Sapient says he was raised Catholic and then a born-again Christian, but later learned that many things he was taught were fictional. RRS now has some 20,000 people on message boards, with about 5,000 actively engaged in debunking religious claims, passing out fliers, and placing DVDs in churches.

As for the blasphemy challenge, "there's about 490 response videos so far, and 85,000 views on our trailer video," he says. Sapient acknowledges this approach may not persuade religious youths. "There are people with a more palatable approach to talking about religion," he says, "but I wonder if those people would be as effective if it weren't for us or Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins shaking up the group a bit."

He also insists that you don't really respect people unless you speak up when you think their beliefs are wrong. It's OK with him, he adds, if religious people try to convince him they are right.

Harris and Dawkins make it clear that they think faith has gotten off too easy for too long. Their books have spurred widespread commentary, much of it a strong critique of their arguments and lack of religious knowledge. But in a culture immersed in combativeness in politics and the media, the intemperate books are selling well.

Yet one critic, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, calls for a truce: "We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance."

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Pay Dirt: Poll: One in Four Says Jesus May Return in 2007

Poll: One in Four Says Jesus May Return in 2007
By Adelle M. BanksReligion News Service

Twenty-five percent of Americans believe it is at least somewhat likely that Jesus Christ will return to Earth in 2007, a new poll from the Associated Press and AOL News shows.

The poll, conducted by the international polling firm Ipsos, looked at the public's predictions about what will occur in 2007.

Pollsters found that 11 percent of those surveyed said it is "very likely" that Jesus will return to Earth this year. An additional 14 percent said it was "somewhat likely."

Twenty-five percent of those polled said it was "not too likely,"
compared to 42 percent who said it was "not at all likely." Eight percent said they did not know or were not sure.

While a quarter of Americans polled said that it is at least somewhat likely that Jesus will return to Earth this year, views about the topic varied depending on religious persuasion, the AP reported.

For example, 46 percent of white evangelical Christians believe it's at least somewhat likely that Jesus will return this year, while 17 percent of Catholics and 10 percent of those with no religion feel the same way.

The poll, conducted Dec. 12-14, was based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adults from all states except Hawaii and Alaska.