On Atheist Fundamentalism and Christmas Wars

That's right folks: The Holidays are here again, and with them comes yet another round of the Christmas wars! Today I read a nice article summarizing the current battle lines for public displays of religious affection all over the country. And, upon reading the stories about how anti-religious groups are trying to shut down governmentally-sanctioned religious displays and events, I am struck by just how angry and determined many of these anti-religious groups are. And I don't actually blame them for the anger. There are very many people who have been mistreated in the name of God, and it is only natural to want to lash out. It is logical to want to shut down a force that you believe to be detrimental to the healthy functioning of society.

I get it: Religious people (and institutions) have hurt you, demeaned you, marginalized you, and in some cases abused you. Now it is time to silence religion so it does not happen to others. But is all the anger and bitterness and constant ideological war working for you? Is it working for the health of our society? Is it working for our children?

One of the most sure-fire ways to create a disdain for religion in the hearts of young people is for their parents (or other dominant "elders" in their cultural world) to embrace a particularly "fundamentalist" version of the religion: Harsh, hateful, closed-minded, and narrow. I think it is safe to say that, in modern religious cultures across the world, there has been a significant amount of the "youth demographic" who have abandoned religion for more secular ways of pursuing life. I can think of cases I have known or read where this applies to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.

Up until now, Atheism/Secularism has not had a large enough demographic to see if the same will happen to their younger generation. But there are anecdotal incidents which show that this might happen, such as the son of militant atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who became a Christian largely to flee from the secular fundamentalism of his mother.

The sustained anger, bitterness, and vitriol witnessed by these "Atheist Fundamentalists" is just the mirror image of the angry, bitter, vitriolic versions of religion they are rejecting. And may I add: Rightly rejecting. If God is Love, as witnessed in Jesus, and taught by the best of human religious traditions, then God cannot be the hate that is preached by the worst exemplars of human religion. And that God of hate is rightly rejected, even if not immediately replaced by a better image of God.

The modern atheist movement is fueled by scads of people who have rightly rejected the hateful God of their elders, but have never replaced that God with a better God. The problem is, they are so filled with anger and bitterness at that God that they have simply shifted where their own hate is focused. As a result, many have become as shrill and judgmental as the religion they abandoned.

For instance, it would be one thing to have multiple "constructive" holiday displays in one venue. We could imagine a scenario where there is a Christmas creche celebrating Jesus, a Jewish Menorah in celebration of Hanukah, a Bodhi tree celebrating the Buddha, and a display of animals or a statue celebrating Darwin. Each of these constructs something of positive value that shows forth something valuable in their own cultural tradition.

But, if a group only desires to do "destructive" displays, it shows a pathology in the group-think. One does not have to put down others to show what is good, true, and beautiful in one's own community. A Christian group does not have to put up a Holiday display that proclaims all non-Christians are going to hell. A Jewish group does not have to put up a display condemning Gentiles. A Buddhist group does not have to put up a display that says all non-Buddhists are non-Enlightened. And an Atheist group does not have to put up a display saying that all religious believers are idiots at best, evil at worst.

I wish in this "culture war" we would learn the difference- on all sides- between constructive, affirming ways of exploring our beliefs and ideas VERSUS destructive, bitter ways of forcing our ideas and beliefs on others.

Back to the point: I am going to bet that, in the households of angry atheist fundamentalists, the seeds are currently being planted which will lead to a boatload of conversions to other religions by their children. The type of anger and bitterness described by this article is not a healthy spiritual or psychological environment to raise kids in. They will eventually reject it too. And perhaps, sadly, in 30 years or so we will witness a whole genre of re-conversion stories about people who found religion and are mad as hell at their parents for being mad as hell at religion because their grandparents were mad as hell at people who were not religious.

Or, conversely, perhaps in 30 years we can learn to learn from each other. I guess it is our choice.

Secular or Religious?

Recently, the head of the Evangelical charity "World Vision" came out and said that "Conservative Christians" need to stop waging their so-called "culture war" on "secular culture", and instead focus on doing Jesus' works of Love in society. Bravo! I heartily applaud this move, and support it with all my heart and mind.

And yet, I do want to call the question of what is "secular" and what is "religious". How do we identify secular things and religious things? Is something "religious" simply because the name God or Jesus is slapped on it (along with appropriate Biblical proof texts)? Or is something "religious" when it embodies the values and policies of religion, even if it does not claim religious identity or even recognize God?

While I do think we need to maintain terms that help us differentiate whether we are doing something with reference to God (i.e. religious, spiritual), or without reference to God (i.e. secular), I do think these same terms can sometimes hide the realities at work within cultural phenomena.

What if the word "secular" as used in our "culture war" rhetoric is a misnomer? What if what is actually happening is a movement of God's Spirit leading to a convergence of public policies which institute the dignity and worth of all people- gay, straight, women, men, non-religious, and religious? What if many of the manifestations of public religion in the United States have become so retrograde and backward looking, that they cannot discern the trajectory of the Spirit of Christ leading culture to realize the ethical and social values embedded in texts such as Galatians 3.26-29, 1Corinthians 13, the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus' ministry of healing and hospitality?

If the Church will not follow where Jesus leads, and where the trajectory of the Bible points us to, then Christ's Holy Spirit has only one option left: To work among those who will follow this trajectory, even if they do not realize it is the Spirit leading them.

And I'm not saying this is the Spirit doing "a new thing". This is the Spirit completing a very old thing which has been borne witness in Scripture for ages. Some folks say that the Spirit is leading us into "new truths". But I'm not so sure there are any new truths to be had out there. Perhaps it is just the application of the same Eternal Truths to new environments, contexts, and cultures. If it is eternally true that "God is Love" (1John 4.8) rooted in understanding God as perfect inter-communion in the Holy Trinity, then perhaps we are witnessing ever-new applications of this self-giving, self-sacrificial Divine Love as culture develops over time.

Yet, I'm also not saying this cultural movement is purely from God. It's not. No cultural movement ever is. In fact, I take severe umbridge at a couple of planks in the so-called "secular" platform. For instance, I do try to practice and preach a "consistent life ethic" which defends life from womb to tomb. Thus, not only do I find the use of the death penalty reprehensible in advanced industrial societies. I also think the use of abortion as a regular means of birth control is reprehensible, although abortions should remain safe and legal when they are used as a means of last resort to protect the mother's health and life.

So, some of our "secular" cultural values do seem to be at odds with the Kingdom of God. But much of the "secular" platform does seem to lead to a fulfillment of Jesus' Kingdom programme: Genuine hospitality to "the other", universal respect for human dignity, access for all to health care that leads to better life and human flourishing. And if we are going to define these values as "secular", while opposite values and policies are "religious", then I suppose we need to flip our definitions and proclaim Jesus as "secular" too.


Is Data Real?

After tutoring one of our Residential Life students in philosophy today, I was pondering yet again how to explain the reality of the non-empirical world.

And I thought that the ontological status of whether data is something "real" might be a way to get the point across. Specifically, what is the ontological status of data stored in digital form?

And while I am sure someone has written about this somewhere. This is a new analogy for me.

It seems that the ontological status of digital data may be a concrete way of expressing the ontological status of any type of symbolic information. And the ontological status of symbolic information is a sub-type of the ontological status of all non-empirical realities (maths, logic, signification, etc.)

So, back to digital data: Is it real?

If I was to empirically examine a 2 gigabyte USB drive that was empty versus a 2 gigabyte USB drive that was full of data, would there be any difference? Does adding 2 gigabytes of data add any weight to the USB drive? No. Does it change the physical topology of the USB drive? No. Is there any permanent change that would survive a powerful magnet or electric shock? No. I'm not even sure that a powerful electron microscope would be able to discern the difference between a full USB drive and an empty one. And even if it could, it would not be a change of the matter of the USB drive, only an infinitesimal change in how that matter is arranged.

The only way to access the "reality" of the information on the drive is "subjective" so to speak: Only by internal interface with a computer with the right hardware and software internally accessing the data.

And the reality of that data can then be cloned millions of time, without changing the empirical attributes of the machines on which it operates, so that its reality has been multiplied exponentially. And that real data changes the way the physical machines run, even though it has no physical attributes at all (no extension in space-time, no dimensions, no weight, no matter, etc.)

The data itself is a system of rules and procedures which has no empirical reality whatsoever, and yet it can still affect the empirical reality which is qualitatively, categorically different from it.

So then you have two different ontological categories of reality:

1. Non-Empirical data/information
2. Empirical matter and energy which is controlled by the data/information

So, my question is: Does this hold as a test case for the existence of non-empirical realities? Is it a good analogy to get at the philosophical problem?


1559, Elizabeth, and Parker: The Beginnings of a Middle Way

A colleague of mine recently sent me a very nice summary article from the New Yorker on the abiding impact of the Book of Common prayer on our culture. If you have no idea who Thomas Cranmer is, and why he is one of the most formative influences of the English language, you should read it. Right now. Before you read the rest of this essay!

Now, while I do not want to take anything away from that fine article, I would like to add a few notes of both historical and cultural interest. The author missed a rather important revision of the Prayer Book: The 1559 version. Why is this important?

The 1559 BCP was made to correct several problems introduced by the 1552 BCP. The 1552 version was a severely Calvinist version of the BCP that introduced some rigidly Protestant ideas of salvation and atonement, as well as diminishing the nature and need for the sacraments (such as Eucharist and ordination). It represented a pendulum swing away from strident Roman Catholicism toward an equally strident form of Reformed Protestantism (i.e. those forms of Protestantism originating from Calvin and Zwingli). In other words, the 1552 alienated many of the more moderate Catholics and moderate Protestants in England, and helped lead to the national instability that ushered in Queen Mary (i.e. "Bloody Mary") and her efforts to swing the cultural/political pendulum back to Rome.

In 1558, after Mary's demise, the unmarried Queen Elizabeth took the throne, and in 1559 installed her favored archbishop Matthew Parker. Elizabeth and Parker agreed with Cranmer in this: The way to reform the religion of a nation was primarily through shared prayer and liturgy (a common prayer book). But they differed with Cranmer on what type of religion best brings about the security, health, and godliness of the realm. Cranmer sought to install a severely reformed religion, followed immediately by Mary's attempts to install a severely papal religion. Both extremes almost ruined the commonwealth.

Elizabeth and Parker wanted a national religion that offered a type of "middle way" (via media) that avoided extreme versions of both Catholicism and Protestantism (such as extreme Calvinists and Lutherans, and Radicals who wanted to abolish all of the above). Yet they also desired a "moderate religion" that allowed for what was comforting and wholesome in those traditions, which led to the good order of society.

As a result, they crafted the 1559 BCP, which edited out what was most egregious and extreme from the 1552 BCP, added back in wholesome portions of the 1549 BCP, and tweaked many other things to make it both more usable, and more representative of their via media. They strengthened the liturgies of both Eucharist and ordination to better reflect their nature and necessity in the common life of the Church. It was this BCP that was the immediate forerunner of the 1662 BCP (which is still in use to this day in England). While the 1662 BCP represents an updating of the language and lectionary (table of readings) used in the 1559, the theological and sociological concerns are substantially the same as the 1559: To maintain a moderate religion of "Reformed Catholicism", which avoids egregious extremes, and thus is suitable to the health and vitality of the English Commonwealth.

In addition, Elizabeth and Parker ensured that every parish in England had a copy of the Bible in the English vernacular. This Bible, called "The Bishop's Bible", was again an attempt to bring about a moderate approach to religion that avoided the extremes of the Reformation. For instance, many reformation era Bible translations (such as the Calvinist "Geneva Bible") had interpreted the text and added marginal "notes", in such a way so as to exaggerate theological issues (such as the relationship between predestination, faith, faithfulness, and works in salvation) as well as leadership issues (such as how to understand St. Paul's instructions to elders/priests and overseers/bishops). The Bishop's Bible, like the 1559 BCP, was intended to interpret the Scriptures in such a way that there was a latitude for forms of  moderate religious belief. However, it was a bit clunky as a vernacular translation, and was replaced in 1611 by the famed "King James" or "Authorized" Bible of the English Church. The "King James Bible" was translated with the Bishop's Bible as a pattern, and it adhered to the moderate, balanced aims of the Bishop's Bible. The main difference is that the literary quality of the King James far excelled the Bishop's Bible, and indeed any other English translation, for centuries.

Finally, as part of the project represented by the 1559 BCP and the Bishop's Bible, Elizabeth and Parker instituted the "39 Articles" as an outline, or confession, of the beliefs of the English Church. When read today, the text appears very rigid and overly defined, perhaps even declaring things we may find partisan (there are specific portions directed against Roman Catholic beliefs) or exclusionary (there are portions that affirm God's predestination of only the elect to salvation). However, at the time it was written, it was an attempt to, again, find a "middle way" which included a wide variety of Protestants. The precise wording of the 39 articles, when inspected deeper, actually lends itself to multiple interpretations. For this reason, the 39 articles was the greatest "flop" of the reforming efforts of Elizabeth and Parker. Through history, no section of the Church has ever been truly happy with these articles. For some, they are overly anti-Catholic, for others, they are too Catholic; For some, they are too Reformed, and for others, not Reformed enough.

As a historical side note: One of the traditional robes worn by English clergy is the Black Cassock. Many of these Cassocks, through history, have had 39 buttons going up the front. It has been traditional for some Anglican clergy to leave unbuttoned the buttons which correspond to the articles they do not agree with!

Back to the point: I write this to highlight the role of Queen Elizabeth and Matthew Parker in the English Reformation, and their enduring legacy in the Church. When people discuss the English Reformation and the history of the Anglican Church, the conversation often centers around King Henry and his insatiable lust for wives and power. More thoughtful folks may move the conversation to Thomas Cranmer and the first and second BCPs (1549 and 1552). This is certainly what happened in the New Yorker article.

But, among the Reformers of the 1500's, perhaps the greatest enduring impact on English speaking Christianity actually comes from an unmarried Queen and her choice of archbishop. It is actually Elizabeth and Parker that we have to thank for the ethos of Anglicanism (and its American child the Episcopal Church) as a "middle way" or "bridge church" between various forms of Protestantism, and between Protestantism and Catholicism. And that "middle way" finds its supreme textual embodiment in the 1559 BCP, which led to the 1662 BCP, which in turn led by a series of steps to the 1979 American BCP, which we use portions of in chapel every day.

And for those who are concerned to find strong female Church leaders in eras when "women's ordination" was out of the question, we need not look any further than Elizabeth herself. Not only was she one of the most skilled politicians of her day, but she was also a talented lay theologian, whose wise policies have led to a religious movement that has survived 500 years, and stretches across the globe, to include around 80 million members today. Granted, it took four centuries of theologians, clergy, and lay leaders to build on her legacy to get where we are today. But, more than Henry, and probably even more than Cranmer himself, we have Elizabeth and Parker to thank for laying the foundation for that growth.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.