Saturday, May 23, 2009

Views on Torture by Religious Demographic

We may not consider Jesus divine, but one survey suggests that atheists pay closer attention to his teachings than those who do. An analysis of a new survey illustrates differences in the views of four major religious traditions in the U.S. about whether torture of suspected terrorists can be justified.

The specific question put to the 742 adults polled last month was, "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can be justified often, sometimes, rarely, or never?"

The summary of responses to the question posed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 62% of white evangelical Protestants believe that torturing suspected terrorists could be often or sometimes justified to get critical information. Fifty-one percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics and 46% of white mainline Protestants agreed. Ironically, the respondents with no religious ties ("Unaffiliated") were the least supportive – 40% – of the use of torture.

Now, this is one survey of only a few hundred people. But, the results raise the question of how people develop their ethical standards and whether or not religious belief, specifically theistically-centered religious belief, is a stronger grounding for this work than atheistic approaches. As an atheist, I am completely free to adopt part or all of the moral teachings of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tse, Confucius, or any other great prophet without needing to place one above the other.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms - Prophesy


From: Middle English prophesien, from Anglo-French prophecier, from Old French, from prophecie
Date: 14th century
transitive verb (i.e. requiring a direct object)
1 to utter by or as if by divine inspiration
2 to predict with assurance or on the basis of mystic knowledge
intransitive verb (i.e. cannot take a direct object)
1 to speak as if divinely inspired
2 to give instruction in religious matters: preach
3 to make a prediction

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion
To prophesy is to conduct the act of revelation, giving an inspired message from God or the Gods. Usually a prophecy is associated with foretelling the future, but it can also include messages of inspiration or admonishment that reveal the will of God towards a particular people or even an individual.

Grammar plays an important role in determining the use of the term "to prophesy." In its transitive form, the act of prophesying implies that the message originates from a deity ("The minister prophesied rewards for the faithful and punishment for the wicked."). In its intransitive form, prophesying derives from the human speaker ("The minister prophesied in the Sunday morning sermon.") In its intransitive form, therefore, anyone is capable of prophesying, to teach, to predict, or simply to make observations.

In this broader view, any oration in a religious venue can be viewed as an act of prophesying. Ordained clergy, who have generally received extensive instruction in religious matters and gone through a discernment process to prepare them for ordination, might be expected to regularly prophesy as part of the practice of homiletics (delivering sermons aimed at the spiritual needs, capacities, and conditions of a congregation). When viewed as a profession, prophesying might be considered an act expected of ministers to offer insight, inspiration, and instruction through preaching.

Atheist Definition: Prophesying is the act of speaking or writing to make observations, to inspire, or to teach others regarding religious matters.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms - Prayer


From: Middle English, from Anglo-French priere, praiere, preiere, from Medieval Latin precaria, from Latin, feminine of precarius obtained by entreaty, from prec-, prex
Date: 14th century
1 a (1): an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought (2): a set order of words used in praying b: an earnest request or wish
2: the act or practice of praying to God or a god

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion
Prayer is the means by which an individual or group attempts to enter into verbal or mental communication with a deity.

Prayers can be separated into two categories: prayer with and prayer to. When we are with others, either during a worship service, at a meal, or alongside one who is ill or troubled, we can pray with. Prayer with begins with listening to and caring about those with are with. Our prayers reflect their needs, the matters afflicting their minds and hearts. The purpose of prayer with is to let others know that they have been heard, that they have had the opportunity to articulate their fears, and that they are not alone in their struggles. Prayer with aims to help others find within themselves, their family, and their friends the resources to cope and to explore the wonders of existence.

If one does not believe in a deity, then what is the target of prayer to? We are all part of a universe of forces, fields, and life. We may never comprehend all of the levels of consciousness that exist in that expanse. As constituents in that enterprise, prayer to simply means asking for help from whatever resources there are - whether those resources lie in the depths of time and space, or deep within ourselves.

Atheist Definition: Prayer is the act of engaging spiritually with our inner selves, with others, and with the universe by reaching out and asking for help, support, and reassurance.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another Definition

My attention recently has been drawn to words, particularly terms that challenge religious atheists. Another word brought to my attention in the past month deals with ministerial authority and discernment. That word is humility.

In my congregational polity class, we were asked from whence we will draw our authority as ministers. The author of one of our readings presumed that the pulpit for "serious" preachers has dimensions that are "scary and threatening." Now, I might be willing to accept "daunting," but the only nervousness I have when I am in the pulpit is simply the desire for service elements to go as I have planned. And even then, when worship goes in unplanned directions, the results can be amazing.

My source of authority, in the pulpit and throughout my ministerial development, has been human courage. As an historian, and particularly as a fan of Unitarian Universalist history, I cannot help but be infused with the numerous instances of courage displayed by my predecessors over the centuries. The enormous sacrifices paid by some, from imprisonment to even death, evidence the cost paid for our liberal faith. The bravery of countless women and men to commit heresy ("to choose") when that choice ran counter to the dominant paradigm of society reveals the depth of our convictions. The dedication of our religious ancestors to acts of justice, acceptance, and compassion indicate the essential place of love in our collective theology.

When I stand in front of a congregation, I walk a path trod by many hundreds of others who have committed themselves to this task. I stand for the freedom paid for by the toil, sweat, tears, and even blood of comrades gone before. I speak with my own authentic voice since our commitment to polity does not bind me to creedal statements or hierarchies beyond the people I serve. I speak from my own experience because I can trust the wisdom and the capacity to reason of my congregants to think for themselves and to apply what they hear to their own lives. And, I prophesy because, as the author of that same article stated, I must say what I say and never compromise because that is how we grow and learn and be with each other.

When I have doubts, or question why I should assume this mantle of responsibility, all I have to do is to remember that I am not in the pulpit alone. I am with Arius and Origen, Servetus and David, the Polish Brethren, Murray and Ballou, Channing and Parker, and hundreds of current ministers and seminarians. My source of authority is the human courage to choose, to sacrifice for one’s beliefs, and to open oneself to others freely.

But, it has been pointed out to me that I can come across as “confident,” even “egocentric.” I have been cautioned to hone my humility. So, let’s look at this word “humble.” According to Wiktionary, the two meanings include:

1. Near the ground; not high or lofty; not pretentious or magnificent; unpretending; unassuming; as, a humble cottage.
2. Thinking lowly of one's self; claiming little for one's self; not proud, arrogant, or assuming; lowly; weak; modest.

Some of these meanings are, indeed, worth cultivating. As I become a minister, I am endeavoring to avoid being pretentious or arrogant, to pretending to be something I am not, or to assuming that I am more than I am.

But I find little value in thinking of myself as lowly and weak. And while I do not see myself as above others, I do represent the search for the loftiest of human concerns; our attempts to engage with our ultimate purposes. I am just a catalyst, here to play a small role to facilitate the reaction between souls and between each individual and the universe. Our liberal religious tradition is magnificent, and as its representative in that moment in time behind the pulpit, I would do it a disservice to aspire too much to modesty, and to regard it with too little pride.

Of course, the lines drawn here are thin. I can only hope that those listening to my sermons or reading my words sense the sincerity with which I present them. Not just as a candidate for the ministry, but as a human being, I aspire to greatness and to encouraging greatness in others. That is a humbling goal, but one that I strive achieve with every fiber of my being.