Archive | Religion

Are More Intelligent People More Likely to be Atheists?

In this post, I criticized psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa’s widely discussed recent article claiming that more intelligent people are more likely to be politically liberal. Kanazawa also claims that his data shows that more intelligent people are more likely to be atheists. This claim is better supported than the article’s argument about political liberalism. Nonetheless, the evidence isn’t nearly as strong as Kanazawa suggests. My own conjecture is that Kanazawa may be right about countries such as the United States, where atheists are a small minority, but less likely to be correct about the many nations where atheists are a much larger fraction of the population.

On the plus side, Kanazawa’s measure of atheism (survey responses stating a lack of religiousity and lack of belief in God) is better than his extremely dubious definition of liberalism. Even this part of his analysis is not completely airtight, since lack of religiosity doesn’t necessarily equate to lack of belief in God. Still, the two are at least highly correlated, and Kanazawa gets similar results for a General Social Survey question that directly asks respondents whether they believe in God. Controlling for various other variables, including education, gender, and race, more intelligent respondents are more likely to say that they don’t.

Unfortunately, however, Kanazawa improperly generalizes from the US results. Only about 2 to 10 percent of Americans are atheists and agnostics. In an overwhelmingly religious society, it is probable that relatively more intelligent people would be more likely to question conventional wisdom – especially since many of the arguments for atheism are counterintuitive. Kanazawa wrongly assumes that atheism is just as uncommon in the rest of the world as in this country. He cites the fact that The Encyclopedia of World Cultures refers to atheism in its descriptions of only 19 cultures, [...]

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Pat Robertson Blames Haiti Earthquake on Pact with the Devil

Pat Robertson recently blamed the Haiti earthquake on a pact with the devil that the Haitians supposedly made in the early 19th century:

Pat Robertson, the evangelical Christian who once suggested God was punishing Americans with Hurricane Katrina, says a “pact to the devil” brought on the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

Officials fear more than 100,000 people have died as a result of Tuesday’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti.

Robertson, the host of the “700 Club,” blamed the tragedy on something that “happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.”

The Haitians “were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever,” Robertson said on his broadcast Wednesday. “And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ ”

Native Haitians defeated French colonists in 1804 and declared independence.

“You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

It seems that Robertson has learned nothing from the outcry generated by his 2001 comments endorsing Jerry Falwell’s claim that the 9/11 attacks were a punishment that God inflicted on America because of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, [and] People For the American Way.”

In addition to blaming this tragedy on a wholly fictitious pact with the devil, Robertson also confused Napoleon I (the French ruler the Haitians actually rebelled against in the early 1800s), with his nephew Napoleon III, whose reign didn’t start until 1852.

As a fellow Yale [...]

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Why is it More Wrong to Attack a Person’s Religion than their Secular Moral or Political Views?

Ireland has recently enacted a law banning “blasphemy,” which has in turn attracted plenty of justified criticism:

Secular campaigners in the Irish Republic defied a strict new blasphemy law which came into force today by publishing a series of anti-religious quotations online and promising to fight the legislation in court.

The new law, which was passed in July, means that blasphemy in Ireland is now a crime punishable with a fine of up to €25,000 (£22,000).

It defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted”….

But Atheist Ireland, a group that claims to represent the rights of atheists, responded to the new law by publishing 25 anti-religious quotations on its website, from figures including Richard Dawkins, Björk, Frank Zappa and the former Observer editor and Irish ex-minister Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Michael Nugent, the group’s chair, said that it would challenge the law through the courts if it were charged with blasphemy.

Nugent said: “This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentives religious outrage, and because Islamic states led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level.

There are many strong objections to the new Irish law, including the ones noted by the Atheist Ireland leader quoted above. I want to criticize the implicit assumption that it is somehow more justifiable to forbid criticism of religion than of secular political or moral views. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I [...]

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The Alternative Theologies of Santa Claus



(Waiting for relatives to arrive on Christmas Day, I have decided to take up the deep theological questions raised by this … Claus, this Santa Claus.)

Last night at the children’s Mass at our Catholic parish in Washington DC, observe the arrival of the fellow up top in the photo, dressed in a red suit, who proceeded, at the end of the service, march down the aisle loudly saying, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” and “Merry Christmas,” and who delivered a special message to the children that he would be by later that night and they should all be Very, Very Good.  (Rumor has it that Tod Lindberg helped with matters, and a jolly good job too!)

But how should we understand this Santa Claus in church?  Here are two possible theological accounts.  I should note that I am not Catholic, and do not make any claims to deep understanding of Catholic doctrine.

The mythological, or the chief deity of sentimental capitalism.  In this version, the arrival of Santa Claus is extra-religious and extra-Christian.  This is the Santa Claus that got going with the ecumenical and eventually secular re-conception of Christmas.  It is not precisely pagan, but it is religion stripped down to a “love one another at least in this season” core that makes it unthreatening and in a sense available to any faith.  I am all for this.  The way in which the great American Jewish popularizers of Christmas – Irving Berlin above all – re-interpreted Christmas and made it accessible as a sentiment to everyone was a great contribution to peace on earth, good will toward men.

This is not inconsistent with a religious understanding of Christmas, or at least it need not be thought necessarily inconsistent. The best way to think of them is as [...]

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Obama and the Universal Golden Rule

Over at National Review Online, Cliff May, who is right 99.9% of the time, makes a rare error. He questions President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech claim that “the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” May points to the Sermon on the Mount and to the teachings of the first-century Rabbi Hillel for evidence of the Golden Rule in Christian and Jewish thought. (An even better Jewish cite would have been Leviticus 19:18–“Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself”–since Leviticus is Jewish scripture, and Rabbi Hillel’s kind and wise sayings are not.) May then writes: “I don’t think one finds either sentiment in the Koran and the Hadith. Infidels do not enjoy the same status as the Faithful – not in Allah’s eyes and not in the eyes of Allah’s servants. Not unless and until they convert.”
Let’s look at the record. One can find innumerable historical examples of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others viciously mistreating people who were of different religions. In many cases, the mistreaters could offer some plausible citation to their own religion’s scripture or other teachings. However, if question is: “Does every major world religion contain the Golden Rule?” the answer is “yes.” To wit:
Islam:  “Not one of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” An-Nawawī’s Forty Hadith, transl., Ezzeddin Ibrahim & Denys Johnson-Davies (Damascus, Syria: The Holy Koran Publishing House, 3d ed. 1977), Hadith 13, p. 56 (attributed to Mohammed; parenthetical in original).
Mencius said, “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.”  Lao Tzu said, “Regard your neighbor’s gain as
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Bloggingheads TV on Moses as the essential American hero

Robert Wright’s BloggingHeadsTV is often the best place on the Web for highly intelligent conversation about politics and culture. Particularly excellent is a new episode, posted today, in which Wright interviews Bruce Feiler, author of the new book America’s Prophet, Moses and the American Story. Wright is a scholar of the history of religions, so the conversation is thoughtful, challenging, and enlightening. Wright finds himself astonished, by Feiler’s thesis, but admits that upon reading the evidence, it is irrefutable. As the book’s promotional material states:

The Exodus story is America’s story. Moses is our real founding father. The pilgrims quoted his story. Franklin and Jefferson proposed he appear on the U.S. seal. Washington and Lincoln were called his incarnations. The Statue of Liberty and Superman were molded in his image. Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked him the night before he died. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama cited him as inspiration. For four hundred years, one figure inspired more Americans than any other. His name is Moses.

I will say that Feiler’s thesis is not at all startling to some of us who have studied religious rhetoric in American history. As when in 1858 Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the founders of Reform Judaism in America, declared  that the American Independence Day was a second Passover: “the fourth of July tells us the glorious story of the second redemption of mankind from the hands of their oppressors, the second interposition of Providence in behalf of liberty, the second era of the redemption of mankind, the second triumph of right over might, justice over arbitrary despotism, personal and legal liberty over the power of the strongest and most warlike.”

When Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were chosen by the Continental Congress in 1776 to design a Seal of the [...]

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