FaithWorld

Many U.S. Christians pay tithe before mortgage, even in crisis

House foreclosure sign in Boston, 15 March 2007/Brian SnyderIf there is one thing you can usually count upon while working as a journalist in the United States – and in particular if you happen to be British like myself – is that Americans are not only unafraid of talking to the media, many do so without hesitation. It is an endearing characteristic of the American people, a wonderful sign that they are not afraid to stand up and be heard.

But in the six months that I spent working on my feature “For many Christians, it’s God before mortgage” that ran on Sept 21, I ran into a wall of silence for the first time since coming to work in the United States three years ago.

It all began back in February, while working on a series of feature stories that I compiled on the U.S. housing crisis. In interviews with non-profit counsellors in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta and then Memphis, the subject of tithing and how some struggling home owners would rather lose their homes than cease their payments to the church kept coming up.

At first in Chicago, I confess that I all but ignored the topic. I was focused on trying to get a handle on the scale of the housing meltdown and its implications – the fallout of which has been all too evident on Wall Street in recent weeks. Interesting, I thought to myself, how someone’s obligation to God and the church would take precedence over their earthly home, and filed away the comments for later use.

But as February turned to March and April and interviews in Atlanta, Memphis, then St Louis, Dallas brought up the same topic again and again, I knew I had found a fascinating story. Getting counsellors, religious leaders, academics and researchers to comment on the story was no problem – but the difficult part was finding a home owner to talk about it.

Where does religion have its strongest foothold?

Indonesian Muslims pray at Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque during Ramadan, 5 Sept 2008/Supri SupriThe answer is Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. At least that was the conclusion of the latest Pew Research Institute survey of attitudes about religion around the world — a look at 24 countries based on thousands of interviews. Indonesia came in first with 99 percent of the population rating religion as important or very important in their lives — and it topped everyone else in the “very important” slot at 95 percent. Beyond that 80 percent of those surveyed in Indonesia say they pray five times a day every day — adhering to one of the five pillars of Islam.

Indeed Islam is well represented in the top five countries where religion is valued in life — with Tanzania, Jordan, Pakistan and Nigeria following Indonesia.

At the bottom of the chart was France, where only 10 percent saw religion as very important and 60 percent said they never pray.

What’s the use of apologising to Darwin?

Charles DarwinThe Church of England has just issued an apology to Charles Darwin for opposing his theory of evolution when The Origin of Species first came out 150 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church says it sees no need to say “sorry” for its initial hostility to the same theory. But both are now reconciled to evolution as solid science and are getting active in presenting their view that it is not incompatible with Christian faith. Is one approach better than the other to get this message across?

Next year’s double anniversary — the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species — is one reason to speak up about evolution. Another is the fact that evolution has become an increasingly controversial public issue, especially in the United States, and the debate is dominated by mostly conservative Protestant creationists and “intelligent design” supporters on one side and agnostic/atheistic scientists on the other.

A first edition of The Origin of Species, 13 June 2008/Lucas JacksonThat debate is so entangled in U.S. politics — the latest chapter being the questions about Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s views on teaching creationism in schools — that a less polarised view has a hard time getting heard. Trying to walk a middle path can be a tricky business, too, as Rev Michael Reiss in Britain has learned. A biologist and Anglican priest, he has just had to resign as the Royal Society‘s director of education after causing an uproar among scientists by saying creationism could be discussed as a “world view” in science class. He wasn’t advocating it, but thought that simply telling students with creationist views that they were wrong would turn them off science completely.

Vatican sees “urgent” need to review Darwin and evolution

Darwin dolls for sale at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, 15 Nov 2005/Shannon StapletonThe Vatican famously “thinks in centuries”. It’s useful to remember that when reading the announcement from its Pontifical Council for Culture about a conference it plans to hold in Rome on Darwin and evolution. Pope Benedict has shown a keen interest in the issue and debated it in a closed session with some former doctoral students in 2006. The Vatican now wants to hold a week-long public conference next March entitled “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories — A Critical Evaluation 150 years after the The Origin of Species“.

The announcement (translated from the original and more florid Italian) said: “150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is difficult to find a scientific sphere entirely free from direct or indirect influences of the theory of evolution. Especially in recent decades, this theory has experienced so many changes, and such significant changes, that a critical reflection is very urgent. Moreover, there are obvious philosophical and theological problems raised by the theory of evolution that cause many emotional and even ideological reactions.”

STOQ logoThe conference from March 3 to 7 will be organised by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and the University of Notre Dame in the United States, as part of a wider project called STOQ (Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest). It will be attended, the announcement declared with a flourish, by “luminaries of science and famous philosophers and theologians”.

“Comfortable candor” at Yale Christian-Muslim meeting

NAE President Leith Anderson (l) listens to Shi’ite philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr speaks, 31 July 2008/Tom Heneghan“Comfortable candor” is the way Leith Anderson described the atmosphere at the Common Word conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue that ended at Yale University on Thursday. The term is as interesting for its image as for the person who used it. Anderson is president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals and one of several evangelicals attending the meeting. Among the mostly Protestant leaders who responded to the Common Word dialogue appeal in a letter launched by Yale Divinity School, evangelicals tended to be more cautious and more concerned about pointing out the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam. Even with those reservations , these participants faced some criticism in their own ranks for attending and came to the conference not knowing how open it would be.

Anderson told me on the first day that he appreciated how forthright the discussion was, with each side standing up for its beliefs while seeking common ground where they could. In his keynote address in the final session, he put his stamp of approval on the process: “Our differences are deep and real. Sometimes those differences are cultural or ethnic or racial. But I have been especially impressed this week with the comfortable candor with which Muslims and Christians have clearly stated their own doctrines to one another.”

Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, made the same point in his address. We can affirm the appropriateness of simply engaging in dialogue and conversation with each other at this critical time in history. It is right that we’re together. We can affirm the development of new and strengthened relationships. It has been good to sit together and build new friendships. We can affirm the genuine spirit of being willing to listen to each other and seeking to gain understanding into each others’ perspectives.”

U.S. atheists to have ‘coming out party’

baptism-2.jpgAmerican atheists are holding a “Coming Out Party” in Westerville, Ohio, this Saturday in a bid to encourage non-believers to publicly declare their conviction that God does not exist.Frank Zindler, president of American Atheists, told me many U.S. atheists felt marginalized in a country where levels of religious belief are high and that the social and family pressures to profess a spiritual faith were huge.”I get an enormous amount of e-mails on our Web site from young people asking me ‘how do I tell my parents?’ It causes a great deal of anguish,” he said.Saturday’s events will include a “De-Baptism” ceremony, which organizers say “will be a fun way for people who feel under pressure to conform to religious orthodoxy to make a statement about their newfound intellectual independence.”According to a comprehensive nationwide survey conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 1.6 percent of U.S. adults identified themselves as atheists, while 2.4 percent said they were agnostic, or do not know if God exists.Just over 12 percent of adults surveyed said they “were nothing in particular” and atheist activists believe many fellow non-believers are in this group. They also maintain that many Americans who claim a religious affiliation are in fact secret atheists.”I think there are a lot of people who may say that they are religious, who in fact are not,” said Ashley Paramore, a board member with the Secular Student Alliance, who is organizing Saturday’s event.  What do you think? Do you think there are lots of “closet atheists” in America? And are Americans under pressure to profess a belief in God? Or are these pressures minimal and complaints on this score overblown?

“Something in the air” in Christian-Muslim dialogue

Yale Divinity School chapel, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanMeetings of theologians don’t usually make news. But trends can make news. A series of meetings can start to show some direction the participants’ thinking is going in. If it’s a new direction, and one with potentially positive results, then we journalists on the Godbeat take notice.

The “Common Word” conference now underway at Yale Divinity School in the United States is at the heart of a trend towards increasingly frequent and detailed discussions among Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders. This trend is a reaction to September 11 and other Islamist attacks in Western countries. To our 24/7 news culture, this sounds like a very slow-fused reaction indeed, but changing attitudes and building trust takes time.

Just about every conference participant I’ve spoken to has stressed that work towards greater understanding between Christians and Muslims was now moving ahead on several fronts. “There’s definitely something in the air,” remarked Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian who runs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. As University of Cambridge theologian David Ford put it, “People were almost waiting for an initiative around which they could gather and which generally gave some way forward for Muslim-Christian engagement. Many initiatives were on the Christian side before but this was a Muslim initiative. It’s had the desired effect.”

“Common Word” Christian- Muslim talks kick off at Yale

Yale Common Word conference sign, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanAnd they’re off!

Readers of this blog will know we have been following the “Common Word” initiative for Christian-Muslim dialogue from its beginning last October. We already have a long list of blog posts about how the 138 Muslim scholars invited Christian leaders to a new dialogue, how some churches responded promptly and positively while others (especially the Vatican and some evangelical Protestants) were more wary but came around, how the preparations for their dialogue have progressed, etc. Now the first in their series of dialogue conferences, with a Christian side made up mostly of United States Protestants (including some evangelicals), has kicked off at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

The conference started with a closed-door meeting among theologians from Friday to Monday for an initial round of discussions of how Christianity and Islam view what the Common Word says are the two core principles they hold in common, i.e. that love of God and love of neighbor are the foundations of both faiths. This is one of the novel aspects of the Common Word initiative, identifying core concepts that many Christians and Muslims did not think they shared so closely. This half of the meeting is partly a getting-to-know-you session, since most of the Muslims come from the Middle East and Europe while most of the Christians come from the United States. But it is also a forum to test out some theological ideas in debates without television cameras or journalists hanging on every word. The journalist in me would like to be in there following the debates, Sign outside Yale Divinity School, 25 July 2008/Tom Heneghanbut it’s obvious the participants need a little time warming up before they can discuss these issues in public. The second session, from Tuesday to Thursday, will be open to the public.

Since I’ve been in New York all this month at Union Theological Seminary attending a research colloquium run by CrossCurrents magazine, I was able to dash off to New Haven for the start of the conference and will be covering it this week. Here is my opening report on the meeting.

Interesting faith conference at Lipscomb University

Barack Obama, 15 June 2008/John GressOne of the themes at the annual “Christian Scholars Conference” at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, is “faith and politics in the current political climate” — subjects that readers of this blog will know we often touch on.

The conference, which kicked off on Thursday and ends on Saturday, features an impressive academic line-up. A link to the abstracts can be found here.

Keri Thompson of the University of Texas has what looks like an intriguing presentation on “Progressive Christianity in Election 2008: The Rhetorical Strategies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”

Vatican’s Marcinkus can’t rest in peace

vaticancity.jpgUnless you’re a pope or a saint, it’s hard in Vatican City to make headlines years after your death. But not when you’re Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the late former Vatican bank head whose name alone elicits controversy.

Marcinkus, whose tenure at the Vatican’s Institute for Religious Works was marred by financial scandal, was accused this week of ordering the killing of a 15-year-old girl in 1983.

Marcinkus died in 2006 and could not defend himself from the accusations, brought by a girlfriend of a slain mobster and given ample coverage in Italian newspapers — despite big questions about her credibility (See here and here).