Posts Tagged ‘religion’

on sin and hypocrisy

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

Here are excerpts from a powerful column by Dutch writer Ian Buruma that was published more than seven years ago. Click on the link to read the full essay.

In more traditional days, not so very long ago, when God reigned supreme and most people still turned to their priests (or ministers, rabbis, etc.) for moral guidance, sexual behavior was often dictated by power. Christians may have believed in sin. The values espoused by the Church were paid their due deference.

But hypocrisy gave privileged people, including priests, a certain leeway. Wealthy men had mistresses, professors had affairs with students, and even the lowly village priest, a man of social and spiritual power, if not of great wealth, often enjoyed the sexual favors of a woman conveniently at hand to take care of his domestic needs. ….

[It is] no longer all right for men to have mistresses, teachers to have affairs with students, or priests to enjoy the favors of their chambermaids. People became less tolerant of hypocrisy. In a way, the social transformations of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought about a new form of puritanism. Especially in the US, a man can lose his job for making an “inappropriate” sexual remark, marriages collapse because of a one-night stand, and any form of sex with children is an absolute taboo. ….

Catholics have tended to be more tolerant of hypocrisy than Protestants. The rise of Protestantism was in part a protest against this. Strict Protestants make a virtue out of brutal frankness, because they believe they have a direct pipeline to God. Catholics confess to their priests, not to God himself. Sins can be dealt with, as long as proper ceremony is observed. This explains why the Vatican chooses to describe the pedophiliac transgression of its clergy as sins rather than crimes.

Ian Buruma, “Holy Abuse“, Project Syndicate, 31 March 2010.

Ian Buruma (born 1951) lives in the United States. He is Editor of The New York Review of Books, teaches at Bard College and is author of many books, including Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents (Princeton University Press, 2010).


Quakers and Wikipedia

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

I never thought of this before, but Wikipedia has much in common with a Quaker meeting. In neither case is there an authority in charge. Anyone may contribute to a Wikipedia article, just as anyone may speak during worship at a meeting of Friends (Quakers).

Simon DeDeo, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has long studied Wikipedia, says that the online encyclopedia has operated like the Quakers: anyone can contribute whenever they are so moved.

John Thornhill, “Wiki-journalism may be part of the answer to fake news“, Financial Times, 2 May 2017 (gated paywall).

Donald Trump and evangelical Christians

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Gary Silverman, the FT’s US national editor, is visiting Auburn, Alabama. He interviewed Wayne Flynt, emeritus professor of history at Auburn University and a Baptist minister who still teaches Sunday school at a local church. From this conversation, he produced a remarkable column. Here are a few fragments from it. If there were no copyright restrictions, I would copy and paste the full column. You can register and read all of it for free, without subscribing to the Financial Times.

I have highlighted the fragment that most surprised and enlightened me.

I … [wanted] to hear his thoughts on the local economy, but the conversation turned to a central mystery of US politics. Trump would not be president without the strong support of the folks Flynt has chronicled — white residents of the Bible Belt …. I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful.

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality. Their faith, he says, has been put in a president who embodies an unholy trinity of materialism, hedonism and narcissism. Trump’s victory, in this sense, is less an expression of the old-time religion than evidence of a move away from it. ….

When the Christian right burst to prominence, its calls to defend the unborn were a rallying cry. But unyielding opposition to abortion was not a traditional evangelical position. In 1971 — two years before the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision legalising abortion — the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the largest US Protestant denomination, endorsed abortion in cases of rape, incest, “severe” foetal deformity or where there was “the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother”. ….

Abortion only became a leading concern of the religious right when the late firebrand Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the Moral Majority seized upon the issue towards the end of the 1970s. …. [Emphasis added.]

By any measure, Trump was an odd vessel for evangelical hopes. ….

Nonetheless, Trump was backed by 81 per cent of white voters who identified themselves as evangelical Christians, …. Unlike … Hillary Clinton … Trump pledged to appoint an anti-abortion justice to fill the vacancy on a Supreme Court that was split between conservatives and liberals. ….

Flynt says evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them. ….

Gary Silverman, “How the Bible Belt lost God and found Trump“, Financial Times, 14 April 2017 (gated paywall).

Professor Flynt (born 1940) is author or co-author of 12 books on Alabama, including Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites (University of Alabama Press, 1989). His latest book is Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee (HarperCollins, forthcoming 2 May 2017), a collection of letters between himself and the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Christian faith and reason

Friday, December 16th, 2016

This is the promised second letter to the editor from today’s Financial Times. A reader from Berlin responds – beautifully – to Anjana Ahuja’s December 7th column “Echoes of Galileo in the populist retreat from reason”.

Sir, ….

Galileo Galilei actually spent his house arrest rather comfortably in one of the residences of the Medici family in Rome and later returned to his villa south of Florence to continue his work. If he had been “forbidden to propagate his beliefs”, as claimed in the piece, he would hardly have been able to finish the most famous of his works, Discorsi, which was published in Italian five years after the trial. What was demanded from Galileo in this famous trial, was not to revoke his claim that the sun and not the earth is the centre of the universe, as often claimed, in fact he was asked by Pope Urban VII (whose protégé he was!) to phrase his claims as a proposition only. Galileo rather haughtily insisted them to be a certainty. In contrast, the Pope acted with diligence, as scientific findings very rarely can be called certainties and generally only have value until improved or overturned by later generations. As it turns out, both were wrong, the Church and Galileo, as neither the Earth nor our sun are the centre of the universe.

The Galileo example is ill suited to illustrate the myth of a church hostile to science. For hundreds of years monasteries were the only centres of learning far and wide. ….

Were it not for devout Christians such as Grosseteste, Bacon, Albertus Magnus, to name just a few, Europe and America would never have become places where the sciences thrived and still strive like nowhere else in the world. Luther even held the view that our restless desire to get to the bottom of things is inherent in Christian mentality ….

Alexander von Schönburg, “Devout Christians who helped science thrive“, Financial Times, letter to the editor, 16 December 2016 (metered paywall).

science under siege

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

The conflict between scientists and political leaders (secular and religious) in some countries is moving toward levels that were common centuries ago, writes British-Indian science journalist Anjana Ahuja. The coming change of government in the USA is but one example, though a surprising one.

Four centuries ago, Galileo caught the unwelcome attention of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1616, his conviction that the Earth went round the Sun, contrary to the geocentric view of the universe, simply irritated theologians; by 1633, the astronomer was under house arrest and forbidden from propagating his beliefs, a situation that prevailed until his death in 1642. It might have been worse for a heretic: he could have been burnt at the stake.

Scientists may well feel the heat from those in power once again. Donald Trump, US president-elect, established his anti-science credentials by declaring climate change a Chinese hoax. In Mike Pence, he chose a running mate who seems not to believe in evolution. One science blogger said Mr Trump’s cabinet looked as if his team had “made a list of all 300m Americans, ordered them by competency … and then skipped straight down to the bottom”.

Anjana Ahuja, “Echoes of Galileo in the populist retreat from reason“, Financial Times, 7 December 2016 (metered paywall).

Anjana Ahuja has a PhD in space physics from Imperial College London, and is now a contributing writer at the Financial Times. She is also a visiting lecturer in science journalism at City University in London.

Advice for Young Muslims

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Beautiful words. Everyone should read them. This is what the editors of Foreign Affairs think, so they have left it ungated. There is no need to subscribe, even to register, to access this essay from the current issue (November 29, 2016). Highly recommended.





forgiving our enemies, Venezuela edition

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

In the late 1990s John Paul Rathbone worked in Caracas as a journalist. He returned recently to accompany “a friend, the Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman, acting as his translator”, and subsequently wrote a wonderful account of the experience. Here is a brief excerpt. (more…)

on pacifism

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and left wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” G.K. Chesterton wrote that in 1910, and during the hundred or so years since, nothing has changed. “Difficult” concepts (thou shalt not kill; love your enemies; do good to those who hate you) become impossible in times of war and are conveniently forgotten.


During the 1939-45 war … all the churches I knew … seemed in support of the war. …. [J]ust as we prayed to God for victory and deliverance, so did the German people; and just as chaplains on our side blessed the men before battle, so did the other side. […]

Gradually [as years went on] the church I had grown up with ceased to have relevance. …. In my early thirties, I found myself on a spiritual search and to my everlasting gratitude was led to Quakers and read the great testimonies. It was … as though everything came tumbling into place. …. I knew then that I could not answer all the questions that arise, such as “What would you do if …” and “What about Hitler and his attempt to execute all the Jews, the homosexuals, the mentally ill, the gypsies?” Later, I met a relative who had been a conscientious objector in the 1939-45 war, and he gave me great help. His brother lived in a psychiatric hospital due to injuries received in the 1914-18 war, and indeed died there in the early 1970s. The simplicity of his answer, “I did not want to do to anyone what had been done to my brother,” put into words what has remained a truth for me.

Quaker Quest, “Twelve Quakers and Pacifism”, Quaker Quest Pamphlet 3 (London, UK, 2005), pp. 13, 15-16.

I have begun my own spiritual search, so would like to share these words with you. This and other pamphlets in the series are not available online, but can be purchased from

good and evil

Thursday, July 21st, 2016

If there is a loving God, why does evil exist? This is a question that troubles everyone with faith. Quakers believe that there is potential for good and for evil within each of us. There exists no Devil to tempt us or attack us, no Hell to punish us.

We Quakers are often accused of a rosy view of the world and of people that denies the existence of evil. That is entirely to misunderstand what we mean when we speak of ‘that of God in every person’. it does not mean that every person is good, that no person is capable of evil, but rather that every person has the seeds of goodness, and of God, within her or him. It means that every person has within the potential to reach some perception of God. …. To put it in conventional religious language, even the most sinful person is capable of redemption.

Likewise, we all have within us the potential for wrongdoing. …. The absolute ethic that my religious perception leads me to is simple: loving my fellow beings is right; hurting them is wrong. Any action hurting or diminishing another is an evil one, bearing within it the seeds of greater evils. Thus can contempt of one’s neighbour escalate and accumulate force until it results in war.

Quaker Quest, “Twelve Quakers and Evil”, Quaker Quest Pamphlet 4 (London, UK, 2006), pp. 16-17.

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

Psalms 23:4

Quakers and Nazis – conclusion

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

I have completed all of Hans Schmitt’s book Quakers and Nazis: Inner Light in Outer Darkness (University of Missouri Press, 1997), and am posting my final blog on it. The previous two blogs can be downloaded  here and here.

This book contains a wealth of information, but is difficult to read or summarize. For this reason I decided not to post more reading notes. Instead, I am posting a scan of the short conclusion. In my opinion, this is the most interesting, most readable chapter of the book.

The author begins his conclusion by writing “This book … has rested on no conceptual framework ….” Indeed. This, precisely, is why the book is not easy to read.

Quaker 214

Quaker 215

quaker 216Quaker 217Quaker 218Quaker 219