Religions


I’ve heard a lot of atheists hypothesize that one of the reasons religion was invented was because people had to manage their fear of death.  If people believe that they will continue to live on in some fashion after death, it mitigates their fear of death.  Can the fear of death explain the origin of religion, or the origin of religious faith in people today?  Perhaps, but three points should be made.  

First, not all religions include conscious existence beyond the grave.  For example, in many Eastern religions absorption into the One (personal extinction) is the end of all things.  Clearly immortality is not the motivation for those religions and religious practitioners.  

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If Christians firebombed every publisher that printed publications speaking ill of Jesus and Christianity, there would be few publishers and publications left.  But alas, we don’t resort to violence to defend our faith.  Islam is a peaceful religion, remember?  It’s those fundamentalist Christians that we have to watch out for.

Many people think religious claims are untestable, making it impossible to make an objective, reasoned choice as to which religion you should adopt.  You just have to pick the one that fits your personal preferences, your family tradition, etc.  Mark Mittelberg challenges this view in his book, Choosing Your Faith In a World of Spiritual Options.

Mittelberg starts with a question that religious people often do not even consider: Why choose any faith at all?  His answer is interesting: because you don’t have an option.  We all place our faith in something.  The question is whether or not that faith is justified or not; true or not.  Contrary to popular belief, answering this question is possible.

Before he delves into the principles by which we can test worldview claims, he discusses and evaluates six faith paths that most people use to determine their beliefs, showing how each is deficient: (more…)

The National Council of Church’s report on church membership lists the following organizations as the top ten biggest religious denominations in the U.S.A.: 

  1. The Catholic Church: 68.5 million
  2. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.1 million
  3. The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 6 million
  5. The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million
  6. National Baptist Convention, USA: 5 million
  7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.5 million
  8. National Baptist Convention of America: 3.5 million
  9. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million
  10. Presbyterian Church (USA): 2.7 million

I was surprised by the large gap between the number one and number two slots, and I was astounded to learn that Mormonism is the 4th largest denomination in America.  

HT: Theology in the News

I’ve read a good number of books since my last “What I’ve Been Reading” post, but have failed to write about them.  I hope to write about these books in the coming days or months, but for now I’ll just write about my most recent reading escapades.

I recently finished reading Christianity without the Cross: A History of Salvation in Oneness Pentecostalism (thank you Michael for purchasing this for me from my Ministry Resource List!).  Historian Thomas Fudge has written a well-researched history on the history of the doctrine of salvation in the United Pentecostal Church.[1] Fudge documents the evidence that those involved in the merger of the Pentecostal Church International (PCI) and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ (PAJC) into the United Pentecostal Church (UPC) in 1945 held two different views of salvation.  The majority believed that one is born again only after they have repented, been baptized in Jesus’ name, and baptized in the Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues.  A sizable minority (mainly from the PCI), however, believed one was born again at the point of faith/repentance.  While they believed in baptism in Jesus’ name and receiving the Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues, they understood such to be the result of salvation, not the cause of salvation.  The two groups agreed to fellowship their soteriological differences, not contending for their own views to the disunity of the new fellowship.

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Michael Patton at Reclaiming the Mind has some nice charts showing the breakdown of the world’s religions (numbers and percentages), as well as the breakdown of Christian traditions.

I’m late to the game on this one, but I just discovered some great statistical information regarding changes in the religious identity of Americans between 1990 and 2008, as well as a great interactive online chart visually displaying the information.  Here is some of the most pertinent information:

  • Those who claim to have no religious affiliation (called “Nones”) have grown in every state since 1990. 
  • The west and northeast coasts dominate the no religion category.  VT comes in 1st with 34%.  CA ranks 15th with 18%.  MI ranks last with 5%. 
  • Non-Christian religions have grown in all but 6 states since 1990. 
  • Protestants have diminished in all but 4 states. 
  • Catholics have diminished in all but 20 states. 
  • Catholics have increased in CA from 27% in 1990 to 38% in 2008. 
  • The northeast has the highest percentage of Catholics (RI has 46%).  CA ranks 5th with 38%.  AL ranks last with 6%. 
  • The south is mostly Protestant (AL has 80%).  CA ranks 45th with 35%.  MA ranks last with 26%. 
  • CT has the most non-Christian religious adherents (8%).  CA ranks 6th with 5%.  Wyoming ranks last with 1%. 
  • For those who simply don’t know what to say their religious identity is, OR comes in 1st place with 7% (compared to 2% in 1990), and DE last with 2% (in 1990 they were ranked 1st with 6%).  CA has 5%.

The beliefs of Nones was broken down further:

  • 51% believe in a deity of some sort
  • ~24% believe in a non-personal God
  • ~27% believe in a personal God
  • ~36% are agnostic (~19% hard agnostics, ~17% soft agnostics)
  • ~7% are atheist
  • 22% of 18-29 year old are Nones

Christianity is unique in that its veracity depends on the reality of particular historical events.  Christianity is not a philosophical religion.  Christian faith is not faith for the sake of faith, but a particular understanding about the significance of particular historical events—events that were either supernatural in character, or pregnant with supernatural significance.  If these purported historical events are actually fictional or mythical in nature, the very foundation of Christianity crumbles.

While our faith depends on the veracity of particular historical events through which God revealed Himself and His purposes, there is no question that we believe much more than can be demonstrated historically.  Historical and archaeological investigation can only verify and bolster some of the Bible’s historical claims.  While it can cover a lot of ground, the remaining gaps still must be transposed by faith.  That faith is not a blind and absurd leap as Kierkegaard suggested, but a reasoned judgment in reality based on the evidence available to us.

driscollMark Driscoll, of Mars Hill Church in Seattle Washington, wrote an article for Fox News responding to a recent Newsweek article reporting on the decline of self-identified Christians in America.  According to Driscoll, we must distinguish between Christendom and Christianity.  Christendom is the visible, cultural expression of Christianity in the world, while Christianity consists of those who have had a transforming experience with Jesus and are living out their faith in their daily lives.  Within Christendom there are many whose lives are not noticeably different from their non-Christian counterparts.  They are professing Christians rather than practicing Christians.  Driscoll contends that while Christendom is no doubt diminishing in the United States, it is not because the actual number of practicing Christians is diminishing, but because larger numbers of professing Christians are simply dropping the “in-name-only” label they have identified with in the past.  Why?  Because there is no longer the same social benefits that once accompanied church membership, and there is much less stigma today than in the past for abandoning Christianity.  I would encourage you to read his piece.  It’s a good thesis, and a good read.

 

HT: Justin Taylor

Thought for the day: Religion is not decreasing in our society.  It’s merely moving from the public sphere to the private sphere.  There has been a shift in the Western world from viewing religion as knowledge (reality) to viewing religion as faith (personal fiction). Our job as Christians, then, is to cut this public-private divide, recovering Christianity from its cultural captivity to the private sphere of “values,” and recovering Christianity’s rich intellectual heritage.

Albert Mohler examines an article in U.S. News & World Report that is quite troubling.  It appears the Obama administration requires those who offer prayers before an Obama speech, to vet it with the White House first for their approval.  This is quite clearly a government entanglement with religion.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is a need to even have someone offer a prayer prior to an Obama speech, but if you are going to have prayer be offered, it should not have to be reviewed and possibly edited by the White House.  This goes beyond political correctness into theological arbitration.  As Mohler wrote, “When a White House approves or edits prayers, it has entered theological territory and takes on a theological function.  The President of the United States is our Commander in Chief, not our Theologian in Chief.”

The sorts of things that are happening in England are not limited to England.  We’re already seeing them here.  I find it ironic that the very worldview that promoted religious tolerance in the first place, is the very worldview that is now being suppressed.  I would love to see how things would have been different if Muslims, rather than Christians, were in view.

Last year the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its findings on the religious beliefs and practices of Americans based on an extensive sampling (35,000 people).  I blogged on their findings, noting that 70% of religious Americans in general, and 57% of evangelicals in particular, believe many religions lead to eternal life.  

Many questioned the accuracy of the data due to the ambiguity of the question posed to respondents.  “Religions” could be interpreted to mean non-Christian religions, or other Christian denominations.  So in August 2008 Pew clarified the issue by re-asking the same question in expanded form to a sampling of 2908 people.  Not only did the number of evangelical who affirmed “many religions can lead to eternal life” drop from 57% to 47%, but of that number, only 72% had non-Christian religions in view.  That means “only” 34% of evangelicals believe non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life (within all of American Christendom, that number is 52%).  So it’s not as bad as originally believed, but 1 in 3 is still bad!

When it is broken out by who these evangelicals thought could be saved apart from Christianity, the data is pretty scary.  A full 64% of them thought Jews could be saved; 35% thought Muslims could be saved; 33% Hindus; 26% atheists; 35% non-religious.  When 1 in 4 of them think somebody can deny God’s existence and still be saved, something is wrong!

On the positive side, the number of evangelicals who believe one must be a Christian has actually increased from 37% in 2007 to 49% in 2008.  From Pew: “Fewer than half of evangelicals (47%) say many religions can lead to eternal life, down nine points in the course of a year, while 49% say theirs is the one, true faith.”  So it appears that Christian particularlism is on the rise, and religious pluralism is on the decline in evangelical circles. 

Religious pluralism among religious believers of any stripe is also in decline, decreasing from 76% in 2002, to 65% in 2008.  These figures do not isolate “strong religious pluralists” from those who simply allow for the salvation of those in various factions of their own religion (“weak religious pluralists”).  When we isolate the strong from the weak religious pluralists, the numbers are smaller.  That subset constitutes a slim majority of religious Americans (52%).  The 2002 data did isolate this subset, but if we apply the 2008 ratios of strong-to-weak religious pluralists to the 2002 data, it would yield a figure of 61% strong religious pluralists.  A 9% reduction in religious pluralism over a 6 year period is significant indeed.

Gallup recently conducted a nationwide poll to see what states were the most and least religious.  People were asked if religion was an important part of their daily life.  The state with the highest religiosity is Mississippi, with 85% of those polled declaring religion to be an important part of their daily lives. Vermont is the least religious state, with only 42% of those polled affirming the same thing.  My own state of California came in at number 38 (57%), beating out Montana (56%) and New York (56%). 

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Here is a pictorial representation of religiosity levels in the US.  The darker the green, the more religious:

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Indeed, there is a Bible Belt in the U.S.  And then there is that Bible vacuum we call New England and the West Coast!

I don’t know which is more difficult: trying to change the beliefs of religious people, or trying to change the beliefs of those who are apathetic towards religion in general.  Either way, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

 

HT: Albert Mohler

Many Americans are Deists. Few would claim that title, but their view of God is deistic in either actual profession or actual behavior. They either believe in a creator God who is not involved with His creation, or they live their lives in such a way that assumes God is uninvolved with creation. So I thought I would formulate a brief definition of Deism that both defines it and criticizes it all at once. Here you go: “Deism is the deadbeat dad version of theism; the half-way house between theism and atheism for those who have enough sense to see the intellectual bankruptcy of atheism, but no tolerance for the presence of a personal God who might interfere in their personal lives.” You can quote me on that!

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted an extensive poll measuring the religious landscape of the U.S. A summary of the report can be found here. They also created interactive tools to illustrate their findings. I must say they are quite impressive. Not only do they provide detailed information on a visual level (and by state), but it allows you to customize comparisons of statistics of religious traditions side-by-side.

Here is some of the most pertinent and interesting data:

–America is 78% Christian. 51% are Protestant, and 24% are Catholic. A full 26% of the country is Evangelical Protestant.

–Non-Christian religions constitute less than 5% of the nation. Jews take the lead at 1.7% of the population, followed by Buddhists (.7%), Muslims (.6%), and Hindus (.4%).

–16% of the country is not affiliated with any religion. Of this number, only 1.6% are atheists, and 2.4% agnostics. The rest are “nothing in particular.” These people can be secular or religious, but are not affiliated with any religion. A full 1 in 4 young people aged 18-29 claim no religious affiliation.

–The Catholic Church loses the most people to other religions, but their numbers remain static because of Catholic immigrants (mainly from Mexico). One in three adults in the Catholic Church are Latino.

–37% of married couples are married to someone of a different religion (or denomination).

–Only 37% of those who were raised Jehovah’s Witnesses are still JWs. JWs have the lowest retention rate of any religious group.

A Dutch Catholic priest, Tiny Muskens, argues that Christians should begin calling God, “Allah.” Why? To ease Christian-Muslim tensions. What might God think about this? According to Muskens God is above such bickering over what He is called.

 

Muskens was a missionary in Indonesia for 30 years, and points out how Christians in Indonesia call God “Allah.” In their language, that is the generic reference for God, equivalent to the English “God.” If they can do it, and no one has a problem with it, why can’t we do the same as well?

 

I think Muskens’s suggestion is misguided for three reasons. First, I don’t think one can make a Biblical case that God is unconcerned with what we call Him. He has chosen to reveal Himself to us with certain names and titles. We cannot just ignore those, or interchange them with some other name if it suits our fancy to do so. For example, we can’t call Him “Xenon” because we think that’s a cool name. That is disrespectful to the God who has revealed Himself, and His name, to man.

 

Having said that, I understand that the English word “God” is just an English translation of the Hebrew elohim. There is nothing special about the English word “God.” We could just as well use the French word Dieu, or the Italian Dio, or the German Gott…and would do so if we spoke French, Italian, or German, because that is the equivalent word for elohim in those languages. But we do not speak those languages. Likewise, we do not speak Arabic, or live in countries where Muslim influence has made it so that the only term that exists for God in the native language is “Allah.” So there is no reason for us to use “Allah” to refer to God.

 

Second, I think Muskens’s suggestion would have the opposite effect He envisions. It is one thing for Christians to call God “Allah” in a nation whose language has no other name for God, but it a whole other matter for those who have an alternative name to begin using “Allah” to identify their God. In the former case the usage is necessary; in the latter it is not. Most Christians are Trinitarian. The triune God of Christianity is repugnant to Muslims. To call that God by the same name as the Muslim God when it is not necessary to do so, is likely to be seen as blasphemous, for it would associate Allah with a false God. That will hardly help Muslim-Christian relations!

 

Thirdly, even if Muslims would not be offended by our change from “God” to “Allah”, what makes us think this change would ease Muslims-Christian tensions? Does Muskens think Muslims won’t be privy to the fact that the change in terminology has nothing to do with a change in our beliefs? Their problem with Christians is not that we do not call God “Allah”, but that we do not follow Islam. Calling the Christian God “Allah” will do nothing to change that fact, and thus it can do nothing to ease Muslim-Christian tensions.

 

One final thing to consider…. Why is it that Christians need to change the word we use to refer to the Supreme Deity? Why isn’t Muskens calling on Muslims to start calling Allah, “God”? I would venture to say it is because he knows they would never do so. They would likely see it as an affront to Islam, and may resort to violence and killing like they did in the case of the Danish cartoons. It’s much easier and safer to tell Christians to change their language. Muskens knows Christians are tolerant, even of those who disrespect their religion.

Many Eastern religions make this claim about God. So do Muslims. Unfortunately it is incoherent.

To say God is unknowable is either a statement about God, or a statement about ourselves. If it is a statement about God it is an affirmation that he has no properties capable of being known. And yet having at least one property is what differentiates existence from non-existence. If God has no properties, then he doesn’t exist. If it is a statement about ourselves—our ability to know a God with specific properties—then it is self-refuting because the statement itself is a claim to know something about God: he is unknowable. If God was unknowable, we would not even be able to know that He was unknowable. This can be pointed out by asking, “How do you know God is unknowable if nothing can be known of God? Isn’t that something you know about him?”

Either way you look at it, that statement is incoherent.

Today, for the first time in this nation’s history, a Hindu led the opening prayer in the Senate. When I first heard about this I was not particularly troubled. I understand that this country is not a Christian nation, politically speaking. While the political philosophy of the founders was informed by Judaeo-Christian principles, and the vast majority of the citizens of this country are Christian, our government is not. There is no governmental basis on which I can say Christian and Jewish-led prayers in the Senate are acceptable, but Hindu-led prayers are not.

But the more I thought about it, I began to be troubled. What bothered me is the apparent motive for doing this. The offering of prayer in the Senate is for the benefit of the senators. There have been Jewish and Christian senators, and thus there have been Jewish and Christian ministers who have offered prayers before the Senate. To my knowledge, however, no U.S. Senator is of the Hindu religion. If no senator is Hindu, why invite a Hindu to offer a prayer? Who does it benefit? No one in the Senate!

On the face of it, it seems the motive for inviting the Hindu was to display a sense of religious open-mindedness. I’m not talking about the kind that is open to hearing what other religions have to say, but the kind that says all religions are basically the same and deserve equal time. If there were a Hindu in the Senate, I would not object. But without a Hindu in the Senate, this prayer was nothing more than a ploy for multiculturalist, relativistic philosophy.

“We are not talking here about the postmodern conception of Christianity that minimizes truth. We are not talking about Christianity as a mood or as a sociological movement. We are not talking about liberal Christianity that minimizes doctrine nor about sectarian Christianity which defines the faith in terms of eccentric doctrines. We are talking about historic, traditional, Christian orthodoxy.

“Once that is made clear, the answer is inevitable. Furthermore, the answer is made easy, not only by the structure of Christian orthodoxy (a structure Mormonism denies) but by the central argument of Mormonism itself – that the true faith was restored through Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century in America and that the entire structure of Christian orthodoxy as affirmed by the post-apostolic church is corrupt and false.

“In other words, Mormonism rejects traditional Christian orthodoxy at the onset – this rejection is the very logic of Mormonism’s existence. A contemporary observer of Mormon public relations is not going to hear this logic presented directly, but it is the very logic and message of the Book of Mormon and the structure of Mormon thought. Mormonism rejects Christian orthodoxy as the very argument for its own existence, and it clearly identifies historic Christianity as a false faith.

“Without doubt, Mormonism borrows Christian themes, personalities, and narratives. Nevertheless, it rejects what orthodox Christianity affirms and it affirms what orthodox Christianity rejects. It is not Christianity in a new form or another branch of the Christian tradition. By its own teachings and claims, it rejects that very tradition.

“Richard John Neuhaus, a leading Roman Catholic theologian, helpfully reminds us that ‘Christian’ is a word that ‘is not honorific but descriptive.’ Christians do respect the Mormon affirmation of the family and the zeal of Mormon youth in their own missionary work. Christians must affirm religious liberty and the right of Mormons to practice and share their faith.

“Nevertheless, Mormonism is not Christianity by definition or description.”

Albert Mohler, “Are Mormons Christians? — A Beliefnet.com Debate”; available from http://albertmohler.com/blog_read.php?id=969; Internet; accessed 29 June 2007.

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