Tag Archives: america

Are Christians in Danger in America?

This photograph of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Ontario, Canada, was taken by Pierre BONA. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike. Canada ranks higher than the U.S. in diversity and tolerance for both race and religion; gay marriage has been legal nationwide there since 2005.

On the surface of it, it may appear that legalizing gay marriage does not effect anyone except those who were hoping to get a gay marriage.

And if humans were strictly rational creatures, this would be true. But in an American society that so often ostracizes and demonizes the Other, it’s arguable that the concerns of some opponents of gay marriage are at least a little bit understandable. After all, our nation does not have the greatest track record for having different groups living harmoniously side-by-side.

“So now that the government must recognize gay marriages,” some people ask, “will my church be sued for refusing to marry gay couples?”

“Will we face threats of violence from those who don’t agree with us, now that we are a minority?”

“Are we heading for an era where discrimination against Christians is legal?”

These concerns may seem outlandish to non-Christians, since Christianity has traditionally been by far the formative power in the U.S., and in many parts of the United States is still the determiner of what is socially and even legally acceptable.

But humans are humans, no matter what their religious stripes. And Americans are still Americans, regardless of their opinion on gay marriage.

And Americans are historically not great at live-and-let-live.

Many readers can probably relate to the experience of feeling oppressed for not being Christian in America; I regularly hear accounts of people feeling that anger was directed at them because they failed to conform to the ideas of their local most populous brand of Christianity, and even news articles about acts of violence by American Christians against what they perceived to be non-Christian ideas still appear.

In the past week, I’ve spoken to multiple people who moved to my largely un-Christian town specifically because they felt anger had been directed at them over their gender identity, religious practices, or political views in their previous Christian hometowns.

But Americans don’t stop being Americans just because they change their minds about God or gay marriage. Indeed, Christians in non-Christian American communities appear to be as vulnerable to discrimination as non-Christians in Christian American communities. Wherever it is socially acceptable to discriminate against a given group; discrimination will occur.

This photograph licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 Share and Share Alike. Interestingly, the stencil’s creator may have been ignoring some research indicating that at least among children, those with imaginary friends tend to be more well-adjusted.
I know of at least two cases in my own non-Christian hometown where independent legal investigations concluded that a school or business had practiced discrimination against Christians. Nationally, the American Civil Liberties Union has defended Christians in dozens of discrimination suits across the U.S..

Indeed, DoSomething.org reports that global research shows Christians face discrimination in more countries than any other religion, including some cases in the U.S.. Muslims were the second-most-commonly discriminated against, with Jews coming in third.

This is arguably due to the growing sentiment that discrimination is morally acceptable – so long as it’s against someone who might favor discrimination themselves.

Though by no means more common than persecution of non-Christians in a country where 70.6% of the population identifies as Christian, anti-Christian discrimination does happen.

That means that overall discrimination will not necessarily improve just because Christianity – who we are accustomed to seeing as the most-guilty party – becomes less common. What needs to change is not our religion; it is our treatment of minorities.

While the existence of Christianity is certainly not in danger in this country, certain interpretations of its theology becoming less common; the number of Americans describing homosexuality as a “sin” has been steadily declining over the past decade, and in 2012 that was already a minority opinion.

Which is undeniably a win for homosexual people, who in the past century faced social ostracization, threats of violence, and even legal punishment simply for acting gay in the privacy their own homes.

But just because the identity of our minority has changed doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve improved our treatment of minorities.

Comments describing anyone who views homosexuality as a sin as “bigoted,” “stupid,” and “evil” are increasingly common – irrespective of the target’s views about equal protection under the law. Indeed, at times all Christians are targeted with these remarks – even though many American Christians supported marriage equality.

At the same time, both liberal and conservative activists are observing that some pro-civil rights movements appear to have adopted habits similar to the social and moral policing they once complained about coming from their opposition.

In summary, be nice to each other. Be kind. Be tolerant of differences.

That’s the only way we will ever improve our treatment of minorities, regardless of who falls into the category of “minority” in our changing world.

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If the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu can do it, why can’t we?

Understanding Conservatism

This painting of Allies flags hanging by Childe Hassam is in the public domain.

I’m sure everyone has noticed that the divisions between Americans are wider now than they have been in decades.

As far as our attitudes towards each other go, we are all now either “good” or “evil.”

To liberals, those are “evil” who appear to oppose equal protection for all – be that through opposing expansions to Medicare and Medicaid, opposing the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage, opposing a woman’s freedom to choose whether she gives birth, opposing legislation designed to protect minorities, or through blatant racism and sexism.

To conservatives, those are “evil” who appear to oppose traditional values – be it through supporting government redistribution of wealth, supporting government restrictions on free enterprise, supporting the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage, supporting the killing of fetuses, or blatant slamming of those who hold traditional values.

You don’t find any middle ground these days. Everywhere you turn on the Internet, you find increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories about how one side or the other is conspiring to destroy America.

How did it get this way?

I would suggest that the culprit is a lack of understanding.

We seem to suffer both from lack of understanding of the other, and understanding of the self.

Do you understand why you believe the things you do?

Do you understand why you feel the way you feel?

Do you understand why you react negatively to some ideas?

Is your reaction rational? Is it the right reaction for the situation?

As human beings, we are very, very good at lying to ourselves.

Drawing from the unique understandings yielded by neuroscience, we know that the brain is literally designed to tell stories to explain our actions; even when it cannot possibly know the true reason for them.

In studies of “split brain” patients (those whose connection between the brain hemisphere has been severed, resulting in each hemisphere only receiving sensory data from half of the body), the left brain, which contains the speech center, will blatantly lie without even being aware that it is doing so.

“Why did you laugh?” the scientist will ask the left hemisphere of the split brain patient, after showing the right brain hemisphere a funny video which prompted the laughter?

This image of the brain, emphasizing the corpus callosum which allows communication between the two hemispheres, has been generously released into the public domain by its creator, Oliver Stollman.

“I was thinking about the bird outside the window,” the left brain will say, “and it reminded me of something funny.”

Clearly, the probability that the left brain independently laughed about a bird outside the window at the exact same moment when the right brain was shown a funny joke is low. The left brain shows no awareness of the video that the right brain saw; it does not reference it at all.

But it insists that it knows why its body laughed. It makes up stories about the reasons for actions whose true reasons it cannot possibly know.

I think this surfaces quite frequently in politics. More than once in my life, I’ve been speaking with someone who claimed to know why they held a given political feeling; only to have the feeling completely unaffected by the disappearance of their supposed reason for it.

Whether it’s someone who thinks they dislike a Supreme Court ruling “because it’s undemocratic” – and then opposes the same law when it’s passed at the state level by the people, or someone who thinks they oppose something because they care about children, and then ignores mountains of hard evidence about what is good for children – let’s face it.

We all do it.

But why do liberals and conservatives do it differently?

Here again, neuroscience can give us insight into what is normally beyond the realm of our knowledge.

Many scientific studies have been done to see how liberals and conservatives respond differently to stimuli. The overall results are this: that liberals want to believe that the world is safe, and conservatives want to believe that it is dangerous.

Conservatives have stronger biological responses to stimuli which induce fear and disgust; they react with more empathy to members of their “in group” as far as race, religion, and nationality goes, than to members of other groups. They cleave strongly to sure allies.

Conservatives are slower to recognize change and ambiguity; when shown a shape that slowly morphs from a circle into a triangle, conservatives will be slower to change their designation of the shape from “circle” to “triangle” than liberals.

It is easy to see how these traits would be advantageous under certain circumstances. Indeed, the World Values Survey has found that societies which live at high levels of physical insecurity almost universally cleave to traditional values like those espoused by conservatives.

There is good reason for this. If you live in an area of decidedly scarce resources, who your “in group” is could become very important. If you live in an area where you need to fear predation or disease, strong fear and disgust responses will keep you safe.

This map of the cultures of various nations on the scales from “traditional” to “secular-rational” and “survival” to “self-expression” values by Koyo. Licensed under Creative Commons Share and Share Alike 3.0.

If you live in an area where the world is dangerous and uncertain, it makes sense to learn from authority figures and traditions which have worked in the past; if you live in a safe world with little to fear, it makes sense to discard tradition to try new ways which might be better.

This is probably why societies that live at high levels of physical safety and prosperity almost universally move towards liberal values. Characterized by the World Values Survey as “secular-rational” and “self-expression” values, these are values which create new things in safe environments.

It is easy to see why these, too, are good in certain circumstances. It is the mind that has little fear which gives freely to others; which widens one’s “in group” to include all living creatures; which discards tradition in pursuit of better ways, because it can afford to do so.

Both sets of values are essential in the right time and place. Let our wisdom, then, lie in recognizing the correct places to apply each.

Let us recognize what really poses a threat to our society.

Let us question our perceptions when we think that something threatens us.

Let us recognize what a fearless, giving heart would do.

Let us recognize when it may not be such a good idea to simply give someone what they want.

Today’s challenge: name three areas in which you are uncertain of your own motives.

Gay Marriage: What It Means, And Why We Need to Be Careful

Pierre_Bona_CC_3.0This morning, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that bans on same-sex marriage violate the U.S. Constitution. As of today, it should be legal for same-sex couples in any state to apply for a marriage license. First, let’s talk about what this means from a legal perspective. A few benefits of marriage that previously were not guaranteed to same-sex couples include:

  • Custody rights. Without the legal protection of marriage, same-sex couples ran the risk that the state may not recognize both members of the couple as legal guardians of their children; this meant that if one partner died, the other could be left with no rights to the children.
  • Hospital visitation rights. Due to confidentiality laws surrounding healthcare procedures, often only immediate family are permitted to visit people who become incapacitated and so cannot communicate their own wishes about who visits them in the hospital. Under these circumstances, same-sex partners were not previously guaranteed visitation rights.
  • Health insurance. Many healthcare family plans will only cover immediate family members; previously, same-sex partners were often not recognized as immediate family and so were not eligible for health insurance benefits through many employers.

But we all know that this isn’t just about legal rights. If it was, why would anyone oppose it? This is also about national identity. American conservatives are frightened because this symbolizes a divorce of the standards of the U.S. federal government from the Christian religion. In theory, it has always been the case that church and state were separate in the United States. The Founding Fathers, though most believed in the benefit of religion, recognized the diversity of the early colonists; though all of the colonies were predominantly Christian, they had come from a variety of Christian stripes in an era when those differences were very important.

The Puritans had originally fled England because they were persecuted for following the wrong strain of Christianity, according to the Church of England; which, in the days not long after Europe fought bloody wars over the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, made them practically two different religions.

Others were Quakers, Masons, and other groups that, while Christian, were largely shunned and feared by the more dominant Christian factions. The 13 colonies were arguably as diverse in religious and national character as the States are today. And yet, somewhere along the line, America lost touch with the intent of separation of church and state.

Somewhere along the line, being a God-fearing Christian became part of being American in the eyes of many Americans. I would place this “somewhere” in the mid-20th century. It was in 1954, after all, that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, which had previously simply read “one nation, indivisible.” It was in this mid-20th century, during the U.S.’s culture war with the Soviet Union, that the Soviets established atheism as a state religion and we tried our damnedest to establish Christianity as ours. Now, we seem to be rejecting that national identity – and there is a deep-seated fear in the minds of many Americans, arguably tracing back to the Cold War, that rejecting a Christian identity means embracing an atheist one.
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It follows, in the minds of these people, that rejecting a Christian identity means that Christians will be endangered in the U.S., just as they were in the Soviet Union. Let’s not make them right. It’s easy to say “there is no risk of that – we would never persecute people for having beliefs different from our own.” And yet, the Christians who are upset about the legalization of gay marriage say the same thing. It is so easy to accidentally do.

It is not uncommon in Internet circles to hear Christians being slammed. I routinely need to police my own comment section – both for Christians being abusive towards non-Christians, and for non-Christians being abusive towards Christians. Hatred is a cycle. Let’s not continue it.

Love is What is Needed

This is an era of apocalyptic prophecies. We are told from many sides that the end is nigh; that things are bad, that they will get worse, that we must be poised to enter the final battle.

The problem is this: that we cannot seem to agree on what it is that we are fighting.

In America, we hear two prevailing narratives:

That our demise comes at the hands of godlessness and socialism, at the hands of sexual immorality and atheists without conscience who refuse to recognize the authority of God, at the hands of the lazy poor and parasitic immigrants who drain our coffers.

Or, we hear that our demise comes at the hands of religion and capitalism, of those who in self-righteousness would blame and fear the Other, of those who would blindly cling to what they are told are God’s edicts, of those who see profit as a moral virtue and poverty as a moral vice.

Ingenious, isn’t it, how neatly those two stances turn us against each other?

Both sides will argue that they have morality. Both sides will argue that they have love. Both sides will argue that it is the other’s LACK of love that creates all of our problems.

If both sides were acting out of love, neither one would need to argue it.

Love was the foremost message of Christ; for the sake of Love he broke Old Testament laws, choosing to spend embrace the “sinners” who were of sincere heart rather than the religious authorities who ultimately had him put to death for blasphemy.

Love was the foremost message of Karl Marx; just as Christ advocated to meet the needs of the many through individual Love, Marx advocated to meet the needs of the many through an economic system.

Both spoke against hostility, greed, and exploitation. Both warned of the grave moral perils posed by wealth; Christ said “it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Could this have anything to do with the modern phenomena we see, where the comparatively wealthy so frequently hoard personal wealth while scapegoating the poor?

The followers of Christ and Marx, in other words, should be on pretty much the same page.

So why aren’t they?

It is for each individual to answer the question of why love has not prevailed in their life.

Perhaps it is enough for us to remember that, no matter who your role model is or what your income level is, you have the same highest calling.