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Archive for the category “Irreligion”

Please Give Us Your Identity Back: Teresa MacBain Redux

Two days ago the Harvard Humanist Community Project (HCH) let go of their recently hired director, Teresa MacBain, because she misrepresented her credentials (in regards to a supposed MDiv from Duke Divinity). When the news broke I wasn’t sure exactly how people would react, but I did consider that she might be criticized by believers and atheists alike. Since then the reaction from the online atheist community has been mixed. Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, published a very supportive take on the situation, despite the fact that “the hard truth appears to be that MacBain has no theological degree.”  According to Mehta there is also a “softer truth…that it doesn’t really matter,” because MacBain was sincerely religious, had a genuine deconversion experience and really did work to help others transition from faith to faithlessness. However,the well over 200 comments on his post have not all followed his reasoning. Richard Wade, for instance, wrote a lengthy comment suggesting that the HCH’s decision to fire MacBain was correct and that  “[i]ntentionally or not, she has harmed others.”  While the harm Wade described comes in the form of bad PR for organized atheism, his adjudication of the firing decision was much more universal in nature:

Regardless of whether or not a Master’s in Divinity was necessary for the good work she was doing for HCH, and regardless of whether or not that is a degree in nonsense anyway, lying about your education to get a job or just for general credibility should never be acceptable.

Some commentators agreed with Wade’s sentiment though at times with less outrage, while others echoedHemant’s. It is important to note that despite differences in the levels out outrage and empathy two major factors hold Wade and Mehta (and the rest of the commentators) together–1) the idea that lying is wrong, and MacBain’s misrepresentation is no exception (which she has admitted herself) but that regardless 2) she remains a member of the atheist community. Atheists may have more or less empathy and understanding for what MacBain did, but for better or worse she’s one of them. But what of the reaction from believers?

While it’s hard to generalize about the sentiments of all Christians, or even Methodists specifically, those who have reacted publicly appear to be much more outraged than their atheist counterparts. When the original,  New York Times story ran with the incorrect credentials (which has since been amended), a handful of people took to twitter with comments like these” “@nytimes not impressed with @SamuelGFreedman ‘s fraudulent reporting on Teresa MacBain. Pls correct @DukeDivinity ‘s involvement!!” Of course the word “fraud” denotes intentional deception for personal gain, but the idea of Duke’s “involvement” is perhaps even more interesting. Involved in what? Something heinous no doubt, in the eyes of the tweeter.

After the NYT ran it’s corrections and the editorial outlining the nature of the misrepresentation the reaction became more pronounced. It is important to know here that MacBain had been a member of the United Methodist Church (UMC) before she outed herself as an atheist, and that Duke Divinity School has a special relationship with the UMC in training it’s ministers. It is perhaps not a surprise therefore that one of MacBain’s most vocal critics after the story broke has been an Methodist theologian, Andrew C. Thompson, who is also an elder in the church. At the end of a post on his blog Thompson pin pointed three reasons for wanting to bring the story of MacBain’s “outright fabrications” even further into the light:

  1. Ms. MacBain made false claims about her academic credentials to advance her career. She claimed to hold a Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School—an institution that, in addition to being one of the finest theological schools in the country, is also an official United Methodist seminary. The whole narrative of Ms. MacBain’s escape from the Christian faith that she so publicly trumpeted for 18 months implicitly indicts those communities and institutions of which she was a part. Since she was blatantly lying about much of it, the record should be set straight.

  2. Ms. MacBain also made false claims about ordination as a United Methodist minister [...] She was lying about her ecclesiastical credentials just like she was about her academic credentials. Her claims allowed her (and the press) to put other institutions in a negative light and the facts deserve to be set straight.

  3. The media often depict the traditional Christian faith (and those who practice it) as backwards, hypocritical, unsophisticated, and unenlightened. [...] Those organizations can do what they want to do, obviously. But when they use a charlatan to advance that kind of perspective and the truth comes to light, it deserves to be pointed out broadly.

The overarching point Thompson seems to be making was summed up nicely in a tweet by someone sharing Thompson”s post after it was published: “Minister turned atheist lacks credibility.” In other words for these commentators the issue isn’t just that lying is wrong (as it also is for the atheists mentioned above), but that the act of lying marks MacBain’s very being. To most atheists, MacBain is a person who has erred by lying, but to those following Thompson’s view MacBain is a liar. It’s clear from his three points why Methodists like Thompson might prefer to see MacBain as someone who intrinsically cannot be trusted, because it means everything else she has said about the Methodist Church can be tossed out the door with her false credentials. In fact Thompson suggests that rather emphatically. Yet isn’t there more at stake here than just neutralizing bad PR?

A commentator on Thompson’s blog chimed in with a deeper reflection: “It occurs to me that it’s likely that neither I nor many of the commenters here believe in the God Ms MacBain does not believe in.” According to this line of reasoning even MacBain’s former identity is fraudulent, because she never truly believed in the real God (of Methodism) in the first place. Thompson agreed with the commentator: “The sense that you have becomes more and more clear when you hear Ms. MacBain speak at length about her understanding of God. Here’s a good example: Thanks for your comment.” In his post Thompson pointed out, in a similar vein, that MacBain frequently misquoted John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Is it possible that MacBain never embraced God exactly in the way that Methodists are supposed to or that she misunderstood John Wesley?

It is quite likely that Thompson, who is after all a church elder, a trained theologian and Wesley scholar, is correct on both accounts, but what would that mean? It seems like these critics want it to mean, as I’ve been implying, that MacBain was therefore never a Methodist. In other words they want to correct (for the record) the nature of the UMC’s  “involvement” with her, to in effect erase her former identity altogether. In fact one could read the tweet that Thompson directed to the Harvard Humanist group with the link to his post, as an appeal asking for atheists to do the same: “My story on MacBain‘s deceit, @HarvardHumanist. She made false claims to your group (and unfairly slandered the UMC).” Why else emphasize that which supposedly binds the UMC and the HCH together–suffering from MacBain’s “false claims?”

Yet such appeals most likely fall on deaf ears however, because atheists like Hemant Mehta are happy to believe that MacBain was sincere about her former identity and her subsequent unbelief. In fact these atheists have just as much reason to accept her sincerity as United Methodists like Thompson have to deny it. While this is clearly not the only reason why atheists might chose to believe MacBain’s story, doing so does provide further evidence for the efficacy of deconversion. In the end (whatever the reason) that’s good news for MacBain, since it also means that atheists will continue to accept her as one of their own, despite the fact that some Methodists appear to want her former identity back.

Addendum: As I pointed out in a response to a comment below, this form of identity erasure is by no means only found in Methodism, Christianity or religion. While the situation was quite different on many levels, there is a comparison to be made here with an event from a couple of years ago involving an atheist blogger (Leah Libresco) announcing her conversion to Catholicism. The similarity is only in terms of in-group/out-group identity politics mind you–not in terms of anything unethical. When Libresco converted one of the prominent reactions to her conversion within the atheist community was to claim that she was never really an atheist in the first place. Some of these reactions were subtle but they still suggested that there was no way she could have become the believer she now is if she had truly fit within the parameters of the atheist identity checklist (whatever that may be). Others were blunt and involved evidence that supposedly proved that she wasn’t a true atheist.

More erasure?

Since posting this I stumbled upon another blog post that suggests that MacBain might never have been a true Christian before her deconversion. Fr. Alfonse writes: “MacBain may very well have “overstated her credentials” well before her conversion to atheism, which would have made her ill-equipped to properly direct and shepherd souls.  Finally, she may actually have rejected a faith that was never really the Christian faith.  Enough!”

Preacher Turned Atheist Leader Loses Her Job

In the very first post I made to this blog, I ruminated on an NPR segment about Teresa MacBain, a southern pastor who left her church behind when she decided she no longer believed in God. After spending a year in the Clergy Project MacBain made the news by announcing her deconversion at an American Atheists convention in Bethesda Maryland. After her declaration she often appeared in public as an example of the work the Clergy Project does in providing a support group for ministers in “their transition from believer to unbeliever.” At the time of the NPR story, and my blog post, however MacBain had only just begun her journey as a public figure and I wondered out loud about the path that she and others like her would take:

What happens to people who were not only devoutly religious prior to becoming atheists, but were also leaders of religious communities? Do they simply become lay atheists or are they more likely to seek out new leadership roles within the atheist community? And if they gain such roles how much of those religious leaders they used to be come along for the ride? Do they unlearn the rhetorical strategies they utilized to gain converts when they were a preacher or do they adapt them to their new calling?

It appeared that my hunch was correct, because just six days ago the New York Times reported that MacBain had become the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. According to the article MacBain was particularly suited for the job because of her experience with church planting and her new found zeal for the “secular mission” of the Community Project. For those who aren’t familiar with the Project it aims to build a network of Humanist communities across the United States and that was the task that MacBain was meant to take charge of.

Yet as the New York Times reports today, MacBain’s efforts were short lived, but not because she wasn’t a capable atheist leader, but because like so many other human beings caught up in the rat race of personal success she presented the world with embellished credentials. When the Times ran it’s original story they reported that she had earned an MDiv from Duke Divinity School, a claim she had also made on her resume when she hired by Harvard. As it turns out she had no such degree, and the Humanist Community had to let her go.

It’s hard to know how people will interpret this event. It is easy to imagine religious critics blaming the dishonesty on her loss of faith and it is just as easy to imagine the atheists who criticize “atheist congregations” blaming those elements of organized religion that MacBain brought with her. But how much evidence would support either position? After all the ethics of Humanism, which MacBain embraced, do not leave room for dishonesty any more so than religious ethics do, and those climbing the ladder of success within religious organizations are no more prone to lying about their achievements than their counterparts in the secular contexts of business, academia, government and so on. In fact, if there is a lesson to be learned from this event it may be precisely that no one community has final purchase on righteousness. Here’s hoping that those ready to cast stones take that lesson to heart.

Theistic Atheists?

Pew God Belief

Because of a tweet by Pew Research’s Conrad Hackett (and a puzzled response by David Creech) I was reminded of the fact that surveys often show a very small percentage of self-identifying “atheists” also claiming various beliefs in god(s). Conrad was tweeting a result of the Religious Landscape survey, that 21% of “atheists” also profess some manner of belief,  which on it’s face sounds like a strange contradiction. The table pictures appears in Pew’s report #2 from the Religious Landscape survey.  It breaks down three levels of belief based on religious self-identification. Much of what it shows isn’t particularly head turning. That some Christians don’t believe in a personal God, or any god at all is to be expected because people do identity with Christianity culturally. The same is true for Judaism, which in fact has a long tradition of “secular” (that is non-believing) sub-culture(s). But what are we to make of the believing atheists?

I would argue that the “atheists” who believe in an “impersonal force” are not that strange, after all the Christian church has in the past labelled anyone who didn’t believe in their one true, personal God an atheist. The point being that there is a tradition of using atheism as non-belief in the personal God of the Abrahamic faiths alone, or perhaps more specifically Christianity. But what about those 6% of “atheists” who believe in a “personal God?” I have to admit that I’m completely stumped on this one. Essentially these people are theistic atheists (whereas the “impersonal force” folk are deistic atheists). So how does one explain this conceptual contradiction? Pure error in the survey taking or something more interesting?

Marriage in America: From “Civil” to “Secular?”

As I’ve pointed out in the past, marriage historians are quick to note that the American wedding was an ostensibly “civil” affair until well into the Victorian era. It is perhaps not surprising that the Puritans, who were strict Reformation anti-ritualists left wedding ceremonies to civil authorities. Protestants also did not believe that marriage was a sacrament; though of course that did not preclude the religious importance they placed on family arrangements formed around a legally married couple. As wedding historian Elizabeth Pleck points out even Catholics, for whom marriage was still a sacrament, usually had a civil ceremony to satisfy state authorities as well as a private religious ceremony in front of a priest. But why did Catholics need to perform both ceremonies?

It is my understanding that religious officials have had the power to solemnize marriages for quite some time. In fact the British Crown opened the field up to religious officials even prior to the Revolution. So why not just go to the priest? Perhaps because of what I quoted Tracy Fessenden about yesterday–the pervasiveness of an “unmarked Christianity” in American civil life. As we know it was de rigueur for the Protestant establishment to favor civil weddings, but to favor them for religious reasons. The civil wedding, in other words, was not “secular” in any contemporary sense of the term, but instead an extension of (and later survival of) the Puritan religious ethos that in Fessenden’s words not only required that the “difference of the religious per se be dissolved in the conduct of day to day life, but also that religious difference itself be constituted as a threat to that life.” The Catholic marriage rite would have been just such a threat and I suspect that this is why it was sectioned off from appropriate American civil life.

This means, I believe, that wedding historians are doing their readers a disservice by simply harping on the “civil” nature of early American marriage, as if those marriages stand in contrast to religious ones the way that civil marriages often do today. I would propose instead that the meaningful distinction between religious and “secular” weddings does not happen until the 19th century and even so does not come into wide application until the last few decades. Last year I found a news clipping from 1911 that ties the nonreligious values expressed by a civil wedding to secular identities, and as I’ve written elsewhere organized irreligious communities, like Secular Culture were practicing secular ceremonies, expressing nontheistic values, since their inception in the late 19th century. But these communities were small and rare, and for a vast majority of the nation the culturally normative practice of lavish church weddings took over the civil ceremony as consumerism motored on in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Flash forward to the last few decades and the notion of secular ceremonies being expressively and self-consciously nonreligious appears to be in full bloom. Today’s secular and religious marriage ceremonies are of course not usually very different in form and in fact they often express many of the same values about love, individuality, commitment, etc. Despite these similarities the self-conscious expression of difference in terms of religious content and nonreligious identity maintenance make today’s secular ceremonies starkly different from the “civil” ceremonies of pre-Victorian America.


Of course Fessenden would most likely put yesteryear’s civil and today’s secular ceremonies on the same trajectory since she sees our very version of “secularism” as an extension of American Protestantism. I want to be clear that I don’t disagree with this general assessment but I also think we can’t leave the story there. Contemporary nonreligious identities, and the practices that constitute and rejuvenate them, are more than just the inevitable telos of American Protestantism. Yes, these practices are heavily indebted to the trajectory Fessenden maps out, but they are also working against and/or away from it. In fact my dissertation navigates one of the many ways in which that very tension is playing out among disaffiliated Americans. Stay tuned to find out!

Secularism and Secularity at the American Academy of Religion: A Proposal

Prior to this year’s AAR annual meeting in Chicago I wrote about an effort to carve out a space within the AAR that attends more fully to secularisms, secularities and non-religion. We held a exploratory session on “Irreligion, Secularism and Social Change” in furtherance of that cause, and it was a smashing success. Over 90 people were in attendance to see three interesting and provocative papers by Daniel Silliman, Petra Klug and Jordan Miller that covered a variety of approaches to the secular and social change. Jonathan van Antwerpen of the Social Sciences Research Council also did a marvelous job tying them together despite their divergence. Now we are onto next steps, which means a proposal for the actual group.  The full proposal text can be found at the Immanent Frame, and if you skip on over there you’ll see that we are also requesting letters of support. If you are a member of the AAR and you like what you see, please do send us a letter to All letters have to be received by the end of the day tomorrow.

Secularism and Secularity
Proposal for a new program unit of the American Academy of Religion

Per Smith (Boston University)
Jonathan VanAntwerpen (Social Science Research Council)

Steering Committee Members:
Joseph Blankholm (Columbia University)
Mayanthi Fernando (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Jonathon Kahn (Vassar College)
Kathryn Lofton (Yale University)
Robert Yelle (University of Memphis)

The shifting boundaries of religion in late modernity have increasingly pointed up the problematic relationship between “the religious” and “the secular.”  In the wake of a contested and frequently maligned “secularization thesis,” a new set of questions have appeared that draw our scholarly attention to secularism, secularity, and the secular—questions around the changing role of religion in law, politics, and public life, around the metamorphosis of personal identities, practices, and affiliations (figured as religious, spiritual, secular, or otherwise), and around a broader set of historical transformations that have conditioned and been imbricated in these and other changes.

In the course of pursuing answers to such questions contemporary scholars are confronted with, and challenged by, the ways in which diverse modes of secularism and multiple forms of secular practice are entangled with—and variously seek to disentangle themselves from—religion and the religious. These entanglements can take shape as contestations or conversions, appropriations or accommodations, while also pointing toward the different ways in which the religious and the secular depend upon and indeed constitute one another. Exploring the interplay of “religious” and “secular” identities, communities, and institutions, for example, is an important part of more fully understanding a widely noted rise in religious disaffiliation within the United States…

Do read the entire proposal and if you support it remember to send your letter to

Nonreligion and the Secular at the AAR 2012

Today the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a new report about “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” by which they mean the still steady trend of religious disaffiliation in the United States. In conjunction with this PBS has also announced the three part miniseries, “None of the Above: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated,” to start airing on October 12th. These are exciting announcements for those of us who conduct research in the burgeoning field of “nonreligion,” a field that has been growing immensely in the last few years. So this is a perfect opportunity to promote one aspect of that growth, the inroads nonreligion and the secular have been making into the academic study of religion, here in the United States.

In advance of this year’s American Academy of Religion annual meeting I compiled a conference guide of all the sessions and individual papers that deal with some aspect of “the secular” (nonreligion, irreligion, secularism, unbelief, etc.). A PDF of the guide can be accessed through the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network where future guides like it, also covering other large conferences, will be published from here on out. On this guide you’ll find a plethora of presentations on secularism, atheism, the “post-secular,” skepticism and so on, but there is one session in this mix that I would like to shamelessly promote above all the rest:

Exploratory Sessions (A18-232)

Per Smith, Boston University, Presiding
Theme: Irreligion, Secularism and Social Change
Sunday – 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM

Scholars of religion from a variety of disciplines are increasingly focusing their attention on the relationship between the religious and the secular. So what would a sustained discussion of “the secular” look like within the American Academy of Religion; and moreover, how would such a discussion be relevant to religious studies? This exploratory session seeks to provide modest answers to those questions by example. On the heels of the year of the protestor, the session explores how “the secular” is implicated in and affected by social transformations. How did social change make the secular possible? How have the demands of 20th century social movements shaped emergent forms of secularism? How do contemporary social movements provide fertile soil for secular theologies of resistance? And how are contemporary irreligious identities evolving within a social context that considers them deviant?

Daniel Silliman, University of Heidelberg
  The Possibility of Secularity and the Material History of Fiction
Petra Klug, University of Leipzig
  The Dynamics of Standardisation and Deviance using the Way U.S. Society deals with Atheists as an Example
Jordan Miller, Salve Regina University
   Occupying Absence: Political Resistance and Secular Theology

Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Social Science Research Council

This particular session was put together by a few of us in the hope that we might carve out a more permanent space for discussions at the AAR of how “the secular” relates to the religious. While of course I think everyone ought to be there :-), those who are interested in furthering such a discussion specifically should make sure to join us at this session. Please also help us by spreading the word to colleagues you think might be interested and don’t forget to share the conference guide with them, which I will link again below. Thanks!


Three PhD Candidates in Nonreligion Sought by German University

As many of you already know the field of secular studies is still growing by leaps and bounds. In the last few years we’ve seen the creation of research networks, institutes, academic programs and peer reviewed journals. If you have a masters degree and are interested in entering this field on the PhD level an amazing opportunity has opened up in Germany at Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main:

Three Doctoral Research Fellows (E13 TV-G-U, 75% part-time) are sought by the Emmy Noether1 “Diversity of Non-Religiosity” Research Group at Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, based at the Institut für Ethnologie (Social Anthropology, Faculty of Philosophy und History). The start date is 01.11.2012 and the positions are limited to a period of three years.

The Doctoral Fellows will develop their research projects under the supervision of the Principal Investigator. Their main task will be to complete individual research projects in collaboration with the other participants. They will have an independent budget for research and travel expenses. The Research Group further offers interdisciplinary and international collaborations and comprehensive supervision by the Principle Investigator who is also teaching and conducting research on this topic.

The Research Group is organized around the assumption that a comprehensive understanding of the role of religion(s) within contemporary societies has to take the “diversity of non-religiosity” into consideration. The aim of the Doctoral Fellowships is to conduct empirical research on non-religious individuals, groups or phenomena – preferably in different countries. For example topics may include but are not limited to indifference towards religion(s), worldviews alternative to religion(s), or criticism of religion(s) made in relation to atheist, humanist or skepticist thought or identity. The specific object of inquiry, methodology and theoretical approach will depend on the Doctoral Fellows’ training, interest, and research focus. Curiosity about the research topic, intellectual creativity, and an enjoyment of academic collaboration are crucial for the success of the project.

All applicants must hold a master’s degree (M.A.) or an equivalent qualification in anthropology, religious studies, sociology, or a related discipline.


The deadline for applicants is less than two months away (July 31st) so don’t sit on this opportunity too long if you are interested.

Attending without Adhering: What Some Nonbelievers Get up to on Sundays

Today is Sunday, which means a whole lot of Americans are at church. While it is well known that  some of those who report going to church are actually mowing the lawn, sleeping in or fishing, we can be fairly certain that many are in fact attending a service today or at the very least on some other given Sunday. According to the 2000-2010 cumulative GSS data,  73% of Americans say they go at least once a year, 60% report going several times a year or more and 26% claim to go weekly.

I know what you are thinking. In a nation as purportedly devout as the United States these numbers don’t seem particularly interesting. True, but a subset of these figures might still surprise you. Of those who claim to have no religious affiliation (the “nones”) 26% claim to attend church at least once a year, 12% report going at least several times a year and 2% say they go weekly. Who are these people who go weekly, or even several times a year, without identifying as religious? Are they “unchurched believers” who are looking for a way to consume that old timey religion without committing fully to an institution? Not likely. In fact I think it much more likely that it has nothing to do with their religious beliefs at all.

Earlier today Hemant Mehta published a post on his blog, The Friendly Atheist, suggesting that if you are one of these people you might be “Going to Church for Your Spouse.” Mehta’s post consists of a picture of a woman with her face completely disguised by a large hat, sitting alone in a church pew. Written with permanent marker on the photo are the words: “Are there other NON-BELIEVERS who only go to church because of someone you love?” Mehta then asks, “How many of you have done that?”

Considering that “nones” only comprise about 16% of the U.S. population, and no more than 12% of that fraction attend church with any regularity, it is probably safe to answer Mehta with, “not many.” In fact, baring in mind that most nones aren’t actually “nonbelievers,” the answer may even be, “less than not many.” Of course we can problematize that last bit in the other direction as well. Most “nones” do indeed believe in something, but that something (aka “higher power”) is not usually the “personal God” that is most likely being worshiped in a church (or synagogue or mosque for that matter). Furthermore, a very small portion of people who claim religious affiliations are also  nonbelievers, especially if we define non-belief in terms of that afore mentioned personal God. Such “cultural religionists” (for the lack of a better term) could easily be attending services for the sake of their loved ones.

How many Americans actually do this? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s likely not many, and the answer to Mehta overall is most probably still, “not many”…but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon is insignificant. In fact I’d say it is quite significant for a variety of reasons. Consider what one commentator has said at The Friendly Atheist:

I used to be a Mormon. That church is FILLED with people who participate only to keep peace in the family, to avoid divorce, to keep from being shunned, to keep jobs and clients. I imagine the same is true in other very hardline churches.

Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints actually “filled” with people who only go to please others? I’m not sure, but there is a correlation between both partners in a marriage regularly attending the same house of worship and family stability. One way to explore that correlation further would be to look more closely at situations in which nonbelievers are still attending church because of their religious spouses. What are the effects of this behavior on their marriages? Whether positive, negative or neutral an in depth qualitative study would go a long way towards understanding why. For instance, if the effects are positive we might get a better sense of what it is about joint religious activity, as opposed to religious belief, that has pro-family benefits.

But there may be even more to explore here than the family angle. Another commentator offered this description of his own irreligious church attendance:

Originally this was for my wife, and for the shared idea that our children should have the shared community experience.  Now after fifteen years with this church, i’m the only one in the family who chose not to become a member (in doing so i would have to state a belief i do not share) and i’ve since outed myself whenever it has come up.  Now my main reason for going is less about a family experience, but rather because this church has a great community of people i care strongly for.

Of course family cohesion and the experience of community may be intricately intertwined, but the point is that nonbelieving church attendance may be driven by social concerns outside of the family and may have outcomes transcending the family as well. And perhaps such social concerns are particularly poignant when it comes to collective celebrations and other ritual performances. Here is yet another comment:

Weddings, funerals, and baptisms… much else I cannot stand. I respect my family members’ decisions when it comes to where they want to hold their major events.

Of course this individual isn’t part of the regularly attending nonbeliever crowd, but perhaps they still see the social benefits of religious communities when it comes to celebrating the life-cycle, much like Phil Zuckerman has shown that nonbelievers in Scandinavia do.

What this all points towards is the meaningful distinction between religious belief and practice when trying to determine the social and psychological benefits of religiousness. Consider that Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s sophisticated meta-study of U.S. religion, American Grace, suggests that the social benefits of religion lie much more so in practice than in belief. But as for why that is their analysis of large quantitative data sets can only scratch the surface. What better social location to explore that issue in more depth than among those who are actively practicing without believing, or more specifically “attending without adhering?” I look forward to seeing the results of such a study. Any takers?

Can the Catholic Church Count on its E.J. Dionnes?

Yesterday E.J. Dionne explained to Washington Post readers why he, as a liberal Catholic, would not “quit” his Church despite its moral conservatism. Dionne was prompted to defend his institutional loyalty after seeing the “Open Letter to a ‘Liberal’ and ‘Nominal’ Catholics” put out by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The FFRF wants to impress upon liberals like Dionne that their continued support of the Church enables the Bishop’s  “war against women’s rights to contraception.” Dionne was not impressed:

My, my. Putting aside the group’s love for unnecessary quotation marks, it was shocking to learn that I’m an “enabler” doing “bad” to women’s rights. But Catholic liberals get used to these kinds of things. Secularists, who never liked Catholicism in the first place, want us to leave the church, but so do Catholic conservatives who want the church all to themselves.

I’m sorry to inform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. It may not see the Gospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can’t ignore the good done in the name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and lay people who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.

And on women’s rights, I take as my guide that early feminist Pope John XXIII. InPacem in Terris, his encyclical issued in 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” Pope John spoke of women’s “natural dignity.”

“Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument,” he wrote, “they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.”

Dionne is clearly not alone in maintaining a personal connection to a version of Catholicism that stresses liberal values (pro-social justice, anti-death penalty, etc.) as opposed to conservative ones (pro-life, anti-homosexuality, etc.). In other words he belongs to a sizable group of Catholics in the United States who are maintaining their religious identities in spite of the Bishops. But how do these Catholics stack up against those who might actually agree with the FFRF enough to take them up on their offer?

According to an informal study conducted last fall on the behalf of the diocese of Trenton NJ, facets of social conservatism are high on the list of reasons why Catholics in the Trenton area have been disaffiliating from the Church. Four of the top seven reasons in fact:

2. The church’s stance on homosexuality

5. Perception that church hierarchy is too closely tied to conservative politics

6. Church’s stance toward divorced and remarried Catholics

7. The status of women

The study creators suggest that the Church can adapt its practices in ways that will mitigate the loss of adherents. Of course perhaps they do not care to do so, and in fact Dionne suggests that the conservative elements of the Church might be happier if the liberals jump ship. While I do not profess to know whether or not that is true, I do believe that the Church has a thing or two to learn from the sociology of religion if they seek to retain their liberal members.

When the 1990s saw unprecedented numbers of Americans losing their religious affiliations, sociologists were busy trying to interpret the trend. One early theory for the near doubling of religious “nones” in that decade (from 7-14%) came from Michael Hout and Claude Fischer. They considered the trend a reaction to the religious politics of the 1980s. Liberals were so turned off by the politicized moral conservatism of the Religious Right that identifying as “Christian” or even “religious” no longer suited them.  While there have been a handful of scholars who are critical of parts of Hout and Fischer’s paper (and in my view rightfully so), virtually no one challenges the basic premise that religious moralizing in the political sphere had a negative impact on adherence.

Lest the Church believe that Hout and Fischer’s  analysis is not a cause for them to be concerned, perhaps they should be reminded of the Republican primary. Catholic Republicans by and large chose a Mormon, Mitt Romney over a much more socially conservative and devoutly Catholic, Rick Santorum. On the other hand Santorum, by faithfully sticking to much of the current party line of the Bishops, managed to impress Republican Evangelicals. In other words he appealed to exactly the bloc of voters who were energized by 1980s moral conservatism; the same 1980s moral conservatism that pushed a great number of liberals away from religion altogether.

So the Church ought to be asking itself: for every E.J. Dionne out there how many non-Dionnes are there? How many Catholics are going leave their community if they continue to politicize social conservatism? My sense is that there are many more than the Church can bring itself to believe. Only time will tell.

Fight for your Right to Ritual

With Obama’s public declaration of support for gay marriage still reverberating throughout the nation this story is bound to get little attention. The ACLU of Indiana recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Indiana over wedding rights. Yes you read that correctly, wedding rights. Their complaint is not about the right to enter the institution of marriage, but the right to do so in a certain way. From the ACLU press release:

Indianapolis – Indiana allows religious groups to perform marriages in accordance with their beliefs. But marriages performed by a non-religious group that trains and certifies secular celebrants are not recognized by state law — a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“From a First Amendment perspective, it is proper and necessary for the state to allow religions to marry people according to their beliefs,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk. “However, the state law becomes unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause when you say that religions are the only groups with rights to have their beliefs recognized in marriage ceremonies.”

Falk said the statute, Indiana Code § 31-11-6-1, also violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it denies the non-religious group its rights to spread its “essential beliefs” by performing marriage ceremonies, while allowing religious groups those same privileges.

Detractors of the complaint could easily argue that there is no law preventing nonreligious groups in Indiana, or in any other state, from spreading their “essential beliefs” through ritual practice. The right to ritual is already enshrined in rights to free expression and assembly. Couples are free to have a leader from the Center for Inquiry (on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed) or any other irreligious institution, officiate a ceremony for them. What these leaders cannot do in Indiana is to solemnize the marriage in the eyes of the law.  Yet what does making it legal have to do with spreading “essential beliefs?”  Nothing particularly, and that leads to a vital question.

Why should any religious official have the right to spread the essential beliefs of a religious community while acting as a representative of the state? In order to argue for the equal rights of their clients the ACLU has had to claim that from  “a First Amendment perspective, it is proper and necessary for the state to allow religions to marry people according to their beliefs.” But in the ACLU’s statement two forms of “marriage” become conflated; one is religious and the other is civil. As we know religious and nonreligious groups are already on equal footing when it comes to performing rites of the (ir)religious sort, but only one group is currently vested with the power of the state to actualize those of the civil sort. Does the First Amendment really profess that it is “proper and necessary” for any group (religious or otherwise) to be vested with that civil power?

A little historical context could be useful here. Colonial era marriages were almost exclusively civil. The Puritans of New England, who were fervent Reformation anti-ritualists didn’t believe that marriage was a sacrament. Civil magistrates performed wedding ceremonies in those days and continued to do so even after the British crown opened the field up to clergy (no doubt because of their very close relationship to the Anglican Church … aka themselves). After the Revolution, the drafting of the Constitution, and yes the addition of the First Amendment, weddings remained a mostly civil affair. Clergy could, of course, perform them in a civil capacity according to state laws, but even so most people didn’t have a church wedding until it became fashionable to do so in the Victorian era.

While I would never invoke originalism, it is interesting to wonder how the Framers would have considered this question, given the very different context in which most marriage rites were performed at the time. It is also important to remember that most marriage law is not regulated  by the federal government.  Why is that important? Because the enshrined practice of allowing clergy to represent the state in the matter of marriage has been the product of state law making. It may very well relate to the freedom of religion conceptually, but it would be difficult to claim that it relates specifically to the intent of the First Amendment. Of course the more important questions still remain. Far from being protected by the First Amendment, might this long established practice not in fact run contra to it? And if it does why has it never been challenged?

We have long been willing to grant religion an exceptional place in our society. For instance consider the recent unanimous decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case. There is apparently no debate among the Supreme Court’s justices about whether or not religion is sui generis in the eyes of the law; it just is. How far religious rights extend may be debated, but that religion is somehow a category unto itself is to be taken for granted. What has happened historically when nonreligious groups want to be vested with the power to wed their constituents is that they have been recognized as if they were religious. That is how the “leaders” of Ethical Culture are granted the power to legally perform marriages for instance. That is also what the ACLU seems to be asking for now; that the state of Indiana recognize the Center for Inquiry as if it were a religious institution.

Why exactly does the ACLU, or more importantly the Center for Inquiry want to challenge marriage law on that premise? It seems backwards to me. Why not argue that current practices vis-à-vis allowing clergy to act as representatives of the state while performing their religious duties are themselves unconstitutional? In other words, why not challenge religious exceptionalism head on? Either way one could only hope this case and others like it raise important questions in the halls of power about the tangled mess of marriage laws we have. If the federal courts and federal lawmakers were actually to untangle that mess we might end up with a simpler collection of laws that reflect the spirit of our Constitution a bit better all around. And yes I’m thinking here again of Obama’s announcement this week …

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