Religious Literacy 101
Will the illiteracy about religion in our nation’s major newspapers never end? Kathleen Parker, whom I often enjoy reading, had an op-ed in the Sunday Washington Post that was filled with the kind of stupidity about religion that would never be permitted if the subject were politics, economics, sports, or virtually any other topic.
Parker chose to write about the Pentagon’s decision to disinvite the Rev. Franklin Graham from participating in the National Day of Prayer. At the beginning of the article, it looks like she is going to side with Graham, but then she veers off into a series of questions and comments that show a lack of intellectual seriousness about the subject that is arresting.
For example, she writes approvingly of NPR’s religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Haggerty’s new book "Fingerprints of God" noting that according to Haggerty’s research, "whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way. The same parts light up and the same parts go dark during deep meditation." I suppose if all supplications to the Godhead were for peace of mind or some kind of generic enlightenment, this observation provided by science would be significant. But, human desires come in many flavors and the entreaties made to heaven are as often as not for things that do not show up in a CAT Scan. People pray for peace, which happens on the field of battle not in the field of neuroscience. People pray for their children’s happiness, which happiness must be recorded in the brainwaves of the child/recipient of the prayer not the parent/supplicant. That is, if the prayer is to be answered.
Then Parker writes a sentence that betrays the kind of Gnosticism I thought had died in the first centuries of the Church. "And though some are more generously endowed than others," Parker writes, "spiritual experience is a human phenomenon, not a religious one." Huh? If something is a "human phenomenon" it can’t be "religious"? Were St. Francis and St. Teresa not having religious experiences? Or were they aliens? She tags on another sentence that is equally baffling: "Different routes to the same destination." Buddhists and Christians, alas, do not seek the same "destination" and there is something offensive to one or both religions about the suggestion that they do.
Not to confine her misunderstanding to the area of religion, Parker writes, "Haggerty is optimistic that science eventually will demonstrate that we are more than mere matter." Here, she misunderstands science. Once it moves beyond the "material" it ceases to be science. This is what is wrong about the question: Do you believe in evolution? Of course not, because scientific theories are not believed, they are demonstrated.
Parker ends up not supporting Rev. Graham, and seems confused about the issue of the distinctiveness of Christian claims about the role of Jesus in salvation history. If you want what I consider the best reply to such questions, check out this video from an interview of Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete by Robert Wright. If you have ever wondered why I am such a huge fan of Albacete, it is because he is able to deliver the Gospel with a freshness that is, I think, quite unique, as he does here.