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.

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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.

 

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 7 months ago
thank you for that link to Lorenzo Albacete.  I could listen to him all day.
Brendan McGrath
7 years 7 months ago
You know, shouldn't even secular colleges and universities require students  to take courses in religious studies? (I.e., courses that look at various religious traditions without necessarily adopting the viewpoint of that religious tradition - and of course, Theology courses at a Catholic college can be taken for the same purpose, even when the teacher and most students are studying it from within the Catholic tradition, etc.)  People don't have to believe in Christianity or Catholicism or any religion, but they should, as the blog post says, have some religious literacy, and know how to think about and discuss the topics.  I've heard that in England (or at least, in England in the early 20th-century and before that), even when people didn't believe in Christianity, they at least understood it and knew it well.
James Lindsay
7 years 7 months ago
I think you missed her point about the commonality of spiritual experience, which she tried to show with neuroscience. She contrasted it with Graham's worldview and apparently MSW's. Her conclusion was that God does not play favorites in making connections - with her proof being that the neurostate associated with prayer is not a result of the act of praying but the result of God responding and establishing some kind of connection. In other words, she is positing the universality (and measurability) of grace.

I agree that God does not play favorites arbitrarily - and certainly not on racial lines. I do believe He does have favorite ontologies, however we are judged based on how we do them as individuals, not groups. Judging groups would not be favored by God under such a theory. Whether one is for or against Jesus is not a matter of self-identification or group identity, but how one conforms their actions to the law of Love. Anyone can do that and group membership does not assure anyone that they are doing it well.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 7 months ago
I agree with you, Michael, that Kathleen Parker was trying to show the commonality of spiritual experience, and that God does not play favorites, but she did so at the expense of the rich diversity of the world's religions, and the profound level at which our world view, (and, in my opinion, our psychic structure) is formed by our Faith.
David Nickol
7 years 7 months ago
It seems perfectly unremarkable to me that "the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way" no matter the religion of the person praying or meditating. I don't see that anything can be made of it whatsoever. MSW seems not understand what the alleged scientific finding is, and I am not quite sure what he thinks is being asserted. But all it means to me is that focused prayer and meditation use the same parts of the brain no matter what religion or philosophy of the person doing them. It is as unremarkable a discovery as finding that the vocal prayer of Muslims and Buddhists, or Catholics and Protestants, makes use of the lungs and vocal cords. 
David Nickol
7 years 7 months ago
I also disagree that science can, in principle, never demonstrate that we are "more than mere matter." For some religious people, it might have been the case, for example, that before in vitro fertilization was accomplished, they might have maintained that it would never work, because God had to create a soul at the moment of conception. If in vitro fertilization had indeed failed for no discernible reason whatsoever, and scientists threw up their hands and abandoned the effort, it might not have proved anything, but it would have been very suggestive. Any point where science ran up against an absolute but inexplicable dead end would have been suggestive. Also, science would be capable of coming up with evidence for ESP or reincarnation, were they true. Science could establish that people remembered past lives, and science could demonstrate that according to the way memory worked, remembering something one had never experienced was "impossible." It would probably be beyond the realm of science to do much with such findings, but they would strongly indicate that we were "more than mere matter." I don't know the exact process, but doctors are involved in the certification of alleged miracles for the Catholic Church. It may be that the doctor goes only so far as to say, "Medical science can't explain this," and someone else declares that a miracle has occurred. But science is still a part of the process. 
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 7 months ago
I think Parker is a victim of the "spiritual but not religious" fad that has swept much of the country.  Religion, in this view, is bad; "spirituality", good.  And it's feelings based, rather than truth-based.  She needs some remedial instruction in what religion is.
7 years 7 months ago
"For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God". Is this what Albacete means?
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 7 months ago
that's the way I hear him, Maria.
7 years 7 months ago
I thought Mr.Winter's commentary was both overly snarky and oversimplified.
As in several comments, more was read into what was said due to the reder's own faith directions.
The op-ed expresses a broad view of both many paths to heaven (and surely we don't want to be like Leonard Feeney) and the search many go through to understand how to accheive that.
By the by, I agree science has nuch to say about the existence of God (otherwise, forget the Templeton foundation) and i also think Barbara Bradley Haggerty at NPR is a fine religion reporter.She was only expressing her own journey, which Mr. Winters and I may disagree with, but should not be scoffed at so easily either.

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