Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Hidden Norms in Religious Flux

Being part of a survey team conducting a survey of active and lapsed Catholics in the early 1980s prepared me to deal with a today's news stories about a Pew study on religious change in the United States. Let me deal with two things I learned back then that make sense now.

Keep in mind that most of these surveys can only measure affiliation through a tangible behavior that is deemed to denote an inner disposition. While scientologists claim to have machines that can measure advancement in their religion, social scientists do not have a soulmeter of any kind.

So, for the most part, the sociology of religion describes behavior of churchgoers, often in rations that are not doctrinally correct. For example, for the study of Catholics we called someone "active" if they went to church on Sunday at least four times a year, not counting major holidays or family occasions.

This is well below the canonical obligation of Sunday Mass, but it is a behavior indication of a certain degree of engagement. Indeed, in most predominantly Catholic countries perhaps a tenth of all Catholics go to Mass on a regular Sunday; in the United States, a survey in the 1990s found attendance as high as 45 to 55%, depending on how you counted it.

OK, my insights now.

First, it is statistically normal for people between the ages of 15 to 30 to "drop out" of the organized religion in which they were raised. This I learned from sociologist Dean Hoge, who led the research teams and wrote the book, long out of print, about the study.

"Normal" to a sociologist only means that a behavior does not deviate significantly from the social average. It doesn't mean it is good or bad. There are many reasons why disaffiliation during adolescence and early adulthood might occur in societies in which this period involves a prolonged crisis.

The various Anabaptist denominations (Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, etc.) developed a detour around this by decreeing that they would not baptize or affiliate infants. Indeed, most Anabaptists don't formally join their churches before marriage.

This leads to the second interesting insight: most people's religious affiliation has very little to do with philosophy or theology.

Most plainly, I learned from interviewing people who had returned to the faith, the pattern was that once they got married, or even more importantly had children, many drifted back to churchgoing. It was almost as if they wanted to give their children something similar to rebel against.

Significantly, also, very, very few people referred to conversion or returning to faith as a process involving study and thought, or the reading of certain works. Most converts wanted to marry a Catholic.

At the time, I found this profoundly disappointing. I had been involved in the conversion of two people who had wrestled with ideas, read and discussed books with me, written lengthy letters with questions and concerns. They were modern St. Augustines, turning from one view to another with thoughtful deliberation.

Even in my questioning of religious faith, I have always felt the theological and philosophical issues were important. The idea of changing to get married or to pass on certain conventions to children seemed and still seems very hollow.

This is why I find the Pew study less than interesting. Yes, 28% of U.S. adults have changed from the church of their fathers (or mothers), more in the younger years. Given the pattern of social research, I doubt they were asked too deeply why.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

Is it wrongheaded to hold that those who assert ideas contrary to your own are mistaken and that, ideally, they should see the error of their ways? Much as I bitterly disagree with the pope I call "Nazinger," overlooked in the brouhaha over the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews, to my mind, is a philosophical debate about conviction and tolerance.

In speaking of conviction, let's agree that we're talking about tested ideas about which you have a certainty that is, perhaps, not absolute, but sufficient to convince you of their validity or truth. Similarly, by tolerance I mean the amicable and peaceful acceptance of those who hold differing convictions.

Take the proposition that the Earth orbits the Sun. When Galileo affirmed it, there was no empirical way to verify whether this was true; we now have been able to "see" the orbit in motion from satellites and spaceships to the point that this is a fact. It wasn't in Galileo's time.

Was Galileo wrong to insist that his heliocentric scientific theory was right and that the views of his church inquisitors were mistaken? Assuming Galileo prayed on this matter, would it have been wrong for Galileo to ask God to help convince Cardinal Bellarmine?

Is it wrong for Democrats to seek to convince Republicans? For Obamans to woo Clinonites? For Keynesians to wish to persuade Adamsmithians that they're off the mark by a few points?

After all, not absolutely everything a Republican president does is without some redeeming value, and there isn't a huge policy difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Keynesian economics can be just as fallible as orthodox free market capitalism.

Yet wouldn't Democrats have a point or three in noting that Republicans presidents brought us the Great Depression, the stagnation of wages beginning in 1973, the de-industrialization of the United States in the 1980s and I'd run out of space cataloging the current prez's disasters?

Wouldn't Obamaniacs have some bragging rights when it comes to their candidate's ability to sway and mobilize?

And didn't those who deficit-spent us out of World War II (and the Depression) and eliminated hunger for two decades through food subsidies show that pure-accounting balanced budgets and minimalist governance, such as propounded by McCain when he isn't squiring a blonde lobbyist, are not particularly useful policy recipes?

That's what conviction is all about: being sufficiently convinced of something to assert that it is the truth, even without total and absolute proof. Most of what we "know" is really a matter of reasonable conviction and/or trust in a given source, rather than actual, factually verified knowledge of our own.

A confusion arises in our day that mixes up syncretism, the attempted reconciliation of different or opposing principles, and relativism, the deeming of all ideas to be validity or truthful relative to a variety of factors, with tolerance.

In Western culture this is a debate that has as its center the classic ecclesiastical Latin phrase in my heading, which literally means "outside the Church there is no health." This was the conviction of Cyprian of Carthage, a third-century bishop who made the idea famous. (Personal note: Cyprian was converted from paganism by St. Caecilius, a North African presbyter who may be the source of my name.)

Cyprian faced two crucial issues for the Church of his time: whether the baptisms performed by heretics were valid and whether the Christians who defected to paganism and renounced their faith during the Decian persecution, a majority, should be welcomed back.

The Carthaginian prelate argued that the baptisms were invalid and refused absolution to the apostates without long and public penitence unless they were facing death. In the first he went against the consensus of his time and all the way up to the present. In the latter, a council supported his view.

One need not be a believer to see logic in Cyprian's arguments.

If you do not believe or do not believe "rightly," no matter what words you use and what actions you take, the meaning of what you do cannot possibly go beyond your own convictions. If you betray your beliefs publicly to save your skin, while others are dying for the same beliefs, returning to fellowship with other believers might reasonably entail some action showing remorse before being accepted in fellowship.

Do note that in both controversies Cyprian, while intolerant of dissension and defection within his group, had nothing to say about the world outside, other than that it lacked "health," later translated as "salvation." Why would Cyprian have gone peacefully to his beheading, rather than publicly state he believed otherwise, if he didn't think that his way was the healthful one?

My point is that, even as I look in from the outside and disagree with the substance of Cyprian's conviction, I still admire and agree with the notion that one should stand for one's convictions.

People of conviction A are entitled to believe that A would be better for people of conviction B. Catholics are entitled to pray for the conversion of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and even me, since they believe that believing in Catholicism is the best thing since sliced bread. Democrats are entitled to hope for a change of heart in Republicans.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rethinking "Terrorism"

A friend's philosophy course assignment prompts me to reconsider the term "terrorism," particularly in light of its recurrent invocation abuse by the Bush Administration. Who is a terrorist and what is terrorism?

The specter of "terrorism" was applied with such a broad brush by the Argentine military in the dictatorship of 1976-83, at the cost of the lives of people I knew, among them a close friend, that it has long lost any meaning to me.

Terror? Maybe the White House aides whom I saw scrambling out like rats on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, were frightened by the 18 fanatically misguided Muslims who in suicide attacks flew planes straight into several buildings.

Although I was well within the White House security perimeter, I only stopped working because the FBI kicked me out of my office -- allegedly to protect the president, who was hiding his own very brave hide in Nebraska at the time, as I recall.

People aren't terrorists just because we don't like 'em and would like to lock 'em up. They have to wilfully inspire terror.

Yet that is not, insofar as I can tell, the aim of Al Qaeda. Osama and his buddies want to destroy the United States, scared or not. "Death to America" is not the same as "Terror to America."

Terror means intense fear throughout a large population. Neither the original Spanish guerrillas who fought Napoleonic troops in the early 19th century nor the admittedly effective French Maquis of World War II nor, arguably, even the Viet Cong managed to hold whole populations in the thrall of fear.

Indeed, the repeated failure of Ernesto Che Guevara is a testament to the inadequacy of insurgency as an instrument of terror. Even in suicide-bomber-rife Israel, the likelihood that alleged terrorists will get you is a crap shoot; you're just as likely to get hit by a crazy Israeli driver.

Historically, political terror has been the weapon of rulers intent on scaring large numbers of subjects into submission. Public drawing, quartering and hangings of Jesuits in England or the recurrent whacking of guillotine blades on the French nobility were both instances of terror. Most people feared being thought Catholic in Elizabethan England or a blue-blood in Revolutionary France.

Under Joseph Stalin terror was evident in speech applause sessions that lasted sometimes as long as an hour, because no one wanted NKVD agents to see them stop applauding first. McCarthy-era blacklisting was a form of economic terror: if some people thought you were a Communist, they felt entitled to deprive you of your livelihood without trial -- even though it was never illegal to be a Communist.

Who wields terror today? Think about it.

Al Qaeda doesn't care what Americans feel. These fanatically theocratic Muslims believe in wiping out Western liberal (and illiberal) democracy, along with Western humanistic mores that go back to the Renaissance, off the face of the Earth.

The only people who stand to gain from terror, politically and economically, are George W. Bush, Richard Cheney and their associates. Oh, yes, and the cops everywhere who act like they're rushing to smoldering Downtown Manhattan seven years ago every time someone doesn't halt quite long enough at a stop sign.

Those folks really scare me. Bush and Cheney have already launched two wars. The cops -- and every thick-necked wannabe vigilante -- are notorious bullies. That's terror.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Yes we can vote for a Black man

In a vapid attempt either to rescue sagging circulations or pander to Hillary Clinton or merely expose to the world how little they know about Hispanics, major American newspapers have trumpeted a Brown vs. Black rift that has never really existed.

Supposedly, Latinos despise African-Americans and for that reason are flocking to Clinton.

As proof, major papers from East to West have rediscovered Dolores Huerta, who otherwise never graces their pages. Huerta has been a great labor organizer whose claim to fame, per the Anglo press, is to have worked alongside Cesar Chavez (note to broadcast journalists: please pronounce that SAY-czar CHA-vase, not Caesar ChaVEZ).

Huerta has cast her political hat in the ring for Clinton and threw her political influence to win the senator representing New York a sizable portion of the Latino vote in California.

Enter the "West Side Story" narrative. Reporters and editors who are always searching for the oversimplification that will sell papers have fallen back on a script right out of the musical that was made into a hit movie in 1961.

Surely you remember the Romeo and Juliet saga of "impossible" love between the all-American clean-cut Anglo boy Tony (played by Richard Beymer) and the beautiful Puerto Rican señorita (played by Natalie Wood). Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, the actress who played Latina was not exactly of Hispanic origin; then again, in those days señorita, mispronounced, was about all the Spanish most American non-Hispanics knew.

Fast-forward to the presidential election of 2008 and you have an African-American candidate and a Latina labor leader backing the woman candidate running against him. What do reporters see? Rumble!

You can almost see the Obama campaign singing for the Jets the Anglo gang's side of Stephen Sondheim's "Tonight" Quintet:
The Puerto Ricans grumble: "Fair fight."
But if they start a rumble,
We'll rumble 'em right.
And the Clintonistas, with Huerta at the lead belting out the war cry of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks:
We're gonna rock it tonight!
They're gonna get it tonight,
The began it.
We'll stop 'em once and for all.
The Sharks are gonna have their day,
We're gonna rock it tonight.
But, oh, did I forget that most Hispanics in California are of Mexican, not Puerto Rican, origin? You think it matters to the major Anglo press?

And, no, stop salivating, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans do not hate each other. If anything, Mexicans remember the 1848 theft of half their country by the Anglos, much as Puerto Rican children to this day are told that El Drako (the Anglo pirate Francis Drake) will come get them if they do not go to bed.

Hispanics vs. Blacks, Mexicans vs, Puerto Ricans are all part of the Anglo wet-dream, one in which the minorities keep each other down by fighting one another and the WASPs, who numerically are no longer the majority, get to divide, conquer and rule, laughing all the way to the bank.

This election isn't about ethnicity -- "race" is an unscientific term with no basis in fact -- or about sex -- "gender" is a grammatical, not biological term. It's not a choice between a Black man and an Anglo white woman.

Rather, there is a choice between two very solid Democratic candidates with positions and views that will likely, and at last, turn the ship of state away from the iceberg toward which George W. Bush is blithely steaming.

Frankly, I don't see how Hispanics could lose with either one. In fact, the election is not the endgame for Hispanics.

The late Willie Velázquez, founder of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, whose biting oratory reminded me of a mixture of comedian Lenny Bruce and community organizer Saul Alinsky, once put it very succinctly almost three decades ago at an event I attended.

"Do you want to know why Hispanos don't vote?" he asked an audience in Albuquerque, N.M., back in 1982. "Because nothing happens, that's why. The national organizers come by every four years to pick the ripe, fresh Mexican vote. And the streets of the barrio stay just as dusty and the schools just as bad."

That's the real key to the Hispanic vote. Not who you are, but whether you'll respect me the morning after -- by putting in place solid programs and policies that benefit my community.

Today, when I vote in the primary in my area, that's what I, a Hispanic, will keep in mind.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Meme 123

Still uncertain as to what exactly is a meme, I have been tagged by Alex at Abandon All Fear, a British Christian I often annoy with my unbelief.

The game is to
  • Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
  • Open the book to page 123.
  • Find the fifth sentence.
  • Post the next three sentences.
  • Tag five people.

Never do this in your office, even if it is after hours. The book at hand happened to be a multidisciplinary collection of papers titled Women Immigrants in the United States. Page 123 happened to fall in the paper titled "Detention of Women Asylum Seekers in the United States" by Marleine Bastien, founder and executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, and the recipient of a 2000 human rights award from Amnesty International.

Starting on the fifth sentence on p. 123, Bastien writes:
Women detainees at TGK and other facilities around the United States lack access to basic recreational facilities. The outdoor recreation at TGK consists of a small concrete wall space exposed to the elements. The women supposedly have access to it from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. but actually do not because of frequent lockdowns and other unexplained emergencies.

Now I have to tag five people, presumably fellow bloggers:

The Palinode

See, I can play blogger games, too!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

No-Cojones Congress

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (P-Calif.) perpetuates the myth that women are terrible at math: she can't count noses in the House of Representatives, where Democrats have a comfortable -- let's spell it -- m-a-j-o-r-i-t-y. That's why she handed Sen. Harry Reid (P-Nev.) a "stimulus" bill that smelled like three-day-old fish left in the sun because it does nothing for the unemployed, who could do the most for the economy.

The "P" in the identification tags is not a mistake: it stands for Pseudo-Democrats. As in showing every sign of being outside what one presidential candidate called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." That's the wing that puts workers and general well-being first.

Pelosi blew it by inexplicably failing to stop the House Republicans, who are in the minority (Nancy, check the House roll, will ya?), from constructing a monstruosity of a tax-rebate and business tax-cut bill. Reid failed by caving in and accepting Pelosi's stupid done deal with only a token gesture for the elderly and veterans.

Bad policy and terrible politics. This legislative work lacks what in very colloquial Spanish is called cojones (balls).

In the face of a recession, the most stimulative disbursements would be in the form of money going to people with the least disposable income -- that is, people for whom a dollar in hand is a means to fulfilling an immediate need by spending the dough. These are the folks most likely to generate consumer demand and boost the economy.

Giving money to wealthier people risks having the funds go into savings or investments with little or no demand effect at all.

An early appraisal of the principles for an economic stimulus, prepared before Pelosi even had a bill to deal with, two major economic analysts were cited as specifically locating the highest stimulative effect in expenditures such as unemployment compensation and food stamps.

Economist Mark Zandi is quoted as demonstrating that for every dollar spent in the form of unemployment checks, the economy receives an economic consumer demand boost of $1.73. In contrast, the Republicans' much-vaunted increase in tax breaks for small business investment would yield only 25¢.

The Republicans, along with Pelosi and Reid, chose a 25¢ stimulus over a $1.73 boost. Oh, yes, and a lot of pandering in an election year to folks to whom $300 won't mean very much. Certainly not more than it did in early 2001. Remember the Bush rebate (and the recession that followed it)?

One might accept that Reid, who was blocked by a single vote in a very tightly divided Senate couldn't do otherwise. But what's Pelosi's excuse? Democrats have a comfortable, if not veto-proof, majority in the House. Doesn't Pelosi know that when you have a majority you can get things you want done?

What do I hear? Bush would have vetoed help for the neediest citizens that would help all of us the most? I would have replied "Make our day, Georgie! Let's make sure every American hears that the leader of the Republican Party would rather give money to the richest taxpayers than fight recession by aiding those who will spend the cash assistance."

Now Bush can say that the Dems are in the pockets of the rich just about as much as the Repubs.

And the unemployed? The poor? They don't count to either one.

Monday, February 04, 2008

On Compromising

By the time you get to middle age the life you have is very different from the life you planned -- unless you're the odd geek who started Microsoft or the poverty-inspired boy from a town called Hope who wanted to be in JFK's shoes one day. Is the answer to dream doable dreams? To work harder? To accept fate?

These questions will one day dog you, too, younger readers. Trust me on this. My favorite description of life is "life is what happens when you had other plans." (Anyone know this phrase's author?)

The answer depends in part on your philosophical system. The ancient Greeks subscribed to the invincibility of Fate.

On the other hand, core Judaism, Christianity and Shi'ite Islam all teach that we have free will, that the deity may well know the future, or rather be outside time, but that nothing is preordained. That is, unless you area Calvinist, one of a small band within the Lubavitcher school of Hasidism or a Sunni Muslim.

By the time we become adults, most of us subscribe to some middle road. We have some power to alter the course of our lives, we think, but there are limits.

Some limits are givens: we are born rich or poor, male or female, a perceived member of the majority in our society or of a minority; our genes, science tell us, carry many predispositions. What little science I know and what experience I have tend to tell me that my individuality amounts to little more than a certain mix of chemicals that one day we will know how to completely control and manage.

Still I persist in thinking that by sheer willpower I can achieve a few things. Years ago, when I first learned the game, I spent weeks losing at backgammon consistently until I went to the library, borrowed a book about the game and evened my odds.

Why can't I do the same when it comes to becoming president of the United States, winning the Nobel Peace Prize or enticing Penélope Cruz to my lair? Where's the how-to book for dreams?

Even if I know that I will never be president nor be invited to the prize ceremony by the Swedish Academy nor spend a night with Penélope ... what would I really feel if I embarked on a campaign to achieve any of these things and actually succeeded?

Does John Updike wake up every morning thinking "Gee, how wonderful, I'm John Updike"? Or does he get depressed from time to time that he is not, say, Gustave Flaubert or Albert Schweitzer or Neil Armstrong?

I'm probably not the first to muse on why we conceive of dreams. They're archetypally human. Heaven and salvation, wealth and power and sexual satisfaction, the admiration of others and the feeling of conquest over oneself -- these are some of the things to which many of us aspire.

The story was once told to me of a saint who, upon applying to enter a monastery was asked what job he would like. He said "abbot." He was placed as porter and later laughed that if he had said anything less he wouldn't have been admitted at all.

The paradox seems to be that attaining goals by sheer effort is illusory or happenstance and probably impossible. It's not true that the poor are lazy; most work more than the rich and at harder, more grueling jobs. Yet we would not be human if we didn't aspire to a reality beyond our present one.

So what do we do once we know that the big dreams won't come true? Three things.
  • We realize how unrealistic it was to believe that by our own single-minded, individual efforts we could succeed. Most success involves help from others and sheer luck. (Balzac put it another way: all wealth come from a crime, he said.)
  • We gratefully accept the wisdom that falling short imparts.
  • We adjust our dreams to things that still stretch us but are no longer obviously unattainable.
I have more or less attained the presidency in my little world. I still am continually looking for the opportunity to build my own little Lambaréné, realizing that the real prize comes not from the Swedish Academy, but from the smiles of those you manage, by chance, to influence for the better.

Finally, I'm not sure that Penélope and I would actually get along or have much of a passionate night, but I'm daring to hope that, as Daniel Berrigan once wrote, there is "love, love in the end."