Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On this day in California religious history...

The Erie Canal opened in 1825, creating a link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, with fundamental effects on the shaping of the country.  New York City and Chicago (founded 1833) became large trading centers connecting the vast inner country with the Atlantic Ocean.  New Orleans, at the base of the Mississippi, saw its fortunes slip as it was replaced as the entry point into the continent.  Along with the economic restructuring came a rise in fortunes along the canal, and western New York state blossomed with prosperity.   With that prosperity came an interesting flowering of religious fervor.

The Burned-Over District was what Presbyterian minister Charles Finney called the area, since there had been so many fervent religious movements there that there was no kindling (potential converts) left.  Two of the most memorable groups that started there were the Mormons and the Millerites (followers of William Miller that eventually disbanded, although some started the Jehovah's Witnesses).   Why the upsurge at that place and at that time?  Besides the prosperity, New York State in the 1830's was both close to civilization while still retaining some of the character of a frontier.  At the time the unknown wilderness was Illinois and Indiana.  While most of the population went about their lives, the area may have attracted, and encouraged, the adventurous and the individualistic.

California in the mid- to late-twentieth century had taken on the burden of the Burned-Over District, perhaps due to the same mixture of prosperity and lingering frontier atmosphere.   The link between California and cults and minor religions of all types is legendary, with many noted in previous entries on this page.  With the rise of the modern information age, however, physical centralization is becoming less important.  People with unique ideas must no longer gather in one locale.  And much of California's rapid growth is in the past.  Like upper and western New York state, California is not the adventure it may have been in the past.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A winnowing of Southern California's holy men

While the Saddleback Church is reaching new heights of prosperity, others in the area are not on an upward trend.  Earlier we found faith healer Benny Hinn asking for two million dollars in donations to keep his operations running.  Now the OC's original megachurch, the Crystal Cathedral, has filed for bankruptcy, declaring a $36 million mortgage and at least $7 million in other debt.  Some are blaming the turn in fortunes on an inability to move with the times, which is ironic considering this church's innovative origins. 

The story begins in 1955, when Robert Schuller, a 34 year-old midwestern minister living in Orange County, opened a church in a former drive-in theater.  Rather than preach about sin and condemnation, he stressed a positive message, meant to inspire and give hope.  While not at the level as the prosperity churches of decades later (prayer will help you win the lottery), Schuller did present an attitude that anything is possible (prayer will help you work to achieve your goals).  The positivity, and the recognition of the emerging car culture, propelled the church's expansion.  The message went even further with the "Hour of Power", a weekly television sermon that began in 1970.  The result was the Crystal Cathedral, built from 1977 to 1980. The 1980's and 1990's were the good years for the church, but then things began to slide, with a lot of the blame going to the aging look of the service and the television show:
Schuller and family "stayed with the organ when everyone had gone to the rock 'n' roll band. He stayed with the robes when everyone else was reinventing themselves as bishops. In a time when most megachurces are going multisite and to smaller venues, he kept building bigger buildings," Thumma said.  [Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute of Religion Research]
The rise and fall of these churches further underscores the message that religion is a human, and not a divine, enterprise.  Whether Rick Warren is more correct than Robert Schuller concerning the divine is irrelevant, what is important is their ability to market.  These churches are commercial feel-good enterprises, and the recognition of this would clear up a lot of problems (i.e., people under the impression they have the real truth).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

So may unsaved, so little time . . .

The website of the Mission to Reach Unreached People points out:
Almost 2 billion people (27.9% of the world) are still essentially cut off from access to the Gospel.
This problem will only grow worse, so the Mission is on the case:
We plan to stimulate the creation of hundreds of long term strategy teams globally. These strategy teams will work with Christians from around the world to encourage a broad set of innovative strategies (word evangelism, deed evangelism, prayer evangelism, business evangelism, and even miracle evangelism efforts) in the effort to promote transformational church planting movements.
The website is notable for the extensive guide to the Unsaved Peoples of the world.  For example, we can learn that the Bolon of Burkina Faso number 25,000.  Yet only 3% are Christian adherents and the percentage of Evangelicals is at a minuscule 1.45%.   To alleviate this situation, the page recommends praying for churches, Bibles and other tools of ministering. 

Many aspects of this Mission, and the website, strike a Humanist.  First is the absolutist nature of the goal.  Everybody in the world must be an Evangelical Christian.  Or, to be more specific, everybody in the world must have Evangelical Christianity exposed to them as an option.  When it comes to your eternal soul, ignorance is not excuse!  If you haven't accepted Jesus for any reason, you will suffer forever.   Another interesting feature is the detail and care that the Mission has devoted to this project.  No group is too small, and no one in the entire world is not under consideration.  This is bottom-up organizing, putting people on the ground in the towns and villages, gaining converts one-by-one. 

The power of religion to motivate is undeniably impressive.  But how much of that motivation is to do useful things?  Running a school or clinic, helping with irrigation and inoculation, etc., are constructive activities, but replacing local beliefs with alien myths is not.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another accusation of discrimination, although it didn't work

The US Supreme Court has refused to hear, without comment, an appeal by the Association of Christian Schools International in a case against the University of California.  At issue is the University's refusal to allow college credit for the Bible-based science classes taught at 800 religious high schools in California.  As an examiner for the University found:

Biology texts, one professor concluded, teach students to reject any scientific evidence that contradicted the Bible. A history text declared the Bible to be the "unerring source for analysis" of past events, in the view of another expert, and gave short shrift to women, non-Christians and some ethnic groups.
A US District Court judge ruled in 2008 that the University had a legitimate basis for denying the credit.  And this year the US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, noting that the University had allowed credit for courses from other religious high schools, as long as they upheld academic standards.  But the Association contends that not recognizing their anti-science as science is counter to freedom of religion:
"In the Ninth Circuit," they said, "religious speech in religious schools is less protected than commercial speech, flag burning and pornography."
This notion, that others must recognize your religious beliefs as true or else be accused of discrimination, has appeared often before on these pages, both on domestic stories, and for those abroad.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A decade of being driven to a purposeful life

Native Californian Rick Warren founded the Saddleback Church in 1980 after graduating from the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.  The first service was in an high school auditorium, and the church would rotate through various Orange county venues and tents for about its first ten years.  Hence the nomadic name, although the current facility, built in 1995, is quite nice.  With an average weekly attendance of 20,000, the Saddleback Church is one of our largest mega-churches.  (San Diego's own megachurch, The Rock Church, has a weekly attendance of 12,000.)  With success has come not only affluence, but also influence.

Rick Warren has become a regular figure on the national stage, for example giving the invocation at the 2009 Presidential Inauguration.  His views have drifted away from the right on some issues, for example in 2006 he signed a statement backing taking action on global warming.  But on most issues he is on the side of the evangelical right, based always in revealed truth.  His prominent book, The Purpose Driven Life, includes a chapter titled "The Reason for Everything" which explains the situation quite plainly:
It’s all for God.
Not only were you created by God; you were created for him, too. The ultimate goal of the universe is to show the glory of God. It is the reason for everything that exists, including
you. God made it all for his glory. Without God’s glory, there would be nothing.
Rick Warren is a religious absolutist.  All aspects of life must be governed by religion.  And while not outright declaring himself a prophet, his writings show a certainty about what the Higher Powers are thinking and planning.  And he, and his followers, are part of that plan.

This weekend the Saddleback Church begins the "Decade of Destiny", which apparently involves two months of study and prayer and then ten years of blessings.  And the Church will increase its outreach, founding ten satellite churches around California.  Once again speaking like a prophet he lays out the underpinnings:

In preparation for the campaign, Warren studied every verse in the Bible that speaks of God's blessing.
He first stressed that nobody deserves His blessings.
"It's totally a gift," the pastor and bestselling author of The Purpose Driven Life said. "He [blesses] because He's a good God, not because you're good."
Moreover, God enjoys blessing His children, he added.
"God wants to bless you. He's not holding back. He's waiting on you."
Though God's blessing cannot be earned, there is a premise to every promise, Warren noted.
"They're not automatic," he said of blessings. "There's a condition. ... God promises and actually guarantees that He will bless your life if you do what He says."
And so the Saddleback Church is on the march.  They will do good things, help people, contribute to the common welfare, etc.  But they will also oppose the rights of others to abortion, lifestyle (i.e., gays), right-to-die, etc.  And they will draw more people into their way of thinking, in which they have the absolute, 100%, no doubt allowed, truth about how everyone should live their lives.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Belief can be useful, but is it necessary?

In his latest work, Christian author Philip Yancey asks What Good Is God? For those too eager to wait for the book, he gives examples in an interview:

Yancey said if someone in Africa was asked what a Christian is, they may answer, "Well, I'm not sure, but there's this hospital van that comes here once a month and has a cross on it and they treat our wounds."
Another might say, "Well, I'm not sure but there are these folks called World Vision and they dug a well for my village and now we have something to drink.”
"And then others will tell about churches that come in and help transform a society by speaking against drunkenness and corruption," Yancey added.
"I wish skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins had the same chance to hear stories of transformation from social outcasts who hit the very bottom and now credit God for the strong grace that saved them in the most literal sense," Yancey wrote.
But the ability of religion to offer psychological benefit to those with particular needs is well established.  Once the needs diminish, the religion frequency follows.  As Yancey notes:
In his book, Yancey acknowledges how Christianity can be good for society but also notes how, as that society achieves a level of comfort and prosperity, its citizens feel less need for religious faith.
So religion can play a role in making the world a better in some places and at some times.  But as Humanists we have (at least) two questions.  Can people find the inspiration to do good and the psychological strength to face adversity through means other than religion?  And what comes with the good effects of religion?  Are those well-diggers also banning contraception, condemning people born with homosexual inclinations, fighting science, etc. ?