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August 2007
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October 2007

Sept. 29-30, 2007, weekend


A college professor looks at the turmoil in Myanmar, or Burma, and concludes -- in harmony with a column I did recently -- that although religion often gets blamed for being a source of violence, it's also the source of much good. Well put.

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Can there be Christian ballet? This story suggests the answer is yes -- and in Mississippi, of all places. Do you suppose they perform to that hymn, "The Lord of the Dance"?

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Several times in the last couple of years, both in print and on this blog, I have written about the various ways religious groups around the country are working to oppose torture as an instrument of U.S. government practice or policy.

TortureTo follow up on that coverage, I want to link you to the recent testimony given by the Rev. George Hunsinger on behalf of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It was submitted to a closed hearing of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

As Hunsinger says, the issue is not whether torture is an effective way of gathering important information. (He believes it is not.) Rather, the issue is whether torture is ever a moral act.

Hunsinger says torture "violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions hold dear." And I think he's right.

There has been a slowly growing campaign to get the American government to stop using torture. Faith communities have been at the forefront of this effort, and I think it's exactly the sort of battle they should be part of.

What's your own faith community, if you have one, doing in this area?

P.S. The other day here on the blog I linked you to a story about an Italian physician who was suggesting that Pope John Paul II's death may have been a mercy killing. For more insight on that question, click here for a good analysis by John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Sept. 28, 2007


Six nuns in Arkansas have been excommunicated. Is this an example of the church properly defending its official doctrine or is it an example of the church improperly quieting dissidents? There have been many examples of the latter in recent decades, but to me, at least at first glance, this looks more like the former.

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A new survey shows, once again, a lot of ignorance among the American public about religion.

RomneyThis particular survey, done for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, focuses on what people know and feel about Islam and Mormonism. The latter subject has become particularly important as the GOP presidential bid of Mitt Romney (pictured here), a Mormon, has gained traction.

Nearly 60 percent of those polled professed ignorance about the practices of Islam, while just over half expressed similar lack of knowledge about Mormons.

The poll also found that Pope Benedict XVI fares pretty well in American public opinion, though not as well as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

I find the ignorance about Islam and Mormonism simply inexcusable. How can people in this country have lived conscious lives since 9/11, more than six years ago, and not taken the time to learn about Islam? Too busy trying to get Hannah Montana tickets? (Oh, sorry. That's the subject of my column for tomorrow.) As for Mormonism, they've had 180 years to learn about it -- or however many of those they've been alive.

Well, read the survey and see if there are areas where you need to spend some time learning.

P.S.: The "On Faith" blog of the Washington Post is hosting several days of discussion about atheism. There's some interesting discussion you might want to read or take part in.

ANOTHER P.S.: A few months ago I wrote a column about a Habitat for Humanity house being built by Muslims, Jews and Christians together in Kansas City. The "House that Abraham Builds" will be dedicated at 1 p.m. this Sunday at 3754 Flora. Stop by for the celebration if you are interested. I'm committed to be elsewhere at that hour, but this is a worthy effort that deserves support.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will try to help us understand the religious aspects of the big flap over people who couldn't get tickets to see Hannah Montana perform. Really.)

Sept. 27, 2007


Did Pope John Paul II die as the result of a mercy killing? That's the new allegation from a physician. I'm guessing this is a controversy with no final resolution.

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A new study suggests that the historic tension between religion and pyschiatry has not been resolved. Beyond that, the study says, this tension affects the care that some patients receive.

PsychPhysicians who are not psychiatrists but who identify themselves as religious are less likely to refer patients to psychiatrists, the study found.

Religious doctors, it turns out, are more willing to refer people suffering grief or depression to religious counselors than are doctors who aren't religious.

The study appeared in the September 2007 edition of Pyschiatric Services, a publication of the American Psychiatric Association.

For a press release about the study, click here. I offer that here today because you'll get only an abstract at the link for the study, and the release offers a little more information, particularly about one of the authors, a Kansas Citian, Dr. John Lantos of the Center for Practical Bioethics.

I frankly don't know much about the specific roots of the tension between religion and psychiatry, though I can certainly guess why they might at times be at odds. Does any of you have any good insights into this? Any good reference material?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Sept. 26, 2007


At 9 a.m (Central time) today, a U.S. State Department official will host a Web chat to help Americans better understand the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. To participate, go to Then let us know what you learned.

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For an interesting take on Sen. John McCain's recent declaration that he's not Episcopalian but, rather, Baptist, click here. If you were asked on a written exam to explain the difference between the two branches of Christianity, could you?

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Fifteen or 20 years ago, some folks in Kansas City, mostly Christians, began a campaign against pornography. I'm not sure how much good it did, but it seemed at least to get people talking about the subject and the various ways in which pornography is exploitive of women and the ways it can be addictive.

ClergypornThe subject came up again in a recent issue of The Christian Century.

The article is focused on pastors and the way some of them get addicted to porn. What? Morally pure clergy are caught up with porn? Well, of course. They are human and humans are imperfect.

You can read the piece for yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few sentences that I found enlightening:

* Many sexually addicted clergy were 'good kids' who waited until marriage to have sex and who believed that marriage and the ready availability of a sexual partner were going to solve their sexual problems. When this fails to occur, anger is a frequent result.

* An additional source of anger may be the demanding, low-paying job.  . . .(S)exually addicted clergy frequently believe that God should be rewarding them for their hard work and sacrifices. Their struggles related to career, marriage and vocation can foster a sense that they are not getting what they deserve.

This is one more indication that the clergy, too, need clergy. That is, they sometimes need counselors and spiritual guides. And faith communities that don't provide those services for their spiritual leaders are hurting not only the clergy but also themselves.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Sept. 25, 2007


What I called "the God question" in my most recent Saturday column is also getting some attention in live theater, reports the Sun-Times in Chicago. (You'll have to excuse the Web site's repetition of a couple of paragraphs.) I love the theater and know that religious questions often aren't far from the surface of the best plays.

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As regular readers of my blog and column know, I regularly encourage people to attend funerals -- for many reasons.

FuneralflowersA funeral I attended over the weekend reaffirmed for me the value not just of attending funerals but also of being an active member of a faith community.

The man who died had been quite active for many years at the Episcopal church where the funeral was held, and active, too, in the Diocese of Kansas. So active, in fact, that the bishop of that diocese, Dean E. Wolfe, flew back to Kansas City from New Orleans to lead the service -- and then headed back to New Orleans after the service.

The priest who did the homily had known the deceased man for a long time. In fact, the priest had visited the man in the hospital just a few days before he died. The priest recounted that experience in his sermon and, at the end of his remarks, he cried.

I've been to quite a few funerals where a rent-a-minister did the service. The deceased in those cases had no faith community. For the most part, those services seem to me to be sad and sterile events, often held in funeral homes, where the deceased person spent no time at all in his life.

How much better to have a funeral in sacred space that meant something to the deceased and where the surviving family can be surrounded by people they have known a long time.

And how much better to have the preacher at a funeral cry because he was going to miss the man about whom he was speaking.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Sept. 24, 2007


In advance of an upcoming seminar on "Life After Death," the Muskegon Chronicle has done an interesting piece on the subject. What do you believe about life after death? And what if you're wrong?

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MANHATTAN, Kan. -- I came to Kansas State University here the other day to moderate a panel discussion on the media's coverage of religion. The panel was a follow-up to the annual Huck Boyd Lecture earlier in the day.

Media_2It was good to see a room full of people who care about this matter, including college students. Were some assigned to be there? Probably. But many of the best questions came from them.

The panel included a Protestant pastor, a former Catholic priest, a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim and Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., and the person who created "Speaking of Faith," the primary religion program on public radio.

I won't give you a rundown on what each person said, but let me just repeat here a few of the points made:

* By focusing so much on people at the extreme edges of religion, the media are complicit in the downfall of moderation in our civic discourse.

* There is a great deal of common ethical ground that different religions share, and we need to be putting our energy into finding that ground.

* "We put labels on each other. It's nuts." (No, I'm not the one who said that, though it well could have been.)

* Media coverage of religions tends to be brief and shallow, though at least media attention in this area does tend to help make some religious structures accountable. The abuse scandal involving Roman Catholic priests was cited as an example.

* Media coverage of Islam since 9/11 has been inadequate and often misleading.

* The traditional way journalists cover subjects -- being skeptical of everything everyone tells us -- doesn't work very well when covering religion, even though a healthy skepticism is always a journalistic requirement, even in covering religion. The he-said, she-said approach to covering religion has led to a reliance on media-savvy people who know how to say quotable things, even if those remarks aren't very representative of other followers of the faith of the person quoted. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were cited as good examples of this.

* The explosion of the Internet, and especially the blogosphere, has provided a way for people to create their own coverage of religion, but it's important to be a discerning reader.

* Shorthand references to complex matters don't work very well in covering religion. Complex matters require time and space to explain. Blogs are creating a new opportunity for coverage of religion to return to more of a conversation rather than simply quick bits of information tossed at readers.

* The media tend to blur the lines between and among the Jewish religion, Jewish traditions and concerns about Israel.

There was more, but that's representative of what was said. My questions for you: How do you think traditional media do in covering religion now? And: If you could do anything to improve such coverage, what would you do?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Sept. 22-23, 2007


Last weekend here on the blog I listed a bunch of new faith-related books. One I missed was Sacred Causes, by Michael Burleigh. Click here for a new review of what appears to be an worthwhile read.

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Speaking of religious stories that seem hard to take literally, as I do in my Saturday column this weekend (click on the link at the end of this post to read that column), a big struggle now going on in India is rooted in a story of a Hindu god. Would you have said the "big lie" comment attributed to a state leader there? Me, either.

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Has your own practice of attending (or not attending) religious services changed since 1990?

WorshipIf so, this new study suggests, you're out of the ordinary. It found attendance at religious services since 1990 in the United States has stayed quite stable. (The link I've given you, by the way, will get you just to the abstract of the study. You have to subscribe to the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.)

Sociology professors from Duke University and the University of Maryland found that despite considerable upheaval in the world of faith in America in recent decades, attendance hasn't changed a lot.

Mark Chaves of Duke said that some "commentators say we're in the midst of a religious revival. Others say we're experiencing religious decline. But the data show otherwise."

I can speak only for myself, but I consider myself verification of the study's finding. I've been a member of my church since 1978 and have been in regular attendance there for Sunday worship (when I'm in town and when I'm not speaking somewhere else) since then.

Is that so unusual? The study suggests not. It's nice to be normal in at least one way.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about religious stories that seem unbelievable to us.)

Today's religious holiday: Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Sept. 21, 2007


Periodically the State Department issues reports on the status of religious freedom in various countries. One thing these important reports do is to put abusers on the defensive. That's exactly what has happened with China and the most recent report. China is defending its record in this area. The report, by the way, said that in the most recent reporting period the Chinese government's respect for religious freedom "remained poor." A pretty consistent conclusion.

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Many congregations of different religions worry about growth. Whole consulting industries exist to help them foster such growth.

JudaismThe phenomenon can be seen clearly in a new report about American Judaism. Fewer than half of the rabbis in a new survey are optimistic about the future of Jewry in America.

That strikes me as considerably more pessimistic than the response one might find among, say, leaders of Christian or Muslim congregations in the U.S. And yet that might well depend on which branch of those religions one surveys.

For instance, pastors of Mainline Christian churches probably would be less optimistic than members of the clergy who work in conservative, evangelical or independent congregations. That would be a reflection of membership trends over the last several decades.

But Jewish congregations seem to have some special concerns affecting membership, including the fact that quite a few Jews these days are marrying non-Jews. And many Jews view themselves as thoroughly Jewish but not religious.

What many rabbis -- particularly in the Reform movement -- are finding is that they need to reach out to potential converts to Judaism and not simply rely on members of Jewish families staying active in their congregations.

What are the growth concerns in your faith community? And how are you dealing with those worries?

P.S.: For a Baptist Press story about religious relations in Jena, La., site of the widely covered race rally yesterday, click here.

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To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be about what to do when we find the religious stories others tell unbelievable.)

Today's religious holidays: Fall Equinox (Wicca/Neo Pagan, Northern Hemisphere); Ostara (Wicca/Neo Pagan, Southern Hemisphere.)

Sept. 20, 2007


What's your image of Buddhist monks? Nice, quiet, pacifists who rarely speak? The monks in this story from Burma seem to be anything but that. Which just proves again that stereotypes usually aren't too useful.

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As you may know, I've written some this week about Islam and the battle for its soul.

WomenOne of the places where that struggle is happening is in Saudi Arabia, where Islam originated. At times, it amounts to a tug of war between certain interpretations of Islam and cultural traditions.

One of those traditions -- which really has not much to do with the Islamic religion -- is that in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive.

When I was in Saudi Arabia in 2002 with a group of journalists, we met with the man who today is King Abdullah (he was the crown prince when we met with him) and asked him about why women couldn't drive. He indicated it was a social question, not a religious question, though he didn't promise any quick action.

This week, however, petitions in favor of giving women the right to drive will be presented to the government, it's reported. Perhaps you saw a story about this in our paper the other day. Well, the petition drive is one more indication that reformers are at work in Saudi society and that they might be making a bit of progress here and there.

Not all reformers in all countries produce good results. But without people pushing this or that envelope, not much change for the good would happen anywhere. So good for the women seeking driving privileges in Saudi Arabia. May their tribe increase.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Sept. 19, 2007


Oh, OK. I'll give you a link to the silly story about a politician in Nebraska suing God. But just to invite you to answer this question: If you were God's attorney, what would be your defense strategy?

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I can't tell you how often I've heard non-Muslim Americans ask me why Muslims don't speak out more often and more forcefully against the radical Islamists who have been giving Islam a bad name.

BinladenThere are many good answers to the question, including: They do speak out. Another example of that occurred the other day when a major religious scholar in Saudi Arabia, Islam's ground zero, wrote an open letter to Osama bin Laden (pictured here). It was full of profound criticism for speaking and acting in ways that have harmed Islam around the world.

If you're a popular Muslim figure in the world, you don't want Sheikh Salman ibn Fahad Al-Oudah coming out against you. It's evidence that you've lost your way.

The Arab News, an English language daily in Saudi Arabia, reports that many experts consider Al-Oudah's letter a major setback for al-Qaida's approach to Islam.

As I've said before, Islam is in a struggle for its heart and soul, and it's a battle that non-Muslims cannot fight for Muslims. Muslims will have to do battle on their own, though there are some things Western governments could do to help create an atmosphere that would make it more difficult for the radicals to prevail, including making a hard push for resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But I take heart when people like Al-Oudah are moved to speak out. For another example of Al-Oudah condeming violence, click here. It and other commentaries by him can be found at

P.S.: Did you know the man nominated to be the next U.S. attorney general is an Orthodox Jew? Me either, until I read the JTA report to which I just linked you. What does it matter? I can't think of any reason it would, but it's sort of interesting.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.