Pope popular, pastors moreso

Since 2001, “Le Moyne College,”:http://www.lemoyne.edu/index.asp a Jesuit school in Syracuse, has been partnering with the Zogby polling people to take the pulse of American Catholics.

Their “latest poll,”:http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1200 out today, found that Catholic support for their bishops has rebounded since the sex-abuse scandal of 2002. About 71 percent say the bishops are doing a good job (29% strongly agree, 42% somewhat agree), compared to 59 percent in the spring of 2003 (21% strongly, 39% somewhat).

A robust 83 percent are happy with Pope Benedict XVI so far (45% strongly, 39% somewhat).

And a whopping 88 percent think their pastors are doing a good job (69% strongly, 19% somewhat).

On abortion….

Fifty percent of Catholic respondents believe all abortion should be illegal. Forty-nine percent disagree.

But, of those who attend Mass at least weekly, 60 percent believe all abortion should be illegal.

On capital punishment…

Forty-eight percent say the death penality should be illegal; but 53 percent of those who attend Mass at least weekly say so.

Only 29 percent oppose abortion AND the death penalty.

The atheists are coming!

Boy, it seems like the atheists are taking over, doesn’t it?

Two in-your-face atheists, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, have written in-your-face books that dismiss believers as somewhere between ordinary boneheads and delusional zombies. Both use language that is so over-the-top that it’s kind of funny.

And yet, believers are lining up to take them on. I got a mass email today from Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative talking head from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, plugging his “debate”:http://www.tothesource.org/11_30_2006/11_30_2006.htm today on Fox News with Harris. It’s at 4 p.m. EST.

Of course, nobody lands any punches in these debates. Both fighters swing wildy and come out thinking they’ve won every round.

It’s not like Harris is going to see the light or D’Souza is going to shut his off.

You have to figure that Harris and Dawkins’ books are so confrontational, do dismissive of religion, precisely to rile up the other side (and sell more books). And it’s easy for the other side to defend God’s honor in a country where just about everyone says they believe in God (even if they’re only spiritual and not religious).

It’s kind of funny to open Harris’ book “Letter to a Christian Nation” to any page and see what bomb he throws.

Page 6: “Consider: every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian. And yet you do not find their reasons compelling. The Koran repeatedly declares that it is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. Muslims believe this as fully as you believe the Bible’s account of itself.”

Page 54: “It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs.”

Page 61: “Why doens’t the Bible say anything about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will be easily summarized in a few pages of text. Why aren’t these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible?”

I have no way of knowing if Harris expects Christians or other believers to read this stuff and go “Gosh, I never looked at it that way before.” But he sure has guaranteed himself invitations to a lot of debates.

For a sample of Dawkins’ rhetoric, check out this “essay.”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-dawkins/why-there-almost-certainl_b_32164.html Dawkins insists that religion must be subject to scientific inquiry, like anything else:

“Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available? Pretty low I think…”

Can science find the soul?

B. Alan Wallace is a former Buddhist monk who used to meditate for some 10 hours a day, studied with the Dalai Lama and now heads something called the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

There is a fascinating “interview”:http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/11/27/wallace/print.html with him on Salon.com that deals with the relationship between science and religion, Buddhist beliefs on the levels of consciousness, and all sorts of way out stuff.

Wallace (right) rejects the scientific notion that the mind is nothing more than the results of the brain’s activities. He says that the psyche can exist outside the body and reincarnate — bringing to mind the Judeo-Christian concept of the soul.

He also believes that if science opens its mind, Buddhist ideas about consciousness can be tested.

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He notes that one academic has studied children who have verifiable memories of past lives. Another has studied out-of-body and near-death experiences.

I interviewed Wallace a few months ago for a book project I’m working on. He’s a real sharp guy, very impressive. Give the interview a chance.

Here’s what he would like to see happen:

“Train very advanced contemplatives to tap into this substrate consciousness — this storehouse of memories from past lives, if it in fact exists — and do this in conjunction with neuroscientists and psychologists. If I had unlimited funds, I’d say this is one of the most important questions we can ask. Make this a 20-year research project, well funded, with all the skepticism of science. Make sure you have some hardcore atheists involved, but ones who are open-minded and not just knee-jerk dogmatists. And then put it to the test. In 20 years, I think you could come up with something that could repudiate or validate a startling, truly astonishing hypothesis that there is such a substrate consciousness.”

Conservative rabbis to meet in NYC

Next week’s big meeting of Conservative rabbinic scholars to take on the question of homosexuality will take place at NYC’s historic Park Avenue Synagogue on the East Side.

A press conference has already been called for 3 p.m. on Wednesday, when the results will be announced.

The 25 members of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will meet Tuesday and Wednesday. They are now scheduled to hear five position papers on what is clearly one of the most controversial questions in the religious world today.

The group can approve one paper, none or more than one. It takes six votes to give a position the group’s stamp.

Currently, the Conservative movement does not allow the ordination of gays and lesbians and its rabbis do not bless same-sex relationships. In 1992, the committee upheld the traditional injunction against gay sex.

The committee is an advisory group. It takes positions that its members believe adhere to a Conservative interpretation of Jewish law and tradition.

But individual synagogues and pulpit rabbis are free to interpret Jewish law differently and not follow the group’s advise.

Still, there is no getting around the importance of the committee’s decision(s), which will become part of Conservative Judaism’s identity.

The papers under consideration will be released after the meeting breaks up. No doubt, they will be poured over for some time.

Again, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC offers a real good “primer”:http://www.jtsa.edu/cjls/index.shtml on the gay debate.

Warren’s church responds on Obama

I blogged yesterday about how displeased many Christian anti-abortion leaders are that Sen. Barack Obama is speaking on Friday at Rick Warren’s California megachurch.

He’s speaking at a much-publicized two-day conference on fighting global AIDS, a cause that is dear to Warren and his wife, Kay.

But Obama is pro-choice and, according to those protesting his appearance, opposed to stopping late-term abortions.

Today, Saddleback Church released a “statement”:http://www.christiannewswire.com/news/864651610.html about the controversy.

It reads, in part:

“While knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS, the speakers at the Summit do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of Saddleback Church, its pastoral leadership or the congregation. As a result, we’re not making an endorsement of Obama or any of the other speakers. Rather by coming to Saddleback, the Summit speakers are affirming and supporting the vital role of the Church in fighting the pandemic of HIV/AIDS.”

The statement says that not all participants at the AIDS summit are expected to share Saddleback’s evangelical beliefs. It also affirms the Warrens’ anti-abortion views:

“Anyone who has read The Purpose Driven Life, specifically chapters two and 22, knows the Warrens are staunchly pro-life, because it’s the biblical position. In a letter to all pastors in the Purpose Driven network before the 2004 election, Pastor Warren called this one of the five non-negotiable moral issues, writing, ‘God’s purpose for your life precedes your birth, according to Psalm 139, so abortion short-circuits God’s purpose for that human being. To be truly pro-life means far more than opposing abortion. It also means doing everything in our power to keep people alive, so they might respond to the grace of Jesus Christ. Sometimes that means working with people you disagree with. With AIDS killing 8,000 people a day, saving lives is more important to us than political alignment.’ ”

So both sides have spoken out. They agree that supporting abortion is unacceptable. But Saddleback Church says this issue, however important, can be overlooked in favor of pursuing another vital goal. The church’s critics say abortion can never be overlooked at an evangelical church.

What will the Warrens say tomorrow and Friday?

Bishop Sisk on religious violence

Bishop Mark Sisk, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, posted his thoughts today on the importance of dialogue between Islam and Christianity. His comments are part of “On Faith,”:http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/mark_s_sisk/ a new religion site run by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

Sisk is one of many On Faith panelists who will weigh in from time to time on the issues of the day.

Sisk notes that violence and extreme elements are not the sole province of Islam:

“Christianity too has, and has had, a tradition of violence against non-believers. Seared into Muslim consciousness is the hideous inheritance of the crusades: crusades called for by a predecessor to Pope Benedict XVI, a call that was responded to with alacrity by people all across Western Europe.”

The pope’s other itinerary

I’ve been talking to people all day about Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey, which began this morning.

It’s funny, media reports have focused almost entirely on how the pope will be received by Muslims in Turkey, who might remember a little speech he gave in September. That’s a big storyline, no doubt.

But the papl trip was planned primarily so that Benedict could meet with the head of the Orthodox Christian world, “Ecumenical Patriarche Bartholomew.”:http://www.patriarchate.org/ For Orthodox Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere, and for Catholics who care about ecumenism, Thursday’s planned meeting of the two giant figures is the big news.

The churches of the West and the East split in 1054. They began talking seriously again only in 1964. So when the leaders of the two communions get together — this time on the Feast of St. Andrew, a day of prime importance for the Orthodox faithful — it’s a big deal.

As Archbishop Demetrios, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S., wrote in a special “encyclical”:http://www.goarch.org/en/archbishop/demetrios/encyclicals/ on the papal visit:

“This visit is more than symbolic. It carries substantial meaning as an occasion for the Churches of the East and West to come closer to one another in mutual understanding, in accordance with the fervent prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ when He asked His Father that those who believe in Him “may all be one” (John 17:20-21). This visit gives substance to the words of the petition that we pray in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, “For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” Thus, this visit is an occasion whereby the words of our prayer have an opportunity to achieve a very real substance.

“Finally, the visit of Pope Benedict to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is important on account of its timeliness in our modern world, which has witnessed unprecedented acts of violence without reason, and an erosion of the capacity of human beings to recognize one another as sacred children of God. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew advocates passionately for peace, tolerance, and reconciliation among all human beings; but he does so under very heavy conditions in a land where notions of religious freedom are approached quite differently than they are in our own country or in European countries. For this reason, the visit of Pope Benedict carries an added dimension, in that it will provide an opportune occasion for two world religious leaders to discuss important issues related to religious freedom, peace among human beings of all faiths, and matters pertaining to global security in our modern world.”

Istanbul, known as Constantinople until 1930, has long been the seat of the Orthodox Church. But the Orthodox population of Turkey has dwindled for decades.

Orthodox Christians have lots of complaints about how they are treated today by the Muslim majority, complaints that Benedict certainly shares. But he’s probably not in a position to voice many concerns when Turkey’s Muslims are hoping to hear reconciliary words from him.

Rick Warren and Sen. Obama

Sen. Barack Obama, Democratic wunderkind, is speaking Friday at Rick Warren’s megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., and anti-abortion groups are not happy. Not happy at all.

Obama is speaking as part of a “Global Summit on AIDS and the Church.”:http://www.saddlebackfamily.com/home/todaystory.asp?id=8350 It’s a two-day event that will include video presentations from Warren buddies Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as the participation of numerous pastors and Christian relief groups.

But Obama is a high-profile pro-choice Democrat. His participation is not acceptable, despite whatever good work he does on AIDS, according to a “statement”:http://www.christiannewswire.com/news/791771591.html released today by 18 Christian anti-abortion leaders.

The statement reads, in part:

“You cannot fight one evil while justifying another. The evangelical church can provide no genuine help for those who suffer from AIDS if those involved do not first have their ethic of life firmly rooted in the Word of God. Accordingly, we call on Pastor Rick Warren to rescind his invitation to Senator Obama immediately.”

Warren is the mega-bestselling author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Church, which gets more than 20,000 people each Sunday. Apparently, he met Obama early this year in Washington and they focused on common ground: their desire to fight global AIDS.

Warren generally tries to stay clear of “culture war” issues and politics. But now the pressure is on.

Religious people called more charitable

“Arthur Brooks,”:http://www.arthurbrooks.net/author.html a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs, has a new book out about who really gives to charity. It’s called “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.”

The title apparently comes from his finding that political conservatives give more to charity than liberals. I guess we are supposed to believe the opposite.

He also finds that religious folks are far more generous than “secularists,” to both religious and non-religious causes. A religious person is 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person, he writes.

Brooks is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages, where conservative voices are always welcome.

Conservative Judaism nearing decision(s) on gays

A judgment day of sorts may be coming next week for Conservative Judaism.

After years of wrestling with whether to change the religious status of gays and lesbians, a committee of rabbinic scholars is meeting next Tuesday and Wednesday to decide the question. We think…

Oddly, the location of the super-sensitive gathering had not been set as of this morning.

The Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC has an excellent “primer”:http://www.jtsa.edu/cjls/index.shtml on the debate, its meaning and its ramifications.

When the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards last met in March, it reviewed papers on homosexuality written by committee members and sent them back for revisions. The group also scheduled a vote for December, which must have seemed like a long time away.

Currently, gays and lesbians are not eligible for ordination and Conservative rabbis are not supposed to bless same-sex ceremonies.

Shira Dicker, a spokeswoman for the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, told me today that the committee will review six papers — three that would keep the status quo and three that would recognize gay religious rights, at least to some degree.

The Conservative movement believes itself to be bound by halakhah — the body of jewish law and tradition. So the committee’s job is to say what is permissible under a Conservative interpretation of Jewish law.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has 25 voting members. Any position that gets at least six votes of support becomes a valid position.

The committee may approve more than position, leaving it up to individual synagogues and their rabbis to decide what is right for them. In this case, synagogues may be able to choose from contrary positions — no gay rights or full gay rights.