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The Alliance for Positive Thought Blog

Haiti Survivors Blessed?

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Some Haiti survivors believe that they were chosen by God to survive the tragedy.  It's a common mistake.  Those who survive any treacherous circumstance feel lucky, even though someone has to survive.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Drumbeats called the faithful to a Sunday Mass praising God amid a scene resembling the Apocalypse - a collapsed cathedral in a city cloaked with the smell of death, where aid is slow to reach survivors and rescue crews battle to pry an ever-smaller number of the living from the ruins.

Sunlight streamed through what little was left of blown-out stained windows as the Rev. Eric Toussaint preached to a small crowd of survivors. A rotting body lay in its main entrance.

"Why give thanks to God? Because we are here," Toussaint said. "We say 'Thank you God.' What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now."

In a huge disaster in an area densely packed with people, it is extremely likely that some people will be in the areas that happen to remain structurally sound.  They aren't blessed, they aren't lucky: someone had to be there, and it happened to be them.  The lucky ones who happen to be under a support that survives the tumble will be amazed at their incredible good fortune.

But when you are the one who experiences this “luck” it is overwhelmingly difficult separate one's subjective experience of the world from this objective analysis.  When a terribly tragedy befalls us, our instinct is to call foul believe an injustice has occurred.  Similarly, when we are fortunate beyond our wildest dreams, we must be “blessed.” My grandfather survived the holocaust by the barest of threads, and never understood that God need not have favored him in order for him to have experienced good fortune. Damage in downtown Port-au-PrinceMany died and many survived -- some just barely. His story happened to be one of the latter.

200,000 people may have died in Haiti.  But the capital, Port-au-Prince, where population was most dense in the earthquake's affected area, had a population over 700,000.  That means, yes, you were lucky if were among the survivors.  But you would be in the company of at least half a million other people.

If God had control over the entire situation, why would he callously exterminate the equivalent of a small city full of his children?  What father, however angry, could stomach such tragedy in his own family, let alone cause it?

 

Benefits without boundaries? Social relationships and religion.

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Even though the Alliance for Positive Thought questions the existence of the supernatural, we believe that there are some aspects of religion which are useful and desirable to incorporate into everyday life. Possibly the biggest benefits of organized religion are the social relationships and community it creates for participants.

People who belong to a religious faith often attend a worship service where they meet like minded individuals and have the opportunity to make friends. They often feel as though they belong to a community that they can trust, and therefore they have a high level of social capital (the potential energy of social relationships). That is, they have people they can count on for advice on health, employment, relationships, and life events.

These feelings of community are partially generated by participants’ perceptions of shared beliefs and norms. Members of a congregation know that they share moral values and have a sense of right and wrong. Membership and belonging is often perpetuated by the religious leader, and reinforced through actions of the congregation.

However where there is inclusion and relationship building there is also a risk of exclusion and naming those who are different as the “other.” To a religious person, the “other” is someone who does not share their morals. The “other” is someone who they cannot trust. What do these perceptions of the unworthy “other” reveal about the social relationship benefits that religion brings to its participants? Must there always be a boundary between those who are included in a community and excluded? Is it possible to maximize the benefits of social relationships without generating exclusive boundaries?

 

 

Would you vote for an atheist for president?

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A 2007 Gallup poll revealed that only 45% of Americans said that they would be willing to vote for a qualified candidate who happened to be atheist. This compares to 55% who would be willing to vote for a candidate who happened to be homosexual, 57% who would vote for a candidate who happened to be over age 72, and 67% who would vote for a candidate who happened to be married for the third time.

When results are tabulated by political ideology, liberals are more likely to say they would vote for an atheist (67% say they would) compared to moderates (48%) and conservatives (29%).

Tabulating by educational level reveals that 52% of those who have attended some college would be willing to vote for an atheist, whereas only 32% who have not attended college would be willing to do so.

Would you vote for an atheist for president? Why or why not?

 

Atheist vs. Agnostic vs. Naturalist: A Problem of Terminology

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When I see data on the religious self-identifications of Americans, I am always a bit skeptical of the percentage of people who actually claim to be atheist, as opposed to Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, etc. It always appears to me that the number is too low. This is of course just speculation on my part – random anonymous surveys are usually pretty accurate. I can’t help but think that atheist belief is underreported . The reason I think this is so is because of the connotations associated with the word “atheist”.

Disclaimer: the following scenario contains generalizations. You’ll probably be able to easily recognize them. I don’t mean to suggest that there are not exceptions, they are made merely to show a point.

Say some random person asks you about your religious beliefs and you tell them that you are a Christian, chances are you will not get any dirty looks as a result of your response. People are not surprised by that answer, and most will react with dismissive approval. Saying you are Christian indicates that you are “normal”. However, if you answer that you are an atheist, there is a good chance that you will be met with something other than total approval. People will be surprised that you are willing to admit it in the first place, and then whether or not they then proceed to openly confront you about it, many will think you are a bit abnormal.

According to dictionary.com, an atheist is, “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings”. That sounds a lot like the direct opposite of “a person who believes the existence of a supreme being”. There’s nothing else suggested by the definition of the word - certainly not that an atheist is abnormal, amoral, untrustworthy, unpatriotic, un-American, or malcontented. Why then are such negative connotations attached to the word? Probably because the opposite of an atheist, a person who does believe in the existence of a supreme being, will generally be thought to be normal, moral, trustworthy, patriotic, and content unless you specifically know otherwise. This is of course patently unfair in both cases – theists (can we start calling them that?) are not always wonderful people and neither are atheists usually bad people. The perceptions of the words being what they are though, I suspect there have got to be plenty of closet atheists out there who are just not comfortable with professing as much. Even the word agnostic leaves social wiggle room – you haven’t gone to the dark side, you are just not sure. I have been an atheist for a long time now, but it was only recently that I became comfortable to call myself that – I was claiming agnosticism to avoid social awkwardness.

 

Scapegoat or Lame Duck? Religion and the Environment

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In my last post, I talked about the first part of my conversation with environmentalist Bill Hartnett, in which we talked about the definition of religion.  The broader discussion was about how religious belief and environmentally friendly lifestyles interact.

earthBill thought I was saying that the reason people make poor choices about the environment is because they are religious devotees.  He told me that I should stop using religion as a “scapegoat.” But really what we are trying to propose here is that religion is a very positive institution in many ways.  It has the power to change minds and motivate behavior.  We would like to duplicate those effects, but redirect that motivation towards more positive goals.

There are quite a few religious people who are environmentalists.  The Bible in fact exhorts followers to care for the land and the animals.

"You shall not pollute the land in which you live.... You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the Israelites." (Numbers 35:33-34)

But there are also religionists who have personally told me things like “We don’t need to worry about pollution because the rapture is coming.”   These people may or may not be in the minority, but the fact is that some sects and adherents believe that caretakership of the Earth is essential to being a good Christian (or Muslim or Jew, etc.)  Some believe that it really doesn’t matter because God will provide in the end.

So deistic religion is not our scapegoat.  It’s a just a lame duck – it’s ineffectual at motivating followers because there is another alternative, namely salvation by faith, and/or God’s magical cleanup power.  The religious need not worry too much because no matter how much we pollute here on Terra Firma, heaven will always be clean.  If you believe you can get into the Big Club in the Sky without cleaning up Earth-side, why bother?

 
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