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Ch. 13: Does Religion Make People Behave Better? 
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MaryL: The question is whether he would have been a good person if he had been raised in some other context.

I think a far more fruitful question, one that gets beyond mere speculation, is: what about his Christian faith motivated and mobilized him to act as he did?

Dr. King was very clear in many ways and on many occasions regarding the integral connections between his passion for justice and discipleship of Christ. King was very much aware of the multiple religious systems and philosophical schools of thought that filled his world: he was deeply influenced by prominent teachers beyond his own tradition. He did not fall into his theory and practice out of cultural habit or familial demand or social necessity (although all played a part)...he made a series of personal decisions that involved careful, critical and intelligent consideration of multiple alternatives. His Christianity was not the same as his father's, nor was it anything like the dominant white churches that controlled much of the south. His faith was steeled in the intellectual furnaces of Socrates, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and Darwin...as well as the hateful misanthropy of white supremacy...and in direct conflict with American imperial hegemony. And, he makes it clear althruout that he is one link in that ancient Jewish prophetic pathos of social justice and radical revolution...linked as well to that terrible cross two thousand years ago...and carrying on a legacy of hopefilled resurrection.



Sun Apr 05, 2009 9:59 pm
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I don't see how the question I asked is any more speculative than the one you asked. Also they address different points. I don't think many people would say that MLK didn't use his particular belief system in the cause of social justice. I suppose some would argue that his roving masculine eye might count against his professed beliefs, but no one I have ever taken the least bit seriously would say that MLK's Christianity was deeply hypocritical.

What matters to those who argue for or against the need of religious belief to the ability of a person to conduct a moral, committed life, at least in part, is the question of whether MLK's faith (as one instance of this question) was the reason he was so passionate about justice. If it was, then faith is necessary to this kind of social devotion. If it wasn't, then faith is just the metaphor that is used to speak about something deeper than faith. So, like much thought, yes it is speculative, but it is important nevertheless.


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Mary L: I don't see how the question I asked is any more speculative than the one you asked.

My question can be answered by reading the voluminous works by King, his closest companions, the journalism of his day, and the last forty plus years of scholarship concerning King, the Civil Rights Movement and African American history...where King's faith is described and shown to be a definitive, integral and essential factor in his life's efforts. There is simply no need for speculation.



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My question can be answered by reading the voluminous works by King, his closest companions, the journalism of his day, and the last forty plus years of scholarship concerning King, the Civil Rights Movement and African American history...where King's faith is described and shown to be a definitive, integral and essential factor in his life's efforts. There is simply no need for speculation.


So in your opinion MLK would have amounted to nothing without Christianity?


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Mon Apr 06, 2009 12:12 am
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Dissident Heart wrote:
My question can be answered by reading the voluminous works by King...


Your answer only explains MLK's behaviour if you first accept that Christianity was the sole motivator of his social conscience. An example is using quotations of the Bible to "prove" the inerrancy of the Bible.

No one is arguing that Christianity wasn't important to MLK. That is clear based on behavioural evidence. What it doesn't show is that religious belief caused his sense of social justice. All it shows is that he couched his natural sense of justice in the metaphorical terminology of his society.

In a parallel case - Mahatma Gandhi's faith in the multitudinous gods of his background...is being a Hindu necessary for such acts of moral courage?

Another - the Dalai Lama doesn't believe in a personal god...is being a non-believer in a personal god necessary for such acts of moral courage?


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MaryLupin wrote:
One thing I remember from reading around Durkheim was that kids from wealthier classes were more likely to commit suicide than those from poorer classes. Religion really only plays a part as the particular type of faith constructs a sense of belonging and provides a valued place to its young. Of course providing such things is something society does regardless of whether it is religious or not. Some aspects of our society have just been trained to see it as religious, just as some have been trained to see the red leaves in fall as a spirit's art work, instead of as an effect of the break down of green chlorophyll and the presence of anthocyanins.

One possible reason that religion in this country has remained strong, while religion is Europe is fast becoming passe, is that it does offer a counter-weight to the atomism of our society. In other words, providing meaning of the kind you speak of is not a strength of our own society, so more people resort to religion. In a materialistic, mobile, and success-driven culture, it might be expected that meaning would be less available from everyday social relationships. This is a huge simplificaton of a complex matter, admittedly.


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Mon Apr 06, 2009 5:19 am
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Frank: So in your opinion MLK would have amounted to nothing without Christianity?

No. Not at all. I dont know, you dont know, nobody knows, nobody can know what Dr. King would have amounted to beyond what he did actually become...unless you are wanting to engage in sheer speculation. At which point we can say that Mr. Atheist could be just as easily understood as Mr. Christian or Mr. Hindu or Mr. Communist...we can just pull complicated persons out of their personal history, scrub off the particularities of their past, pump a new ideology in their head, and they can become whatever we want them to be. I will say that as far as Dr. King understood himself, he saw his faith as fundamental to anything he was able to accomplish, and that without it, he would have accomplished very little in the dangerous world of white supremacy and US imperialism. He may have been deluded in that self-awareness- but I would put far more value in his own self-knowledge than in our speculations.

MaryL: Your answer only explains MLK's behaviour if you first accept that Christianity was the sole motivator of his social conscience.

I think I made it made it clear that King was influenced in many ways beyond Christianity, had developed a belief system different from his immediate family and culture, and in direct opposition to the dominant white churches of his world. His faith was not the sole motivator, but it was primary and integral- which is not my assessment, but his.



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I see a certain straining in Christopher Hitchens' argument about King. Because King doesn't raise the threat of damnation with his countrymen who continue to disregard what God intends to be, he must not be a Christian after all. This seems to assume that Christianity comes as a defined package, and anyone who varies from it is not a Christian despite identifying as such. But surely Christianity is just an inert set of disparate beliefs before any individual reacts with it uniquely. This is where I strongly disagree with the idea of memes, by the way.

It seems odd to survey a person's biography, see that the Christian religion was central to it (as DH has illustrated), yet still appear to claim that King's humanism was independent of his Christianity. Doesn't Christianity have enough materials to act as a strong inspiration for King? With my modest knowledge of it, I think it does. King was much in the prophetic mode; he was all about telling Christianity how it had failed to live up to itself. He was a Christian who urged that Christianity in fact surpass itself.


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It seems odd to survey a person's biography, see that the Christian religion was central to it (as DH has illustrated), yet still appear to claim that King's humanism was independent of his Christianity. Doesn't Christianity have enough materials to act as a strong inspiration for King?


Religion clearly has a wide range of effects on various people. It isn't religion that poisons everything - it's people who take something inherently harmless (a book about events that 'happened' hundreds or thousands of years ago) and use it to exert control over and influence other people, which even when done with the purest of intents, inevitably leads to corruption.

By the same view, there are other people (like King) who are driven by religion not to control people but to inspire them with it. Religion itself is neither good or bad - it's the people who believe in it. And while religion may have a profound effect on someone, a person's nature cannot be unrelated to their reaction to religion.



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DWill wrote:
One possible reason that religion in this country has remained strong, while religion is Europe is fast becoming passe, is that it does offer a counter-weight to the atomism of our society...


Sometimes I think that it is the sense of history in Europe that acts as a counter weight. I went to boarding school in England for part of my youth and I remember feeling at home suddenly because I already had a pretty sound grounding in history, geography etc that came from my reading rather than from the schools to which I went while living in the US. I mean even the comedy (I'm thinking about Black Adder) requires some sense of history, a knowledge of the personality of specific historical figures, a familiarity with the stories of the past. That sense provided solidity: I knew I was standing someplace here and now because I had a real there and then to compare it to. The only time I really felt that in the US was when I was on the reservation, where the same sense of at-homeness was present.

So part of me thinks it is the education of people in the US, not only in school but in the entertainment where lessons are often easier to take in.

Then part of me thinks that this religiosity is really still a part of the cycle of Great Awakenings that started in the US that began in the 1730s. It is such an interesting, and fundamentally important, cycle of events. This back-and-forth-ness between rationalism and religiosity is not a new thing in the US.

I think that part of it is the deep distrust of Europe that comes from the US's early history. There was a wonderful book called Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash that looks at this bipolar tendency through the concept "wilderness." I wonder what it would take to weave the strands together. I think only that will bring us to a better place viz the rest of the world and our own potential.


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Tue Apr 07, 2009 10:58 pm
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Post Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25, 1965.
Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25, 1965.
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAYITODNvlM[/youtube]



Wed Apr 15, 2009 3:33 pm
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Pretty tough to quantify a statement like the one above.

This gives some perspective on time:
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVqXGbGhROM[/youtube]

And this just plain rocks:
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBhwfMdxCPI[/youtube]

So I guess the answer to the chapters question is: obviously not?

:book:



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Related to the question of whether religion makes people behave better--and one that is a little easier to substantiate--is another one: does religion provide benefits to children across a broad range of measures, compared to children who do not have this involvement? We know that Christopher Hitchens and others speak of religion as child abuse, and looking at Hitchens' examples, I can agree with his views on particulars. However, looking at religion broadly in currrent society presents a different view of religion's value for children. I had kind of promised to look into this topic a while back, and have only minimally followed through. The job of sifting through a ton of social science literature is a big one. You can easily sample this literature yourself by googling "benefits of religion for children." There are certainly many claims for religion benefiting children. Perhaps someone will be able to find reseach that disputes and refutes the benefits that are said to apply in areas such as school achievement, avoiding drug abuse and delinquency, and mental health, but I didn't find this type of article.

Even if we might say that that there is nothing intrinsic about religion that produces the benefits of invlolvement in religious activities, I think we still need to ask whether it is religion that in our society, is best at providing an environment of supportive interaction and relationship. If we have a substitute for that, fine, but if we don't, there may be a problem. I'm far from accepting that simply not having belief will produce social benefits. There is work that would need to be done to replace some of the functions of religion. Religion has been successful in promoting community, and community is especially important where raising children is concerned. Even though I agree in general with Hitchens, sometimes strongly, I think he may slight this aspect of religion. It is one that should be taken seriously no matter what your take on religion.


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Tue Apr 21, 2009 8:57 pm
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Post The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
One of the very best books I have read in a long time is Wendy Mogel's The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children http://www.amazon.com/Blessing-Skinned-Knee-Teachings-Self-Reliant/dp/0142196002 . Serious thinking about human psychology, family dynamics, educational theory, child development, great humor and full of practical knowledge for everyday life raising children...and, truly, some of the most down to earth theology and sensible religious wisdom I have encountered. Here's an example:

Quote:
A key concept in Hasidic thought expresses the idea of balance: "Keep two pieces of paper in your pockets at all times. On one write, 'I am a speck of dust.' On the other, 'The world was created for me.'" The divine and the ordinary merge in Judaism, where the holiest day of the year is not Yom Kippur, the majestic and awesome Day of Atonement, but every Saturday. This potentially average day of the week is such a distinctive time that, according to tradition, a band of ministering angels follows each person home from synagogue to help usher in the special spirit of the day.

In Judaism, a holy place is not a magnificent cathedral but the sukkah, a rickety hut erected in the backyard or on the balcony to celebrate the harvest in early autumn. Holy objects? The Torah, a length of parchment wound around two undistinguished wooden rollers. Holy food? Challah, a plain egg bread. And on what does the future of the world rest? Not on great acts of heroism but on the breath of schoolchildren who are studying their tradition. This very democratic system gives a special grace to every child and stunning glory to none.

Within Judaism you can find an antidote to the "specialitis" our culture fosters. Judaism asks that we raise our children not in hope that they are the Messiah but to be themselves. Consider the wisdom of Rabbi Zusya, an early Hasidic leader and folk hero. Zusya was known as a modest and benevolent man who, despite his meager knowledge of Torah, attained merit because of his innocence and personal righteousness. Before he died he said, "When I reach the world to come, God will not ask me why I wasn't more like Moses. He will ask me why I wasn't more like Zusya."

In Judaism we are continually reminded to take into account our children's differences and allow natural endowment to reveal itself. Throughout the Torah, the sages make reference to the need to preach and guide in a way that will reach each person. At the Passover seder, tradition instructs us to tell the story of our escape to freedom so that it will be understood not only by the wise child, but also by the wicked, the simple, and the clueless one; each at his own level, each with the right tone and language. The Jewish message is consistent: Every child is unique. Don't treat all children the same way or you will not reach them.



Wed Apr 22, 2009 12:04 am
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Post Rebellion is natural
DWILL wrote:

Quote:
There are certainly many claims for religion benefiting children. Perhaps someone will be able to find reseach that disputes and refutes the benefits that are said to apply in areas such as school achievement, avoiding drug abuse and delinquency, and mental health, but I didn't find this type of article.


In Derek Freeman's book, THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL MYTH, 1983 he writes:
Quote:
"Samoa had converted to Christisanity, and most Samoans had puritanical views. . . . adolescents in Samoa go through a period of deviance and rebellion against their elders in the same way that adolescents around the world do".


"Rebellion against elders", including drug abuse, delinquency and mental health issues, such as suicidal tendences and anerexia (which can be linked with the child's life outside home and church) is universal. Regardless of a child's religious orientation these rebellions will take place in one form or another. It is a rite of passage and it is cultural. I do not know of any culture that does not rely heavily on religion. Religion is the corner stone of most civilizations throughout history.

Another example of course would be the Amish. Again, regardless of their upbringing which is steeped in religion, teenagers still rebell. Just recently a teenager was arrested for selling drugs to his Amish friends in their communitee.

With anything else, I believe religion becomes savory after time.

Suzanne



Wed Apr 22, 2009 6:59 am
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