Monday, December 31, 2012

So, We Do Need Religion!


December 23, 2012


IT is the religious time of the year. Step into any city in America or Britain and you will see the night sky lit by religious symbols, Christmas decorations certainly and probably also a giant menorah. Religion in the West seems alive and well.
But is it really? Or have these symbols been emptied of content, no more than a glittering backdrop to the West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?
At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.
Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.
The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.
Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.
Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.
The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.
A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.
The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.
If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.
No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.
Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.
Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.
Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Maureen Dowd and Fr. Kevin O'Neil: Christmas message

Maureen Dowd's moving Christmas op-ed has stayed at #1 for days on the NYTimes most popular list.  Why?  Seems Fr. Kevin O'Neil's words of honesty and compassion are much needed these days.  Kudos to both of them for providing this fitting meditation for the end of 2012 - Peace, Fr. Rick
December 25, 2012

Why, God?

When my friend Robin was dying, she asked me if I knew a priest she could talk to who would not be, as she put it, “too judgmental.” I knew the perfect man, a friend of our family, a priest conjured up out of an old black-and-white movie, the type who seemed not to exist anymore in a Catholic Church roiled by scandal. Like Father Chuck O’Malley, the New York inner-city priest played by Bing Crosby, Father Kevin O’Neil sings like an angel and plays the piano; he’s handsome, kind and funny. Most important, he has a gift. He can lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them. When he held my unconscious brother’s hand in the hospital, the doctors were amazed that Michael’s blood pressure would noticeably drop. The only problem was Father Kevin’s reluctance to minister to the dying. It tears at him too much. He did it, though, and he and Robin became quite close. Years later, he still keeps a picture of her in his office. As we’ve seen during this tear-soaked Christmas, death takes no holiday. I asked Father Kevin, who feels the subject so deeply, if he could offer a meditation. This is what he wrote:
How does one celebrate Christmas with the fresh memory of 20 children and 7 adults ruthlessly murdered in Newtown; with the searing image from Webster of firemen rushing to save lives ensnared in a burning house by a maniac who wrote that his favorite activity was “killing people”? How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?
The killings on the cusp of Christmas in quiet, little East Coast towns stirred a 30-year-old memory from my first months as a priest in parish ministry in Boston. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her.
They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief. The question in their hearts then, as it is in so many hearts these days, is “Why?”
The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.
Implicit here is the question of how we look to God to act and to enter our lives. For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.
I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.
One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.
A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.
I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

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End of Year Photos: NY Times 2012

Lailuma Mohammad looking over the body of her 3-month-old son, Khan, the latest to die. 
The NYTimes has some searing images of the past 12 months.  Let us pray and work so that 2013 is better than 2012.  Little victims of human stupidity and sin, like this 3 month old, named Khan, who froze to death in the refugee camp in Kabul, deserve better than this.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Moment of Silence for Sandy Hook and Newton CN

Today, let us remember the victims of the beyond tragic events of last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary school.  If this doesn't make us ban assault weapons, etc., what will?  The right to bear arms gives you the right to use a musket, not  bazookas or atomic bombs.  Sane gun control is imperative.  Call your Senators and Congresspersons this New Year and tell them you want gun control in the country

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Can it get any worse than this? School shooting in Connecticut

What can we say?  Such insanity. Such terror.   Such pain.  Such incredible sadness.  During this Advent we so need our God to come and save us.  All we can do is pray for the children who died, for all who died, and for the survivors who will have their own challenges dealing with the aftermath.

Better gun control would be sane and advisable, although madmen may always be able to get weapons.  Yet wouldn't it be worth curtailing the proliferation of guns in our homes if it would save innocent lives?  A gun in the home has a much better chance of killing someone innocent than of killing an intruder.  If those guns had been locked in a gun vault somewhere, rather than in the home, Lanza would not have been able to get them.  If we don't have the will to control the proliferation of guns in our society, could we at least do something about who has access to the guns people own?

As we weep in this weary world,  Let us pray that "In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1:78-79, the Canticle of Zechariah).

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Flash Mob Transforms Mall South Bay Galleria

Check this out.  Cool flash Mob.  Jesus is busting out all over!

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

Malloy in Rome. Hide the silverware... and the paintings!

Believe it or not, here I am at the Jesuit curia (headquarters) in Rome for a week working on a commission studying the intellectual formation of Jesuits.  I'm staying in the building to the right in this picture.  If I yell real loud, I could wake up the Pope! 

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Check Out the Campus Ministry at the University of Scranton Facebook Page

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Catholics Losing Intensity; Evangelicals devotion on the rise


Catholic intensity fades as evangelical devotion surges

By By David Gibson| Religion News Service, Published: November 29   

After November’s presidential vote, Catholics could cite ample evidence for their renewed political relevance while dispirited evangelicals were left wondering if they are destined to be yesterday’s election news. Yet their roles in American spiritual life may be reversed.
New research shows that Catholics now report the lowest proportion of “strongly affiliated” followers among major American religious traditions, while the data indicates that evangelicals are increasingly devout and committed to their faith.
According to Philip Schwadel, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in the 1970s there was only a five-point difference between how strongly Catholics and evangelicals felt about their religion.
By 2010, he said, that “intensity gap” had grown to around 20 points, with some 56 percent of evangelicals describing themselves as “strongly affiliated” with their religion compared with 35 percent of Catholics. Even mainline Protestants reported a higher level of religious intensity than Catholics, at 39 percent.
“Sociologists have been writing about declines in mainline Protestantism for the last few decades,” said Schwadel, who details his findings in an article to be published in the upcoming edition of the journal Sociology of Religion. “The tremendous decline in Catholics’ strength of affiliation, though, was somewhat surprising.”
Exactly why these changes have been occurring is a matter of conjecture.
Schwadel noted that the decline in religious enthusiasm among Catholics began in the mid-1980s, and that coincided with the first revelations about the sexual abuse of children by clergy — a scandal that has haunted the church ever since.
Moreover, Latino Catholics are less likely to report a strong religious affiliation compared with other Catholics, and the number of Latino Catholics in the U.S. has been growing steadily in past decades.
At the same time, Schwadel noted that the surge in evangelical devotion to their faith began in the early 1990s and coincided with their growing presence in the public square. Other experts have noted that political battles can rally the faithful of a particular religious community, and even political losses can unite them in a shared sense of exile.
The changes in religious intensity that Schwadel found in particular religious groups contrasts with an overall stability in Americans’ religious views. Since the 1970s, about 37 percent of Americans have described themselves as “strongly affiliated” with their religion, with a brief spike to a high of 43 percent in the mid-1980s.
Among his other findings, Schwadel showed that African-American Protestants report a religious intensity level similar to that of white evangelicals — about 57 percent in 2010.
Schwadel did find one possible bright spot for Catholic leaders: Despite the steady erosion in the strength of religious affiliation among Catholics, it did not necessarily correlate to a decline in Mass attendance by younger Catholics.
“That could be seen as good news and bad news for the Catholic Church,” Schwadel said. “Younger Catholics are not being driven away from going to church, but they do still feel less strongly committed to their religion than they did a few decades ago.”

Schwadel culled the data for his report from nearly 40,000 responses to the General Social Survey from 1974-2010.
Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

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