Saturday, December 27, 2008

New York Times on America's Religious Moderation

Continuing with the theme of "religious freethinking" among the American populace....

The New York Times article is entitled "Heaven for the Godless?" Here is a taste:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

What on earth does this mean?


This is America's Founders religious vision in action.

28 comments:

Jim Sweeney said...

In fact, our ancestral universalism isn't limited to humans.

Tom Van Dyke said...


This is America's Founders religious vision in action.


Oh, I don't think so atall atall. This has nothing to do with the Founders' religious vision, not even Jefferson's, and spits in the eye of George Washington's Farewell Address.

I don't get the point of the last two posts, first of all that they really have nothing to do with the purpose of this blog, religion and the Founding.

Secondly, if you correlate this data with the growing social pathologies of the last 50 years and the [geometrically!] growing number of children growing up without a mother and/or a father and all the unnecessary misery that goes with it, you're simply feeding the argument that America is going to hell in a handbasket.

This was not the Founders' vision atall atall. They would be appalled. Whatever it is you're arguing here, you're proving the reverse.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Actually Tom the point was more simple: The Founders were theological universalists, believing all would at least eventually be saved after a temporary period of punishment for the bad. This poll shows that 70% of Americans are likewise theological universalists in some similar sense.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Secondly, if you correlate this data with the growing social pathologies of the last 50 years and the [geometrically!] growing number of children growing up without a mother and/or a father and all the unnecessary misery that goes with it, you're simply feeding the argument that America is going to hell in a handbasket.

There is actually a lot of interesting data and conclusions to be drawn therefrom if we go into social science. I totally agree that out of wedlock births are a bad thing. I'm not sure how lack of the proper religiosity produces it.

This is getting a little off topic and taboo, but the socio-ethic groups who have the highest rates of out of wedlock births tend to be the most religious, and those with the fewest, the least religious.

From a strict social science perspective it's not at all clear that Washington was correct that republican government needs religion for moral-stability support.

bpabbott said...

Jon: "This is getting a little off topic and taboo, but the socio-ethic groups who have the highest rates of out of wedlock births tend to be the most religious, and those with the fewest, the least religious."

It is appropriate to add, correlation does not indicate causation.

(1) Does religion manifest out of wed lock births?
(2) Do the hardships of out of wed lock births manifest a religious association?
(3) Do single parents seek out religion as a manner to help stabalize their difficult lives?
(4) Does some unrecognized factor contribute both to religious affiliation as well as out of wed lock births?

It is likely that several factors are at play.

In any event, I'm unaware of any data that indicates a cause and effect of religiousity and "the growing social pathologies of the last 50 years".

... and "yes" those are "scare quotes" ;-)

Christian Salafia said...

This is America's Founders religious vision in action.

I think this may have more truth to it than it appears.

We're all somewhat agreed that the founders, to varying degrees, were men of faith.

It's also fairly obvious that the Constitution was written using the language of the Enlightenment, purposely avoiding any reference to a particular incarnation of God.

One wonders if this was an intentional check and balance put in place between the "evangelicals" and the "secular humanists"?

(No, those aren't "scare quotes". Those terms are meant to be generalizations, not specific to any particular orthodoxy.)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ben,

You make a good point. We all have our reasons for doing what we do. David Barton thinks that America's downturn is due almost exclusively to the fact that we "kicked God" out of the public schools.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Christian,

I think you are exactly right. This was an LCD compromise between the conservative orthodox and liberal heterodox forces during the Founding. The idea was, as I see it, the government (at least the federal government) would simply leave religion alone, leave people alone to be as religious as they chose (and be whatever kind of religion they chose). The orthodox were free to be orthodox; the heterodox free to be heterodox. In the end, they believed, "Truth" would prevail. [But the different forces had different and incompatible notions of "Truth"].

bpabbott said...

Christian: ``One wonders if this was an intentional check and balance put in place between the "evangelicals" and the "secular humanists"?``

Given the lack of universal assurance on the part of the states to ensure religious liberty, I'm not sure there is a objective answer of compelling substance to such an inquiry.

However, I'd like to think the founders desired for society to migrate left, right, up, and down in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Christian Salafia said...

Ben,

I agree to some extent. I think they knew the danger of having one triumph over another, so they left it intentionally vague in the Constitution.

As far as the states, I'm not convinced that religious liberty in each was a huge concern for them.

I'd like to think the founders desired for society to migrate left, right, up, and down in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

On that point, I completely agree.

Christian Salafia said...

But the different forces had different and incompatible notions of "Truth"

True. One of the most illustrative examples of this (to me) is in the influence of New England theology.

Timothy Dwight often referred to America in terms of OT Israel and words such as "liberty" and "nation" often had two very distinctive meanings, depending on whether you understood, and were part of, Puritan theology or not.

I think the Founders understood this and gamed the system, so to speak, to unite the colonies behind the idea of revolting against the British.

Pinky said...

.
There is a place where religions go silly and it looks like we're about to pass it. Or have we passed it already?
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Pinky, my reading of history is that in times of lax standards, religious "awakenings" happen, silliness ensues, and the pendulum then swings back the other way.

Ben, I'm not necessarily arguing that kicking God out of the schools created the geometric growth of social pathologies in the last 50 years. I noted that Jon's post lent support to the notion.

I do think it's quite possible, however, although the social matrix is so complex as to defy any eureka moment. If kicking God out did cause or contribute, I would expect its effect to be more subtle. The meme goes that we are "running on the fumes" of a formerly Christian society, and "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" would be that gaseous residue. The conclusive "data" you require is of course unattainable. Political philosophy is not social science. For one thing, science cannot answer the question "what is good" except materially.

Jon, when you write "The Founders were theological universalists," I must resist such blanket and comprehensive assertions. Even if true, it would be impossible to prove. Me, I'd bet most of the Founders believed in hell, unless we start limiting the idea of "Founder" to folks like Jefferson and John Adams instead of the entire Founding milieu. Although I'd have equal difficulty proving "the Founders believed in hell."

I just heard somewheres that Jonathan Edwards' famous Great Awakening sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" had a finale written with God being mellow and loving and forgiving and all. But folks at the revival were so moved and repentant with the fire-and-brimstone that he never got to the mellow part. Edwards wasn't the rabid cementhead some people make him out to be.

bpabbott said...

TVD: "For one thing, science cannot answer the question "what is good" except materially."

Agreed.

However, I expect we will disagree that there is any other kind of good (which can be known), at least in the objective sense.

So for me, claims of non-matrial good are moot :-(

In any event, do you imply that the founders intended the government to concern itself with what is good beyond the material kind? ... or is that beyond the context of your point?

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

NYT: "
This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that."

I read this in the original NYT Op-Ed. There was no tizzy. And if the "rope" is velvet, it is in the next life, not this one.

Neither do "evangelicals" speak with a single voice. This is a blatant attempt to demonize and humiliate, and the smug language proves it.

This essay is intellectual brutality and mockery. Not my idea of religious pluralism, or Enlightened thought, unless brutality and mockery are essential components of the Enlightenment.

And perhaps they are, but that's for another day. But it might be fair to say that such brutality and mockery was not an essential component of the American Founding. Quite the opposite...

To return to the theological: Is Heaven "roped off?" There are those who think so, based on their reading of the Bible. But "evangelical"---to evangelize---still means to devote your energies and Christian charity to your fellow man, that he or she might come inside the "rope."

Perhaps he or she becomes a convert, perhaps they say yes to Jesus on the day they die.


Charles M. Blow exhibits no apparent idea of the story of the Good Thief who was crucified beside Jesus. No life is complete until it's over, and neither do we know what happens in the heart, mind or soul of a man---or woman, of course---when they close their eyes for the last time and walk down that corridor towards the light.

I think William Murray put it best:

http://www.poetv.com/video.php?vid=17418

What if you found out Jesus died for your sins? You'd say, that's cool. And if you had the presence of mind, you'd say, thanks, dude. Glad to meetya at last.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Ben, it appears that evangelical teens are more sexually active than non-evangelicals:

"Evangelical teens are actually more likely to have lost their virginity than either mainline Protestants or Catholics. They tend to lose their virginity at a slightly younger age—16.3, compared with 16.7 for the other two faiths. And they are much more likely to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17: Regnerus reports that 13.7 percent of evangelicals have, compared with 8.9 percent for mainline Protestants." http://www.slate.com/id/2167293/

Add to this the fact that teens influenced by the "abstinence only" ethic are disinclined to obtain and use contraception, and you get relatively high rates of teen pregnancy among evangelicals.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well the founders concept of universalism included the idea of temporary punishment, which, probably was not pleasant and itself was supposed to offer disincentive for un-virtuous behavior.

Does the atheist get into Heaven? Yes eventually, but if he wasn't a really good, morally behaving atheist, he's going to have to suffer for the bad that he did.

I'm not sure how that fits into the NYT survey.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yeah, Jon. Like most surveys, the questions cannot cover subtleties.

"Purgatory" is of course a theological invention, not to be found in the Bible. But it seemed a necessary invention, because if God is just, there should be at least a little hell to pay for being bad.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Jon writes that "the founders' concept of universalism included the idea of temporary punishment."

I believe that by some accounts, hell's "temporary punishment" might be expected to last for thousands of years.

In the Universalist denominational histories, those who embraced the notion of a temporary hell typically are called "Restorationists," as they believed in the eventual restoration of all souls. Those who, with Rev. Hosea Ballou, rejected even a temporary hell were dubbed "Ultra-Universalists."

Early nineteenth-century struggle between groups espousing the two viewpoints rose briefly to the level of schism, and is recounted as the "Restorationist Controversy."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. If the temporary punishment is 1000 years then that itself is strong incentive to "get right with God" as it were.

bpabbott said...

Jon: "If the temporary punishment is 1000 years then that itself is strong incentive to "get right with God" as it were."

For the moment I'll suspect my opinion on the existence of God and point out that I find it inconsistent with reason that punishment would extend beyond a genuine acceptance and regret of deeds done wrong.

The purely evil (which is a concept I reject) would by definition suffer eternally, but only because there is no hope for rehabilitation. If a just God were to exist he'd rehabilitate the wrong doers in an expediant manner ... as one might infer, I don't see vengence as inclusive to justice. Even if we as beings with finite knowledge, power and cognitive ability must rely upon it for the obvious practical reasons.

Dave2 said...

About purgatory and the Bible, it's controversial, of course, but plenty of Catholics claim to find scriptural evidence for purgatory in the New Testament and in the Apocrypha. Prayer for the dead is found in Eastern Christianity as well, and it too has a basis in Scripture.

Brian Tubbs said...

I personally don't think there's anywhere near enough evidence to say that most of the Founders were "theologically universal" in the same sense as this poll.

Many of the Founders may have been uncertain of a person's ultimate eternal destination and/or uncertain about certain orthodox tenets. That's one thing.

But to say that most Founders believed that the majority of people would go to heaven, regardless of their religious faith, is a stretch.

Let's break this down for what it is....

This poll reflects EMOTIONAL preference and doctrinal uncertainty (or perhaps ignorance).

Anyone who reads John 14:6 has to think soberly about this issue. For in that verse, Jesus says: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, except through me."

Not a lot of wiggle room there.

Brian Tubbs said...

Let me add that the real issue here is TRUTH.

With all my heart, I WANT the Washington Redskins to be in the playoffs. But they are not. No amount of anger, wishing, hoping, praying, etc. will change the FACT that the Redskins are 8-8 and spending the rest of the holidays at home with their families.

The same is true with religion. Either the claims of the respective religious faiths are TRUE or they are not. Either Jesus said what he said in John 14:6 or he did not. And if he did, did he have the authority to say it? Either he did or he did not. There should be no wishy-washy relativistic gibberish here. Either he said it or he didn't. Either he had the power and authority to say it or he didn't.

Either there is a God or there is not. Either JESUS is God or he is not.

As John Adams said (albeit in a different context): "Facts are stubborn things."

So, as to the question in this poll, it ultimately doesn't matter what people THINK, FEEL, or WANT when it comes to heaven, hell, Jesus, Christianity, eternity, etc.

What matters is the truth!

Jonathan Rowe said...

The same is true with religion. Either the claims of the respective religious faiths are TRUE or they are not. Either Jesus said what he said in John 14:6 or he did not. And if he did, did he have the authority to say it? Either he did or he did not. There should be no wishy-washy relativistic gibberish here. Either he said it or he didn't. Either he had the power and authority to say it or he didn't.

Brian, there were Trinitarians of the Founding era (notably Benjamin Rush) and of today who believe in universal salvation THROUGH Christ's Atonement, that is, in a sense that is compatible with John 14:6. I think the idea is Christ is willing to work with folks after death while they are being punished temporarily in the afterlife.

There is other biblical textual support for this notion of Christian Trinitarian Universalism (i.e., every knee shall bow...).

Brian Tubbs said...

I understand that, Jon. But you and I both know that most of the poll respondents didn't think through the theology. It's a superficial, emotional, feel-good thing for them. Most people, I'm afraid, are quite shallow.

And that is where I think it's wrong to associate the Founders with the poll.

In general, I agree with Tom. I think it's a stretch to tie the poll at all in with the founding.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brian, what's true is that I continually push for a scholarly---or human---attempt to understand what the theologico-political landscape was like at the Founding. Neither was there any universal agreement, with virtually every sect of Christianity having made a home here---which complicates things bigtime.

But the Truth? I have to shy away from exploring that question around here bigtime. In the Founding era, let alone our own times, let alone the 1776 years [or 1787 years] before it, people couldn't even agree what the Bible says or who Jesus was.

It's hard enough to postulate their consensus or Lowest Common Denominator. But we certainly agree if they'd taken this same poll at the Founding, it would have been confusing and inconclusive at its very best.

Which makes our efforts here are considerably more difficult.