Last week The Guardian published the results of a study that claims to demonstrate just that:
Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.
They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.
The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.
Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.
Someone asked me a few days what I thought about the study. I said, “Non-religious people get to feel superior and vindicated in their choices, conservative evangelicals can complain about the liberal media, and progressive religious types can geek out by wondering about sample size and methodology. Something for everyone.” I can’t speak to the quality of the research, though I’m told it’s a peer reviewed study, which counts for something. On the other hand, Robert tells me that half of all psychological studies are unreplicatable, so…
But assuming this study is accurate, what would account for a lack of generosity in religious children? Not sure. For the record, I don’t think you need to have a religious tradition or belief in God to be a moral person. And at the same time, there is a strain of judgmentalism in some expressions of Christianity, and apparently Islam too, since that was also mentioned in the study.
But I do have one small hypothesis.
For the past several months, our family has been between churches. Since I finished my tenure at Tiny Church, we haven’t found a church to call home. I may preach in 2-3 congregations a month, but many of these are in other cities, so the kids don’t come with me.
During these months without a church, I’ve been keenly aware that it’s my job and Robert’s job–and pretty much ours alone–to teach generosity and kindness as spiritual practices. I say “as spiritual practices” because to some extent they also learn these attributes at school, during team sports and in other activities. But there’s usually no deeper meaning underlying them–it’s just the way you treat people.
Anyway, if this is our job and ours alone, we will want to approach it with great intentionality and care. Whereas parents who are religious may be relying on their faith communities to do a lot of this work. I used to hear this often from parents when I was a pastor–they rarely felt equipped to pass on the tenets of their faith to their children, and really hoped the church would do it instead.
Yet we know from study after study that parents are their children’s most important teachers. Which means that if parents are relying on faith communities to do this work, then the work isn’t getting done nearly as effectively.
Many years ago, when I was actively thinking about seminary, I remember hiking in Colorado with some college friends. One of these friends, a confirmed agnostic/atheist, was trying to get his head around this vocational choice of mine–but even more broadly, why an intelligent, educated person would have need for religious faith at all. “I guess I get it,” he said. “Your faith provides solace for you.”
I shook my head. Solace wasn’t quite right; in fact, I bristled against it. Solace was too limiting, like the spiritual equivalent of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a breakup. Solace felt like a pat on the simpleminded head in the wake of life’s mysteries and griefs. Solace made you feel better, but had no other utility. A faith that’s all about solace, I argued back, doesn’t change the way you look at the world, doesn’t move you to action, doesn’t transform a life.
Right or wrong, I heard insult in the word “solace,” like my friend was quoting the Apostle Paul, knowingly or unknowingly, ironically or unironically: When I was a child, I thought like a child; but when I was an adult, I put away childish things.
Anyway, the word solace came up again last night in a conversation between Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden, a conversation they were gracious to let millions of us eavesdrop on during night three of The Late Show. Both Colbert and Biden are men of faith, liberal Catholics, it’s safe to say; both have experienced terrible losses in their lives.
Their conversation about faith was nothing short of astounding. Colbert asked about Biden’s belief in God and how it helped him grieve the death of his beloved son Beau this summer. Biden gave a thoughtful and heartfelt answer that was full of solace but completely free of Sky Fairy.
He didn’t say, Well, God needed another angel in heaven. Or I guess my son’s work on earth was done.
He didn’t say, God has his purposes; we’ll all understand the plan someday.
He said–and I’m paraphrasing:
The rituals of the church sustain me and give me the strength to go on.
I pray the rosary, and it gives me comfort.
When I’m in mass, I am surrounded by a community people, yet I feel completely alone.
The last one was most remarkable to me. Isn’t it terrible to be alone? No–not if you need space to grieve, or just to find quiet in your own heart. There are so few places where we allow ourselves that space. Religion done well is one of those places.
Colbert and Biden, and so many others of us, aren’t in it for the Sky Fairy. It’s never been about the Cosmic Daddy for us, no matter how much the anti-theists want to make it about that. It’s certainly not about finding pat answers, from our Bible or from our God. It’s in the living. It’s in the struggle. It’s in the community.
Last night’s interview helped me articulate a more nuanced view of solace as one of the fruits of religious belief. I still think solace doesn’t fully encompass it. But nor does solace mean platitudes and cheesy explanations that somehow make the horrors of our lives less horrible because somehow God’s gonna make it all better. That’s not what Biden showed us last night. He’s still deeply broken in his grief–that’s evident. His faith is equal parts Psalm 22 and Psalm 23. And comfort and solace are nothing to scoff at.
One the gifts of doing the speaking work I do is getting to learn from other great leaders in the church. I preached at a conference with the great Eugenia Gamble some years ago and she closed with these words of blessing. I’ve used it far and wide since then, crediting her when practical to do so, though she thinks it came from the Franciscans first.
The words of this blessing came to me again while listening to the Late Show interview. To me they’re what good religion is all about. Forget the Sky Fairy and simplistic explanations and hollow solace. This is the nature of any religion or worldview worth its salt:
May God bless you with discomfort with easy answers and half truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deeply and from the heart.
And may God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, freedom and peace.
And may God bless you with tears to shed for those that mourn, so you will reach out your hand to them and turn mourning into joy.
And may God bless you with just enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you will do those things that others say cannot be done.
Stephen and Joe have been so blessed. So may we all be.
From the Improvised Life, one of my favorite blogs.
I’ll be at Fondren Presbyterian Church (Jackson, Mississippi) at the end of July for four nights of study around the topic “The Improvising God: God’s Work in an Imperfect World”. I’ve been preparing these presentations for several weeks, and I’m feeling both excited and daunted to explore issues of God’s providence, God’s “will,” and the classic question of why bad things happen to good people. You know, little things like that.
I’m captivated by this idea of life as improvisation, and God as an improviser. As I read the Bible, and as I try to discern the Spirit at work in a world that is full of suffering and even cruelty, I don’t see things being governed by some divine plan from the foundations of the world. Purpose, maybe, but not plan. Rather, I see creativity within constraints; I see adaptation and fluidity. I see responsiveness. (Yes, I know the classic answer: God has a plan; we just can’t see it. I can’t get there. The misery is too great. As I read today, “There is more undeserved suffering in the world than faith can contain.”)
Things happen [in life] that you didn’t anticipate, and you have to adjust. With luck and grace, you “yes-and” the thing, accepting and building on whatever gets thrown at you. Accepting something doesn’t mean you have to like it, by the way. But a spirit of improvisation leads us to be curious, to ask, “Well, OK. Now what?”
We are made in the image of God, and God is a master of improv. This I believe. I don’t know what that means when stacked up against sturdy preacherly words like eternal, immutable, absolute, all-knowing, perfect. I just know that when I look at the sacred texts I see a God who iterates. Who pivots. Who encounters the world as it is, not as God planned it to be. Who yes-ands all over the place.
One place where I see yes-and: the book of Exodus. Remember, “exodus” literally means “a way out.” Not THE way out. I like the idea that God might have liberated the people of Israel in any of a hundred different ways, but thought, “Hey, this will do: Moses… Ever-escalating plagues… Passage through the Sea… Forty years of kvetching. Bring it.” That’s a creative and interesting deity. I’m down with that God—way more than a God who wrote down everything that was going to be, hit Save on Microsoft Word and then commenced the Big Bang.
I’m still testing this stuff out, and the folks in Jackson will help me build and refine these ideas. (Or they will brand me a heretic, but eh, it wouldn’t be the first time.) The presentations will explore some of this yes-and work. Jurgen Moltmann meets Tina Fey. Samuel Wells’s book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics has been very helpful as I prepare.
Anyway, what does all this have to do with poor Penn Jillette, magician and atheist extraordinaire? (I’ve gotten on his case before, the big lug.) In my reading today, I ran across this quote from Jillette, who wrote in his first book, God, No!:
If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.
As I think about the possibilities of an improvising God and an improvising church, I think Jillette is both wrong, and right but missing the point.
Wrong, because when you boil them down, there’s a startling symmetry to the basic message of many of the world’s religions and faith traditions.
Right and missing the point, because of course they’d be different, but so what? That’s not a bug, that’s a feature. Religion, God-talk, and philosophy are a response to the world we inhabit—a frame for our experience of both ourselves and that which is beyond ourselves. Religion is both the lens, and the thing being scrutinized through the lens. Taking the Exodus story as an example: God, or the Universe, or the Great Whatever, would not carry out the work of liberation the exact same way, because that world would not be the same. (And how boring a God would be who behaves the exact same way in every case!)
In a world full of rich possibilities—a world of creativity and improvisation—our sacred stories would not be created the same way again. But that doesn’t make those stories any less valid as illuminations of deep truth.
Happy Friday, everyone. What do you have planned this weekend? May you find a little space for things that are bubbly and fun, nourishing and vital. We will be celebrating the 90th birthday of Robert’s grandmother. Joy!
My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.
More at the link, including excerpts from his memoir and his TED talk.
H/t to my friend LeAnn Hodges. I didn’t see the Louisville/Duke game, but yikes. Yet horrific events can bring out the best in people:
[Ware’s teammate] Hancock thought back to last summer, when he suffered a gruesome shoulder injury in a pickup game. He remembered how others were aghast. He remembered how former Louisville guard Andre McGee was the only one to rush to his side, to rush him to the hospital. He remembered how much that had meant.
So as Ware lay there in the first half of the Cardinals’ NCAA tournament victory over Duke on Sunday, scared and alone and stunned, Hancock ran to him. He held Ware’s hand and told him they would get through this together. He told Ware he would say a prayer for him.
Ware didn’t respond at first, because he was in shock. Hancock took a deep breath, closed his eyes, clenched Ware’s hand and started the prayer.
…You can’t fault the other players for their initial reaction to such a macabre moment. But you can praise Hancock, and you should.
I especially like the responses from Karen Armstrong and Alain de Botton (not too surprisingly—he’s a Blue Room mainstay). Here’s de Botton:
For centuries in the west, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to secular ears. The priest didn’t fulfil any material need; he was there to take care of that part of you called, rather unusually, “the soul”, by which we would understand the seat of our emotions and of our deep self.
Where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with the material we used to go to a priest for? The deep self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the five loaves and two fishes.
The loaves and fishes story is a tale that resonates beyond matters of science, but I take his point.
Young children—even toddlers—are spending more and more time with digital technology. What will it mean for their development?
Long but excellent rumination on parents’ ambivalence about their kids’ use of technology:
By their pinched reactions [to questions about how much screen time their kids have], these parents illuminated for me the neurosis of our age: as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children. Technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease. They have merely created yet another sphere that parents feel they have to navigate in exactly the right way. On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.
And on the other end of the spectrum of childhood… college students:
“I occasionally see students using their phones during yoga or pilates, which makes me a bit sad,” Determann said. “If you can’t be unplugged for 45 or 60 minutes, that’s a bit concerning, in my opinion. I know that this has just become the way we, as a society operate, but the world will go on without you checking your notifications.”
A critique against drones from a Christian perspective:
Our use of drones is only defensible on “Just War Theory” grounds, if we are able to demonstrate an immediate threat to this country that is specific and specifically premeditated with a specific objective. Unfortunately, the current administration, with its complex entanglements of secrecy and formal denials, has not been able to explain or demonstrate an immediate threat.
Our use of drones are out of “proportion” because it uses the most advanced technology in the world to assassinate people who can basically only throw the equivalent of sticks and stones back at you. Moreover, it gives these people no chance to surrender. It is like capital punishment without an arrest, a charge, a trial, or a right of appeal.
Our use of drones is not humane, because it totally objectifies the enemy by making them into a picture on a screen. There is not the faintest possibility, in the conduct of drone warfare by means of remote control, that you can regard the enemy as a fellow human citizen of the planet.
Longish article about a new book, Give and Take, and its author, professor Adam Grant who, and I say this in a nice way, sounds like a freak. You might describe him as… radically generous with his time—he answers every email request for help, he spends hours mentoring students, etc. But all of this giving comes back to him in very interesting, even powerful, ways. “The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”
“Give and Take” incorporates scores of studies and personal case histories that suggest the benefits of an attitude of extreme giving at work. Many of the examples — the selfless C.E.O.’s, the consultants who mentor ceaselessly — are inspiring and humbling, even if they are a bit intimidating in their natural expansiveness. These generous professionals look at the world the way Grant does: an in-box filled with requests is not a task to be dispensed with perfunctorily (or worse, avoided); it’s an opportunity to help people, and therefore it’s an opportunity to feel good about yourself and your work. “I never get much done when I frame the 300 e-mails as ‘answering e-mails,’ ” Grant told me. “I have to look at it as, How is this task going to benefit the recipient?” Where other people see hassle, he sees bargains, a little work for a lot of gain, including his own.
There’s something wonderful about seeing the world in this way rather than the calculating tit-for-tat manner we are often trained to employ with one another. But I spent most of the article assuming he must be single, because what family could put up with someone who lives this way? Turns out he has a wife who stays home to take care of the kids. Which hey, more power to them. But it does color things somewhat, eh?
At any rate, I’m interested in the research on this topic. It seems like Grant’s outlook requires you to see time as an abundant resource, which I don’t. As I write in the book, I’m much more comfortable with the idea of holy scarcity. There isn’t enough time for everything we want or need to do. So how do we move as creatively through our days as possible?
Speaking of which… may you shimmy and tango through your weekend and all of its work, play, errands, and maybe, a few surprises. Peace.
Accept the limitations and boredom of your life as the challenge of writing. Accept your profound lameness as the wages of your craft. The problem is never that your life isn’t interesting enough, it’s that you aren’t looking (or writing) hard enough.
Sabbath in the Suburbs is memoir-ish, and I gotta say, I’m pretty sick of myself. My next book will not be a memoir. But I still love reading good ones. Good ones.
If you’re not sure about the difference between publishing a story and therapy, you especially should find a good shrink.
A recent study sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation found a dramatic gap between the gratitude people say they feel and what they express. In the large and demographically balanced survey, fully 90 percent of respondents said they were grateful for their immediate family, and 87 percent were grateful for their close friends. But when it came to expressing it, the numbers dropped almost in half. Only 52 percent of women and 44 percent of men said they express gratitude on a regular basis.
So why the big gap? Several factors come into play. Many people assume that those close to them already know how they feel, so they don’t need to state their appreciation. They are, of course, quite wrong.
I was elected prime minister in early 1996, leading a center-right coalition. Virtually every nonurban electoral district in the country — where gun ownership was higher than elsewhere — sent a member of my coalition to Parliament.
Six weeks later, on April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant, a psychologically disturbed man, used a semiautomatic Armalite rifle and a semiautomatic SKS assault weapon to kill 35 people in a murderous rampage in Port Arthur, Tasmania.
After this wanton slaughter, I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people. I also knew it wouldn’t be easy.
I’m a big Smitten Kitchen fan and a HUGE muffin fan. Muffins are the perfect food. They are easy to make, bake up quickly, come in infinite varieties, and have built-in portion control. The recipe for Plum Poppy-Seed Muffins looks wonderful, but just as delightful is Deb’s description of her trial and error and her basic formula for create-your-own muffin flavors. This is kitchen improv at its finest.
16.) Earth-Building Wounds
Scientists are studying the unique geological properties of Iceland in order to better understand how tectonic plates form and shift to permanently change the shape of the planet. 17.) The Wright Brothers Discover Aspect Ratio
John D. Anderson at the National Air and Space Museum provides an interesting talk on the Wright Brothers and their indispensible contributions to the history of human flight. 18.) Through the Wormhole: DNA
Morgan Freeman(!!!!!!) narrates a brief clip on the structure and importance of DNA. Short, but soothing. Also educational. Also Morgan Freeman.
Much, much more at the link.
Have a great weekend, everyone. I’m off to Windy City tomorrow, where I’ll be leading a pastors’ retreat on Sabbath-keeping. Once I get back I’ll be preparing for Preacher Camp. So blogging will be light next week. Peace!