According to Rui Dai, our liberal, secular culture isn’t the main reason more North American young people are turning away from religion. It’s conservative culture.

I just stumbled upon a very interesting article on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

If you haven’t read this chilling series, I would definitely recommend it (I can’t speak for the movie, but with a few exceptions books are usually better than their cinematic counterparts). Washington Post blogger Diana Butler Bass raises some interesting points about the absence of God and religion in Collins’ post-apocalyptic world that bears a disturbing resemblance to our own. God may be absent, she suggests, but religion is not. And ultimately, neither is faith.

Secularism Gone too Far?

November 4, 2011

The province of Quebec prohibits religious worship in any government spaces. Is this a case of secularism gone too far? How does one balance the desire for a secular society with the freedom to practice one’s religion openly? Where do we draw the line. And my personal question is…why couldn’t secularism entail embracing all religious traditions rather than none?

Read the article from Canada’s National Post here:

The Old Myth And The New

August 29, 2011

There were some ages in Western History that have occasionally been called Dark. They were dark, it is said, because in them learning declined, and progress paused, and men labored under the pall of belief. A cause-effect relationship is frequently felt to exist between the pause and the belief. Men believed in things like the Last Judgment and the fiery torment. They believed people had devils in them, and that disease was a plague from heaven. They believed that they had souls, and that what they did in this life had some bearing on the way in which they would finally experience reality…Altogether, life was very weighty, and there was no telling what might lie behind things. The ages were, as I say, dark.

Then the light came. It was the light that has lighted us men into a new age. Charms, angels, devils, plagues and parthenogenesis have fled from the glare into the crannies of memory…Men were freed from the fear of the Last Judgment; it was felt to be more bracing to face Nothing than to face the Tribunal. They were freed from worry about getting their souls into God’s heaven by the discovery that they had no souls and that God had no heaven. They were freed from the terror of devils and plagues by the knowledge that the thing that was making them scream and foam was not an imp but their own inability to cope, and that the thing that was clawing out their entrails was not divine wrath but cancer. Altogether, life became much more livable since it was clear that nothing lay behind things. The age was called enlightened.

The myth sovereign in the old age was that everything means something. The myth sovereign in the new is that nothing means anything.

Imagination, which is the faculty by which we suppose correspondences among all things and hence see them as images of one another (it is the imagination, the image-making faculty) is understood in opposite ways by the old myth and the new: by the new it is seen as a flight into fancy; by the old it is seen as a flight toward actuality.

In any case, there is the situation: the old myth saw the world as image; the new sees it as a chance concatenation of physical events. This book is an attempt to describe how our experience might look if we looked at it once more under the terms of the old myth. Or, which, probably unaware, we keep the old myth alive by acting as if it were at least useful in organizing our experience. In the way we handle experience, from ordinary conversation to social custom to poetry, painting, ceremony, sex, and ritual, we do obeisance to the old myth. Whether that obeisance is fanciful and superstitious or is an authentic index of the way things are is, of course, the big question. The modern world supposes that it is the former. This books supposes that it is the latter. God (or somebody) will have to let us know which is the case.

– From Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism by Thomas Howard (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1969)

I just sat up for three hours reading this book from cover to cover, and while I may not agree with every single one of Mr. Howard’s conclusions, I stand wholeheartedly behind his central argument. If I have to choose, at the end of the day I’m with Pascal. My treasure is where my heart is. My money is on the Old Myth.

Terry Eagleton reviews George Levine’s The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now.

 “Come on, let’s say hello to Nancy,” my mother urged, nudging me slightly as we stepped out of our pew. The church service had just ended, and my heart was pounding. I was visiting my parents in Buffalo, NY after a significant amount of time away, and while I loved returning to the Catholic church of my youth, I dreaded seeing all those former teachers, family acquaintances, and other parishioners who’d known me since childhood. Would they be disappointed to see how I – who once served on three parish committees and talked about becoming a nun – had turned out?

These people couldn’t possibly know that my church attendance in my new home had become sporadic, or that some of my political views had diverged from traditional Catholic teachings, or that at times my very belief in God wavered. But I knew these things, and like Dostoevsky’s guilt-ridden Raskolnikov, I couldn’t help but read my own insecurities into their pleasant smiles.

 Nancy, a woman in her seventies, was a veteran member of the parish. I knew her well from many Sunday afternoons during high school when I would accompany my mother to parish council meetings. “So, what have you been up to lately?” she asked.

 I began telling her about my latest activities– studying for a Ph.D. at University of Toronto and teaching beginning Spanish to fifty sweet but reticent eighteen-year-old undergraduates. “Do you plan to stay in Toronto permanently?” she asked.

I don’t know,” I responded honestly. “The academic job market is a roller coaster – who knows where I’ll end up?”

 “You’re educating yourself away from us,” she said.

 These words caught me off guard. I knew that Nancy meant that I was “educating myself away” from my hometown, with no plans to move back any time soon. However, my underlying insecurities gave them a different undertone. Might she mean that I was abandoning the faith in which I’d been raised?

 Her comment forced me to reflect on my own religious journey. I was raised Catholic, and throughout my childhood I rarely questioned Church teachings. My first shock came on my first day of high school in the cafeteria when one of my new classmates declared her unbelief. “There isn’t any evidence for God,” this black-clad atheist declared. “I think it’s just a story we’ve made up.”

 I nearly spit out my chicken souvlaki in bewilderment, but I quickly launched into a diatribe defending all the teachings of my youth. However, her words remained with me – especially as we engaged in more debates and, as our high school years passed, became close friends. I soon realized that, like it or not, atheism was a force to be taken seriously. The teachings of my youth were no longer the absolute truth, but one of many paths towards it.

 When I arrived at my non-sectarian liberal arts college and saw my new classmates in all their pink-haired, multi-pierced glory, I knew I wasn’t in Catholic school anymore. My resident advisor eyed me quizzically when I asked where to find the nearest church in town; the girls on my hall viewed my religiosity as outmoded. And while I later realized that several of my classmates and teachers were indeed religious, I realized that nonbelievers were a huge presence not only in my new college, but in society at large. I had no choice but to take them seriously.

 Unlike what I’d previously been led to believe, atheists were not bad people; in fact, many of them seemed to live much more ethically and meaningfully than a lot of religious believers I knew. And yet, while many of the people I spoke to looked at religion with interest and curiosity, they did not feel a need for it in their own lives. They did not report feeling like they were missing something; there was no “God-shaped hole” in their universe. For them, religion simply didn’t figure as necessary.

 When I moved to Toronto for graduate school, I found myself in a definite minority. There are many reasons for the lack of religious belief in academia. One is its ongoing debt to the Enlightenment tradition. During the eighteenth century, thinkers like Voltaire stormed into the dusty halls of the old religious institutions, affirming scientific reason based on evidence and raising a suspicious eyebrow toward any kind of mysticism.

 All academic disciplines, including the humanities, are heavily influenced by this rationalist approach. As I focused more and more of my energy on approaching texts critically, I found my own beliefs challenged. If every text can be subject to rational inquiry, just what exactly is the place of revealed truth? As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor remarks in A Secular Age – his study of the decline in Western religiosity – we now live in a pluralistic society where unbelief is the default position. And this can make it very difficult for people who are struggling to maintain their religious faith.

 At one moment in my senior year of college, I became struck by depression and temporarily lost my faith. When I told my philosophy professor about my situation, she offered me two books – Fritjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions and Martin Buber’s I and Thou – that transformed my understanding of religion. I started to view faith not as a set of dogmas, but as a way of understanding human experience.

 For both authors, religious experience shakes us out of our habitual ways of thinking and compels us to face the divine presence in our lives. Schuon suggests that all of the major world religions consist of two dimensions: the exoteric realm of belief, doctrine, and ritual (inhabited by the masses) and the esoteric realm of contemplation (inhabited by a small, generally self-selected group of monks or nuns who have opted to devote their lives to the mystical pursuit of divine knowledge. For Schuon, the realm of the esoteric is a point of intersection of all religions as well as the centre of each individual religion itself. When focusing on the esoteric, one sees that religion is not about explaining phenomena in the world, but about experiencing the presence of the divine. In this schema, questions about doctrine and belief fade away; only the experience matters.

 Jewish theologian Martin Buber takes a similar approach in his I and Thou, which describes religion as an alternative way of relating to the world. In our everyday lives, we tend to view phenomena in our environment – places, things, and indeed other people – as objects for our instrumental use, or understanding, or interpretation. This he terms the “I-It” relation, and it is in this state that most of us lead the greater portion of our lives. However, there are moments when something in our environment catches us off guard, and we come face to face another subject with whom we enter a relation based on equality. For Buber, it is in this moment of mutual recognition that religious experience lies.

 I am happy to say that these readings saved my religious beliefs when I was twenty-one. However, lately some of the old doubts and questions have been coming back. If religion is fundamentally experience, then what is the place of doctrine and belief? I can follow Schuon and argue that experience lies at the core of all religion, but what of the periphery? What will happen to us if it just withers away? And finally, while Schuon manages to reveal the lack of contradiction between different faith traditions, can his model be extended to those who subscribe to those of no faith?

 The conflict in today’s world, as I see it, does not lie between one religion and another, but between theism and atheism – faith and no faith. For atheists of the Richard Dawkins persuasion, all religious believers are misguided; their claims are simply wrong when held up to empirical scrutiny, and religion holds no legitimate place in the modern world; for many believers it is easier to relate to other theists (even those coming from other religious traditions) than to non-theists. But if we start from the premise that we are on different paths toward truth (and not in absolute possession of the truth), is there a way that we might all turn out to be right?

 These are the questions that I continue to grapple with while struggling to maintain my faith in the land of academia. And, at this point I can say that while my perspective on life has definitely become more secularized over the years, I haven’t educated myself out of faith. God appears in so many ways – not only when I must make tough decisions or grapple with life’s uncertainties, but also in the everyday experiences of appreciating the beauty in a work of literature, or witnessing the flash of understanding as one of my students comes to master a new concept, or reconnecting with an old friend who, after a long absence, happens to reappear in my life. Everyone’s path toward the truth is different, and while I don’t consider the religious perspective to be inherently superior to the non-religious one, I also can’t accept it as inferior. For me, the rational approach just isn’t enough to make sense of the world, or my own place in it. There are some experiences that I can only understand as divine.