Sunday, October 10, 2010

Religion in America

This is an excellent time to look the history of religious interactions in the US. Muslims are currently in the hot seat - but that place was occupied by other groups in the past. So couple of things: First check out a 6-hour PBS special on God in America, that is premiering tomorrow (Oct 11th). It looks very good. Here is the preview:

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Second, check out this article by Nicholas Kristof and take his quiz.

Third, there is review of what looks like a fascinating book in today's NYT. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us looks at the reasons for religious diversity and tolerance in the US. I don't know how much of the book talks about the recent controversies surrounding Muslims in the States, but Robert Wright in his review certainly makes it one of the central issues. You should definitely check out the full review - but here is the key point about why many of the denominations in the US (despite being quite religious overall) have come live in harmony with each other:

The authors’ explanation for this bigheartedness is common-sensical: “Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.” Americans have, on average, at least two friends who don’t share their faith, and at least one ­extended-family member who fits that description. And who wants to tell friends or relatives that they’re going to hell — or even believe that a friend or relative is going to hell? More broadly: getting to know an adherent of an otherwise alien faith tends to humanize the aliens. 
Obviously, there’s a chicken-and-egg ­issue here. Are we tolerant because of our diverse social networks, or do we have diverse social networks because we’re tolerant? Putnam and Campbell, aware of the problem, wield an analytical tool that, though not dispositive, is unusually subtle. They conducted surveys with the same large pool of people in consecutive years and tracked changes in both social milieus and attitudes. They conclude, for instance, that gaining an evangelical friend leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals — by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer,” to be exact — and gaining a non­religious friend brings four degrees of added warmth toward the nonreligious.
In this view, a recipe for being viewed coolly is to be a religious group that is both small and geographically concentrated; that way, most Americans don’t have a chance to meet anyone from your group. This is the authors’ posited explanation for why Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims get particularly low feeling-­thermometer readings.
Of course, Muslims suffer from an additional problem. If most Americans don’t personally know any Muslims, they’ve seen some on TV — Osama bin Laden, for starters. That may help explain why, though 54 percent of evangelicals say non-Christians can go to heaven, only 35 percent say Muslims can.
Even so, the authors’ 2007 survey found that evangelicals, like mainline Protestants, viewed Muslims no more coolly than they viewed Buddhists. But black Protestants viewed Muslims more positively than they did Buddhists, perhaps, the authors point out, because many black Christians are acquainted with black Muslims.  
But it is not simply about these social interactions:

The claim here isn’t that mere social contact is Miracle Glue. Drawing on longstanding social theory, the authors suggest that certain ingredients — sharing a goal, for example — make acquaintance more likely to bring affinity. Still, given that many Muslims are aligned with evangelicals and churchgoing Catholics on various social issues, that particular ingredient would seem to be in place; maybe the contact itself is what’s mainly lacking.
There are two basic schools of thought on religious strife. Essentialists believe that religions have a firm character, grounded in Scripture and theology and doctrine, and that religious conflicts are thus deep-seated and enduring. The more optimistic view is that clashing beliefs aren’t the big problem; underlying the conflict, and driving it, are less ethereal and in some cases more pliable issues: economic grievances or insecurities, resentment of perceived arrogance, fears of domination (like the perceived threat of Western cultural or political hegemony, or of worldwide Shariah).
Putnam and Campbell are closer to the second camp. Repeatedly, they show how fluid religious doctrine and practice are, how responsive to social and political context. In that sense, their subtitle is subtly misleading; this intellectually powerful book suggests that religion per se is often not the thing that actually divides us. This view, though common in academia, is hardly gospel among the public at large. But it may turn out to be gospel in the literal sense of the term: good news.
Read the full review here. In some ways this is the same issue when looking at the rejection of biological evolution. Many see these rejections only through a religious lens whereas cultural and political factors may be playing a significant role in shaping these responses. But of course this needs to be tested. In any case, American Grace looks like a fantastic read.

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