29 December 2007

UU Discussion Questions For "I Sold My Soul on eBay" (Part II)

This post is a continuation of the Unitarian Universalist re-framing of the discussion questions at the end of Hemant Mehta's I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes. Hemant is also the author of the Friendly Atheist blog.

The discussion questions for the book's Introduction can be found here:

UU Discussion Questions For "I Sold My Soul on eBay" (Part I)

Here are the re-framed questions for Chapter 1.

Chapter 1: Selling My Soul on eBay
(1) The author explains that after he became an atheist he continued to practice the core teachings of Jainism, his childhood religion. Would you expect an atheist to maintain any religious practices? Why or why not? Many Unitarian Universalists are adult converts coming from other faith traditions. Would you expect these folks coming to Unitarian Universalism from another tradition to maintain religious practices from their earlier faith traditions? Why or why not?

(2) Hemant writes, "I have noticed that as people grow older, they become much more reluctant to change ... Overall it seems that people fail to question beliefs that have become safe and comfortable." What impact does this tendency have on Unitarian Universalist faith communities?

(3) Hemant reports that Christian friends had cautioned him regarding prominent Christians who are often quoted in the news. His friends maintain that those spokespersons don't necessarily represent the views of most Christians. If you wanted to learn more about Christianity or another faith tradition, how would you find a reliable spokesperson for that tradition? What characteristics would you look for in this spokesperson? For folks exploring Unitarian Universalism, who would you recommend as a reliable spokesperson? Why would you make this recommendation?

(4) Hemant's first church experience was attending Mass at a historic Catholic church in Chicago. After observing the rituals, he was "convinced some of [the worshippers] had repeated the same motions their entire lives without really thinking about what they were doing." Do you feel that Hemant was assuming too much about the worshipers? Have you ever questioned the value of rituals or the genuineness of people as they are repeating worship rituals week after week? Why or why not? How do you think Unitarian Universalist rituals used in your faith community look and feel to newcomers?

(5) Think about a time when you were a newcomer in a social setting, a religious setting, or a cross-cultural setting. Describe some of the rituals that were unfamiliar to you. How did you feel in these settings?

(6) What are the rituals and traditions in your Unitarian Universalist community that could be confusing to a visitor? How would you explain the meaning behind these practices to a newcomer?

(7) When word of his eBay auction got out, Hemant was invited to be a guest on Kirk Cameron's radio program (Cameron is a TV actor who is now a Christian evangelist). Before the show was over, Hemant concluded that Cameron simply wanted to use his story to criticize nonbelievers. Why would a person use an antagonistic approach when talking with a person who holds different beliefs? Have you ever personally received this antagonism as a Unitarian Universalist? Have you ever seen Unitarian Universalists express this antagonism towards others?

27 December 2007

UU Discussion Questions For "I Sold My Soul on eBay" (Part I)

I just finished reading Hemant Mehta's I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes. Hemant is also the author of the Friendly Atheist blog.

Writing as an atheist who was raised as a Jain in an Indian-American household, Hemant's observations in his book allow us to ask what our congregations look like to newcomers.

At the end of the book, Ron Lee has provided discussion questions for individual reflection and small group discussion of the issues raised in the book.

The discussion questions provided by Ron Lee assume a more traditional Christian point of view and are not applicable for most Unitarian Univeralists. Many of these discussion questions are not applicable for Unitarian Universalist Christians as well.

What follows is my attempt to re-frame these discussion questions for use in Unitarian Universalist faith communities.

The first installment is for the introduction. The other questions for the rest of the book will be adapted in future installments.

Introduction: The Question of Faith

(1) One of the premises of this book is that Christians who want to communicate the gospel effectively need to listen to the target audience. After reading about Hemant's church visits, what did you find most surprising? Most helpful? Least helpful? For Unitarian Universalists, who is (are?) our target audience(s)?

(2) Hemant recalls a story his mother had told him, which introduced him to the idea that there are people who believed a different faith from his family and the author concluded that "anyone who believed in a faith different from that of my family was wrong." Think about the stories that we tell in our congregations to ourselves and our children. How do these stories portray those who are not Unitarian Universalist?

(3) Hemant describes skeptics as those who don't place confidence in "fables that are meant only to inspire." Are fables that are not literally and factually true useful for us an Unitarian Universalists? Where do we experience difficulties with fables in Unitarian Universalist congregations?

(4) As a child, did you accept the literal truthfulness of any fables (e.g. Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, etc)? How did you feel when you realized that these fables were not literally and factually true?

(5) The author asks, "Why are people unwilling to examine and question their beliefs?" How would you answer his question?

(6) Let's say that a visitor showed up at your congregation on Sunday morning and said that she had questions about faith, an openness to evidence that might contradict her current beliefs, and a curiosity about Unitarian Universalism and its message. How would you react to this? Do you think this person would be truly open to becoming a Unitarian Universalist?

(7) The author states that one of the purposes of this book is to "help improve the way churches present the Christian message." Do you think that an atheist's observations and questions can also help Unitarian Universalists present their message more effectively as well? Why or why not?

(8) As an atheist, Hemant immersed himself in Christian culture (visiting churches, reading Christian books, talking with Christians, etc). As a Unitarian Universalist, do you read books by authors with whom you disagree? If you have read such books, what have you learned about your own beliefs by reading the ideas of those you disagree with?

(9) The author describes stereotypes that are used to categorize atheists. What groups have you heard being stereotyped in Unitarian Universalist congregations? What stereotypes have others applied to you because you are a Unitarian Universalist?

Priests brawl at Jesus' birthplace

Real life sounds like a Monty Python sketch ... read the CNN news article here.

25 November 2007

"Sunday School for Atheists" and UU Religious Education - Similar and Different??

For anyone who is interested in Unitarian Universalist religious education, this article from Time Magazine is worth reading:

Sunday School for Atheists

Here are two quotes from this article:
"An estimated 14% of Americans profess to have no religion, and among 18-to-25-year-olds, the proportion rises to 20%, according to the Institute for Humanist Studies. The lives of these young people would be much easier, adult nonbelievers say, if they learned at an early age how to respond to the God-fearing majority in the U.S. 'It's important for kids not to look weird,' says Peter Bishop, who leads the preteen class at the Humanist center in Palo Alto. Others say the weekly instruction supports their position that it's O.K. to not believe in God and gives them a place to reinforce the morals and values they want their children to have."

"The Palo Alto [Humanist Community Center] Sunday family program uses music, art and discussion to encourage personal expression, intellectual curiosity and collaboration. One Sunday this fall found a dozen children up to age 6 and several parents playing percussion instruments and singing empowering anthems like 'I'm Unique and Unrepeatable,' set to the tune of 'Ten Little Indians,' instead of traditional Sunday-school songs like 'Jesus Loves Me.' Rather than listen to a Bible story, the class read "Stone Soup," a secular parable of a traveler who feeds a village by making a stew using one ingredient from each home."
This sounds a lot like what we would present in a Unitarian Universalist religious education program for our children.

I'm curious why a group would need to create a Sunday School program that sounds so much like a Unitarian Universalist one in a community where a Unitarian Universalist congregation already exists.

Given that the "Atheist - Agnostic - Unchurched" demographic is a growing in North America and Christianity is shrinking in North America, does it make sense for Unitarian Universalists to package ourselves as a "church"?

Does the use of traditional language of reverence in our congregations drive off this growing demographic group?

Does the use of the word "church" in the name of many of our congregations drive off this growing demographic group?

This growing demographic is a natural one for us and it was our "market niche" in the past. What will Unitarian Universalism look like if we forfeit this portion of the religious marketplace?

18 November 2007

Blog Reading Level -- You've Gotta Be Kidding Me

UPDATE: this so-called reading level test is a way for a blogger to unknowingly increase the search rating for a cash payday loan company.

If you put this badge on your blog, you should remove the ALT tags for the payday loan company from the HTML code before uploading this badge on one's blog or web site.

Hat tip to CK of arbitrarymarks.com for mentioning this potential blog spam issue.

I saw this blog reading level test on the "A Perfect World" blog:

The result for my blog makes me question the quiz technology. I'm a very simple and ordinary person.

16 November 2007

Another Resource For Sharing Microsoft Office 2007 Documents

Here is yet another resource for dealing with the newly introduced "incompatible" file formats in Microsoft Office 2007 (see this link and this link for earlier resources mentioned on this blog for helping volunteers and church staff who don't have Microsoft Office 2007 but want to use Office 2007 documents).

For anyone using Ubuntu 7.10 ("Gutsy Gibbon") release of Linux along with the optional Automatix software for this Ubuntu release, one can easily use the import/export filters in Open Office that read the new Microsoft Office file formats.

This would be useful for churches and other cash-strapped non-profit organizations that may be using older donated computers and open source software but also need to share data with volunteers (who may be using the latest version of Microsoft Office on a spiffy new computer).

Yes -- it's possible to ask a volunteer to save a document in a compatible file format (the older Microsoft Word .doc file format, .rtf rich text format, etc). However, this new addition to the Ubuntu - Open Office environment will make life easier for the volunteers and staff with the older computers. And when newsletter and other deadlines are fast approaching, this will be helpful.

[Note: Wikipedia describes Automatix as a "tool that automates the addition of applications, codecs, fonts and libraries not provided directly by the software repositories of Debian-based distributions (specifically Debian, MEPIS and Ubuntu).]

Religious scholars mull Flying Spaghetti Monster (CNN)

For every Unitarian Universalist who worries that we are not "religious" enough to be considered a real religion, check out the CNN.com coverage of the American Academy of Religion conference in the "Religious scholars mull Flying Spaghetti Monster" article (more info on the Flying Spaghetti Monster can be found here).

Here's a brief quote from the article:

It was the emergence of this community that attracted the attention of three young scholars at the University of Florida who study religion in popular culture. They got to talking, and eventually managed to get a panel on FSM-ism on the agenda at one of the field's most prestigious gatherings.

The title: "Evolutionary Controversy and a Side of Pasta: The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Subversive Function of Religious Parody."

"For a lot of people they're just sort of fun responses to religion, or fun responses to organized religion. But I think it raises real questions about how people approach religion in their lives," said Samuel Snyder, one of the three Florida graduate students who will give talks at the meeting next Monday along with Alyssa Beall of Syracuse University.

The presenters' titles seem almost a parody themselves of academic jargon. Snyder will speak about "Holy Pasta and Authentic Sauce: The Flying Spaghetti Monster's Messy Implications for Theorizing Religion," while Gavin Van Horn's presentation is titled "Noodling around with Religion: Carnival Play, Monstrous Humor, and the Noodly Master."

Using a framework developed by literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Van Horn promises in his abstract to explore how, "in a carnivalesque fashion, the Flying Spaghetti Monster elevates the low (the bodily, the material, the inorganic) to bring down the high (the sacred, the religiously dogmatic, the culturally authoritative)."

The authors recognize the topic is a little light by the standards of the American Academy of Religion.

"You have to keep a sense of humor when you're studying religion, especially in graduate school," Van Horn said in a recent telephone interview. "Otherwise you'll sink into depression pretty quickly."

But they also insist it's more than a joke.

Indeed, the tale of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its followers cuts to the heart of the one of the thorniest questions in religious studies: What defines a religion? Does it require a genuine theological belief? Or simply a set of rituals and a community joining together as a way of signaling their cultural alliances to others?

In short, is an anti-religion like Flying Spaghetti Monsterism actually a religion?

Joining them on the panel will be David Chidester, a prominent and controversial academic at the University of Cape Town in South Africa who is interested in precisely such questions. He has urged scholars looking for insights into the place of religion in culture and psychology to explore a wider range of human activities. Examples include cheering for sports teams, joining Tupperware groups and the growing phenomenon of Internet-based religions. His 2005 book "Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture," prompted wide debate about how far into popular culture religious studies scholars should venture.

11 November 2007

New Hotel Trend -- Gideon Bible Out, Condoms and "Intimacy Kits" In

The "So Long, Gideons" article on the Newsweek web site mentions a religious and ethical shift.

Gideon Bible placement in hotel rooms is declining.

In part, this is due to a recognition that we are not an exclusively Christian nation:
Unlike traditional hotels, the 10-year-old boutique [Soho Grand Hotel] has never put Bibles in its guest rooms, because "society evolves," says hotel spokeswoman Lori DeBlois. Providing Bibles would mean the hotel "would have to take care of every guest's belief."
This isn't just a "blue state" New York City development:
Since 2001 the number of luxury hotels with religious materials in the rooms has dropped by 18 percent, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
What has been added to hotel rooms recently:
Edgier chains like the W provide "intimacy kits" with condoms in the minibar, while New York's Mercer Hotel supplies a free condom in each bathroom. Neither has Bibles. Since its recent renovation, the Sofitel L.A. offers a tantalizing lovers' dice game: roll one die for the action to be performed (for example, "kiss," "lick") and the other for the associated body part. The hotel's "mile high" kit, sold in the revamped gift shop, includes a condom, a mini vibrator, a feather tickler and lubricant. The new Indigo hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., a "branded boutique" launched by InterContinental, also has no Bibles, but it does offer a "One Night Stand" package for guests seeking VIP treatment at local nightclubs and late checkout for the hazy morning after.
[Hat tip to the Friendly Atheist Blog for this article.]

10 November 2007

A Funny and Engaging Our Whole Lives-Related Video Podcast Resource

The Midwest Teen Sex Show is a great sexuality education resource that I discovered through Susie Bright's blog.

It's a video podcast that discusses teen sexuality in funny, frank, and responsible ways.

Here's a brief explanation from their web site
Why a show on teen sexuality?

Teens and sex. It happens. Not every teen is having sex and not every teen is abstaining. We hope the Midwest Teen Sex Show will create a space for frank discussion of all things related to teen sexuality. Broadcast media shies away from any real exploration of the topic, and they forget that not all teens live in Orange County. So subscribe on iTunes, download our latest episode, tell your friends, and let’s get it on! (Midwest style).

Is this sex education?

Sort of–we like to call it sex information. We’ll leave the formal education to classrooms and textbooks. The Midwest Teen Sex Show is here to provide sex information in a clear and entertaining way. We won’t pretend to be experts, but hopefully a few of our own embarrassing experiences and insights will keep you out of trouble.

Are you promoting teen sex?

No! We’re promoting a discussion of teen sex.

Useful Tidbits From A Free Computer Trade Publication

Computerworld magazine is one of the "free" trade magazines that I get at work. I was cleaning off my desk and found some useful resources in the back issues I had collected.
Good luck using these computer resources in your congregation and other Unitarian Universalist settings.

08 November 2007

Quiz: What kind of Christian are you?

I retook the "What kind of Christian are you?" Beliefnet quiz again tonight.

My score (105 on a scale of 0 to 400) is slightly different from the first time that I took this quiz, but the category result remained unchanged.

Apparently, I'm still a "Bishop Spong Christian" -- here's a breakdown for the scale used in this quiz:
I think my result comes from reading too much Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, Bishop Spong, etc -- I don't believe in God and no quiz answer I gave required my belief in the divine.

Yet somehow I'm considered a "Bishop Spong" Christian even though I don't believe in what most Christians traditionally believe about God, Jesus, his birth, his death, etc -- very puzzling.

I wonder what result other Unitarian Universalists would get on this quiz.

07 November 2007

Eschatology Quiz Results

Here's my quiz results ...

What's your eschatology?
created with QuizFarm.com
You scored as Moltmannian Eschatology

J├╝rgen Moltmann is one of the key eschatological thinkers of the 20th Century. Eschatology is not only about heaven and hell, but God's plan to make all things new. This should spur us on to political and social action in the present.

Moltmannian Eschatology










Left Behind




30 September 2007

Just imagine the remake of Mr. Ed ...

With the recent "reboots" of old TV sci-fi franchises like Battlestar Galactica and Bionic Woman, I'm wondering what old TV series will be made over next.

Will they make a "reboot" of Mister Ed where the ethical issues of recombinant DNA experiments using horse and human DNA are explored through science fiction?

29 September 2007

"Gangs of America"

The Unitarian Universalist Association has criticized the legal fiction of "corporate personhood" as part of its social and economic justice work. Some of this was covered in the May/June 2003 issue of UU World.
Another non-UU resource related to this issue is the book Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy by Peachpit Press founder Ted Nace. You can download this book free from the author's website as a free Adobe Acrobat PDF.

[Hat tip to Glenn Fleishman of the Tidbits Macintosh news web site for pointing out this resource.]

23 September 2007

Hatred found in online comments shocking (Shreveport Times Letter to the Editor)

Today, The Shreveport Times published my letter about the racist online comments from the newspaper readers in response the the recent "Jena Six" coverage.

I'm reprinting it for you below.
On Sept. 16, my church hosted a prayer worship service in support of the six black youths accused of crimes in Jena. I read the news coverage about this story ("Religious groups unite, pray for Jena Six," Sept. 17). I read the online reader comments and I was shocked at the level of hatred and racist invective. Here are a few sample quotes that were found on the shreveporttimes.com web site:

  • "Everywhere Black people integrate, crime and deterioration and hate sets in. Integration is the problem with our schools." (written by the anonymous author "CHILIDOG")
  • "Let's see, how do we start this prayer? Oh God let us pray for these kids that are only black, because we don't care about the white kid that they tried to kill. Now God it is off to the next place where we can help only blacks that is why we call ourselves the Rainbow Coalition." (written by the anonymous author "Creekdweller")

I also read about the upcoming prayer service ("
Community Briefly: Church holding rally today to support 'Jena Six,'" Sept. 15). This article also elicited racism and hatred from our community in the online reader comments.

This story's comments also contain some ignorant religious bigotry directed towards my Unitarian Universalist faith as well.

I'm in favor of free speech even when it's racist and religious bigotry like the examples cited above. I would never want to see expression banned even though it hurts our community both morally and economically. Ask yourself: What would a business leader think about Shreveport after reading these comments online?

I also question the tacit endorsement of The Times and Gannett in publishing these comments online on the shreveporttimes.com Web site.

I disagree with The Times policy of allowing bigots to hide behind anonymous screen names. I suspect those who post anonymous hatred online would not if their real identity were attached to their comments.

22 September 2007

"Jena Six" Photo Diary (Part I)

Here's a collection of photographs from the Shreveport Times and from my cell phone camera.

The entire gallery of Shreveport Times photos showing local church members departing early on Thursday morning can be found online in the online collection "Leaving for Jena."

(Members of All Souls Shreveport waiting to get on the bus - 20 September 2007, from the Shreveport Times)

(Daniel and Ashley modeling the event t-shirts provided by our minister - 20 September 2007, from the Shreveport Times)

(On the right in the red polo shirt, Len Frank, member of Steeple Chase Baptist Church and retired GM employee who sat across the bus aisle from me - 20 September 2007, from the Shreveport Times)

(On the left in the clerical shirt, Rev. Eliza Galagher, minister of Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church, Austin TX - 20 September 2007, from the Shreveport Times)

(On the left in the "Justice for Jena" t-shirt, Rev. Lyn Oglesby, minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Shreveport LA - 20 September 2007, from the Shreveport Times)

(I'm holding a pillow and rushing to catch the bus - 20 September 2007, from the Shreveport Times)

(View from my bus window while stopped in Pineville LA - photo provided by Steve Caldwell, 20 September 2007)

(View of charter buses stopped on the roadside in Pineville LA - photo provided by Steve Caldwell, 20 September 2007)

(View of charter buses stopped on the roadside in Pineville LA - photo provided by Steve Caldwell, 20 September 2007)

(View from the crowd in Jena LA - photo provided by Steve Caldwell, 20 September 2007)

(View from the crowd in Jena LA - photo provided by Steve Caldwell, 20 September 2007)

(View from the crowd in Jena LA - photo provided by Steve Caldwell, 20 September 2007)

I really need to get a digital camera for documenting things like this.

"I wish we had a charge in Louisiana for aggravated ignorance"

This story was briefly reported in the Shreveport Times today:
"And Thursday night, police in nearby Alexandria arrested two people after they stopped a red pickup that was traveling through the city with nooses hanging from it.

'I wish we had a charge in Louisiana for aggravated ignorance, because this is a classic case,' Alexandria police Sgt. Clifford Gatlin said of the incident in his city the same day rallies in support of the Jena Six — the name given to six black teenagers charged in a December incident that left a white teen unconscious and bleeding — were held in Jena. Some supporters used Alexandria as a staging area for the march on Jena."

21 September 2007

Initial Comments After "Jena Six" March

On Thursday (20 September 2007), two buses full of people representing three congregations traveled from Shreveport, Louisiana to Jena, Louisiana to participate in the 20 September 2007 National Day of Action to support the "Jena Six" defendants. These congregations were Evergreen Baptist Church, Steeple Chase Baptist Church, and All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.

As part of this group, we had 3 Unitarian Universalist ministers traveling with us (Rev. Lyn Oglesby - All Souls Shreveport, Rev. Fred Hammond - UU Jackson MS, and Rev. Eliza Galaher - Wildflower UU Austin TX). We also had several laypeople from All Souls Shreveport who also traveled to Jena as well.

After catching this bus at 5 AM, I'm still a bit tired from the trip and walking around Jena.

The crowd in Jena was huge yesterday. The Shreveport Times was estimating as many as 60,000 people were at the event.

As we exited I-49 in Alexandria towards Jena, there was a traffic jam of chartered buses headed towards Jena. As we drove through Pineville, the local and state law enforcement folks had a large group of charter buses pull over. They were planning on having us go into Jena as a bus caravan.

While waiting by the roadside, I saw dozens of buses waiting for the last leg of this trip into Jena.

Just before getting off the bus, one of Baptist ministers led us in a prayer where he quoted Amos' words that are used in the familiar hymn "Come Build A Land."

We got off the bus just outside Jena near their Wal-Mart and walked into town.

The only retail business that I saw as open for business was Wal-Mart (the only event that Wal-Mart would close for is Jesus' birthday every December). The rest of the local businesses in Jena were closed and many of them had yellow plastic "crime scene" tape and "no tresspassing" signs marking their property boundaries.

A group was "passing the hat" to raise the bail money for Mychel Bell -- they raised over $17,000 of the required $10,000 bail bond to get the remaining Jena Six defendant out of jail (Mychel's bail was set at $90,000). This money was given to Mychel's grandmother and Mychel should be out of jail as he is re-tried as a minor for the incident real soon. Mychel has been in jail since last December -- he's served over 8 months in the parish jail for a schoolyard fight.

We wandered around some more and found that folks wanted to photograph and interview us. Susan said that she hadn't been photographed this much in one day since our wedding. The All Souls members were wearing cream-colored t-shirts that said "Justice for Jena" on the front and had our church name on the back. Susan said that one person thanked her for being there because it meant that our black neighbors were not alone in protesting the racial and class injustice in the Louisiana legal system.

One very puzzling thing in Jena for me was the lack of trash cans for our trash. After finishing a bottle of water, I had to search behind a closed business for a trash can to dispose of my trash. I kept the rest of my lunch trash in my backpack. But it was very puzzling -- if tens of thousands were visiting my town, it would make sense to have trash cans for our trash.

I've already seen a few conservative critics complain on the Shreveport Times web site reader comments about the trash left by the crowd. I expect that some Jena residents are going to complain about the costs of the cleanup. But there were no trash cans on the sidewalks or other public spaces in Jena. I'm not in favor of littering but I realize that the backpacker "pack it in, pack it out" ethic is not a universal one especially in populated areas. The post-event litter is partly the responsibility of the town that didn't provide trash cans for this event.

I've got some pictures from my cell phone camera (I really need to get a digital camera) and from the local paper for this event. I will also get some digital photographs from church members as well. The photo diary on this blog will happen later.

16 September 2007

The "Old South" Is Not Dead -- Shreveport Times Reader Responses to the "Jena Six" Rally

Tonight, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana hosted an interfaith rally and prayer service in support of the "Jena Six" youth. Here's the article about this rally from The Shreveport Times:
"Several local religious groups will hold a prayer service and rally to support the 'Jena Six' at 6 p.m. today at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 9449 Ellerbe Road.

The Rev. Aaron Dobynes, pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church, will speak, along with local attorney Henry Walker. It is hosted by All Souls and Northern/Central Louisiana Interfaith.

They are seeking justice for six black high school students who were charged with attempted murder in connection with the beating of a white student."
The Shreveport Times allows for reader comment on news stories and even allows for anonymous comments. Here are two anonymous comments on the news story about our church:
dr duke -- "this darn church, and many like it, would rally for the jena thug 6 even it they had killed the white boy...but they call themselves "christian" and not racist.....hypocrisy knows no bounds.... no rally is needed - the two mlk jr wannabes are in control of the situation - unforunately for jena...."

Phalanx -- "I used to wonder why the KKK bombed and burned Colored Churches. Now I know."
In case anyone was wondering, the "Old South" is not dead at all.

And "Old South" attitudes like these will keep the South from flourishing.

Yes, this is offensive ...

... but when an organization has covered up and indirectly supported the criminal assault of minors, this criticism is not surprising:

(Hat tip to the Friendly Atheist blog)

11 September 2007

How Do Our Churches Survive in a Non-Religious World?

On Chalice Chick's Chaliceblog, she mentioned a member of her congregation speaking this concern during a public forum:
"This year, a lady said 'I went to a book signing Richard Dawkins did a few weeks ago, and there were SO MANY young atheists there. We need more young people, and I think the problems is that our services are too theist. How can we make our church more atheist as to attract more people? If we don't, our church is going to die ... '"
Chalice Chick made the following comment about this:
"It's been my observation that cold war era kids all had justifications why their hometown, wherever they grew up, was the first place the Russians were going to attack.

I can't help but think "There are billions of people out there who believe what I do, and the church is dying because it has not properly conformed itself to what I believe. If only UUism were more theist / atheist / spiritual / pagan / multicultural / activist, then it might have a chance, but it's not and indeed my people are terribly discriminated against, so it is surely doomed" comes from the same impulse.

Why do so many of us get off on feeling so persecuted,while at the same time believing that our message will be salvific for UUism?"
And Ms. Kitty made the following observation in the comment section of this blog:
"I'll bet the ministers in the porch chat just quietly and internally sighed at the shortsightedness of this questioner."
I think that there is a kernel of truth the congregant's concern about Unitarian Universalist churches becoming less friendly and welcoming for non-theists (Atheists, Agnostics, and other non-believers).

I think we're in danger of losing Will's "Denomination of Last Resort" market niche because church attendance as a behavior and the expectation of church attendance is dropping in North America. There is no need for a "Denomination of Last Resort" if there is no community pressure to attend church weekly.

Prior to the baby boomer generation, there was a community norm that everyone should be at church on Sunday morning.

Perhaps an exception would be made for Jewish folks and Christians who held their sabbath on the 7th day of the week.

But the idea that a person would sit at home or do something else other than church on Sunday morning would be a violation of community norms.

I suggest that this may have been a reason for many older Atheist, Agnostic, and Humanist Unitarian and Unitarian Universalists joining our congregations.

If your neighbors expect you to go to church, you're going to find the one that is most Atheist-friendly. We didn't require a belief in God -- because of our non-creedal nature, we were a welcome home for Atheists and Agnostics.

But our society has changed. Sunday church attendance isn't a community norm any more.

40% of Americans (according to social science survey data) SAY they attend church weekly. When behavior is observed, the actual figure is a two-fold over-estimate. Observed weekly church attendance is closer to 20%. See the information on the Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance web site for details behind this change.

To further complicate this, Christianity is shrinking relative to the US population (7.3% between 1990 and 2001 according to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The "No Religion - Atheist - Agnostic" category has grown by 6.6% during this same period (8.4% of the population in 1990 vs. 15.0% of the population in 2001 according to the ARIS data).

To summarize:

(1) Church attendance isn't a social norm anymore.

(2) Because of changes in social norms (item 1), we shouldn't assume that our Atheist, Agnostic, and Humanist friends will always be in our congregations.

(3) Christianity is losing "market share" in North America.

(4) The "No Religion - Atheist - Agnostic" is gaining market share.

Given these trends, can Unitarian Universalism adapt to a North American culture that is becoming less traditionally religious and can we provide a welcoming home for the growing North American non-religious demographic?

Or will we compete over a shrinking theistic market share with our Mainline Protestant church neighbors?

What we can offer as a religion is salvation for a world badly in need of salvation here-and-now and not in the afterlife (see my blog posts here about Unitarian Universalist salvation).

How do we survive as a religious community that offers salvation in a world that is becoming less traditionally theistic and less traditionally religious so we can continue to provide this salvation?

Update: All Souls Shreveport Responses to "Jena Six" Case

Here are two responses from All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana to the recent events in Jena, Louisiana.

Both documents require Adobe Acrobat Reader software or other PDF viewer software to read.

If you want additional information about the "Jena Six" case, please check out this online Google video also available on my blog:

Watch "This World: Race Hate in Louisiana" (BBC Documentary)

01 September 2007

Modernism, Post-Modernism -- How to Explain the Difference?

This past Thursday, I was talking with a dear Unitarian Universalist friend about the differences between modernist and post-modernist world views that we find in Unitarian Universalism today.

I should provide a disclaimer -- I'm not a professional philosopher or theologian -- I'm just a person who has read a lot of books and web sites. And the analogy that I used is the baseball umpire analogy.

This analogy was recently quoted in a theology paper presented at the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference by Tony Jones on emergent theological perspectives in Evangelical Christianity. Tony's paper was not published by Wheaton College with the other papers presented at this conference due to the theological disapproval of Wheaton College's officials (you can read about this incident and find the original paper on Tony's blog).

Here's the analogy:
"Of course, it’'s not lost on me that since the earliest days of the postmodern conversation, there’'s been story floating around about three umpires,
  • The pre-modern umpire says, 'I call 'em as they are!'
  • The modern umpire says, 'I call 'em as I see ’em!'
  • The postmodern umpire says, 'They ain't nothin' 'till I call 'em!'"
This is an off-shoot of a story told by literary theorist Stanley Fish about the baseball umpire Bill Klem to explain "interpretive communities":
"[Stanley] Fish defines as the function of interpretive communities are seen here: The first of these involves baseball umpire Bill Klem, who once waited a long time to call a particular pitch. The player asked him, impatiently, 'Well, is it a ball or strike?' Klem's reply: 'Sonny, it ain't nothing 'til I call it.' What Fish is presenting here exemplifies the idea of interpretation: while baseball supplies a rulebook, it is the discretion of the umpire to judge whether or not a pitch falls into the category of ball or strike. Balls and strikes are not undeniable truths."

31 August 2007

State Quiz Result -- I'm "Maryland"

Having grown up in the Northern Virginia suburbs near Maryland, I'm not surprised that there isn't a "Washington DC" aspect to my results.

From my experiences, the Maryland DC suburbs seem more like a "typical Washington suburb" than Northern Virginia did.

You're Maryland!

You enjoy contemplating your navel so much that you want to build a whole school devoted to said purpose. You like Chevy Chase a ton as well, maybe even more than Cal Ripken since he started doing those Century 21 commercials. Mostly, though, you want to kick back, watch the ballgame, and eat crabcakes. Brick is by far your favorite building material. You might even call yourself a brick house.

Take the State Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

29 August 2007

Toles Op-Ed Cartoon Commentary on Senator Craig

This cartoon addresses the perceived concerns directed towards liberal gay-friendly bloggers on Senator Larry Craig's recent arrest (examples can be found here, here, and here).

Liberal bloggers are not criticizing him for not following some hypothetical gay "party line." They are commenting on Larry Craig being a hypocrite.

25 August 2007

How to Make Windows XP Last for the Next Seven Years

With an installed user base of 538 million, it's very likely that your congregation is using Windows XP in your office and in the homes of your volunteers.

With the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy in play here, I would check out this article on Computerworld magazine's web site:

How to make Windows XP last for the next seven years

"If you've got Windows XP, worry not -- you can keep it running on your hardware for years to come. As with an old car, though, if you plan to keep XP around for a while, you're going to have to spend some time maintaining it. Think of us as your virtual mechanics. We'll give you tips, tweaks and tricks so that you'll be able to keep XP running smoothly, at top performance, for smooth operation and long life."

"The company's standard life-cycle policy provides bug fixes and security patches (known as mainstream support) for five years after initial release, and security-patch-only support (known as extended support) for an additional five years. Although Microsoft often doesn't provide extended support for its consumer products, the company says that XP Home and XP Pro will get identical support periods."

"Microsoft's support road map currently says that extended support for Windows XP ends in April 2014. You need to be on the latest service pack within one year of its release for continued support, which at this point means you must be running XP Service Pack 2."
This article will help a cash-strapped congregation keep using older-but-functional hardware for several more years.

23 August 2007

Watch "This World: Race Hate in Louisiana" (BBC Documentary)

Watch this BBC documentary on racism, segregation, threats of lynching, and racially-motivated injustice in Jena, Louisiana.

The All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church Board in Shreveport, Louisiana voted unanimously to have a special congregational meeting after church on 9 September 2007 to discuss a resolution in support of the Jena Six and to discuss what actions the congregation might want to take to support them.

09 August 2007

Atheist Version of Pascal's Wager

I saw this on Greta Christina's blog and I thought it was worth sharing with the Unitarian Universalist blog community. It's an Atheist version of Pascal's Wager.

Greta had noticed the Atheist version of Pascal's Wager as an off-hand comment on the Pharyngula ("Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal") where they were discussing the blog article on Dilbert creator Scott Adams' blog where he defends Pascal's Wager as a reasonable case for believing in God.
"Any deity this argument (the original Pascal's Wager) applies to is evil. Honestly, E-V-I-L... You might as well take the Atheist's Wager. Do good, then if there's a evil God everybody is still screwed. If there is a good God then you go to heaven, if there is no God then doing good is its own reward."
I mention this because our congregation's Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship had a multi-week series on "tough issues" in Christianity with a guest minister from the Shreveport Bible Church offering Pascal's Wager as a serious argument for believing in God.

Even more fun is Scott Adams' next blog article where he addresses the previous blog article about Pascal's Wager:
"Personally, if I were more rational, and less focused on immediate gratification, I would become a moderate, peace-loving Muslim. My reasoning is that Islam has the best chance of becoming the dominant world religion in the future, and therefore probably has God’s backing, if he exists. The Muslim belief that death is sometimes a good thing is a huge advantage in a future where weapons are improving, and the only thing keeping people from using them is fear of death.

If you believe God exists, the smart money says he’s backing the team with the best strategy and long term viability. Based on what I see today, I’m betting on Islam being the only religion in a thousand years. Once you can build your own nuke from stuff you buy online, don’t be betting on the Buddhists."
And I guess this pretty much illustrates the practical limits of using probability and game theory strategies to discern theological truth.

07 August 2007

02 August 2007

Where Does "Theology" Stop and "Mental Masturbation" Begin?

I've been looking at the recent replies on Philocrites' blog to the "Isaac Newton's anti-Trinitarianism in the news" article.

Much of the discussion touches on speculation about Jesus and his relationship to God along with various competing christologies -- unitarian, trinitarian, etc.

Maybe I'm just too simple-minded but I'm finding most theological discussions to be "mental masturbation." The Urban Dictionary definition of this term is "The act of engaging in useless yet intellectually stimulating conversation, usually as an excuse to avoid taking constructive action in your life."

Personally, I don't totally like the term "mental masturbation" because it implies that masturbation (the physical sexual act ... not the "mental" variety) is a useless and non-productive act. I've blogged about the life-affirming and spirituality-enhancing aspects of this in the past:
However, I can accept this phrase as an imperfect metaphor.

So ... most theological discussions are a lot of mental fun but I find too much too much theology to be useless and non-productive for the work that needs doing in the world.

Certainly, too much theological discussion can be a real "Doritos syndrome" experience once you're done.

I'm really not that concerned about christology but I am concerned about practical soteriology.

How can Unitarian Universalists offer salvation and protect us from those things in the world that deny life or make life less whole?

To me, that is a more important question for us than the existence and the nature of God, the relationship between God and Jesus, and all the other questions that come up in most theological discussions.

14 July 2007

But John ... if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists.

You're Jurassic Park!
by Michael Crichton

You combine all the elements of a mad scientist, a brash philosopher, a humble researcher, and a money-hungry attracter of tourists. With all these features, you could build something monumental or get chased around by your own demons. Probably both, in fact. A movie based on your life would make millions, and spawn at least two sequels thatwouldn't be very good. Be very careful around islands.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

06 July 2007

I really don't understand the aversion to polyamory in Unitarian Universalist circles

I'm really puzzled by some of my coreligionists.

Recently on the Unitarian Universalist Minister Rev. Tom Schade's blog (The Lively Tradition), there has been some discussion on the lack of transparency surrounding the recent decision by the Unitarian Universalist Association's Board to reduce the number of Unitarian Universalist Independent Affiliates.

There's a lot of excellent commentary on the lack of openness and transparency -- you can read the most of this blog discussions using the following links:
I'm not blogging about the lack of transparency ... my concern is the aversion to polyamory that I'm witnessing.

Part of this discussion has been speculation on the potential role of polyamory and Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness in the recent decision to reduce the number of affiliates.

We really don't know the UUA Board's thinking here and I don't want to speculate any further than I already have online.

In the most recent blog post on Tom's blog, the blog conversation explored polyamory and asked what stand our religious movement should take on polyamory.

Fausto of The Socinian blog replied with the following about polyamory:
"As to the narrower question of polyamory, is there or is there not room at the table for a good-faith argument that polyamory is morally and spiritually dangerous, both to its practitioners and to their children, and that it therefore should not be presumptively entitled to the same societal or religious acceptance and blessing that we freely extend to monogamous unions?"
We can evaluate danger when it comes to mental health, physical health, and other empirical measures. Polyamory can be evaluated for its impact on mental and physical health. This is a social sciences question that can (in theory) be asked and answered. I'm not aware of any research on poly families.

However, "morally and spiritually dangerous" concern is something that we probably can't find common agreement on beyond agreeing that we should minimize the possiblity of harm to others and self.

However, some individuals may look at factors other than harm to others and self. This aspect of sexual morality is covered by Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Faye Flam in her column "What fuels the hatred of homosexuality?" Here's an excerpt from this column:
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt wants to help liberal types like me understand why some people condemn homosexual relationships as immoral.

As an exercise, he says, imagine that a neighbor has installed a sign in her front yard reading Cable television will destroy society. You ask her to explain, and she responds: "Cables are an affront to the god thoth. They radiate theta waves, which make people sterile."

Now imagine another neighbor, with another sign. This one announces Gay marriage will destroy society, and she justifies the statement by saying that homosexuality is an abomination to God and will undermine marriage.

If you're a liberal, you may view both neighbors as equally out of touch with reality (though the woman with the theta-wave theory is more original). That's the way most academics would traditionally see it, too.

But Haidt, who works at the University of Virginia and specializes in issues of morality, says the conservative viewpoint isn't just theta waves - it's based on a moral compass that points in dimensions liberals simply don't perceive.

"There's been this enormous change in how scientists are thinking about morality," he says. He outlined the new view recently in the journal Science.

In Western societies, secular and liberal-minded people base their moral beliefs on fairness and the avoidance of harm. That explains why, in previous columns, I wrote that I saw nothing immoral about premarital sex, homosexuality or sex toys - except, perhaps, for nonrecyclable batteries.

Dozens of horrified readers quickly blasted me as disgusting.

Which Haidt says is exactly the point. Most people set their moral compasses based on their sense of disgust. This is an additional moral dimension, which he calls purity/sanctity.
I suppose one can speculate on health, relationship stability, and other "danger" aspects surrounding polyamory. The problem here is we've got a lot of speculation and very little information to base our decisions. When that happens, the potential for basing one's moral decisions on disgust instead of reason becomes very likely.

Fausto later wrote the following on this blog thread:
"When I talk about moral objections, I'm thinking instead about the often unappreciated but nevertheless very real potential for deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage that can so easily occur in polyamorous situations despite all precautions. Not only to the consenting adults (if indeed they are giving their fully informed and free consent, which is another significant question), but especially also to their children or prospective children, who need to grow up in a stable and secure environment."
The issue that I have with this line of thought is we really don't have any data to answer any of the concerns raised. Are poly relationships more dangerous? If so, are they so dangerous that we should strongly discourage them? Are poly relationships so unstable that we should discourage them in order to prevent harm to children?

To the best of my knowledge, we don't know the answers to any of these concerns. All we have with respect to poly questions are anecdotal evidence. And the plural of "anecdote" is not "data." And the collection of anecdotal evidence often is distorted by a "confirmation bias" (a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions and avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs).

Tom Schade then replied on this thread:
"Poly panels, which I have seen, are a exercise in propaganda. They are arguments from 'best-case anecdotes.' The persons who are participated in the panel are currently happy in their relationships and will willingly testify to the joy of their lives."
I'll agree that guest panels are often the "best-case anecdotes" ... We do the same thing with sexual orientation guest panels that are used in the Our Whole Lives and Welcoming Congregation programs. I've never heard of a sexual orientation guest panel including an "ex-gay" person who has undergone "reparative therapy."

Is that one-sided propaganda or just a reasonable limitation on the information that we wish to present in our congregations and other religious settings?

Tom Schade then replied further on this thread:
"And, by restricting the 'moral' argument to these best case examples, they discount all negative experiences elsewhere. The stories about 13 year coerced brides in Utah are not relevant in those discussions, because that is bad patriarchy and we are only talking about good polyamory."
Tom ... these stories are not relevant because we're talking about consenting adults and coerced adolescents are not consenting adults. This is a "red herring" fallacy.

Tom Schade then replied further on this thread:
Regarding OWL: the guidelines you quote refer to specific sexual relationships -- not social policy and the witness of a religious movement in the cultural circumstance in which it finds itself.
Actually, the values in the curriculum go beyond the interpersonal. We need to avoid double standards in providing ministry to families. We need to promote justice and inclusivity.

Tom Schade replied again on this thread:
BTW, many of the poly panels at which I have been supposedly trained, include the testimony of someone who argued that they had numerous problems with adultery until they "came out" as a poly, realizing that they were just incapable of being faithful to one person.
Would it be better for a person to have this self-knowledge before attempting to live monogamously? One possibility with this self-knowledge is this person would know that any monogamous relationship that he or she enters will be a challenge. Another possibility would be this person would use this self-knowledge to attempt to live non-monogamously and ethically.

The danger here is assuming that everyone has the same needs and the same relationship type can meet the needs of every individual.

04 July 2007

Congregational Goal-Setting -- All Souls Board and Council Retreat

Last Saturday (30 June 2007), I attended my congregation's annual "retreat" for the Board and Council. Here are my notes from today's Board and Council Retreat.

The word "retreat" is in quotes because only Unitarian Universalists would take a word that usually means an event where "one takes time away from everyday life, often in order to reflect or meditate" and use it to describe an all-day working meeting.

On Friday night (29 June 2007), the departing and newly elected board members met without the council members. Their group process included "SWOT analysis" where the board members brainstormed the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the congregation:
Top Five Strengths
1. Physical Building and Grounds
2. Innovative and Substantive Programming
3. Religious Education
4. Sense of Freedom
5. Caring Community

Top Five Weaknesses
1. Financial Shortfall
2. Diffuse/Confused Identity
3. Membership Retention
4. Small Membership
5. Religious Education

Top Three Opportunities
1. Response to Violence
2. University/Artistic/Professional Communities
3. Religious Alternatives

Top Three Threats
1. Downturn of Local Economy
2. Negative (or Non-existent) Community Perceptions
3. Out-migration of Youth/Families
Next, we looked at our congregation's mission statement:
Mission Statement
We, as a loving and caring spiritual community, resolve to:
  • Promote diversity through free expression of ideas and beliefs
  • Encourage intellectual and spiritual growth, and
  • Provide an environment for social activism and community service
We believe the search for truth is a journey, not a destination. In this spirit, all are welcome. -- (Written by the All Souls Congregation on 25-27 January 2002, approved by congregational vote on 17 February 2002)
The "top rank objective" in our mission statement is " to encourage intellectual and spiritual growth" -- this should explain why we are here as a church and the other objectives in our mission statement are the "how" that help us achieve this intellectual and spiritual growth.

Here are the goals that came out of the board's discussion on Friday night:
1. Sharpening the profile and identity of All Souls as a religious alternative

2. Membership
  • Recruiting from University / Professional / Artistic communities
  • Retention of Members
3. Balance the Budget

4. Develop a Response to Community and International Violence
On Saturday, the group facilitators talked about items 2 and 3. During the discussion, we decided that they were "means" and not "ends" that our goals should be "ends" that we are working towards.

The Saturday discussion was to re-examine the long-term goals of the congregation and to categorize them into the following two categories:

1. Product Development

2. Organizational Maintenance and Development

The following discussion resulted in the brainstorming of sub-goals that would fit within these two major goals.

1.0 Product Development Goals

1.1 Inspiring Sunday Worship That Transform Lives

- support and enhance music in worship

- lay reader skill development

- encourage reverence

- continue diversity of worship services

- minimize "business" on Sunday mornings (e.g. active recruiting of volunteers) -- see UUA Drive Time Essay on this topic

1.2 Focusing, Refining, Embracing, Our Common Identity

- sermons, classes, other content on our commonality

- covenant of right relationships

- enhancing connection with wider denomination (connections, resources, etc)

- appreciation of our heritage

- build more denominational bridges

- increase denominational event involvement

1.3 Nurturing All Souls Community

- Healing on Welcoming Congregation issue and other tough issues

- Creating a "Calm" Committee

- Reconstitute Food/Folks/Fun Committee

- Small Group Ministry and Covenant Groups

1.4 Continue Ministry and Service to Community

- Develop a response to violence to community and international violence (Alternatives to Violence Project would be a good start for this)

- "Give Away the Plate" on second Sunday of the month

- Division over social justice issues -- goal 1.3 would offer solutions for this

- Interfaith involvement - World Religion Day, other interfaith groups addressing racism and other issues in our community

- Build relationships with sister churches/organizations (Zion Community Ministries)

2.0 Organizational Maintenance and Development

2.1 Membership Growth and Retention

- Continue orientation meetings

- RE class for new members

- Establish plan to target university, artistic, professional communities

- Find strategies for creating engaging youth programming

- Add sexuality education info to the web site as a marketing strategy

2.2 Fiscal Stability

- Improve planned giving efforts

- Strengthen fund-raising strategies that require minimum investment of member time and also draw funds from outside the congregation

- Implement "steps" pledge drive program

This discussion summary is not the official record of the retreat. Eventually, our congregation will have the complete info posted on the congregation web site.