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Be Scofield
Be Scofield
Be Scofield is an activist and founder of www.decolonizingyoga.com. She is pursuing a Master of Divinity at Starr King School for the Ministry.



Is Christopher Hitchens a Religious Apologist?

May29

by: on May 29th, 2011 | 13 Comments »

The popular atheist writer/blogger Greta Christina calls one of Hitchens’ ideas about religion a “terrible argument.”

You know that Christopher Hitchens is not a fan of religion. If you had any doubt you can read his best-selling book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, watch him debate leading Christian and religious theologians (on one occasion four of them at a time) or read any of the numerous articles he’s written on the subject. Yet, despite his public outcry and comparison of religion to child abuse and labeling it a “menace to society” readers may be surprised to discover that he is actually indifferent to religion as long as it produces good behavior. Shocking I know. Furthermore he’s admitted that he’s not arguing “religion should or ever would die out in the world.”

In God is Not Great Hitchens describes a story of how a Muslim cab driver went to great lengths to return a large sum of money that his wife had left in his cab. When the the cab driver told him that it was his religious duty to return the money and refused a generous reward that Hitchens had offered it seems to have sparked a unique moment of shared humanity for Hitchens with a religious person. In response to the Muslim cab driver’s act of selfless service Hitchens makes a shocking admission, “And if all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week’s salary in order to do the right thing, I could be quite indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran” (p. 188). Hitchens is essentially saying that as long as religion produces good behavior the strange and peculiar commandments, beliefs and ideas are not a problem. He could have said as he has said elsewhere that religion is not needed to do good or to know right from wrong. Or he could have acted on his statement, “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.” But he didn’t. There was no ridicule for the cab driver. Instead, like many of us progressive religious people Hitchens demonstrated tolerance and a level of respect to this religious person and his beliefs.

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Wikileaks, Dr. King, and “War Psychosis”

Dec6

by: on December 6th, 2010 | 7 Comments »

In the wake of the latest Wikileaks releases and the predictable response to them by the powers that be we can look to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of someone who persistently and emphatically rejected the standard fear mongering of the political and media establishment. It wasn’t just his powerful critique of the Vietnam War or U.S. foreign policy that deserves attention. We should also remember his explicit distrust of the government fed sound bytes that were designed to evoke base emotions and win popular support for an often illegal and unethical foreign policy. King was so skeptical of his government that he actually advised, “the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated our enemies” (emphasis added). The tribalistic demonization of entire groups, whether communists or the Vietnamese people was due partly to, King believed, an America gripped by a “war psychosis” that needed to be confronted head on. He stated, “We must demonstrate, teach and preach until the very foundations of our nation shake.” And while it is speculation or perhaps an educated guess on my part, I believe King may have viewed Wikileaks as one of those necessary forms of protest.

King left a staunchly anti-Imperialist legacy which questioned the very fabric of the American Empire. From his early days in graduate school King wrote of the dangers of the “False God of Nationalism” (PDF) which he referred to as a religion.

The watchword of this new religion is “My country right or wrong.” This new religion has its familiar prophets and preachers. In Germany it was preached by Hitler In Italy it was preached by Mussilini [sic]. And in America it is being preached by the McCarthy’s and the Jenners, the advocators of white supremacy, and the America first movements.

The preachers of this new religion are so convinced of its supremacy that they are determined to persecute anyone who does not accept its tenets. And so today many sincere lovers of democracy and believers of the Christian principle are being scorned and persecuted because they will not worship the god of nationalism. We live in an age when it is almost heresy to affirm the brotherhood of man…

According to King the U.S. was the “largest purveyor of violence in the world.” He criticized its economic policies that made possible the racist Apartheid government of South Africa, denounced the use of American military force to crush people power revolutions in Latin America and spoke out against the dangerous pairing of capitalism and the military industrial complex to exploit third world countries. Capitalism according to King had “outlived its usefulness” and was “like a losing football team in the last quarter trying all types of tactics to survive.” The triple evils so perpetuated by the U.S. were poverty, racism and war and he boldly used his public position as a religious and moral leader to speak out against them. He sought to bring a direct challenge to “the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.”

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How to Write about the Religulous, a Guide

Nov9

by: on November 9th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

This is a satirical response to “How to Write about the Gnu Atheists, a Guide” which is itself a satirical rebuttal to the way the new atheists have been characterized by critics. For the most part I agree with the points raised in the piece and hope religious critics of the new atheists will reflect on it. I am writing this piece to simply point out that the new atheists have over generalized and distorted religion in many of the same ways that critics of the new atheists have critiqued them. Thus, this is my satirical “guide” for new atheists who are critiquing religion and seeking the best methods for their approach.

How to Write about the Religulous

The first and most important thing to do when writing about the religulous is to conflate all religion with the belief in a supernatural god. By identifying all religion with an abusive and cruel “celestial dictator” it will ensure the maximum ability to attack and ridicule your target. It also provides the advantage of avoiding the complexity of various religious people who use the words God, sacred or divine but do not mean an omnipotent personal being or anything outside or above the laws of the universe. To help make your case you can borrow this line from popular anti-religious atheist blogger Greta Christina, “The thing that uniquely defines religion is belief in supernatural entities. Without that belief, it’s not religion.” Or this one from Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), “To be religious is to be a theist.” Following this definition it’s crucial that you primarily focus on the Abrahamic faiths and ignore things like the Buddhist Churches of America (the oldest Buddhist group in the U.S.) Sure they meet on Sunday mornings, sing hymns, sit in pews, use sacred texts, send their children to Sunday school and listen to a reverend or minister. But they don’t believe in a supernatural god so they don’t really count and you can safely ignore them. It’s better to take the Buddhists off the “religion can be harmful radar” because a lot of liberal Westerners see Buddhists as pure, esoteric, spiritual and enlightened, so it’s best not to confuse these good people by including Buddhists among the religulous.

Perhaps like Sam Harris you do believe that Buddhism is a religion. If you agree you have two options. One is to ignore all the good things Buddhists have done and focus on the bad things: list all the wars Buddhists have fought or discuss abusive eastern gurus, for example. We explain how to do this below, but the key point is that the bad things are the result of the religion, the good things are not. This tactic works well with Christianity. If you can’t make it work with Buddhism your second option is to argue for the elimination of Buddhism as a religion as Harris does in the essay “Killing the Buddha.” But to do that you must make sure not to discuss the contents of any World Religion text as it might be confusing to introduce more atheist religions such as Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism and other strands of Buddhism. And at all costs avoid mention of Unitarian Universalism, a religion with 19% atheists and 30% agnostics.

Whatever you do, don’t admit that you can be an atheist without being anti-religious.

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“Beyond Spiritual Activism,” ctd.: Responding to the Difficult Questions

Oct5

by: on October 5th, 2010 | 14 Comments »

I’ve received many comments and questions regarding my analysis of Off the Mat in the “Beyond Spiritual Activism” article. There is a lively discussion happening for certain. Some of the comments are very thought provoking and tough. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to respond to individual questions but realize that there are many similar issues being brought up and so I wanted to address them in a post. Also, Off the Mat has responded to my article in the comments section and I responded. They are preparing a list of what they consider to be factual inaccuracies in my post which Tikkun Daily will post on the front page of the blog under “Guest – Off the Mat,” not just under the comments section. I fully welcome any critique and corrections. As with any other writer people should question my motives and conclusions and point out any factual inaccuracies.

I understand there are a lot of impassioned voices in this conversation. I’m very used to it as I’ve written about these kinds of things previously. When I wrote about how racism and oppression manifests in the positive thinking culture I received a very similar response. These are some comments on “When Positive Thinking Becomes Religion“:

“This is a terrifically important article,” “This brilliant introduction by Be of some of the dangers of pop destiny picking-for others…is a HUGE help,” “Thank you for a long overdue, intelligent critique of the poisonous nonsense that keeps so many people enslaved to positive thinking,” and “Wow – this is a thorough, engaging and really useful discussion of The Law of Attraction. I am so glad you wrote it!”

There were unfavorable comments as well. What did a teacher of The Secret and a devout practitioner of the Law of Attraction say?

“Your gross generalizations, not all of which are true, lack of objectivity and the “axe to grind” tone sounds more angry and biased…Being angry, taking things out of context and criticizing others may only feel good temporarily.” A devout practitioner of The Law of Attraction states, “This article is so unapologetically biased and filled with absurdities cloaked in typical sensationalist writing it’s laughable…it would appear that your opinion is largely based on conjecture and sound bites as opposed to direct experience and application…perhaps you should have interviewed a few people who actually practice the principles.”


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Beyond Spiritual Activism: Creating a Just and Sustainable Movement for Change

Sep28

by: on September 28th, 2010 | 76 Comments »

It’s the latest term being used to describe how the search for the highest self can be bridged with social change: spiritual activism. Now more than ever you can hear yoga instructors, meditation teachers, small groups and personal life coaches speaking about the value of taking spiritual principles into the world for the betterment of the planet. Yoga Kula [formerly Yoga Sangha], a San Francisco studio, hosted a “Spiritual Activation” series in 2007 where inspirational talks by John Robbins, Julia Butterfly Hill and Jack Kornfield were followed by a yoga class. For the yogi or engaged Buddhists seeking to become involved in activism, there are numerous new organizations and opportunities: you can volunteer to teach yoga in prisons or the juvenile justice system, fly to Cambodia or Africa to serve people, create your own local service project for social change, take a yoga class for cancer and HIV awareness, or support yoga teachers in Africa. Transformation is in the air. What was once the domain for an individual’s spiritual and physical growth is quickly becoming a useful resource to harness a new force for social justice. And with over 20 million yoga practitioners in America, and as more and more people seek spirituality in non-religious ways, it has the potential to be a powerful movement. This new spirit of transformation is all wonderful, right? Not exactly.

As an activist and yoga instructor I’m all for inspiring people to make a difference in the world. And this new spiritual activism movement has lots of potential. But taking the best of what is taught on the yoga mat off into the world, as one program advertises, isn’t enough to create just and sustainable communities for social change. Nor is meditation or a personal spiritual practice. Why not? Because yoga or meditation do not teach about how power functions to maintain oppressive systems such as racism, cultural imperialism, and patriarchy. Without this perspective we stand the risk of reproducing some of the most harmful effects of them. In Acting With Compassion: Buddhism, Feminism and the Environmental Crisis, Stephanie Kaza illustrates the importance of bridging spirituality with an understanding power dynamics, “Political, economic, and personal power can serve the environment, if illuminated by awareness and social consciousness of the logic of domination. Without this awareness, the critical role of power can be overlooked by the Buddhist practitioner focusing on the beauty and miracle of interdependence.” Recognizing that our activism — despite peaceful and loving intentions — can actually cause harm with or without our being aware of it is a crucial component to a just and sustainable future. In other words the impact of our actions is more important than our intentions. This awareness is a central component of an anti-racist approach to social justice. Let’s remember that the intentions of the 18th & 19th century Christian missionaries were mostly good as they sought to help civilize and educate.

Seane Corn - International celebrity yoga teacher and founder of Off the Mat, Into the World.

One of the most prominent leaders of this fast growing spiritual activism movement is the international yoga celebrity Seane Corn. As a pioneer in the field she has successfully combined the art of yoga with motivational leadership designed to empower people to make a difference in the world. Corn got her start teaching yoga to at-risk teenage girls in L.A. and became a YouthAIDS ambassador in 2005 to help raise funds and awareness about the HIV/AIDS crisis. She received both harsh criticism and support in 2001 when she represented Nike and took part in a commercial for them called, “Nike Goddess.” She defended her actions by saying that Nike explained to her that they had made progress in their manufacturing efforts in the global south. With her non-profit Off the Mat Into the World (OTM) she is now trying to bridge spirituality and activism and train a new breed of leaders by tapping into the market of 20 million yogis in the United States. One of the central projects are their “Seva Challenge” or “Bare Witness” trips which lead people to Cambodia, Uganda and South Africa for service. As I illustrate below, this well-known spiritual activism group is well-intentioned but it produces problematic issues of paternalism, “feel-good” service, white U.S.-centric privilege and racism. Understanding how this program reproduces some of these forms of oppression can provide some insights for the future of the spiritual activism movement. And for those combining yoga — still a predominantly white middle class phenomenon — with service, lessons can be gained about the more complex dimensions of social justice.

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When Positive Thinking Becomes Religion: How “The Secret” and Law of Attraction Poison Spirituality

Aug1

by: on August 1st, 2010 | 86 Comments »

Esther-Hicks channels magnetic entities which she calls "Abraham"

Rhonda Byrne, author of the best selling DVD/book "The Secret" is releasing a sequel in August called "The Power."

We must understand that the founder of a cult or new religion has no room for compromise: absolutes are necessary. True believers in mystical psychotherapy will not embrace a gospel with modest claims: it must be all or nothing. – Martin Larson

“He could go to school and daydream.” That was the advice given by positive thinking guru, law of attraction teacher and “channel” Esther Hicks aka “Abraham” to a black woman who asked how her son should approach learning about the difficult history of slavery in school. After telling the curious mother “none of that [slavery] has anything to do with him,” and that “he won’t have to deal with it” Abraham-Hicks proceeded to equate the teaching of African-American history with a family legacy of passing down “bad” feelings. But this is nothing compared to what she said about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When the woman asked her about a way to interpret his life in an empowering way for her son Esther-Hicks launched into something that can be best described as an ignorant stream of psychobabble. She described his vision in the vaguest of terms and then said, “He lost sight of his dream momentarily…he began to push against. And when one pushes against in a very fast moving stream abrupt things happened…It’s trying to get others to agree with us about our dreams that causes backlash. But when we just dream them ourselves…the resources of the universe come into alignment with us.” Blaming Dr. King for his own death was paired with her instruction to the woman to not tell her son about the unjust things that Dr. King had to struggle against. Her point was that slavery, racism and segregation are all “negative” and so therefore we aren’t supposed to think about them. And if all of this wasn’t bad enough, when responding to a question on Oprah’s radio show about how the law of attraction would lead to a young girl attracting her own rape and murder, Esther-Hicks responded by saying parents don’t teach their children how to think properly and they are influenced by the negative thinking of the adults around them. She told Oprah, “if they are listening to the guidance within they could not comfortably ever settle on the thoughts that would lead them to attract something unwanted.”

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Does Religion Cause Bad Behavior? Hitchens Can’t Decide

Jul19

by: on July 19th, 2010 | 20 Comments »

Christopher Hitchens’s book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a lengthy and detailed description of what happens when religious people behave badly. And this apparent correlation between religion and bad behavior is perhaps one of the most common reasons cited by the new atheists as to why all religion should be abandoned. But does Hitchens really believe religion causes people to do bad things? As I illustrate his position is unclear.

An interview with Jian Ghomeshi on QTV reveals the double standard that Hitchens has about the cause/effect relationship of religion and human behavior.

Jian Ghomeshi: I think you would be hard pressed to find a religious person to claim that there’s never been any negative implications or violence or wicked deeds that have been done in the name of religion.

Hitchens: They say in the name of. It’s not in the name of. That’s their get out clause. You echo it yourself. It’s explicit; it’s part of the religion. The most celebrated action of the Abrahamic is the willingness of someone to gut and murder his own son because he thinks it will please God…It’s not in the name of. It’s in the word of God himself. The commandments and instructions. These are warrants for genocide, rape, slavery, infant mutilation and worse.

Hitchens has also stated, “Religion kills,” “is violent” and “has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.” He has also said, “The evil things missionaries do are definitely done because of religion.” Hitchens tries to draw a direct correlation between the violent behavior of people and their religion. His book God is Not Great is mostly a chronicle of all of the horrendous things done by people who are religious. And he disagrees with Ghomeshi who says wicked deeds have been done in the name of religion. But if something is not done in the name of religion how else does it occur? According to Hitchens religion has the magical power to make people do things. But for Hitchens religion only has the power to make people do wicked things. Anything good done in the name of religion is strictly due to human nature and nothing else, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” After discussing some awful acts carried out by people who are religious Hitchens states, “At minimum this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized matter.” But in the same interview on QTv he states [emphasis added],

Jian Ghomeshi: Would you agree that there is anything in the world that that has been done in the name of religion that is positive?

Hitchens: Things done by Jimmy Carter are done by Jimmy Carter. If you’re telling me people wouldn’t help build affordable housing if they weren’t Baptist fundamentalists…


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What Christopher Hitchens and the New Atheists Can Learn From Malcolm X

Jul6

by: on July 6th, 2010 | 16 Comments »

Cross-posted from Common Sense Religion

As one of the most prominent public voices resisting the culture of Christian and religious dominance Christopher Hitchens earns himself a comparison to the freedom fighter who nearly fifty years ago urged the civil rights movement to “stop singing and start swinging.” Responding to a culture of white supremacy, the vicious legacy of colonialism and the hypocrisy of American democracy Malcolm X became one of the strongest voices for black resistance and identity. For much of his life, before his break with the Nation of Islam and his shift toward racial inclusiveness he framed the race problem in an absolutist manner claiming that all white people are devils. He believed that white people could never do any good. Malcolm X publicly made his case by deconstructing the white mindset, analyzing the white power structure and describing the vicious history that has accompanied the Euro-American legacy. It was this fierce resistance against assimilation into white culture that set him apart from the strategy of integration pursued by Dr. King and many others. Despite their shift towards each other’s positions near the end of their lives it is still accurate to describe them as James Cone did: Malcolm X saw America as a nightmare while Dr. King saw it as a dream.

Christopher Hitchens is perhaps the most well known voice amongst the new atheists; Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet. With books like The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great and with bold personalities they have a reputation for being fierce critics of all things religious. For them religion is most certainly a nightmare. But even amongst a group of vigilant, passionate and hardcore atheists, Hitchens stands out. Perhaps this is because of his prolific career as a journalist, author and popular media commentator on a variety of subjects. But he is also known for being a contrarian; taking unpopular positions and defending them against anyone who will put up a fight. And he claims he has never refused to debate anyone. His God is Not Great book tour presented the opportunity for numerous media appearances, lectures and debates with religious defenders. He even ventured into the Christian Book Expo and debated four well-known evangelical and conservative Christian apologists at the same time. Like X, Hitchens systematically deconstructs the logic of that which he is resisting by pointing out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies within many religious institutions and their texts. He also does a brilliant job of describing the inevitable and disturbing conclusions that must be reached if many of the religious doctrines are taken to be as literally true.

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Are the New Atheists Wrong to Suggest Religious Moderates Justify the Extremes?

Jun25

by: on June 25th, 2010 | 29 Comments »

I want your opinion about something. I’m a liberal religious person who doesn’t believe in doctrines, dogma or a supernatural God. 19% of members in my tradition identify as atheist, 30% as agnostic and the rest Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Pagan or otherwise. Many of us have been wounded by the bigotry, homophobia and dogma in the religions we grew up in and find refuge, support and community in my tradition. We come together on Sunday mornings to enjoy music and hear sermons about social justice, the power of community and how to live inspiring and meaningful lives. Some ministers may use the word God in an all-inclusive way but most choose to avoid the term because of its troubled history. Here’s my question for you: Should I abandon my tradition because liberal and moderate religion serves to justify the extremes? Is my participation in this religious institution providing legitimacy and credibility for fundamentalism, violence, oppression and bigotry done in the name of religion? I’m studying to be a minister in this tradition. It’s called Unitarian Universalism. Am I guilty by association? Should I jump ship? What do you think?

I know what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins would tell me. They are two of the new atheists most responsible for spreading this idea about liberal and moderate religion justifying the extremes. Liberals are “aiding and abetting” the most dangerous religions because they give them credibility by participating in the institution of religion itself. Sam Harris states that moderates are “in large part responsible for the religious conflict in our world” and “Religious tolerance-born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God-is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” And Richard Dawkins states, “The teachings of “moderate” religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” And when asked about why he lumps liberal religions like Unitarianism in with fundamentalism Hitchens responded a reference to Camus stating that he believes all religion is comparable to rats and vermin.

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God Doesn’t Play Favorites: A Religious Person Rethinks Prayer

Jun22

by: on June 22nd, 2010 | 11 Comments »

Crossposted from Common Sense Religion

God does not answer prayer.

There, I’ve said it. I know for some my assertion is scandalous, while for others it is mere common sense. But before you summon the inquisitor to prepare the rack or brand me a heretic or rush to my defense, hear me out.

I used to believe that God answered prayer. Being raised a Christian I was taught that I had an invisible, magical and wish-granting friend named Jesus who cared about all of my problems, however big or small. All I had to do was pray in his name. And if I didn’t get what I asked for there was a good chance it was because I wasn’t praying hard enough. This idea was so central to the Christian faith I was taught that never was I allowed to question the presupposition that God played favorites via a divine competition for “his” attention.

It took many years before I began wondering about the implications of God intervening in the world to answer prayer. I must admit, however, that in my youth I never had made an earnest effort to understand the logic behind prayer. Like many Christians I had a superficial understanding of my religion. I never read the Bible or studied the history of my tradition. And in high school I was too busy skipping Sunday school and getting high behind the Church to care about theology. One of the few times I did attend I remember listening to former WWF wrestler Jake the Snake Roberts with boa constrictor in hand give his testimony about how Jesus saved him. With an old spandex clad wrestler as a primary source of my understanding about the Christian faith I definitely had some learning to do.

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