Funny, They Never Thought of That

Something’s definitely going on in Europe. When a German court ruled recently that a doctor who performed a circumcision on a male child for religious reasons could be criminally liable, most Americans thought the ruling was an aberration. But then, as my colleague Marc writes,  it turned out that that certain hospitals in Austria and Switzerland had suspended the practice out of a concern for criminal liability. Now, according to a story in Haaretz, Norway’s children’s-rights ombudsperson, Dr. Anne Lindboe, has helpfully proposed that Jews and Muslims in her country replace circumcision with a nonsurgical, symbolic alternative. Circumcising infant boys — at eight days, for Jews, and around seven years, typically, for Muslims — violates their rights, Dr. Lindboe argues, and causes unnecessary pain. Dr. Lindboe did not herself attempt to devise a new ritual for Jews and Muslims; she doubtless believed that respect for religious freedom counseled letting them come up with their own alternatives. At least for now. (H/T: Religion Clause).

Wuthnow, “The God Problem”

A fascinating looking book from the eminent sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow (Princeton), The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable (University of California Press 2012).  The publisher’s description follows.

The United States is one of the most highly educated societies on earth, and also one of the most religious. In The God Problem, Robert Wuthnow examines how middle class Americans juggle the seemingly paradoxical relationship between faith and reason.

Based on exceptionally rich and candid interviews with approximately two hundred people from various faiths, this book dispels the most common explanations: that Americans are adept at keeping religion and intellect separate, or that they are a nation of “joiners.” Instead, Wuthnow argues, we do this—not by coming up with rational proofs for the existence of God—but by adopting subtle usages of language that keep us from making unreasonable claims about God. In an illuminating narrative that reveals the complex negotiations many undertake in order to be religious in the modern world, Wuthnow probes the ways of talking that occur in prayers, in discussions about God, in views of heaven, in understandings of natural catastrophes and personal tragedies, and in attempts to reconcile faith with science.

Schmidt, “Restless Souls”

I was not aware of this book, now being published in its second edition: (first published in 2005) Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (University of California Press 2d ed. 2012) by Leigh Eric Schmidt (Washington University in St. Louis).  What looks interesting is its connection of the seemingly contemporary American attraction to “spirituality” with older veins of American religious sentiment like transcendentalism.  The publisher’s description follows.

Yoga classes and Zen meditation, New-Age retreats and nature mysticism—all are part of an ongoing religious experimentation that has surprisingly deep roots in American history. Tracing out the country’s Transcendentalist and cosmopolitan religious impulses over the last two centuries, Restless Souls explores America’s abiding romance with spirituality as religion’s better half. Now in its second edition, including a new preface, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s fascinating book provides a rich account of how this open-road spirituality developed in American culture in the first place as well as a sweeping survey of the liberal religious movements that touted it and ensured its continued vitality.

Patel, “Sacred Ground”

From Random House this month, a new book on anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States, Eboo Patel, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (2012). The publisher’s description follows.

In the decade following the attacks of 9/11, suspicion and animosity toward American Muslims has increased rather than subsided. Alarmist, hateful rhetoric once relegated to the fringes of political discourse has now become frighteningly mainstream, with pundits and politicians routinely invoking the specter of Islam as a menacing, deeply anti-American force.

In Sacred Ground, author and renowned interfaith leader Eboo Patel says this prejudice is not just a problem for Muslims but a challenge to the very idea of America. Patel shows us that Americans from George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. have been “interfaith leaders,” illustrating how the forces of pluralism in America have time and again defeated the forces of Read more

Religious Freedom: How Others See Us

Before everyone starts emailing, let me quickly say that the state of religious freedom in America is qualitatively better than in many, many other countries.  And I am not in any way equating the HHS Contraception Mandate with the sort of religious persecution that exists routinely elsewhere. (The US does not imprison and abuse people for conducting prayer meetings, for example). Given the US’s habit of issuing annual reports that condemn threats to religious freedom in other countries, though, it might be helpful at least to read what outside observers say about us. Here are two statements, one an editorial on a Russian Orthodox Church website, and the other a public letter from the Vatican, arguing that the US has its own religious freedom issues to address. Of the two, the Vatican’s is better done — the Russian veers into anti-American agitprop — though even the Vatican’s letter is itself a little vague, speaking only of “concerted efforts … to redefine and restrict the exercise of the right to religious freedom,” and ” the unprecedented gravity of … new threats to the Church’s liberty and public moral witness” in America. The implication is clear, though. The Mandate may be compromising the credibility of the US’s voice on religious freedom around the world.