Sunday, July 29, 2018

Religion and Aliens, or Where is Everybody?

“Where is everybody?”

That is the question famed physicist Enrico Fermi asked in 1950 about the absence of contact with alien life.

Today the question is known as the Fermi paradox. It describes the apparent contradiction between the probability that the vast universe must certainly be home to other earth-like planets and civilizations—and the absence of any evidence they exist.

Over the decades, there have been many attempts to explain the Fermi paradox. Sone say alien life is either not able to contact us or unwilling to do so. Others say we are not sophisticated enough as a species to communicate with them.

Underneath it all is a feeling that we just can’t be alone in the universe—there must be something, or someone else, out there.

But now a team of researchers at the University of Oxford says no.

According to paper released in June by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, and Toby Ord of the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), and titled “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox,” there is a high probability “of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it.”

This result, they go on to say, “dissolves the Fermi paradox, and in doing so removes any need to invoke speculative mechanisms by which civilizations would inevitably fail to have observable effects upon the universe.”

The authors are not making a definitive claim about whether or not aliens exist. They are just suggesting that the preponderance of evidence indicates we are likely alone.

Such a conclusion has a number of implications for science—none of which I am qualified to explore—and also for religion.

The question of whether human beings are unique and have a special relationship with God has prompted a great deal of speculation about what it would mean for religion if it could be proved that aliens existed.

The question led Vanderbilt University professor of astronomy David Weintraub to write a book on the topic, titled Religions and Extraterrestrial Life.

In the book, Weintraub describes the view of different religions about extraterrestrial life—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others.

He concludes that Asian religions would have the least difficulty in accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

For example, some Hindu thinkers have speculated that humans may be reincarnated as aliens, and vice versa. And Buddhist cosmology includes thousands of inhabited worlds.

He says there are passages in the Qur’an that appear to support the idea that spiritual beings exist on other planets, but notes that these beings may not practice Islam as it is practiced on Earth.

Weintraub found very little in Judaic scriptures or rabbinical writings on the subject. He quotes a Jewish scholar who asserts that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence wouldn’t change the special relationship God has with the Jewish people.

As for Christians, he says that Roman Catholics have done the most thinking about the possibility of life on other worlds.

Protestant thinking is all over the map, in keeping with the thousands of different denominations that make up the Protestant world—some are open to it, while others deny it could be possible.

One commonality across Christianity is the belief that the need for salvation is universal, and the saving power of God must apply everywhere.

All of this may be moot, of course, if the paper by the Future of Humanity Institute is correct.

But that raises another question for people of faith: If this planet is indeed all that there is when it comes to intelligent life, how should we be treating it?

Right now, there are significant debates about fossil fuels, pipelines, use of plastics, and climate change—not to mention the ongoing threat of nuclear war. What is the religious response to those issues? What is our religious responsibility to this planet?

As for me, I don’t know if aliens exist—and neither do the world’s top scientists. So until we hear differently, I’m inclined to side with Carl Sagan who said in his book, Pale Blue Dot:

 “In all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life . . . the Earth is where we make our stand.”

From the July 27, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Rachael Denhollander's Former Church Apologizes: "We Were Sinfully Unloving"

In February I wrote about Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with allegations of abuse against Dr. Larry Nassar.

What prompted me to write about her was the victim-impact statement she gave at his sentencing.

In it, she described how his abuse had impacted her life, and the things it had cost her. One of those things, she said, was her church.

That caught my attention, so contacted Denhollander to ask what she meant.

She told me that while she was struggling with the decision to go public about Nassar, her own evangelical church in Louisville, Kentucky, was actively supporting a prominent national evangelical ministry that had been accused of covering up child sex abuse.

“My own church was actively supporting a ministry whose leaders had been very credibly accused of failing to report child predators,” she told me.

She and her husband, Jacob, brought their concerns to church leadership. It went nowhere.

Not only that, some of the leaders at her church raised questions about her character, and about her faith.

And so in 2016, when Denhollander decided to go public with her story of abuse by Nassar, she didn’t receive any support from her church.

In fact, her previous advocacy for other victims was “wielded like a weapon” by some of the church’s leaders in an effort to discredit her accusations against Nassar, she said.

“They essentially said I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgement was clouded,” she shared.

Within six months, she and her husband left the congregation. “We were told it wasn’t the place for us,” she said.

And there the story sat—until the end of May. That’s when her former church issued an apology.

In a statement titled “We were Rachael’s Church,” the pastors at Immanuel Baptist spoke of Denhollander’s “tremendous courage and grace” in speaking about how Nassar’s abuse had affected her.

They went on to say they were “delighted to hear Rachael’s clear proclamation of biblical justice and forgiveness” and how she spoke up on behalf of those who have been sexually abused.

But delight, they went on to say, “was not our only reaction.”

What they were referring to, of course, was Denhollander’s reference to losing her church.

When leaders at Immanuel heard that, “we knew that we were that church,” they wrote.

In the weeks that followed her victim impact statement, leaders at Immanuel read, studied, prayed and consulted with others. They also met with Denhollander and her husband.

By the time they had a congregational meeting on the subject, “we saw we had sin to confess. We had failed . . . to care adequately for the Denhollanders in a time of deep need.”

In particular, they confessed to failing to listen to and understand Denhollander’s concerns about their support for the ministry that was the subject of allegations of cover-up—and the terrible message that support sent to survivors of abuses.

They also confessed to the poor pastoral care they offered the Denhollanders.

In hindsight, they wrote, “we see we were sinfully unloving. We have since thoroughly repented to the Denhollanders.” In return, they said, the Denhollanders “have been very gracious and forgiving.”

They concluded the statement by indicating they will no longer invite leaders from the ministry under investigation to serve at their church. At the same time, they say, the experience has made their church more sensitive to the subject of sexual abuse.

I reached out to Denhollander once again for her response to the church’s apology.

The statement, she said, “was very encouraging.”

She added: “I am very grateful for restored fellowship, leadership, and renewed listening to the voices of survivors at our former church, and for the leadership of the pastors in our now-home church who walked with us through this process.”

Denhollander and other survivors of Nassar’s abuse are still struggling to get his employer, Michigan State University, to apologize for what happened, and to launch an internal investigation into the breakdowns and failures that allowed the abuse to go on for so long.

The University has declined to do either of those things. But as far as Denhollander’s experience with her former church goes, at least there is one good and hopeful ending.

From the July 21, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Church Sex Abuse Scandals Both Bad and Good News

It’s been a tough couple of months for Christians lately, what with the media once again filled with news about sex scandals involving major church leaders.

For Catholics, the latest revelation involved Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington.

McCarrick, one of the most powerful and influential leaders in the church, has been accused of at least three cases of sexual misconduct with adults decades ago. Two of those cases resulted in settlements.

Then there was Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella, a 50-year-old Vatican official. He was found guilty of possessing and distributing child pornography and sentenced to five years in jail.

In Australia, Cardinal George Pell is facing trial over alleged sexual abuse 40 years ago. Also in that country, Adelaide Archbishop PhilipWilson was found guilty of covering up child sex abuse by a priest in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, in Chile all the bishops in that country submitted their resignations at the request of the Pope because of their failure to deal with priests who abused children. Pope Francis has accepted three of the resignations, so far.

Protestants also had their own bad news to deal with in this time of #MeToo.

Three key leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “conservative resurgence” movement—Frank Page, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler—have have either been fired, resigned or are living under accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct.

Page resigned as president and chief executive officer of the Convention’s executive committee over what he described as “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past.”

Patterson was fired as president of the denomination’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for inappropriate comments about women, and for counseling women who were physically abused by their husbands to stay in their marriages and “be submissive in every way that you can.”

Pressler stands accused of sexual misconduct by a number of men. The accusations include molestation and soliciting them for sex as teenagers.

The revelations prompted prominent Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler to write in that “the avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear.

“These grievous revelations of sin have occurred in churches, in denominational ministries, and even in our seminaries.”

He put blame for the issues taking so long to come to light to a “conspiracy of silence.”

Another church dealing with the fallout of sexual misconduct is the influential Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois.

The church, which provides leadership and other resources to over 13,000 member churches in 45 countries through its Willow Creek Association, issued a public apology this month for how it mishandled allegations of misconduct against its senior pastor,  Bill Hybels.

Hybels stepped down from leading Willow Creek in April following an investigation by a Chicago newspaper that revealed allegations of misconduct with women, including a longtime affair with a married woman.

“I need to publicly apologize to the women who raised concerns about Bill,” pastor Heather Larson said of how the church had engaged in a strategy of denial and defense of Hybels, and attacking the accusers.

“To the women directly, I can’t imagine how painful these months have been for you and I am so sorry for the ways I have contributed to that,” she added.

Whew—that’s a lot of bad news. Why repeat it? Because it’s also good news.

It’s good news that the voices of women and others who have been abused—people long marginalized, silenced and disbelieved by churches—are finally now being heard in this age of #MeToo.

It’s good news that major church publications are reporting about these abuses—not covering them up.

It’s good news that more churches and denominations are recognizing that giving leaders (almost always men) unlimited power, blind allegiance, biblical justification for their actions and little accountability is an invitation to disaster.

And it’s good news for a watching world to see that more churches are finally willing to do the hard things when sexual abuse is reported—not brush it under the carpet.

(This isn’t only a Christian phenomenon, by-the-way; there are also Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and atheist #MeToo movements.”)

This won’t be the end of the bad news. I’m sure there will be many more revelations of abuse and inappropriate conduct. 

But seeing those headlines also means that some churches and denominations are beginning to deal seriously with the problem. 

And that is very good news.

From the July 14, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

“I want them to think about Jesus" says Winnipeg's Homeless Street Preacher

Lucas Aragon like another homeless man in the Bible who felt a call from God to  preach repentance

If you drive downtown on weekday mornings in Winnipeg, or take the bus, you’ve seen the “Jesus is Lord” man.

He stands at the corner of Portage and Donald, shopping cart with meagre possessions in tow, with his homemade signs: “Jesus is Lord,” “I love Jesus,” or “only Jesus saves.”

Maybe you have wondered: Who is he? And why is he there?

As a regular transit rider who sees him there each morning, I know I did. So I decided to ask.

His name is Lucas Aragon. An immigrant from El Salvador, the 48 year-old has been in Canada for 28 years.

A pleasant, friendly and engaging man with long black hair and a beard, Lucas is quick to smile and say hello to passing pedestrians.

He is also homeless.

Lucas didn’t plan to be where he is today. At one time, he had a steady job and was in a relationship. But in 2013 he lost his job and the relationship turned sour.

A year later, he was on the street.

But then he felt God’s call to turn his life around and get a new job as a preacher. But not a preacher in a church—on the streets.

“This is my job now,” he said. “I do it for Jesus.”

His “pulpit” is the sidewalk in front of Mountain Equipment Co-op. He’s there each weekday morning, starting about 6 A.M.

Unlike other preachers, Lucas doesn’t use words. He stands quietly with his signs, unless someone talks to him.

Then he loves to talk—about Jesus.

About 9, he goes to the library. While there he uses the Internet to check his Facebook account, uploading Bible verses or inspirational videos.

He spends the rest of his time at other public locations, then comes back to the corner in the early evening.

“I try my best to be here twice a day,” he said.

That includes winter, although he admits sometimes the bitter cold can sometimes keep him from his corner.

At night, he sleeps downtown, his cart tied loosely to his ankle in case someone tries to steal it.

I asked him: Why doesn’t he stay in a shelter?

“I don’t feel safe there,” he said. Plus, he added, “it’s hard to sleep.”

But surely sleeping outside, especially in winter, must be hard, I told him.

It is, he admitted. But God has not only called him to preach, but to be homeless and live on the streets.

“It’s a test of my faith,” he said.

What about food—how does he eat?

“God provides,” he said. “I’m not here to beg. I leave it up to God.”

It’s true. He has no cup or hat where people can toss change. He relies on kind people to give him food or money—unasked.

Sometimes he gets more than he can use. Then he shares it with others who live on the streets.

What if someone gave him a nice, free, safe place to say—would he take it?

“No,” he said firmly. “I’m afraid I would get too comfortable and not come here each day.”

I asked: Does he go to church?

For the first time, Lucas seemed annoyed—maybe even a little bit angry.

“I go to church and see people with their hands in the air, praising God, and then I see people who are poor and needy on the streets,” he said animatedly.

“They praise God, but they don’t follow God—they don’t help the poor.”

He was quick to add that just doing good deeds, like helping the poor, isn’t enough. People also need to repent and turn to Jesus.

What do people need to repent of? I asked.

“Evil deeds, drinking, drugs, love of money,” he said. “No matter how much money we have, we always want more.”

What does he hope people will think when they see him on the corner?

“I want them to think about Jesus,” he said. “He is the way, the truth and the life.”

As I headed for work, I couldn’t help thinking about another homeless man who long ago felt a call from God to  preach repentance. His name was John the Baptist.

I’m not saying Lucas is a new John the Baptist. But there are similarities.

One thing I do know: He sure preached to me. 

Maybe he preached to you, too.

The Role of Religion in Civil Society

On May 28-29, a major civil society summit was held in Ottawa in advance of the June 8-9 G7 in Charlevoix, Quebec. 

The summit—dubbed the C7—brought together representatives from all G7 member states and the European Union, along with representatives from civil society groups in Canada, to discuss ways to create a fairer, more sustainable and safer world.

As a sign of how important the summit was to the Canadian government, both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, attended. 

They emphasized the importance of civil society when it comes to influencing and working with government—and helping it achieve its goals on the international stage.

In the outcome document, C7 organizers noted that CSOs “drive action, mobilize resources and implement programs, generate evidence and advocate for change,” as they “work directly with local communities both at home and abroad” to bring “a broader and more diverse set of voices and human experiences to conversations and processes.”

And yet, as credit-worthy as it was, the summit was not as broad or diverse as it could have been. It was missing one of the most important civil society voices: Organized religion.

Although a few faith-based NGOs were present, not one speaker, presenter or panelist came from a religious group, and the subject of religion didn’t come up once.

In a conversation after the summit, an organizer said the idea of including faith community leaders never came up in the planning. In retrospect, he acknowledged this was an oversight.

I have to agree. By not including anyone from the faith community, or discussing the role religion plays in civil society, the summit missed hearing from the largest and most influential CSOs in Canada. 

On any given weekend, an estimated four million Canadians from different faith groups participate in worship services.

But, so what? Canada is becoming more secular, after all. Attendance and affiliation in religious groups is dropping, and the influence of organized religion in society is waning. Why should it be included in a discussion about the role of civil society?

I can think of at least five reasons.

1. Organized religion is one of the major gateways to participation in civil society.

As authors Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald point out in their new book, Leaving Christianity: Changing Alliances in Canada since 1945, “churches have traditionally served as one of the chief entry points—if not the chief entry point—to civil society.”

How do they do that? Churches, and other faith groups, are places where many Canadians learn how to be civically engaged through things like speaking in public, leading meetings, being part of boards or committees, engaging people with differing viewpoints, giving to charity, raising awareness about justice issues, and doing service in the community.

Not only that; people who are more religiously involved tend to vote more, be active in local community organizations, and stay up with the news.

Of course, other groups also contribute to society’s social capital. But “churches have been one of the major gateways to participation in the rest of society,” they state, adding “for whatever reason, they are unique in the ways they empower people to become active members of Canadian society.”

2. The charitable sector depends on religious people.

One of the best predictors of whether someone gives to charity—any charity—is if they are religiously active, as research from Statistics Canada shows.

This was confirmed in 2017 by the pollster Angus Reid, which found that people who are religiously committed are over twice as likely as members of any other group to say they are “very involved” or “quite involved” in their communities.

Non-religious people, by contrast, are the most likely to say they are “not at all involved” in the community.

As well, the pollster found that religiously committed Canadians are almost twice as likely as any other group to say they “try to donate to whatever charities they can,” and give about three times more than the non-religious.

3. Organized religion is key to helping NGOs, and the government, reach their goals for international relief and development.

Research by David Lasby of Imagine Canada, the umbrella group for Canadian charities, confirms that religiosity is one of the main drivers behind whether someone donates for international causes.

In 2013, 21% of regular attenders at worship services gave to international causes, according to Lasby’s research. This compares to 8% of people who never attend.

One reason for why religious people give more is that people who attend worship services regularly are apt to hear about world needs during sermons, prayers, sharing time, education time and the bulletin. 

They also receive regular opportunities to donate through the collection plate.

When it comes to humanitarian emergencies, people of faith also can be counted on to give generously. Research shows that when the federal government announces a matching fund for a humanitarian disaster, between 40% to 50% of donations to those appeals comes through faith-based NGOs.

4. Religion plays a key role in development.

Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam in Great Britain is a self-declared atheist. But he says that aid groups, and the governments that support them,need to pay more attention to the role of religion plays in eradicating global poverty.

Religion, he says, “is central to the lives of poor people in a way that governments, aid and NGOs are not. All the research shows that poor people trust religious organizations, turn to them in times of need,” such as disasters.

Religion is also important when it comes to development, and changing the structures that keep people in the developing world—including women and girls—from reaching their full potential.

“As we think harder about how change happens, religion keeps cropping up,” Green says, adding that religion plays a key role in social norms around things like the role and education of women. 

As a result, he says, it is easier for faith groups—which are already accepted and respected by poor people—to change behaviours of their adherents than it would be for “secular aid agencies.”

Religion is also important in fragile and dysfunctional states, he says, places where government services are absent.

His conclusion? “If we [aid groups] are serious about development, we need to understand much more about the diversity, divisions and debates within each church on things like women’s roles,” he says.

In other words, for the government and aid groups to achieve the ambitious goal of assisting women and girls, they will need help and input from organized religion.

5. The Halo Effect At Home

It’s not only development overseas that religion has an impact. It’s also true at home.

According to Cardus, a Canadian think-tank, places of worship provide almost $20 billion of social, spiritual and communal capital to Canadian towns and cities.

That amount is what it calls the Halo effect, a calculation of things like free meeting space for community groups, programs, community development and the magnet effect of drawing people into a neighbourhood.

According to Cardus, every dollar a place of worship spends creates about $4.77 of common good benefit—the halo effect—is generated.

Additional value was produced through things such as working with refugees, soup kitchens, helping the homeless, job training, programs to treat substance abuse, programs for children, youth and families, community garden plots, hosting concerts and other events, counselling, recreational activities (gyms and playing fields), operating nursery schools and day cares, and volunteering in the neighbourhood.

"The value of religious congregations to the wider community is somewhere in the order of four to five times of a congregation's annual operating budget,” says Milton Friesen, who is the Social Cities Program Director for Cardus.

“This is money that governments don’t need to spend.”

For example, if a congregation with an annual budget of $250,000 should close, Cardus estimates a city or town would need to come up with about $1.2 million every year to replace what was lost to the wider community.

The value of the halo effect across Canada is $1.6 billion in Vancouver, $2 billion in Edmonton, $2.2 billion in Calgary, $489 million in Saskatoon, $1.5 billion in Winnipeg, $6.7 billion in Toronto and $2.1 billion in Montreal.

For Friesen, the halo effects shows how places of worship “are important parts of the landscape,” and should not be “ignored when calculating the social capital of a community.”

Where to from here?

Of course, organized religion in Canada isn’t the same force it used to be. And its record isn’t unvarnished; it has had both a positive and a negative impact on society. But it still plays a key role.

So the next time government and civil society organizations meet to talk about ways they can work together, they may want to invite representatives from religious groups.

After all, efforts to make the world a fairer, safer and more sustainable place depend on it.

A shorter version of this column was originally published July 4, 2018 in The Hill Times.