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  • Americans are becoming less religious, judging by such markers as church attendance, prayer and belief in God, and the trend is more pronounced among young adults, according to a poll released on Tuesday. The share of U.S. adults who say they believe in God, while still high compared with other advanced industrial countries, slipped to 89 percent in 2014 from 92 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study.
  • There’s something macabre about hosting a photo-op inside of a prison. Waiting for the pope to arrive at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia on Sunday, inside walls topped with barbed wire, cameramen milled about while televisions blared. Harsh lights were trained on the papal chair, handmade by prisoners, which sat empty at the front of an elementary-school-style gymnasium. The early warning sign of a Francis sighting is always his entourage. Surrounded by hordes of men in black suits and cardinals in black cassocks, the pope’s white was striking. He changed the feel of the room, just barely, smiling with unmistakable delight at the row of female inmates seated at the front.
  • A clerk's office turned away gay couples who sought marriage licenses on Thursday, defying a federal judge's order that said deeply held Christian beliefs don't excuse officials from following the law. The fight in Rowan County began soon after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide in June. County Clerk Kim Davis cited her religious beliefs and decided not to issue marriage licenses to any couple, gay or straight. Five couples sued in federal court, and legal experts likened the case to the resistance some local officials in the South put up five decades ago after the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage.
  • In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
  • The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a Ten Commandments monument placed on State Capitol grounds must be removed because the Oklahoma Constitution bans the use of state property for the benefit of a religion. The 6-foot-tall (1.8-meter) stone monument, paid for with private money and supported by lawmakers in the socially conservative state, was installed in 2012, prompting complaints that it violated the U.S. Constitution's provisions against government establishment of religion, as well as local laws.
  • Over the weekend, the New England Conference of United Methodist Churches, which represents 600 congregations, voted for a resolution that calls for a complete end to the War On Drugs. The resolution points to Christian principles of redemption and restoration to replace the current system of punitive sanctions against drug users:
  • Before the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, most politicians kept their faith to themselves. In 1945, for example, President Harry Truman wrote: “I’m not very much impressed with men who publicly parade their religious beliefs.” After his election in 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a Presbyterian church, but when he heard the minister was publicly boasting about his new member the general commanded, “You go and tell that goddam minister that if he gives out one more story about my religious faith I will not join his goddam church!” John F. Kennedy discussed his Catholicism only when forced to do so by critics during the 1960 presidential campaign.
  • The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the son of Holocaust survivors, is an accomplished, even gifted, pessimist. To his disciples, he is a Jewish Zola, accusing France’s bien-pensant intellectual class of complicity in its own suicide. To his foes, he is a reactionary whose nostalgia for a fairy-tale French past is induced by an irrational fear of Muslims. Finkielkraut’s cast of mind is generally dark, but when we met in Paris in early January, two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, he was positively grim. “My French identity is reinforced by the very large number of people who openly declare, often now with violence, their hostility to French values and culture,” he said. “I live in a strange place. There is so much guilt and so much worry.
  • Possible Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson suggested over the weekend that religion was necessary for testing scientific theories because the science could be “propaganda.” On Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Carson, a former neurosurgeon, how science could coexist with his conservative Christian principles. “A person’s religious beliefs are the things that make them who they are, gives them a direction in their life,” Carson opined. “But I do not believe that religious beliefs should dictate one’s public policies and stances.”
  • Until the Scientific Revolution most human cultures did not believe in progress. They thought the golden age was in the past, and that the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating. Strict adherence to the wisdom of the ages might perhaps bring back the good old times, and human ingenuity might conceivably improve this or that facet of daily life. However, it was considered impossible for human know-how to overcome the world’s fundamental problems. If even Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Confucius – who knew everything there is to know – were unable to abolish famine, disease, poverty and war from the world, how could we expect to do so?
  • Two hooded men bearing Kalashnikovs burst into the Paris headquarters of the famed French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo yesterday and assassinated 12 people, including four cartoonists. As they committed their act of savagery, they shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” and “We have avenged the Prophet!” (surely for Charlie Hebdo’s repeated satire of Islam). The men fled the scene — as of first thing this morning, one suspect was in custody and police were searching for two others. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has raised Vigipirate, the country’s national security alert system, to its highest level in the Île-de-France region encompassing Paris, which means stepped-up police and military patrols.
  • I would like to thank Reza Aslan. In his recent Salon rebuttal to denunciations (including mine) of religion put forward by people the media has come to call New Atheists, he resurrects a word the late Christopher Hitchens, now three years departed, used to describe himself: antitheist. (Aslan even provides the link to a relevant Hitchens text from long ago that is well worth reading.) Antitheists hold that the portrayal of our world and humankind’s place in it as set out in the foundational texts of the three Abrahamic religions constitutes, to quote Hitchens, “a sinister fairy tale,” and that “life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case.
  • The Christian right’s obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but it could someday be rivaled by the hatred of someone you’ve probably never even heard of. Darwin earned their hatred because he explained the evolution of life in a way that doesn’t require the hand of God. Darwin didn’t exclude God, of course, though many creationists seem incapable of grasping this point. But he didn’t require God, either, and that was enough to drive some people mad. Darwin also didn’t have anything to say about how life got started in the first place — which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined.
  • Should you believe in a God? Not according to most academic philosophers. A comprehensive survey revealed that only about 14 percent of English speaking professional philosophers are theists. As for what little religious belief remains among their colleagues, most professional philosophers regard it as a strange aberration among otherwise intelligent people. Among scientists the situation is much the same. Surveys of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, composed of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically nonexistent, about 7 percent.
  • American faith has gone through many awakenings. Depending on how you count, there have been three or four distinctive surges of Protestant religiosity in the United States, marked by tent revivals, missionary work, widespread conversions, and, often, intense rhetoric about the consequences of sin. These "Great Awakenings" have been memorialized through texts like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," a sermon delivered by the preacher Jonathan Edwards in 1741, who warned of the "fire of wrath" in hell. So it's provocative to title your book Atheist Awakening.
  • Jesus never could have been the pastor of a contemporary evangelical church nor a conservative Roman Catholic bishop. Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics thrive on drawing distinctions between their “truth” and other people’s failings. Jesus by contrast, set off an empathy time bomb that obliterates difference. Jesus’ empathy bomb explodes every time a former evangelical puts love ahead of what the “Bible says.” It goes off every time Pope Francis puts inclusion ahead of dogma. It goes off every time a gay couple are welcomed into a church. Jesus’ time bomb explodes whenever atheists follow Jesus better than most Christians. Put it this way: Godless non-church-going Denmark mandates four weeks of maternity leave before childbirth and fourteen weeks afterward for mothers.
  • Jerusalem's Temple Mount — home to the holiest site in Judaism and one of the holiest in Islam — is closed for the first time in at least 14 years, and possibly since Israel took over east Jerusalem in 1967. The reason is that fears of large-scale political violence are rising in the city. After months of clashes between Arab residents and Israeli police, an operative allegedly with Islamic Jihad attempted to assassinate a far-right Jewish activist on Wednesday, raising tensions to critical levels. Some analysts are already calling this the start of a third intifada, though others say it's far too early to tell. So how did Jerusalem get so bad? What happened, and what's going to happen next? Here's a guide to the Jerusalem conflict.
  • In an exciting declaration, Pope Francis I stated that God should not seen as a “magician with a magic wand,” while unveiling a statue of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Pope Francis also stated that evolution and the Big Bang theory are both true and not incompatible with the church’s views on the origins of the universe and life. “When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said, according to the Independent. Francis continued by stating that God “created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.
  • On September 17, 2001, President George W. Bush gave his "Islam is peace" speech from the Islamic Center of Washington DC, tucked into a leafy stretch of embassy row. He urged the country to embrace "fellow Americans" who are Muslim as well as Islam itself "with respect," explaining to a country full of "anger and emotion" that the jihadists who'd struck a few days earlier were insane outliers and not representative of the religion. Since then, there has been a tension in how Islam is discussed in American media, and especially in its most populist and popular form, television. Americans typically follow Bush's advice, but sometimes they struggle, particularly when violent extremist groups are in the news.
  • Not long after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which Ayatollah Ruhollah Kho­meini became supreme leader, a U.S. official was heard to exclaim: “Who ever took religion seriously?” The official was baffled at the interruption of what he assumed was an overwhelmingly powerful historical trend. Pretty well everyone at the time took it for granted that religion was on the way out, not only as a matter of personal belief, but even more as a deciding factor in politics. Secularization was advancing everywhere, and with increasing scientific knowledge and growing prosperity it was poised to become a universal human condition. True, there were some countries that remained stubbornly religious—including, ironically, the United States. But these were exceptions.