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July 17, 2009

Religion and the ''Moral Axis of the Universe''

(Photo by Robin Holland)

In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with author Robert Wright, who discussed his vision of how various cultures’ notions of God have evolved throughout history. Wright suggested that, at their best, religious traditions have aligned their adherents with a transcendent “moral axis of the universe” that encompasses values applicable to all of humanity:

“I believe there’s a purpose unfolding that has a moral directionality – I have barely the vaguest notion of what might be behind that and whether it could be anything like a personal God or an intelligent being or not... Whatever is behind it, if something is, is probably something that’s beyond human conception... Given the constraints on human cognition, believing in a personal God is a pretty defensible way to go about orienting yourself to the moral axis of the universe... [The] conscience, which certainly is imperfect as natural selection shaped it, is not by itself a reliable guide to moral conduct, I think... If we want to secure the salvation of the global social system and of the planet – in other words, if we want salvation in the Hebrew Bible sense of the term – we do have to move ourselves closer to what I would call the moral axis of the universe, which means drawing more of humanity into our frame of reference, getting better at putting ourselves in their shoes, [and] expanding the realm of tolerance.”

What do you think?

  • Do you believe, as Wright does, in a “moral axis of the universe” based on common values of expanding tolerance? Why or why not?

  • In your view, is religion necessary to build a more ethical society?


  • April 18, 2008

    Religious Tolerance in America

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, author Martha Nussbaum addressed the topics of religious tolerance and equality in America.

    Nussbaum said:

    "The University of Virginia said that student activity fees could be used to fund every student group: the Young Democrats, the lesbian and gay students group, the gardening club, the choir. But the one thing they couldn't use the money to fund was the Young Christians. Now, there really is an issue of fairness. I mean, why should it be just because you're a religious group that you don't get what everyone else gets to pursue their own conscientious commitment?"

    In the case that Nussbaum mentions, students decided to sue and ultimately persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that their right to free speech had been denied because of religion.

    In addition to this divide between religious and non-religious groups, division can be seen between religious groups themselves. For example, many have alleged that there is a "war on Christmas," defined as attempts to replace traditional Christmas greetings and decorations with generic "Season's Greetings" in the public sphere, while symbols of other religions are welcomed for providing diversity.

    A recent blog post from the NEW YORK TIMES noted that many voters took umbrage at an email that was widely circulated after Sen. John Kerry's (D-Ma) defeat in the 2004 election. The email, which labeled states that Kerry had won as "The United States of Canada" while dismissing those that President Bush had carried as "Jesusland," was interpreted by many as offensively anti-Christian.

    Recently, controversy has engulfed Minnesota's Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), a publically-funded charter school that reportedly has been violating state and federal law by teaching Islam, scheduling and organizing Muslim prayer on school grounds during the school day, and marketing itself among Muslims as an avowedly Muslim institution. Reports suggest that these abuses have continued despite several inspections by state officials responsible for ensuring that no public school promotes or endorses religion. Some commentators have speculated that a Christian school acting in the same ways would not have been handled with the same leniency.

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree with the Supreme Court's decision in the University of Virginia case?
  • Are some commentators correct when they allege discrimination against Christians?
  • Are the examples in Virginia and Minnesota representative of what's happening across the U.S.? Have you seen these divides in your community?


  • December 7, 2007

    Religion In Politics

    In this week’s edition of the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers asked Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Melissa Rogers about Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s high-profile speech regarding his Mormonism, highlighting the following quote:

    "Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are."

    This is a debate with deep historical roots that has long defied easy categorization into "left" vs. "right" terms. While some liberal figures - like Jimmy Carter - have embraced linking religious principles to their political values, a number of conservative statesmen have taken stands arguing for the stringent separation of church and state. In 1981, Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater said:

    "On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.

    I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in 'A,' 'B,' 'C' and 'D.' Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of 'conservatism.'"

    (For more on Barry Goldwater and Bill Moyers' interview with Goldwater staffer Victor Gold, click here)

    What do you think?

  • Is it acceptable to ask candidates questions about their religious faith? If so, which questions?

  • Is it appropriate for a candidate to promote, as Mike Huckabee has, their religious viewpoints as part of their appeal?

  • What is the proper relationship between candidates’ religion and their decisions when they reach office?


  • October 12, 2007

    Difference, Dissent and Tyranny

    This week on THE JOURNAL, Anouar Majid, professor of English at the University of New England, explains that dissent in communities is vital to maintaining social, cultural and intellectual curiosity. Stifling disagreement and smothering debate, he believes, can have dangerous effects on a civilization:

    People who cannot live comfortably with differences always have a tendency to slide into tyranny. That's why we have to maintain vast differences within every society...to prevent those practices from ever taking root.

    Yet even though constructive conversation is often desirable, is it always possible? As Bill Moyers asks Professor Majid:

    You can't have a conversation with somebody who doesn't think you're human, a conversation with somebody who wants to kill you, somebody who thinks you're subhuman, somebody whose purpose is to manipulate you, right?

    How would you answer Bill Moyers' question? We invite you to respond by commenting below.

    Photo: Robin Holland


    June 8, 2007

    Are Science and Religion at Odds?

    Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), Republican presidential hopeful and one of the three candidates who, at a recent debate, raised his hand signifying that he did not believe in evolution, recently clarified this action in an Op-Ed for THE NEW YORK TIMES:

    The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God...

    ...While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

    --Senator Sam Brownback, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 5/31/07

    In her interview with Bill Moyers, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was an oceanographer before becoming a priest and later the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, explains how she sees the connection between science and faith:

    My faith journey has been, as a scientist, about discovering the wonder of creation...Things that come in different sizes and colors and shapes and body forms are all part of that incredible diversity of creation that's present below the waters where we never even see them. And the Psalms tell us that God delights in that.

    ...I don't believe they [Religion and Science] are, at their depth, incompatible. In the Middle Ages, theology was called the Queen of the Sciences. There are ways of knowing. It is our hunger for radical certainty that leads some people to assume that they're incompatible...

    ...Religion and science are both ways of knowing, but they go at it from somewhat different perspectives. Science asks questions about how things happen and where they've come from. Religion and faith traditions ask questions of meaning, about why we're here and what we should do with what we have here, and how we should relate to the rest of creation.

    --Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

    What do you think?
    -Are religion and science truly at odds with one another?
    -Can and should scientific terms and notions be used to explain religion and vice versa?


    May 3, 2007

    A Brief History of Disbelief


    This week on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talks with Jonathan Miller about his upcoming series and his views on religion in the modern world.

    Jonathan Miller's series "A Brief History of Disbelief" will air on many PBS stations across the country starting May 4. Click the adjacent picture to watch a clip from the series.

    To find out when it is airing where you live click here or check with your local public television station.

    Miller, referring to the events of 9/11, states:

    The conspicuous absence of the the Twin Towers involving, as it does, the inherent conflicts between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is I think one of the most powerful expressions of religious fanaticism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

    What do you think?

  • Where does religious fanaticism come from?

  • Is ever there such as thing as too much belief?


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