Sunday, March 15, 2009

Of surveys and prophets

It's been a quiet first week back in Fukuoka. Except for a trip to the supermarket and an equally short job interview conducted in the neighborhood McDonald's, I've spent my time at home. I haven't had a need or an urge to go into the city and I've had plenty on my computer to keep me busy, including editing two papers and setting up a couple of new websites (about which I can tell you more later).

Early in the week while scanning the headlines I ran across news of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey showing an increase of 7% (since the last survey in 1990) in the number of Americans identifying themselves as having no religion. Additional data from the survey suggests this generation of non-believers will have no religious traditions to pass on to the next generation, which should lead to further increases in this segment of the population:
  • 40% say they had no childhood religious initiation ceremony such as a baptism, christening, circumcision, bar mitzvah or naming ceremony.
  • 55% of those who are married had no religious ceremony.
  • 66% say they do not expect to have a religious funeral.

While browsing related articles on the Survey, I bumped into a headline on The coming evangelical collapse. I wouldn't normally have taken much note of this, the number of breathless, sensational essays on the internet being outdone only by the number of nude pictures and porno movies, but as it was published in the Christian Science Monitor I had a peek. I found something unexpected, a calm voice of reason and compassion from within a group that is most often represented by shrillness, fear, condemnation and intolerance. The Internet Monk is himself a Christian and has an even more interesting and thoughtful essay on his blog on why evangelicals rank so highly in surveys of most disliked groups in America, a take on the post-9/11 Why They Hate Us diagnoses.

The Internet Monk in turn led me to a childhood icon, David Wilkerson. If you grew up in the 60's in America and went to church, you may have once run across his book, Cross and the Switchblade, Wilkerson's experience with New York youth gangs. I don't now recall who introduced me to this book, but I do remember reading it. I also remember seeing the movie at a church screening. I don't remember much about either and would have never thought of them if someone at The Internet Monk hadn't published a link to author David Wilkerson's website, where the old man is now ending his days warning Christians to stock up on canned goods for the coming apocalypse.

Indian guru Sai Baba doesn't seem to have made any such predictions lately, though he has made some outlandish ones in the past. You can find Baba's face all over Nepal and India, in posters, paintings, pendants, amulets, any kind of trinket you can market you can probably find a Baba version. I didn't know much about him and having little faith in gurus had no desire to waste my time learning until I found a recent BBC documentary claiming to expose some very un-godlike behavior. Not un-gurulike, because we all know that those who are idolized and given authority most always abuse it. Baba is no different and may be even worse for having so many worshipers. The BBC film claims are based largely on those from American devotees who in their private interviews with the guru found much to their chagrin that Baba likes oiling up young white boys. He also enjoys, it seems, regular treatments of fellatio. The reporter puts Baba's claims that the oil treatments are part of a religious tradition worshiping the lingam to Indian social commentator Khushwant Singh, who replies: “There’s no Indian tradition to support the fact that, you know, worship of the Lingam includes also doing the blow job, if that is what you are referring to.” If you want to see some more slight of hand, check out this video of Baba manifesting a necklace.

It must be terribly embarrassing for modern, educated Indians to have guys like Baba represent their culture to the world. It is at least for the Science and Rationalists' Association, who have for many years traveled across India debunking fakirs, swamis, and gurus. Given the size and conditions in India, it seems it may be many years before their work will be anywhere near done, before they can look on an Indian Religious Identification Survey showing growing numbers of Indians indifferent to religion.



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