From: Keith Henson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Sat 16 Aug 2003 - 03:23:49 GMT
Believe It, or Not
By Nicholas D. Kristof
Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times
Friday, August 15, 2003 Posted: 9:49 AM EDT (1349 GMT)
Today marks the Roman Catholics' Feast of the Assumption, honoring the
moment that they believe God brought the Virgin Mary into Heaven. So here's
a fact appropriate for the day: Americans are three times as likely to
believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28
So this day is an opportunity to look at perhaps the most fundamental
divide between America and the rest of the industrialized world: faith.
Religion remains central to American life, and is getting more so, in a way
that is true of no other industrialized country, with the possible
exception of South Korea.
Americans believe, 58 percent to 40 percent, that it is necessary to
believe in God to be moral. In contrast, other developed countries
overwhelmingly believe that it is not necessary. In France, only 13 percent
agree with the U.S. view. (For details on the polls cited in this column,
go to www.nytimes.com/kristofresponds.)
The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is
becoming less intellectual and more mystical over time. The percentage of
Americans who believe in the Virgin Birth actually rose five points in the
My grandfather was fairly typical of his generation: A devout and active
Presbyterian elder, he nonetheless believed firmly in evolution and
regarded the Virgin Birth as a pious legend. Those kinds of mainline
Christians are vanishing, replaced by evangelicals. Since 1960, the number
of Pentecostalists has increased fourfold, while the number of
Episcopalians has dropped almost in half.
The result is a gulf not only between America and the rest of the
industrialized world, but a growing split at home as well. One of the most
poisonous divides is the one between intellectual and religious America.
Some liberals wear T-shirts declaring, "So Many Right-Wing Christians . . .
So Few Lions." On the other side, there are attitudes like those on a Web
site, dutyisours.com/gwbush.htm, explaining the 2000 election this way:
"God defeated armies of Philistines and others with confusion. Dimpled and
hanging chads may also be because of God's intervention on those who were
voting incorrectly. Why is GW Bush our president? It was God's choice."
The Virgin Mary is an interesting prism through which to examine America's
emphasis on faith because most Biblical scholars regard the evidence for
the Virgin Birth, and for Mary's assumption into Heaven (which was
proclaimed as Catholic dogma only in 1950), as so shaky that it pretty much
has to be a leap of faith. As the Catholic theologian Hans Küng puts it in
"On Being a Christian," the Virgin Birth is a "collection of largely uncertain, mutually contradictory, strongly legendary" narratives, an echo of virgin birth myths that were widespread in many parts of the ancient world.
Jaroslav Pelikan, the great Yale historian and theologian, says in his book
"Mary Through the Centuries" that the earliest references to Mary (like Mark's gospel, the first to be written, or Paul's letter to the Galatians) don't mention anything unusual about the conception of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke do say Mary was a virgin, but internal evidence suggests that that part of Luke, in particular, may have been added later by someone else (it is written, for example, in a different kind of Greek than the rest of that gospel).
Yet despite the lack of scientific or historical evidence, and despite the
doubts of Biblical scholars, America is so pious that not only do 91
percent of Christians say they believe in the Virgin Birth, but so do an
astonishing 47 percent of U.S. non-Christians.
I'm not denigrating anyone's beliefs. And I don't pretend to know why
America is so much more infused with religious faith than the rest of the
world. But I do think that we're in the middle of another religious Great
Awakening, and that while this may bring spiritual comfort to many, it will
also mean a growing polarization within our society.
But mostly, I'm troubled by the way the great intellectual traditions of
Catholic and Protestant churches alike are withering, leaving the scholarly
and religious worlds increasingly antagonistic. I worry partly because of
the time I've spent with self-satisfied and unquestioning mullahs and
imams, for the Islamic world is in crisis today in large part because of a
similar drift away from a rich intellectual tradition and toward the
mystical. The heart is a wonderful organ, but so is the brain.
Nicholas D. Kristof is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.
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