Earlier this week, Celeste Owen-Jones, associate producer of the Huffington Post Live, went viral with a blog post defending Mother Theresa in light of new study which emphasized Theresa’s “…rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding … abortion, contraception, and divorce.” Rather than respond in substance to these immensely critical findings, Owen-Jones instead attacks the researchers as well as those who would advance a challenging narrative about Theresa:
Surely there are a lot worse people than her in this world who deserve your energy! And if Mother Teresa did such a bad job helping others, why not save that time spent criticizing her to instead try to make a difference in this world?
I write this response not just because I think this is an incredibly bad argument to make, but because it further acts as a socially damaging mechanism of silencing legitimate inquiry. When we stigmatize critical evaluation of moral figures or philanthropic ventures, who are we really defending? To behave this way only preserves corrupt institutions which, simply put, aren’t doing their jobs. Yelling at those who challenge problematic people or institutions is a highly objectionable response.
Owen-Jones identifies a “simplistic yet fundamental” concern she has with public condemnation of Theresa:
… who are we, sitting in our office or in the comfort of our home in our cocoon-like world, hiding behind books and computers, to criticize a woman who abandoned everything to spend her life and bring attention to the forgotten of this world? The day someone will lead a similar life to Mother Teresa’s and still criticize the way she acted, then I will truly respect that opinion. But unsurprisingly that day still hasn’t come.
Who are we, indeed? We are people with standards and conceptions of what it means to live a morally exemplary life. We are people with the capacity to fact check. We are people who can apply standards to figures and institutions who claim to be doing the work of saints. When we find out that Theresa actively failed to prevent suffering that was well within her means because she saw beauty in poverty, illness, and suffering, we are people with the capacity and obligation to object.
A second argument Owen-Jones presents somewhat accepts the fact that Theresa did not do all she could have, but hey, it’s better than nothing! It seems like criticizing Theresa just isn’t a battle we should involve ourselves in. After all, the researchers didn’t visit any of the missions and however lax their conditions were, it was probably better than dying in the street. I find this argument deeply morally confusing. Admitting that Theresa did not do all she could have (a weak concession considering the damage and suffering she can objectively be seen to have sustained), we’re still left with an image of Theresa that seems less than saintly. “Hey, she was kind of bad, but it sure was better than the alternative” hardly seems like the epitaph of a moral saint. That the researchers did not visit Calcutta is a distracting point. Similarly, I don’t need to visit Nike headquarters to know that they profit from more or less slave labor and, therefore, my university should stop investing in them.
Owen-Jones’ refusal to criticize Mother Theresa for her stance on abortion and safe-sex practices (including contraception) is further confusing. Again, Owen-Jones presents an argument which silences:
I am not saying that in order to do good in the world one necessarily has to be against abortion, that would be stupid; I’m just saying that her belief in the sanctity of life was her main driving force to do the good that she did, and that looking back at her work I do not believe that, in the grand scheme of things, she can be criticized for [her opposition to contraception and abortion].
Regardless of Theresa’s spiritual convictions, the fact of the matter is that by not providing relatively cheap contraceptives and actively opposing their use, Theresa and the Catholic Church greatly contributed to an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease, widespread suffering, and death. The fact that scientific consensus rejects the notion that “life begins at conception” should carry significant weight. So, too, should the philosophical dilemmas that any 8th grader who has heard Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” song can easily raise and explicate. People’s lives are at stake. People have died and will continue dying, have suffered and will continue suffering. Why wouldn’t we want to be critical of this?
Owen-Jones asks, quite frustratedly, “What do we need to be a saint?” If we confront our intuitions about what it means to be a saint, we might derive a basic criteria such as “alleviates suffering on some grand scale at great cost to the saint in question.” Indeed, this what the “media conception” of Mother Theresa holds. So, when it comes to light that Theresa did not comport her philanthropic service in this basic way but rather cultivated suffering (alongside significant capital gains and questionable political alliances), we can feel confident in excluding Theresa from the classification of moral exemplar.
In a way, I share Owen-Jones’ annoyance. It seems that individuals who lack compassion often pretend to care about justice when it might afford them an opportunity to be self-righteous or bring another down. We have a similar problem in the atheist movement, wherein individuals will express outrage over the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church while at the same time contributing to the culture of victim blaming, misogyny, and apathy which make sexual assault such a widespread problem. There’s a grand irony in hating the Catholic Church for hating women while hating women yourself. However, the place where we should file our criticism in this case is not with the fact that these atheists criticize institutionalized hatred and abuse. Rather, we should direct our concerns when they fail to apply this same critique to themselves or their theological kin. Is it frustrating that there are people genuinely uninterested in justice yet spout off about the moral failings of others? Yes. Still, these criticisms, even when they come from such people, pressure us to be more transparent and effective in our service to humanity. Rather than refuse to engage with criticisms of our moral saints, we should welcome them. That Mother Theresa failed to help countless suffering individuals (when she could have, and almost certainly should have, done otherwise) has been quite well established. Rather than get frustrated with people who point this out, we should welcome their challenges and pose higher standards for our heroes. Before we praise another, especially when substantial claims contradicting their moral virtue have arisen, we should ask: are they being transparent? Are they actually alleviating suffering, or are they, like Mother Theresa, maintaining poverty and refusing to treat preventable disease out of the misguided notion that suffering brings one closer to God? These are minimal standards, and we should never feel guilty for employing them.
Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), addresses the gaping cultural divide between Christians and atheists. Like Amber Hacker’s NonProphet Status guest post, “A Committed Christian’s Atheist Heroes,” Frank writes as a dedicated Christian interested in finding ways to work with and better understand his atheist friends and neighbors. As someone who knows Frank and respects his work, I’m delighted to share his thought-provoking reflection here. Take it away, Frank:
The discourse between evangelical Christians and atheists has been antipodal at best. Whether it is Richard Dawkins calling faith “the great cop-out,” or countless professed Christians using “godless” like an offensive epithet, we’ve reached new lows. In fact, generally the discussion quickly descends into a volley of talking points and apologetics. I abhor those conversations with the same disdain I reserve for being stuck in the crossfire between a toe-the-line Republican and slogan-happy Democrat, rehashing last week’s pundit talking points.
I believe we need to revolutionize the way we interact. As an evangelical Christian, I recognize that my community equates atheism with pedophilia, like some dark spiritual vacuum that sucks out any trace of compassion or morality. Even in interfaith circles, where peace and tolerance (and soft kittens) rule the day, the atheists are often eyed with suspicion in the corner — if they’re even invited.
I thank God for atheists. During my college years at New York University, I had the superb opportunity to have powerful conversations with atheists who challenged me to have an honest conversation about faith. I appreciate and a value how atheist friends of mine encouraged inquiry. Remarkably, while this may not have been their intent, it only strengthened my faith. While I was able to begin weeding out the empty talking points from the substantive discourse, I hope they also got a glimpse of the love of Christ from an evangelical who wasn’t preaching damnation or waiting to find the next available segway into a three-fold pamphlet about how they need Jesus in their life. The point is, Christians need to stop seeing their atheist neighbors, co-workers, and even family members as morally lost, eternally damned, or a possible convert.
What lies at the bottom of this is the assumption, as pushed by many Christian leaders, is that religious people have the monopoly on morality and values. That, in a sense, you can’t be good without God. This is troubling on several levels. While at first glance this seems theologically sound to assume the traditional concept of salvation, most haven’t grappled with the problematic idea that Hitler could be in heaven and Gandhi could be in hell. That should be troubling for us. Also, the cultural and social ramifications of this leads to an antagonizing relationship. The Bible is littered with examples of non-religious, non-Christian, or non-Jewish people who do good in the eyes of God. It shouldn’t be shocking to see atheists teach their children integrity, or volunteer in a soup kitchen.
While I reserve the bulk of my frustration for those misusing my own faith, atheists aren’t blameless in this tectonic paradigm. Rather than taking the inclusive road of respectful disagreement, many of the largest voices for atheism find it more enjoyable to belittle faith, mock religion, and disregard their cultural and sociological value. In fact, many consider it their duty to evangelize their beliefs with the same judgmental fervor they fled from their religious past. Knowing that many came to define themselves as atheists against rigid religious upbringing, I don’t judge their disdain and frustration. However, like venom in veins, it keeps them from moving forward to having a more productive discourse. So often, when the religious and non-religious traditions grapple with the big question, like ontological definition, theorized cosmology, or the inherent nature of man, these discussion happen separately, without an engagement that is both fruitful and intriguing. I know many of those atheists have something wonderful to bring to that discussion, if they would stop throwing rocks at the window and come sit at the table.
So this is what I propose to my Christian and atheist friends: If we Christians challenge ourselves, our communities and congregations, to treat our atheist brothers and sisters as equitable members of our communities, nation, and in the pursuit of truth, will atheists recognize the value of faith to those who believe, even while they may respectfully disagree? As atheism quickly becomes the second largest philosophical tradition in America, the two communities will only have a greater need of a Memorandum of Understanding to frame how we can collectively work together to challenge the greater issues that face us, which starts by recognizing that it’s not each other.
Not sure where to start? Let’s feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect human dignity. While community service can be utterly rational, I am also pretty sure Jesus would be down for that, too.
Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine, Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and working as an Online Marketing Consultant.
Recently, I was honored to receive an invitation to join the esteemed panel of the Washington Post’s On Faith. Please read and share my first piece — below is the beginning, and it can be read in full at On Faith:
In the wake of this national tragedy, many have speculated about whether violent rhetoric and imagery used by Sarah Palin and others directly influenced Saturday’s devastating events. We may never know if there was a direct link between Palin’s words and the tragedy in Arizona, but as Stephen Prothero eloquently argued this week, we shouldn’t hesitate to reflect on the impact of the rhetoric used by those with political influence.
As the news broke on Saturday morning, I was in the middle of writing about something Palin had written in her most recent book, America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag – specifically, her claim that “morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs.” Unlike the moral outcry inspired by her demands that “peaceful Muslims” “refudiate” the “Ground Zero Mosque,” her comments about the nonreligious were met with silence.
Sure enough, some on the political right are using this same logic to explain the actions of the alleged gunman, Jared Loughner. Said one right-wing pundit: “When God is not in your life, evil will seek to fill the void.”
Please check out my latest blog for the Washington Post On Faith, about the internet, morality, and State of Formation! [Update: This post has been refeatured on Tikkun Daily and The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue!] Below is a selection; it can be read in full at the Washington Post:
Is the Internet destroying our morals?
Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a warning that the Internet was “numbing” young people and creating an “educational emergency – a challenge that we can and must respond to with creative intelligence.”
Speaking at a Vatican conference on culture, Benedict also expressed concern that “a large number of young people” are “establish[ing] forms of communication that do not increase humaneness but instead risk increasing a sense of solitude and disorientation.”
Benedict’s comments created an uproar, but he has a point. Studies show that Internet addiction is linked to depression; in 2007, the comedy website Cracked offered a surprisingly moving take on this phenomenon titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable.”
It’s tempting, knowing this, to suggest that we all take a step away from our keyboards, turn off our computers, and go find a field to frolic in. Continue reading at the Washington Post.
Please check out my new post over at Tikkun Daily on the new initiative I’m heading up for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD), in partnership with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. The project, called State of Formation, will be a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. The deadline for nominations is October 15th, so if you are or know an emerging ethical or religious leader, please don’t hesitate to fill out the nomination form here.
“What qualifies you to do this?” I asked myself as I rode the train home one day to write my first contribution to the Washington Post’s On Faith last year. I listened to the wheels rumble beneath me, looked at those sitting around me, and knew I was headed in a new direction.
I was 22-years-old, an atheist, and a seminary student. Though I don’t believe in God, I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to find a way to bridge the divide between religious and secular communities. The summer after my first year at seminary I began interning at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that aims to mobilize a movement of young people positively engaging religious pluralism. The organization’s founder, Eboo Patel, maintained a blog for On Faith and invited me to submit a guest post for it.
At the time, I was beginning to recognize that the organized atheist movement often talked about religion in ways that created more division instead of less. As an atheist, I was frustrated by what I saw as a total lack of interest from my fellow atheists in respectfully engaging religious identities. So I sat down and wrote about it.
As I was working on my essay, I began to browse the rest of the site. On Faith features a panel of contributors that are among the most respected and knowledgeable experts in the fields of religion and ethics. But I didn’t see many blogs on their site by people who weren’t already established as authorities. I wondered if I was actually qualified to write for the website.
After my submission was posted, I started getting some unexpected feedback. “This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,” wrote one reader. “Thank you for saying something our community really needs to hear,” wrote another. These readers happened to be young people.
I hadn’t thought that there were others who felt the same way I did, let alone other young people. I talked to a friend who maintained a blog of his own, and he suggested I create a blog to continue sorting through this issue.
I started NonProphet Status, and suddenly became a part of a larger conversation on the issue of religion and atheism. The blog quickly began to get traction in interfaith and atheist circles, and soon I was being asked to speak at conferences, received invitations to write in other venues, and watched my blog views grow from week to week. I, a young seminary student with a small but growing vision for respectful engagement across lines of secular and religious identity, suddenly had a platform.
Emerging leaders in formation, especially young ones, deserve to have a voice. In a time defined by deep political and religious divisions, we need to hear from those who will shape our ethical future. The current American discourse on religion and ethics is primarily defined by established leaders – ministers, rabbis, academics and journalists. While their perspectives are invaluable, this leaves an entire population of important stakeholders without a platform: the up-and-comers. Continue reading at Tikkun Daily.