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keeping an eye on the tree and the forest

Dave's Exegesis is my eclectic site of exegesis on pretty much everything I can think of, whether biblical studies, theology, music, movies, culture, food, drink, sports, or the internet.

Obviously We Don’t Know Religion

09.29.10

Americans may debate about religion all of the time, but it only portrays our ignorance.  The White Horse Inn has been saying for years that Evangelicals don’t understand the basic tenets of Christianity.  But we are not the only ones in the religious landscape that don’t understand the basics of our faith.  This is to be expected because “pew-sitters” really don’t care.  They just want to feel good about themselves and not work hard to get there, by-and-large.  And we are not requiring education of the world religions or philosophy in public schools.  They are not even required in most colleges, but are mere electives.  So what else do we expect…

Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/us/28religion.html

Pew Survey: http://www.pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

September 28, 2010

Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans

By LAURIE GOODSTEIN

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

“Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Among the topics covered in the survey were: Where was Jesus born? What is Ramadan? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation? Which Biblical figure led the exodus from Egypt? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Joseph Smith? Mother Theresa? In most cases, the format was multiple choice.

The researchers said that the questionnaire was designed to represent a breadth of knowledge about religion, but was not intended to be regarded as a list of the most essential facts about the subject. Most of the questions were easy, but a few were difficult enough to discern which respondents were highly knowledgeable.

On questions about the Bible and Christianity, the groups that answered the most right were Mormons and white evangelical Protestants.

On questions about world religions, like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, the groups that did the best were atheists, agnostics and Jews.

One finding that may grab the attention of policy makers is that most Americans wrongly believe that anything having to do with religion is prohibited in public schools.

An overwhelming 89 percent of respondents, asked whether public school teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer, correctly answered no.

But fewer than one of four knew that a public school teacher is permitted “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.” And only about one third knew that a public school teacher is permitted to offer a class comparing the world’s religions.

The survey’s authors concluded that there was “widespread confusion” about “the line between teaching and preaching.”

Mr. Smith said the survey appeared to be the first comprehensive effort at assessing the basic religious knowledge of Americans, so it is impossible to tell whether they are more or less informed than in the past.

The phone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish in May and June. There were not enough Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu respondents to say how those groups ranked.

Clergy members who are concerned that their congregants know little about the essentials of their own faith will no doubt be appalled by some of these findings:

¶ Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

¶ Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

¶ Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.

The question about Maimonides was the one that the fewest people answered correctly. But 51 percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon, and 82 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic.

Tragic Suicide on the Steps of Memorial Church

09.28.10

WARNING: This is heavy stuff.

Below is the chilling story about Mitchell Heisman of Somerville who committed suicide on the steps of the Memorial Church in the yard of Havard University on Saturday, September 18.  As if that were not enough of a story, it is the 1900-page suicide note, yeah, manifesto, which took him over 5 years to write that is the jaw-dropper.  According to his book, entitled “Suicide Note”, he began to contemplate the meaninglessness of life when he was 12 years old, after the death of his father.  He steeped himself in the works of Nietzsche among other works of nihilism, and resolved early on that he would end his life upon articulating his rationale in tome form.  It is a sorrowful irony to say, “Life is meaningless, let me tell you why…”.  It seems like he devoted his life to helping others understand what he thought was the meaning of his death.

Here is the article: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/09/27/book_details_motives_for_suicide_at_harvard/
Here is the note/book: http://www.scribd.com/doc/38104189/Mitchell-Heisman-Suicide-Note

What he left behind: A 1,905-page suicide note

Author described nihilistic outlook

By David Abel, Globe Staff  |  September 27, 2010

In the end, no one really knows what led Mitchell Heisman, an erudite, wry, handsome 35-year-old, to walk into Harvard Yard on the holiest day in his faith and fire one shot from a silver revolver into his right temple, on the top step of Memorial Church, where hundreds gathered to observe the Jewish Day of Atonement.

But if the 1,905-page suicide note he left is to be believed — a work he spent five years honing and that his family and others received in a posthumous e-mail after his suicide last Saturday morning on Yom Kippur — Heisman took his life as part of a philosophical exploration he called “an experiment in nihilism.’’

At the end of his note, a dense, scholarly work with 1,433 footnotes, a 20-page bibliography, and more than 1,700 references to God and 200 references to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Heisman sums up his experiment:

“Every word, every thought, and every emotion come back to one core problem: life is meaningless,’’ he wrote. “The experiment in nihilism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.’’

Over the years, as he became more immersed in his work, often laboring over it 12 hours a day, Heisman shared bits with friends and family but never elaborated on the extent of his nihilism — his hardened view that life is vapid and nonsensical, that values are pretense, that the “unreasoned conviction in the rightness of life over death is like a god or a mass delusion.’’

He told them he was working on a history of the Norman conquest of England, cloistered in a cramped apartment he shared in Somerville. They knew the clean-shaven young man from suburban New Jersey, who always called his elderly godmother on her birthday and once donated $200 to Harvard Hillel for sponsoring services at Memorial Church, to be intensely committed to his work.

Neither his mother, sister, nor the roommates from whom he sought forgiveness in the hours before he died had any idea he was about to kill himself. They and others have been groping for answers to why he did it and in such a public way, on such a holy day.

“He was very cordial, very charming, you would never know that something was wrong,’’ said Lonni Heisman, his mother. He frequently told her he loved her, and had recently visited to help her prepare for a move. “I’m still in shock and I can’t understand how he could have hid this,’’ she said. “He had everything going for him. He was in perfect health. He was handsome, smart, a good person. I’ll never understand it.’’

She said he was a gregarious child who grew introverted after his father, an engineer, died of a heart attack when Mitchell was 12 years old. As he got older, he became increasingly bookish and went on to study psychology at the University at Albany in New York, where he seemed shy to friends and spent much of his time reading.

After college, Heisman worked at bookstores, including the Strand in Manhattan, enabling him to amass a library of thousands of books. About five years ago, he moved to Somerville to focus on writing and be near major university libraries.

He led a Spartan existence, subsisting on microwave meals, chicken wings, and energy bars, and surviving mainly on money left to him after his father’s death. He was tall, with dark eyes, and dated when he needed a break from his solitude, rarely having trouble attracting women. But he broke off the relationships quickly, saying he was too busy writing a book.

To help him concentrate, Heisman often listened to a constant loop of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,’’ which he felt synthesized the mind’s competing strains of emotion and reason, went to a gym daily, and took Ritalin, which his mother thinks may have induced depression and led to his suicide.

One of his longtime roommates, David Barnes, described Heisman as quiet and considerate, never angry. He engaged in conversation by asking questions; when he spoke he often gave deliberate, lengthy responses. “He could get intense talking about his book,’’ Barnes said. “There was definitely a lot of emotion pent up in this project.’’

Barnes and relatives said Heisman bought the gun, a .38-caliber pistol, three years ago, though they don’t know where, and they believe he had only one purpose for it: to commit suicide when he finished his book.

“He wasn’t going anywhere dangerous; he wasn’t paranoid; he wasn’t worried about anyone hurting him or breaking in,’’ Barnes said. “I couldn’t imagine him buying a gun for any other reason.’’

A month ago, as he began wrapping up his writing, he asked Barnes if he would be a witness to the signing of his will. Barnes thought it was because he cared so much about his book and wanted to ensure it would be taken care of in case something happened.

Two days before his suicide, Heisman seemed elated. He told his roommates he had finished the book. He spent the next day at the post office, buying stamps and preparing packages for friends and family, with the book on CDs.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, Heisman showered, shaved, and ate a breakfast of chicken fingers and lentils, some of which he left on the kitchen counter, something he rarely did. He put on a white tuxedo, with white shoes, a white tie, and white socks, and donned a ill-fitting trench coat, perhaps to hide the gun.

At about 10 a.m., a half-hour or so before he would commit suicide in front of a group touring Harvard, Heisman walked into Barnes’s room. He told him the white clothing was a Jewish tradition, even though he rarely practiced his religion and had given up on the concept of God. Appearing to be in a buoyant mood, he explained the significance of Yom Kippur.

“He said he wanted me to know that if he ever did anything to offend me, he apologized and hoped that I would forgive him,’’ Barnes said.

In his book, which he titled “Suicide Note’’ and scheduled to send to hundreds of people as an e-mail attachment about five hours after his death, Heisman produced an extraordinarily lengthy treatise on why life was not worth living.

With chapter titles such as “Philosophy, Cosmology, Singularity, New Jersey’’ and “How to Breed a God,’’ and citing more than a hundred authors from futurist Ray Kurzweil to the biologist E.O. Wilson, Heisman explains how his views took shape.

“The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal,’’ he wrote.

He saw his emotions as nothing more than a product of biology, as soulless as the workings of a machine, making them in essence an illusion.

“If life is truly meaningless and there is no rational basis for choosing among fundamental alternatives, then all choices are equal and there is no fundamental ground for choosing life over death,’’ he concluded.

The darkness of his views has been too much for his friends and family, many of whom have yet to read his suicide note.

“It makes me sad and angry that he didn’t care for any facet of life other than the book,’’ Barnes said.

As his sister, Laurel Heisman, spent last week sifting through what remains of his things — a poster in German, a well-made bed, piles of books in a small room shrouded with a dark curtain — she said she received a separate, posthumous note from him asking that she preserve a website he created to publish his book, a burden she has agreed to bear.

“I love you,’’ he wrote to her.

She wishes she could have made him see more of the beauty of life, and how we create our own value and give our own meaning to life. She might have taken him up a mountain or held him more closely.

“He just told us the safe things, because he knew we would have tried to stop him,’’ she said. “It’s really hard. It’s not like someone who was really depressed because they lost a lover. His whole ideology was wrapped in this concept of nihilism. I wish we could have made him see things differently.’’

What Happened to Kalila?

09.09.10

My wife Kalila was in an accident on her way to class Tuesday (9/7) around 3:15 PM on 93 South (around exit 33 in Medford). She has some bumps, bruises, and what appears to be a slight fracture at the top of her spine, but nothing serious. She will have to wear a neck-brace for the next 2 weeks, and cannot drive in that time span. The car is totaled, but there seems to be no other vehicle affected. She vaguely remembers swerving out of the way of a cooking grill that seems to have fallen out someone’s vehicle. She remembers very little, although she did hit the center median and the car did roll 4 times. She is able to walk as normal, and can do most normal activities. Overall, we feel super-blessed as this could have turned out far worse. These 2 weeks will pose some planning challenges for us considering that not only will Kalila miss the rest of the week of work, but also school (this is the first week of the semester). Please pray for Kalila’s recovery and for logistics (planning, insurance, new car, etc). Many Thanks!!!

Right now Kalila is at home, and will head back to work on Monday if she is feeling up to it. She is sore and a little stiff, but she’s looking forward to the start of football season tonight. Psalm 145 has been her meditation.

Wreckage of Kalila’s Car from David Herring on Vimeo.

For pictures: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=217537&id=673181894