Beyond Belief

Going once, going twice—sold to the man with the pointed tail

--> he intersection of religion and whatever "modernity" happens to be at any given moment takes unpredictable forms—an example of that blend of parasitism and symbiosis known as co-evolution. Sometimes modernity and religion take eons to come to terms with each other (and, of course, often they never do). The Commonwealth of Massachusetts only recently cleared five of the victims of the Salem witch trials, which were held in 1692. It took a great investment of Talmudic energy to adapt telephones, elevators, and other devices to the demands of sabbath observance. Catholic theologians have come to terms with the reality of sex-change operations, though they recently decided that the sex of the soul remains unaltered. (This finding is presumably designed to prevent a rash of surgical transformations by women who want to be priests.)

On occasion, however, a modus vivendi is worked out in a natural and satisfying way. One magazine I look at, Islamic Horizons, which is the equivalent of Christianity Today for American Muslims, advertises credit cards with the sales pitch that the Muslim tithe, the zakat, will be added automatically to the billing statement. Other ads offer Global Positioning Systems that can fix the direction of Mecca from anyplace in the world.

Notions of family life have been updated across the board. Divorce is now accepted in all the world's great religions, though until lately it was not affirmed by any of them as a benchmark in spiritual growth. But with divorce becoming more and more common, various denominations have devised appropriate blessing ceremonies. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians all offer dissolution services. Reform Judaism has added a "ritual of release" to its repertoire.

The relationship between Americans and their cars is likewise receiving significant religious attention—embodied in the question "What Would Jesus Drive?" Were he alive today, would he join Arianna Huffington and condemn the environmentally odious sport-utility vehicle (which also happens to be the favored conveyance, according to intelligence reports, of the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar)? Would he drive a Toyota Prius hybrid? Would he simply walk—or ride a donkey? An open letter to automakers from an interfaith coalition has called for "a new conversation about cars and their impact on God's children and God's creation."

As the nation prepared for war, the clergy who minister to the armed forces on distant deployments could avail themselves of fully modernized equipment. The U.S. Army's new containerized chapel ships in a standard module measuring 8' x 20' x 8'; it holds everything needed for a Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim service. Portability has been an essential element in the success of many religions. The Israelites could carry the Ark of the Covenant into battle. Muslims carried the Koran from the Arabian peninsula across Africa and up beyond the Pyrenees in less than a century. Traveling preachers still hold revival meetings under canvas all over America. (In contrast the Druids, rooted to their sacred oaks, never became a jihad-loving people.) The Army has plans to build and pack forty-four containerized chapels, each one including a tent and a lectern; an electronic keyboard; copies of the Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon; prayer mats and prayer shawls (in camouflage green); and offering plates.

Like the empire of Rome, the American empire carries all its acquired gods into battle at once. Edward Gibbon observed, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that "Rome, the capital of a great monarchy, was incessantly filled with subjects and strangers from every part of the world, who all introduced and enjoyed the favorite superstitions of their native country." He went on, "Rome gradually became the common temple of her subjects; and the freedom of the city was bestowed on all the gods of mankind." The containerized chapel is, in its way, a movable version of the Pantheon.

One technology that virtually all religious groups have embraced is the Internet. For Jews who cannot personally visit Jerusalem, prayers can be sent by e-mail, to be printed out and left in cracks in the Western Wall; Christian pilgrimage sites offer similar e-mail services. A source of guidance for multitudes has been "Belief-O-Matic," a feature on the Web site beliefnet.com that leads the searcher through twenty skillfully crafted questions ("What happens to humans after death?"; "Why is there so much suffering in the world?") in order to reveal "what religion (if any) you practice ... or ought to consider practicing." Catholics in Italy are conducting an electronic plebiscite on who should be the patron saint of the Internet—Isidore of Seville, who produced an encyclopedia? Clare of Assisi, who saw visions on a wall?—and hope to have a recommendation by Easter. Although the Catholic Church suppressed a recent attempt to conduct the Sacrament of Penance by e-mail, there is a secular Apology Room on the Web that encourages visitors to "anonymously share with others" their shortcomings, and to beg forgiveness. The Boston Globe has declared the United States to be in the midst of a "forgiveness boom," though I hope it never extends to Rocky V or the new Comiskey Park.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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