Vatican opens dialogue with atheists

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A new Vatican initiative to promote dialogue between believers and atheists debuted with a two-day event on Thursday and Friday (March 24-25) in Paris. “Religion, Light and Common Reason” was the theme of seminars sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture at various locations in the French capital, including Paris-Sorbonne University and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “The church does not see itself as an island cut off from the world. … Dialogue is thus a question of principle for her,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told the French newspaper La Croix.

Tennessee amends anti-Shariah bill

(RNS) Tennessee lawmakers are rewriting a bill that described Islamic law as a threat to U.S. security and seemed to equate peaceful Muslim practices with terrorism. State Sen. Bill Ketron and House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny, both Republicans, offered the revision after questions arose about the proposed bill’s constitutionality. “The revision reflects our original intention to prevent or deter violent or terrorist acts, but does so without any room for misinterpretation regarding the language’s affect on peaceful religious practices,” said Ketron. Muslim and civil liberty organizations strongly criticized the original bill, saying its focus on Shariah law unfairly targeted Muslims and equated religious rituals such as dietary restrictions with terrorism. The bill now contains no references to Islam, but will allow Tennessee to prosecute those who offer financial or material support to known terrorist entities.

Friday’s Religion News Roundup

Nearly 60 percent of evangelicals believe God uses natural disasters to send messages, according to a new survey conducted by RNS and Public Religion Research Institute. More than half of evangelicals say God punishes whole nations for the sins of individuals, according to the survey. The vast majority of mainline Protestants and Catholics disagree. Do sunny days mean that God is happy with us? The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said bishops “resolve to deal firmly” with clerics who abuse children in a statement issued about a month after a grand jury in Philadelphia said the local archdiocese did anything but.

Chaplains offered exit plan as gay training starts

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Army has started training chaplains on the repeal of the ban on openly gay military members, saying those who are unable to follow the forthcoming policy can seek a voluntary departure. “The Chaplains Corps’ First Amendment freedoms and its duty to care for all will not change,” reads a slide in the PowerPoint presentation, released to Religion News Service Thursday (March 24). “Soldiers will continue to respect and serve with others who may hold different views and beliefs.” Critics familiar with the Army presentation, however, say the military is essentially telling chaplains who are theologically conservative that they are not welcome. “U.S. Army now warning chaplains: If you don’t like the homosexual agenda, get out!”

Facebook revelations lead to polygamy charges

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (RNS) A Grand Rapids man who took a bride while still married to his estranged first wife — and who is now charged with polygamy — says he “made a mistake.” Richard Barton Jr., 34, who remains free from jail on personal recognizance after being arrested March 16, said, “I let love get in the way.” Barton and his first wife, Adina Quarto, were married in 2004 after they met online. They have a 6-year-old son together.

Vatican mourns Taylor as `last diva of cinema’

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican’s official newspaper eulogized actress Elizabeth Taylor as the “last remaining star in the firmament of old Hollywood,” and praised her contributions on AIDS and other charitable causes. “The curtain falls on the violet eyes of Hollywood” read the headline over Taylor’s obituary in the Friday (March 25) edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Lauding her as a “great actress who became too soon an icon of the star system,” the article noted that Taylor’s career, which began in childhood, was later marked by an “impressive series of health problems and accidents on the set.” Author Emilio Ranzato lamented Taylor’s turbulent private life, including her eight marriages and “abuse and addictions,” as well as poor artistic choices later in her career. But he wrote that Taylor managed to “redeem herself thanks to an ever more decisive commitment to charity work, often in tandem with her friend Michael Jackson.”

Study suggests young adults can get fat at church

(RNS) Thou shalt not serve pizza? Young adults who regularly attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese when they reach middle age than their nonreligious peers, a new study shows. Based on their findings, researchers at Northwestern University’s medical school think congregations should be a focus in the fight to prevent obesity. “It’s possible that getting together once a week and associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods could lead to the development of habits that are associated with greater body weight and obesity,” said Matthew Feinstein, the study’s lead investigator and a fourth-year student at the school. The research, released Wednesday (March 23), marks the first time a longitudinal study of obesity has been linked to religious involvement, the university said.

Thursday’s Religion News Roundup

If your pastor is pushing cheese pizza for those meatless Friday Lenten gatherings, be careful. From Cathy Grossman over at USAT: “All those pizzas luring young adults to church activities may have unintended consequences. Folks who stay faithful to church life get fat.” It’s kosher, though, if you want to indulge in a cheeseburger tomorrow (it won’t keep you from getting fat, however). The AP catches up on the whole Rob Bell drama, and finds a United Methodist pastor in North Carolina who lost his job after basically saying he agrees with Bell’s controversial notions about hell.

Poll: Most Americans don’t blame God for natural disasters

(RNS) We may never know why bad things happen to good people, but most Americans — except evangelicals — reject the idea that natural disasters are divine punishment, a test of faith or some other sign from God, according to a new poll. The poll released Thursday (March 24), by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, was conducted a week after a March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan. Nearly six in 10 evangelicals believe God can use natural disasters to send messages — nearly twice the number of Catholics (31 percent) or mainline Protestants (34 percent). Evangelicals (53 percent) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens. The poll found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans believe God is in control of the earth, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38 percent of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29 percent) has less support.

TSA, airlines tread carefully on religious expression

(RNS) Air travelers want to feel safe, and federal security officials want to make sure they actually are safe. If only it were that simple. Misunderstandings over religious expression have led to recent incidents that prompted apologies from airlines. On March 13, agents with the Transportation Security Administration removed a Muslim woman in a headscarf from a Southwest Airlines flight after airline staff deemed her suspicious. Crew members thought the woman said “It’s a go” into her cell phone, when she actually said, “I have to go” because the plane was about to take off.

U.S. embassy condemns Quran burning at Fla. church

(RNS) The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan called the burning of a Quran at a small Florida church “abhorrent” as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the act as a “serious setback” to world harmony. U.S. Ambassador Cameron P. Munter tried to distance the United States from the Sunday (March 20) event overseen by Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, who presided at a mock trial of the Quran in which the Islamic holy book was found guilty and set ablaze as punishment. Last year, Jones’ plans to burn a pile of Qurans on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks sparked protests in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Jones called off that event after pressure from President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “The deliberate destruction of any holy book is an abhorrent act,” Munter said in a statement Tuesday (March 22).

Vatican says gay opponents are victims, too

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A Vatican official told a United Nations body on Tuesday (March 22) that people who openly object to homosexual behavior are at risk of losing their human rights when they are prosecuted or stigmatized for their beliefs. “People are being attacked for taking positions that do not support sexual behavior between people of the same sex,” said Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. “When they express their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature, which may also be expressions of religious convictions, or state opinions about scientific claims, they are stigmatized, and worse — they are vilified, and prosecuted,” Tomasi said. “The truth is, these attacks are violations of fundamental human rights, and cannot be justified under any circumstances.” In his statement, Tomasi said the Vatican “condemn(ed) all violence that is targeted against people because of their sexual feelings and thoughts, or sexual behaviors.”

U.S. Catholics lead other Christians on gay rights

(RNS) While the Vatican and U.S. bishops maintain a hard-line stand against most gay rights causes, American Catholics are more supportive of gay rights than other U.S. Christians, according to new research released Tuesday (March 22). A report by Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute found that 74 percent of Catholics favor legal recognition for same-sex relationships, either through civil unions (31 percent) or civil marriage (43 percent). That figure is higher than the 64 percent of all Americans, 67 percent of mainline Protestants, 48 percent of black Protestants and 40 percent of evangelicals. Less than one-quarter (22 percent) of Catholics want no legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, while a majority (56 percent) believes that same-sex adult relationships are not sinful. The analysis was based on polling conducted by PRRI and the Pew Research Center last fall.

Democrat announces alternate hearings on U.S. Muslims

WASHINGTON (RNS) Barely two weeks after House Republicans held hearings on the threat posed by radicalized American Muslims, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat announced his own hearings on threats to American Muslims’ civil rights. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., made no mention of the March 10 hearings by the House Homeland Security Committee that reduced the first Muslim elected to Congress to tears. Instead, Durbin cited a spike “in anti-Muslim bigotry,” including the burning of Qurans and an increase in hate crimes and hate speech toward Muslims. Durbin will convene the hearings on March 29 as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. “During the course of our history, many religions have faced intolerance,” said Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader, in announcing the hearings on Tuesday (March 22).

Charitable giving stabilizes as recession ebbs

(RNS) Charities are seeing improvements in fundraising, with fewer charities reporting declines in 2010 compared with 2009, according to a report released Tuesday (March 22). But a larger percentage of organizations reported bringing in about the same amount of revenue both years, says the report by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, a coalition of six organizations that focus on philanthropy. Just over half (52 percent) said they met fundraising goals, about the same (53 percent) as in a similar 2009 survey conducted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a member of the collaborative. “While many organizations stopped the bleeding, giving simply didn’t rebound like we thought it might, especially given the economic growth we saw in the last quarter of the year,” says Paulette Maehara, CEO of the fundraising association. The findings are based on responses from 1,616 charities to an online survey conducted in February.