Less than half of Americans know Romney’s a Mormon

(RNS) Less than half of Americans know that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a Mormon, despite recent media attention focused on his faith, a new survey shows. Just four in 10 Americans — 42 percent — identified the former Massachusetts governor as a Mormon, according to the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute. That figure remains unchanged from July 2011, despite a flurry of media attention after an evangelical supporter of another GOP candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, called Romney’s religion a “cult.” The only group that showed an increased knowledge about Romney’s religion was white evangelicals, whose knowledge of Romney’s faith rose from 44 percent in July to 53 percent in mid-October. “The increase in knowledge of Romney’s Mormon faith among evangelicals is potentially problematic for Romney, since we know from our research that six in 10 evangelicals do not see the Mormon faith to be a Christian religion,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director.

Penn Jillette’s 10 Commandments for atheists

(RNS) In his new book, “God, No!” atheist magician Penn Jillette tells how he was challenged by conservative radio host Glenn Beck to come up with an atheist’s version of The Ten Commandments. “I wanted to see how many of the ideas that many people think are handed down from (G)od really make sense to someone who says, `I don’t know.”‘ Here’s his list: 1. The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity and love. Respect these above all.

Magicians say their craft makes them see faith as just hocus-pocus

(RNS) Magician Penn Jillette and his shorter, quieter partner Raymond Teller have mystified audiences around the world with their card tricks and other illusions that would make even Harry Houdini proud. With a Showtime TV series that seeks to disprove supernatural beliefs, including religious ones, the duo have long been a public face of atheism and skepticism. Now, Jillette, in his new book, “God, No!,” says he has little use for performers who try to use magic tricks to lure audiences into a spiritual message. Magic doesn’t make someone an atheist, he says, but it makes it a lot harder to be a believer. “It’s always astonished me how any magician can be spiritual,” he writes before lambasting magicians who connect the loosely mystical or the vividly Christian with sleight-of-hand.

ThursdayâÂ?Â?s Religion News Roundup

Pope Benedict XVI told representatives of the world’s religions – as well as non-believers – gathered today in Assisi that all faiths must continue to “purify” themselves of any tendency to violence and terrorism, and that goes for his own Catholic Church as well: “It is the task of all who bear responsibility for the Christian faith to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God’s peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.” The pontiff also pointed to the “denial of God” as a cause of “violence that knows no bounds,” but perhaps his most interesting comments were in his welcome to agnostics, who he said “ask questions of both sides” and are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.” The interfaith gathering with some 300 other believers and a few agnostics comes 25 years after the late John Paul II launched the first international prayer meeting for peace in the birthplace of St. Francis. Benedict was not a fan of the way that first encounter unfolded, and its interreligious optics, and he made sure there would be no joint prayer at this event.

Author goes from unbeliever to (imperfect) saint

RNS) Raised in a secular home by a nonreligious mom and an angry atheist dad, Jana Riess could not have imagined herself as any kind of saint, let alone a latter-day one. But step by inexorable step, God beckoned her, Riess says, toward belief in Jesus Christ, degrees in religious studies, a possible career in the ministry and, ultimately, Mormonism. Today, Riess is the author or editor of nine books, including “What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide” and “Mormonism for Dummies.” She worked for nearly a decade as a religion editor at Publishers Weekly and now is an acquisitions editor at a Christian publishing house and a frequently quoted blogger at Beliefnet.com. Her newest book, “Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor,” traces her imperfect attempts to follow a dozen religious practices.

Activists bemoan low priority given to religious freedom

WASHINGTON (RNS) Religious freedom advocates on Wednesday (Oct. 26) lamented America’s failure to protect the faithful abroad, saying things have gotten worse, not better, since the issue first gained traction more than a decade ago. The soul-searching session, sponsored by the conservative Family Research Council, brought together panelists from government, academia and nonprofit groups who painted a dismal global picture of religious persecution, and weak U.S. attempts to combat it. “What a parade of horrors,” said Georgetown University professor Thomas Farr, shaking his head at the statistics and anecdotes reeled off by other panelists: Coptic Christians massacred in Egypt, dissidents jailed in China, a pastor burned to death in Nigeria. Farr, who in 1999 became the State Department’s first point man on international religious freedom, added another sobering statistic: According to a 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 70 percent of the world lives in countries with high restrictions on religion.

`Amish Bernie Madoff’ won’t fight fraud charges

SUGARCREEK, Ohio (RNS) An investment broker dubbed the “Amish Bernie Madoff” has decided not to fight federal charges that he defrauded thousands of investors out of nearly $17 million. Monroe Beachy, 77, intends to reject his lawyer’s legal advice and plead no contest at an arraignment in Youngstown on Thursday (Oct. 27), defense attorney Gerald Ingram said in court documents. “The defendant’s proffered plea of no contest is the result of religious/church doctrine and not the product of legal analysis,” Ingram wrote. “In the opinion of defense counsel, such a plea is premature and not in the defendant’s best interest.”

Wednesday Godbytes

Religion Dispatches has some reflections on Halloween in the United States, including commentary on “Jesus Ween.” Yeah, you heard that right. Good Magazine has a report on a church in San Jose, California that is divesting millions from Bank of America as a sign of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. (Unrelated: Good magazine also reported earlier this summer that, statistically speaking, the happiest person in the U.S. is “A Tall Asian Jewish Individual in Hawaii.” Who knew?) The Atlantic thinks that Mormonism is becoming more of an ethnicity than a religion, and that it’s gaining a liberal streak.

Faith groups target `Super CommitteeâÂ?Â? on poverty

WASHINGTON (RNS) As the deadline for a federal deficit-reduction plan looms, religious communities are holding prayer vigils, phoning politicians and organizing letter campaigns in a bid to protect safety net programs for the poor. The national “Faithful Budget Campaign,” led by a coalition of about 25 mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim organizations, is targeting the 12 members of the congressional “Super Committee” tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in budget cuts by Nov. 23. “We urge you to ensure that people who are impoverished, hungry, homeless, disabled and elderly, both in the United States and abroad, are not asked to sacrifice what little they have,” said the coalition’s letter to members of the Super Committee. The Super Committee’s recommendations will face votes in the House and Senate before the end of the year.

Wednesday’s Religion News Roundup

What’s in a name? With apologies to Shakespeare, the more pertinent question presented by yet another stellar AP investigation is: Where is a name? If you’re a Muslim living in NYC and you’ve changed your name recently, the answer may be “in a NYPD file.” Muslims who change their names to sound more traditionally American or who adopt Arabic names as a sign of their faith are often investigated and catalogued in secret New York Police Department intelligence files, the AP reports. In related news, a Muslim civil rights group recommends more than 40 reforms to 10-year-old Patriot Act.

Mormonism: Abrahamic or Judeo-Christian?

Four years ago, Richard Land, who took over the public affairs division of the Southern Baptist Convention sometime in the last millennium, had the clever idea of identifying Mormonism as the “fourth Abrahamic religion”– after Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Land was seeking to provide some cover for Mitt Romney, whom he didn’t exactly endorse for the GOP presidential nomination but whom he definitely preferred to fellow Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee. (Just why is a nice question for another day.) Since then, other non-Mormon Christians have picked up on the usage, most recently Neal Humphrey of the Ogden Standard Examiner.But why exactly Abrahamic? The term has come into general use in order to extend the awning of Western religious identity over Islam. Islam is called an Abrahamic religion because it traces its origins to Abraham–via Ishmael, Abraham’s son by the maidservant Hagar, both cast out of the household in deference to Sarah’s wishes backed up by God’s command.

Tuesday Godbytes

Hey sportsfans: Religion Dispatches has an article entitled “Tim Tebow, Protestant Saint.” Yup. With the recent release of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ biography, conversations about the technology mogul’s faith have sprung up anew. The Friendly Atheist blog notes that Steve Jobs reportedly stopped going to church at an early age, but the Independent points out that he also spent his last days thinking about God and the afterlife. The SF Gate reports that a Russian sailing ship was prevented from docking in San Francisco due to a longstanding debate over a Jewish library.

Hindu festival of lights goes mainstream

(RNS) Happy Diwali! Happy Di what? It’s a Hindu holiday — and an important one — celebrated this week by Hindus all over the world, including an estimated 2 million in the United States. But do most Americans even know what Diwali is all about? Many Hindu Americans say no, and they’re working to change that, but not with educational billboards or “A Charlie Brown Diwali” special on network television.

Muslims call for reforms 10 years after Patriot Act

(RNS) A Muslim civil rights group is accusing the FBI and other federal agencies of “bad policing” and flaunting the Constitution in a 56-page report released to mark the 10th anniversary of the Patriot Act. The Tuesday (Oct. 25) report by Muslim Advocates, “Losing Liberty: The State of Freedom 10 Years After The Patriot Act” recommends more than 40 legal and policy changes to enforcement of the anti-terrorism law. “One reason for the anti-Muslim sentiment in America is the government policies that target Muslim communities. The government is basically telling people they should fear their Muslim neighbors,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of San Francisco-based Muslim Advocates.

Muslims combat radicalization with online tools

WASHINGTON (RNS) A Muslim organization is working to counter radicalization by providing the work of progressive Islam scholars online in simple, youth-friendly language. Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), a nonprofit group that has established liberal Muslim communities in the U.S. and Canada, created the “Literary Zikr” website to provide an alternative to the fundamentalist versions of Islam that pervade the Internet. “We take the scholarship and present it to the people,” said Yarehk Hernandez, a board member of MPV. The project, named after the Islamic word for remembrances of God, is geared toward ages 13 to 25, when youth “are formulating their ideas about religious identity and culture,” Hernandez said. By adapting the work of renowned scholars to a Q-and-A format at an eighth-grade reading level, Hernandez hopes the website will “cut through the clutter” of the Internet.