Finding common ground

In the May, 2022, issue of “St. Anthony Messenger,” a publication of Franciscan Media (Roman Catholic), there was an article by Mark P. Shea titled “I’d Like To Say: Stop Weaponizing the Eucharist.” For those of us who take a pro-choice position, this article contains some observations that we could perhaps agree with. Like this:

“Our [U.S.] abortion policy is, in fact, a triumph of libertarian thinking and the free market. Women can abort or not as they wish…. What drive abortion is not the state but economic pressure. Abortion is primarily pursued as an economic relief valve by women who feel they cannot afford to raise a child. The number one abortifacient in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is poverty.”

Those of us in the pro-choice camp who are uncomfortable with libertarianism can find a lot to agree with in this statement. Obviously, we want to include other, less common, reasons for abortion (rape, non-viable foetus, extreme birth defects, etc.). But if we want to work towards finding common ground in a polarized political landscape, this would be a good starting point — provide adequate economic support for all pregnant women, and adequate economic support for all families with babies and children and teenagers. The libertarian, free-market approach to raising children is not working.

To prove his point, Shea goes on to note:

“There came a precipitous drop in abortion rates in the 1990s. The reason had nothing to do with the [U.S. Supreme] Court. It was due to Clinton-era policies that took economic pressure to abort off lower-income women. Far from ‘promoting’ abortion, the goal during the Clinon years was, in the words of the administration, to make abortion ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ And the numbers show that Clinton’s policies, in fact, achieved the pro-life goal of reducing abortion.’

I am no fan of Bill Clinton, or his administration. But I agree with Shea that this Clinton-era policy was a good one. This could serve as a common policy goal that could be supported by pro-life and pro-choice advocates together.

Unfortunately, now that Roe has been struck down, I think there may be less incentive for pro-life advocates to work together with us to develop public policies that support families with children. Nevertheless, I feel this is an area where we should be working hard to find common ground in our polarized country. I hope we can make the case that libertarian, free-market policies are not good for children, regardless of the legal status of abortion.

2020 U.S. Religion Census nears completion

Religion News Service (RNS) reports on some preliminary conclusions from the the 2020 U.S. Religion Census. This decennial census has been carried out since the 1950s, by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

As expected, the number of “adherents” (persons affiliated with a local congregation) has declined since the last such census. But religious groups that have a lot fo immigrants are doing quite well.

For example, Roman Catholics have grown modestly, from 59 million adherents to 61 million adherents. But essentially all that growth comes from Hispanic immigrants. RNS reports: “‘If you took away the Hispanic population in the Catholic Church, it would look as bad as mainline denominations,’ said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research….”

A more striking example: American Muslims. RNS interviewed Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, about Muslims in the U.S. RNW summarizes Bagby’s thoughts as follows: “Muslims may be in a kind of golden age in the U.S. They are younger than the American population overall, and the Boomers among them are financially well off and able to contribute to the construction of new mosques.”

Also worth noting from the RNS report: They interviewed Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, who said: “Denominational brands have weakened, and divisions have increased over issues such as female clergy or sexual orientation….” Unitarian Universalism may be somewhat insulated from these trends, since we generally agree with each other on female clergy and sexual orientation (we had those fights in the last century). But I suspect we are still affected by the weakening of denominational brands.

I’ll be watching the website for the 2020 census, to see when the full report is finally released.


I’ve been looking for a better social media outlet for a while now. I stopped using Twitter years ago because it got too nasty. I’ve stayed on Facebook mostly because I have a lot of friends from Sacred Harp singing there — but Facebook is mostly an ugly place, and I don’t like the way they steal all our data. Several years ago, I tried Diaspora, an open source decentralized social media project, and while I liked the software architecture, there wasn’t enough content to interest me.

Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing about Mastodon, another open source de-centralized social media project. I checked it out, but it felt like too much work, so I let it drop. Then yesterday I logged onto Facebook to check on a Sacred Harp singing, and the Facebook algorithm placed some unpleasant content where I had to see it. Time to take another look at Mastodon.

And yesterday, it turned out, was the day when there was a huge migration of academics and others from Twitter to Mastodon.

Screen grab from Mastodon showing graph of uptick of people joining Mastodon yesterday

Many local Mastodon servers (known as “instances”) were overwhelmed, and stopped accepting new accounts. But I finally found an instance I liked, which was open, and set up an account.


So. Much. Better. Than. FB or Twitter.

Mastodon does not have some creepy opaque algorithm controlling what you get to see. If you want to see every post (called “toots” on Mastodon), you see them in chronological order. If you want to see every toot on your local instance, same thing. If you want to read just the toots from the people you’re following, you get to see them all, in chronological order.

There are lots of interesting people on Mastodon. I found quite a few academics. A robust community of amateur radio operators. Lots of science fiction fans. Tons of political junkies. Most major news outlets are now doing something on Mastodon.

Screen grab of my Mastodon home page, today at about 10:30 a.m.

It would be nice to see more Unitarian Universalists on Mastodon. I think it could be a better match for our values than the big commercial social media companies. If you set up an account, Mastodon relies heavily on hashtags, and the Unitarian Universalist hashtag appears to be #UU — include that in your profile so the rest of us can find you.

Admittedly, Mastodon is not for everyone. While it’s relatively easy to use, there is definitely more of a learning curve than with the commercial social media outlets. Nor is it a replacement for Twitter or Facebook — it is different from both. But for me (so far), it’s much better than the cesspools of Facebook or Twitter.

Depictions of Pangu

I’ve been searching online for depictions of Pangu, a creator deity in Chinese folk religion. So far, I’ve found lots of video game and anime and cartoon depictions of Pangu, which appear to be more or less commercial, and generally from an outsider perspective. But I’ve found few depictions done by religio-cultural insiders. This is probably in part because I’m searching for Pangu using English, and Anglophones don’t appear to be very interested in deities from Chinese folk religion.

But I have found a few interesting depictions of Pangu. Like this sketch in a Chinese manuscript dated c. 1900, currently in the collection of the Library of Congress:

Tian-gong Yuan. “Pangu Kaitian Pidi” (Pangu Creating the World) from Tui Bei Quan Tu, 1820, copied by Wu-Yi Chao Xie, circa 1900. Manuscript. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (33.1)

Then there’s this depiction of Pangu. Note the horns on his head.

Pangu. Digitally enhanced image from the Sancia Tuhui (1607), as reprinted in Li Ung Bin, Outlines of Chinese History (Shanghai, 1914).

(I had to do a lot of digital repair to the image above; the scan that’s widely available online was apparently made from a poorly done print. I tried to remain as true to the original as I could, but this is really a recreation rather than a direct copy of the original.)

Finally, here’s my favorite depiction of Pangu. Like the previous depiction, he has horns on his head, a beard, and a sort of shoulder cape made of leaves (?).

Temple dedicated to Pangu in Zhunan, Miaoli, China. Digitally enhanced public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s another depiction of Pangu, plus a retelling of a creation story featuring him, over at my curriculum site.

I still have not idea of what Pangu worship looks like, or what it involves. Chinese folk religion is one of those religions where Westerners have a real blind spot. Which makes it hard to find out much of anything about Pangu.

Race, religion, and imperialism

In the past couple of years there has been a resurgence of interest in the connections between racism, religion, and imperialism. But these connections have been a topic of conversation for over half a century. Today, were more likely to talk about colonialism, but the connections are the same. Here’s theologian Benjamin E. May in 1954:

“Race and color did not count in the early existence of the Protestant church. It was when modern Western imperialism began to explore and exploit the colored peoples of Africa, Asia, and America that the beginning of segregation and discrimination based on color was intitiated. It was then that color was associated with ‘inferiority’ and white with ‘superiority.'”

— address by Benjamin E. Mays, Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Ill., August 21, 1954; quoted in Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950, p. 427

Robot tells the story of the Rich Young Man

A decade ago, a small software company called XtraNormal allowed you to make free animated videos online. You’d choose a character, input some text, pick a few gestures, and the software would do the rest, posting the final video on Youtube.

I thought this was a great idea. I started out with a video of a robot telling the story from the Gospel of Thomas, ch. 97, the parable of the empty jar. Then I did a video of a robot telling the story of the rich young man from the Gospel of Mark, ch. 10. By the time I thought about it again, XtraNormal had stopped giving away their services, and had converted everything to Windows-only software. I wouldn’t have minded buying their software, but I’d be damned if I’d buy a Windows machine just to run their software. So I only made those two videos.

I never posted the second video on my blog, so here it is, ten years late:

(Note that I moved this video, and the first video, from Youtube to Vimeo. During the move, I improved the audio a little, and tightened up the editing a bit.)

Cohasset Central Cemetery

I first noticed the doll leaning up against a child’s grave back in August. The doll was a bit faded and weather-beaten even then, so it has been standing at the grave for some time now. The child died in 1862, so the doll could not have been left by someone who knew her. I like the fact that whoever cuts the grass has left the doll in place.