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Last Friday — Good Friday, that is, inarguably the most solemn annual occasion for Christians — The Times published an op-ed article by sociologist and secular studies professor Phil Zuckerman celebrating the growing godlessness of Americans. Then, on Sunday — Easter Sunday, the day Christians exult at the messianic resurrection that underpins their faith — The Times published an op-ed article by religious studies professor Bart D. Ehrman asserting that Jesus himself did not believe in the existence of an immortal soul.
You can imagine how that went over with some of our readers.
Neither of the pieces were confrontational in the tradition of well-known atheist polemicists such as the late Christopher Hitchens; rather, Zuckerman mostly recited facts that put nonbelievers in a positive light, and Ehrman straightforwardly summarized one side of the long-running debate among theologians on whether Christian beliefs about death and the soul more reflect divine Scripture or "The Divine Comedy."
Though many readers took issue with the substance of these pieces, what seemed to animate the most pointed complaints was the timing. America may be growing less religious, but judging by some of these reactions, it seems many members of the country's largest faith group expect some deference.
To the editor: How sad, that on Good Friday, one of the holiest days for all Christians, Zuckerman's article extolls the benefits of secularization.
When life is good, some don't need to turn to a higher power. The opposite is true when we lose control of events. I know — I was a refugee child in World War II.
I ask Zuckerman to gather statistics on how many sick and dying from COVID-19 called on God as their only help and salvation.
Birute Prasauskas, Lomita
To the editor: From a historical-critical perspective, Ehrman's discussion of body and soul and life after death among early Christians is accurate. But I have to wonder: Why publish Ehrman's piece on Easter Sunday?
In his very first paragraph he takes on, and implicitly criticizes, long-held Christian beliefs. To what end?
Probably 99% of his readers do not have training in, or even awareness of, the historical-critical tradition. Ehrman's piece, on Easter, undoubtedly upset many, and gave those on the Christian right reason to attack scholarly biblical study.
In my Scripture courses, I make every effort to show how the historical-critical method actually helps us to better understand Scripture, from both academic and faith perspectives.
Tim Vivian, Bakersfield
The writer is a professor emeritus of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield.
To the editor: How tone-deaf of The Times to publish one article on godlessness and another on no life after death during the season of Passover and Easter. Who makes these enlightened editorial decisions?
Maria Elena de las Carreras, Northridge
To the editor: If Ehrman had said that "some " Christians believe when a person dies, their soul goes eternally to heaven or hell, I would have had a more open mind reading his article.
Christians are simply not all of one stripe. I'm very sure that some people do believe the resurrection story precisely as told in the King James Bible.
By the same token, there are a great many folks who try to follow the life and words of the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth and perhaps consider themselves Christians, but believe that the resurrection story is myth. It seems to me the power of the story is in the glorification of the words Jesus preached.
Give your fellow human a drink of water, a loaf of bread, shelter some loving kindness.
Russell Jacobs, Hemet
To the editor: As avowed religious people, we reject very little of what Zuckerman writes about the possible advantages of an increasingly secular society.
However, we wish to say that the church to which we belong, Westwood United Methodist, adheres quite clearly to all of the ideas he mentions, including reproductive rights, universal healthcare and structural cures for society's problems. Our religious stance calls us to support each of these.
Secularization is itself an ideology, and like all ideologies needs some sort of underlying moral principle to motivate its good actions. We religious types call on God for that motivation; those who are secularists must name their principle, lest they imagine that jettisoning God will inevitably lead to a better society.
In truth, it may, but then again it clearly may not, as the history of overt secularization sometimes demonstrates all too well.
The Rev. John C. Holbert and The Rev. Diana B. Holbert, Los Angeles
To the editor: I saw with disbelief that The Times published an op-ed article on Easter all but claiming that the entire celebration is a sham.
It is consistent with the fall of education in our society that a professor of religious studies would profane the lives of millions of martyrs who died to bring the message of the gospel to the world. It is a serious error in judgment by The Times.
If you are going to publish such heretical writings on Easter, then you should have the intellectual strength to provide the counterweight from a quality voice in Christendom to share the triumph of the resurrection.
Scott Larcomb, Simi Valley
To the editor: All I can say about Zuckerman's piece on why America's growing godlessness is a good thing is, "Amen!"
Clarence Treat, Glendale
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.