Idolators

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Religion

I’ve been thinking a lot about religion lately, mostly because I’ve been asked to be on a religion panel at this year’s Yearly Kos convention. I am not sure who else will be on this panel, but I anticipate an exchange between people who support religion and those who think it is stupid. I tend to agree that much religion is pretty stupid, but I support it anyway. It’s a nuanced position.

I understand that Christopher Hitchens has written a book critical of religion, and today his brother Peter writes a criticism of Christopher’s criticism of religion. As near as I can tell, neither of them says anything startlingly original, and both are engaged in circular absolutism to one degree or another.

There are cases to be made both for and against religion. Unfortunately I don’t have time to make those cases this morning. This morning I just want to speak briefly to the end of Peter Hitchens’s op ed:

Liberal world reformers make the grave mistake of thinking that if you abolish a great force you don’t like, it will be replaced by empty space.

We abolished the gallows, for example, and found we had created an armed police and an epidemic of prison suicides. We abolished school selection by exams, and found we had replaced it with selection by money. And so on.

We are in the process – encouraged by Christopher – of abolishing religion, and so of abolishing conscience, too.

It is one of his favourite jibes that a world ruled by faith is like North Korea, a place where all is known and all is ordered.

On the contrary, North Korea is the precise opposite of a land governed by conscience.

It is a country governed by men who do not believe in God or conscience, where nobody can be trusted to make his own choices, and where the State decides for the people what is right and what is wrong.

And it is the ultimate destination of atheist thought.

If you do not worship God, you end up worshipping power, whether it is Kim Jong Il, Leon Trotsky or the military might of George W. Bush. In which case, God help you.

Is not George W. Bush a God-worshipper? And does he not worship power in spite of his alleged devotion to God?

In fact, I don’t worship God, and I don’t worship power, either, although that may be because I never had any. If I had some I might grow fond of it. If I ever get powerful I’ll let you know how that turns out.

In plain truth is that the history of religion is full of people who got power mad and attempted to use religion to exercise power over others. Torquemada comes to mind, as does Pat Robertson and Ted Haggart. Power corrupts religion as easily as it corrupts any other human institution, as David Kuo recently discovered. It is extraordinarily difficult for a person to be handed any power at all and not use that power to some ego-driven end, and I don’t see that the religious have ever been any better at it than the non-religious.

In fact, it seems to me that “morality” imposed by religion is often brittle. How often do we hear about religious leaders committing the very sins they rail against? What’s amazing about Ted Haggart’s story is not how unusual it is, but how typical it is. Show me a holy roller who rails against the sins of the flesh, and I’ll show you someone who’s been making unauthorized use of his own body parts. You can almost count on it. The same church that crusades against abortion tries to sweep the molestation of choirboys under the rug. The same ministers who warn against worldliness get mixed up in partisan politics. The Ten Commandments forbid graven images, and the faithful make a graven image of the Ten Commandments. It’s as if there’s a near-total disconnect between what the religious say and what the religious do.

And these examples are not exceptions. Albert Schweitzer was an exception. St Francis of Assisi was an exception. Jim and Tammy Faye are, alas, the rule.

Yet no matter now many centuries — nay, millennia — of empirical evidence piles up to the contrary, the religious still thump their chests and declare themselves to be the Official Sacred Vessels of all that is good and moral.

The Eleventh Commandment should be “Thou shalt not bullshit thyself about thyself.”

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19 Comments

  1. julia  •  Jun 3, 2007 @12:21 pm

    that he honestly believes (or at least is willing to be seen saying in public) that his brother never says anything stupid would tell you everything you needed to know about Hitchens Minor if you’d never heard anything else about him.

  2. Ian  •  Jun 3, 2007 @12:29 pm

    His big mistake is in equating religion with conscience. You CAN have the one without the other. And vice versa of course.

    -me

  3. erinyes  •  Jun 3, 2007 @1:00 pm

    Wanna buy some prayer cloths?
    I just whipped them up this morning. MAHABLOG special!Your discount price is $5.00 ea., 40 bucks for a dozen. Get ’em while they’re fresh, the prayer mojo wears off within 2 months, and there is a $20.00 “recharge” charge. Reserve your place at the side of the lord by donating $50.00 today. As a bonus, we’ll scroll your name at the bottom of the T.V. screen for all your friends and family to see! We take Visa and Master Charge, pray today, pay tomorrow ( void in case of rapture).

    I was just commenting to my wife/ Goddess that there is more religious programming on the tube than ever, and Girls Gone Wild runs their “infomercial” on three cable stations every morning between 4 and 5.I guess the population is split between getting great abs, making EZ money in real estate, finding Jesus, and hot girl on girl action.( at least the earlie risers seem to be.)

  4. Chief  •  Jun 3, 2007 @1:39 pm

    hear ! ! hear ! ! ! Yea and verily, let a bull shitter get up and declare how he (it’s always a ‘he’ isn’t it?) is a voice, nay, a vessel for the word of God and I will show you a power hungry monster who desires to control your wallet.

  5. Evan  •  Jun 3, 2007 @1:47 pm

    If god had put in a commandment saying “cut the bullshit”, the only thing it would’ve changed is that cattle would be considered unclean.

  6. Flamethrower  •  Jun 3, 2007 @1:59 pm

    Ted is haggard. Literally and figuratively.

  7. Donna  •  Jun 3, 2007 @2:59 pm

    Did post a few lines of this before, but will again post the entire of this, one of my poetry favorites about religion:

    PUSHER, by Peter Goblen

    Beware the seeker of disciples
    the missionary
    the pusher
    all proselytizing men
    all who claim they have found
    the path to heaven.

    For the sound of their words
    is the silence of their doubt.

    The allegory of your conversion
    sustains them through their uncertainty.

    Persuading you, they struggle
    to persuade themselves.

    They need you
    as they say you need them:
    there is a symmetry they do not mention
    in their sermon
    or in the meeting
    near the secret door.

    As you suspect each of them
    be wary also of these words,
    for I, dissuading you,
    obtain new evidence
    that there is no shortcut,
    no path at all,
    no destination.

  8. Bonnie  •  Jun 3, 2007 @3:36 pm

    I wish people would correct the most incorrect meme coming from the right that the liberals want to get rid of religion. As a liberal, I believe that everyone should have a religion if they want one and whatever one they choose. Live and let live. However, the thing I want most from those with religion is for them NOT to shove their religion down my throat. Essentially that is what the religious right has been doing. The Evangelicals have joined with the Roman Catholics on abortion and some other issues; but if one or the other were in a position to dictate people’s religion, you can bet the Evangelicals will forget that they were friends with the Catholics and try to destroy them or force them to follow their way because it is the ONLY way. And, vice versa. Most liberals believe in separation of church and state–not getting rid of religion. There really is a difference. Any chance someone could start correcting people on this issue?

  9. moonbat  •  Jun 3, 2007 @3:40 pm

    ..I am not sure who else will be on this panel, but I anticipate an exchange between people who support religion and those who think it is stupid.

    Sigh. I hope the panel can get beyond these absolutist extremes, and get on to more interesting terrain. I am a lot more interested in the future of religion, how it has evolved over time, and how some of us think we’re heading toward a major change in the way we understand religion, God, the whole ball of wax. Major, as in something that occurs every 500 or 2000 years or so. The complaints put forth by those who think religion is both stupid and dangerous are part of this. As is the worldwide retreat into fundamentalism by those who can’t handle the times we’re in.

    Sara Robinson over at Orcinus has done some recent writing on this, the comment thread is where it gets particularly interesting. I’ve ordered The Upside of Down, one of the books she recommends for further study on the future in general, and the future of the religion in particular. It somewhat parallels the work done by Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed).

    I hate to nitpick your otherwise fine writing, but the proper spelling is “idolators”.

  10. MikeShatzkin  •  Jun 3, 2007 @4:33 pm

    When Maha says “In fact, I don’t worship God, and I don’t worship power, either, although that may be because I never had any. If I had some I might grow fond of it. If I ever get powerful I’ll let you know how that turns out” she underestimates the power of this blog. You have power, Maha, which flows from sources other than money, ballots, or the barrel of a gun. And I doubt you’ll be a lot different someday when your platform is 10, 100, or 10,000 times bigger.

  11. Swami  •  Jun 3, 2007 @10:16 pm

    Stay away from the so called revealed religions. Why allow somebody else to define who you are, or what your exsistence should be? I think Col. Robert G, Ingersoll summed it up best…”an insect has a more intimate knowledge of god than the most learned theologian”.

    —————- Desiderata ——————

    Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
    and remember what peace there may be in silence.

    As far as possible, without surrender,
    be on good terms with all persons.
    Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
    and listen to others,
    even to the dull and the ignorant;
    they too have their story.
    Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
    they are vexatious to the spirit.

    If you compare yourself with others,
    you may become vain or bitter,
    for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
    Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
    it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

    Exercise caution in your business affairs,
    for the world is full of trickery.
    But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
    many persons strive for high ideals,
    and everywhere life is full of heroism.
    Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
    Neither be cynical about love,
    for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
    it is as perennial as the grass.

    Take kindly the counsel of the years,
    gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
    Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
    But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
    Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

    Beyond a wholesome discipline,
    be gentle with yourself.
    You are a child of the universe
    no less than the trees and the stars;
    you have a right to be here.
    And whether or not it is clear to you,
    no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

    Therefore be at peace with God,
    whatever you conceive Him to be.
    And whatever your labors and aspirations,
    in the noisy confusion of life,
    keep peace in your soul.

    With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
    it is still a beautiful world.
    Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

  12. sisyphus  •  Jun 3, 2007 @10:40 pm

    A good critique of religion was made by Freud. Try:

    http://www.religiousworlds.com/fondarosa/freud21.html

  13. Doug Hughes  •  Jun 3, 2007 @10:56 pm

    I am going to get theological with a very important political point.

    Christianity is supposed to bea philosophy based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christians are supposed to try to immitate Him.

    Jesus Christ lived in Israel during the Roman occupation. It was not pretty. Many (if not most) Jews in that time expected the Messiah to liberate Israel from the Roman oppression & drive out the Romans. God knows if ever a war would have been just, defeating Rome would have been. It did not happen!

    Christ was never political. He never forced his teaching on others; quite the opposite, by my reading of the Gospel, people thronged to see HIM outside of towns and villages whenever they heard he was passing through.Christ ministered to the bodies and souls of all people (even Romans) and never took on a shread of political power. He could have raised an army at the end of his 3rd year of public life; he didn’t.

    Explain to me (and I am not Christain, so maybe I don’t get it) how a christian who follows the teachings of Christ when Christ was NOT political, how, how, HOW does that christian justify being political, attempting to impose his morality on me, when clearly Christ never did???!!!!

    One point I must add. I have known plenty of Christians (caps on purpose) who devote themselves to ministering to the bodies and spirits of all men. Fine folks with whom I have no quarrel, even if I find their theology odd, but you won’t see them on TV.

  14. moonbat  •  Jun 3, 2007 @11:37 pm

    He never forced his teaching on others; quite the opposite, by my reading of the Gospel, people thronged to see HIM outside of towns and villages whenever they heard he was passing through.

    Not totally true. Christ had harsh words of condemnation for “the hypocrites”, people who put on an exterior show of religiosity, but in reality are “whitewashed tombs”. He called the Pharisees “lovers of money”. Threatening the power structure like this, and in other ways, is part of why he got crucified.

    As for imposing morality, at one point in the gospels, the disciples are commisioned to spread the gospel. Much of the New Testament is about this kind of evangelism, and todays’ Christians try to do the same. Of course Jesus’ early followers didn’t try to do this through explicit political means, but it wasn’t much different from people today who try to “save the lost”.

    There has always been a gray area between church and state, dating back to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD when Christianity became focused around certain theological tenets (Jesus is God), and rejecting all others as heresies, which resulted in a kind of theology and church which many see as favoring the Emperor Constantine, who used it to consolidate Roman rule. This reaches its apogee in the Byzantine Empire, which was a complete theocracy, thoroughly mixing religion and politics. Much later, there was a split in the Russian Orthodox church between “the possessors” and the “non possessors” – those who favored the accumulation of material wealth and power for the church, versus those who shunned it. And there have been many countries who had a state religion, either explicitly or implicitly, even in modern times. The USA was probably one of the first to explicitly reject this notion at its founding.

    And so the efforts by some of today’s Christians to bring about their own utopian theocracy in the USA isn’t new. You’re right to say that Jesus basically magnetized his followers, and didn’t operate through the political realm. His early disciples didn’t either, both because they mostly lacked political power and because they thought his return was imminent. But after these early centuries, politics and the Christian religion get quite mixed up.

  15. goatherd  •  Jun 4, 2007 @10:26 am

    Your eleventh commandment is prominent in Buddhist thought.

    It is my (mis?)understanding that crucifixion was a method of execution reserved primarily for political crimes. One could argue that the actions of Jesus were at least perceived by the Romans as a political threat. If I recall correctly, John Dominic Crossan has written well about this. The liberation theologists certainly believed that the teachings of Jesus could be expressed politically. I found them admirable in that regard.

    There is a certain regard for the separation of church and state in one of the temptations of Christ (in Matthew chapter 6 ?). Satan takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and tempts him with the power to rule all of what he sees. Also the oft quoted, “Render unto Caesar…”

    The temptation of earthly power seems an apt metaphor for what has happened with the GOP and the Christian right, although it is a toss up who lead who astray.

    The old saying “Man has a god shaped hole in his heart that he is always trying to fill.” has some merit. Maybe the concept of a god is a projection of a genetic(?) behavioral program, that in essence defines what it means to be human. Regardless, there are some concepts emerging from quantum physics that, to a layman such as myself, seem quite mystical. The theory of the mind as described by Jeffery Schwartz and Susan Begley, the non-existence of time in Julian Barbour, membrane theory and Paul Davies’ new book, “Cosmic Jackpot” seem to indicate that the cosmos is a far stranger place that we might have imagined. Maybe so strange a place that it might conceive “gods”. I wish I had 40 or 50 more I.Q. points so that I might truly appreciate these theories. I will leave that to your more gifted readership. But, my sense is that some of the implications of these insights have already been approached through mysticism.

    Sorry, just “thinking out loud”.

  16. maha  •  Jun 4, 2007 @12:40 pm

    goatherd — you are welcome to think out loud here whenever you like. 🙂

  17. Paidi  •  Jun 4, 2007 @1:11 pm

    Just a few thoughts–

    Christianity became the state religion of Armenia in 301 A.D., decades before the Council of Nicea, making the Armenian Apotoslic Church the world’s oldest national church.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Apostolic_Church

    Christianity under Constantine was not the official religion, but merely an accepted one. Coinage from this period combines the Chi-Rho symbol of christ (the cross didn’t become the main symbol until quite later) with pagan symbology, primarily Sol Invictus.
    This apparently led to some confusion; Jesus was often depicted as Helios or Apollo in 2-3rd century Roman Christian mosaics. A mosaic from the Tomb of the Julii was recently discoverd under the Vatican depicting Helios’s sun chariot driven by a clean-shaven Jesus, identified only by the distinctive Chi-Rho.

    Contrary to popular notion, virtually all modern Christian denominations teach Pauline Christianity – that is, they follow the teachings of Paul over those of Jesus. In short, Jesus was a socialist, while Paul was the first Elmer Gantry and very much a capitalist. The disciples of Jesus lived in a socialistic commune described in Acts 2:44-45 – “All that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” and Acts 4:34ff – “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” This, then, is the true meaning of sell all you have and give it to the poor – they were known as the Ebionites, from Evyonim – THE Poor. Today, virtually no one (except the Shakers) follows Jesus’s teaching of from each according to ability, to each according to need.

    In a particularly embarrassing period in Jewish history, Judean King Alexander Jannaeus crucified several thousand of his fellow Jews. Among them was said to be a godly man named Jesus.

    The name Jesus was a particularly popular one – Jesus being the result of Greek/Latin translation of the name of the great Jewish warrior Joshua. There over over a dozen people mentioned in the bible named Jesus or one of numerous variants.

  18. Matt  •  Jun 4, 2007 @5:31 pm

    The bottom line is you don’t want to have a system of government that forces religion or anti-religion on anyone. Let people believe or not believe. Just don’t have the government control the belief system.

  19. the exile  •  Jun 5, 2007 @4:28 pm

    you are a fluke of the universe; you have no right to be here, and if you could hear it, the universe is laughing behind your back…

    sorry, couldn’t resist my favorite line from “deteriorata”

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