The Wisdom of Doubt, Part V

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

The late Susan Sontag once tried to explain American religiosity to a German audience:

Many commentators have noted that perhaps the biggest difference between the United States and most European countries (old as well as new according to current American distinction) is that in the United States religion still plays a central role in society and public language. But this is religion American style: more the idea of religion than religion itself.

True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his “favourite philosopher,” the well-received answer — one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock — was “Jesus Christ.” But, of course, Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus….

… This modern, relatively contentless idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice, is the basis of American conformism, self-righteousness, and moralism (which Europeans often mistake, condescendingly, for Puritanism). … The very fact of being religious ensures respectability, promotes order, and gives the guarantee of virtuous intentions to the mission of the United States to lead the world. [Susan Sontag’s acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis peace prize, Frankfurt, Germany, October 12, 2003]

I don’t know how George W. Bush views his own religion. For all I know, he believes himself to be a sincere Christian. He may very well read the Bible and pray as much as he says he does. It is plain, however, that even if he “believes in” Christianity, he neither practices it nor follows it, except in the most superficial way.

In the August 2005 issue of Harper’s, Bill McKibben wrote that America is “a place saturated in Christian identity.” It is not, however, saturated in Christian understanding or practice.

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

Asking Christians what Christ taught isn’t a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation—and, overwhelmingly, we do—it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics. (One poll found that 11 percent of U.S. churchgoers were urged by their clergy to vote in a particular way in the 2004 election, up from 6 percent in 2000.) When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans.

And therein is the paradox. America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. That paradox—more important, perhaps, than the much touted ability of French women to stay thin on a diet of chocolate and cheese—illuminates the hollow at the core of our boastful, careening culture.

I think Sontag nailed it when she said religion “American style” is more the idea of religion than religion itself. Of course, you can say the same thing about many other matters supposedly dear to Americans. How many right-wing web sites have you come across that defend, say, the NSA warrantless wiretap program in the name of “freedom“?

I don’t have to tell you there’s some heavy-duty weird shit going on in American Christianity. Militant Christianists are out to abolish reproductive rights, dictate science curricula, and even run the Pentagon. But at the same time, another part of American Christianity seems downright soft and fluffy, and getting fluffier.

Yesterday The Guardian ran a profile of mega-church preacher Joel Osteen, currently on tour in Britain. Stephen Bates writes that Osteen’s basic message “could charitably be described as theology lite.”

Go to one of his services, as I did last year, and you will be told God wants you to do well: “God is a good God. He is smiling down on each one of you today We are going out for next week changed by God … Lord, we are filled with hope.”

Attending a service is an extraordinary experience. There are no religious symbols in the building. The stage is decorated with artificial waterfalls and a giant revolving globe, while above all flies an enormous stars and stripes.

The message of Osteen’s 12-minute sermons – precisely timed to hit the programme schedule – is studiously upbeat: if you keep a right attitude, God will reward you. It even extends to physical fitness in the obesity capital of the US: “Make changes for your health’s sake and God will make you better … if you get the physical side in balance, you will be rewarded by God.”

One on one, explains Don Iloff, Osteen’s press officer and brother-in-law, Joel knows where the rubber hits the road: “He’s telling them, God loves you, come on back. When they listen to Joel, they recognise a new face of God.”

Joel, he explains, does not have a great deal of time for pastoral work; visiting the sick, for example. There’s not enough time: that sermon takes two days to write and rehearse each week.

On the stage the preacher is accompanied by his former beauty queen wife Victoria, delegated to hand out the communion wafers, so that the ceremony becomes something like an upscale Tupperware party. Victoria, who has something of the appearance of Anthea Redfern in the Generation Game years ago, blotted her copybook a year or two back in an argument with stewards over their slowness in clearing up a drinks spillage on the armrest of her first class seat while the family was on a flight to Vail for a skiing holiday. She was fined $3,000 by the Federal Aviation Authority but insists she behaved throughout in a “Christian-like” manner.

“He gets 30,000 in his congregation every weekend and 18 million more tune in each month around the world to watch his services,” Bates writes. For what? Is this religion, pop psychology, or entertainment? And did I mention Osteen has virtually no pastoral or theological training?

American popular culture has grown a kind of pop Christianity that is increasingly untethered from any standard doctrinal base. Many Americans learned everything they know about religion from televangelist/entertainers like Olsteen. Or even worse, from zealots such as those described by Jeff Sharlet in the December 2006 Harper’s

I walked the streets of Brooklyn listening to an eighteen-tape lecture series on America up to 1865 created for Christian college students by Rousas John Rushdoony, the late theologian who helped launch Christian homeschooling and revived the idea of reading American history through a providential lens. (For instance, the “Protestant wind” with which, according to the eleventh-grade text, God helped the British defeat the Spanish Armada so that the New World would not be overly settled by agents of the Vatican.) I was down by the waterfront, pausing to scribble a note on Alexis de Tocqueville—Rushdoony argues that de Tocqueville was really a fundamentalist Christian disguised as a Frenchman—when a white-and-blue police van rolled up behind me and squawked its siren. There were four officers inside.

“What are you writing?” the driver asked. The other three leaned toward the window.

“Notes,” I said, tapping my headphones.

“Okay. Whatcha listening to?”

I said I didn’t think I had to tell him.

“This is a high-security area,” he said. On the other side of a barbed-wire fence, he said, was a Coast Guard storage facility for deadly chemicals. “Somebody blow that up and boom, bye-bye Brooklyn.” Note-taking in the vicinity might be a problem. “So, I gotta ask again, whatcha listening to?”

How to explain—to the cop who had just clued me in on the ripest terrorist target in Brooklyn—that I was listening to a Christian jihadi lecture on how democracy as practiced in America was defiance of God’s intentions, how God gave to the United States the “irresistible blessings” of biblical capitalism unknown to Europe, and how we have vandalized this with vulgar regulations, how God loves the righteous who fight in His name?

Like this: “American history.”

Olsteen seems harmless, compared to the paranoia of the best-selling Left Behind series. The now-fallen Rev. Ted Haggart’s New Life mission combined teachings on Jesus’ plan for free market capitalism with a call to convert evil and decadent urbanites with “violent, confrontive prayer.” (See Jeff Sharlet’s “Soldiers of Christ” in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s.)

American religion has always had its unusual elements — snake handling comes to mind — but these days unusual is the new normal.

In the past several years American religion and American politics have both been dominated by the extreme Right, which sees the world (and mass media) as its own magic view screen upon which it can project its darkest fears, ignorance and greed and declare it to be the only legitimate truth. Bill Moyers spoke to this last year

For a quarter of a century now a ferocious campaign has been conducted to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual, cultural, and religious frameworks that sustained America’s social contract. The corporate, political, and religious right converged in a movement that for a long time only they understood because they are its advocates, its architects, and its beneficiaries.

Their economic strategy was to cut workforces and wages, scour the globe for even cheaper labor, and relieve investors of any responsibility for the cost of society. On the weekend before President Bush’s second inauguration, The New York Times described how his first round of tax cuts had already brought our tax code closer to a system under which income on wealth would not be taxed at all and public expenditures would be raised exclusively from salaries and wages.

Their political strategy was to neutralize the independent media, create their own propaganda machine with a partisan press, and flood their coffers with rivers of money from those who stand to benefit from the transfer of public resources to elite control. Along the way they would burden the nation with structural deficits that will last until our children’s children are ready to retire, systematically stripping government of its capacity, over time, to do little more than wage war and reward privilege.

Their religious strategy was to fuse ideology and theology into a worldview freed of the impurities of compromise, claim for America the status of God’s favored among nations (and therefore beyond political critique or challenge), and demonize their opponents as ungodly and immoral.

At the intersection of these three strategies was money: Big Money.

It’s hard to tell sometimes how much of the current insanity is calculated for effect and how much of it is genuinely insane. I suspect both. Righties are second to no one when it comes to shrewdly and ruthlessly obtaining power. But their ideas — and ideals — are hallucinatory.

Moyers weaves familiar names into this plot — Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Jack Abramoff (who received a “Biblical Mercantile Award” from an organization that laundered money for Tom DeLay), Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed. If there’s an ounce of sincere religious devotion among the lot of them I’m the Pope. These guys fabricated bogus Christian fronts and recruited “some of the brightest stars in the Christian firmament – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly –” to carry out their various schemes to enrich themselves at the expense of others. It’s hard to believe Robertson et al. were entirely innocent of what DeLay et al. were up to.

While the unholy alliance of right-wing politics and religion prospered and conservative Christian organizations grew, the old “mainline” Protestant denominations began to lose members in 1965. An article from the April 2006 issue of The Lutheran says that for the most part the decline did not come about because people switched churches. Rather, as Protestant baby boomers reached adulthood many left religion entirely. Also, it says, Protestants just don’t have as many children as more conservative religious people do. Thus, the influence of the older, moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches has waned considerably.

And that’s a shame, because moderate to liberal Christian denominations also take moderate to liberal positions on social issues, including reproductive issues, gay rights, and separation of church and state. But when the “mainstream” media cover these issues, the only “Christian” opinions presented are those of the Right. Moderate to liberal religious voices are shouted down, just as they are in the political realm.

Bill Moyers continues,

These charlatans and demagogues know that by controlling a society’s most emotionally-laden symbols, they can control America, too. They must be challenged. Davidson Loehr reminds us that holding preachers and politicians to a higher standard than they want to serve has marked the entire history of both religion and politics. It is the conflict between the religion of the priests – ancient and modern – and the religion of the prophets.

It is the vast difference between the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus.

Yes, the religion of Jesus. It was in the name of Jesus that a Methodist ship caulker named Edward Rogers crusaded across New England for an eight-hour work day. It was in the name of Jesus that Francis William rose up against the sweatshop. It was in the name of Jesus that Dorothy Day marched alongside auto workers in Michigan, brewery workers in New York, and marble cutters in Vermont. It was in the name of Jesus that E.B. McKinney and Owen Whitfield stood against a Mississippi oligarchy that held sharecroppers in servitude. It was in the name of Jesus that the young priest John Ryan – ten years before the New Deal – crusaded for child labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and decent housing for the poor. And it was in the name of Jesus that Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to march with sanitation workers who were asking only for a living wage.

In light of the way right-wing religion is trying to drag us all back to the Middle Ages, it’s understandable that the non-religious are increasingly hostile toward religion. But it would be a lot more useful if liberal and progressive people, religious and non-religious alike, worked together to defuse the pernicious influence of right-wing politics and religion.

I want to go back to Susan Sontag. “[T]his is religion American style: more the idea of religion than religion itself.” What is the “religion itself” that is being missed? Bill Moyers says “It is the vast difference between the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus.”

A perfect real-world example of what Moyers is talking about is the way many Christians treat the Ten Commandments. You may remember the Georgia congressman who sponsored a bill providing that the Ten Commandments would be displayed in Congress and in federal courthouses. Then when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert, he could name only four of the Commandments, barely. I assume this wasn’t just an act.

Obviously, the Ten Commandments have significance to this congressman apart from what they actually say. That significance may be pandering for votes. But in recent years I’ve seen several polls saying that about three out of four Americans think the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed in public buildings. However, according to Bill McKibben (quote above) only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of them.

The statistics suggest that more people “believe in” the Ten Commandments than actually know what the Ten Commandments say. And I don’t care what religious tradition you call your own; just “believing in” something that you don’t practice or understand or follow is crap. It’s not even religion. It’s an idea of religion, but not religion itself, except on a very primitive level.

I think many Americans regard the Ten Commandments as something like a tribal totem. They want it placed in institutions of power, like schools and courthouses, as a symbol of their tribal dominance. Think of it as territorial marking. And this is just as true of the hard core fundamentalist as it is for the “cultural” Christian who has read most of the Left Behind books but doesn’t know the Beatitudes from spinach.

It’s hard to define religion in a succinct, universal way. The dictionary definitions don’t quite reach it. Non-religious people assume that religion is a supernatural belief system, but beliefs are what define the parameters of a particular religion; they aren’t the heart of it. The heart is devotion, commitment, and practice.

I like Paul Tillich:

Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.

If I might presume to speak for the sincerely religious, I’d say religion is what provides the context of our inner life. Whether a devotional faith or a mystical practice, religion helps us come to terms with who we are while expanding our sphere of concern and compassion outward to others.

Faux religion, on the other hand, is about bullshitting ourselves about ourselves and demanding that the universe cater to our greed and fears and ignorance.

Sontag said that when George Bush said Jesus was his favorite philosopher “Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus.” She’s right. We all understood that, even before we knew Bush very well, and isn’t that remarkable? These days Jesus is little more than the Right’s team mascot.

Update: More good Christians.

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25 Comments

  1. Jonathan Versen  •  Jul 8, 2007 @4:27 am

    I wonder how many people who answer pollsters as favoring displaying the 10 commandments are doing so out of a combination of

    1.a vague, unfocused guilt at not being “properly religious” and

    2. hoping that if you humor the nutballs they’ll go away?

    (and no, I don’t think no. 2 will work.)

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Jul 8, 2007 @5:06 am

    You mean that the apples that Newton observed didn’t bounce up?!? Wow, that’s news to me…

    Maha,
    I agree with what you’ve written. But surety is so much easier than doubt.
    The Ten Commandments’?
    Sure!
    The Bill of Right’s?
    What are they?
    We don’t understand what we should believe; and we don’t believe that which we should understand.
    That is the American conundrum!
    The ball is in the next person’s court…

  3. erinyes  •  Jul 8, 2007 @7:56 am

    I got a chuckle when I read your lines about the “soft and fluffy” version, which was followed by the name Joel Osteen. At least Osteen is rather harmless, a squeeky-clean gentle southern boy with a beauty queen wife and a bank account of “Biblical proportions”, something most American males would envy, although Osteen comes of as being seriously testosterone challenged.
    One of the guys that worry me is Arnold Murray. He combines nationalism, magical thinking, and Old Testament readings.
    His followers believe he has discovered the truth in the Bible that every religious scholar has missed.
    There is a raging debate between several men I know regarding if the rapture is near, if we are currently in “the tribulation”,and is there a “pre tribulation” rapture. This new “religion” takes current global events and twists them to fit Biblical prophesy.Among the highlights are the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the war in Iraq, and if the Chinese and Russians will enter the war in Iraq.These men I mentioned are counting on all of the above, because when the events occur, heaven is near.
    It seems to me that a large section of American Christians are in it for the earthly rewards God will provide for their loyalty and the promise of heaven in the after life.Another section just ain’t sure, better to be safe than sorry………

  4. c u n d gulag  •  Jul 8, 2007 @9:06 am

    erinyes,
    Are “The Tribulation’s” here?
    The last time I looked, GWB was still Preznit. And, there’s ‘a tribulation’s enough for all of the folk’s on this planet with this evil, cowardly clown in office.
    Let’s just hope he tries to keep the coming rapture to a small event. Like he did the collateral damage in the Iraq Occupation. You know, like, only a couple of billion dead.

    IMPEACH. NOW!!!

    Paging The Hague… Collect call for The Hague….

  5. Doug Hughes  •  Jul 8, 2007 @9:37 am

    There is a bumper sticker I favor “Who would Jesus Torture?”. This question can create the DOUBT – that needs to be there for rational decision-making.

    Second, the strong, almost absolute power partnership between the religious right and political right has been shaken in this last election. One reason is because their political poster-boy, George W has become so unpopular. In this election the Dem candidates have made what looks like a coordinated effort to challenge the Rep claim that THEY are the party pf God.

  6. joanr16  •  Jul 8, 2007 @9:55 am

    “Biblical Mercantile Award”

    Speaks volumes, right there.

    I have a coworker who likes to go on and on about her weekly Bible study group, and then throws out zingers like, “We ought to just drop The Bomb on Iraq, and kill ’em all.” I have never heard her advocate charitable work, or forgiveness, or any of the concepts taught by Jesus in the parables. For all I know, she and her fellow Bible students just sit around eating desserts and trading gossip. Most of her stories about Sunday services at her (mainstream Lutheran) church involve who’s sitting in the front pews on a given week.

  7. spaghetti happens  •  Jul 8, 2007 @11:59 am

    “Sontag said that when George Bush said Jesus was his favorite philosopher ‘Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus.’ ”

    It was an early use of the “dog whistle” technique, coded language that is meaningless outside of the narrow framework of secret communication–“You know what I mean.” Jesus, the historical figure and teacher, is meaningless to people like Bush; damn, I hadn’t seen it so well expressed before, that we’re not talking about the religion of Jesus so much as the religion about Jesus, which expands the field of interpretation indefinitely, depending on your personal politics and willingness to ignore the obvious. In this manner of thinking, Jesus becomes a tool, an icon, an image, but is certainly not a guide or a teacher.

    In this, Christianists like Bush are merely continuing a tradition that is, alas, as old as Christianity itself.

  8. Swami  •  Jul 8, 2007 @12:29 pm

    It was an early use of the “dog whistle” technique

    A big amen here,spaghetti happens. How does it go?…Those who proclaim me before men, I too will proclaim them before my father who is in heaven. It was a major dog whistle. And I recall only one instance where somebody pointed out that Jesus wasn’t a philosopher, but the messiah..the word made flesh.
    The nut jobs sucked it up big time.. it was a major score for Bush to dazzle those who hear theirs master’s voice.

  9. paradoctor  •  Jul 8, 2007 @12:53 pm

    Believing in belief without knowing what the belief is; that’s sort of like being in love with love without being in love. It is an affaire with a mirror.

    I see major satirical possibilities in people favoring the Ten Commandments without knowing what they are. Some ambitious, angry Borat-like comic could concoct some bogus but plausible-sounding Ten, and get the clueless to sign on to them.

    In a sense, this is precisely what the mega-churches have already done.

  10. felicity  •  Jul 8, 2007 @5:22 pm

    Probably as long as man has been man religion has served as a ‘front,’ a ‘cover,’ a license to do all sorts of hideous things to other men. Nothing like tagging on to a diety for clout and legitimacy. And then evoke passion in your victims – not hard to do given that we’re passionate creatures – and we’re hooked.

    The problem is how to pull back the curtain and reveal the wizard. I don’t think it can be done simply because human beings don’t want it done. The very qualities that make us human are the very qualities that make us fond of wizards.

    Religion isn’t the culprit just like the automobile isn’t the culprit in a head-on collision.

  11. moonbat  •  Jul 8, 2007 @5:54 pm

    I tend to see religion in America as a continuum, with the serious at one end, and the dabblers at the other.

    The dabblers are largely what your positing is about – people who are familiar enough with the externals of a religious culture, but who haven’t deeply internalized what it’s really about. They may go to church regularly and even be inspired by what happens there, but it hasn’t transformed their core behaviors or beliefs.

    Bush’s famous statement that “Jesus Christ is my favorite philosopher” is an example of a dabbler, because Bush is someone who doesn’t apear to think philosophically, nor does he appear to have been deeply transformed by Christ’s teachings. And yet he can probably say in all honesty that Christ is his favorite philosopher – it just doesn’t mean much, given the source. This doesn’t even talk about the very real dog whistle implications, which an earlier commenter touched on.

    What makes a dabbler a dabbler is their desire for the bennies of the religious culture coupled with their avoidance of any serious confrontation with the culture’s deeper truths. Sadly, there are a lot of religious cultures in America (and probably everywhere) that allow this avoidance (lack of accountability) to go on indefinitely. And if the heat of confrontation becomes unbearable, you can just go to another church.

    The serious can be divided into another continuum: those who believe the universe is friendly (God is nurturing and loving) versus those who think it is not (God is a fearful judge). Einstein said this was the only important question, whether the universe is friendly or not.

    The fear camp has a small minded view of the world, and tend to be tribal because fear constricts vision and trust. They are obsessed with private morality – various personal sins and behaviors – but are generally oblivious to, and supportive of, acts the tribe is doing to others. This is why abortion and homosexuality means far more to them than the war in Iraq or global warming. These are the ones who know the Ten Commandments – given by a harsh, Old Testament God – because they believe there will most definitely be a quiz. However, because of their tribal focus, then understand these commandments in a way that validates the tribe’s welfare at the expense of others.

    The love camp has a big picture view of the world, and tend to be global because love expands vision and trust. They are obsessed with public morality – how you treat your fellow human being – but generally overlook personal, victimless, private acts. This is why the war in Iraq or gobal warming means far more to them than abortion or homosexuality. They may or may not know the Ten Commandments, but they most definitely get what Jesus was saying in the Sermon on the Mount.

    The fear camp tends to be small minded and literal; the love camp by contrast can read between the lines, both of their own scriptures, and of those outside their tribe.

  12. Atheinostic  •  Jul 8, 2007 @6:25 pm

    “If I might presume to speak for the sincerely religious, I’d say religion is what provides the context of our inner life. Whether a devotional faith or a mystical practice, religion helps us come to terms with who we are while expanding our sphere of concern and compassion outward to others.”

    You’re defending religion by distorting the concept so badly that your idea of it bears little if any resemblance to any real life implementations of religion. Using a proverbial exacto knife to thoroughly remove the negative and anti-intellectual aspects of religion yields a product resembling an inferior form of secular humanism.

    Mankind needs no theistic or dogmatic backdrop to enjoy a rich inner life. I would argue that such a ‘context’ would be immaterial at best and detrimental at worst.

    Those who have worked hard to right the social ills of society did not do so because of some interpretation of Jesus’ policy suggestions in a holy text; they did so because they saw their fellow man suffering, and were compelled by conscience to right these wrongs. And the moral code that we should endeavor to minimize suffering was not born of religion; rather, dogmatic beliefs inherent in religion’s existence provide some of the best vehicles for overriding this basic ethical axiom.

  13. maha  •  Jul 8, 2007 @7:14 pm

    You’re defending religion by distorting the concept so badly that your idea of it bears little if any resemblance to any real life implementations of religion.

    No, I’m speaking as one who understands religion from long experience and study. And I’m defining it in a way that finds commonality among all religions, not just theistic ones. You’re the one distorting concepts.

    Mankind needs no theistic or dogmatic backdrop to enjoy a rich inner life.

    I didn’t say otherwise. I’m saying some of us choose to practice religion. But it’s not a “backdrop.”

    And as a Zen Buddhist, my religion is neither theistic nor dogmatic. That’s not how it works.

    I would argue that such a ‘context’ would be immaterial at best and detrimental at worst.

    You can argue that all you like. It’s of no consequence to me.

    Notice I do not try to tell you what you do with your own head. I suggest you don’t try to tell me what to do with mine.

    Those who have worked hard to right the social ills of society did not do so because of some interpretation of Jesus’ policy suggestions in a holy text; they did so because they saw their fellow man suffering, and were compelled by conscience to right these wrongs. And the moral code that we should endeavor to minimize suffering was not born of religion; rather, dogmatic beliefs inherent in religion’s existence provide some of the best vehicles for overriding this basic ethical axiom.

    I think the connection between religion and morality isn’t a pure cause-and-effect one. But before you lecture me on this matter, you might want to read one of the earlier posts in this series on religion and morality. Otherwise, you would be making assumptions about what I think based on your biases against religion, and your assumptions would be false..

    http://www.mahablog.com/2007/06/24/the-wisdom-of-doubt-part-iii/

  14. erinyes  •  Jul 9, 2007 @5:23 am

    Some times in the wee hours of the morning, I wonder if this whole deal is just part of the plan hatched by Leo Strauss and his followers. The noble lie, good vs bad. Hearding the sheep.
    Gotta run………………..

  15. Donna  •  Jul 9, 2007 @7:45 am

    Yes, erinyes, me too……having those kind of wonderings. Great post.

  16. Swami  •  Jul 9, 2007 @9:03 am

    Yeah great post…I think the Christians should junk the bible and get into reading Norman Vincent Peale’s book ..The Power of Positive Thinking..all the bennies without the incessant threats of being smitten,treasuring up of wrath, or recieving just recompenses for transgressions.

  17. Kevin Hayden  •  Jul 9, 2007 @9:53 am

    It would seem that if Christianity were practiced, the Ten Commandments would be moot, since Jesus taught there were but two rules that encompassed all the others.

    But the disconnect between scripture and practice has been a chasm since at least my earliest memories and I’m sure that gulf precedes me by centuries, spawning Marx’s quote about religion being the opiate of the masses.

    Manipulators of people motivated by their own greed have found that snake handling has risks. Better to become the serpent handling apples instead.

  18. Lucy  •  Jul 9, 2007 @12:08 pm

    Maha , I admire your truth telling about how religion has been subverted and politized by Republicans. I have seen this many times, people will vote against their own best interests if told /suggested even from the pulpt.
    This is as old I suppose as history, I do not see any way out of this except to decrease the power and influence of all religion in society . I suppose we could have an experiment and see what a religion free country would look like ….. in fact we do … Scandanavia is the most unreligious region on earth. They are doing just fine as far as I know.

    I think that because you have found such fullfillment in your religion you are passionate about this subject, but I really think its time to challenge the very foundations of religion.

    Yes, this ” new atheism ” is a response to fundamentalism and fanatacism in all its ugliness , its push back against centuries of oppression.
    Sometimes its loud and angry ,eg Hitchins, but he has a right to be angry for examle when his friend Salman Rushdie is under death threats for writing a book !
    I see absolutely no good things in religion that could not be acclomplished by a caring and compassionate society , however I am open to being persuaded .

  19. maha  •  Jul 9, 2007 @1:10 pm

    Lucy — the next Religion of Doubt post, currently in the early stages of composition, should address your concerns. It’s a complex thing. Unfortunately, the “new atheism” threatens to be just as fanatical, rigid and one-sided as the “old religion.” It’s not as bad, yet, but the difference is more in degree than in kind. It’s going down the same road that all fanaticism takes.

  20. felicity  •  Jul 9, 2007 @7:09 pm

    Maha, untentional I’m sure, perhaps a case of inadequately expressing your point, I’ve no idea but the upshot closely resembles a screed on your part. I would like to know your point in as few words as possible.

  21. maha  •  Jul 9, 2007 @10:46 pm

    I would like to know your point in as few words as possible.

    About what?

  22. felicity  •  Jul 10, 2007 @1:02 pm

    I got from your post that you agree with Sontag that religion American style is more the idea of religion than religion itself. And it is that ‘idea of religion’ (seemingly ignoring religion itself) that ends up having a pernicious impact on our economic, social and political policies and practices. I certainly agree.

    I looked for a ‘solution’ in your post thinking it was where you were headed but I couldn’t find it so figured I hadn’t gotten your point. I hope somewhere down the road we can expect a ‘solution’ from you?

  23. maha  •  Jul 10, 2007 @1:13 pm

    felicity — well, yes, this is part 5 of a multi-part series, notice. I have part 6 about ready to roll out, probably tonight, which takes another look at the “problem,” but I am still warming up to the “solution.” I think by part 7 (next week) I’ll be starting to look at solutions.

  24. Joyful Alternative  •  Jul 11, 2007 @9:51 am

    Thank you for expressing this so well: “Unfortunately, the ‘new atheism’ threatens to be just as fanatical, rigid and one-sided as the ‘old religion.’ It’s not as bad, yet, but the difference is more in degree than in kind. It’s going down the same road that all fanaticism takes.”

    They’re zealots straight out of “The True Believer,” with a Bushian black or white, good versus evil perspective. Initially, I was sure I could explain the difference between, say, the Catholic Workers and Opus Dei—-

  25. Jack H.  •  Aug 23, 2007 @5:36 pm

    Another great post. An awful lot of people from the center to the left are actually pointing to ‘faux religion’ every time they say ‘religion’. A developmental scheme like that of Clare Graves (popularized as Spiral Dynamics) might be helpful to demonstrate how mythic value Christians hold very different beliefs than egalitarian value Christians. It’s just one of many lenses that all have their own problems (a lot of people get very excited about developmental schemes), but mushing it all together is more dangerous I think.

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