Browsing the archives for the Religion category.


Thinking About Separation of Church and State

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Religion

I’m writing this in response to something posted in a Facebook group, which I started to write in Facebook, but it was turning into something major, so now it’s a blog post.

The original comment:

“I really just mean a state anti-religious or taking the separation between church and state to nitpicky extremes, obsessed with avoiding all prayers to God in general in the public square or the slightest mention of God in the public square. I have no problem with a President, for example, saying “God bless the United States of America”, or the pledge saying, “Under God”, or, “In God we trust” on our coins, or prayers at public meetings, as long as neutral and inclusive, and not mandatory for anyone.”

My response, addressed to the person who posted the comment:

Let’s take these apart. “The left” these days really is not concerning itself with “In God We Trust” on coins; possibly a few atheists are, but I haven’t heard anything about this lately.

When you are talking about the “public square” are you talking about official functions of some level of government — including public school functions — or activities initiated by private citizens and carried out on public property? This makes a huge difference.

Current U.S. statutory and case law protects the rights of individual citizens to do religious stuff on public property, such as hold prayer meetings in a public park. Local ordinances may require you to get a permit, but local officials cannot deny your group a permit just because it is religious, as long as it is allowing non-religious groups permits to use the park.

The same thing is true of public school property. Students may organize their own prayer groups and pray together on public school property before and after school and during recess. They may also organize Bible study clubs and use school facilities after school for their meetings, if the school is allowing other kinds of clubs, such as the Girl Scouts, to meet there. This is a matter of law, enacted by Congress in the Equal Access Law of 1984, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990).

So it’s utter hyperbole to say that religion is being totally banned from the “public square.” What’s prohibited, mostly, is religious expression that is initiated or sponsored by government itself.

The reason parents — and they weren’t just atheist parents — challenged school prayers is that some schools were forcing children to say prayers that violated their religious beliefs. For example, one of the landmark SCOTUS cases that prohibited school prayer, Engel v. Vitale (1962), was brought by Jewish families whose children were being coerced into saying prayers to Jesus in public school. There were a number of other cases back then in which children were being punished in subtle ways — being forced to hide in the cloakroom or sit in the library doing long division — if they refused to take part in religious activities in school.

The more recent Texas football case, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), was initiated by Catholic and Mormon families who not only objected to the content of the prayers being said over the loudspeakers before football games, they also testified that many teachers had treated their children with hostility because they hadn’t been “born again” and in some cases had ridiculed them in front of other students because of their religion. School officials seriously needed to be reminded they weren’t living in the United States of Fundamentalist Jesus.

However, by law, people who really want to pray to Fundamentalist Jesus before high school football games can still do so if they organize their own prayer circles before the game, and they can do this on school property. It just can’t be part of the official program that everyone has to sit through.

One of my favorite “enlightenment” examples on this issue was an article in World Net Daily by a guy who couldn’t understand the big deal about prayers at football games until his company temporarily transferred him to Hawaii. He was invited to a high school football game and asked to stand up for the pregame prayer, which he did. Then he realized to his horror that he was standing up for a Buddhist prayer.

We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions. I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby.

Wow, that was big of him.

Anyway, over the next few days the writer found out that, because this ethnic Japanese community was predominantly Buddhist and Shinto, the pre-game prayers were also either Buddhist or Shinto. He stayed away from Hawaiian high school football games because he couldn’t handle the prayers. He concluded,

The point is this. I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day. Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land.

Yes, and it’s apparently incomprehensible for a lot of people of the majority faith, Christianity, to imagine what it feels like to be in the minority until it happens to them. I wish I could send the whole Bible Belt to Buddhist/Shinto public observances so they can appreciate what it feels like.

The point here is that courts have interpreted the free exercise of religion to be a basic right of citizenship enshrined in the First Amendment but protected by the 14th Amendment, the first paragraph of which is —

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Prayers and other religious observances that are initiated and conducted by “officials” of government, whether school teachers or senators, and are part of the official program of some kind of government function, are an infringement of the free exercise of religion of any citizen who is not of the faith represented in the prayer. And there is no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer,” especially if there are any atheists or nontheists (like me) in the audience.

Earlier this year in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) SCOTUS ruled to allow sectarian prayer before government meetings. Such prayers had never been prohibited as long as they didn’t amount of obvious proselytization, although there was some grumbling Justice Scalia’s written opinion opened that door. Conservative Christian groups celebrated their “freedom to pray,” as if they’d actually been prohibited from praying before. Now some groups are fighting back by insisting that the prayers include pagan or other minority prayers, and I don’t see how even Justice Scalia — famous for his creative interpretations of the Constitution — could come up with an argument that such prayers must only be Christian. Although I wouldn’t put it past him to try.

I haven’t personally said the Pledge of Allegiance for decades. I originally stopped saying it because I was angry about the War in Vietnam, but then I realized the “under God” part was wrong, and citizens should be required to say that. It’s an infringement on freedom of religion. I’m not on any big crusade to outlaw the thing, but I do encourage people who are uncomfortable with it to just not say it. Maybe someday if enough people are just not saying it, the thing will be re-thought.

The point is that something that may not seem like a big deal to you might be a big deal to the guy standing next to you, and he has rights, too. Your “nitpicky extreme” might feel like a serious infringement to somebody else.

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The Fantasies of Sam Harris

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Middle East, Religion

I find Sam Harris slightly less annoying than, say, Richard Dawkins, but that’s not saying much. Much like Dawkins, Sam Harris is intelligent and articulate and a seething mass of self-deception. He’s a smart guy soaking in his own bullshit, basically.

If you know me at all you know I don’t give a hoo-haw whether someone believes in God or not, as long as they aren’t being missionaries about it, either way. I’m fine with atheists. I call myself that sometimes, although I prefer the label non-theist if I have to be labeled. What bugs me aren’t so much atheists but anti-theists, people with a knee-jerk disdain for all religion. Anti-theists are inevitably ignorant of religion — including non-theistic ones — and assume it all to be just varying degrees of fundamentalism.

Harris also represents another crew I can do without, the true believers of scientism. Scientism — the current and more dogmatic form of what is also called positivism —  is not science; it’s a blind faith that the scientific method is the measure of all truth, and whatever is not subject to falsification by the scientific method is just superstitious nonsense. Scientism is itself unscientific, since its premise is not subject to testing by the scientific method, but the scientismists get very angry when you point that out to them.

You may have heard about the televised flame over Islam among Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Maher’s show last week. Affleck isn’t the guy I would have chosen to stand up to Harris, and I confess I haven’t taken the time to watch it. (I defer to Juan Cole’s analysis of the event.) Nicolas Kristof was on the show, too, and apparently could get few words in edgewise. But the fallout has been interesting, possibly more so than the flame itself.  People clearly are judging the “winner” based on their prior opinions of Islam. And now Harris writes on his blog that Affleck and Kristof were mean to him. “Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims,” Harris writes.

But Harris’s bigotry to Muslims, and toward all religion generally, has been commented on for years; he really ought to be used to it by now. For the ultimate analysis of Harris’s twisted worldview, see this 2011 article by Jackson Lears, “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

There is copious data in the field of psychology suggesting that people are not nearly as rational as we think we are, and the myth-making parts of our brains are still churning out myths. Generally without being conscious of it we’re all creating a narrative, a personal myth, that explains us to ourselves. As we go through life we make up a story about ourselves and our role in the world, and who we think we are, and we process our experiences by fitting them into the narrative. I wrote in the book,

In his book The Unpersuadables, which really is the best thing I’ve read on this topic, Will Storr suggests that our thinking skills haven’t evolved beyond the age of myth as much as we think. Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

Indeed, it may be that the most foolish belief of all is the belief that any of us are rational. The only difference between a sensible person and a kook may be that the sensible person holds irrational beliefs that conform to a socially acceptable norm, while the kook is more creative.

Further, the social psychologists tell us our opinions on just about everything are being generated by our subconscious, and without realizing it we then craft a story to tell ourselves why we believe as we do. We’re all being jerked around by biases unless we come to know ourselves very, very well and recognize the emotional cues we’re getting from our ids, and make a conscious choice to ignore them. And that would be one person in a million.

And a bit later in the book, I wrote,

What’s happening with scientism believers (scientismists?), seems to me, is that they very much want to believe they are as entirely rational as computers and utterly unlike those irrational religion-believing people they so dislike. So the myth-making parts of their brains have developed a strong cognitive bias to “confirm” their belief in absolute rationality and of themselves as relentlessly rational. They’re living in a myth that they’re not living in a myth.

I say a person cannot be genuinely rational until he recognizes and acknowledges his own irrationality. Otherwise, he’s just kidding himself.

IMO this is precisely what’s going on with Harris. He is living in a myth that he is entirely rational, and in his mind everything he thinks must be rational because he’s the one thinking it. If you disagree with him, you are being emotional and irrational.

Harris’s and Dawkins’s groupies are just as bad. Find any online article critical of one of the Prophets of New Atheism and you get hundreds of comments sputtering in outrage that anyone dare question the wisdom of The Prophets. It doesn’t matter how clearly the article writer has expressed himself and supported his views; whatever he writes will be dismissed as ad hominem and even as bigoted toward atheism. This is true even if the author acknowledges that he is an atheist himself. (This review of the first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography is a good example. If you read it, then see “John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins” for the knee-jerk defense of a true believer against anything short of fawning deference toward the Great Man.)

In the book I make mention of Harris’s ideas on science-based morality, which he described in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values and elsewhere, and which I dismantled in some detail. Harris really does see the ideal human as absolutely rational and as logical as a computer, which is nonsense, and as a neuroscientist he ought to know better. In fact, we’re all an oozy mess of biases and various psychological pathologies trying to cope with it all, and our brief moments of pure rational thought are like lightning flashes in the sky of our otherwise muddled understanding. That may sound pessimistic, but it’s the truth, and I honestly don’t believe anyone can be rational at all until he or she owns up to that and makes allowance for it.

Regarding Islam, Harris is stuck in the belief that the ghastly violence and extremism roiling the near and middle east are entirely coming from Islam, which is irrational on its face considering that there really are devout Muslims who are gentle and nonviolent human beings and not violent psycho-pathological killers. New Atheists assume all religion exists on a sliding crazy scale, and the more “devout” one is the more extreme, crazy, and potentially dangerous one is, but it actually doesn’t work that way. As I observed in the book,

Violent religious factions around the globe appear to share some characteristics, and one of these is a tendency to disregard doctrines that counsel putting away hatred and avoiding violence. In fact, the more radical and violent the group, the less likely the fanatics are to accept their religion’s doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they tend to make a fetish out of some doctrines, usually those involving enforcement of morality and respecting the religion’s deities and symbols, while ignoring deeper spiritual doctrines about humility and compassion. We can see this clearly in radical Islam, but the same tendencies are apparent in hyper-conservative Christianity and Judaism as well as in the militant Buddhist monks.

As I document at some length in the chapter on religious violence, “religious violence” never happens in a vacuum. If you look deeply and objectively at the episodes of religious violence around the world today and back through history, they are never just about religion. Violence happens during a confluence of particular cultural, social, political, historical, and sometimes religious factors, usually combining some kind of “holy cause” — which is not necessarily a religious one — with a fanatical grievance, an unshakable belief that one has been wronged somehow and is entitled to get back at somebody for it, a belief that can manifest in many forms. Sometimes religion is a primary motivator, but more often, when religion is a factor at all, it’s used to package the rage and give atrocity a fig leaf of respectability.

Among New Atheism’s pet dogmas is the belief that religion is the cause of nearly all wars. I understand there is a massive tome called the Encyclopedia of Wars that analyzes wars, mentioned recently in a Timothy Egan column. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,’” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” I would have guessed a bit higher than that, frankly, but I will assume that’s accurate.

New Atheists get around apparently non-religious reasons for war by equating all ideological fanaticism as “religious,” even when the fanaticism has a stated anti-religious basis, as in Communism.  In the late Christopher Hitchens’s largely ridiculous book God Is Not Great, Hitch supported his argument that religion is the root of all evil essentially by classifying things he disapproved of as religious and those he approved of as not religious. Thus, Mao Zedong was religious, but Martin Luther King wasn’t. And Hitch believed himself to be entirely rational.

Islam actually is a hugely diverse tradition in which scripture and teachings are interpreted and practiced many different ways, which means anyone who ever speaks of Islam as if it were one monolithic thing should automatically be dismissed as ignorant. And if you can’t see the many historical, cultural, social and political factors fueling violence in the Muslim world, you are blind. There’s just no getting around that; you’ve got to be a blinkered idiot to assume Islam alone is the cause of the current madness. And since Sam Harris sees the world that way, I have to assume there’s something seriously wrong with him, and applied rational thinking isn’t it.

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Sam Harris vs. Islam

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Religion

Sam Harris is very sure that Islam created ISIS, and he criticized President Obama for saying otherwise:

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

If indeed Islam itself demands that all apostates must die, it’s been weirdly inconsistent about this over the years. Just yesterday I found an article about Muslims who risked — and sometimes lost — their own lives saving Jews from the Holocaust. Harris would probably argue those Muslims were hypocrites (No True Muslim would rescue a Jew?). But I’m sure if we checked we could probably find many examples of amicable meetings between Muslims and non-Muslims that didn’t end in slaughter.

Maybe the relationship between Islam and violence is not what Harris assumes.

In Rethinking Religion I devote a chapter to religious violence and another to the dynamics of mass movements. In the latter chapter I propose that many of the supposed evils of religion — a propensity to violence and dogmatic faithfulness to irrational beliefs — can be found in many kinds of movements, both religious and not religious. And I propose that violent movements of all sorts have two things in common — a “holy” cause combined with a fanatical grievance.

The holy cause does not have to be religious; patriotism will do nicely, too, especially when combined with belief in ethnic or racial superiority or some kind of glorious national destiny. But the fanatical grievance is an essential component, also. I postulate that people who do not feel particularly aggrieved about anything tend to be disinclined to become violent about their holy causes, whether religious or not.

At Alternet, C.J. Werleman addresses atheists’ flawed view of Islamic terrorism. In particular, he addresses Sam Harris’s insistence that terrorism by Muslims is driven entirely by Islam. Werleman documents that a great many factors other than Islam  have been driving terrorism in Muslim countries, and all of this supports my “fanatical grievance” hypothesis. This is not to say that religion is not a factor, but it is not the simple and direct factor that Harris imagines.

At Foreign Policy, anthropologist Scott Atran writes,

… the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

So, evidence suggests religion can bring out the best in us as well as the worst. I propose that without the “fanatical grievance” factor, religion by itself is unlikely to cause people to go to war. An emotionally healthy and reasonably contended individual does not become a mass murderer because of something he reads in scripture, no matter how devout he is.

Religion does not exist in a vacuum. All religions live and grow within a culture of, well, culture. And politics, and society, and history. These things exist together and condition each other in countless ways. Sometimes culture expresses itself through religion. Sometimes religion expresses itself through culture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Religious identity often gets mixed into ethnic or national identity, so that “defending the faith” becomes synonymous with “defending my people.”

Very often the factors that push a movement toward violence may have little to do with religion, but at some point in the process religion is trotted out to justify whatever extreme measures are used to achieve ends. More often than not, the truth of this isn’t apparent even to the people fomenting the violence. Religious violence often begins when people become angry or fearful about something, and as a desire to strike the feared or hated thing grows, religion provides a great moral cover for whatever violent impulses want to be expressed. Persuading yourself that you have been anointed to do God’s terrible work makes it much easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

Religion, then, is not the root cause of violence as often as it is an accelerant. Scott Atran writes,

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments.

We can see from our own home-grown fundamentalists that all kinds of unrelated things can become sacralized. Some American conservative Christians have sacralized capitalism, for example, to the point of claiming free-market capitalism is ordained by the Bible.

As Karen Armstrong and other scholars have documented, religious fundamentalism is primarily a backlash against modernity. The original Christian fundamentalist movement arose in the late 19th century United States in reaction to a spectrum of social and cultural challenges, such as the huge influx of immigrants, many of which were barely connected to religion.

In the broader sense of the word, “fundamentalist” religious movements around the world are reactionary. They tend to be obsessed with creating some kind of sacred enclave where they can be in complete control and free of outside influence. Often, as in the case of ISIS, they venerate a highly mythologized version of the past that they say they want to restore. They place great importance on sacred symbols and moral purity, especially the moral purity of women. But they also tend not to follow their own religions in any kind of holistic way. Any parts of their own doctrines or scriptures that do not support their violent path, such as teachings on mercy and compassion, are studiously ignored.

So, whether Sam Harris likes it or not, there is a solid argument to be made that the root cause of ISIS is not Islam, and that instead Islam has been appropriated to serve as packaging for a veritable compost heap of grievances mostly related to politics and oil. That said, the extent to which the ISIS movement can persuade itself its cause is holy will have a lot to do with how long and hard and effectively the group will survive and keep fighting. So Islam cannot be ignored.

At the same time, it can be argued that what’s fueling ISIS is more of an idea of Islam than Islam itself. Rather than a practice of humble submission to the will of God, this idea of Islam exalts and empowers the leaders and followers of ISIS. And while it’s not up to me to judge what is “true” Islam and what isn’t, I respect arguments that the ISIS version aint’ it.

But Sam Harris says he knows better.

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran.

The Qu’ran is not my area, but I doubt it’s Sam Harris’s area, either. Harris’s words smack more of bigotry than scholarship. Obviously, Harris has a deep ego-investment in the belief that Religion Is Bad, and that good ol’ confirmation bias backs him up every time. I doubt that his mind could be opened to entertain another view. And that’s why he’s mostly clueless.

Making Islam the enemy is the last thing we should be doing now. For another view, see Salam Al Marayati, “The Key to Defeating ISIS Is Islam.”

Religious violence is a complex topic. Sometimes religious institutions have made cold-blooded decisions to betray their own doctrines and engage in violence, and this is usually related to either ensuring the institution’s survival or spreading its influence.  But examples of this kind of violence have become less common in the modern era, and I don’t know if it applies to any violence going on in the world now.

What I do know is that responses to religious violence coming from a place of knee-jerk bigotry and ignorance are not going to help us deal with it.

Read more about religious violence in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[Cr0ss-posted from Rethinking Religion Blog]

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The Christian Right Is Dangerous

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Religion

I posted on the religion blog about Why the Christian Right Is Dangerous after reading this by Amanda Marcotte. It does seem that the extremist wing of the Christian Right is growing bigger and crazier. The “home schooling” and “school choice” movements are particularly worrying. The number of American children being home schooled has grown from 850,000 students in 1999 to  1,770,000 students in 2013. Not all of those children are being kept out of school for religious reasons, of course. But we could easily be growing a subculture of badly educated religious fanatics who could become increasingly violent as they become more estranged from the rest of us.

Karen Armstrong defines fundamentalism in a broad sense as a reaction against and rejection of modern Western society. Fundamentalists, in different ways, all attempt to establish enclaves of pure faith that shut out any other views. Those they come in contact with who aren’t “them” must be either shunned or assimilated. And in time, if that doesn’t work, they must be eliminated.

Two chapters in Rethinking Religion are dedicated to religious mass movements and religious violence. These chapters propose that the two factors always present in violent mass movements are a holy cause — defending the faith against those they think are its enemies, in this case — combined with a fanatical grievance, or the belief they’re the ones who are the victims. You see this in violent Islam, in the violent Buddhists in Myanmar, and also in mass movements that are not expressly religious.

The Christian Right in America is obsessed with the belief that they are being persecuted. This has been true for a long time, but it’s becoming more and more obvious. And they clearly have a holy cause. I think we would be very naive to assume that widespread religious terrorism can’t happen here — except around abortion clinics,of course, which for some reason is not supposed to count.

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Hobby Lobby Has Not Split “the Left”

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Religion

Stupidest headline I’ve seen so far today — “How Hobby Lobby Split the Left and Set Back Gay Rights” at The Atlantic. I’m not seeing the Hobby Lobby decision split “the Left” at all. Have you?

It’s true that several gay-rights groups have withdrawn support from ENDA — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — but their reasons are understandable. They say the bill has been so carved-out and watered down as to be useless. And they’re probably right. I’m not seeing any objections from other lefties.

What makes this article (by Molly Ball) especially pathetic is that her strongest examples of splitting on “The Left” are Third Way and Jim Wallis. Third Way is an organization of center-right trolls. And Jim Wallis is a troll, period.

Wallis fools a lot of people because he presumes to speak for the religious Left, and he’s written some books, such as God’s Politics, that spoke against the influence of extremist right-wing religion in U.S. politics. But over the years it has become plain he is no progressive himself; he just plays one on the Tee Vee.

Actual progressive religious people such as Frederick Clarkson have been calling out Wallis’s bullshit for years. Here’s just one article about Wallis out of a whole lot of others at the website Talk to Action.

In fact, here’s an interview of Wallis from Christianity Today where he plainly says he is no liberal and not part of the religious Left. He’s opposed to marriage rights and has been weaselly on reproductive rights, refusing to take a stand on the abortion issue but engaging in much winking and nodding toward the Right.

So no, just because Third Way and Jim Wallis and a few center-right Democrats are chewing their nails over the Hobby Lobby decision doesn’t mean “The Left” is split over it. It is not.

Anyone who wonders what actual progressive religion looks like are welcome to read my book, btw.

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Faithless Faith

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Religion, Republican Party

The Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference in Washington DC ends today. An annual event, this year’s shindig turned into a contest over which potential 2016 Republican presidential nominee could blow the loudest dog whistles.

The biggest headlines from the event so far told us that some genius put Obama bobblehead dolls in the men’s urinals. And the speeches seemed to be on about the same intellectual level. One speaker after another declared unquestioning loyalty to the Coalition’s dogmas: abortion must be criminalized, same-sex marriage must be stopped, Barack Obama is evil incarnate, and Christians must be restored to their rightful place as the dominant tribe of the U.S.

[Update: And what else is there to say but ... Ralph Reed?]

There were reports a few meek voices spoke up to suggest the attendees ought to recognize America’s religious diversity, but it seems they were mostly shouted down.

Groupthink just doesn’t look like “freedom” to me, no matter how many “don’t tread on me” T-shirts one may spot in the herd. It also seems to me that the attendees espouse a peculiarly faithless faith.

This faithless faith rests on the proposition that the reality of God depends on a literal interpretation of scripture. If evolution is true, for example, then God is not real. It’s a faith with conditions.

And for all their expressed devotion to the Bible, their “God” seems more to be based largely on their own projections. He all-too-perfectly reflects and confirms their fears, biases, resentments and various social and psychological pathologies.

I wonder what they’d do if Jesus himself materialized at the conference and said, you know, you’ve got God all wrong, and you’ve entirely missed the point of everything I taught. I bet some of them would boo their Lord and Redeemer off the stage.

Their real faith isn’t in God, or even the Bible. It’s in their fears, biases, resentments and various social and psychological pathologies, which they cling to the way someone cast into an ocean might cling to anything that floats.

It’s through those fears, etc., that they define themselves and make sense of the world. It’s the conceptual box they live in. Whatever is outside the box terrifies them, because if the box is destroyed the “me” they’ve always believed in and the world they’ve constructed in their heads would disappear.

This isn’t freedom, and it isn’t faith, either. As I wrote in my book, Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World,

The notion that Christianity is mostly about arranging one’s mental furniture in accord with a belief system would have been alien to most of the great Christian theologians of history. “Faith” to early Christian theologians — and many recent ones, for that matter — was not at all a synonym for belief. It was more about love of or trust in a God whose nature and opinions were beyond human understanding. To declare you know what God thinks about anything, including which politicians he supports, would have been blasphemy to them.

It’s possible to have great religious faith with no God-object at all (see, for example, Buddhism). Genuine faith does not demand the world conform to one’s belief system; just the opposite. According to many great theologians, genuine faith requires trust, compassion for others, and sometimes self-sacrifice. Not a lot of that on display at the “Faith and Freedom” conference.

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Impulse and Ideology

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conservatism, firearms, Religion, Social Issues, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Some guy at MSNBC argues that it makes “little sense” to call Jerad and Amanda Miller, the Las Vegas shooters, “right-wing extremists.”

He said right-wing extremists typically focus their anger on federal authorities, not local law enforcement officers like these.

“They weren’t the ATF, they weren’t the FBI. They couldn’t be seen as the representatives of a repressive government,” Levin told NBC News. “There are some militia group members who believe that the only valid authority is at the county sheriff level. In fact, many right-wing extremists love the police. They feel kinship to local law enforcement.”

So we’re just supposed to ignore the white supremacist literature, the shooters’ attempt to join the crew at the Bundy ranch and the “don’t tread on me” flag.

I wrote in my first post about the Las Vegas shooting that I doubted the shooters were working with the Bundy crew, who have decided only the federal government is evil. But the remarks at MSNBC reflect a basic misunderstanding of the connection between ideology/belief, whether political or religious, and violence.

This is something I spend a lot of time on in My Book, Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World, because I think understanding this connection and how it functions is critical to dealing not only with our ongoing domestic violence problem but also with understanding religious violence around the world.

My thinking on this issue is very much influenced by Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. Very simply, Haidt makes a strong argument that our moral choices — including the choice to be violent — and our political and religious beliefs are rooted deeply in the subconscious. We are born pre-wired to interface with the world in particular ways, and this pre-wiring disposes us to leaning left or right, say, or determines whether we are likely to be dogmatists or open-minded. And, of course, the way we perceive, interpret and experience ourselves and the world also is very much influenced by cultural and other conditioning.

As we meander through our lives and bump into myriad phenomena, including religious and political beliefs and moral issues, all of this pre-wiring and conditioning and whatnot clanking around in our psyches churns up emotional responses. These include feelings of comfort and discomfort. We naturally want to affirm those things that make us feel good while denouncing the stuff that frightens or disgusts us. We then call on our rational minds to craft a narrative that justifies our feelings. These narratives are merged into our primary narrative, or personal myth, which is the ongoing story we tell ourselves about who we are and what the events in our lives might mean.

Another factor is what Buddhists call “mental formations,” or our states of mind, which can become habitual. This (in part) refers to the way some people tend to easily become defensive and critical, while others in the same situations are understanding and accepting. This also speaks to our basic orientation toward the world and whether we feel integrated with it or estranged from it.

By the time we are adults this wiring/conditioning “stuff” has become extremely complicated, and I doubt any two human beings who ever lived have identical inner stuff. But it’s important to understand that, ultimately, we are drawn to our beliefs and ideologies because of the stuff, not because it appeals to our rational mind. For this reason, what an ideology or political position represents to an individual on a subconscious or even metaphorical level is more critical than intellectual consistency.

This is what the guy on MSNBC doesn’t get. From their own words and actions, it’s obvious that right-wing anti-government rhetoric and the Bundy ranch drama resonated deeply with Jerad and Amanda Miller and represented something enormously significant to them, even if how they understood the “movement” differed in some particulars from most of the rest of the Bundyites.

More crudely, they wanted to kill police because they wanted to kill police, and in their minds the militia anti-government movement gave them permission, and even made killing police a righteous and praiseworthy act. They weren’t being logical, no. But does anyone seriously think the crew in the desert pretending to be at war with the federal government got there because of logic?

This is why the “he did it because of mental illness” excuse for Elliot Rodger didn’t fly for me. Crazy is a continuum, and we’re all on that continuum. None of us are entirely rational. Everyone feels a violent impulse now and then. But except for those who are demonstrably psychotic, we are capable of choosing to not act on those impulses. And Rodger was not psychotic. His writing was ordered and organized, even if the ideas he expressed were outrageous. This means he was rational enough to choose to not do what he did, as were the Millers. They all knew perfectly well they were breaking laws. Had they lived, it’s enormously unlikely they would have gotten off on an insanity plea.

But what Rodger and the Millers had in common was that they had seduced themselves into believing that their impulses were righteous and justified. And this is where public rhetoric and hate-group subcultures really do get people killed. Within the misnamed “men’s rights” subculture, talk of violating and killing women meets with social approval. Women as a class are perceived as evil and dangerous; violence against women is therefore justified, even heroic. Likewise, the right-wing anti-government rhetoric permeating American society can make killing government officials seem justified, even if some are a little hazy about the distinction between state and federal government officials.

I don’t think extremist right-wingers are inherently more prone to violence than extremist left-wingers. But at this moment in American history, the “extremist” Left is the fringe of the fringe, and it is absent from mass media. I’m not even sure it has much in the way of an internet presence. The applicable political spectrum here goes from a liberal/progressive Left that is well within the mainstream of American political traditions to a Right that stretches deeply into the tin-foil-hat section of the Twilight Zone.

And while you can find individuals on the Left expressing violent impulses, on the Right it’s not just individuals; it’s major media personalities and politicians serving in high-level state and federal offices. It’s coming from positions of authority, in other words.

This is why public rhetoric has consequences (see, for example, Paul Waldman, “How much does right-wing rhetoric contribute to right-wing terrorism?“). We’ve been having this conversation since Columbine, and the hate-speakers on the Right simply refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for the ongoing right-wing domestic violence. I have no solution to this impasse. I fear it will have to get worse before it can get better.

But this is why splitting hairs over whether the Millers were truly “right-wing extremists” because they killed local cops instead of federal BLM agents is stupid.

I’m seeing the same misunderstanding among western “Buddhalogists” in academia. There is a faction of western religious studies professors who are combing through Buddhist doctrines to find the “cause” of the Buddhist violence against Muslims in Burma, and some other places. And they are “finding” it by misinterpreting scriptures and even projecting meaning into scriptures that just plain isn’t there; I walked through an example of this in My Book.

The plain fact is that the violence violates everything the Buddha taught. The impulse is not coming from Buddhist teachings, but from racism and jingoism, and it’s being fueled by political expedience. “Buddhism” is not just a religion to the majority in Burma; it’s part of their ethnic and national identity. And a faction of monks has been cranking out rhetoric that justifies violence as “defending Buddhism.” So in spite of what it teaches, Buddhism has become a symbolic permission slip for violence in Burma.

And weirdly, in America, “patriotism” has become a symbolic permission slip for sedition. Looking for logical reasons for this is a fool’s errand.

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Roots of the Religious Right

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Religion

Here’s an article about religion in America, which gives me another opportunity to plug My Book.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right by Randall Balmer argues that it wasn’t abortion that turned evangelicalism into a political movement, but desegregation.

But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. …

…Today, evangelicals make up the backbone of the pro-life movement, but it hasn’t always been so. Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

Jerry Falwell got his start as a national figure by leading the resistance to school desegregation, and it was Weyrich who finally persuaded him to give it up as a lost cause and instead resist abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, and that was in the late 1970s, a few years after Roe had been decided.

Same thing with birth control, as some of you might remember. I was living in the freaking Bible Belt when the pill became available, and I don’t recall any screams of outrage. Birth control was a “Catholic” issue, so the born-again crowd didn’t care. Now it seems conservative Christians generally have an issue with birth control.

The biblical basis for opposition to abortion and birth control is pathetically flimsy; note that 93 percent of American Jews support legalized abortion. To listen to conservative Christians these days you’d think Jesus’ entire mission was to stop gay marriage and abortion, even though he never addressed either issue and actually did talk about a lot of other, entirely unrelated, things.

One of the points I make in the book is that the more a religious faction gravitates toward extremist fundamentalism or terrorism, the less likely its adherents are to read their own scriptures or follow religious doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they make a fetish out of some teachings, usually those having to do with sexual and other kinds of purity and veneration of symbols and icons, and mostly ignore the rest of it. This pattern is not limited to Christianity.

I also argue that religion is easily corrupted when it becomes an identity. It then is easily fused into racial, national, or political identity, which leads to beliefs of national exceptionalism (not limited to the U.S.) or political messianism, neither of which ever lead to anything good.

In the case of the Religious Right in the U.S., though, it actually goes back a lot further than Brown v. Board of Ed. Religious reactionism tends to attach itself to political reactionism, so whenever right-wing politics is pushing against progress and modernity, right-wing religion tends to be right beside it, to one extent or another, and this has been true throughout U.S. history. And the same thing happens in other nations as well.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries political and religious progressivism also made alliances, but for some time political progressivism has kept religious progressivism at arm’s length, and that’s a shame. One of the reasons I wrote the book is to argue that things don’t have to be that way.

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Hate as a Virtue, Part I

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Religion

I started to write this post a few days ago, when I saw this at Washington Post. Basically, it says that people who say they hate everybody in Washington (as opposed to just the people they disagree with) overwhelmingly vote Republican.

Lots of people weighed in on why that might be true — people may not like Republicans but agree with Republican policies, for example. I propose another reason — that there is a subset of our population who believe it to be virtuous to hate everybody in Washington. To admit that maybe you don’t hate everybody in Washington is a sign of weakness, that someone is duping you. Many teabaggers, for example, will speak ill of the Republican Party even as they cheer Republican antics and vote for Republican politicians.

So as a sign of intellectual independence, they thump their chests and declare they hate everybody in Washington, because that’s what their peers expect them to say. It’s a variation of groupthink, in other words.

(To be fair, these folks have their counterparts on the Left; for example, those who continue to say that President Obama could have gotten us a single-payer healthcare system if he had just tried.)

Since then we’ve had a lot more hate fests on the Right. The Duck Dynasty nothingburger scandal reached a height of absurdity when an Illinois businessman running for Congress called the DD paterfamilias Phil Robertson the “Rosa Parks of Our Generation.”

And for a jaw-dropping argument that intolerance of his intolerance is oppression, because his intolerance is just the spice that makes life interesting, do see Mark Steyn. But keep the Pepto-Bismol handy.

The version of what Robertson said floating around on the Right is that he was just expressing what the Bible said about homosexuality and had added that it was not for him to judge. See? He’s not a bad guy. But if you look at Robertson’s actual comments, what he said was vile and, yes, judgmental. This is a cheap hatemonger’s trick; say hateful things and then add the qualifier “but it’s not up to me to judge” or “let God sort ‘em out” or some such, and that’s supposed to cancel out what you just said. This is a variation of the “I was just joking” qualifier that’s supposed to make it OK to wish someone to eat poison and die.

This takes me to my subject, which is hate as a Christian virtue. For at least a subset of Americans who self-identify as Christians, it seems their “religion” is mostly about hating people. Of course, they qualify this by saying they “hate the sin but love the sinner,” but that’s just the qualifier they tack onto hate speech aimed directly at the “sinner,” not the sin.

And, of course, if you are even halfway acquainted with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, you would know that Jesus frequently cautioned his followers to not hate anybody, even enemies (see Matthew 5:43-48). Well, OK, you’re supposed to hate your parents for some reason (Luke 14:26), but I suspect that wasn’t meant to be taken literally.

Most of the really alarming stuff haters use to justify hating, including homosexuality and racism, is in the Old Testament, although a bit of the anti-gay stuff comes from St. Paul. However, there is data that shows Jews are one of the most liberal and tolerant religious demographics in America. According to Pew Research, 79 percent of American Jews (and 82 percent of American Buddhists, btw) think homosexuality should be accepted. By contrast, only 26 percent of Evangelicals, 24 percent of Mormons, and a whopping 12 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses agree with that. And by more contrast, a small majority of Catholics and “mainline” Protestants put themselves in the “accept” category. So there’s no consensus among Christians on this point.

What’s really happening — and I see the same thing happening in Asian Buddhism, so I’m not just harping on Christians here — is that people drag their cultural biases and bigotries into church with them. And because they lack the moral courage to admit that, often, their biases are immoral according to what Jesus actually taught, they twist religion around to justify the biases. So you end up with Bizarro World Christianity in which not being allowed to discriminate against others is religious persecution.

Seriously, for a subset of American Christians, their religion is all about the hate, and Jesus is a big permission slip to hate, revile, and persecute whomever they wish. Put another way, hate speech isn’t hate speech if you mention the Bible or Jesus in the paragraph somewhere. You can say any vile, hateful, inflammatory thing you want, and the mere mention of Christianity along with it washes the statement of all impurity and is supposed to put you beyond criticism. And if it doesn’t, that’s religious persecution. It’s just like what happened to Rosa Parks.

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Wingnuts: Grapple With Your Own Theodicy and Leave Me Out of It

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abortion, Religion, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Amy Sullivan, truly the David Brooks of religion writing, thinks that liberals are misreading Richard Mourdock’s position on abortion.

Take a look again at Mourdock’s words: “I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And…even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” The key word here is “it.” I think it’s pretty clear that Mourdock is referring to a life that is conceived by a rape. He is not arguing that rape is the something that God intended to happen.

I understood him perfectly well and I still think it’s outrageous. This goon is saying that women must be forced to carry a pregnancy to term even in cases of rape. I think that’s barbaric and cruel.

Amy wants this to be about theology —

This is a fairly common theological belief, the understanding of God as an active, interventionist. It’s also not limited to conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians who also argue that things work out the way they’re supposed to. Some of them are in my own family, and I think they’re wrong. But it is one way of grappling with the problem of theodicy, trying to understand why God would allow bad things to happen.

And they can grapple with it all they like; just do the grappling with their own bodies, thanks much.

Sullivan goes on to explain the theological arguments about things being intended by God, as if any of us who were sent to Sunday School at least a dozen times didn’t already know them.

And I say that the next time Richard Mourdock gets pregnant from rape and chooses to carry the baby to term because he thinks it’s god’s will, I’m just peachy with that. Whatever floats his boat. But this theo-idiot is planning to force everyone else to live by his conscience and not our own. And, y’know, to a lot of us that looks like good old-fashion oppression.

Most religion looks ridiculous to outsiders. If Mourdock can somehow reconcile in his own head that God did not intend the rape but did intend the conception, that’s not any of my concern — as long as it stays in his own head.

Despite the assertions of many liberal writers I read and otherwise admire, I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape. I think most don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body. But if Mourdock believes that God creates all life and that to end a life created by God is murder, then all abortion is murder, regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy came about.

In other words, Sullivan is making a distinction between actively hating women and being “oblivious and insensitive” to our individuality and humanity. I don’t really see the difference. A man who is incapable of perceiving women as human beings in their own right, who cannot empathize with them or respect that their perspectives are just as valid as his, is what we call a “misogynist.” There is a spectrum of misogynist attitudes that goes from garden-variety sexist pigs to psychopathic serial killers, but it’s a difference in degree, not in kind.

And I oppose this creep Mourdock not because I disrespect his religion but because he disrespects mine. He also disrespects my humanity. I find that annoying.

As you can see from an old post, Amy Sullivan has a long-standing pattern of finding distinctions with no differences. Her shtick for years has been that liberals are mean to proper religious folk because we misunderstand them. Well, I doubt one fundamentalist in a million understands a dadblamed thing about my religion, and that doesn’t bother me in the least as long as they leave me alone about it.

The real issue is that from the earliest days of our Republic conservative Christians have tried to use government to impose their beliefs on everyone else, establishment clause notwithstanding, and they must be opposed. Period. What their theological rationalizations are is irrelevant to me.

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