Browsing the archives for the Wisdom of Doubt category.


The Wisdom of Doubt: The Series

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

As mentioned in the Friday morning “Faith or No” panel at Yearly Kos, here are the links to the entire Wisdom of Doubt series, so far.

Part I: The religious need more than faith. They also need doubt.

Part II: Why “moral clarity” is about bullshitting yourself.

Part III: Why moral absolutists aren’t moral.

Part IV: Christopher Hitchens is a true believer.

Part V: The late Susan Sontag said religion American style was more the idea of religion than religion itself. So true.

Part VI: Authoritarian religion plus government equals big trouble.

Part VII: The “God Gap” is a myth.

Part VIII: The origins of fundamentalism.

Part IX: Fundamentalism before and after Scopes. What were they afraid of?

Part X: The Fundies strike back.

Part XI: Scripture doesn’t have to be literal to be true. . In fact, literal interpretation of scripture wrings the truth out of it.

Part XII: How to tell the difference between religious faith and fanaticism.

Other recent religion posts:

Taking Faith on Faith

The Last Magician

What Jesus Said

Heresies

Idolators

Discover Jesus

Also — moonbat’s “Escape from Fundamentalism

I have a couple of book recommendations. Dangerous Words: Talking about God in an Age of Fundamentalism by Gary Eberle (Shambhala, 2007) is the sort of deep analysis of our current state of religion that I just love. It’s also very readable. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, edited by Eugene Kennedy (New World Library, 2001) , is a short collection of essays and lectures by the late Joseph Campbell that sparked many thoughts that ended up in the Wisdom of Doubt series.

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The Wisdom of Doubt, Part XII

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

In the first post of this series I objected to the use of the word faith as a synonym for religion. Faith is a component of religion, to one degree or another, but not religion itself.

The other problem with faith is that it conveys the wrong message about religion. I found an example of this in an essay by Christopher Brookmyre at the Comment Is Free Guardian web site.

The notion that faith – belief in spite of an absence of proof or even in the face of compelling contrary evidence – is a form of mental and moral fortitude needs not merely to be challenged, but to be given the full point-and-laugh treatment, so that we can see afresh how this” absurdity deserves ridicule rather than reverence.

From here Brookmyre goes on to discuss the occult practice — known as “spiritualism” — of using “mediums” to contact the dead. Spiritualism became a big fad in the 19th century after two sisters claimed they could communicate with peoples’ loved ones who had passed on. The “dead” responded to questions with rapping sounds, which the sisters were making with their toes. Brookmyre concludes,

The story of the Fox sisters and the rise of spiritualism illustrates that belief in the face of the evidence is at best a retreat into intellectual infantilism, and at worst dangerously irresponsible.

The Glasgow would-be bombers believed faith itself was a virtue, a sufficient reason to murder hundreds of innocent people. I don’t think being nine hours too early on June 30 disqualifies me from saying that such faith is a self-indulgence we can ill afford.

The problem with this essay is Brookmyre’s definition of faith — belief in spite of an absence of proof or even in the face of compelling contrary evidence. That’s not faith in a religious sense.

I wrote in the last Wisdom of Doubt post that some things can’t be explained with words, and I’m about to plunge into explaining something with words that can’t be explained with words. But let’s start with words. The American Heritage online dictionary gives these two definitions of faith —

1. Mental acceptance of the truth or actuality of something: belief, credence, credit. See OPINION. 2. Absolute certainty in the trustworthiness of another: belief, confidence, dependence, reliance, trust.

Neither of these definitions work for me. That’s the problem with using words to explain religion. The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao.

Faith and doubt in the religious sense are both about openness. A Christian might put his trust in God’s love, and that trust enables him to live a more open-hearted and courageous life. Although life may bring him grief and disappointment, his trust in God’s love enables him to accept what he can’t change and move on. When the time comes, he accepts even his own death.

So where does doubt come in? Doubt in the Zen sense is not knowing. A Christian might use the word humility instead of doubt to mean about the same thing. Doubt means you don’t know with any certainty who or what God is, or what’s going to happen next, or how your plans for yourself will turn out, or even what happens when you die. But though you doubt, yet you trust. This is faith.

Doubt also means you are open to all possibilities, all understanding, because you haven’t filled up your head with certainty. Zennies sometimes use the phrases “beginner’s mind” or “don’t know mind” to mean the same thing. That’s why this kind of doubt is about being open. The other kind of doubt, the one that causes people to fold their arms and say religion is just superstitious crap, is closed.

As I’ve written this series I find myself going back, again, to the Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-Ts’an (d. 609).

If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.

“Hsin Hsin Ming” is variously translated into English “The Mind of Absolute Trust,” “Verses on the Faith Mind,” and even “Inscribed on the Believing Mind.” Normally, in our culture, if you said someone has a “believing mind” it’s assumed that person has a head full of dogmas he “believes in.” But Seng-Ts’an says that to have faith “hold no opinions for or against anything.” Be open, and trust that openness.

Religious fanatics approach religion in exactly the opposite way. To be a fanatic is to be closed. For an explanation, let’s go back to Eric Hoffer in The True Believer.

Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other. …

… The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources — out of his rejected self — but finds it only in clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. … The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justice and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. …

… The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. [Hoffer, The True Believer, HarperPerennial edition, pp. 84-86]

This is not being open-hearted and courageous. It’s being closed and fearful. The fanatic is closed to himself and to any Truth or Reality he might happen to trip over. If what the fanatic attaches to is a religion, he clings to that religion rather than follow it.

Fanatics have no doubts. Hoffer again:

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. “Who knows Jesus knows the reason for all things.” The true doctrine is the master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. [p. 82]

There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. They have no doubts. They are closed. That’s why they have no faith. They may “believe in” God, but they don’t trust God as far as they can throw him. They close themselves off in enclaves of the faithful and fear everything that isn’t Them.

Because they are fearful, religious fanatics imagine a God who is something like a cosmic superhero. They are weak and helpless, but he is strong, and he will come and smite the feared Other and make it disappear. Or worse.

Let’s go back to this excerpt from Glenn Greenwald’s new book (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency) in Salon:

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness — who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil — is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. …

… Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

This is the road a fanatic walks. The fanatic goes from believing that, for example, someday Superhero Jesus will return to rescue him from whatever he fears, to thinking that he has to take action himself on Jesus’ behalf to make this happen. Consider, for example, the Christians United for Israel. Max Blumenthal writes,

CUFI has found unwavering encouragement from traditional pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and elements of the Israeli government.

But CUFI has an ulterior agenda: its support for Israel derives from the belief of Hagee and his flock that Jesus will return to Jerusalem after the battle of Armageddon and cleanse the earth of evil. In the end, all the non-believers – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, mainline Christians, etc. – must convert or suffer the torture of eternal damnation. Over a dozen CUFI members eagerly revealed to me their excitement at the prospect of Armageddon occurring tomorrow. Among the rapture ready was Republican Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. None of this seemed to matter to Lieberman, who delivered a long sermon hailing Hagee as nothing less than a modern-day Moses. Lieberman went on to describe Hagee’s flock as “even greater than the multitude Moses commanded.”

The fanatic can’t wait for Jesus to come; so, he’ll initiate steps to kick start Armageddon. This is not a true faith in Jesus, but the opposite. Or, the fanatic thinks he has to send suicide bombers to destroy the World Trade Center as part of the Holy Plan to establish true Islamic rule. Or that it’s OK to shred the Bill of Rights if it enables True Conservatism to dominate American government. Or whatever. The point is that when you have no doubt you are right, then you are ready to bullshit yourself into doing anything –including acts of genuine atrocity — and calling it Good.

This is, in part, what sets religious fanaticism apart from religious faith: A sincerely religious person practices his religion to calm and resolve his fears. The fanatic thinks his religion gives him permission to destroy what he fears.

Of course, without doctrine or teaching there is no religion. This is one of the inherent paradoxes of religion, along with the use of words to explain things that can’t be explained with words. For the most part, doctrines are conceptualizations of things that are beyond conceptualization. But everybody’s got to start somewhere. If you think of the words and the doctrines as training wheels, and not the whole bicycle, you’ll be fine.

It does seem that many religions aren’t much more than lists of “facts” about God, morality, or the afterlife that one is supposed to “believe in.” And these doctrines are all items one must accept on faith, in the dictionary sense of the word. Adopting a set of religious beliefs is what makes one “religious,” in our culture. I didn’t realize how bleeped up that was until after I’d gotten serious about Buddhism, and someone who said she was writing an article about Buddhism asked me “what Buddhists believe.” I was struck dumb by the question. Truly, it is a question that doesn’t have a simple, 25-words-or-less answer. The snotty Zen answer would have been something like “not putting a head on top of my head,” or even “as little as possible,” but that wouldn’t have told her anything. I fell back on the Standard Answer, which is that Buddhism is more of a practice than a belief system.

But I think that answer could apply to most of the world’s great religions — it’s more of a practice than a belief system. Religion, sincerely practiced, is a practice of openness.

If I had any advice for Christianity, I’d suggest — every 500 years or so — dumping all the doctrines and starting over. Forget you never heard of this Jesus guy, and you know nothing about him, and then read the Gospels. With a pair of fresh eyes and plenty of don’t-know mind, the Gospels might surprise you. Christianity has been cranking out doctrinal minutiae for two thousand years, and in some cases — eschatalogical dispensationalists like the CUFI do come to mind — Jesus completely disappears under the muck.

Doctrines are fine as long as everyone is clear they are guides to the truth, not the truth itself. The hand pointing to the moon is not the moon, and all that. Believe it or not, in times past many great Christian theologians and mystics understood Christian doctrine that way.

Back in Part IV I quoted 20th-century theologian Reinhold Neibuhr —

It can not be denied … that this same Christian faith is frequently vulgarized and cheapened to the point where all mystery is banished. … a faith which measures the final dimension of existence, but dissipates all mystery in that dimension, may be only a little better or worse than a shallow creed which reduces human existence to the level of nature. …

… When we look into the future we see through a glass darkly. The important issue is whether we will be tempted by the incompleteness and frustration of life to despair, or whether we can, by faith, lay hold on the divine power and wisdom which completes what remains otherwise incomplete. A faith which resolves mystery too much denies the finiteness of all human knowledge, including the knowledge of faith. A faith which is overwhelmed by mystery denies the clues of divine meaning which shine through the perplexities of life. The proper combination of humility and trust is precisely defined when we affirm that we see, but admit that we see through a glass darkly. [Robert McAfee Brown, editor, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale, 1986), p. 248, emphasis added]

The “through a glass darkly” passage comes, of course, from St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, King James version. This chapter also says “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” So why isn’t the proper synonym for religion love instead of faith, I wonder?

I think fundamentalism will eventually dissipate, if it doesn’t get us all killed first. Because fundamentalism is closed, it has no where to go except to break itself into more and finer bits of dogma for people to argue about. At some point the “faithful” may start to notice that they’re sitting in a dark basement arguing about the nature of sunshine when they could just go outside and enjoy the sunshine.

A long time ago I wrote a poem that compared the spiritual journey to getting lost in New Jersey. You’re driving around looking for the way to Manhattan, and you’re completely lost. Then you see an exit sign by the road that says “Route 4 East to the George Washington Bridge.” The George Washington Bridge will take you across the Hudson River to Manhattan.

Now, the sensible thing to do would be to follow the sign and head toward the bridge. But in the world of religion, for some reason people don’t do that. Instead, they pull over, get out of their cars, and begin to worship the sign. They try to get other people to stop and worship the sign. Pretty soon the sign becomes so strewn with flowers and prayer cards no one is actually reading it any more. Eventually priests appear to explain the “true” meaning of the sign. Then the sign worshipers hear about people praying to the Lincoln Tunnel toll booths. Heathens!

Sooner or later they’re all arguing with themselves and even starting wars in the Name of the Sign (or the Toll Booths). And nobody is getting any closer to Manhattan.

Or, you can read and take to heart what the sign tells you, and follow it.

Stay open, and good journey.

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The Wisdom of Doubt, Part XI

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

The first line of the Tao Teh Ching (China, ca. 500 BCE), in most translations, is “The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao,” or variations thereof. John Wu (Shambhala, 1989) begins the first verse:

Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.

Lin Yutang does it this way:

The Tao the can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given
Are not Absolute Names.

I’ve read all manner of commentaries saying that it is impossible to translate Zhou Dynasty Chinese into English literally. Each translation is, therefore, a reflection of the translator’s conceptualization of what the ancient text is trying to say. If you breeze around the web you can find at least a dozen translations, and no two begin exactly the same way. However, most of them say that the true nature of the Tao cannot be explained with words.

In spite of the caveat, the Tao Teh Ching is a work of words — 81 verses about the Tao. How do you talk about that which cannot be talked about? One way is by simile, and the Tao Teh Ching is full of ’em. The Tao is like a empty bowl (verse 4). The Tao is like a bellows (verse 5). The Tao is like water (several verses).

Jesus used simile also, to describe the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast (or “leaven”; Matthew 13:33). The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 13:31). The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44).

There’s a big difference between water and an empty bowl, or between a grain of mustard seed and hidden treasure. What do these similes communicate? Of course, the original passages from which these similes were taken provide more explanation to guide the reader to the possible meaning. Even so, over the centuries there have been diverse interpretations of the texts.

If you’re talking about something that has no precise physical attributes and is outside most peoples’ experiences or conceptual frames of reference, how do you explain it? As soon as you open your mouth, your listeners will try to relate your words to something they already know. Struggling to “get it,” they’ll conceptualize all manner of things that may bear little resemblance to what you are trying to explain.

If the communication is from another time or culture, the likelihood of misunderstanding is even higher. Often people who live in the same culture share metaphors that are easily misunderstood by someone outside that culture. There’s a good example in moonbat’s “Freeway Blogging” post. A sign says “We’re all wearing the blue dress now.” How would a time-traveler from twenty years ago interpret that? They might relate it to the song “Devil With a Blue Dress,” but I doubt that’s the reference intended by the sign maker. Similarly, maybe yeast and mustard seeds had connotations for Jesus’ listeners that have been lost.

Joseph Campbell wrote,

The symbol, energized by metaphor, conveys, not just an idea of the infinite but some realization of the infinite. We must remember, however, that the metaphors of one historically conditioned period, and the symbols they innervate, may not speak to the persons who are living long after that historical moment and whose consciousness has been formed by altogether different experiences. …

… The problem, as we have noted many times, is that these metaphors, which concern that which cannot in any other way be told, are misread prosaically as referring to tangible facts and historical occurrences. …

… When the language of metaphor is misunderstood and its surface structures become brittle, it evokes merely the time-and-place bound order of things and its spiritual signal, if transmitted at all, becomes even fainter. [Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, Eugene Kennedy, editor (New World Library, 2001) pp. 6-7]

When people insist the old texts must be interpreted as literal facts, the deeper meaning is entirely lost. Karen Armstrong writes,

Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge.

We tend now to read our scriptures for accurate information, so that the Bible, for example, becomes a holy encyclopaedia, in which the faithful look up facts about God. Many assume that if the scriptures are not historically and scientifically correct, they cannot be true at all. But this was not how scripture was originally conceived. All the verses of the Qur’an, for example, are called “parables” (ayat); its images of paradise, hell and the last judgment are also ayat, pointers to transcendent realities that we can only glimpse through signs and symbols.

And then there are myths. We use the word myth to mean something that isn’t true. We might say, “Al Gore didn’t claim to invent the Internet; that’s just a myth.” But myths are more than just made-up stories. Consciously or unconsciously, myths shape our unspoken assumptions. They create the context within which we understand ourselves and everything else. These days we refer to political myths as “the narrative.” The narrative is a kind of folk history/mythos through which people form ideas about What America Is Supposed to Be and who we Americans are as a people. The factuality of the narrative is less important than the values, ideas and beliefs it conveys. This is why attempts to correct the many factual errors in the Right’s narratives don’t put a dent in their belief in them, since the stories themselves are not the point. The narrative shapes the collective imagination and identity of those who choose to accept it. As Bill Moyers argued here, we progressives ignore the power of narrative at our peril.

Religious myths have a similar function. The Bible can be read as a huge myth that informs the Jewish people who they are. Or, you can read it for more universal truths. For example, the Garden of Eden story in Genesis is a very rich myth with many layers of meaning. Truly, you don’t have to believe in God to appreciate it. We start with Adam and Eve in the Garden, naked and carefree. They are forbidden only one thing (the One Forbidden Thing is one of the most consistent story devices in all the world’s myths, I think), which is to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So when they ate the fruit (characters in these stories always do the One Forbidden Thing; otherwise there wouldn’t be a story) they recognized their nakedness and felt shame.

Then God showed up and said, “You blew it, people. You did the One Forbidden Thing. From now on, humans will be conscious of themselves as separate from the rest of Creation. Women will have pain in childbirth because their babies will have grapefruit-size heads. You will have to work for a living. And your descendants will have neuroses. They will need psychiatrists and lawyers. Way to go.”

This is, of course, a loose interpretation. Joseph Campbell wrote, “When Man ate of the fruit of the Tree, he discovered himself in the field of duality instead of the field of unity. As a result he finds himself out, in exile” (op cit, p. 15). Sort of what I said.

There’s a lot in this myth that underscores a paternalistic worldview, and of course I don’t much care for those parts. But the fruit-eating bit is fascinating. What does it say about knowledge of good and evil? What does it say about human consciousness? What does it say about how humans understand themselves vis-à-vis other living things on our planet? There’s lots of juicy stuff to contemplate in that story. I dare say you can find a lot of Truth in there, if you look for it.

And the great irony is that those who insist the story itself is factual, not myth, squeeze all the Truth out of it.

It’s stunning to me that people think the Garden of Eden had a geographical location and that Adam and Eve were real people, not archetypes. I understand the Garden as a level of consciousness. Can we return to that consciousness? Do we want to? And what does knowledge of good and evil have to do with it?

I’m thinking of the Hsin Hsin Ming, a 6th century Zen text called in English “Mind of Absolute Trust” or “Verses of the Faith-Mind.”

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

Another translation at the same link substitutes “The struggle between good and evil” for “To set up what you like against what you dislike.” The latter is the more common translation. In any event, it’s a clear warning against sorting things into binary absolute piles.

Humans have a limitless capability to misunderstand things. A recent “Explainer” column at Slate about the supposed reincarnation of the Buddha mentioned the “32 marks” or 32 physical characteristics of a Buddha, which include 40 teeth and a tongue long enough to lick his own ears. This is out of one of the old sutras of the Tripitaka. Allegory, people, allegory. Not that I have even a clue what significance 40 teeth and an extra-long tongue have. But compare/contrast to the fifth verse of the Diamond Sutra

“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be recognized by means of his bodily form?”

“No, Most Honored One, the Buddha cannot be recognized by means of his bodily form. Why? Because when the Buddha speaks of bodily form, it is not a real form, but only an illusion.”

The Buddha then spoke to Subhuti: “All that has a form is illusive and unreal. When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature.”

The Slate piece doesn’t get anything else right, either, but I thought the bit about the 32 marks was a particular hoot.

The iconic characters of Buddhist art sometimes are portrayed with numerous arms. The significance of the arms should become clear when you understand these characters as something like Jungian archetypes. The god, goddess, or bodhisattva is not to be worshiped, but realized as one’s own self. As the Hindu say, Thou Art That. When many people realize themselves as the Goddess of Compassion, then of course the goddess has many arms (and eyes, and feet, and multiple everything else). Just don’t expect to see someone who looks like that appear in your back yard in a puff of smoke. If you do, seek professional help.

One of the really aggravating things about the fundies is that they’ve persuaded non-religious people that religion is just a matter of believing nutty things written in scripture. In my experience it’s harder to explain why this isn’t true to atheists than to religious people, fundies excepted. I think even most Christians appreciate that at least some parts of the Bible are allegorical. I have come to realize that the crusading atheists assume all religious people are some kind of fundamentalist, and the only distinction is that some of us are more wishy-washy about it. The truth is that different people understand religion in an entirely different way.

The point of most of the world’s sacred texts is not to “believe in” whatever they say, but to understand what they’re trying to tell us. In most of the world’s sacred texts, “what they’re trying to tell us” is about ourselves. Even in the great epics like the Mahabharata, which has a long and convoluted story with many characters, the real subject of the story is the person hearing it. The story presents a way for the hearer to understand and experience himself in relation to everything else in the cosmos, throughout space and time. People who thumb through the epic looking for “facts” about Krishna and other deities in the story are missing the point.

Awhile back John Shelby Spong wrote a book called Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. “My purpose in this volume is first to rescue the Bible from the exclusive hands of those who demand that it be literal truth and second to open that sacred story to levels of insight and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced,” he wrote. Amen.

Joseph Campbell said,

The best thing one can do with the Bible is to read it spiritually rather than historically. Read the Bible in your own way, and take the message because it says something special to each reader, based on his or her own experience. The gift of God comes in your own terms. God, pure and in Himself, is too much. Carl Jung said, “Religion is a system to defend us against the experience of God.” It may be a species of impudence to think that the way you understand God is the way God is. [op cit, p. 60]

Although I agree generally with Campbell’s advice, lots of people will misunderstand what “spiritual reading” is. There always will be people who get stuck in the literal interpretations. Sometimes it helps to get a guide. A major function of a Zen teacher is to get students unstuck by challenging their understanding and urging them to go deeper. My first teacher, Daido, used to say that his role was to pull rugs out from under people.

Years ago I was active on some Buddhist Internet forums, and there I encountered no end of people determined to study Zen without a teacher. They figured they could just read the books, study the koans and figure it out for themselves. Inevitably they came up with dreadfully anal, left-brained, not-even-close ideas about what various teachings meant. And, of course, once they had made up their minds that their understanding was the “true” one, no one could talk them out of it. This phenomenon is so common it’s come to be called Zen Lite.

There’s a wonderful Zen story from 8th century China, give or take, about a tenzo, or monastery cook. (Tenzo is a Japanese word. This is a Chinese story but I mostly know Japanese names for things.) The tenzo usually was not chosen for his ability to cook but for his spiritual maturity, and it was a great honor to be the one chosen to nourish the rest of the monks. Anyway, one day while the tenzo was cooking the Bodhisattva Manjusri rose up out of a rice pot and began to expound upon the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. Manjusri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and one might assume anything he said about the Dharma would be profoundly wise.

So the tenzo, as a spiritually mature monk, did the correct thing. He picked up a large spoon, smacked the Bodhisattva back down into the cooking pot, and slammed a lid on the pot so he couldn’t come back.

Why did the tenzo do this? He might have assumed he was seeing a hallucination. But I think the real reason was that the tenzo feared he would become attached to the Bodhisattva’s words and be unable to see through them to the deeper meaning. The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao.

Did this story really take place? Does it matter?

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Escape from Fundamentalism

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

I started to write a comment to Maha’s latest installment of The Wisdom of Doubt, which was about fundamentalism, but felt there was enough of importance here for others, to promote it out of the comments. The important part is not so much my thoughts, but the work of Sara Robinson (at Orcinus), who has done what in my mind is some major thinking on authoritarianism and fundamentalism, much of it from her own personal experience with scores of people who are leaving or have left these worlds:

For the past five years, I’ve been a member of a large and busy online community of former fundamentalists. Through years of discussion, we’ve learned a lot from each other about how and why people become fundamentalists — and also how and why they find themselves inspired to leave authoritarian religion behind. We’ve noticed patterns in the various ways people are seduced into fundamentalism; and also a predictable progression in the steps they go through in the agonizing months and years after enlightenment dawns. We’ve also discovered that we seem to fall into readily-identifiable subgroups, and that each of these subgroups wanders down somewhat different paths and uses different techniques as they approach the wall, determinedly hoist themselves over it, and then set about coming to terms with life here on the reality-based side.

Two or three times a week, we find new members on our doorstep. Safe in the anonymity of the Internet (and often under cover of night — these missives are typically time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning, usually posted furtively after weeks or months of lurking) we’re often the first people they’ve ever whispered their doubts out loud to. Their introductions are often heartbreakingly miserable: "I can’t believe this any more — but my husband will leave me if he knows." "My whole family is fundie. I can’t tell my parents I’ve stopped going to church — it will kill them if they ever find out." "I’m a deacon at my church. If I start asking these questions, I’ll lose my whole community."

If this sounds interesting, it starts in a series called "Cracks in the Wall", and concludes in "Tunnels and Bridges". You get to these by going to Orcinus, and find them in the left side bar, under "Sara’s Recent Series". There are multiple installments, so it’s a lot to list the links to all of it here.

Even if this doesn’t interest you personally, Sara’s series, like Maha’s Wisdom of Doubt, are big keys to understanding and cracking the right wing mentality that has our country and parts of our world so in thrall.

Now onto less important stuff, my thoughts on Maha’s latest Wisdom of Doubt:

Related to the belief in scriptural inerrancy is the deification of the bible as “The Word of God”. This one book is set apart, and placed on a pedestal, from the millions of others, which is as pretty clear cut an example of absolutist thinking as you can get. It’s my own simple litmus test for whether someone is a Christian fundamentalist or not.

Related to this, is the more specialized belief that one particular translation, usually the King James, is the only authentic Word of God (accept no substitutes). I suspect this may derive from Scofield’s influence and era, but I’m not sure.

Many claim the bible is The Word of God, but few fully live out this belief. They make judgments about this Word, saying that this section here is about cultural matters (and can be ignored), but this stuff over here is vitally important. Most women do not cover their heads, for example, which the Apostle Paul suggests/orders in one of his letters. And so their petty, fallible human judgments overrule, and to my mind invalidate, whatever grand, cosmic claim they make for the entire corpus.

Such are the mental contortions one must make to adopt an absolutist mindset (any black and white mindset) in a world of grays. This doesn’t even go into the variety of ways this Word of God is interpreted.

It’s the need to have this kind of absolute mental anchor – regardless of the kind of anchor it is, religious or political or whatever – that is most interesting. It would be interesting to find:

  • what factors drive people towards absolutist thinking
  • how is the inevitable cognitive dissonance typically masked or handled or ignored (what are the types of mental contortions people go through)
  • what factors pull people out of this kind of thinking

After I wrote this list, I recalled that much of this work has already been done, in the writings of Sara Robinson, above.

This type of absolutist thinking (and the cognitive dissonance that goes with it) once infected an entire country, the Soviet Union. Enough people believed, more or less absolutely, in the Communist ideology to get into enough positions of power, to take over this vast nation, which provided a backdrop for much of the history of the 20th century. A specific tenet of Communist rule was that other political viewpoints (other kinds of thinking) were disallowed, which meant absolute rule from one absolute viewpoint, the Communists’. My point is that absolutist thinking isn’t limited to religion (as we know), although religion is probably the most natural mental space in which this kind of thinking can thrive.

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The Wisdom of Doubt, Part X

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

The last Wisdom of Doubt post mentioned the Scopes trial. According to today’s New York Post Pope Benedict XVI says that evolution and God do mix.

Pope Benedict XVI says the theory of evolution is backed by strong scientific proof – but the theory does not answer life’s “great philosophical question.”

Benedict told 400 priests at a two-hour event that he’s puzzled by the current debate in the United States and his native Germany over creationism and evolution.

Debaters wrongly present the two sides “as if they were alternatives that are exclusive – whoever believes in the creator could not believe in evolution, and whoever asserts belief in evolution would have to disbelieve in God,” the pontiff said.

“This contrast is an absurdity, because there are many scientific tests in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and enriches our understanding of life and being.”

The Pope has no credibility with American fundamentalists, of course, but I would like to see them go on record that the Pope is against God.

There’s a pretty good history of fundamentalism online here. I call your attention in particular to part 4 and part 5. Parts 4 and 5 take you from antebellum revivalism to the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s. The essay, by Yefim Galkine, corroborates my own research, so I trust he’s done careful work. Here Galkin begins in the mid 19th century:

Two challenges stood out above others as posing singular threats to American Christianity. The first was the theory of evolution, developed by Charles Darwin, which constituted not only a direct challenge not only to the biblical account of creation, but also to traditional Christian understanding of human nature and destiny. An even more serious threat was came in the form of historical criticism of the Bible. This approach challenged the inspiration and credibility of the entire corpus of the scripture, the bedrock foundation of evangelical Christianity. Many Protestants managed to adjust to the changes by creating theories of “theistic evolution,” and interpreted “days” in Genesis as “ages.” However, most evangelicals chose to ignore the modernist ideas and to declare that they could not possibly be true, no matter what. They became ultra-conservatives, and this led directly to the emergence of the fundamentalism movement.

When the twentieth century brought about the Great War, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Christian fundamentalism received another aspect it needed to survive: religious nationalism. Fundamentalist preachers declared that Satan himself was directing the German war effort, and hinted strongly that it was part of the same process that began with the development of biblical criticism in German universities. Modernism, they asserted, turned Germany into a godless nation, and it would do the same thing to America. Of course, when Russia became Communist in 1917, and the Red Scare began, their movement received a very powerful boost, which it needed to become a dominant force.

Dwight Lyman Moody [1837-1899] was the first leader of the anti-modernist revival, which gave birth to the fundamentalist movement. Dwight Moody did not believe that America was getting any better, or that the era of the millenium was coming any time soon, which was the belief of Charles Finney, and other earlier revivalists. This view was known as postmillenialism, because the Second Coming of Christ would occur after the millenium. Instead, Moody believed that the only real hope for Christians lay in Christ’s coming back to personally inaugurate the millenium—that is, that the Second Coming would be premillenial. This doctrine holds that careful attention to biblical prophecies can yield clues as to exactly when the Second Coming will occur. In all versions, the relevant “signs of the times” are bad news—political anarchy, earthquakes, plagues, etc. As a result, premillennialism fared better in bad times because it offers its followers a shining ray of hope in an otherwise dismal situation. It has also acted as a brake on reform movements, since it regards such efforts as little better than fruitless attempts to thwart God’s plan for human history. Another idea that became part of the theology of the fundamentalist movement was dispensationalism. According to this idea, human history was divided into a series of distinct eras (“dispensations”) in God’s dealing with humanity. The triggering action for the beginning of the last dispensation will be “the Rapture,” at which point the faithful Christians will be “caught up together to meet the Lord in the air,” while the rest of humanity will be forced to face an unprecedented series of calamities known as “the tribulation”. The main protagonist of the tribulation will be the Antichrist, who will seek total control by requiring every person to wear a number (probably 666, “the mark of the beast”). The tribulation period will end with the Second Coming of Christ and the battle of Armageddon, to be followed by the millenium, the Final Judgement, and an eternity of bliss for the redeemed and agonizing punishment for the wicked. One of the most important aspects of dispensationalism is its insistence on biblical inerrancy. The Scripture must be absolutely reliable an all aspects, if it is to provide a precise blueprint for the future. Closely related to this was the encouragement of separatism from all sorts of error. To be fit to ride the Rapturing cloud, one must identify those whose doctrine is impure and “come out from among them”. This became one of the most important aspects of the Fundamentalist movement.

If you thought the Rapture and the horror-film “666” stuff has been prominent in Christianity for centuries — not really. Try “century.” As in one.

Cataloging the entire fundamentalist movement and what it has been up to for the past century or so is a bit more than I want to go into on a blog post. For details I suggest Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. I understand American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America by Chris Hedges is very good.

And if you do nothing else today, be sure to see Max Blumenthal’s “Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour.” Be afraid.

As a movement, fundamentalism has had its ups and downs. After the humiliation of the Scopes trial fundies stayed out of sight for a time. In the 1930s they forged ties with right-wing political factions that opposed the New Deal. The paranoia of the McCarthy era emboldened them. Then came the school prayer Supreme Court decisions, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the 1960s counterculture, women’s lib, and Roe v. Wade. Right-wing paranoia went off the charts.

And did I mention Brown v. Board of Education? Back in the days of court-ordered school desegregation, all manner of white Christians who used to be just fine with public schools — parochial schools were for Catholics, you know — suddenly decided that their children needed a conservative Christian education. By some coincidence, the new Christian day schools were all white.

Many credit Ronald Reagan with forging a coalition between the Christian Right and the political Right, but in fact many of those ties had been forged back in the 1930s. What happened in the 1980s was that the Christian Right became more visible. It had already been visible, for many years, across much of the South and Midwest, especially in small towns and rural areas. But in the 1970s and 1980s the Powers That Be in the Republican Party must’ve recognized what a resource the Christian Right could be. The Christian Right soon seemed to be swimming in money, and its leaders became mass media celebrities. And their version of Christianity became the de facto established church of America, at least as far as mass media was concerned.

This leads us back to the original stimulus for writing this series, which is the way our culture has come to reward and admire absolutist, black-and-white thinking. This is the hallmark of fundamentalist thinking. Has thirty years of mass media exposure to fundie moral and dogmatic absolutism infected the broader, more secular American public? Or does it just seem that way because the Right much more then the Left determines what is shown on mass media?

I had promised to make this post about biblical literalism, but I realized I needed to do a little more of a wrap up on the fundies. Next post, I promise.

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The Wisdom of Doubt, Part IX

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

In the last episode I provided a skip through history from the Reformation to the birth of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. Let’s pick up the story in the 1920s.

I dug the passage below out of one of my antique college textbooks. It’s long, but (I think) relevant to our current political situation. The author (eminent historian John Garraty) is discussing post-World War I America.

The war-born tensions and hostilities of the twenties also found expression in other ways, most of them related to an older rift in American society — the conflict between the city and the farm. By 1920 the United States had become predominantly urban. To the scattered millions who still tilled the soil, the new city-oriented culture seemed sinful, overly materialistic, and unhealthy, but there was no denying its power and compelling fascination. Made even more aware of the appeal of the city by such modern improvements as radio and the automobile, farmers coveted the comfort and excitement of city life at the same time that they condemned them. They fulminated against the metropolis, yet watched enviously as their sons and neighbors drifted off to taste its pleasures.

Out of this ambivalence developed some strange social phenomena, all exacerbated by the backlash of wartime emotions. The unifying element in all was intolerance; rural society, at once attracted and repelled by the city, responded by rigidly proclaiming the superiority of its own ways, as much to protect itself against temptation as to denounce urban life. Change, omnipresent in the postwar world, must be desperately resisted, even at the cost of the individualism and freedom that farmers had cherished since the time of Jefferson.

One expression of this intolerance of modern urban values was the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in certain Protestant sects, especially the Baptists and Presbyterians. Fundamentalists insisted on taking every word of the Bible literally. They rejected the theory of evolution, indeed the whole mass of scientific knowledge about the origins of man and the universe that had been discovered during the 19th century. As we have seen, educated persons had been able to resolve the apparent contradictions between Darwin’s theory and religious teachings easily enough, but in rural backwaters, especially in the southern and border states, this was never the case. Partly, fundamentalism resulted from simple ignorance; where educational standards were low and culture relatively static, old ideas remained unchallenged. Urban sophisticates tended to dismiss the fundamentalists as crude boors and hayseed fanatics, but, in such surroundings, the persistence of old-fashioned ideas was understandable enough. The power of reason, so obvious to men living in a technologically advanced society, seemed much less obvious to a backward agricultural population. Even prosperous farmers, in close contact with the capricious, elemental power of nature, tended to have more respect for the force of divine providence than cityfolk.

What made crusaders of the fundamentalists, however, was their resentment of modern urban culture which had passed them by, and the emotional currents of the age. Although in some cases they did harass liberal ministers, their religious attitudes had little public significance; their efforts to impose their views on public education were another matter. The teaching of evolution must be prohibited, they insisted. Throughout the early twenties they campaigned vigorously for laws banning all mention of Darwin’s theory in textbooks and classrooms.

Their greatest asset in this unfortunate crusade was William Jennings Bryan. Age had not improved the “Peerless Leader.” Never a profound thinker, after leaving Wilson’s cabinet in 1915 he devoted much time to religious and moral issues without applying himself conscientiously to the study of these difficult questions. He went about charging that “they” — meaning the mass of educated Americans — had “taken the Lord away from the schools” and denouncing the expenditure of public money to undermine Christian principles. Bryan toured the country offering $100 to anyone who would admit that he was descended from an ape; his immense popularity in rural areas assured him a wide audience, and no one came forward to take his money. [John A. Garraty, The American Nation: A History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 702-703]

You’ve probably guessed that What Happened Next was the Scopes trial of 1925. There are detailed accounts of the trial all over the web, so I’m not going to provide one here. The significance of the Scopes trial is that fundies were nationally humiliated, and modernists thought they had won. The modernists, it turns out, were wrong. Historian Gary Wills documents that the teaching of evolution “quietly crept out” of biology textbooks throughout the remainder of the 1920s, and the creeping continued through the 1930s and after, and there was no real attempt to put it back until the 1960s.

It was not Scopes that put evolution in the schools, but Sputnik. The Soviet space satellite caused a widespread fear that Russians taught science more efficiently than Americans. American experts, who thought they had “settled” Bryan, finally took a look at what Americans were actually being taught; and what they were being taught about the origin of mankind more often assumed the Genesis account than Darwin’s. [Gary Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 113]

However, when I took high school biology ca. 1966, my teacher was too intimidated to say the word evolution in class. Instead, she quietly slipped some of us (if she knew our parents and knew they wouldn’t flip out about it) copies of a book about evolution by Isaac Asimov. So much for Sputnik.

There was something else about the passage from the old textbook that struck me. John Garraty wrote about “an older rift in American society — the conflict between the city and the farm.” This rang alarm bells. I was reminded of “Soldiers of Christ: Inside America’s Most Powerful Megachurch” by Jeff Sharlit in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s.

It is not so much the large populations, with their uneasy mix of sinner and saved, that make Christian conservatives leery of urban areas. Even downtown Colorado Springs, presumably as godly as any big town in America, struck the New Lifers I met as unclean. Whenever I asked where to eat, they would warn me away from downtown’s neat little grid of cafes and ethnic joints. Stick to Academy, they’d tell me, referring to the vein of superstores and prepackaged eateries—P.F. Chang’s, California PizzaKitchen, et al.–that bypasses the city. Downtown, they said, is “confusing.” Part of their antipathy is literally biblical: the Hebrew Bible is the scripture of a provincial desert people, suspicious of the cosmopolitan powers that threatened to destroy them, and fundamentalists read the New Testament as a catalogue of urban ills—sophistication, cynicism, lust—so deadly that one would be better off putting out one’s own eye than partaking in their alleged pleasures. …

…As contemporary fundamentalism has become an exurban movement, it has reframed the question of theodicy–if God is good, then why does He allow suffering?–as a matter of geography. Some places are simply more blessed than others. Cities equal more fallen souls equal more demons equal more temptation, which, of course, leads to more fallen souls. The threats that suffuse urban centers have forced Christian conservatives to flee–to Cobb County, Georgia, to Colorado Springs. Hounded by the sins they see as rampant in the cities (homosexuality, atheistic schoolteaching, ungodly imagery), they imagine themselves to be outcasts in their own land. They are the “persecuted church”–just as Jesus promised, and just as their cell-group leaders teach them. This exurban exile is not an escape to easy living, to barbecue and lawn care. “We [Christians] have lost every major city in North America,” Pastor Ted writes in his 1995 book Primary Purpose, but he believes they can be reclaimed through prayer–“violent, confrontive prayer.” He encourages believers to obtain maps of cities and to identify “power points” that “strengthen the demonic activities.” He suggests especially popular bars, as well as “cult-type” churches. “Sometimes,” he writes, “particular government buildings … are power points.” The exurban position is one of strategic retreat, where believers are to “plant” their churches as strategic outposts encircling the enemy.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Remember the Karen Armstrong quote from the last Wisdom of Doubt post —

Typically, fundamentalists have proceeded on a fairly common program. Very often they begin by retreating from mainstream society and creating, as it were, enclaves of pure faith where they try to keep the godless world at bay and where they try to live a pure religious life. Examples would include the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York City or [Christians at] Bob Jones University or Osama bin Laden’s camps.

In these enclaves, fundamentalist communities often plan, as it were, a counteroffensive, where they seek to convert the mainstream society back to a more godly way of life. Some of them may resort to violence. Why? Because every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied—in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is rooted in a profound fear. They are convinced, even here in the United States, that modern liberal secular society wants to wipe out religion in some way or is destructive to faith.

Fundamentalism isn’t religion. It’s social pathology expressing itself as religion. In Part V I touched on the fact that right-wing Christianity has become remarkably disconnected from anything resembling standard Christian doctrine. The movement is being manipulated by money and by political power, and its followers seem to be getting most of their “theology” from popular culture — the Left Behind books come to mind. Certainly the Presbyterians who published The Fundamentals back in 1910 had serious theological intentions, but the fundamentalist movement has morphed into something much sicker and much uglier since. As John Garraty wrote, the unifying element is intolerance. As Karen Armstrong says, it is rooted in a profound fear.

After Scopes, fundamentalists seethed with humiliation and resentment. Back in Part VII I quoted Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962)

Their heightened sense of isolation and impotence helped to bring many of the dwindling but still numerically significant fundamentalists into the ranks of a fanatical right-wing opposition to the New Deal. The fundamentalism of the cross was now supplemented by a fundamentalism of the flag. Since the 1930’s, fundamentalism has been a significant component in the extreme right in American politics, whose cast of thought often shows strong fundamentalist filiations. …

… The fundamentalist mind … is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes trifling degrees of difference: liberals support measures that are for all practical purposes socialistic, and socialism is nothing more than a variant of Communism, which, as everyone knows, is atheism. … [T]he secularized fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realized. … It is not concerned with the realities of power — with the fact, say, that the Soviets have the bomb — but with the spiritual battle with the Communist, preferably the domestic Communist, whose reality does not consist in what he does, or even in the fact that he exists, but who represents, rather, an archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match.

We who are Not Them — religious and non-religious alike — are the enemy. We are the “archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match.” They will never tolerate us. This conflict is not about discrete issues like abortion, but so much more.

The point I hope to get across is that the fundies — not religion — are a threat to liberalism, to democracy, to science, to education, to modernity, and even to religion. It’s not clear to me what’s to be done about them, other than keep an eye on them and counter their nonsense with education. And we need to educate the talking heads on mass media that these whackjobs shouldn’t be allowed to speak for Christianity.

Also: Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, 1942-2007.

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The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VIII

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

It’s time to look at evangelicalism and fundamentalism, and to do that we need to put these religious movements into the context of the rest of Christianity. Those of you who are religious and/or history nerds may know most of this. However, after reading and listening to criticism of religion from the non-religious, I’ve realized many non-religious people assume that all religion is some kind of fundamentalism, and the only difference between religious extremists and religious moderates is that the moderates are more wishy-washy about it.

The truth is that in the 18th and 19th centuries a strong current of liberalism and modern thinking flowed through religion in America. Beginning with Deism — a religious philosophy embraced by a number of the Founding Fathers — and continuing through Transcendentalism and Liberal Christianity, prominent philosophers and theologians developed a way to follow a spiritual path that rejected rigid dogmas and harmonized with science and rational thought. This diverse religious movement enjoyed considerable popularity and influence until after World War I, when it was swamped by a newer movement, an anti-liberal backlash that came to be called “fundamentalism.”

To explain what happened, here’s a quickie, super-streamlined romp through Western Civ 102:

For long centuries a European Christian related to God through the Catholic Church. Then in 1517, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church, and the Reformation began. Soon Catholicism had competition.

During this same period the Church was challenged from another side by scientific geniuses like Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642). These guys ushered in the scientific revolution , which changed the way people understood the world they lived in. Most important to our discussion is that knowledge came to be based on empiricism. Scientists stopped attributing causes and effects to angels and demons and instead spoke of natural, physical laws that could be observed and measured.

The Age of Enlightenment paralleled the scientific revolution. The “intellectual upheaval overturned the accepted belief that mysticism and revelation are the primary sources of knowledge and wisdom” says Wikipedia. Through the 18th century great thinkers applied reason to all aspects of human life and civilization, challenging centuries-old assumptions. The ideal of “human rights” as natural entitlements of all human beings took hold. Governments were also challenged, leading to some little political tweaks like the American and French revolutions.

The First Great Awakening swept through the American colonies in the middle of the Enlightenment. Historians tie the Awakening and the origins of evangelicalism in America to George Whitefield, an Anglican itinerant preacher who toured the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. Whitefield was a charismatic Anglican priest whose ministry was taken away after his sermons grew increasingly un-Anglican. So he traveled, and spoke in churchyards and fields, and was wildly popular with the masses.

Whitefield did not propose any radical new doctrine. Instead, he talked about his own conversion experience and stressed reform of the heart and personal salvation. One might say this was the logical conclusion of the Reformation; a Christian could now relate to God directly instead of through the Church. Sacraments and rituals — once thought to be essential to receiving grace — lost much of their importance in the new religious movement. Instead of priests to intercede with God on their behalf, many American Christians turned to preachers to give them spiritual resolve and guidance. But they had to walk that lonesome valley by themselves.

There’s more about the First Great Awakening at Answers.com.

The First Great Awakening was a religious revitalization movement that swept the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American religion. It resulted from powerful preaching that aimed to convince listeners of their personal guilt and of their need of salvation through decisive action that included public repentance. The Great Awakening led people to “experience God in their own way” and that they were responsible for their own actions. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person by creating a deep sense of spiritual guilt and redemption, along with introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality. … It brought Christianity to the slaves and was an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between the old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and doctrine, and the new revivalists.

The evangelical movement in America grew out of the First Great Awakening. On the whole, evangelicals supported the American Revolution and also the disestablishment of churches. You might remember the story of the Danbury Baptists who wrote to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801, complaining about the establishment of Congregationalism as the official state religion of Connecticut. Jefferson famously wrote back in 1802:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Through the early 19th century evangelicalism became common among more rural and less educated people, while the educated and urban tended to remain loyal to older denominations more based on doctrine than enthusiasm. Certainly there were intelligent and educated evangelicals and stupid, ignorant Congregationalists, but a loose rural-urban, populist-elite dichotomy did emerge.

The 19th century also witnessed the growth of a liberal Christian theology. Enlightenment movements such as Deism and German rationalism took a humanistic and anti-supernatural approach to religion. Then came Unitarians and William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), followed by the Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Transcendentalists embraced the evangelical zeal for individualism. As Emerson wrote,

We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

Also like the evangelicals, Transcendentalists were not tied to ritual and rigid doctrine. Unlike the evangelicals, the Transcendentalists felt free to push beyond Christianity to find spiritual truth. They encouraged higher biblical criticism, which questioned the origins and authorship of the Bible. They understood that large parts of the Bible were allegorical, not historical. Some even studied translations of Hindu and Buddhist sutras. The name “transcendental” came from their desire to transcend the limitations of concepts and dogmas to reach an intuitive, perceptual understanding of religion that would not conflict with science and reason.

Now I want to go back to the last Wisdom of Doubt post and repeat a quote from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962).

As evangelicals made increasingly impressive gains from 1795 to 1835, and as Deism lapsed into relative quiescence, the battle between pietism and rationalism fell into the background. There was much more concern among evangelicals with rescuing the vast American interior from the twin evils of Romanism and religious apathy than there was with dispelling the rather faint afterglow of the Enlightenment.

After the Civil War, all this changed and rationalism once more took an important place among the foes of the evangelical mind. The coming of Darwinism, with its widespread and pervasive influence upon every area of thinking, put orthodox Christianity on the defensive, and the impact of Darwinism was heightened by modern scholarly Biblical criticism among the learned ministry and among educated laymen. Finally, toward the end of the century, the problems of industrialism and the urban churches gave rise to a widespread movement for a social gospel, another modernist tendency. Ministers and laymen alike now had to choose between fundamentalism and modernism; between conservative Christianity and the social gospel. [pp. 120-121]

The last post discussed the Social Gospel. Basically, toward the end of the 19th century modernist Christians took up progressive causes, working to help the poor and fight injustice. This paralleled the Progressive Era in U.S. politics and was an outgrowth of the Transcendental movement.

Now we’re in the latter part of the 19th century, and it’s time to return to the evangelicals. In the 150 or so years since George Whitefield came to America to light the candle of evangelical zeal, evangelicals had gone from being the cutting edge of spiritual revolution to the keepers and defenders of Dat Ol’ Time Religion. The Darwinists and the Bible-critizing scholars and the snotty elitist incomprehensible Transcendentalists and the Social Gospel do-gooders set off alarm bells among the generally more rural and less well-educated evangelicals. And from the more conservative ranks of the evangelicals, fundamentalism was born.

In 1910 the Presbyterians drew up a list of five points of faith that they said distinguished true believers from the wannabees. The original five points were: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture, (2) the virgin birth of Jesus, (3) the substantionary atonement, (4) the bodily ressurrection of Jesus, and (5) the authenticity of miracles. In time, point #5 would be replaced by (5) Christ’s Second Coming. From 1910 to 1915 evangelicals published a series of books based on these five points called The Fundamentals. The term fundamentalist was coined about 1920.

As someone with more of an old-church background it’s interesting to me that these “fundamentals” seem disconnected from the Nicene Creed, which used to be the “fundamentals.” I admit I’m not entirely certain what “substantionary atonement” means. It may refer to a doctrine that Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist, but I’m not going to swear to that. I have an essay by Gary Wills in hand that says it just means “Jesus died for our sins.” If anyone can enlighten me on this point, I’d be grateful.

In any event, I doubt very many of today’s “fundamentalists” know what “substantionary atonement” means, either, or can even recite the five points. Today’s Christian fundamentalists have created a fanciful alternative history for themselves, which says that they are the heirs of Christ’s true followers, who were driven underground by the Catholic Church in the 4th century. Twelves centuries later, during the Reformation, they resurfaced. After being knocked around a bit they finally established an enclave of True Faith in America. Their mission now is to convert everyone else on the planet to whatever it is they believe — currently a weird stew of apocalyptic eschatology and American exceptionalism, sometimes with free market dogmatism tossed in.

One of the ironies of fundamentalism is that while it is a backlash against modernity, it is also a creature of modernity. The insistence that the Bible must be read as literal truth comes from the post-Enlightenment, rational understanding that truth is factual. Fundies figure if the Bible is myth and allegory it is not true, and if it is not true it loses its authority as the arbiter of truth. This is, academic theologians say, a peculiarly “modern” way to understand the Bible.

If you cruise around the web you can find no end of definitions of fundamentalism. and as Grahame Thompson points out in this essay, there are a lot of “fundamentalisms,” secular and religious, in the world today. I’d define fundamentalism as “zealous adherence to any rigid, inflexible doctrine.” There’s general agreement among scholars that fundamentalism in all its forms is a backlash to modernity. Religious fundamentalism is not so much religion as it is a social pathology that expresses itself as religion.

Here’s a dialogue with Karen Armstrong, Susannah Heschel, Jim Wallis, and Feisal Abdul Rauf called “Fundamentalism and the Modern World.” Karen Armstrong says,

Typically, fundamentalists have proceeded on a fairly common program. Very often they begin by retreating from mainstream society and creating, as it were, enclaves of pure faith where they try to keep the godless world at bay and where they try to live a pure religious life. Examples would include the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York City or [Christians at] Bob Jones University or Osama bin Laden’s camps.

In these enclaves, fundamentalist communities often plan, as it were, a counteroffensive, where they seek to convert the mainstream society back to a more godly way of life. Some of them may resort to violence. Why? Because every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied—in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is rooted in a profound fear. They are convinced, even here in the United States, that modern liberal secular society wants to wipe out religion in some way or is destructive to faith.

In the next post I want to take a closer look at fundamentalism in America, from the post-World War I period to the present. I also want to explain why scriptural literalism is a bugaboo of fundies and not a requirement for Christians or members of any other religion.

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The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VII

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

Slacktivist tells us that “Amy Sullivan has, again, written that Amy Sullivan article, this time for TIME magazine: ‘The Origins of the God Gap.'”

The God Gap refers to the copyrighting of God by the Republican Party and the alleged “unfriendliness” of Democrats to religion. Sullivan writes,

Today, Democrats find themselves in an unusual situation, with a surfeit of faith-friendly front runners. If they want to court and keep new religious voters, however, this time the conversion will have to be party-wide.

Sullivan provides a thumbnail history of Religion and Politics in America. According to Sullivan, prior to Jimmy Carter presidents didn’t talk much about God beyond the occasional generic reference to “Providence.” Carter was, she said, the first president to wear his evangelicalism on his sleeve. However,

While Carter was the right candidate for the new politics of values, his party was rapidly moving in the other direction. Educated élites, particularly on the left, increasingly placed their faith in the tangible power of political action rather than the unfathomable might of a divine being. And they misread the direction of the country. Far from becoming less religious in a postmodern age, Americans remained strongly devout, with 80% or more consistently reporting that religion was an “important” part of their lives. A schism widened between the people who ran the Democratic Party and many religious believers.

In Sullivan’s history, Democrats deliberately snubbed evangelical Christians while Reagan et al. courted them. She admits that Bill Clinton has a “personal comfort” with religion, but the Democratic Party was disinterested “in changing their approach on abortion to reflect his ‘safe, legal and rare’ mantra.” And if I ever meet Amy Sullivan, I promise to ask her to explain how the Dem “approach to abortion” does not reflect the “safe, legal and rare” mantra, because I don’t see how the hell it doesn’t, but for now I want to focus on Sullivan’s main point: Democrats had better get faith-friendly or risk alienating religious voters.

Granted, whenever one writes a thumbnail history one must leave out great chunks of stuff, but this leaves out way too much, to the point of gross distortion. And because she doesn’t grasp what has happened to American religion, vis à vis politics and otherwise, Sullivan doesn’t grasp the true nature of the religion problem. It is not the Democratic Party that has changed, but religion, and catering to the nation’s spiritual pathologies is hardly the way to effect a cure.

Here’s an alternative thumbnail history, based mostly on historian Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962) , which the author said was a response to “the political and intellectual conditions of the 1950s.” A large section of this book deals with religion, and reviewing all of it would make a very long post even by my standards. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

Through the latter part of the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th, evangelical Christianity became increasingly militant. Hofstadter explains,

As evangelicals made increasingly impressive gains from 1795 to 1835, and as Deism lapsed into relative quiescence, the battle between pietism and rationalism fell into the background. There was much more concern among evangelicals with rescuing the vast American interior from the twin evils of Romanism and religious apathy than there was with dispelling the rather faint afterglow of the Enlightenment.

After the Civil War, all this changed and rationalism once more took an important place among the foes of the evangelical mind. The coming of Darwinism, with its widespread and pervasive influence upon every area of thinking, put orthodox Christianity on the defensive, and the impact of Darwinism was heightened by modern scholarly Biblical criticism among the learned ministry and among educated laymen. Finally, toward the end of the century, the problems of industrialism and the urban churches gave rise to a widespread movement for a social gospel, another modernist tendency. Ministers and laymen alike now had to choose between fundamentalism and modernism; between conservative Christianity and the social gospel. [pp. 120-121]

Hofstadter uses the words evangelical and fundamentalist interchangeably without making a clear distinction between the two, and that’s something I want to deal with in another Wisdom of Doubt post. For the sake of not writing a book-length blog post let’s let the distinction slide for now.

The “social gospel” was a movement embraced by the more liberal denominations of mainstream Protestantism. Quoting Wikipedia:

In the early 20th century, many Americans were disgusted by the poverty level and the low quality of living in the slums. The social gospel movement provided a religious rationale for action to remove those evils. Activists in the Social Gospel movement hoped that by public health measures as well as enforced schooling so the poor could develop talents and skills, the quality of their moral lives would begin to improve. Important concerns of the Social Gospel movement were labor reforms, such as abolishing child labor and regulating the hours of work by mothers. By 1920 they were crusading against the 12-hour day for men at U.S. Steel. Many reformers inspired by the movement opened settlement houses, most notably Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams. They helped the poor and immigrants improve their lives. Settlement houses offered services such as daycare, education, and health care to needy people in slum neighborhoods.

In the United States prior to World War I, the Social Gospel was the religious wing of the progressive movement which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering and poverty in society. During the New Deal of the 1930s Social Gospel themes could be seen in the work of Harry Hopkins, Will Alexander and Mary McLeod Bethune, who added a new concern with African Americans. After 1940, the movement withered, but was invigorated in the 1950s by black leaders like Baptist minister Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. After 1980 it weakened again as a major force inside mainstream churches; indeed those churches were losing strength. Examples of its continued existence can still be found, notably the organization known as the Call to Renewal.

So, in the late 19th and early 20th century a sharp division arose between progressive, “modern” Christians and conservative Christians who rebelled against modernism. Let’s go back to Hofstadter:

The 1920’s proved to be the focal decade in the Kulturkampf of American Protestantism. Advertising, radio, the mass magazines, the advance of popular education, threw the old mentality into a direct and unavoidable conflict with the new. The older, rural and small-town America, now fully embattled against the encroachments of modern life, made its most determined stand against cosmopolitanism, Romanism, and the skepticism and moral experimentalism of the intelligentsia. In the Ku Klux Klan movement, the rigid defense of Prohibition, the Scopes evolution trial, and the campaign against Al Smith in 1928, the older America tried vainly to reassert its authority; but its only victory was the defeat of Smith, and even that was tarnished by his success in reshaping the Democratic Party as an urban and cosmopolitan force, a success that laid the ground work for subsequent Democratic victories. [p. 123]

Over the next several pages Hofstadter describes the conservative Christians in retreat. By the 1930s the more hard-core fundamentalists were isolated even from mainstream evangelicalism, which was becoming more liberal. Now it gets interesting:

Their heightened sense of isolation and impotence helped to bring many of the dwindling but still numerically significant fundamentalists into the ranks of a fanatical right-wing opposition to the New Deal. The fundamentalism of the cross was now supplemented by a fundamentalism of the flag. Since the 1930’s, fundamentalism has been a significant component in the extreme right in American politics, whose cast of thought often shows strong fundamentalist filiations.

Hofstadter elaborates on this theme, describing many ties between right-wing political groups and fundamentalists. He documents how the Cold War crusade against “Godless communism” invigorated fundamentalist militarism. And he describes the right-wing political-religious mindset that emerged:

The fundamentalist mind … is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes trifling degrees of difference: liberals support measures that are for all practical purposes socialistic, and socialism is nothing more than a variant of Communism, which, as everyone knows, is atheism. … [T]he secularized fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realized. … It is not concerned with the realities of power — with the fact, say, that the Soviets have the bomb — but with the spiritual battle with the Communist, preferably the domestic Communist, whose reality does not consist in what he does, or even in the fact that he exists, but who represents, rather, an archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match. [p. 135]

Hofstadter published this 45 years ago, remember. But does this not nail our contemporary wingnuts dead on? Even the part about not being concerned with the realities of power could be updated and applied to neocons and other Iraq War supporters.

This week at the Faith and Public Life web site, Pastor Dan Schultz of Street Prophets comments on the Amy Sullivan column:

I think we can’t let the vision of history put forward in these Time articles go unchallenged. Nowhere in Amy Sullivan’s column was there a mention of the role race played in bringing together the Religious Right, for example. Were it not for the Carter administration’s challenge to the tax-exempt status of segregated “Christian Academies” throughout the South, it’s unlikely that the Religious Right would even exist in the form we recognize it today.

Nor is there a mention of the decades-long work of the Institute on Religion and Democracy to undermine the governing structures of mainline denominations. The point of this operation – fueled by cash donated by ultra-conservative philanthropists – was to neutralize the social witness of denominations like the UCC, the Methodists, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, to pave the way for secular Republican political gains. The Democratic “loss” of religious voters had a lot more behind it than simply not wanting to talk about abortion, in other words. I would like to have seen that reflected in these pieces.

Compare and constrast Pastor Dan’s comments with what Richard Hofstadter wrote so many years ago. In the 1920s, religious fundamentalism had strong connections to the resurgent Ku Klux Klan; in the 1970s, President Carter’s challenge of whites-only “Christian” academies added fuel to the fire that forged the Religious Right of the 1980s. A century ago, fundamentalists opposed the progressive “social gospel” movement. Today, the Religious Right wants to “neutralize the social witness of denominations like the UCC, the Methodists, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, to pave the way for secular Republican political gains.”

Let’s look again at the so-called God Gap. I wrote in The Wisdom of Doubt, Part V that when mass media present the “religious” view of social issues, inevitably they call upon the Religious Right, as if extremist right-wing Christianity were the only legitimate religion. “Moderate to liberal religious voices are shouted down, just as they are in the political realm,” I wrote. The Left-Right divide in religion parallels the Left-Right divide in politics, and for many years extremist right-wing religiosity has been crowned “mainstream,” while more liberal religious traditions are treated as an extremist fringe. And please note that many of the more liberal denominations are actually much older than Christian fundamentalism, which was born in the late 19th century.

When Amy Sullivan claims that “Educated élites, particularly on the left, increasingly placed their faith in the tangible power of political action rather than the unfathomable might of a divine being,” she is echoing the same accusations right-wing Christians were making a century ago about religious progressives. But the charge was bogus then, and it is bogus now. The truth is that a large and extreme right-wing faction has redefined “religion” on its terms. This faction has decided that Democrats and liberals — who in fact are no more nor less religious than they ever were — are hostile to religion because they don’t acknowledge the faction’s religion as the only legitimate religion. And since this faction dominates mass media and the nation’s political culture, the faction’s bogus charges are viewed as “conventional wisdom.”

On the Faith and Public Life site linked above, Jeff Sharlet writes,

… nuances get lost in the mythical “God gap.” There’s no such thing. The majority of the Democratic Party is religious, just as is the majority of the GOP; the difference tends to be in the nature of the gods worshiped. There is far more than one Christ in America, a basic theological fact lost on a press that treats God as a single prize to be wrestled over by Democrats and Republicans.

Conventional political wisdom calls for Democrats to display the same religiosity as Republicans in order to win “religious” voters. Although such behavior may win an election here or there, in the long run this advice is exactly wrong. It’s wrong, first, because it supports the Right’s warped view of religion. And second, it’s wrong because that’s a game Democrats cannot win. The Right has defined the Left as being anti-religious. Therefore, displays of religiosity from the Left are viewed as insincere. A commenter to the Faith and Public Life thread writes,

Alongside these kinds of ideas coming from mainstream reporters, you have the explicit attacks on Democrats’ faith coming from conservative media figures. They act as though they’re insulted that progressives – politicians or otherwise – would have the temerity to talk about their faith. “I have never met anybody less sincere than the religious left,” Tucker Carlson said on a recent show. “I mean, you think that Jerry Falwell was cloying and phony, honestly, you haven’t met the religious left.” Cal Thomas issued a blistering theological attack on Hillary Clinton, stopping just short of saying that she is not a real Christian (Hillary’s crime, it appears, is the fact that she’s a Methodist). Similarly, Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard opined that Clinton might be able to appeal to religious voters, but only those who are “religious in the way that Hillary Clinton is religious, which is to say of a very liberal Protestant sort of view, in which they believe in everything but God.” Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist, criticized Barack Obama for speaking at a gathering of his own church: “By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ — among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations,” Gerson wrote, “he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.”

In the minds of wingnuts, religion is intrinsic to being a “conservative” and foreign to being a “liberal.” Therefore, “religious liberal” is an oxymoron to them. Even a devoutly religious liberal is assumed to be hostile to religion, no matter what he says or does, whereas a conservative is assumed to be a Friend of Jesus without having to so much as lift a finger to demonstrate his sincerity. You can’t argue with The Narrative.

This was never more apparent than when Ann Coulter was promoting her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism. If Coulter has an ounce of religious devotion in her anywhere, I’m Mother Teresa. Yet she was all over news media smearing the devotion of liberals, and I saw not one interviewer challenge Coulter’s religiousness.

Whatever the Dems do, buying into the perception that right-wing Christian evangelicalism is the only legitimate religion is not the answer; it’s dancing to the Right’s tune. And catering to the Right’s demand for religious correctness (on their terms) as a prerequisite for public office is just wrong.

The fact is, right-wing “religion” isn’t necessarily religious. I want to refer back to the Bill Moyers quote from Part V:

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 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.

The last thing religion in America needs right now is capitulation to the Right’s definition of religion. I’d rather see us rescue Jesus (so to speak) from the wingnuts who hold him hostage. Let Jesus be Jesus, not the GOP team mascot. At the same time, we must reaffirm separation of church and state. As I argued in Part V, this separation is good for religion as well as government.

This topic calls our for a much more substantive treatment than I can give on a blog. I have in hand a book by Gary Wills (Under God: Religion and American Politics) published in 1990 that provides wonderful insight into the state of American politics in the 1980s, when according to Amy Sullivan the “educated élites” were turning their backs on religion. And this is the same time period, note, between the administrations of two evangelical Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. What Really Happened was, as always, not nearly so black-and-white.

In a nutshell, the Right was able to use mass media to indoctrinate the nation with The Narrative about alleged liberal hostility to religion. This happened at the same time the word liberal was being demonized. Liberals and Democrats generally were asleep at the switch, so to speak, and failed to fight back. Thus it was that by the time of the Dukakis-Bush election campaign in 1988, the electorate was primed to run screaming from the dreaded “L” word. And, of course, in the right-wing mind liberals are socialists are communists are atheists. Michael Dukakis was a thoroughly secular candidate, but what did he do or say to demonstrate hostility to religion? What did any Democrat do or say? Anything? Nothing that I’m aware of. Nothing that Amy Sullivan can document, I suspect. She’s just buying into The Narrative.

Although I want to delve into fundamentalism more thoroughly at another time, I do want to close with a nod to Karen Armstrong. In her book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Armstrong argues that fundamentalism arose in response to modernity, especially to scientific rationalism. “Fear is at the heart of fundamentalism,” she writes. “The fear of losing yourself.” This is true of Islamic fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden as well as our homegrown types. Liberals cherish tolerance, democracy, pluralism, and civil liberties; fundamentalists fear these values as weapons of (their) annihilation.

It is important to recognize that these theologies and ideologies are rooted in fear. The desire to define doctrines, erect barriers, establish borders, and segregate the faithful in a sacred enclave where the law is stringently observed springs from that terror of extinction which has made all fundamentalists, at once time or another, believe that the secularists were about to wipe them out. The modern world, which seems so exciting to a liberal, seems Godless, drained of meaning and even satanic to a fundamentalist. [Armstrong, The Battle for God (Ballantine, 2000), p. 368]

The Religious Right has an irrational fear of everything and everyone who isn’t Them. The perception that liberals and Democrats are hostile to religion grew out of their own fevered imaginations, not reality. Amy Sullivan wants to cater to their delusions. I say the nation needs to be freed from the grip of right-wing insanity.

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The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VI

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

There is hardly an example of a mass movement achieving vast proportions and a durable organization solely by persuasion. Professor K.S. Latourette, a very Christian historian, has to admit that “However incompatible the spirit of Jesus and armed force may be, and however unpleasant it may be to acknowledge the fact, as a matter of plain history the latter has often made it possible for the former to survive.” It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion often went hand in hand, the latter often serving as a justification and a tool of the former. Where Christianity failed to gain or retain the backing of state power, it achieved neither a wide nor a permanent hold. “In Persia . . . Christianity confronted a state religion sustained by the crown and never became the faith of more than a minority.” In the phenomenal spread of Islam, conquest was a primary factor and conversion a by-product. “The most flourishing periods for Mohhamedanism have been at the times of its greatest political ascendancy; and it is at those times that it has achieved its highest accession from without.” The Reformation made headway only where it gained the backing of the ruling prince or the local government. … Where, as in France, the state power was against it, it was drowned in blood and never rose again. [Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)]

Religion and government have been closely entwined going as far back as history goes. Every ancient civilization I know of was governed through an alliance of priests and kings. The priests sanctified the power of kings and assured the support and favor of gods for their policies; kings, in turn, saw to it the priests enjoyed protection and status. As a rule, the political/religious establishment accepted no challenges. Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Crucifixion suggested the Powers That Be in Jerusalem saw him as a potential threat to their authority.

In the first three centuries after the Crucifixion, Christianity went from being a small Jewish sect to a loosely organized movement made up broadly scattered communities, mostly gentile, with diverse beliefs. But the patronage of the Emperor Constantine sent what had been a minor religion up to the Big Leagues. In 325 CE Constantine convened the council of bishops at Nicaea to agree which doctrines would become the foundation of Christian orthodoxy to this day. From the reign of Constantine until modern times, Church power and political power in Europe were closely linked. Many of the Church’s most infamous acts of religious oppression were conducted in partnership with political power. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition operated completely under Spanish royal authority, not Rome’s.

My point is that religious authority and political authority have been drawn to each other throughout human history. And I argue that much of the Really Bad Shit attributed to religion really occurred in the nexus between religion and politics. As noted in Wisdom of Doubt, Part IV, history shows us that when authoritarian religious institutions form alliances with political power, the results can be nasty.

In the 15th through 19th centuries Christian Europe explored and colonized much of the planet. Countless atrocities were committed by both Church and crown in the process. By the 19th century the process had taken on a veneer of gentility, however, as Christian missionaries became the (sometimes) unwitting advance troops of capitalistic exploitation. The missionaries gained the trust of the people, challenged and weakened long-established local authority, and taught the “natives” European languages and manners. Then came Money — European and, increasingly, American — and before long the now-Christianized native people were enslaved on plantations and in mines, stripping away the natural resources of their own native lands to enrich far-away moneyed interests. And when the resources were gone and Money walked away, very often warlords and despots stepped in to fill the power void.

In America, religion salved the consciences of slave owners, who reasoned Africans were better off enslaved on plantations than free in Africa because here they’d be Christians. Mary Chesnut, wife of a plantation owner, soothed her own apparent discomfort with slavery by imagining herself a white missionary in an African village.

In 1901, Mark Twain took aim at the collusion of religion and money in his famous essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.”

Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade and has paid well, on the whole; and there is money in it yet, if carefully worked – but not enough, in my judgement, to make any considerable risk advisable. The People that Sit in Darkness are getting to be too scarce ­– too scarce and too shy. And such darkness as is now left is really of but an indifferent quality, and not dark enough for the game. The most of those People that Sit in Darkness have been furnished with more light than was good for them or profitable for us. We have been injudicious.

The Blessings-of-Civilization Trust, wisely and cautiously administered, is a Daisy. There is more money in it, more territory, more sovereignty, and other kinds of emolument, than there is in any other game that is played. But Christendom has been playing it badly of late years, and must certainly suffer by it, in my opinion. She has been so eager to get every stake that appeared on the green cloth, that the People who Sit in Darkness have noticed it – they have noticed it, and have begun to show alarm. They have become suspicious of the Blessings of Civilization. More – they have begun to examine them. This is not well. The Blessings of Civilization are all right, and a good commercial property; there could not be a better, in a dim light. In the right kind of a light, and at a proper distance, with the goods a little out of focus, they furnish this desirable exhibit to the Gentlemen who Sit in Darkness:

LOVE,

LAW AND ORDER,

JUSTICE,

LIBERTY,

GENTLENESS,

EQUALITY,

CHRISTIANITY,

HONORABLE DEALING,

PROTECTION TO THE WEAK,

MERCY,

TEMPERANCE,

EDUCATION,

– and so on.

There. Is it good? Sir, it is pie. It will bring into camp any idiot that sits in darkness anywhere. But not if we adulterate it. It is proper to be emphatic upon that point. This brand is strictly for Export – apparently. Apparently. Privately and confidentially, it is nothing of the kind. Privately and confidentially, it is merely an outside cover, gay and pretty and attractive, displaying the special patterns of our Civilization which we reserve for Home Consumption, while inside the bale is the Actual Thing that the Customer Sitting in Darkness buys with his blood and tears and land and liberty. That Actual Thing is, indeed, Civilization, but it is only for Export.

An interesting record for a religion whose chief deity-prophet proclaimed that love of money is the root of all evil.

Which brings us to the present. In the last episode of the Wisdom of Doubt, I quoted a speech by Bill Moyers in which he laid out the devious plan of the Right to take total control of America. In brief, the economic plan is to exploit labor and reward the rich and the political plan is to control news media. Next comes the religious plan:

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.

This is a power play as old as civilization itself: The “priests” sanctify the power of “kings” and assure the support and favor of “gods” for their policies; kings, in turn, see to it the priests enjoy protection and status. I think we’ve seen this before.

We could speculate if people are self-aware of their own machinations or if, like Mary Chesnut, they’re mostly bullshitting themselves. I suspect many of those 19th century Christian missionaries were idealists who really believed they were doing God’s work, just as I suspect much of the rank and file of the Christian Right really believe their leadership and their cause are sanctified by God. The leadership itself is a far more interesting stew of denial, repression, and greed, but I’ll leave that alone for now.

What’s most fascinating to me is the way today’s Christian Right has so cheerfully subordinated itself to the causes of political power and “free market” capitalism, neither of which even remotely connect to Jesus’ teachings. It’s as if after all these centuries of compromising Jesus to attain favor and prominence, Christians step into the same old role without a second’s thought. As noted in the previous Wisdom of Doubt episode, disciples of the late right-wing theologian Rousas John Rushdoony are taught that God favored America with the blessing of “biblical capitalism,” and before his downfall the Rev. Ted Haggard used to preach that free market capitalism is the fulfillment of God’s Plan.

The Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University has a web page called “Economics from the Religious Right” with quotes and links showing how the Christian Right has adopted the exploitation of labor and the accumulation of great wealth into their grab bag of “sacred” doctrines.

Hmm, now what was it Jesus said? “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25, New International Version). Does anyone on the Christian Right ever actually read the Gospels, I wonder?

But now let’s flip this discussion over and look at the other side. For two millennia Christians have engaged in real charitable work. Eight centuries ago Saint Francis of Assisi resisted the violence of the Crusades. In the 16th through 18th centuries Franciscan missionaries in North and South America worked tirelessly, often at great personal sacrifice, to protect native Americans from the exploitation and cruelty of other Europeans. Many generations of Catholic nuns dedicated their lives to caring for the sick. In fact, nursing was so closely associated with nuns that until the past 30 or so years professional nurses wore starched white caps whose design evolved from the nun’s coif.

And, yes, at times monasteries and convents housed acts of cruelty also. Religious people are still people. Much of the quality of religious orders, I suspect, depends on whether they are protected by civil authority or must answer to it. And, of course, the non-religious also do good work, and heal the sick and care for the exploited. I’m not one who believes that “they’re nice to other people” is one of religions’ chief claims to fame. Religions, like people, and government, and like any other human institution, are a mix of good and bad, idealism and corruption. If anything, religion seems to have an amplifying effect, bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. I say any absolute position anyone takes on religion — that it is either entirely bad or entirely good — is one-sided and fanatical.

But, whatever you think of it, religion is not going away. Religion has been with us since we’ve been a species. Many of the arguments of evolutionary biology are probably valid. And many of the arguments against religion by crusading atheists like Richard Dawkins are also valid. However, the notion that if only people could be talked out of believing in God they’d see the light of Reason and Logic is, um, fanciful.

I want to discuss religion as a revolutionary force versus religion as preserver and defender of status quos in a future edition of The Wisdom of Doubt. Right now I just want to note that, historically, institutionalized religions tend to soak up the values and morals of whatever culture they are institutionalized in, and then they reflect those values and morals back at the culture, and so act as positive reinforcers of whatever is clanking about in that culture, good or bad. The Religious Right is doing such a good job of reflecting the ugliest and greediest aspects of American culture that they’ve just about erased Jesus entirely.

Here’s a great example, via Mike the Mad Biologist. Charles Marsh writes:

The worldwide Christian opposition seems to me the most neglected story related to the religious debate about Iraq: Despite approval for the president’s decision to go to war by 87 percent of white evangelicals in April 2003, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll, almost every Christian leader in the world (and almost every nonevangelical leader in the United States) voiced opposition to the war. …

… By the time American troops began bombing Baghdad before sunrise on March 20, 2003, the collective effort of the evangelical elites had sanctified the president’s decision and encouraged the laity to believe that the war was God’s will for the nation. Evangelicals preached for the war, prayed for the war, sang for the war, and offered God’s blessings on the war.

Sometime after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I made a remarkable discovery. I had gone to one of my local Christian bookstores to find a Bible for my goddaughter. On a whim, I also decided to look for a Holy Spirit lapel pin, in the symbolic shape of a dove, the kind that had always been easy to find in the display case in the front. Many people in my church and in the places where I traveled had been wearing the American flag on their lapel for months now. It seemed like a pretty good time for Christians to put the Spirit back on.

But the doves were nowhere in sight. In the place near the front where I once would have found them, I was greeted instead by a full assortment of patriotic accessories — red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, “I support our troops” ribbons, “God Bless America” gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag button with the two images interlocked. I felt slightly panicked by the new arrangement. I asked the clerk behind the counter where the doves had gone. The man’s response was jarring, although the remark might well be remembered as an apt theological summation of our present religious age. “They’re in the back with the other discounted items,” he said, nodding in that direction.

This takes us back to the quote by Eric Hoffer at the beginning of this post. “It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion,” Hoffer says.

But in another part of the same passage, Hoffer also wrote (in 1951) “The threat of communism at present does not come from the forcefulness of its preaching but from the fact that it is backed by one of the mightiest armies on earth.” It isn’t just religion that is spread by sword and gun. Remove religion as an excuse, and mankind will find more excuses.

The corruption of Christianity in America today is paralleled by the corruption of republican government. Right now, America must choose between being a republic or an empire; I don’t think it can be both. By the same token, Christianity has to choose between what sort of power it wants to be — political or religious? I don’t think it can be both.

Separation of church and state isn’t just a liberal plot to keep Christians out of power. It’s what’s best for religion as well as the state. Separated from the temptations of temporal power, religion is free to be religion. Can evangelicals be made to see the truth of this, however?

Also: See Digby.

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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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