Religion v. Religion

For the past several years conventional wisdom has said that Republicans/conservatives were “more religious” than Democrats/liberals. A report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released late in 2003 seemed to back this up. The Pew poll used three questions to measure “religious”; 81 percent of self-identified conservatives scored three out of three, whereas only 54 percent of self-identified liberals hit the religious trifecta.

I’ve been complaining about the Pew poll since it was released. Pew’s questions for determining who is religious were (1) belief in the power of prayer, (2) belief in a final Day of Judgment, and (3) belief beyond doubt in the existence of God. These criteria reflect an understanding of “religious” common to the People of the Book — Jews, Christians, Muslims. But if you are, for example, Hindu or Buddhist, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press you are not religious at all.

Considering that His Holiness the Dalai Lama would possibly score zero for three on the Pew religion test (no better than one out of three, I’m sure), I submit there’s a flaw in the test.

The question about a final Day of Judgment seems especially problematic. Many conservative, evangelical denominations are essentially eschatological sects keenly focused on preparation for the End Times, which they expect any minute now. But liberal Christians are more likely to think the fire-and-brimstone stuff in Revelations is just a metaphor for something. (Exactly what is a matter of opinion. I’ve heard it argued that Revelations was not a prediction of the End of the World but of the fall of the Roman Empire.)

The older Christian denominations mostly teach that there will be a Second Coming of Christ. However, they also take the view that no mere human can predict when this will happen. So while one should always be prepared, don’t quit your day job. My understanding is that there are diverse views on the End Times within Judaism and Islam as well. Some religious people don’t spin their wheels over Judgment Day all that much, even if they believe there’s going to be one.

One major distinction between conservative and liberal Christians (and, I suspect, conservative and liberal Jews also) is that liberals are more likely to consider scripture to be metaphorical rather than literal. This may tie back to the psychological makeup of people prone to conservatism — conservatives don’t like ambiguity and are more likely than liberals to be dogmatic. I postulate that people who are drawn to conservative religion are also more likely to adopt a conservative political view. Both religious and political conservatives tend to be more rigidly dogmatic, more deferential to authority, and to see the world in black and white terms. Political and religious liberals, on the other hand, tend to be less judgmental, more tolerant of ambiguity, and more fluid in their beliefs.

Thus, a test of “religiousness” based on adherence to doctrine will be skewed in favor of conservatives. But adherence to doctrine and religious devotion are not the same thing. Some religions place a higher value on religious practice and on the spiritual journey than on blind faith in a belief system. It’s not what you believe, but what you do, that matters.

I bring this up because of an article in today’s New York Times, “Religious Liberals Gain New Visibility” by Caryle Murphy and Alan Cooperman. If you are as old as I am you remember a time when religious liberals were visible and politically active, but for the past twenty or so years conservatives have pretty much taken over the religion franchise and obtained a copyright on Jesus. But, say Murphy and Cooperman, “religious liberals across a wide swath of denominations are engaged today in their most intensive bout of political organizing and alliance-building since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, according to scholars, politicians and clergy members.”

Rightie blogger reactions to this article are dismissive. The Left is hostile to religion, they say. “The more Democrats try to appeal to religious voters, the more they’ll alienate a big chunk of their base,” says one. This guy may have a point, sort of. I think it would be a huge mistake for Dems to copy the crass religiosity of the Right in order to win the evangelical vote.

Those alien to Bible Belt culture (Howard Dean, I’m talking to you) often can’t talk about religion without visible squeamishness. This has nothing to do with lack of devotion, however. Many genuinely religious people are uncomfortable talking about their religious experiences for the same reason they’re uncomfortable talking about their sexual experiences — some things are too personal and intimate to flaunt in public. And I say, if that’s how you feel, honor that.

For some, religion is a kind of tribal identity, and their religious talk is a code to let others know they are one of your people. But that same rhetoric will alienate those who recognize the tribe doesn’t include them. This is, I think, where a lot of the Left’s so-called hostility to religion comes from. Most of the time it’s not religion lefties are hostile to, but the exclusionary implication of much religious talk — if you aren’t one of us we don’t like you and you’re going to hell. It’s a tad off-putting.

I will be very surprised if the religious Left makes the same kind of alliance with the Dems that the religious Right made with Republicans. I suspect the religious Left is less interested in electing Democrats than in taking religion back from the fundies. They may be very happy to work with Dems on certain issues, but I don’t see the religious Left becoming an auxiliary of the Democratic Party. Or vice versa. And that’s OK; only the most rigidly conservative seem to think everyone has to join the same tribe.

Speaking of tribes — according to Frank Rich, the marriage between the Christian Right and the Republican Party may be on the rocks.

Politicians, particularly but not exclusively in the Karl Rove camp, seem to believe that voters of “faith” are suckers who can be lured into the big tent and then abandoned once their votes and campaign cash have been pocketed by the party for secular profit.

Nowhere is this game more naked than in the Jack Abramoff scandal: the felonious Washington lobbyist engaged his pal Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition, to shepherd Christian conservative leaders like James Dobson, Gary Bauer and the Rev. Donald Wildmon and their flocks into ostensibly “anti-gambling” letter-writing campaigns. They were all duped: in reality these campaigns were engineered to support Mr. Abramoff’s Indian casino clients by attacking competing casinos. While that scam may be the most venal exploitation of “faith” voters by Washington operatives, it’s all too typical. This history repeats itself every political cycle: the conservative religious base turns out for its party and soon finds itself betrayed. The right’s leaders are already threatening to stay home this election year because all they got for their support of Republicans in the previous election year was a lousy Bush-Cheney T-shirt. Actually, they also got two Supreme Court justices, but their wish list was far longer. Dr. Dobson, the child psychologist who invented Focus on the Family, set the tone with a tantrum on Fox, whining that Republicans were “ignoring those that put them in office” and warning of “some trouble down the road” if they didn’t hop-to.

As I wrote here, Republicans face an agenda impasse. For years they’ve been making promises to social and religious conservatives to get their votes. This was grand as long as Democrats controlled at least part of the federal government so that the Republicans didn’t have to keep those promises. But now they don’t have an excuse, and appeasing the base will mean alienating the large majority of Americans who are not homophobic and misogynistic knuckle-draggers.

Unfortunately, some among the Dems aren’t learning the right lessons from the Republican experience. Rich continues,

The Democrats’ chairman, Howard Dean, who proved his faith-based bona fides in the 2004 primary season by citing Job as his favorite book in the New Testament, went on the Pat Robertson TV network this month and yanked his party’s position on same-sex marriage to the right. (He apologized for his “misstatement” once off the air.)

Not to be left behind, Senator Clinton gave a speech last week knocking young people for thinking “work is a four-letter word” and for having TV’s in their rooms, home Internet access and, worst of all, that ultimate instrument of the devil, iPods. “I hope that we start thinking some very old-fashioned thoughts,” she said.

Dear Lord, how can smart people be so stupid?

Update: See also Pastor Dan.

23 thoughts on “Religion v. Religion

  1. Wow, maha, you succinctly nailed a central tenet of my own belief system– that spiritual matters are at least as private and intimate as sexual matters, if not more so. I’ve always felt faintly squeamish in church, and would disassociate myself from what was going on like an unwilling observer at an orgy. If a stranger were to approach me and ask if I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, I would recoil as if approached by a molester.

    Also, I’m amazed at the extreme bias in those questions from the Pew survey! What kind of statistician would compose such questions and expect them to apply to the general population?

  2. Amen Maha! The Dems, like Senator Clinton and Howard Dean, are very intelligent people. How do they manage to make such incredibly dumb mistakes? The Dems have a chance of regaining control of at least some of the government in the coming election. But I find myself just shaking my head in wonderment at what comes out of their mouths too often. It’s as though they are determined to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Arrgh!

  3. Both ends of the religious spectrum should stay out of politics. Revealed religion is a joke,but unfortunately it’s not fuuny..it’s dangerous. Whether one is a conservative or a liberal in religious interpetations doesn’t matter because their ability to think honestly or clearly has been corrupted. Women who embrace the “book” unwittingly consign themselves— through acceptance of the myth— to a subservient position to the male. The whole religious package,no matter how gently it’s presented,is to enslave the human mind by means of myth and fantasy, and to give power to the priestly class. We don’t need religion to have value, virtue, or morality.

    Oh, did you see the picture of John McCain sucking up to Jerry Falwell?…Jerry was dressed like Henry the VIII, he was even wearing bling bling like a ghetto gangster.

  4. While I would have better understood her comment if I had read more of her speech, I think Hilary is sounding like an old lady.

  5. I will answer your question. These people, the people of the Book and any other that believe in an ‘God’ or ‘Heaven’ are not smart in the first place.

    Religion is a form of mass psychosis whereby people believe in something they…

    Can’t see…

    Can’t touch…

    Cannot prove exists…

    Has no power other than what they give it to do good or evil. And which, by the way, has been used by the Karl Roves of this world to do more harm, to bring into existence more evil than any other single human concept.

    It’s shameful that in the 21st Century in the most ‘enlightened’ civilization ever created by man we are still talking nonsense about ‘God’.

    It is no coincidence that the problems of America have arrived clocked in religious hysteria.

    Remember: ‘When fascism arrives in America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying the bible’.

    —Sinclair Lewis

  6. They are having a discussion over at Left Coaster about how to identify right wing Christians from left wing Christians. And one of the things I said was that you have to read Matthew 6. Jesus tells his followers that you can’t be ostentatious in your good works, prayers, and sacrifices. If you are doing it to get attention of other people and get their accolades then you already have your reward, God will ignore the things you do because you did not do it for Him. I think this is one of the reasons why liberal Christians are uncomfortable talking about their faith openly. I think liberal Christians seem to be better acquainted with their Bible and what it actually says. It seems to me that conservatives pick up the bits and pieces that fit their preachers or politicians agenda, which tend to be the angry, jealous, vengeful God stuff from the Old Testament.

  7. Whether one is a conservative or a liberal in religious interpetations doesn’t matter because their ability to think honestly or clearly has been corrupted.

    Well, there’s religion, and then there’s religion. Dogmas are all a trap, but not all religion is dogmatic. Exposure to Zen Buddhism clarified a lot of things for me. Albert Einstein, who was a real smart guy, expressed admiration for the religious views of Spinoza.

  8. Religion is a form of mass psychosis whereby people believe in something they…

    Not all religions are based on a belief system. Some of them don’t even recognize a god or gods. Don’t be so judgmental.

  9. I really enjoyed this post, Maha–very insightful. I do think that organized religion has more often than not been a force for evil and intolerance rather than good, but at the same time understand our longing for an “explanation” of why we are here on this earth–an explanation that goes beyond the scientific.

    Although I cannot “believe” wholeheartedly in anything, I would say that Buddhism makes the most sense to me. The fact remains though, that I feel most at home in the religion/culture in which I was raised. Fortunately, this has not led me to stand by “my people”, right or wrong.

    In the final analysis, I feel that religion has no place in the politics of the nation, to paraphrase a statement by our former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who said that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation at the time when Canada decriminalized homosexuality.

    Keep up your wonderful blogging.

  10. “…I think Hilary is sounding like an old lady.”

    Lynne – I’m wondering if Hilary is simply returning to her older, more familiar background. I’ve wondered about this for the last few years, in fact. She grew up as a conservative. Maybe it’s a deeper part of herself than she can help.

    “Hillary Rodham entered the world of politics in 1964 (at the age of 16) by supporting the presidential bid of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.”

    I count my lucky stars that I grew up as a Kennedy Democrat.

  11. Wow , Maha,, such a great take on the story!(thanks too, for comment 7) You are so right about the pew poll.. Joan and Swami I echo some of your thoughts… as well as A Canadian Reader’s comment relating to organized religion being more of a force for evil than good….

    I personally have found something good and helpful from every religion I have been exposed to…although I admit I have not taken them all out for a test drive…(I will say what little I know about evangelicals makes my skin crawl)…

    I think the Christian religion has been hijacked.I think people have given God a bad name…somewhere Jesus may be duct- taped to a chair…..I don’t believe for a minute that the folks selling God believe AT ALL…The things they teach the masses don’t reflect the book they teach from at all…..risk psychosis and read the book: Jesus was a flaming liberal….imagine what the so-called religious right would do to him if he spoke up right now?Hide the torches!

    Then there is the masses:They use religion to justify hate(re:rev phelps and his “God hates fags signs)…but notice how selective they really are….they are against abortion:They don’t even trust their own God to reasign children…they would rather play God’s themselves and let states pick new parents for unwanted kids..Why don’t they trust their own God ,in his perfection could deal with it better then they could?They say abortion ends a life, but if they have the faith they proclaim why don’t they see that isn’t the case if what they believe is true? Saddam Hussein: The fundies all agreed he had to go;if that was true where was their faith God could handle that himself?,without killing thousands of innocents?Too often I have seen “people of faith” playing God..poorly.They cannot honestly believe in the God they claim.

    Their answer to “saving marriage”?: banning gays from marrying …no one even considered banning divorce might save more marriages then stopping ones from ever happening….because God likes divorce better then gay people?Being divorced is just one sin and being gay counts as more than one???…..Recall the last election: A vote for Kerry= bad christian for abortion A vote for bush= good christian who over looks the little “thou shall not kill” thing cause arabs don’t count… selective religion.

    The problem I see is not religion.It is that religion is being used by a group of rather un- Godly people for less than holy reasons. One has to think IF the God they believe in exists, he is mighty pissed off by now…..

    If the left is going to address God they should ask How God would feel about the suffering in NO after Katrina….everytime the right throws God up in the faces of the left they should throw it right back….bush has given them plenty ammo..

  12. Sam,
    I didn’t know that about Hilary Clinton – that seems to put a lot of things into perspective.

  13. I follow the examples of behavior set by the story of the person, Jesus. As well, I follow the examples of behavior set by the story of the person Gandhi. Add the Buddha to my list. And Krishnamurti, and E.F. Schumacher [his “A Guide for the Perplexed” is one of the finest writings on ‘the logic of faith’ that I have ever read].

    I live by faith in and infer the existence of God from the amazing workings of all I see in this magnificent, ultimately orderly universe……and as I say to my fundie relatives, sorry, but I don’t think God, being omni-everything, would limit communication with the universe to one book, whatever that book is.

  14. Watch out for Hillary — the world moved on and she didn’t. Internet access and iPods are evils? I don’t think even Laura Bush ever said anything that weird.

    For a hilarious satire of all this — especially how children are supposed to behave — read “The Department of Homeland Decency: Decency Rules and Regulations Manual.” http://www.homelanddecency.com

  15. Great comments by everyone. I couldn’t agree more. Take a look at the people you admire (as you say, Donna) and you will find kindness, truth and deep compassion there. These qualities are based on a realistic understanding of human strengths and weaknesses. It’s not “relativism” either. That pendulum of austerity/severity or gentleness/understanding has always been part of our nation. (Puritans and Quakers.) Our capitalist/materialist nation hasn’t lost touch with its religion at all. It’s lost touch with its spirituality.
    “We are given to live on the border of the human and bestial and it is good so.” (The Issa Valley – Milosz) Animals have that divine spark in them, too. Think of primates and other intelligent social animals like wolves and sea mammals. We see a whole range of emotions and intelligence that we share with them. Our difference is in what we are able to do with it. That’s what makes us so successful and so dangerous. We can carry the good much further, but we can also carry the evil. That’s where we need guidance. It should come from the family first, but the family exists in a culture and culture lives with a particular mindset. That’s where philosophy and religion come into it. Personally, I get most of my bearings from philosophy.

    I didn’t know that Einstein was a fan of Spinoza’s, Maha. That was really interesting to me. I read Spinoza on my own when I was in my early teenage years and he had a big influence on my philosophical views on life and religion. I also read Eric Hoffer (The True Believer) and then consequently everyone whom Hoffer admired (Montaigne, Pascal, primarily). Those were thinkers I could relate to. After them, these insecure religionists sound like they’ve turned their reason switch off as being unnecessary. (I was almost going to compare them to children, but I’ve heard plenty of intelligent children and that would be unfair.)

  16. I’m an atheist, and I agree a lot with A. Citizen (#5) though I would probably narrow it down to western religion, especially the three Abrahamistic desert cults (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) – I’m not crazy about Hinduism either, it seems to promote fanatacism and barbaric treatment of women. But I have a lot of respect for Buddhism. In general I feel that whatever your belief system is, it should be an intensely private affair and as Barry Goldwater said, it has no place in public policy. Goldwater also said every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.

  17. I’m in Alabama and I can attest that the Baptists here are quite the pissed about the Abramoff/Indian casino/Christian Coalition lovefest. And Ten Commandments judge Roy Moore is down 44 points in the last poll I read. Christians here are not so predictable.

    I’m worried that the left’s derision of all things Christian will leave them with no place to be on election day but at home. We could use the votes, folks.

  18. It’s easy to distinguish a left wing Christian from one on the right. Which parts of the bible are they drawn to, the ones based on fear and punishment (the stern father), or the verses based on love (the nurturing mother)? The book of Revelation or the Sermon on the Mount? Is their character about judgement or is it about acceptance and openness?

    This is a great post, about a narrow, stupidly worded survey, that seems to come from the last century (the 19th, not the 20th) via a time warp. I would argue that there are far more people in this country who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Not to knock formal spiritual traditions, but the days of insitutionalized religion are waning as an expression of an earlier style of consciousness. They have served their purpose.

    We live in remarkable times. This is the first time in world history where information on any nearly religious tradition is available – constrast this with the Congress of World Religions that occurred around 1900, when Americans got their very first glimpse of what a “Hindoo” was. The shrinking of the world has enabled all the world’s traditions to touch each other and co-mingle and cross-polinate, at best. And for the narrow minded fanatics among them, kill each other, at worst.

    You can get books on advanced spiritual topics, from nearly any tradition, that were extremely hard to find, let alone know about, even twenty years ago. Further, people mix and match seemingly incompatible traditions – I go to a great liberal Anglican church in LA (which is being sued by the IRS ostensibly for preaching against the war) plus I’m involved in a spiritual path that is mostly based on an eastern spiritual tradition. Practices such as meditation and yoga are becoming widespread, even in red states.

    The world of spirituality, as it’s currently practiced in the US is vastly richer and more varied than the one that the authors of the Pew poll imagine it to be.

  19. I think we have to keep it all in perspective. The bible says, “Laughter doeth the heart good like a medicine”

  20. Liberal Christians seem almost as pernicious as conservative Christians. Instead of adhering to a semantically consistent interpretation of the Bible, liberal Christians amend their faith, usually to the highest tolerable degree, to current science. This does a disservice to both modes of believe. Faith is the antithesis of science: by definition it is believing in the unevidenced; science, of course, is more or less believing in things that are evidenced. By trying to compat the tenets of their faith with science, liberal Christians not only compromise their faith but warp science as well.

    The tendency of liberal Christians to interpret the Bible metaphorically seems indefensibly convenient. What is to keep someone from reinterpretting as metaphorical a previously literally interpretated passage after it has been soundly refutted by science? This has clearly been the case with the creation account of Genesis as its traditional literal interpretation has been comprehensively disproven by evolutionary theory. The semantic backpeddling of Biblical apologists apparent from a quick glance of their creation arguments over time seems clearly untenable. The nebulous arguments of Biblical apologists give room for a huge population to doubt or discard well-evidenced scientific theories– again, take natural evolution, which the significant majority of Americans disbelieve likely because of liberal religious alternatives.

  21. By trying to compat the tenets of their faith with science, liberal Christians not only compromise their faith but warp science as well.

    It’s important to understand that a “literal” reading of the Bible is a relatively recent development. I recommend historian Karen Armstrong on this topic:

    Protestant fundamentalists, for example, claim that they read the Bible in the same way as the early Christians, but their belief that it is literally true in every detail is a recent innovation, formulated for the first time in the late 19th century. 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.

    In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church had a strong mystical tradition that died in the modern era. (The Trappist monk Thomas Merton tried to bring it back but died in Bangkok; he had been in Asia studying mystical practices of Buddhism.) Christianity in the modern era has devolved into dogma, which is most unfortunate. I got Intro to Mysticism 101 in a Zen Buddhist monastery and came to appreciate that belief in dogma is not true religion but a cheap substitute for those who lack the cojones for a true spiritual quest.

    But mysticism takes one into a place where language fails. So mystics of all the religious traditions use language in a representative way that makes absolutely no sense if you try to interpret it literally. The writings of Dozen Zenji, of which I am particularly fond, are good examples of this — see, for example, Uji and the Genjokoan.

    (There is a prominent American Zen teacher whose name eludes me at the moment who began Zen study while also finishing a Ph.D. in math at UCLA. He got into Zen after reading a translation of Uji and realized Dogen was writing about quantum mechanics. Dogen lived in the 13th century.)

    One of the things I appreciate about Buddhism is that, being non-dogmatic, it doesn’t conflict with science in any way. But neither would a mystical approach to Christianity or Islam or any other religion. Mysticism takes you to a place where dogma and even a literal God are irrelevant, even for a monotheist.

    Finally, Albert Einstein’s thoughts on religion and science are worth a look.

  22. Maha –

    Great little “mini” post! Thank you for the links. Can’t go wrong with Einstein. I’ve sent that one to my youngest son (English major with the soul of a gentle scientist).
    I saw Karen Armstrong on C-span once, thought she was fantastic and always meant to read her books. Thanks for the reminder.

    My dear friend (and fellow spiritual “questor” of thirty years) tells me that these days he replies, to any who ask those “personal” kinds of questions, that he believes in shoe trees.
    They’ve always been reliable, he says. I asked him whether, if I believed in shoe trees would that make us a religion?
    The point is, certainty has no place in a quest. And to those who really think they have all the answers, well…(little pat on the head) good for you. (By the way, I’ve never met a more joyous, gentle, courageous and moral man as my friend) (Contrary, need I add, to so many of, must I finish…?)

  23. I forgot to add that my friend does have a deep and abiding faith – it’s in life and the universe. That’s it.

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