The Middle Way

I got up this morning determined to find something political to blog about, because I’ve spent most of the last couple of days first writing and then defending the religion post at Unclaimed Territory. By last night, after repeating the same couple of simple points for the five hundredth time, I had a throbbing headache and was veering perilously close to the “kiss my ass” stage of Rogerian argument.

The most frustrating part of the effort was that a great many people did not base their criticisms of the post on what I actually wrote. I don’t mind — well, maybe I mind a little, but only in an ego-attached way — those who expressed disagreement with something I did write. But a large part of the criticisms were from people who assumed what I must think and attacked me for opinions I do not have.

For example, a couple of self-described atheists attacked me for being anti-atheism and opposed to the separation of church and state. In fact, I have on occasion chided the religious for their intolerance of atheism. (I wish I could say I have defended atheism a lot, but the fact is most religious people don’t exactly, um, respect my opinions, either. I don’t belong to the majority tribe.) And there’s no other civil liberties issue that I care more passionately about, on a personal level, than protecting the separation of church and state.

I was both fascinated and frustrated by the commenters who assumed I am Christian even though I explicitly said I am not. Obviously, something in their heads caused the adjective religious to override “not a Christian.” Several complained that I didn’t understand how dangerous religion is, even after my rhetoric about “warring religious whackjobs” and “a genuine threat to civilization on this planet.” Others were dismissive of the post because I didn’t address their pet religious agendas. In some of those cases I actually agreed with the agendas, but they were way outside the scope of the points I was trying to make in the post.

And then, of course, my defenses of the post pushed buttons, too. Although I hadn’t wanted to write about my personal religious adventures, when one commenter complained that he didn’t understand what religion I followed, I provided a simple explanation as devoid of proselytizing as I could make it. Then another commenter complained because I was making “religious declarations.” I wrote that not all Christians are James Dobson zealots and was called a “Christian apologist.” When I expressed alarm at the dangers posed by James Dobson zealots I was told I was bashing religion.

I suppose now I’ll be told I’m whining.

If there’s one point that was driven home to me, it’s that some (adj., a portion or an unspecified number or quantity of a whole or group: He likes some modern sculpture but not all) on the Left really do harbor a palpable hostility toward religion per se. I know this is not true of the entire Left, but until this weekend I would have said the hard-core religion haters were a minority and not representative of the Left. I still think they’re a minority. Probably. But they’re sure as hell a big and assertive minority, and representative of something.

Bloggers before me have hit the same flame wall. This post by Steve Waldman at Washington Monthly discussing hostility to religion on the part of some liberals drew complaints that he was spreading GP talking points, interspersed with comments that were hostile to religion.

I’d like to clarify that I did not make a request for tolerance of religion because I’m worried about the rightie mythos that “The Left” hates religion. You know that righties are going to claim “The Left” hates religion as long as they can find even one leftie who hates religion. This doesn’t have anything to do with their concern for religion; they’re just looking for reasons to hate lefties. One stumbles onto rightie bloggers who admit they aren’t religious themselves but who still beat lefties over the head with the “they hate religion” meme. Libertarians tend to be unreligious, yet the Right thought the Libs were just peachy until the Libs turned against George W. Bush.

On the other hand, many UT commenters who denied there is a liberal bias against religion would, in the next paragraph, make some knee-jerk, narrow-minded comment about religion. I’d find you some examples except that I’m afraid to go to UT today. By now they’ve probably got me pegged as a paid agent of Jerry Falwell.

In an ideal America, voters wouldn’t care about a political candidate’s religious proclivities. Well, unless those proclivities involved human sacrifice or a belief that URLs are coded messages from another galaxy, in which case some concern might be warranted. But a vast body of empirical evidence shows us that just because a politician says he’s found Jesus doesn’t mean he can find his ass with both hands. And I doubt, sincerely, there’s even a slight statistical correlation between public declarations of faith and private virtue. Even Jesus told his followers that displays of devotion do not constitute quality assurance. (See, for example, Matthew 7:15-23.)

But many Americans live a culture that combines a crass religiosity with jingoism and nativism and several varieties of bigotry, simmered together in a toxic, psuedo-fascist soup. And appeals to reason, tolerance, social betterment, prosperity, or good government do not get soup-dwellers to the polls nearly as well as waving the Bible and promising to uphold God’s Law. (God’s Law being a nasty, repressive business that no god worthy of respect would have any part of.)

This culture has existed in one form or another throughout American history. However, in my lifetime I’ve seen it get worse. The marriage of the GOP and the Christian Right, combined with the power of mass media, has made it both more powerful and more widespread.

The power of the Christian Right has hurt the Dems, no question. Political pundits tell Dems they have to get “more religious” to appeal to Christian voters if they’re going to win the White House in 2008. Maybe, but there are good ways to do that, and there are stupid ways to do that. The stupid way is for candidates who are uncomfortable with Bible Belt culture to try to “fit in” by talking about Jesus. Even if the Jesus talk is sincere, the politician will still transmit the message “I’m an alien to your world” in a thousand subtle ways. Trust me on that.

The smart way, IMO, is to enlist the help of native religious moderates to persuade other religious moderates that it’s OK to vote Democratic.. See, for example, “When Would Jesus Bolt?” by Amy Sullivan in the April 2006 Washington Monthly. Even better, right now the Dems should be searching for presentable and articulate liberal evangelicals (not an oxymoron, believe it or not), to take guest bobblehead gigs on political talk shows. The public face of Christianity doesn’t have to be a right-wing one.

As I said, the hard-core Right is a lost cause, but they aren’t the only voters in red states.

We must break the grip of the Christian Right’s political power, but the way to do that is not for secularists to wage war against religion. The way to do that is for the non-religious, and the religious who want to maintain religious liberty, to make common cause against the theocrats.

I’d like more religious Americans to understand that a “secular society” is not hostile to religion. Rather, a secular society is one in which citizens are free to explore many religious paths, or none, without coercion or interference from government. It is a society in which religion can remain free of the corruption of worldly political power and flourish according to its merits.

Maybe someday we’ll see a society in which an atheist can be elected President of the United States. Well, I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, but eventually.

And in the far distant future, maybe secularists will stop spouting knee-jerk, narrow-minded views about how all religious people are knee-jerkers with narrow minds. Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath on that one.

[Cross-posted to The American Street because I lack the nerve to post it on Unclaimed Territory. I’m not into martyrdom.]

45 thoughts on “The Middle Way

  1. Maha, you did an outstanding job over there. I mean it. It took courage and tenacity and you showed both over the whole weekend! There were some really thoughtful comments among them all. I think you were so busy parrying the hostility that you might have missed a few. There really were quite a few who appreciated your posting on this topic and many of them really did understand you.

    Here are some things I learned from the experience:
    1. The hardest work to do is sometimes at your own front door.
    2. There really is such a thing as “emotional maturity.”
    3. The world of “the mind” without a heart can be a bewildering land.

    Here’s a terrific link to an article that was just provided by “jay ackryod” in a recent comment. I think you’d like it. One of the ideas that the writer, Daniel Dennet suggested was that our public schools should teach religion (as they have done in England since Thomas Huxley):

    Huxley was himself an agnostic, but as a member of the commission he firmly insisted that religion should be taught in schools together with science. Every child should be taught the Christian Bible as an integral part of English culture. In recent times the scope of religious instruction in England has been extended to include Judaism and Islam. As a result of this policy, no strong antagonism between religious parents and public schools has arisen, from 1870 until the present day. The teaching of religion in public schools coincided with a decline of religious belief and a growth of religious tolerance. Children exposed to religion in public schools do not as a rule take it seriously. We do not know whether Thomas Huxley foresaw the decline of religion in England, but there is no doubt that he would have welcomed this unintended consequence of his educational policy.

    Also interesting to me was his comparison of the states of mind of both the kamikaze pilots of WWII and those of the 9/11 terrorists. Both sought “meaning” in banding together in a noble cause. The term “brainwashing” is not really accurate. I’d been faulty in my assumptions about this when I first thought about terrorists. Brainwashing is too glib an answer.

    We as human beings cannot deny that this search for meaning is an integral part of our nature. Discussion of religious tolerance and understanding will always be crucially important.

    Bravo to you, maha!

  2. P.S.
    I don’t blame you for not wanting to post over at UT on religious tolerance for now. You really became a lighting rod for many of those with religious “issues” and it’s understandable that you might be feeling a little vulnerable. However, I hope you consider your work over there as a “job well done.” Cause it was. Not many would have tried it.

  3. A freelancer in the world of film and television with a bit of time on my hands, I find myself reading several political blogs and many comments. The Mahablog is on my list of favorites along with Billmon, Talking Points Memo, Hullabaloo, Eschaton, DKos, Orcinus, Informed Consent, Crooks and Liars, and Unclaimed Territory. Simply put it was a pleasure seeing you posting at UT and I was surprised by some of the comments. Many were reasonable and supportive. However, and I have seen this phenomenon growing, several comments seemed angry, vindictive and petty with a sort of callow righteousness. Is the anonymity of the medium empowering a sort of rudeness that one would not expect in a personal conversation? I expect right wingers and trolls to do this but this was something else. Some of the arguments reminded me of a group of guys vehemently arguing the pros and cons of their favorite sports team. Sports like religion or anti-religion are capable of tapping into some tribal irrationality.
    With the President pandering to the right wing righteous today, religion seems to be a perfect subject for a political blog. Last week there was an excellent piece about religion and its wider definition in Salon. Karen Armstrong, a former nun and present agnostic discusses the Santa Claus view of God in the west and how an afterlife is unnescesary. Her arguments support much of your postings on the subject.

    Great job keeping a cool head

  4. The idea that one cannot be utterly opposed to religion based on the merits of this type of thought is typical of many on both the left and the right.

    I am of the opinion that no other type of thinking been worse for the human race than religious. The amount of suffering religious thinking has cause is, frankly, inconceivable. Religious tolerance is, sadly, an oxymoron and always will be.

    The entire structure of religion is designed to induce in the ‘follower’ a deranged mental state where he or she will believe or do anything because their religion ‘calls’ them to do so.

    This is obvious on the face of it and trying to ‘resurrect’ religion as a basis for political action in America is a great mistake. Every tyrant, every dictator has always maintained that ‘God is on my side…’ Can you name one who improved his peoples lot?

    I think not.

    And just because a bunch of RedAsses in the RedStates believe Bush when he says that ‘God talks to me…’ does not mean they are deserving of a place in the public discourse. Quite the opposite is true.

    If my opinions make me fail the ’emotional maturity’ test or any other religious ‘criteria’ so be it.

  5. Hi Maha,

    I read your post over at Greenwald’s. I thought it was excellent! I’m glad to find a fellow Buddhist who’s also a liberal blogger, and I’ll certainly be visiting here more often.

    Talking religion with liberals is sometimes as hard as talking about it with fundamentalists. I’ve had this argument on Kos before, and it wasn’t pretty. You are brave for trying, though, and I commend your effort. Don’t be discouraged by the screamers out there – there are many who agree with you. But there is a wing of the party that is just staunchly anti-religion, and no amount of arguing will change that. I think we just need to accept that and try to show through example the power of liberal religious tradition. Apparently the lesson of Martin Luther King, Jr. has already been forgotten.

  6. If my opinions make me fail the ‘emotional maturity’ test or any other religious ‘criteria’ so be it.

    It fails the “knowledge of the subject matter” test, actually. As I’ve been trying (mostly futilely) to explain for the past several days, many religions (including some traditions of Christianity) discourage a rigid belief in dogma, many religions place much more focus on practice than on belief, and a few don’t even claim there is a god. Religion and rational thought are not necessarily alien to each other.

    Anyway, as I told someone else, whatever’s crawling around in other peoples’ heads is none of your concern, as long as they aren’t bothering you about it. And vice versa.

  7. A. Citizen –

    You seem to have just stepped into the room, so I’d prefer to hold off on that assessment until you’ve had a chance to look around first.

  8. Unfortunately, I think “secularists” is about as useless a term as “The Left.” I guess everybody could do what you prescribe and you still won’t see an atheist elected to anything higher than dogcatcher, so it strikes me a little as false equivalence, or at least a disproportionate burden shared by the minority vs. the majority.

  9. BTW, I still enjoyed your posts at Unclaimed Territory and thought them a nice break; unfortunately, the discussion there or any place where the usual load is 100+ (see also: Atrios, Firedoglake) becomes warped and ultimately counterproductive, especially when unthreaded. Better here or the American Street.

  10. Sam — be sure to read the “When Would Jesus Bolt?” article by Amy Sullivan, which is partly about an attempt to introduce Bible literacy to a public school curriculum, presenting “the Bible in a historical and cultural context—giving students a better understanding of biblical allusions in art, literature, and music.” The Christian Coalition, Concerned Women of America, and the Eagle Forum fought it tooth and nail.

    I worked in the textbook publishing biz for several years, and I can report that the biggest reason most textbook publishers are loathe to mention God or Jesus even in a cultural or historical context is that such mention will draw truckloads of complaints from the Bible Belt. The Bible Thumpers don’t want God or Jesus mentioned outside the context of heavenly glory.

    And then they complain because God and Jesus get left out of the textbooks.

    I think Bible Belt culture would confound any attempt to introduce religion to the curriculum as the British did. My son studied world religions as part of high school social studies, but that was in Connecticut.

    Other than that, I appreciated Dyson’s comments. Most religion is something people do inside their own heads, for which reason it defies empirical analysis.

  11. It fails the “knowledge of the subject matter” test, actually.

    Not to be combative or hostile…..But you can’t possibly know that,Maha.

  12. Unfortunately, I think “secularists” is about as useless a term as “The Left.”

    Probably, but I keep bumping into people calling themselves that. I try to be accommodating.

    I guess everybody could do what you prescribe and you still won’t see an atheist elected to anything higher than dogcatcher

    As I said, I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime. But, y’know, stuff changes. I’m old enough to remember when the sight of a black person on television (outside of an “Amos & Andy” or “Rochester” role) would send the old white folks into spasms. I can’t imagine what “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” would have done to them.

  13. But you can’t possibly know that,Maha.

    He’s making sweeping genreralizations about religion that do not apply to many religions, so I have to assume the problem is a lack of knowledge. The only other possibilities I can think of are plain ol’ prejudice, psychosis, mental impairment, or he’s on the payroll of the Atheist Alliance International to plant anti-religious statements on blogs.

  14. I meant some sort of monolithic secularist front; I think 80% of your articlesdealt with Dawkins, Sam Harris, and one guy I’d never heard of on an internet publication (Seidman?).

    Wouldn’t you be in the same danger of characterizing whatever “secularists” are based on those examples (I myself am an apathetic agnostic who believes in non-coercion regarding religious, philosophical, or sports-related beliefs) as I would be in characterizing the whole of Christianity with Fred Phelps or Jerry Falwell? And are we somehow pretending that Sam Harris has any more than one-one-millionth the influence of a Dobson on public policy?

  15. I’d like more religious Americans to understand that a “secular society” is not hostile to religion.

    I think that’s so important, Barbara. That’s where the GOP talking points betray the very base of our American commonality. We are not a nation of Christians alone. We are a people who have come together, believers and non-believers, to form a free and democratic nation. However, we on the left need to aver that we are a still a people who are tolerant of one another’s beliefs and always – always – respectful of the line between church and state. We also have to show that we aren’t afraid of a public debate about our common values or we’ll always leave it up to the Religious Right to dictate to us what values represent -and man, oh, man, are they OUT OF TOUCH with the majority of this nation.

    The disturbing culture that, as you said, combines a crass religiosity with jingoism and nativism and several varieties of bigotry is what evangelical leader Jim Wallis (of Sojourners) has called a “national theology” which allowed for someone like Bush to confuse genuine faith with national ideology – and get away with it. In reality, it has done no more than to assert American nationalism in the latest update of “manifest destiny.” For responsible Christian theologians, there is no nation-state that could ever usurp the place of God or Christ.

    As a spiritual person myself, I have a real problem with the fact that someone who claims to be non-political like the pastor Rick Warren, best selling author of a Purpose Driven Life, supported Bush in 2004 when I look at where the policies of Bush and the Bush theology have taken this country. It’s so hypocritical..and if we can’t talk about it – people of all faith or no faith – and appeal to common sense and ethical values, we’ll always lose the debate by our absence from that debate.

    Bush was wrong every time he insinuated that God was on our side.
    Acting as if you wish your nation to be on God’s side is a far more humble and worthy statement.

    – Jude

  16. I meant some sort of monolithic secularist front; I think 80% of your articlesdealt with Dawkins, Sam Harris, and one guy I’d never heard of on an internet publication (Seidman?).

    Maybe I’m brain dead now; I’m not seeing your point. If somebody calls himself a secularist I’m happy to call him that. If he objects to that, I’ll call him something else. Wanna be the Good Fairy? No problem.

    This past weekend I’ve encountered (virtually) several busloads of people calling themselves secularists; it’s not just the three guys. I infer they’re using it as a loose synonym for atheist, sorta like people use “liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably even though they don’t really mean the same thing.

    I suppose I could argue that “secularist” might mean anybody who advocates a religion-neutral society, in which case a whole lot of religous people would also be secularists. But the self-described secularists would object to that, I suspect.

    As a practical matter, I think the most effective “front” to set against the theocrats would include highly visible religious people. Oddly, I’m getting the impression that most liberal religious people would have less of a problem working with atheists than atheists would have with liberal religious people.

    Bessed are the tolerant, for they shall be tolerated. Or, if not, they can handle not being tolerated with some degree of grace.

  17. You are correct about religion, in it’s broadest sense it’s benign and doesn’t neccessarily carry with it a deity or dogma. But in order to understand the issue at hand, the definition of religion has to be curtailed to specifics,namely the context of the subject being discussed— politics in America— in which case Christianity becomes the only religion under consideration. That is the reality of the situation and any expansion of the definition or understanding of religion apart from Christianty becomes irrelavent and a distraction.

  18. “Sam — be sure to read the “When Would Jesus Bolt?” article by Amy Sullivan, which is partly about an attempt to introduce Bible literacy to a public school curriculum, presenting “the Bible in a historical and cultural context—giving students a better understanding of biblical allusions in art, literature, and music.”

    Maha, do you know the difference between akidio and karate? Akidio uses the opponents weight and speed to one’s own favor instead of trying to use brute power to stop the opponent cold. Like Ms. Sullivan makes wonderfuly clear, the idea of a large scale proposal of an elective course of Bible as literature could generate useful leverage in an election regardless of whether it actually got any where, and in the best possibility department, it might lead to offering several spiritual and relgious traditions.

    Rabbi Michael Lerner’s book, “The Left Hand of God” is, in my view, a thorough analysis of the premodern/modern/postmodern splits in politics. Altho a practicing Jew his point is that whether a believer or not, if we could promote the idea of spirit as an internal resource of generosity, altruism and loving kindness (golden rule in essence) and offer community from this platform then not so many middle class folks would vote against their own pocketbook just because the other team is the only one talking about personal values and trancendence.

  19. Christianity becomes the only religion under consideration.

    Except that I’m a religious non-Christian living in America and I don’t want to get left out. Lots of Jewish persons might suggest they ain’t chopped liver. And there are traditions within Christianity that are enlightened and nondogmatic, and there are people in America following those traditions. You don’t hear about them much because they have to keep their heads down.

    The notion that conservative Christians have a copyright on religion is part of the problem. I’ve spent the past couple of days being slimed as an invader from the Rightie Jesus Borg collective even though I have no more in common, doctrine-wise, with the James Dobson folks than atheists do. Religious liberals don’t deserve to be marginalized and slimed by atheists any more than atheists deserve to be marginalized and slimed by the religious.

  20. Barbara,

    I attended a meeting of student “journalists” way back in the 1980’s when “political correctness” actually meant something, in Canada at least. There was, among the kids running student newspapers, a clique of Maoists who were always trying to seize control of the Means of Production – a lively bunch they were – or force their fervently held beliefs about tolerance, even though their views were manifestly intolerant towards anyone who questioned their politics.

    Anyway, one evening I was enjoying a beer with my colleagues and I was telling them about “wet scenes,” scenes in American movies made during the enforcement of the Production Code in Hollywood. These scenes usually involved the stars of a comedy who at a critical juncture in the film would get wet, by falling in a pool or a river or something. The scene would fade to black and the following scene would show them drying off, drying off their clothes, or wearing robes, etc. And directors would write these scenes in to stand for lovemaking. The pun – getting wet – was obvious and when you watch these scenes with this info in mind you slap your head and say, “Of course, how could I have missed it?”

    One of the Maoists was sitting there listening to me parrot what I had heard in film class the week before and suddenly blurted out, “I don’t believe you, you’re a sexist liar.” And it struck me later that what I had said was so far outside her constricted frame-set she couldn’t slot it handily into one of her categories.

    Your religion post did exactly that. The people hostile to you simply couldn’t handle information that 1) stated quite clearly and out loud that the context for discussing religion can quickly achieve escape velocity from the constricted categories they have imagined, and 2) this hurt their feelings. So they struck back and in effect said, “How dare you expose my ignorance.”

    What led me to your religion post was a debate I had, bloggo-a-bloggo with a guy who sanctimoniously dumps on the religious every chance he gets. The germ of the argument went like this:

    Him: There are two creation accounts in Genesis!!! OMG, I never knew that. (Read it in Slate.) How do fundamentalists deal with this glaring inconsistency?

    Me: The accounts are not inconsistent, they’re complementary, and everyone knows about the two accounts. OK, not everybody it seems.

    Him: So the Bible is errant.

    Me: Genesis is not “errant.” The creation accounts are myths. Now YOU’RE the one interpreting the Bible literally.

    And that’s when he started calling me names.

    Can I quote Clinton here? I feel you pain. (He said that, didn’t he? Or was that a paraphrase.)

  21. I would like to echo Sams comment(#1).. very well said Sam!

    Maha, I don’t blame you for not posting this at UT…It makes me sad.I am certain this is a topic that the left , as a whole, needs to at least be able to talk about…But if this weekend was any indication I found that one needed hip waders and a ladder to rise above the “bullshit” baggage that comes with even mentioning the word religion.

    Me thinks they doeth protest too much, eh? Anyhow I hope you will consider posting there again…(the next time you have 3 days to defend what you DIDN’T say).You are lucky enough to have a gift….you have the ability to promote thought(how great is that??)…you can provoke a conversation with your ideas(idiots also)in general this is a GOOD thing!Many of the people who replied to your post learned a great deal,,don’t let the idiots spoil that.Hold your head high!, you did good!!!

    After reading your “update” yesterday, I was so angry(my poor shrubs) and then it dawned on me: this was just one of hundreds of stories like this I have read over the past 6 years or so, and If I read it, so have others on the left…everytime we hear it, we cringe a little more …..then someone brings up tolerance of religion and I can see where that idea alone could make some pop a gasket if they lack the ability to differentiate between being asked to tolerate the well termed”twisted”pieces of crap we saw in the”update” and religion as a whole.This is exactly why what you said NEEDED to be said….people are viewing religion in a very one dimensional way…and it is very understandable…but at the same time very short sighted…so again I say thanks for trying to open minds and PLEASE don’t stop…
    Never be afraid to rock the boat…let those afraid to fall get floaties!!!!!

  22. …an invader from the Rightie Jesus Borg collective….

    Oh, I love that.

    I’m unclear as to what the anti-religion side has in mind for changing the present world into their ideal society. Political purges? Re-education camps? I am the sole non-Christian, non-practitioner of any religion in my family. I remain extremely skeptical of all organized religions, for all the reasons the anti-religionists cite in their comments. My family loves and accepts me. I love and accept them. We all agree that religion has no place in government, or in public schools. From where I stand, any sort of militant thought and (un)belief has nothing to say to me.

  23. Anyhow I hope you will consider posting there again

    Oh, I will, maybe tomorrow. I had to stay away from it today, to clear my head.

  24. As a regular reader here and a regular poster at UT, I can’t blame you for taking this a bit personally. However, if you are used to the comment section over there it is not unusual at all for a certain thread to be taken over by trolls and those trying to one-up them.

    One of the trolls was so vociferous and persistent that I suspect that he’s never been to UT before, but has been banned from this blog and really, really holds a grudge against you.

    Please keep in mind that there were really just a few people taking issue with what you said (or didn’t say in some cases), but those few posted repeatedly, making it seem like a far greater number than there really was. That’s the way it always is there, a few dominate and take over the conversation often taking it completely off topic, and yesterday the relatively few who disagreed with you tended to do that. The ones that enjoyed your post said their piece and moved on.

    I wouldn’t let it upset you too much, and consider that outside of those persistent few commenting at that blog your post was very well received in larger blogosphere, and generated many interesting comments outside of UT.

    That is quite an accomplishment and you should be proud of that post. Please don’t be afraid to post over at UT – that will be UT’s loss, and Glenn’s loss – who also enjoyed your post by the way.

    Carry on.

  25. The creation accounts are myths. Now YOU’RE the one interpreting the Bible literally.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the same conversation. Before I got into blogging I particpated on the Salon Table spirituality forums. This was before Salon began to charge for the forum, which pretty much ruined it. Anway, we had an amazing group of regulars — Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, various others — who were intelligent, thoughtful, and willing to push the envelope, so to speak. Every now and then somebody would hit a wall, but mostly we had very positive exchanges and respected each others’ POV. I learned a great deal.

    The flies in the ointment were, nearly always, atheists who wanted to flame at us. And nearly always, the conversation would be something like:

    A. You’re religious, so you must believe thus-and-so, and that’s stupid.

    R. Well, actually, we don’t believe that.

    A. Then you must be religious hypocrites (or Cherry Pickers, or Cafeteria Catholics, etc.).

    R. No, our understanding of the doctrine you describe is different from what you think it is, and here are links to writings by theologians to support what we say. And some of us belong to different religious traditions that don’t include that doctrine at all.

    A. You people are just kidding yourselves. You really believe thus-and-so, don’t you?

    R. No, we don’t.

    Etc. etc. The atheists were more rigidly dogmatic than we were.

    I appreciate that many people have had some very nasty experiences with religion, and atheists get marginalized and demonized by Christians all the time. I’m very sorry about that. But becoming just as hateful and prejudiced as their enemies isn’t helping them or anyone else.

  26. One of the trolls was so vociferous and persistent that I suspect that he’s never been to UT before, but has been banned from this blog and really, really holds a grudge against you.

    I suspect I had a real good reason for banning him.

  27. I don’t think you should be discouraged from posting things like this at UT. The post I put up today touched on similar themes – the GOP and the Religious Right merging into a pseudo-fascist soup.

    Its pretty important to emphasize to moderate, liberal, and conservative religious folks that secularism is their greatest protection from the Dominionists, becauese if they ever grab hold of the wheels of power, everyone who doesn’t share their orthodoxy will be considered atheists by them.

  28. Barbara,

    You did a great job over at UT! And I believe you are correct in your criticisisms about the Left and religion. Actually, I believe the Left does ingage in reverse sorts of discrimination; definately unintentional but nevertheless true: religion being a big one. Keep your head up!

  29. Maha, religion is a dangerous subject. Many people, perhaps most, in this country are not taught to think. This makes rational discusion difficult. I hope you are well, peace and love Chef

  30. I’d just like to point this out because it hasn’t been mentioned here yet — but in an earlyer one of your religion posts, Barbara, someone said something to the effect of “liberal religious people bring this on themselves because they don’t speak out.”

    But things like the UT thread are what happens when you preach to someone other than the choir; you get slagged by the atheists for being a steath dominionist, and you get slagged by the dominionists for being a steath atheist. It’s extraordinarily tiring, and in the end all you’re really asking of anyone is 1) to be allowed to practice your religion in peace and 2) to have people show a little bit of tolerance and consideration for each other.

    The liberal religous *do* speak out, and often. They just get shouted down by both sides.

  31. “When you go into a house, stay there until it is time to leave. If the people in the town will not welcome you, go outside the town and shake the dust off your feet.”

    People are only going to hear what they’re ready to hear.

    Luke 9:4-5

  32. Has there ever been a belief system that was not, in some time or place, distorted in some way to become coercive? Is it possible for human minds not to develop some structure or myth to explain the world? Being social, isn’t it normal to want to share our vision of the world? Isn’t it common to overreact when we perceive that our world view is threatened? Can’t the phrase “religious fervor” equally well depict a radical evangelical and an avowedly atheist Marxist?

    These conversations, like the one you began at UT, and bridges are vital and you are very good at them, Maha. Don’t let the unenlightened, from any sphere, get you down.

    I happen to be an atheist (the quiet kind). Weren’t we all supposed to learn in kindergarten to share and not be bullies?

  33. Cassidy –

    I completely agree with your thoughtful statements. I join you in your hope. I am so proud of Maha and I admire her work and efforts, too.

    You mentioned that you are “the quiet kind” of atheist. We have a loud kind of atheist in our town and we (the town) love him dearly. He goes into the phone booths and takes out the born again literature and then replaces it with his own. He writes frequent letters to the editor whenever he’s feeling especially piqued about something. He engages the fundies in earnest, but gentle, debate on some Saturday afternoons. (This is the same place on the main drag through town where our peaceniks have protested by holding signs and waving at cars every Saturday since 1978.) He’s an intelligent, passionate guy but he gives everyone respect and he gets it in return.

    I love our town. And I love all our citizens, even the crabby American Legion couple who one day stormed the library where I was working to complain that we hadn’t flown the flag in over two weeks. (We had to explain gently that were waiting for a halyard).

    We also have one of the largest populations of gays on the West Coast.

    You might wonder how we all get along. We practice tolerance!

  34. Hey Maha, your post on Unclaimed Territory has brought you a new reader at least in me.

    “…a secular society is one in which citizens are free to explore many religious paths, or none, without coercion or interference from government. It is a society in which religion can remain free of the corruption of worldly political power and flourish according to its merits…”

    That is exactly right. I don’t understand why that is so threatening to some people, I for one am immensely relieved when my government leaves my religion alone. Also, some days particuarlly when Amy Sullivan posts at Political Animal, I’d like the secularists on the left to understand that too. I’d also like to add, a secular society is one where scientific development is evaluated on its own merits. I am not a Catholic, but the idea that “If my religion is the truth, the nothing science can discover can invalidate the truth of it, so there is nothing to fear from science,” is a pretty good one.

    My only problem with athiests is when they assume that non-atheism=idiot. I and other liberals who are religious and in my case, liberal Christians, should engage more. But not by taking the to the puplit so to speak. We need to engage others in a one-on-one basis.

    For example, my parents are hard core Democrats and hardcore Southern Baptists so I went to their church for a long time. When we held a small celebration for various college graduates, I was talking to an old old family friend. We were discussing what law school I was attending and she mentioned how some of those institutions had gotten so liberal but one I was considering was still a good one. Amused I said “well I’m pretty liberal myself.” She was very surprised and before my eyes went through surprise, denial, confusion and then acceptance. Realizing that this person who regularly went to church and seemed in all respects to be a nice, polite caring person was in fact a liberal.

    I explained to her that I didn’t believe politics should enter into a church and did my best to live up to that and she respected that and admitted that maybe all liberals weren’t godless heathens.

    And that is another problem, if you really believe in keeping politics out of the church, then you tacitly cede the ground to those on the conservative side who do that all the time which means you have to work harder outside of it to engage. But to engage them in the context of the church I think is wrong. A difficult line to walk.

  35. if you really believe in keeping politics out of the church, then you tacitly cede the ground to those on the conservative side who do that all the time which means you have to work harder outside of it to engage. But to engage them in the context of the church I think is wrong. A difficult line to walk.

    Very difficult; you need to be very clear where you are yourself at all times, or you’re likely to get pulled off the line and sent in the wrong direction.

  36. Regarding “keeping politics out of church:”
    One of the annoying anonymice over there at Glenn’s posted a quote: “American religion is all about a tax exempt license to steal…blah, blah, blah” Although it was off topic, for which I gently chided the mouse, I admitted that it was an interesting debate. I realized I hadn’t thought about this issue for some time and so looked around and found this link on PBS. Might be an interesting topic for future discussion?

    The Internal Revenue Service is reviewing the tax-free status of churches and ministers who preach politics from the pulpit.(April 14, 2006)

    What a can of worms this is. Does tax exempt status invite government in where it doesn’t belong? What about legitimate charity work? Civil rights and other social issues? How do you separate politics and religion? Should secular humanism be recognized for tax exemption?

  37. Maha:

    I came across your post about religion today at UT.

    I thought it was outstanding, so much so that I decided I needed to start following your blog here.

    Keep up the good work!

  38. Just wanted to add my voice to those who have expressed appreciation for your post at UT. I, too, have been shocked at the reaction of those I would call the “militant atheists.”

    When I was in college (’77-’81), I knew quite a few agnostics but can’t remember ever meeting an atheist, let alone a militant atheist. Of course, on the other hand, I wasn’t accosted on a daily basis by hypocritical, fundamentalist lunatics attempting to hijack Christianity for political purposes either. I think this rise of “militant atheism” may be the “scientifically” required “equal and opposite reaction” to the increasing “militantcy” of of fundamentalism over the past twenty five years.

    I wish a few of these militant atheists would review their notes from Logical Reasoning 101 and remind themselves of the false choices generated through use of the logical fallacy of “black and white” thinking. As you have attempted to explain, true spirituality isn’t limited to a choice between the infantile notion of an all powerful Santa Claus God and the complete absence of any form of divine presence.

    In my opinion, this is a very important topic for intelligent discussion at this point in our history. Please keep posting.

  39. Greetings, Maha!

    I discovered you as a result of your recent and controversial writing over at Unclaimed Territory. I am a longtime reader and extremely infrequent (twice, ever) commenter there.

    I’m chiming in here because I wanted you to know that this member of the “silent majority” was very impressed with your work. Your detractors there went from disdainful to just plain odious. Would that there had been a way to calm them down enough to get them to stop arguing with the spectres of Dominionism in their heads and start engaging what you actually said.

    Because here’s the thing- the Religious Right hasn’t forged its success in society chasing pure phantoms. There is always some core of ugly truth inside those warped memetic pearls they’re constantly casting about. And you’ve once again shown us that core. And once again, the Left reacts with the radicalism that the Right complains about, refusing to examine the possibility of the truth of your words.

    Or at least, those lefties who spent all that time screaming at you on UT.

    For their behavior, I can only apologize, and hope you’ll continue to participate over there are your time permits.

  40. Barbara,

    Your post on UT gained you at least one new reader. Thoughtful, articulate writing on almost any subject is rare enough to get my attention, even more so when when the topic is religion (Or, “Spirit”, a word I am more likely to use these days when conversing with other liberals). Additional thanks for directing my attention to the interview with Karen Armstrong.

    Some otherwise very bright, intelligent and compassionate people who have decided that positivism is the valid only means of thinking about human experience have apparently never considered the fact that much of our conscious experience lies outside the domain of the type of things which can be the object of empirical, intersubjective investigation. If they have considered the issue, they may have decided that any part of experience that extends beyond, or is inconsistent with, the positivist position is epiphenomenal, unimportant, or delusional. Having adopted this ideology (ironically very similar to the kind of dogma they despise), they are prone -to snap off the sort of knee-jerk criticism that you encountered in some responses to your posts.

    There are many liberals, including some who would call themselves “religious” and some, like myself, who usually would not (at least in what seems to be the prevailing normative sense of the word in the U.S.), who are more curious about the meaning of broader human experience. It is from being concerned about such matters that core liberal principles such as human dignity arise.

    Thanks for being willing to “go there”. I’m looking forward to your future posts.

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