The Odd Uses of Religion

Those of us who don’t find religion that compelling can still find it fascinating. People believe all sorts of things, and tell you that you should too. That’s kind of fun, in an anthropological way. For example, back in the fifties, a nicely scrubbed pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses might appear at your door on a Saturday afternoon and ask, politely, if they might come in and save your soul, through Jesus. You might say no, thank you, it’s already been saved, or tell them to forget it, as you don’t have one of those. But that knock on the door doesn’t happen anymore – perhaps because radio then television then the internet moved saving souls from one-on-one interactions to a mass-marketing effort – from retail to wholesale. And as with all mass marketing the idea was to make it clear that everyone, or everyone who was sensible, right and in tune with things, and who mattered, was here – and you, you loser, were over there. Didn’t you want to be here, with the good people? It was easy. Get with Jesus. That sort of thing is best done through mass media, as it depends on establishing a sense that there is a critical mass of like-minded people. That’s the whole point.

And too, the door-to-door model has its drawbacks. These days you’d run into the wags and pranksters – you knock on the door, get invited in, and suddenly the person you intended to convert has had you sit down, has handed you a glass of lemonade, and before you can say a word about Jesus, is telling you about the wonders of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – who created the world, and pirates, and should be worshipped – and telling you all this with great fervor and serene joy. And they pity you, with great kindness, for not seeing the light, using all your best lines, the ones you planned to use. It’s not fair. No wonder most American religions do all their missionary work, that harvesting of lost souls, in Africa and South America and odd corners of the Far East. There’s far less trouble there, with cultures that haven’t yet developed a tradition of complex irony. Any culture that has not yet produced its own George Carlin will do. Americans can be a pain in the ass.

But there might have been another dynamic – the saved, or those who claimed they are, seem to have changed their tune. If you, you loser, weren’t saved, that was your problem. You were worthless, if not the enemy. They had no use for you. Now there is no point in knocking on any doors. Why deal with fools? And the radio and television shows, and the internet sites, are for those in the know. The idea is to exclude what is foolish and dangerous. More than enough souls have been harvested already, thank you very much. There is no room at the inn any longer, or at least no room for your sort.

But of course all religions are exclusive – they involve a claim to the ultimate truth, after all, for those who can see that truth, or if they cannot see it, surrender to it. Others are the heretics, or pagans, or apostates, or the misguided, or the lost, or the damned. Choose any religion, the message is the same. Get with us or you will die. And you do want to live forever, don’t you? The rest is the technicalities.

But the technicalities are the rub. They always are. See Carlene Bauer on the Christian evangelicals:

There was always a tiny voice inside me saying “That can’t be right” whenever I heard something that seemed to contradict who I understood God and Jesus to be from reading the Bible – all-loving, all-forgiving. For example: it had been made clear to me that Catholics were lesser, wrongheaded Christians because they worshipped Mary and the Pope and thought works would save their souls.

Yes, on the Protestant side there is the strong neo-Calvinist idea that doing good works is nice and all that, but silly – God decides who is the chosen, and favors them, so the thing to do is not piss Him off. Accept Jesus as your savior and do what you want. Once you’re right with Jesus, his father doesn’t much care what you do with your time.

But Bauer is unhappy:

The disparagement made it seem that unless Catholics recognized that they needed to accept Jesus as their savior (for the evangelicals you had to get down on your knees and make the overture in full awareness of your decision), they were going to hell. Now, my father, my grandmother and uncle were Catholic. My best friend at the time was Catholic. It didn’t seem right that God was looking down on them with arms crossed, shaking his head when they seemed sincere in their belief. Why would God allow there to be so many wrongheaded Christians?

That’s a good question. And such questions are troubling. You could write a book about such questions. In fact, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein did, and that is 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

And she explains what she was up to:

Dinner party hostesses used to be warned to steer the conversation away from politics and religion. I used to wonder why, but I don’t anymore. There are some differences that reveal rifts so deep that dialogue breaks down. Among these are the current debates that have been raging between God-believers and the so-called new atheists. It often seems that people on one side can’t begin to grasp what the world is like, what it feels like, for those on the other side. When the person with whom one is conversing appears utterly opaque, then mistrust and contempt are easily aroused: How can he be saying that when the opposite seems so obvious to me? Is he stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil? These are not the sort of suspicions that the gracious hostess wants intruding at her candle-lit dinner table.

Well, we do live in a country where everyone is always asking whether the other party is stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil – it’s not just religion. Actually it’s just about everything. Olbermann fires salvos at O’Reilly and O’Reilly fires back. Beck claims Obama is incomprehensively evil and foreign, and Beck’s critics have concluded Beck is quite mad. The other side is always a deep mystery.

That’s why Goldstein decided the hardest of all topics, religion itself, could only be explored in fiction:

Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith. In the end, I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how different the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.

And yes, the book is fiction, with a plot and everything:

After Cass Seltzer’s book becomes a surprise best seller, he’s dubbed “the atheist with a soul” and becomes a celebrity. He wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum, “the goddess of game theory,” and loses himself in a spiritually expansive infatuation. A former girlfriend appears: an anthropologist who invites him to join in her quest for immortality through biochemistry. And he is haunted by reminders of the two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his mentor and professor – a renowned literary scholar with a suspicious obsession with messianism – and an angelic six-year-old mathematical genius who is heir to the leadership of a Hasidic sect. Each encounter reinforces Cass’s theory that the religious impulse spills over into life at large.

That’s from the Radom House site, and it ends with this:

Using her gifts in fiction and philosophy, Goldstein has produced a true crossover novel, complete with a nail-biting debate (“Resolved: God Exists”) and a stand-alone appendix with the thirty-six arguments (and responses) that propelled Seltzer to stardom.

Well, maybe we can make sense of all this arguing about religion through fiction, and Edge magazine has posted an excerpt from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new book – some of those thirty-six arguments that made the main character an international sensation as “the atheist with a soul” (it is fiction, after all). And here’s one of them:

Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality. The question is: why did God choose the moral rules he did? Did he have a reason justifying his choice that, say, giving alms to the poor is good, while genocide is wrong? Either he had a good reason or he didn’t. If he did, then his reasons, whatever they are, can provide the grounding for moral truths for us, and God himself is redundant. And if he didn’t have a good reason, then his choices are arbitrary – he could just as easily have gone the other way, making charity bad and genocide good – and we would have no reason to take his choices seriously. According to the Euthyphro argument, then, the Argument from Moral Truth is another example of The Fallacy of Passing the Buck. The hard work of moral philosophy consists in grounding morality in some version of the Golden Rule: that I cannot be committed to my own interests mattering in a way that yours do not, just because I am me and you are not.

Got that? If God has reasons for what he does, and we see them as reasonable, what do we need Him for anyway? We have reason after all.

But it is notoriously hard to divine what God’s divine reasons are. You remember Alexander Pope:

All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;

All chance direction, which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good:

And spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Ah, that may have done just fine in the sunny eighteenth century (1734) – but it’s not good enough now. See Hanna Rosin and her long article on the Prosperity Gospel in Modern America:

Among mainstream, nondenominational megachurches, where much of American religious life takes place, “prosperity is proliferating” rapidly, says Kate Bowler, a doctoral candidate at Duke University and an expert in the gospel. Few, if any, of these churches have prosperity in their title or mission statement, but Bowler has analyzed their sermons and teachings. Of the nation’s 12 largest churches, she says, three are prosperity – Osteen’s, which dwarfs all the other megachurches; Tommy Barnett’s, in Phoenix; and T. D. Jakes’, in Dallas. In second-tier churches – those with about 5,000 members – the prosperity gospel dominates.

Overall, Bowler classifies 50 of the largest 260 churches in the U.S. as prosperity. The doctrine has become popular with Americans of every background and ethnicity; overall, Pew found that 66 percent of all Pentecostals and 43 percent of “other Christians” – a category comprising roughly half of all respondents – believe that wealth will be granted to the faithful. It’s an upbeat theology, argues Barbara Ehrenreich in her new book, Bright-Sided, that has much in common with the kind of “positive thinking” that has come to dominate America’s boardrooms and, indeed, its entire culture.

No wonder people run up their credit cards. They have faith. God will make them rich. If He doesn’t, they’ll pray more (or prey more) (or pay more).

This is curious, and Andrew Sullivan adds this:

It’s staggering really that modern American Christianism supports wealth while Jesus demanded total poverty, fetishizes family while Jesus left his and urged his followers to abandon wives, husbands and children, champions politics while Jesus said his kingdom was emphatically not of this world, defends religious war where Jesus sought always peace, and backs torture, which is what the Romans did to Jesus.

At some point these charlatans need to be chased out of the temple. Which these days means the Republican Party.

God is Republican? That seems to be the claim these days. But Rosin does mention this book – Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt: New York, October 2009). And it’s a stunner:

In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, positive thoughts were flowing out into the universe in unprecedented volumes, escaping the solar system, rippling through vast bodies of interstellar gas, dodging black holes, messing with the tides of distant planets. If anyone – deity or alien being – possessed the means of transforming these emanations into comprehensible form, they would have been overwhelmed by images of slimmer bodies, larger homes, quick promotions, and sudden acquisitions of great wealth.

But the universe refused to play its assigned role as a “big mail order department.” In complete defiance of the “law of attraction,” long propounded by the gurus of positive thinking, things were getting worse for most Americans, not better.

And that may explain the evangelical fervor we’ve been living with in America for the last several decades – God loves us, and will make us rich, and all we need to do is think positively, and think of Jesus, and things will fall into place, as they should. They didn’t fall into place. They got worse. So that calls for more commitment to Jesus. Someone up there is feeling neglected, if not disrespected. And this is far from what Alexander Pope was rhyming about way back when.

From the review of the Ehrenreich book by Susan G at Daily Kos:

Happy talk is killing us. Faux cheerfulness is blinding us. Optimism is making us delusional. And America is knee-deep in the happy-happy joy-joy, always looking on the bright side of life shtick, has been from the 19th century on, and Barbara Ehrenreich is, to put it mildly, so over it.

What really pushed her over the edge was a bout of breast cancer that exposed her to the modern American abyss of positive thinking. She recoiled from the resolute cheerfulness of the breast cancer community, so determinedly upbeat that patients end up buying into the guilt trip that any depressed thoughts they might harbor about their illness caused the affliction in the first place. Or the relapse. Or the bad reaction to chemo.

Insufficient optimism is always the problem, you see. But that is, in fact, the real problem:

The American compulsion toward optimism, she argues, clearly has more ramifications than just sending messages to ill individuals that their diseases are a result of not thinking positively enough. It’s a national compulsion with international consequences, few of which are good. “Positivity is not so much our condition of our mood as it is part of our ideology,” she writes, “the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it.” For America and her citizens, this tendency toward cheer fosters “reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news.”

And it gives us the Prosperity Gospel. And maybe it gave us the housing bubble. No one likes a sour-puss. Let a smile be your umbrella. Yep, you’ll get wet, but only because you deserve it.

On a related note, Andrew Sullivan writes this:

The struggle for the fate of Christianity – in motion since the earliest times – has often devolved into a fight about whether Christians should seek worldly power or eschew it. It is a question constantly faced by Jesus in the Gospels himself, and it is one always resolved in Jesus’ case by using love. Jesus had no politics. He sought no earthly power. But humans who live in a fallen world must live with power and under it. And in this fundamentalist age, where Christians and Jews as well as Muslims have embraced the power of government and law and war to reimpose their literalist beliefs, the battle is intense.

The defining element of Christianism is the pursuit of worldly power – which is why I refuse to give these politicians and operators the term “Christian.” The move into politics was a decision made by the Christianist right two generations ago. Its main vehicle is the Republican Party…

The rest is a discussion of how “The Family” is behind a war to launch new anti-gay laws in Uganda “that resemble legislation that preceded mass killings in Rwanda and Serbia in recent years” – and these laws are harsh:

The law would impose a sentence of life imprisonment on anyone who “penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption.” The same penalty would apply if he or she even “touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.”

The law requires a three-year prison sentence for anyone who is aware of evidence of homosexuality and fails to report it to the police within 24 hours. It allows for the prosecution of Ugandans who engage in homosexual acts in foreign countries. And it imposes a prison sentence of up to seven years for anyone who defends the rights of gays and lesbians.

And “The Family” is that group on C-Street, senators Coburn, Ensign, Inhofe and others, with their prayer meetings and all. Read the whole thing and follow the links if you wish. Sullivan says. “Rip off the mask and see what these people would do if they could.” This is also a long way from Alexander Pope.

Or see Mark C. Chu-Carroll on The Conservative Rewrite of the Bible:

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Andy Schafly and his pals are working on a “new translation” of the Bible. They say that they need to do this in order to remove liberal bias, which is “the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations”. You see, “translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one” is the largest source of what they call translation errors, and it “requires conservative principles to reduce and eliminate.”

Plenty of people have mocked the foolishness of this. So many, in fact, that I can’t decide which one to link to! But what’s been left out of all of the mocking that I’ve seen so far is one incredibly important point.

What the “Conservative Bible Project” is doing is not translating the Bible. It is rewriting the bible to make it say what they want it to say, without regard for what it actually says. These people, who insist that every word of their holy texts must be taken as absolute literal truth without interpretation – are rewriting their Bible to make it say what they want it to say.

He says that even though he is just “a flaky liberal re-constructionist Jew” this is nonsense:

If you look at their explanation of what they’re doing, it’s not translating. Translating is going to the original text, which is written in some language X, and trying to convert it to language Y without loss of meaning. They don’t even pretend that they’re going back to the original sources. They’re taking existing translations of the original text into English, and then re-writing them whenever they don’t like what they say. They describe looking back to at the original text as a last resort “exception” (their word!) to their “translation” process.

What are they doing? They’re taking the King James Version of the Bible. Then they’re going to go through it, and whenever they find something that they don’t like, because it doesn’t match their conservative principles, they’re just going to change it. Not because analyzing the original text shows that there was a translation error. They don’t even pretend to care about that. They’re just combing through it and changing anything that, from their perspective, must be wrong because it looks too liberal.

Yep, that is clear from the item on the effort in Conservapedia (the conservative alternative to Wikipedia, or the on-line user-generated encyclopedia without all the liberal bias). They will “identify pro-liberal terms used in existing Bible translations, such as ‘government,’ and suggest more accurate substitutes.”

Chu-Carroll comments:

There’s no discussion of whether “government” is an accurate translation of the original Greek or Hebrew; it must be wrong, because according to their supposedly “conservative” philosophy, government is always bad, and so any passage in the text which says anything that might be remotely positive about government is, necessarily, wrong.

And they talk about that “liberal falsehood” is a verse from the New Testament – “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.'” They want that gone. They offer no reason, other than since it is only mentioned once, only in Luke, it must be wrong.

And Chu-Carroll notes this:

In their early efforts at translation, they’re trying to get rid of the word “Pharisees.” “Pharisees” is a very specific term; it means a specific group of people. It’s not a generic term for “bad people” or “liberal people” or anything like that. They were a group that was distinguished by, among other things, believing in (gasp!) the literal interpretation of the book of Exodus. They were also the grouping that included most of the high priests of the second temple. The Conservapedia folks have been suggesting replacing “Pharisee” with “self-selected elite,” “intellectual”, or (cutting to the chase) “liberals.” As a “translation” that’s absolute garbage. It completely ignores the meaning of the original text, in order to create the appearance that their political beliefs have some sort of divine support, even though the original text can’t support that interpretation.

Yeah, well – their aim is clear – “Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning” – and “Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story” – and “Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio.”

Yes, those of us who don’t find religion that compelling can still find it fascinating. And Amy Sullivan at Time adds this:

Passages like the story of the adulteress whom Jesus saved from being stoned with the famous line: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Conservapedia complains that liberals have used this story to argue against the death penalty. Plus, this Jesus character sounds like a radical moral relativist.

Also among the goals of the project: replace liberal words like “labor” with preferred conservative terms; use concise language instead of “liberal wordiness”; and – my favorite- – “explain the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.” Jesus talks about economics more than any other secular subject in the Bible, so they’ve got their work cut out for them. I look forward to learning the free-market meaning of “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.”

But Rod Dreher argues this is simply an effort to “make sure the Lord doesn’t go all wobbly on us.” Yes, Dreher was laughing.

But it’s the people who aren’t laughing that you have to worry about. And they don’t bother to knock on doors these days.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in American Optimism, Religion and Happiness, Religion and Morality, Religion and Politics, Religion These Days and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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