Sunday, April 24, 2011

Losing My Religion

So Friday I posted about my disgust and despair at the condition of my country's politics.

Pat, like a Terminator in a James Cameron film, came Dave Brooks to drive the last nail into the lid of that political coffin with "Creed or Chaos" in Thursday's New York Time.

Now like you, I usually ignore Bobo. He's an idiot.'s the thing.

As an idiot, he usually represents the mainstream Republican sort of idiot that has run the party since Reagan clubbed the last of the Rockefeller and Eisenhower faction like a blubber-chewing Inuit with adorable baby harp seals. Bobo's writings (and by "writings" I mean "nearly incomprehensible errata scrawled on the padded walls by the gibbering inmate using his big toe and a slurry of drool and his own feces") are a way to glimpse, in a sort of lifting-the-rock-to-observe-the-writhing-vermin-beneath way, what goes on inside the brainpan of a typical country club Republican.

I should be specific; this does NOT include the sort of thing that occurs inside the occipital lobes of the Palinite/Teatard Wing of the GOP. God knows what the hell those people think about; probably gypsy knives and gypsy thighs that pound and pound and pound and African appendages that almost touch the ground and little boys playing baseball in the rain. But, whatever. Bobo does nothing to enlighten you about whatever THEY think.

But for the Kiwanis-Chamber-of-Commerce-former-Quayle-supporter sort of Republican, Bobo's your man. He stands athwart the GOP like a sort of teeny tiny Colossus, mouthing the sorts of things that make the Republicans feel warm and snuggly as they enter within.

So his Thursday column was a real revelation for me, because in it the spokesmodel for the two-SUV family advocates that African - and by inference, U.S. - Christians should be more like Torquemada and less like Pastor Niemoller.

"Many Americans" he says "have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments."

But this is so, so wrong, explains Bobo.

Why? Because "The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False."

Now based on human history you might be forgiven for thinking that religions that are "theologically rigorous" (meaning: intolerant of dissent and punitive to religious deviance), "arduous in practice" (meaning: insisting on complete obedience regardless of cost), and "definite...about what is True and False" (meaning: convinced that any variation from orthodoxy is False, unrighteous, and, presumably, unGodly) tend to be by nature militant, divisive, intolerant, and often dangerous to anyone and anything not beloved of their God and his tenets.

You might be forgiven for thinking that such religions are prone to outbreaks of violent persecution and religious war when they collide with people or cultures they anathematize.

You might be forgiven for thinking that such religions tend to make people smug, self-satisfied, rigid, intolerant, slothful entitled pricks.

But Bobo would not forgive you any such thing.

Because Bobo thinks - meaning that your average country club Republican, your average Republican, period, thinks - that people qua people are stupid, feckless, lazy scumbags.
"No matter how special some individuals may think they are," says Bobo, "they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own."
Think about that for a moment.


Bobo goes on to insist the following:

1. Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality.

2. Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally.

3. Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity.

4. Rigorous theology delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us.

5. Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character.

You got that? People whose religion demands that they accept every jot and tittle of the Holy Word (no shrimp or owl for dinner, no sex during menstruation, stuff like accepting that a consecrated celebate in a three-ringed crown is channeling the Great Spirit verbatim) are the only ones with a Michelin Guide to reality, the only ones with real intellectual acuity, the only ones with genuine originality, the only ones with the keys to the Great Mysteries.

Oh, and the only ones capable of avoiding sex with vegetables and stealing pocket change.


I'm perfectly willing to grant you that religion, whether "theologically rigorous" or otherwise, has been the foundation of some of humanity's most incredible achievements. Faith has motivate humans to raise cathedrals to the sky, care for the sick and dying, help the poor, found cities and even nations. Religions touch something very vital in many, perhaps even most, people.

But at the same time, religion has been behind some of history's great horrors. Religions have butchered children for their "sins". Religions have sent entire populations lurching into others' lands; murdering, raping, looting in the belief that the "others" were beneath the consideration of God's love - indeed, that God demanded the others' lives as punishment for their unbelief in the invaders' God or gods.

Religions have also helped people justify those horrors, often by their very nature, in that something that helps you believe the improbable often helps you embrace the unthinkable. Bobo cites Dorothy Sayers (who was a delightful novelist and decent scholar but whose door wasn't exactly hanging on all its hinges, theologically speaking) saying that
"...Christianity’s advantage is that it gives value to evil and suffering. Christianity asserts that “perfection is attained through the active and positive effort to wrench real good out of a real evil.” This is a complicated thought most of us could not come up with (let alone unpack) outside of a rigorous theological tradition."
No. This isn't a complicated thought most of us could not come up with (let alone unpack) outside of a rigorous theological tradition. It is fucking nonsense.

Evil is evil, suffering is suffering. Fighting evil (assuming that it IS evil and not just something "abhorrent before My God" like boys having sex with other boys or women voting) is admirable, enduring suffering bravely is honorable. But neither of those "give value" to evil and suffering.

Evil and suffering are plagues on humanity, full stop, and anyone who believes that they are valuable because they allow Christians to achieve perfection through fighting them are as fucking nuts and stupid as a bag of hammers.

So, resolved; anyone who tortures, or butchers, a tiny baby is a vile criminal bag of fuck. Unless, says Dotty and Bobo, it allows a Christian "to wrench real good out of a real evil."




It is just this sort of tortured logic that allowed Crusaders (or their Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist equivalents) to believe that their evil had value, that by slaughtering infidel women and children got them closer to Paradise.

This is madness. THIS is evil.

If this were all Bobo brought with him I could simply walk away with a shrug. Theocrats are a nickel a gross; they have arisen throughout history, usually from a heap of human bodies, and have largely been tossed aside when the survivors realize what an intolerable pain in the ass being ruled by someone who insists that all his or her opinions are crafted in God's toy shop. Theocracy is probably the worst single form of human governance and has been proved as such again and again by practical example.

But remember - this isn't just Bobo.

This is the mainstream wing of the GOP that Bobo represents. It is this group that honestly believes that their fellow Americans are unable to think, plan, or control where they put their penises or vaginae (vaginas?) without Baby Jesus there to point out Tab A and Slot B and what doesn't go where. This group seems to think that what the U.S. needs is more "theologically rigorous" religion and less "...(v)ague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity..."

The real genius of the Framers was not to toss religion out of U.S. public life. They knew their country and knew their fellow citizens. They knew that the religion would get there one way or another. No, their genius was to ensure that when it did arrive a the public square it would be gutted of its "theological rigor". That it could not test Americans on their knowledge of the doctrine of transubstantiation, of the traditions of a seder, of the Five Pillars as a price of citizenship, couldn't demand fealty to any theology as a cost of entry into public business, or privilege one over another, either in public or private.

Regardless of how vile this belief is to that one, regardless of how many lives of one faith the other has taken.

This country is founded on the notion that you in the name of your religion WILL NOT be allowed to take public action against me for mine. And if you take private action that traduces my public rights you will be prosecuted for it.

This has gone a long, long way to producing the secular character of U.S. public life - despite the very public presence of religion, a presence nearly absent in Europe, a continent much more familiar with the evils of "theologically rigorous" religions and their public feuds - and the large number of U.S. believers who leave the outward trappings of their faiths in church, synagogue, and mosque.

But Bobo, and his GOP counterparts, seem to think this is a mistake. They think all this warm fuzzy ecumenism is a dodge, a cunning scheme to defile our vital bodily fluids. And what should we do to avoid this weakening, this flaccidity, this impotence of the American soul?

Well, "changes in behavior change the mind," Bobo reminds us, " small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most."

And y'know what? If you started on young Americans with those "regular acts of (theologic) discipline" early enough you could probably lay the foundation for a cruel unflinching youth, a youth as hard as steel.

I wonder.

What could you do with people like that..?


Note: On Mormonism

I observe that Bobo's observations were made posteriori to viewing something called the "Book of Mormon", a play by the guys who do "South Park".

Whilst I tend to be fairly tolerant of other people's personal beliefs if you wanted a religion to mock Mormonism is one of the fattest slow targets outside of genuinely fucking out-there religious goofologies of the Scientology breed.

I mean, read the Joesph Smith story. Guy is a "gold witcher" in Palmyra, NY, back in the 1820s, claiming that he can find gold with "magic stones". He claims that in 1823 an angel tells him where to find two golden plates written by Ether, Mormon, Lehi and Nephi, who are Native Americans circa 1AD, a brass plate with Hebrew scripture quotations and genealogies written by one Laban, oh, yeah, and "Urim and Thummim," magical translating stones.

Magical translating stones.

Okay. Now he doesn't head out, snatch this boodle and run, mind you. Nope. Instead, in 1825, he and his dad head to Pennsylvania to look for buried treasure at three bucks a day. Nothing turns up and Smith offers the suggestion that the treasure had sunk deeper due! That's it; enchantment! Seriously! Enchantment!

Yeah, okay Joe, sure.

He loses the job but finds a wife, Emma, the local schoolmarm. They elope in New York in 1827. Which is, you'll remember, when Joe trudges back to Palmyra to get all that golden loot and the Indian-Jesus stuff, remember?

So between 1827 and 1829 Joe Smith "dictates" the "translation" of these supposed golden plates (which no one but he has seen, remember) to his new wife and a couple of pals. The entire business is odd; sometimes he's hidden behind a screen, when he's not the tablets aren't in view. He puts the "magical stones" in his hat...and puts his hat over his face.

He finishes the "Book of Lehi", lends it to his pal Marty Harris, who takes it home and "loses" it (supposedly Lucy, who hated Smith and thought he was a fraud, tossed it).

That sucked, and Smith now says that God has taken away the "special stones" because Joe's buddies stepped on their poncho, and he starts on the "Book of Nephi" which, he says, tells the same story as Lehi only, you know, sort of, different.

Anyway. The Book of Nephi, if you've ever bothered to skim it, reads like one of those Fifties sword-and-sandal movies, with lots of thud and blunder, prophets, visions, a "ball of curious workmanship", and how Jews became the native Americans.

Really, no shit.

If you put the whole thing in a movie and got McG to direct it nobody would believe a word of it, although I would pay good money to see Adam Sandler play Smith, the old Sandler back when he was funny.

Tina Fey could play Lucy.

Either way, it seems to have become a religion because people who want to believe stuff will believe it regardless of how goofy it's backstory is. And you can say this for Mormonism as you pass up your morning coffee.

It sure as hell is "theologically rigorous."


Big Daddy said...

Look like fire direction central took some comment spam. On the subject of theological rigor, it's worth noting that the Jains are the ones who are so protective of life that they wear veils over their mouths so they don't accidentally inhale insects and kill them. Makes your self proclaimed "right to life" types look like pikers. But then they only care about the unborn since they gleefully demand execution for abortion providers and seem happy to wage wars.
Back on topic, you are dead on that Brooks' "rigorous theology" (yes those are sarcastic quotes) is completely missing the point about enduring religions. His idea of rigor is a blind obedience and intolerance that produces pogroms, crusades and Taliban, both Afghan and Tea Party.
Coming from Judaism I understand that religion is not supposed to be easy. Religious practice often requires inconvenience or even discomfort but it should not require blind obedience. The strictures of Jewish laws and practices were about setting ourselves apart and working to earn our faith. I see something similar in other traditions that require asceticism or extensive meditation or distinctive dress. Of course Amish, Sufis and Zen Buddhists don't usually start crusades either. The key point here is that it is about inquiry and struggle, you have to work at it rather than just blindly having it fed to you and tolerance is part of the package. When faced with unbelievers you may shun them, but you don't put them to the sword and you don't force them to follow your religious laws.
This should be more coherent but I'm squeezing this in when I should be working

FDChief said...

BD: You did fine, and have put your finger on the main problem with Bobo's "creed or chaos"; the direction the rigor is pointed.

Back when Judaism was one of the crusading religions being a gentile neighbor of guys like David or Joshua wasn't a healthy thing to be. The theological rigor was directed outward towards other groups who, not surprisingly, failed to meet the theological sniff test.

Modern Judaism directs the rigor inward. The "crusade" (poor word choice, but not sure how you'd construe "menorah-bearing" in English) is on the deficiencies within, on spiritual growth - "working to earn our faith", as you put it. As you say, that may bring you to avoiding, or, at most, pointing out the callousness or cruelty of the "others"...or fighting to resist them imposing their cruelties. But it doesn't demand that you convert them or wipe them out.

And Judaism also features something that the other two monotheistic religions now lack; an acceptance of the humanity of the earthly application of religious doctrine. There is no equivalent of the Talmud in either of the other two faiths. The hadiths of Islam are perhaps the closest and that's pretty far off. There's no more Temple priesthood, no more official "Chief Rabbi" to declare certain interpretations of the Torah heretical and "dangerous". Jews since the Diaspora are encouraged to apply the teachings of scripture to their heart and mind...but also the other way around! That's a huge difference, and what, I think, makes the difference. Look at the exception - the "ultraorthodox" sects - and you see something very "Christian" or "Muslim"; the close-mindedness, the bloodyminded sectarianism, the resort to babbling scripture like a mindless mantra when confronted with ideas, peoples, or situations that they dislike...

Take the two together, the "theological rigor" directed outward, and the top-downward rigidity of the obedience, and you have a very toxic brew indeed...

rangeragainstwar said...

This weeks Newsweek or Time has a cover that asks-what if there's no hell?? BTW, i lump both mags together in my mind.
After thinking about it , i came to conclude- what if there's no heaven? This really is scary since i always thought that my flag on my coffin would get me in. A free pass.
Do not pass go.
But really- how would we be as a society if we didn't believe in H & H?

FDChief said...

jim: I think that depends on whether you think that people act decently because they are afraid of punishment, or because most people are fundamentally fairly decent.

Call me an optimist, but I don't think that most human beings walk aroudn afraid to steal cars or fuck their babysitter because they worry that some devil is going to use them as a bayonet dummy after their dead. Some of us are just sheep, nice and harmless because we haven't the sack to be barbarians. But I suspect that most people really are fairly honest, hard-working, friendly, and humane.

The ones that aren't, well, there may be a fringe 10% who are kept in check by fear of hell or hope of heaven. But the rest? I doubt it.

And here's the thing; I think that if you pushed my, I'd trade that 10% in return for yanking religion out of the persecution-and-crusade biz. The permission that "rigorous theologies" give to zealots to hate them on some infidels seems to me WAY more dangerous to people in general than the effect that losing their religion might have on the people who are restrained from atrocity by their faith.

It's kind of funny, in a sad way, that here I am, supposedly the cynical old sergeant, who thinks that most people can do a pretty good job figuring out how to live a decent, upright life using their own common sense and their notion of what good people do, while Bobo, the champion of Republican free markets, individual liberties and "Don't tread on me"-ism opining that without the fear of the Sky Daddy people will rn naked in the streets robbing banks and diddling small children.

Lisa said...

I felt exactly the same way upon reading that piece of drivel. Evil is simply that, and good needs not that counterpoint for its definition.

I've always felt the adherents of rigorous theology have a "Get Out of Jail Free" card -- that belief actually forbears "sin" (for the Lord loves a sinner.) What good is the confessional without confessions?

IMHO, religion is a great set-up to keep people from thinking about things like right and wrong. They're kept little lambs, flock-members, who bleat to the hymns. Instead of keeping humanity on the straight-and-narrow, religious adherence takes the fall for so much "evil" due to its inherently divisive nature.

Pity, really, because mostly the texts discuss compassion and how to be decent. What Bobo should have discussed was how the way in which dispenses doctrine presumes the frailty of man and the need for intercession, and how that removes that most basic tenet of good behavior -- personal responsibility.

Lisa said...

[correction: "the way in which the Church dispenses doctrine ..."]

FDChief said...

Lisa: That was what infuriated me, too, not just from Bobo, but from a lot of the other conservative pundits, too, this conviction that only the craving for Heaven and the fear of Hell stands between humanity and unspeakable depravity.

How I managed to make it through 53 years without murdering, raping, or stealing I have no idea, having not had a God to wag His finger at me since I decided that the Bible stories were about as plausible as the Brothers Grimm and usually less entertaining. But I felt that I was object lesson enough to give them the lie, and the persistence of this notion that it's "creed or chaos" gives me a pain in the giggy and always has.

Like I said; it's Bobo, so he's a fucking idiot. But he channels a LOT of "ordinary decent Republicans", so if he's saying this stuff a lot of them are thinking it, and that throws a big ol' spanner in the nonsectarian republic machine that was set up to drive our nation.

Lisa said...

"Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main"

--No Coward Soul is Mine, Emily Bronte