Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Truth By Any Other Name

(Graphic by Tengrain. Head to the Blog Against Theocracy website for more posts. And thanks again to Blue Gal.)

I've written far more about religion and for the previous Blog Against Theocracy blogswarms than I would have anticipated when I started blogging. I want to take a different tact this time, and won't recap all of those previous pieces, but there are some line-in-the-sand issues that bear repeating.

As First Freedom First puts it, the First Amendment provides for "the freedom to worship, or not." The Constitution is religion-neutral. The separation of church and state protects religious folk and atheists alike. Freedom of religion does not allow one to violate civil law; religious people have the same rights everyone else has in America, they just don't have privileged rights and greater legal power due to their professed faith. For example, science curricula should be decided by science teachers, who should not have to please one religion's adherents, who in turn are free to teach their religion's creation story in their places of worship. The United States can be called a Christian nation by demographic, but by demographic only. Not only was it not founded with a state religion, it was deliberately founded not to have a state religion, hence the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and the later popularity of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Opposing theocracy is not anti-religious. Theocracy is in fact, anti-American, and opposing it is patriotic.

That said, I wanted to move toward an issue that I was reminded of by the ongoing holy wars between Clinton and Obama supporters. I'm being slightly facetious, and the subject's redundant for many Blog Against Theocracy participants, but I wanted to explore issues of respect and tolerance for both belief and non-belief. One tool for this is noting the differences between one's own personal experience, the climate in a given community, and what occurs on the national stage.

I'm writing this because I know devout friends, family and liberal bloggers who have expressed frustration with feeling their faith was denigrated, to their minds, in places where they worked or communities where they lived. Not the type to proselytize, for them faith is a quiet and personal matter. They've complained of an attitude that holds that religious faith denotes a lack of intelligence.

Here I feel I must distinguish between people of faith in general, and religious authoritarians, who are generally politically conservative. Most importantly, there's a huge difference between people of faith in general and scriptural literalists, who are far more likely to be dogmatic, to be theocrats, and to push an authoritarian agenda of social control. This doesn't describe all religious conservatives, but it does describe the key players in the "Religious Right" of movement conservatism.

Assuming one isn't a scriptural literalist, there's no necessary contradiction between being a person of faith and one of reason, since they're very different paradigms. Consequently, I'm sympathetic to my devout friends and family in their complaints, and do not doubt the truth of their personal experience.

However, I also know that dynamic is hardly the norm on a national scale, where theocrats and political conservatives have unfortunately dominated discussions of "faith" as if they were its true and only representatives. Every year, Fox News and other conservative outlets launch faux alerts about a "War on Christmas" or even a "the cultural obliteration of Easter." Wails about how Christians are persecuted in America and Christmas is disappearing must strike American Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists as rather funny. And then there's atheists. The occasionally eloquent crackpot Christopher Hitchens is hardly the model of diplomacy in either his imperialist politics or his atheism, but he certainly isn't representative of atheists in that respect. The vast majority of non-believers simply want to be left alone, thank you very much, and allow others to live the lives they want within the bounds of Constitution. In contrast, theocrats insist that they should be able to dictate how others should live and effectively seek to overthrow the Constitution. When it comes to Christian Dominionists and other theocrats, they are the persecutors, not the persecuted.

On the national scale, national politicians pander to the religious all the time, and feel comfortable denigrating atheists. Mitt Romney's anti-JFK speech is the perfect recent example, where he said:

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

The above-linked post delves into this in more depth, but I hold no sane, honest intelligent person could sincerely utter such statements, given how even a casual knowledge of history, philosophy, anthropology or current events shows otherwise (not to mention common sense). There's nothing wrong with taking pride in one's religion, of course, or even in stating "I believe my faith makes me a better person." But freedom and morality are not dependent in any way on religion, which has in fact often opposed both. Some accounts of Romney's speech thankfully picked up on his pandering and bigotry, but other outlets, such as the AP, presented his speech as an affirmation of his supposed beliefs in the separation of church and state and religious tolerance. The MSM is often shallow, but long-time news viewers will be familiar with many a pander to the religious, many a slam against atheists, and many instances where it's simply a given for all the talking heads involved that religious people are more "moral" or that non-religious people are not. Ridiculous straw man representations of atheists are sadly acceptable even among people who should know better, perhaps out of the tired false equivalency that everyone's equally to blame, or the silly narcissism that holds that secularism is a religion and all forms of belief are the same.

So, I am sympathetic to the devout who feel insulted or are lumped in with the theocrats, especially the devout who oppose theocrats. But I'm frankly more sympathetic to the atheists on the whole, and hold that tolerance of atheism and protection of and respect for non-believers is the most important gauge of America's observance of Freedom of Religion. Politically speaking, theocrats should always be challenged, but since they will always squawk (falsely) that religion is being attacked, it's prudent to critique them without bashing religion as a whole. Most theocracy opponents handle this distinction pretty gracefully, in my experience, and an anti-theocracy minister or two out there explaining the difference certainly helps — especially with our shallow media.

I've written about this in other posts, and I didn't originate the idea, but literature classes may be one of the best methods for combating scriptural literalism and religious intolerance. Studying literature can teach a tolerance for ambiguity and an understanding that words may be symbolic, a story may be an allegory, and an image may be a metaphor. While we're sadly always likely to have authoritarians around, a good lit class or two might decrease their ranks. As Karen Armstrong points out in this interview, widespread scriptural literalism is a relatively new development in religion, dating back to the 18th or 19th Centuries. Prior to that, it was much more common for religious folk to view their scriptures and stories as allegories and metaphors, expressing a spiritual truth rather than a literal one.

This brings me to back to my religious friends and family, who approach scripture in terms of spiritual or metaphorical truths versus hard facts. I used to joke that King Lear was my Bible, because it contains many truths about the human condition, about good and evil, false and true loyalty, political power, suffering and redemption, and virtue in the face of harsh realities, among many other things. Similarly, when someone who isn't a scriptural literalist says he or she believes in God, even if I disagree with some of their religious precepts, typically I find that declaration encompasses a set of beliefs with which I can agree: one should be kind to others, one should be honest, and so on. I'm interested in finding out what he or she really means by declaring a belief in God, since Jerry Falwell's view is certainly very different from that of Barry Lynn or some liberal bloggers of faith. "God" can be their the word for "truth" and an entire philosophy.

Obviously, the Constitution prohibits any religious test for office, and some people would prefer to keep such matters private in any case. However, for those who do want to have such discussions, it's certainly possible to do so respectfully, finding points of contention as well as common ground. In my experience, one of the best methods involves stating one's beliefs and how those beliefs affect one's actions. Socrates famously quipped that "The unexamined life is not worth living," and no one can accuse our nation of too much reflection.

Let me close with a section from Chapter 1, "Myth and the Modern World," from The Power of Myth, a conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell:

MOYERS: I came to understand from reading your books — The Masks of God or The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for example — that what human beings have in common is revealed in myths. Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passage from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are.

CAMPBELL: People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experience on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about, and that's what these clues help us to find within ourselves.

MOYERS: Myths are clues?

CAMPBELL: Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.

MOYERS: What we're capable of knowing and experiencing within?


MOYERS: You changed the definition of a myth from the search for meaning to the experience of meaning.

CAMPBELL: Experience of life. The mind has to do with meaning. What's the meaning of a flower? There's a Zen story about a sermon of the Buddha in which he simply lifted a flower. There was only one man who gave him a sign with his eyes that he understood what was said. Now, the Buddha himself is called "the one thus come." There's no meaning. What's the meaning of the universe? What's the meaning of a flea? It's just there. That's it. And your own meaning is that you're there. We're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it's all about.

MOYERS: How do you get that experience?

CAMPBELL: Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts — but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what that experience is.

None of this post is likely to be revelatory to most Blog Against Theocracy participants. And my view of religion is not one that dogmatists will accept. Yet while fighting theocracy involves defending empiricism, accurate history, the Constitution and Enlightenment principles, another method for fostering greater understanding is through a deeper appreciation of the many different choices people make in their metaphors for living.

(Revised slightly for typos and clarity.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


FranIAm said...

I read this in my reader and then I just came back for a quick re-read and a brief comment.

As a very spiritual and daresay - religious person, who fights theocracy fiercely, I think this is an outstanding post.

This whole ugly business has become this very polarized (along with everything else) issue and therein lies the problem for me. The sad zero sum game of I am right and you are wrong, a game endlessly played out over time. Is it more so now?It does seem that way to me.

So much for a brief comment...

Anyway, I am one who is always suspicious of the oppressors crying out "oppressed" such as the religious right. That is usually sign number one that some power play is afoot.

My ultimate point would be that we just find (call me a dreamer) to live in some kind of relative peace and to let others live as they wish.

One last note- I do have to say that I do not like it when it is suggested that I am anywhere from stupid to insane or somewhere more benignly in-between for believing in something that I can't prove. But if that is the price I pay, so be it. It beats the hell out of being forced to do something or having others forced to do something they do not wish.

thepoetryman said...

another method for fostering greater understanding is through a deeper appreciation of the many different choices people make in their metaphors for living.

Sweet! Thank you...