Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bring Your Own God (or None)

(Thanks to Darkblack for the cool graphic and to Blue Gal for organizing this yet again. My past Blog Against Theocracy posts can be viewed here. Check out the Blog Against Theocracy site for other participants.)

Blog Against Theocracy has been going long enough that there are some things I'd like to take for granted, but it's wise to reiterate some core concepts. Freedom of Religion in the First Amendment, and the separation of church and state, protect religious people as well as non-religious people. Religion is not a problem, and can be a strength, but authoritarians (religious or otherwise) and theocrats are. America was expressly not founded as a theocracy. Religious people have every right to participate in civic, secular society, but not being a theocracy means being religious does not legally confer extra status (how this actually plays out in individual communities is another matter). Whether they realize it or not, theocrats are not pursuing rights, which they already possess. They are pursuing power, specifically the power to dictate to other people how to live their lives. While Blog Against Theocracy involves many atheists, it's heartening that many people of faith participate, and fight against theocracy for the "right to worship – or not."

I've said this in earlier posts, but there's an expression I've really liked ever since I heard it from a religion professor: There are many paths up the mountain. Personally, I tend to look to the arts for my eternal truths, not sacred texts, but that's me. Religion is not the source of morality, but it may be one person's route to morality and their way of expressing it. As long as that's done in a non-proselytizing manner, fine. There's a big difference between quoting from scripture to express a general principle ("whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me," "blessed are the peacemakers") and quoting to claim authority over others and/or condemn them ("homosexuality is an abomination!" "So is shellfish!"). Still, in general I'd say respect for atheists is the most important gauge for how healthy church-state separation is. Your mileage will vary on this depending on what communities you live and work in. I have some quietly religious friends and family who have had some annoying experiences, and I'm sympathetic to that. However, on the national political stage, generally it's considered safe to trash atheists and pander to religious folk. (More principled politicians and public figures don't do this, of course, but it's still quite common.)

This year, I thought I'd go for the hippie love song fest, since there's a nice tradition of working for social justice among atheists and religious folk alike. Here's two renditions of Arlo Guthrie performing "Amazing Grace," with his signature move of telling-a-story-in-the-middle. In this first clip, from a 1984 performance, Arlo explains some of the background to the song:

This story isn't entirely accurate, since Newton's full, public opposition to the slave trade came later, most notably in support of William Wilberforce's movement to abolish it. Arlo sings one verse that was written by Lee Hays:

Shall I be wafted to the skies
On flowery beds of ease
While others strive to win the prize
And sail on bloody seas

In the second clip, from 1993, Arlo takes an even long break and tells a few relevant stories:

Bring your own god. Outnumber them. It's easier to make a difference in lousy times. All funny and memorable.

Bill Moyers did a special on "Amazing Grace" that runs on PBS every so often. And the 2007 film Amazing Grace ain't bad and is well cast (Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Romula Garai and Michael Gambon, among others). Wilberforce's commitment to social justice is driven in part by his religious convictions, although some of his cohorts have different motivations. Seeing and hearing about the realities of the slave trade – especially handling the shackles and smelling the rankness of the ships – also has a strong impact on Wilberforce and those he tries to move. The film's particularly good at depicting the dangers for activists of burnout, and what friendship and community can do to alleviate those. The slave trade was very profitable, and that was the chief objection in Britain's parliament to ending it. The film also shows a very clever side maneuver for achieving abolition.

Beltway pundits love their shallow bipartisanship, but the real thing only makes sense when people share a goal. The same goes for activism in general. Some religious people – including a percentage of conservatives - will work on anti-poverty campaigns, eliminating world hunger, climate change and civil/human rights issues. There are other ideals – upholding reproductive freedom, defending the separation of church and state, fighting against theocracy – which can't be compromised and where there may not be common cause. Legitimate differences are fine, but it can be foolish to ignore them. Meanwhile, in my experience, the people who make the biggest public show of their virtue, piety, patriotism and the like are biggest phonies. Real moral authority isn't claimed, it's earned or it's evident. And someone who cares about social justice, who reveres the First Amendment and opposes theocracy, is (as Arlo says) a friend of mine. So at the next rally, bring your own god – or none at all. The revolution will not be televised, but it may be sung.

Fixed a typo.

(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)

No comments: