Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, January 08, 2010

You Damned Kids Get Into My Church

(Or, Not Everyone Worships My Jesus?!?)

This is a few days old, but even for a social conservative, this is god-awful:

The key section from Brit Hume is:

The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world."

Hume has been in the media since the 70s, and spent a decade prominently featured on Fox News – and he really thought that proselytizing and trying to convert a celebrity to his preferred religious faith on TV would be a good idea?!?

Personally, I don't think this has much to do with Tiger's faith or lack thereof. I think that Hume, and his fellow Fox social conservatives (with their progressive views on race), would feel more comfortable themselves "forgiving" the multicultural, country-club storming Tiger Woods were he Christian (and perhaps a little paler). You don't need to agree on all that – but Hume is still pitching to his audience that Tiger Woods is Not Like Us – and He Would Be More Acceptable if He Were More Like Me. Hume's tone sounds like that of a parent scolding a teenager for acting out - by practicing a non-Hume-approved religion.

Still, let's assume that Hume (apparently an Episcopalian) is sincere. Based on his statement, he seems to believe that Buddhists will not be forgiven by God (who Hume believes exists) because they're Buddhists. Hume's God is petty, and cares a great deal about religious denomination. Being forgiven depends on belonging to the right "club," so to speak.

I'm not surprised that a religious person would think this way. I'm surprised he or she would say it, and be so clueless and self-absorbed, on national television. My assumption is that religious people think their religion is the best. If they grew up with the religion, they've probably heard that it's the best, or just naturally assumed it. Those that reflect on their religion as they grow older and stay with it come to some conclusion that their specific denomination is the best – or else they'd change it. Those that convert to a religion obviously think their new religion or denomination is the best, or else they wouldn't have chosen it. Some may choose to be part of a place of worship more for the community, or convert for a spouse, and may not subscribe to all of a religion's tenets nor that communities' practices. Still, generally speaking, it's not surprising if a religious person thinks his or her religion is the best, and/or the truest path.

That said, it's amazing that in 2010, an adult who's seen something of the world could be ignorant of the fact that others look at things differently and would take offense. The true zealot, crusader, imperialist or proselytizer might know this, but just doesn't care. Hume is probably just a 66 year old social conservative who views his particular social world as the natural order from which all variations are deviant and lesser in respectability. In his view, who wouldn't want to be Brit Hume, or one of his pals? Hey, he's actually being magnanimous in offering a hand (even if the converted might never truly be seen as an equal).

Since I started this post, Pat Buchanan has predictably defended Hume, and Hume has defended himself as well:

As Steve Benen points out:

I suspect for Fox News, dictionaries suffer from liberal biases, but "proselytize" isn't a word burdened by nuance. It means "to induce someone to convert to one's faith." For Hume to deny that he was proselytizing on the air is absurd. That Fox News considers this incident consistent with its professional standards tells us all we need to know about the so-called "news" network.

Benen also points out what should be obvious – if the roles were reversed, and a Buddhist had said something similar about Christians such as Mark Sanford, Hume and the gang would be livid and calling for the Buddhist's resignation.

What I find most striking about this second clip is that Hume even acknowledges that people tend to get upset when one does what he just did. So he had a good idea this would happen – yet he did it anyway. O'Reilly and Hume even play the victim angle, suggesting that Christianity is somehow being attacked by people criticizing Hume. If Hume likes his Jesus, that's fine - but effectively telling someone else their religion is inferior and he should convert to yours is another matter entirely.

Evil Slutopia has a piece on this, too, and Maha, a Buddhist, has a piece titled "Let's Forgive Brit Hume." (Then there's a funny NSFW Red State Update, via Blue Gal, who has her own post on Hume.)

Hume's behavior fits into a larger pattern of religious narcissism, or narcissistic religiosity. Let's move to exhibit two, Antonin Scalia, via Steve Benen (from 10/8/09):

Thee U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case called Buono v. Salazar, the year's big church-state case. The controversy surrounds a large white, wooden cross, built to honor the war dead of World War I, given special congressional status on federal land. Lower courts found the display unconstitutional -- official endorsement of religion conflicts with the First Amendment -- but given the high court's makeup, civil libertarians are concerned about the possible ruling and implications.

So, how did yesterday's session go? At one point, the ACLU's Peter Eliasberg suggested a preferable memorial would honor all veterans of the war, "and not just the Christians." Justice Antonin Scalia found this outrageous.

"The cross doesn't honor non-Christians who fought in the war?" Scalia asks, stunned.

"A cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins," replies Eliasberg, whose father and grandfather are both Jewish war veterans.

"It's erected as a war memorial!" replies Scalia. "I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of ... of ... of the resting place of the dead."

Eliasberg dares to correct him: "The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew."

"I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead," thunders Scalia. "I think that's an outrageous conclusion!"

Far less outrageous is the conclusion that religious symbols are not religious.

And that's what it boils down to. Antonin Scalia, a devout Roman Catholic, wants to protest the notion that the symbol of Christianity is somehow inherently religious.

As aimai commented:

I always thought all that "Scalia's a really smart dude" talk was some kind of weird "the tribute white guys pay to each other" sort of thing. This pretty much nails it. That interchange is so crashingly, inexcusably, religiously bigoted and culturally uninformed that its hard to fathom. You would have to *not know* that the Jews don't consider themselves Christian to even make that statement in good faith. You'd also have to have some kind of weird, toddler level, understanding of the symbol of the cross in which it stands merely for the words "dead people are here and I noticed" that is, to say the least, odd in a practicing Catholic.

Scalia's remarks astounded me when I heard them reported on NPR (and I left a longer comment in aimai's thread). It's not surprising that Scalia has his religious faith, or even that he thinks it's the best, or even perhaps that he thinks his faith is the norm (although Catholics are far outnumbered by Protestants in the U.S.). But how could Scalia possibly not know that there are others who don't share his religious beliefs? What Eliasberg points should be obvious, yet Scalia is outraged.

Exhibit three is Bill Donohue of the Catholic League writing at the Washington Post site in late October. I should point out that Donohue certainly does not speak for all Catholics, if many at all. He's a far right social conservative, an angry bully and a raging asshole. This particular screed is fuming and incoherent even by his standards. Sadly, No has a good dissection of his crazy ranting, but here's some choice selections:

If societal destruction is the goal, then it makes no sense to waste time by attacking the political or economic structure: the key to any society is its culture, and the heart of any culture is religion. In this society, that means Christianity, the big prize being Catholicism. Which explains why secular saboteurs are waging war against it...

Sexual libertines, from the Marquis de Sade to radical gay activists, have sought to pervert society by acting out on their own perversions. What motivates them most of all is a pathological hatred of Christianity. They know, deep down, that what they are doing is wrong, and they shudder at the dreaded words, "Thou Shalt Not." But they continue with their death-style anyway...

The culture war is up for grabs. The good news is that religious conservatives continue to breed like rabbits, while secular saboteurs have shut down: they're too busy walking their dogs, going to bathhouses and aborting their kids. Time, it seems, is on the side of the angels.

Yes, walking one's dog is a slippery slope to damnation. Read the rest if you dare; there's more about the dangers of gay marriage and Marxism. Donohue is a spiteful man, furious that other people are not doing what he tells them to do. His sheer hatred is why it's important he shouldn't be granted legitimacy by a respectable media outlet. But his religious narcissism is also striking. Roughly 78% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, but only about 24% of Americans identify as Catholic. How is Catholicism possibly the "big prize" in America? At least some Protestant churches teach about the Reformation and the corruption of the Catholic Church in past eras in some detail; they are not fans of the papacy.

Nor do people who "sin" in Donohue's eyes have a "pathological hatred of Christianity"... the overwhelming majority simply don't think about it at all. They're not trying to spite Donohue, or the Pope, or some church. To the degree that they even know Donohue exists, they don't give a damn about him. He's simply not that important.

It's a safe bet that Donohue feels his is the true religion, the best, and the norm, even though he is much more socially conservative than even most of his fellow Catholics. Okay. But some time in high school, college, or later, didn't he... discover something about the world, life, maybe even himself? Seriously, has Donohue ever traveled out of the country? Taken a religion class that covered something besides Christianity? Studied anthropology? Had the opportunity to get a basic clue about the variety of humanity? The religious narcissism is astounding.

Some politicians and public figures pander to this narcissism. Mitt Romney provided a classic example late in 2007 during the Republican primaries, making such blatant horseshit claims as "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." Predictably, he also attacked atheists, one of the few groups national politicians of every stripe rarely pander to (if ever) and a group some politicians feel comfortable attacking. Using some religious rhetoric is one thing, but the panderer's pitch is that being religious makes one inherently superior – and I Am One of You.

Unfortunately, I've seen some similar dynamics in blog threads about atheism, where some religious people try to convert atheists and empiricists to a belief in their god(s), or claim their beliefs are equivalent (Check out Pharyngula, among other blogs). Common arguments are: I have faith that God exists, but you have faith in science; you say there's no proof God exists, but you can't prove that he doesn't exist, so why not believe in him; there can be no morality, or enjoyment of life without religion; and so on. Some of these arguments are sincere, but that doesn't make them any more accurate or less annoying. Normally, the fallacy is equivocation, using the same word to mean different things. Observable, verifiable "belief" in empirical facts is simply not equivalent to "belief" derived from religious teachings or faith. For example, saying "I know that Earth's gravity is approximately 9.81 m/s2" is completely different from saying "I know that my Redeemer lives." One belief is justified, supportable and verifiable; the other derives from faith. The processes for arriving at these "beliefs" are entirely different. Claiming they're the same is a bad argument, and not coincidentally, a sure-fire way to piss off an empiricist.

The thing is, I've seen atheists and empiricists explain this distinction in posts and threads countless times, often more succinctly and eloquently than I did above. It's really not that complex. And yet, some religious commentators will effectively (or literally) ignore these explanations and keep on making the same debunked arguments. Everyone has his or her blind spots, of course. But I think that for these particular religious people, the core principles of empiricism, or at least atheism, are almost utterly foreign. Formerly religious people who become atheists understand religious people in a way that some religious people simply never understand atheists. Not every atheist thinks the same, but generally speaking, atheism is not a religion any more than "not collecting stamps" is a hobby (still perhaps the best analogy I've heard for it). Most of the crowd claiming atheism is a religion, or who try to define the scientific method in religious terms, are religious narcissists, and cannot conceive of a system of belief or epistemology that does not resemble their own faith in structure.

Plenty of reflective, smart religious people (I know a fair number) have no problem making such distinctions, of course. For them, these types of "belief" are generally not in conflict. Studying comparative religions, anthropology, philosophy or theology (or just being thoughtful by nature) certainly helps. Stephen Jay Gould's line about science and religion being "non-overlapping magisteria" isn't entirely accurate, but there's some truth to it, and it's not a bad line for keeping the peace and fostering some general respect.

My general attitude on religion is, if this or that specific one works for you, more power to ya. As a religion professor I heard once said, there are many paths up the mountain. The problems arise when, for instance, some self-avowed Christians treat the Bible not as a tool of reflection and guide to ethics, but as a textbook of physics, biology, history and law – and insist that everyone else do the same. (I have much more on that elsewhere.) Literal interpretations of the Bible don't help, nor does viewing the Bible as inerrant despite all the translations, shifting language and metaphor usage over the passage of time, and general human fallibility. I've heard religious scholars claim such rigidity was far less common before the 20th Century – and while it's fashionable for Americans to claim they go to church and love the Bible, they often don't know it very well.

There are ways to talk about religion in public life that avoid the pitfalls or aggression of Brit Hume, Scalia, Donohue, Romney and others. They are many more in private life, or in religious communities. But put two Christians together, and they may not worship the same Jesus. Put a Christian and a Hindu together, and they may not worship the same god(s). Put a Christian and an atheist together –especially an authoritarian and an empiricist, respectively – and the gap may be extremely wide on fundamental levels. As I've written before, your mileage may vary depending on your communities, but in general, respect for atheists is the most important gauge for how healthy church-state separation and the First Amendment are ("The freedom to worship, or not."). Donohue and Romney don't give a damn about that (for different reasons), but Hume and especially Scalia should know better.

Update: I've got a follow-up here.


Fran said...

As always, you provide such rich material here.

I am, as I think you know, a religious person... a religious Roman Catholic person at that. Now it is easy for those who do not know me to start sizing me up with a descriptor like that. Please stop - stereotyping is not healthy in either direction.

The whole matter here really disturbs me. Britt Hume has really stepped down to a new level by giving his religious/spiritual advice to Woods. WTF?

I am reminded most of all, as Hume so breezily condescends here, that Jesus had an "eastern" mindset and not a "western" one.

I make a big deal of this because it is that very westernization (yes, my own church is the biggest manufacturer of this, I know) of Jesus that has brought us to this place.

So actually, I think that Jesus opinion about Buddha and Buddhists might be quite different. That said, I myself do not like to get into the business of predicting what Jesus might do, say or think. That is folly. If I am to follow Jesus it has a lot more to do with how I treat myself and others around me, starting with compassion and love and truth. Truth in a way that does not equate to the black and white Bible proof-texting that Hume and his ilk are fond of.

My own favorite headline (and a good column about this) comes from David Gibson at Politics Daily where he wrote "Brit Hume: Jesus Can Tame You, Tiger".

And one last thing - if there is a two word combination that I have come to loathe it is "devout Catholic."

As someone who is immersed in the life of the Church (and I capitalize on purpose there) - my employment, my school, my pretty much everything, I cringe when someone says that about me.

One can be devoted without being a complete, hmmm, what is the theological term I seek??? Oh! One can be devoted without being a complete asshat!

Joe in Oklahoma said...

look, Hume is playing to the Fox base: evangelical right-wing Christians. period.

Batocchio said...

Thanks for the comments and links, Fran! The religious folks among my friends and family treat it as a private matter and don't proselytize, although of course they can talk about religion with interested people.
Yeah, I keep you in mind when I write about Donohue. And at least as commonly understood, the teachings of Jesus and Buddha are very similar.

Joe, I think you're right that Hume thinks it will play on Fox, but this is actually more personal for him. Follow Fran's second link. Hume became much more religious after his son's suicide. I think he's making a mistake that's not uncommon – 'my religion has given me a great deal, and who wouldn't what want I have, so I'll spread the word.' It can be well-intentioned, but the problem is that other people have rich personal lives, and/or good communities, and/or spiritual or reflective lives, all of which differ from Hume's in trappings and sometimes in substance. He's essentially called Buddhism inferior, and without knowing Tiger Woods personally or even much about him apparently, is telling him to convert. If converting Woods is actually Hume's goal, it might behoove him to know how extraordinarily insulting this approach is. It's religious narcissism or narcissistic religiosity, and it's a more widespread problem than Hume. Hume's just a dolt, though, while Scalia's job means his views could be genuinely dangerous.

Matt in Chicago said...

So what are people to do when they know that they are right? Are they to sit quietly and keep it to themselves? That is contrary to the spirit behind the First Amendment. Speak out! Part of this country's very foundation is the right to speak what you know to be true. So, do not diminish someone who is brave enough to act on it. Left and right and center must tolerate all who speak out. If you disagree, debate! He is not an "asshat" or "asshole" anymore than someone who wants to protest against the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy or against the Democrat's desired healthcare reform policies. If you disagree with his right to speak in accordance with his heart, then you must also admit your asshat- or asshole-like qualities according someone who belives that you are wrong to speak what you think. The only exceptions are those who disseminate information intent upon sewing social destruction and hate. Not only are they wrong, but they must be silenced.

Batocchio said...

Matt, I'm nor sure you read the post that carefully, because you seem really unclear on the concepts. That's not to mention the follow-up post or the links – especially Maha's. I'm also not sure you're being forthcoming about your actual views, which you might as well come out and state. You seem to be trying to advance some variation on "you're intolerant of their intolerance" argument. No one has infringed on Hume's First Amendment rights, nor has anyone tried, that I've seen. He's exercised both his freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Others have exercised their freedom of speech to criticize him. There's not a constitutional right to appear on TV or have one's op-ed published – those are the results of editorial judgment by someone in power assigning value. The main criticisms of Hume have been that he was rude, clueless and showed ignorance of Buddhism.

So what is "right"? In the world of facts and reality, Hume has demonstrated ignorance of Buddhism. Scalia ridiculously claimed a cross is not a religious symbol and was offended to be told it doesn't represent Jews as well. Donohue, take you pick – we've learned he hates gays, okay - and that he ludicrously believes that people who do things he doesn't like do it out of spite for Christianity, the Pope and Bill Donohue. That's not only incorrect, it's narcissistic. Donohue is an angry, hateful bully who yells at people and has worked to get people fired when they criticize Catholicism. That's why he's a raging asshole. You're free to disagree with that assessment, of course, but the Catholics I know don't like him representing their religion. Regardless, the statements of Donohue, Scalia, Hume and Romney all fail on substantive grounds.

On being "right" spiritually – who decides that? That's part of the point of the post. Hume is a Christian and has his specific view of a god. Let's say Hume is certain in his views, and in his "truth." What if he meets a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or an atheist, who also is certain of his or her "truth" but believes in a different god, or none at all? It doesn't take much knowledge of the world to realize there are different views on religion, and some people aren't religious at all. Even if Hume feels he's right, he should also know he's unlikely to convert anyone using the approach he did. What Hume did wasn't the end of the world, it was just rude and clueless. It's rude to tell someone your religion is superior and theirs is inferior. It's especially bad when someone in the majority puts down a religious minority (in this country). Hume should know all that, and is in a position of power. Hume wasn't out to "debate" anything, not the least because he was too ill informed to know his subject. His goal was to convert, to proselytize, and he did so while appearing on a supposed news program as a supposed newsman. It wasn't a religious program, nor was he speaking in church. The venue is important. As Tom Shales pointed out (quoted in the follow-up), Hume could have just said he got carried away and apologized, and the matter would be pretty much settled.

You write "The only exceptions are those who disseminate information intent upon sewing [sic] social destruction and hate. Not only are they wrong, but they must be silenced." Doesn't this contradict your earlier statements about the First Amendment? Donohue is sowing social destruction and hate. Should he be silenced? Do you get to decide who is "right" and who is to be "silenced"? Who does?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's the beating (rotting) heart of the matter.