Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The Religion Problem

Religion is starting to get slightly weird. Did I say “starting”? Well, let’s just say it’s getting out of control. But let’s be clear. It’s not the mainstream religions that are causing the problem. In fact, polls show a majority of religious folk still favor the wall between church and state, which they see as essential to protecting their right to worship as they please, free of any state-mandated or “policed” religious dogma. Many mainstream people of faith are angry with the Bush Administration for seeming to cater to religious extremists. They may not consider themselves as progressives, but a clear majority “are unequivocal in their support for most just policies for the neediest, for peacemaking, for protecting the environment, for enhancing the common good.” (See Eyal Press, "Closing The Religion Gap," The Nation, August 30, '04.)

As usual, the real problem is the religious zealots. And though they are assuredly in the minority, they are the most organized and strident. They never rest. They are on the job 24/7. And I have no problem with people running around espousing beliefs in fairies or demons or taking off their clothes and barking at the moon. I just don’t think they should be allowed access to our law making and governing apparatus. I’m especially uncomfortable when I think that some of them might actually be put in positions of authority over vast armies and navies and their itchy ideological fingers allowed to hover anywhere near the red button on the little black box.

But of course, that’s exactly what’s happened here. It’s why we’re in Iraq today. And why there’s a whole new arsenal of “battlefield nukes”—so-called “bunker busters” being readied for deployment as I write. Because we have allowed a fringe of the most loony elements among us to become enmeshed in our government—True Believers who consult no one but each other before changing or making law, because God is on their side and speaks only to them. (As recently as July 9, Bush, speaking to the Amish, claimed that God speaks through him.) Operating in this kind of perpetual delusion, any action, any lie is justifiable, even necessary, since it is seen as carrying out the will of divine authority.

There’s something almost eerie and a bit frightening about these folks. I’m reminded of the old movie of the 1950’s, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, where gradually more and more “normal” people are taken over by the invaders from outer space. Yes, I know it was meant to be an anti-Communist movie, but I think it works perfectly well as an attack against any form of mindless ideology. The only way you could discern that something was wrong with the people in the movie was by the glazed look in their eyes, and how they went about their ordinary business like spooks or zombies, with no reflection or thought. For me, watching that movie, there was something more monstrous and sinister in those mindless automatons than if there had been a recognizable “creature” with the usual hideous attributes. Forget Godzilla, forget the Mummy, forget the Creature From The Black Lagoon. The idea that quite ordinary looking people are walking around whose brains have simply been sucked out of their heads by their own weird superstitions and beliefs, now that’s frightening!

Like those people who say, “The Bible says it, I believe it and that’s the end of it.” Apart from the appalling closed mindedness of this strange mantra, which appears to dismiss out of hand all other religions, philosophies, and, indeed, virtually the sum-total of revealed wisdom through the ages, but the insistence on a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible is no less a bizarre and rather sad notion. To take a book as wondrous as the Bible--even taking into account the heavy-handed editing of the King James version, yet still, a book of high literature, replete with poetry, history, metaphor and fable--and reduce it almost to the level of some rigid legal code, in which the entire contents must be taken literally, word for word, thus draining it of all its vitality and mystery. . . . may as well try balancing the world on the head of a pin. I can’t imagine anything more stupid or illogical. Or frightening.

And they’re walking among us. They have Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, they have congressmen, judges, school board members, city councilmen, commissioners, lawyers, teachers, and on and on. They reject evolution, stem-cell research, global warming, sex education, the findings of eminent environmentalists, philosophers and historians; in fact they seem to reject most science and history, in general. It’s a full-scale retreat to the Dark Ages.

They even have their own editorial columnists in major newspapers across the country, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. One of them, writing in my local paper, actually defended Bush’s crazy war by arguing—with numerous quotes from scripture—that Jesus believed in self-defense, and therefore would have done the same as Bush. In other words, Jesus would launch a pre-emptive attack on a sovereign country, blasting cities, killing and maiming innocent civilians by the thousands. Not exactly the Messiah I remember from my Sunday school class. The columnist didn’t say, but I suppose Jesus would also nickname his attack, “Shock and Awe.”

And these are bonafide columnists! They get paid for this stuff! Many of them are in syndication. It’s as if somehow everyone has agreed that these proselytizers’ cockamamie beliefs have such gravitas that they should be disseminated throughout the land. I’m beginning to wonder at what point we’ll start to see space on the editorial pages given over to purveyors of witchcraft or self-flagellation or the idea that masturbation causes acne.

I really don’t know how we reached this point, other than we just sat around and let it happen. I do believe there was a time when somewhat responsible people were running things. There were good men and women—Republicans and Democrats alike—in positions of power who would never have gone for this deal, no, not in their wildest dreams. Because underneath their own selfish motivations, most of them, I think, still possessed some sense of civic duty, some allegiance to the most fundamental principles of our country.

So Lyndon Johnson stole his first election. But later, as President, he still had his War On Poverty, and passed more civil rights legislation than almost any other president.

But imagine asking the likes of F.D.R. or Eisenhower how they would feel if certain Christian Fundamentalists were to get control of our government, from the White House to the Justice Department. Imagine their reaction. Surely, it would begin with peals of laughter. But then, wouldn’t they screw up their faces a little and say, “Are you serious?” “Are you crazy?” I can just see the look of mirth in Lyndon Johnson’s eyes at such a question.

Well, as usual, I have no answers.

Except perhaps in the words of Frederick Douglass, who when asked by a young activist what he should do, responded thusly: “Just three words of advice for you, my friend: Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.”

And, oh yes. Vote, by God!


Lately, I’ve been reading from the journals of Edward Abbey (Confessions Of A Barbarian), author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Desert Solitaire, and other fine books, a man who had opinions about everything. Here he is actually talking about love and his own failings of the heart in that regard, but it leads him into a brief, but quite serious, discussion concerning religion, worth quoting, I think:

“. . .but I am aware that I may, semi-consciously, caught in a flush of general excitement and independence, have said or written things which could affect the one I love and who loves me just as painfully as if it had been an act of calculated malice. Of such sinful recklessness I may well be guilty, and the possibility troubles me greatly. To play with, to twist and stretch and rack the grave emotions of another human being—that is an awful thing. And I’m not so sure as I was a paragraph ago that love, even great and joyous love, can wash away such a sin.

“In fact, I don’t believe sins can be washed away by anything, not by the Blood of the Lamb, not by Christ on or off the Cross, not by love of God or God’s love, not by a billion Hail Marys or a Milky Way of candles or a thousand ages of penance or a million miles of contrition on broken glass and burning coals and leprous bodies.

“In fact, I indignantly reject, with horror and with loathing, the dark, ancient, vile and filthy lie that another man or God-Man can redeem us of our sins by his own suffering, or that we can purify ourselves and start over again by compounding our sins with more suffering, more ugliness, more filth and gibbering faith.

“What an utterly horrible doctrine! What a contemptible and nightmarish horror-story to preach to grave, thoughtful children. It’s time we stood up like men and faced our responsibilities, admitted and lived with our past sins, and cleared our hearts, in so far as we can, not by atonement or by condemning someone else to die for us, but by refusing to cooperate with evil and insisting upon doing good.”

Pray it may be so.


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