Clearly Conspiracy

What an odd place to find ourselves in.  Some evangelical Christians, who used to be guardians of decency and moral human behavior, now have to have their clergy explain to them why Trump wasn’t the messiah he’d been touted as for the last four years.  A piece in the Los Angeles Times recently described the struggles of one such minister with his congregation that had fully bought into the conspiracy theories Trump promulgated in order to mask his own lack of care for his country and its citizens.  Conspiracy theories have become big business in academia with faculty from many departments exploring them.  I haven’t seen much in the way of religion departments participating in the discussion, but I think they should.  Why?  Religions are all about getting people to believe and act in prescribed ways.

Image credit: Johann Lund, Wikimedia Commons

Not that religions alone can explain this.  Psychologists and sociologists must have some important insights as well.  I used to tell my students that not all religions are about beliefs.  Some have to do with behaviors—acting in a certain way, regardless of belief, is to be part of it.  Certainly that explains part of the membership in the cult of Trump.  Many who follow it must know in their consciences that a man who defrauds the government he “governs,” who actively womanizes, and who displays overt racism can’t be the ideal evangelical.  Ah, but the conspiracy theories explain it!  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, right?  You can sure get away with a lot that way.

Religions have a lot to teach us about both strange behaviors and strange actions.  Many years ago someone pointed out to me as I was enumerating what I considered odd beliefs of a New Religious Movement just how odd Christianity looks from the outside.  When I stopped to think about it, this made sense.  The unconventional aspects of the faith had become naturalized because I’d been taught all my life that they were true—unlike all other religious beliefs.  Not only that, but I had been taught that accepting them without question was the only way to avoid Hell.  Over the years the strangeness became normal.  Trump and his conspiracy theories had their way smoothed by an evangelical narrative of unquestioning belief instead of an examined faith.  Now many ministers, awaking sober, are having to try to convince their flocks that they’d accepted lies for truths.  It’s an uphill battle, unfortunately.  Religions, after all, have been about getting followers to believe without questioning, or, apparently, considering the source.

Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.


Something Lost

LosingMyReligion“Losing my religion,” I learned some time ago, means “going crazy” in some regions. It was that REM song that made me look it up. Losing My Religion, by William Lobdell, is much more literal. Having a hunger for spiritual memoirs, even if they end up with non-belief, has become an avocation for me. Growing up religious and having paid a pretty steep price for it throughout my career, I feel a bit like I’ve just risen from the analyst’s couch after a particularly helpful session. Here are people baring their innermost selves, trying to make sense out of a world that doesn’t add up. So it was for Lobdell. Since he was a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, his is the compelling story of a specialist who’s seen through the veil. His honesty is disarming. When I read such memoirs the question in the back of my mind is always, “what did it?” What pushed a believer over the edge?

By far the majority of these confessions I’ve read are those of women. Since religions have historically treated women poorly, it stands to reason that they might have second thoughts about what they’re being saved from. Lobdell, on the other hand, narrates what brought him to Christianity in the first place, and what forced him to conclude that it was wrong. Going the well-worn path from evangelical to mainstream Protestant to Catholic, he was seeking greater depth at each stage. Then theodicy. Theodicy is a god-killer. No matter how we frame it, there is no acceptable reason for good people to suffer needlessly. Out primate brains simply reject it. That’s not to say that for some faith can’t overcome such persistent doubts. It’s always a struggle, however, and, as Lobdell points out, not everyone is capable of believing what their mind tells them makes no sense.

One thing that stands out from all the spiritual memoirs I’ve read is how religion has such a difficult time explaining suffering. I suppose here’s where eastern religions generally have a stronger starting point. By acknowledging that life is suffering, they ask what we can do about it. Western religions, which often extol the good life, run into problems when theodicy hits. It’s almost as if the concepts can’t keep up with the realities of day-to-day life. Religions are often part of the culture you inherit, being born where and when you are. They also reflect belief structures from the age in which they emerged and those structures evolve over time. Today’s Christianity shares ancient concepts with the first century, but also modern sensibilities about psychology, culture, and philosophy. It can be a difficult mix, not least because it’s artificial and synthetic. As Lobdell notes, he isn’t alone in all this. It is, I might suggest, one of the reasons that studying religion is so important, even for those who do not believe.

Ancient History

Every great once in a while somebody in the popular media seems to remember suddenly that the ancient world existed. I suppose that it is the fate of forward-looking species to forget the past, at least until it looks trendy. An editor for Sunday’s paper, for example, ran an article by Tom Standage, “Facebook, Twitter: That’s all so 1st century B.C.,” written originally for the Los Angeles Times. Tom Standage has written popular histories that go back to the Sumerians; I really enjoyed his A History of the World in Six Glasses. He’s got a great grasp of antiquity. In this short article, Standage points out similarities between modern, electronic social media and the distribution of gossip in ancient times. Indeed, he is basically right about writing: as soon as people learned to do it, it proliferated. Communication at a distance is such a wonder that we seldom pause to consider just how revolutionary it is. Social media has just made it that much easier. Instant thoughts, at the speed of light. Anywhere in the wired world. And yet…

SolomonFakeNot having been trained properly in journalism, I don’t know how newspaper articles are designed. People, I know, don’t like huge blocks of text without some visual candy. To illustrate Standage’s article is a close-up photo of some funky paleo-Hebrew letters with this caption: “Were ancient stone tablets, like this one detailing repair plans for the Jewish Temple of King Solomon, part of early social media networks?” I may be obsolete in the scholarly world, but I instantly recognized this inscription. It was “discovered” and rapidly disseminated in 2003. Almost immediately it was clearly demonstrated to have been a forgery. Scholars nowhere accept this as an authentic artifact. Even those of us who last saw this a decade ago know that it’s fake. Social media, indeed? Somebody in the design department needs to read their ancient history.

What is so striking about this faux pas is that most well-meaning readers have no way of assessing or ascertaining the validity of such an image. Oh, the script is cool, no doubt about that—but the artifact is fake. To answer the question posed by the caption: no, this is not ancient social media. It is a modern hoax. People are susceptible to hoaxes because of two factors: TMI and P. T. Barnum. Too Much Information exists for anyone to stay on top of it all. For progress to occur we need to rely on experts on the past to clear the way for us. Phineas Taylor Barnum knew how to turn any cheap scam into instant cash. It is no surprise that Solomon’s inscription first appeared on the antiquities market, certainly with an eye for cashing in on the success of the recently promoted James Ossuary, the one where someone much later added the phrase, “the brother of Jesus.” I’m sure that Tom Standage was in no way involved in the choice of image for the reprint of his article in our local paper. It does, however, suggest an old message that will even fit on your Twitter character limit: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Playing Civil

In a piece written for the Los Angeles Times, Joseph Margulies warns of the potential dangers of civil religion. I first learned about civil religion in college in the early 1980s, when the concept was still relatively young. The idea is as deceptively simple as it is accurate: when nationalism reaches its natural limits, the divine is invoked. Civic ceremonies become religious ceremonies—presidents lay hands on Bibles, whether or not they believe. Civil religion dictates that all presidents be portrayed as believers, but that is something we have to take on faith. Civil religion leads to sculptures of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns and the flying of United States flags in churches. The danger with this innocent-looking triumphalism is that some people take it too seriously. It is not limited to Christianity, either. Civil religion is a disguised, albeit thinly, form of nationalism.

The vast majority of people in the world hold religious beliefs without deep reflection. That is not to suggest that they don’t believe deeply, but simply that they don’t lift the edges to peer under the surface much. We are taught what to believe by religious specialists. To question them is to question the deity they represent. Since fear is easily ingrained in the human psyche, the angry god is among the most effective of weapons ever devised. We fear for our eternal peril, and it is easier to believe the clergy have the answers than to divine the truth for ourselves. Those who think profoundly about religion, outside the confines of the professional clergy, are always a suspect lot. What business do we have, poking around the beliefs of others?

Civil religion shocked me when I first learned of it. Like the majority of my peers, I had assumed that public displays of piety were to be taken literally. As I began to hang out with clergy and to see how they often transformed outside the church with a fellow “insider” beside them, I started to understand. The cynical asides whispered outside the hearing of the faithful, the double lifestyles, the on-stage personae. This may not have been civil religion, but it was not always what it seemed. Teaching in an Anglo-Catholic seminary, I saw high mass as carefully choreographed as an off-Broadway production of A Chorus Line. Civil religion relies on its partnership with the unquestioned belief of the Saturday-night and Sunday-morning crowd. It all fits easily together and runs as smoothly as a pink Cadillac. Just don’t look under the hood.


Happy Mother’s Day

Women’s voices raised in prayer. What could be the objection to that? Religion, of course. A story from the Los Angeles Times reports that chaos broke out in Judaism’s most sacred site, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, as women prayed in a newly won, court-authorized action. The ultra-orthodox flooded in to block the sacrilege. No doubt religions have come a long way in trying to redress the wrongs perpetrated against women in their holy names, but true equality remains a distant dream. I’m not picking on Judaism here—nearly all religions contain knots, sometimes Gordian in stature, of males who hold their mythology close to their genitals. God made men first, gave them a few extra inches of flesh in a precisely designated region, showing that they are superior. Penis frenzy. Yes, manliness is more than next to godliness, it is divine. So we are taught.

Religions like to make universal claims. How is it that they cannot see that, at least on this planet, universal is half female? It certainly doesn’t make me feel secure knowing there’s an omnipotent guy with an almighty packet hovering in the sky above me. For five thousand years of human religions we’ve yet to see any solid evidence that such is the case. There are even places in the Hebrew Bible where God is referred to as female. Hosea has God say, “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them,” (11.4) a translation nearly obliterated by the good old King James. Those who bent down to feed children, in the days before Playtex, were mothers.


Women have, informally, been the keepers of religious teaching, in the home. Father might be the authority figure, but mother knew the facts of the faith. Even today, especially in the western world, active members of most religions are female. Men, however, reserve the right to make the rules. They say it is God. Our projections on the divine are reflections of our own wills, much of the time. Even patriarchal Paul would claim that in Christianity there is no male and female. But in fact there are. Since Paul’s day, and even before, there always have been. The three major monotheistic traditions agree that Adam was the first created, and Eve came tumbling after. Let the women pray at the Wailing Wall. They are the ones who have, in the name of religion, most cause to wail. Until men can learn the meaning of true equality, it is the least we can ask of common decency.

Unbelievable Voyage

In Sunday’s paper a story from the Los Angeles Times reported that Voyager 1, now 35 years old (and a technological grandfather, considering how quickly technology develops), is poised to leave the solar system. It is the first mechanical device, at least designed and launched from earth, that will do so. The spacecraft, billions of miles away, sends signals that take 17 hours to reach earth. It is boldly going where no man [sic] has gone before. The vastness of open space was one of the initial challenges to the traditional theology that had developed in an unbroken sequence from the time of the Bible down to the days of Copernicus and Galileo. Nobody was sure what was out there, but certainly Heaven had to be somewhere and God was clearly above us, so, in a marriage of convenience, God reigned in the unexplored sky. Voyager 1 bears a gold-plated plaque that attempts to describe who and where we are. Sent into the neighborhood where God used to live, Voyager was announcing that we were ready for celestial guests.

Many scientists don’t take seriously the idea that we’ve already been visited. The internet, however, has become a great clearinghouse for those intrigued by extraterrestrial life. I found a website this weekend that had located at least three different life-forms in just one of the Mars rover Curiosity’s pictures. We are lonely without heavily denizens. Stephen Hawking famously warned, a couple years back, that if they’re there, they’re probably not friendly. His paradigm, however, was based on earth psychology. Most of us know how far to trust that!

The fact is, we’ve been beaming our existence into space since the invention of the radio. Our electronic signals are, according to physics, pretty close to eternal. Electromagnetic waves just keep going and going, putting all manner of Energizer bunnies to shame. Long before Voyager 1 reaches the cusp of the solar system, our light and sound show has been announcing that this is where the godless party is and has been for over a century. Voyager 1 is far less than a needle in the cosmic haystack. It is more akin to a molecule or an atom. Will it find God out there? I highly doubt it. Nevertheless, when I went out to get the newspaper before dawn this morning, I spent an extra few moments looking at the stars and wondering.

Religious Capital

Eric Weiner’s book, Man Seeks God, surely received a boost with an article in Sunday papers (originally written for the Los Angeles Times). In this piece, Weiner comments on the American fluidity of religion, how people pick and choose the spirituality that works for them. His observations are based on the results of a Pew Trust study that indicates about a third of Americans change their religion during their lifetimes. This is a departure from the age-old tradition of being born into a religion, something that still seems to apply to two-thirds of the American population. In his article Weiner suggests this is not entirely a bad thing, since people are consciously deciding on that to which they will commit themselves. I haven’t yet read Weiner’s book, but the situation described here has a potent underlying implication.

Religions tend to make claims based on certitudes and assertions of absolute truth. When religion becomes merely a matter of choice, has it not lost its very foundation? This may not be a bad thing, but it does change completely the essence of religion. No longer can religion be considered an inviolable truth handed down from on high if the truth is a matter of choice. Or, more troubling, perhaps we no longer seek truth. In a population based on personal satisfaction, religion becomes an extension of personal comfort. In a society where non-faith is suspect (most atheists still complain of being considered “evil” for their non-belief), people need to believe something—anything. We can’t test the truth in any empirical way, so we all have to admit to some guessing. When born into a religion, questioning is a sign of doubt. When shopping for a religion, questioning is a smart economics. Does this religion work for me? Is there one that suits me better? Is it worth the extra costs?

The center of focus has shifted from seeking the one, unwavering truth that is beyond us to seeking a belief that we can stomach. Religion is a commodity. Perhaps this development is inevitable in any society so dedicated to the free market that even common decency is labeled socialism. Is it possible for people who constantly think in terms of supply and demand to understand an absolute in one tiny sector of their lives? Choice becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Its pragmatism indicates its origins. When people can choose a religion without consequences, it should be obvious that this is a human construct. Instead, we want to believe that our religion is the right one because that’s the way we like it. Perhaps the question we should be asking is whether our lifestyle is authentic or simply a fabrication made to suit our wishes. Our treatment of religion as a product to purchase and use reveals more about what we believe than does any creed.

Faith Value

An interesting op-ed piece by Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times appeared in today’s newspaper. McManus notes that twenty-eight of the forty-four Presidents of the United States have come from just four mainstream Protestant denominations. This year’s Republican front-runner list contains no mainstream Protestant denominational candidates at all. This McManus takes to reflect a growing tolerance among the American populace, but also shows how deeply rooted religion is in what has become, in a covert way, a theocratic state. Religious sentiment rules politics and savvy politicians know how to play the religion card to achieve the power they crave. As McManus’ column makes clear, when campaign season rolls around candidates begin attending church again. Of course, the average American accepts their sincere proclamations of religious faith at face value.

McManus also points out that the front-runner for the GOP, Mitt Romney, will face some difficulty as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Most evangelical Protestants reject Mormonism from their fold, claiming that they follow a different shepherd or just see everything through rose-colored glasses. Mormonism, however, is among the fastest growing denominations in the country (the claim for fastest is staked by far too many to get an accurate count; it is a safe bet, however, that it is evangelical). Mormons tend to come down on the right side of conservative social issues, but without the seal of mainstream approval, the bid for presidency remains a difficult goal.

The other corollary that McManus points out is that mainstream denominations are losing their place of social prominence. Today it is far more likely that a person refers to a Pentecostal or non-denominational believer (or even a Catholic!) as a “Christian” than they would refer to a Methodist, Presbyterian, or a Lutheran as such. Both the political and religious rules have changed. Americans want a Christian President, but they have lost sight of what that actually means. In the mud-slinging that accompanies any campaign season, suspicions cast on a candidate’s political orthodoxy will be sure to score big points. It is an open question whether a democracy and a theocracy can truly coexist.


I Swear it’s True

Spoon-fed the belief from youngest years that certain words are categorically bad, I find myself as an adult who daily plays with words wondering how this curious idea began. The taboo. The “badness” of select words can have nothing to do with the combination of sounds; one language’s swear word is another language’s polite invitation to dinner. It is the context of those sounds that constitute a swear, a cuss, a curse. Forbidden words. The sanctions against such words generally come from religious specialists who know the hidden power of human utterances. Even magic words trace their ancestry back to religious elocutions. In a report sure to be condemned by many religious groups, the journal NeuroReport has announced this week, according to the Los Angeles Times, that cussing makes you feel better.

In a controlled experiment involving ice water (shudder), participants who swore in response to the pain were found to have higher tolerance to discomfort compared to those who suffered in saintly silence. Those writing the report theorize that flight-or-fight response may be triggered by angry expostulation, giving cussing a survival advantage when used judiciously. I had previously read reports that suggested swear words, different for each language, were societally determined and were intended to freeze action (without ice water) in a similar way to a lion’s roar. Indeed, apart from those who habitually cuss, thus cheapening the effect, an inappropriate word is often enough to get the attention of a room full of people (not that I would know).

No matter what their psychological origins, taboo words exist in every culture. Whether they are intended to hurt or help is a matter of theoretical perspective. There is no question that these words possess the power to give pause. I am reminded of a former student who had gone on a missionary trip to a part of the world where Indo-European languages were not the norm. Introduced to a young Christian woman who had a name that sounded to English-speaking ears like his host (a bishop) was suggesting he commit an immoral act with himself, said student turned red with indignation. Months later, safely back in North America, he remained scandalized by the experience. In their context those sounds meant nothing inappropriate – so swearing is in the ears of the beholder. Before you decide to use this curative, however, be aware that the study reveals the best results in pain control apply to those who generally do not swear. Many of those I have worked with through the years would perhaps find a non-swear word far more helpful in stopping pain than their everyday vociferations.

Dispelling Myths

According to the Los Angeles Times yesterday, Danish scientists have debunked the folk-wisdom that a person can become drunk by soaking his or her feet in alcohol. In the spirit of science, three scientists submerged their feet for three hours in a washtub of vodka (I am very curious what the university requisition form must have looked like). At the end of three hours, the stone-cold sober scientists with pickled feet had dispelled “the myth.” Myth remains one of those loosely defined concepts that can be good and evil, in turns. If a falsehood is being disproved, the myth is misguided and wrong. If a deity is being described and worshiped, the myth is the ultimate truth. Perhaps we need a larger vocabulary.

A semester chock-full of mythology is drawing to an end for me. I taught on ancient Near Eastern myths, classical Greek myths, and biblical myths. Placing these religious stories side-by-side brings things into a sharp focus. No matter how funny or strange their results may seem to us, mythographers were people attempting to make sense of their world. Seldom do they get the scientific facts right, but that is not what they seek. In modern minds where the fine-tuning between truth and factual statements has been effaced, a conflict is inevitable. Especially since some fields of inquiry make lots of money (so much that professors can have happy feet) while others scrape by with the dregs of university funding. Aren’t we all climbing the same mountain?

One of the more disturbing aspects of teaching mythology is seeing undergraduates continually confusing mythology and history. This is not fine-tuning, the dial has broken off completely. I am astonished to learn that Heracles and Theseus really rescued (and sometimes violated) damsels in distress. Yet, on the first day of class, before the roster has been read aloud I could smell the alcohol in the air. A semester of dispelling myths lay ahead. “Kristensen [the Danish scientist] said it was important that the myth undergo scientific scrutiny to prevent students wasting their time experimenting with this activity,” according to Thomas Maugh. I wonder if it might not be best to keep the “mythology” alive – undergrads might well benefit from pouring the alcohol into their shoes rather than into their mouths.

A book undergrads might actually read