Meanness

There’s often a meanness to literalist religions.  A sense that if they can keep their particular interpretation of God’s will, then anybody can.  No compassion.  No forgiveness.  Considering the base messages of nearly all those religions that harbor fundamentalists, that attitude is quite surprising.  Indeed, it ceases to be religion at all and becomes merely a facade of one.  The recovery of the body of Khaled al-Asaad is what brought this to mind.  Back in 2015 al-Asaad, an 82-year old archaeologist, was beheaded by the extremist Islamic State group in Syria.  Al-Asaad had spent his life excavating and attempting to understand the site of Palmyra.  The Islamic State was determined to destroy what they considered “idols” or offensive images.  When the octogenarian refused to tell them where they could find further antiquities to destroy, they beheaded him.

This isn’t finger-pointing at Islam.  Islam is a highly moral religion that values peace.  What it has in common with Christianity, apart from some shared history and theology, is that it fosters extremists.  Extremism may be fueled by religion but it’s not religious.  The adherents are often mean, hard-line individuals who have trouble distinguishing the shades of gray that make up so much of life.  As a result of the Islamic State movement, many antiquities that had survived for thousands of years were destroyed forever.  There were heroes like Khaled al-Asaad (we might even call them saints) who tried to protect these irreplaceable artifacts.  Religion has no feud with the past.  In fact, religions consciously build on their pasts.  Continuity is important to them.

Extremism of this kind is a fairly new blending of religion and politics.  As recently as the sixties it was felt that religion and politics should be compartmentalized.  Kept separate.  When the Republican Party realized in the seventies that evangelicals could be made into a voting bloc, religion became politicized.  This happened elsewhere around the world.  “True believers”—the very term suggests the rest of us believers aren’t true—tasting political power, realized they could use their meanness to make the rest of the world in their own unforgiving image.  We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.  Even now Republican lawmakers fear reprisals of Trump supporters if they dare accept the truth.  In other words, extremist religion has pitched its battle against the truth itself.  That would be ironic if it weren’t so terrifying.  No religion that I know has meanness among its central tenets.  It takes literalism to make it one.


Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.


Label Maker

Did you ever have one of those label makers?  The kind with a rotating wheel that embossed a plastic ribbon with letters that you could stick to things?  Labeling is so easy!  I often feel constrained, however, by the chosen labels of extremist groups.  Not all evangelicals are power-hungry or enemies of human welfare.  This is perhaps one of the keys to the success of extremists.  Camouflage has long been recognized by evolution as a most effective tactic.  I have many evangelical friends who do not protest cartoons, or ride around in Trump-laden vehicles, polluting the environment like there’s no tomorrow.  The problem is what to call them since the more radical wing has usurped their nomenclature.  I often think of this because I eschew labels in general, but people in a collective can do quite a bit more damage than a single disgruntled individual.  Perhaps “disgruntled” should be part of their name?

Religions generally begin as efforts to help make the world a better place.  The historian of religions sees, however, that over time many believers begin seeing the peripherals as the central tenets of the faith.  Since I’m familiar with evangelicalism, let me use that as an example.  As a form of Christianity, evangelicalism began with the Reformation.  Pietist groups, freed from Catholicism’s idea of communal salvation, began to worry about their individual souls and how  they might be saved.  Their belief structure eventually came to include the necessity of converting others because, if you read the Bible a certain way, that’s a requirement.  Over time this outlook  evolved into the idea that only one group (one’s own) has truly understood the Christian message.  Once numbers grow numerous, it becomes like the medieval Catholic Church—large enough to take political power.  Somewhere along the line the central message of helping make the world a better place morphs into making the world evangelical only.  Or whatever label we feel constrained to use.

labels are problematic

I’m not picking on the evangelicals here—this could apply to any extremists.  And it certainly doesn’t apply to all evangelicals.  Religion has been part of human culture from the very beginning.  A good case can be made that it is one of the basic components of consciousness itself.  A person has to learn how to become unreligious.  We are also political animals.  Who doesn’t want things their own way?  We can’t all win, however, and some religions have difficulty separating, say, a savior willing to die for others and the insistence on one’s own way no matter what others want.  Like most aspects of life this is a balancing act.  I grew up evangelical.  I have friends who are evangelical.  I don’t want to insult anybody, but what can you do when you feel disgruntled by the degradation of religion into an excuse for hate?  I lost my label maker long ago and I no longer know what to call things anyway.


Not Final Words

When death’s not the final word, it’s hard to argue.  This is such a basic level of disagreement between religions and culture that it may be impossible to avoid conflict.  Not that I condone it, but a couple in Oregon, members of the Followers of Christ Church, let their newborn die rather than seek medical attention, according to a Washington Post article.  I have to admit that the Followers of Christ is a sect of which I’d never heard—there are thousands of such groups—but I’m guessing that at the base of their refusal to seek help was a deeply held belief in the afterlife.  Almost impossible to comprehend unless you’ve accepted it profoundly yourself, this single teaching is a game changer.  The child who dies, although tragic from our perspective, has not, in the eyes of a religion transcending death, lost anything.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to to realize just how radical a teaching Christianity was in its early days.  The myth of the martyrs may well have been overblown, but the fact is here was a sect that didn’t fear death like the vast majority of people do.  Resurrection is a powerful concept.  Those who truly believe in it have nothing to fear.  Modern-day sects that take this seriously may respond quite differently to crises than “normal” religions.  In a situation Niebuhr would’ve recognized, this “Christ against culture” outlook is never easily resolved.  True believers will accept punishment on the part of secular authorities as a form of martyrdom.  The fear of death on the part of the vast majority of people outweighs, I suspect, professed belief in the afterlife.

Place the current political climate into the mix and the colors will become even more vivid.  Extremism is the flavor of the day.  Mainstream Christianity, for all of its problems, has sought a balance between accepting the benefits of medical science—the social acknowledgment that taking an infant’s life is inherently unfair and unjust—and an official belief in an afterlife.  It allows for a fairly comfortable existence of accepting belief without becoming the radical threat to a materialistic society that more extreme sects represent.  In a nation where no controls exist because of the power of office favors those who believe in nothing so much as themselves, and even the rhetoric of right to life becomes meaningless.  Sects and violence, to go back to my roots, sleep peacefully side by side.  And when awakened, the right to be conceived can’t be extended to life beyond the womb for those who believe death’s not the final word.


The Blessing/Curse of Janus

Janus wonders about January

As the world stumbles into another new year, my thoughts turn to Janus. The namesake deity of January (since the Romans gave us a winter New Year’s day), Janus is a poorly understood ancient deity. Since he is overseer of beginnings and endings of all sorts, he is often portrayed with two faces or heads — one facing forward and the other facing back. There are no attendant mythological stories to this god, although he appears to have been very important in early Roman religion. He comes to mind as I prepare to teach a course on mythology that I haven’t prepped for since Oshkosh; my brief holiday break has been spent reading classical mythology.

Not only to we face a new year, but the beginning (or ending, it matters not which to Janus) of a new decade. Looking back over the muck-up made of the first decade of the twenty-first century, often because of religious extremists, I wonder what Janus sees down the road. There are many who feel optimistic about our firm bridle on technology and its ability to make our lives easier. Some of us believe that society has lost its appreciation for the classical study of the humanities and that we have lost our way because simplistic religion has seized the reigns from sensible mythology. In an age of information clutter, there is no one able to synthesize reason out of any of it. Perhaps it is the human condition.

Janus likely originated in the Ancient Near East. Once he reached Rome he continued to evolve into a major deity until eclipsed by the Olympians (many of whom first appear in the Ancient Near East as well). Not ironically, religious tolerance and religious intolerance both seem to have derived from the Near East also: Cyrus the Great’s declaration of religious freedom emerged in the midst of theocidal demands on the part of jealous gods. Now as we stand on the brink of a new decade, Janus only knows which way the unfeeling pendulum will swing.