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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: MODERN CIVILIZATION AND RELIGION   Leave a comment

 

MODERN CIVILIZATION AND RELIGION

“I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice.” Albert Einstein

 

John Chuckman

Even the greatest minds sometimes are befuddled by emotional preconceptions, as this famous quote shows Einstein was by his rejection of randomness implicit in quantum mechanics. Ironically, Einstein himself was one of the founders of quantum theory with his work on black-body radiation.

Nothing is more befuddling than the topic of religion because it consists of nothing but preconceptions, veiled under the more seemingly-weighty word, faith. The topic destroys friendships, has caused immense oppression, and has started many bloody wars. These facts alone should provide strong warning against bringing it into public political discourse.

Not everything an individual deems as good for himself is good for society. This touches one of the basic flaws in Christian thinking which can so destructive to civil society. Christians regard all people as being essentially the same in the sense that they all are expected to be nearly identical over a wide range of human behaviors. It is departure from this set of expected behaviors that marks a person as a sinner. But it is easy to see that people are not the same in almost any physical and mental characteristic you care to measure: they in fact represent a spectrum of differences in each category of human behavior and thought, the mix being never quite the same twice.

The Christian way of looking at people is just another, older stream of 1950s’ thinking about what is normal. In those days, it was easy to be classed as deviant or abnormal just on the basis of dress or behavior which did not fit into society’s fairly narrow expectations for normality. Those were the days when the FBI busied itself with matters like garbage checks on people such as Einstein himself. Those were the days when a boy could become a Junior G-Man for snitching on someone. Those were also the days when people with mental illnesses could be involuntarily institutionalized and even lobotomized. Government took full advantage of the 1950s’ frame of mind, indeed it helped create it, encouraging the idea that those looking or acting different are potentially dangerous. The naturally-occurring paranoia which has always been a feature of American society (a genetic heritage from the Puritans perhaps) just needs a frameworklikethat to kick into high gear with witch hunts and citizens snitching on their neighbors. In both cases – Christianity and secret police – there is an underlying impulse to regiment and classify a population, much as every army recruit receives a buzz-cut, dog tags, and standard issue underwear.

The people who classify others as sinners or deviants, of course, believe they are promoting good behavior, but the idea of good in both cases is not a standard set by anyone but themselves in their interpretations of ancient texts, often corrupt from generations of copyists, always inaccurately translated, censored and picked through by the Church ages ago for what is acceptable and what is not, and readily misunderstood in the ambiguity or even nonsense of various passages. Even with such specific and generally accepted ideas as “Thou shalt not kill,” we know modern courts recognize many kinds of killing, not all carrying the same blameworthiness and penalty. Remember the famous line by Hannah Arendt about “the banality of evil”? That is a perfect description for both the Stasi/FBI-friendly citizen and a good many Christians: in being repressive, they thinktheyare doing good by the accepted norms of their society.

At least general thinking in our society has progressed somewhat beyond that of the 1950s, although the FBI carries on in its frat-boy-with-a-badge stupidities, just having new targets. The fundamentalist Christians also carry on with hell-fire sermons, often invoking intense and mindless hatreds, as of homosexuals or foreigners. One well known preacher, Franklin Graham, invoked the use of atomic weapons after 9/11. Another, Pat Robertson, blamed destructive hurricanes on homosexuals and advocated assassinations. Then there are the folks who writhe on the church floor blubbering incoherent grunts and shouts, calling it “speaking in tongues,” those who insist on poisonous snake-handling as part of worship, and many, many who practice prayer for winning football games, particularly homecoming games when grateful alumni can fill the institution’s coffers in their delirious happiness over victory . Hard to see anything of what we knowofJesus in any of that, yet it all has legions of eager American consumers.

Apart from such carnival side-show excesses, all Christians believe they have a set of received truths and that everyone should be brought to hear them, rejecting them at their peril. These truths include the odd conception that all men are hopeless sinners without Christianity. This very urge to convert others, this belief in a single, unchangeable truth, and, importantly, the implicit idea that all people are somehow just alike is destructive to democratic thinking and the values of modern free society.

The very sins of the sinners tend to be defined by criteria that science daily reduces to nonsense. Many differences among individuals – from sexual behavior to truthfulness, from propensity to violence to compassion, from ability to understand to various mental illnesses – reflect nothing more than differences in the make-up of individuals, differences largely in genetic endowments but also to a lesser degree in environmental experiences. Even the tendency to embrace certain religions and political parties as opposed to others almost certainly is shaped by these fundamental differences in make-up. The genuine acceptance of differences is a key to a modern democratic society.

And if there is one country in the advanced world that often does not accept this principle, it is the United States. In its foreign affairs, it is guided by what often are called Christian principles – a rather fuzzily defined and selective set of them and certainly not the rigorous precepts of historical Jesus so far as we know them. These principles are not written down, codified, or officially announced, but casual discussion and the words of innumerable private and religious organizations confirm the widely-held view. This explains in part the embrace of modern Israel, a relationship as destructive to civil society in its nature as the two-thousand year-old, frightening hallucinations of the Book of Revelations upon which it is partly based. Well, the conflation of ancient rubbish and modern society’s needs doesn’t work well even within the United States – that is why it is such a divided and angry society – and itcertainlydoesn’t work for the world in general.

And the United States is a divided and angry society. It is revealed in the rhetoric of many politicians, it is revealed in the sermons of many extreme preachers, it is evident in the extreme violence and lack of regard for citizens of police forces all over the country, it is revealed in the countless schemes to defraud ordinary people, it is revealed in the intolerance for so insignificant a difference as a politician not wearing an American flag lapel pin, it is felt in the embrace of utterly ignorant political figures (Sarah Palin, George Bush, Newt Gingrich, John McCain) by large factions, and its pulse can be felt in many television shows such as the ones showing police doing their worst nasty work on citizens.

Once admitted to public institutions and policy, religion, in any form, leaves little room for rationality or criticism or individuality, which is almost identical to saying, it leaves little room for thought. You are not supposed to criticize someone’s religion – it tends to create anger and aggression – so what do you do when people bring their religion into public institutions with which you must deal? The human race has terrible, bitter experience with this conflict in everything from the long creaking span of the Dark Ages to countless murderous, meaningless wars. And it is important to understand that religions are not always about a god. They may equally be about an ideology or cult of personality. Communism and fascism were both modern religions in every sense of the word, as is every form of inflexible political ideology.

But the human race learns only very, very slowly from its own history. Why else do we keep commemorating the horrors of World War I? Why else do people feel it necessary to build things like Holocaust museums? You might think such titanic murderous events could no more be forgotten than a natural disaster, but then natural disasters are forgotten regularly. The human brain does not want to dwell on past pain. It is a survival mechanism. And likewise each generation wants to create and experience new dreams and hopes. Too often, though, sweeping dreams and hopes are dangerous fantasies which threaten, perhaps unintentionally, to repeat forgotten horrors. Dreams and hopes, especially sweeping ones, are often the begetters of new and dangerous religions.

The continued commemoration of past horrors is itself a religious rite, one not useful for any good social purpose. World War I, for example, was little more than a gigantic blunder made by men bristling with pride and religious-like patriotism. Twenty million died horribly just so one branch of a royal family could not dominate in Europe at the expense of another. It achieved nothing, and indeed set the stage for the even worse terrors of World War II, including the Holocaust. We commemorate World War I largely to keep young men inspired enough to go off to the next useless war their shabby political leaders decide to fight. The constant commemoration of the Holocaust also is a religious rite using guilt and fear to manipulate support for Israel in the face of what is plainly its own savagery towards neighbors.

For as little as we might like it, it is a fact that all of humanity’s great horrors grew out of sweeping dreams and hopes taken to extremes, from the Crusades and the Hundred Years War to the Holy Inquisition and the great world wars. Catholicism, for example, provided and helped enforce for centuries the dangerous and delusional idea of the divine rights of kings. It blessed the conquest and slaughter of great Indian civilizations in the Americas. One Pope even issued a special gold medal commemorating Catherine de Medici’s work for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in which thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered in their beds or on the streets. And through the centuries of the Church’s dominance in society, its followers believed they were doing what is right because a respected authority told them it was.

Fascism and Communism were only the Twentieth Century’s contributions to religion in politics. Wisdom from the writings and speeches of a few men with either messianic claims for themselves or claims for great sweeping changes in society were received by millions who had suffered bad times. It might not be bad to reflect on the fact that Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were all raised in the Church.

In America, fundamentalist Christianity was the main pillar of slavery for centuries. Christianity, from the early Great Awakenings (a series of mass, semi-hysterical back-to-Christian-basics movements in early America) to the Scopes Monkey trial in the 1920s, has always been in the forefront of rejecting new ideas and supporting human oppression in one form or another. Missionaries have gone hand-in-hand with the military seizure of other people’s lands time and time again, the case of the Hawaiian Islands being only one of the most egregious. The only time these people served a progressive influence in their long history was a period of advocacy for public education – something many have turned their backs on now – which had the motive of exposing all to the Gospels. A small portion of them also spoke out against slavery in its last days.

Christianity appears to have arisen as a sect or sects of Judaism. Look at the bloody turmoil of the Old Testament. Murder, war, rapine, slavery are just a few of its delightful themes. That is why the most bloody-minded Israelis or Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israel can cite scripture to support almost any excess that appeals to them. 19th Century Zionism also was one of the modern forms of fanatical political religion, and the damage it has done is there for all to see. In its early days, it never went beyond being a narrow cult rejected overwhelmingly by Jews, but the fears and guilt around the horrors of World War II enabled it to gain a serious foothold and begin its own horrors inflicted on innocents.

We now regularly make new discoveries in almost every branch of science, and, with each advance in rapidly-changing technology, we acquire still more able tools with which to make still more discoveries. This process is only going to accelerate to rates we cannot imagine, and, indeed, with which much of humanity may have great difficulty coping. The received popular wisdom about things changing so rapidly now is close to meaningless small talk: things began to change rapidly at the dawn of the modern era, five or six centuries ago, the change gaining in rapidity with each significant increment of time, and there is nothing to say the established pattern should not continue. Coming, just over the horizon, are the assembly of synthetic life forms, robots that can do almost anything, and machines that will replace the experts in every profession, but even those coming “scary” realities are only the beginning of a journey whose end, ifitever has an end, none can imagine.  Any trouble in our coping along the way may well be met with new intrusions of religion into public life, either from traditional faiths feeling oppressed or new secular ones having sprung into being, a disturbing possibility.

All discoveries in science tend to confirm and reinforce the concept of randomness and such fundamental ideas as evolution and quantum theory. Remarkable new fossils are discovered and dated almost weekly, pointing to the rise and fall of innumerable species over time as well the interrelated nature of all life. At the microscopic level, studies of human and animal DNA point in the same direction, that is, to the interrelated nature of all life. In astronomy, the strange nature of the cosmos comes to us in wave after wave of discovery from black holes and dark matter to the very chemical building blocks of life being randomly created in the turmoil of galactic clouds, perhaps to be randomly rained down on countless passing planets with only those randomly possessing the suitable physical conditions becoming the incubators of life.

It is more than a little odd that the only source, regarded by Christians and other faiths as authentic, for the idea of intelligent design has not been supplemented in two thousand years, since the time when some religious eccentrics living in caves scribbled their dreams, hopes, and poetic fantasies on papyruses, giving their work the most sweeping publisher’s blurb of all time, that of being authorized by the Creator Himself.

Society’s needs through politics, government, and public institutions can hardly benefit from concepts unchanged in two thousand years. Saying otherwise really is a bit like saying we should still use chariots and papyrus and oxen in the fields, but then there are religious groups who do pretty much that. Amish, Mennonites, strict Catholic religious orders, and ultra-Orthodox Jews all live as if it were another century. Just why each of them settles on a particular era’s set of conveniences and dress is rather a mystery. Why the 18th or 19th century rather than, say, 50 BCE or the Stone Age? The choices are just a few of the countless irrationalities displayed by religions, with the intensity of the irrationality being greater the more extreme the faith. And this is no less true of the political religions, from those who insisted onanancient Indian symbol on armbands to those insisting on little enameled flag pins on lapels.

As someone who cherishes human freedom and democratic values, I certainly don’t oppose the practice of religion, but I very much oppose any of those practices being imposed on public institutions or manipulated for political purposes. As someone wisely observed, freedom of religion means also freedom from religion. Jesus himself said that prayer was for your private closet, not for exhibition as practiced by the publicans of his day. Remember, as soon as any politician or public official flaunts any kind of religiosity – from public prayer to the display of giant flags, you are being emotionally manipulated by the suggested support of higher powers for particular policies and acts, much as the Catholic Church once crowned and blessed the acts countless bloody kings and tyrants.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: IN JESUS’ NAME   1 comment

IN JESUS’ NAME

John Chuckman

My subject is Franklin Graham, one of President Bush’s very-public religious confidants. Franklin’s father, Billy, served President Nixon in a similar capacity. Billy’s efforts were crowned with a kind of earthly immortality: he’s on those White House tapes in the National Archives sharing anti-Semitic remarks with Nixon and never flinching or clearing his throat over the idea of using atomic bombs in Vietnam.

Franklin has pretty well replaced his ailing father in leading the huge Billy Graham organization. You may wonder about religious ministries being handed down like fifteenth-century dukedoms, but the practice is fairly common in America, and several of the nation’s big ministries – the type of outfits that might be characterized as Las Vegas Showstoppers for Jesus – have been handed down in this fashion. This happens in American politics, too. After all, a hand-me-down evangelist serves a hand-me-down President who ran against (and lost the popular vote to) a hand-me-down politician from Tennessee.

It’s not that Americans accept aristocracy, but in a nation of insanely-frenzied consumers, an established brand name always still has some juice worth squeezing.

The youthful Franklin seems to have been a bit of a trial for his mom and dad, reportedly exhibiting more interest in sowing oats than saving souls. He had an obsession with guns one could interpret as slightly at odds with the message of the Prince of Peace. He may just have been reflecting the quaint traditions of America’s Appalachian subculture – his home is the mountains of North Carolina – when he once cut down a tree by blasting away at it with an automatic weapon (I did not make this up). Apparently, he used to be fond of giving automatic pistols as gifts.

Well, at some point, I guess the lad realized he was burning out and going nowhere, and automatic weapons are expensive when you like to give the very best, so Franklin had something like the President’s road-to-Damascus experience. I doubt he recalled Henry the Fourth’s saying Paris was worth a mass (Henry of Navarre became King of France by adopting Catholicism). It would have weighed heavily that dad’s ready-made, super-slick organization offered a handsome, steady income, all expenses paid, especially if Franklin had come to recognize that his next-best career option might be itinerant bingo caller.

Redemption is one of America’s great ongoing themes. It’s the spiritual extension of all the plastic surgery, injections, drugs, youth-inducing potions, diets, and tales of lives changed by lotteries or get-rich-quick schemes, but it does have to be the right kind of redemption. None of your consolations of philosophy, peace of the Buddha, wisdom of the Great Spirit, or following the Prophet will do. Lives lived decently and peacefully from beginning to end are not admired because they don’t make juicy entertainment.

The approved American redemption-story template includes years of inflicting hell on others, often by abusing whisky or drugs, finally being overcome by frightful (drug-induced or otherwise) visions of going to hell yourself, and then spending the rest of your life annoying every person who crosses your path with the opinion that he or she does not know the truth. About 85% of the nation’s country-and Western singers and about 95% of its evangelists spend their declining years sharing such tales in magazines, tapes, interviews, and sermons. It’s a major industry.

This is all by way of background to Franklin’s words about his new mission. I suppose it’s possible Franklin thinks Nazareth is a trailer park somewhere in North Carolina or Texas which would account for his thinking that the people in the Middle East haven’t heard about Jesus, but, in any event, Franklin is now going to tell them about Jesus, at least his gun-totting Appalachian version. Well, almost, but Franklin has probably been advised that proselytizing for conversion from Judaism is against the law in modern Israel. With a Bush-appointed Proconsul, that kind of law shouldn’t get in the way of bringing the good word to Iraqis, although he’ll be a bit late to save the souls of those smashed and broken by American bombs.

Franklin’s organization, Samaritan’s Purse, claims that it intends only to bring relief services and not evangelism to Iraq, but how valid can this claim be? The Billy Graham organization for decades has worked only to convert people to its narrow notion of Christianity. It has been criticized even by other Christians for the nature of its work – cranking out converts like sausages in a vast Midwestern meat-packing plant. Perhaps when Franklin created his offshoot relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, it was in part a response to this kind of criticism.

Franklin’s own words on Islam over the last year hardly resemble a second Albert Schweitzer yearning to help fellow beings. His tone is militaristic and has the same nasty, parochial feel as the President’s “us and them.” One looks in vain for any generosity of spirit associated with the words of Jesus.

“We’re not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.”

Franklin here makes no distinction between the nineteen individuals responsible for 9/11 and the world’s hundreds of millions of Muslims, yet he seems never to have made the same kind of connections between criminals of other religious backgrounds and the religions themselves. Did the IRA’s outrages elicit such comments about Catholicism?

“…the persecution or elimination of non-Muslims has been a cornerstone of Islam conquests and rule for centuries.”

I suppose it would be foolish to expect any sensible perspective on history from a man of Franklin’s limited learning. The work of people calling themselves Christians in countless wars, religious persecutions, and exterminations just since the Renaissance dwarfs the volume of spilled blood in all the rest of human history. The Holocaust, the African slave trade, and the extermination of many aboriginal peoples were the work of people calling themselves Christians.

“I believe it is my responsibility to speak out against the terrible deeds that are committed as a result of Islamic teaching.”

Why should it be his responsibility to speak against these particular deeds and no others? Franklin certainly is not known as an advocate for the world’s abused and downtrodden. One does not find him shouldering this responsibility over other terrible deeds, a number of them the dirty work of his own government. No, his time goes to “crusades,” the word used for decades by the Billy Graham organization to describe its assembly-line salvation gatherings.

The denomination with which the Graham family generally has been associated, the Southern Baptists, has an ugly history in the United States. Extreme segregationists founded this denomination to keep blacks out of their churches and a century later, through the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, Southern Baptists were better known for opposing Dr. King’s work than supporting it. The denomination’s official view on a woman’s role in marriage is among the most parochial in the United States. Incidentally, the Southern Baptists’ Mission Board also aims at providing aid in Iraq. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptists, described the Prophet Muhammad not very long ago as a “demon-possessed pedophile.”

“There is no escaping the unfortunate fact that Muslim government employees in law enforcement, the military and the diplomatic corps need to be watched for connections to terrorism.”

These are the words of a man teaching suspicion and fear rather than understanding and brotherhood. One has to ask what such comments have to do with evangelism or Christianity, but American fundamentalists often ignore Jesus’ clear teaching on the matter and put their visions of government and secular affairs at the heart of sermons and pronouncements. This suggests that politics, and a particularly nasty kind of politics, is at least as much a driving force here as religion.

Franklin recently gave a Good Friday service at the Pentagon. Reading that, I had the absurd image of an early Christian preacher praying for Rome’s Tenth Legion. True, there were probably no Christian legionaries at the time, but the fact remains that the purpose of the Pentagon is exactly the same as that of the legions, professional killing for the state and its policies, a purpose totally incompatible with any words of Jesus.

But of course, the more apt comparison would be a few centuries later when the legions did their bloody work for a so-called Christian empire.