Tag Archives: religion

The Threat Of Ambiguity

Comments to previous posts to this blog have focused on the role played by religion in the polarization that characterizes today’s America. I’d like to put a slightly different “spin” on that conversation.

As Len Farber noted, it is unfair to lump all religions together–there is, as my youngest son has noted, a great deal of difference between religions that help adherents wrestle with the “big questions” of life and those that dictate an infallible answer. That difference extends beyond the worldviews we label “religion.” Back in the days of the communist USSR, it was often remarked that communism was a religion of sorts, and that observation can be enlarged to include pretty much all rigid belief systems.

Which brings me to one of those “there are two kinds of people” generalizations. (Obviously, a dangerous overstatement, but bear with me…)

We live in a world that can seem incomprehensible; confronting our complicated reality can range from exciting to intimidating to extremely frightening. Most of us (I hope, at least, that it’s most of us) muddle through, recognizing and coming to terms with our human limitations and making what sense we can of a complex world. But for a not-insignificant number of our fellow humans, keeping oneself open to change, to reconsideration–a necessary attribute of living with ambiguity– is intolerable. Shades of gray are terrifying. Such people are desperate for bright lines, clear rules–for certainty.

Enter some–not all–religions and other belief systems, including conspiracy theories that “explain” the inexplicable and bring clarity to messy reality.

If you are an older white male in today’s America, you were probably born into a society that promised you a future in which you would be a part of the dominant caste, a future in which you wouldn’t have to compete with–or share importance with– uppity women and minorities. That future didn’t unfold as promised. It’s understandable that you might want someone to blame for the social changes that cost you the reality you had the right to expect.

It was probably the fault of the “libs” or the “femi-nazis” or Blacks, or maybe the immigrants from “shit-hole” countries.

As I have tried to understand how any mentally-competent American could look at Donald Trump and see someone who belongs in the Oval Office, I have become convinced that an inability to cope with the ambiguities of modern life explains a lot.

There is, of course, a lot of research telling us that “racial resentment” is the most prominent predictor of support for Trump. There is also ample research suggesting that feelings of inadequacy and fearfulness–characteristics of an inability to cope with the ambiguities of life–are predictors of “racial resentment.”

Cristina Bicchieri is a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of a paper with the intriguing–if somewhat challenging/incomprehensible– title, “It’s Not a Lie If You Believe the Norm Does Not Apply: Conditional Norm-Following with Strategic Beliefs.”

In a discussion with Thomas Edsall, Bicchieri attributed one of Trump’s strengths to the fact that “people hate ambiguity,” and if there is one thing Trump is not, it’s ambiguous. “Trump’s ability to convey conviction, even when saying things that are demonstrably false, is critically important in persuading supporters to believe and vote for him.”

There’s an old saying “It isn’t what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you know that ‘just ain’t so.'” Too many Americans prefer to cling to certainties–theological, ideological or conspiratorial– that “just ain’t so.”

I think it was Bertrand Russell who said, “What men want is not knowledge, but certainty.”

 

 

 

 

 

Good Religion, Bad Religion

There’s a yiddish word that describes today’s post: chutzpah. 

Chutzpah is gall of the “how dare she” variety. It’s sometimes illustrated by an anecdote about a person who kills his mother and father and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Today’s post is about Christianity, and the reason I acknowledge my own chutzpah is because I am neither a Christian nor a believer. I come from a tradition that emphasizes behavior over belief–works over piety–and has co-existed pretty comfortably with science and secularism. (Minorities tend to flourish in more open, secular societies.)

What prompted this post was an article I came across in–of all places–Marketwatch, asking  why approximately half of Catholics and a majority of Evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump. The basic answer to that question, according to the article, is continued resentment of the First Amendment’s separation of Church and State.

To this day, there are many people who would like to put religion back into the center of public and political life. This is presumably what U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a deeply conservative Catholic, meant when he denounced “secularists” for launching an “assault on religion and traditional values.”

Of course, a preference for putting “religion” back in the public sphere raises a question that becomes more and more relevant as the country diversifies: whose religion? 

The article also referenced the relationship between a certain kind of Christianity and racism. It noted that Protestants had been supportive of Separation of Church and State so long as they remained culturally and racially dominant.

This changed after the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s, which alarmed many white Christians, especially in the southern states. Today, evangelicals, like Catholic conservatives, are among President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. They, too, believe that family and faith are under siege from liberals and secularists…

The attempt by contemporary Catholic conservatives and Protestant evangelicals to infuse politics with their religious beliefs obviously runs counter to the ideas of the French Revolution, which sought to uphold freedom from religion, but also of the American Revolution, which instituted freedom of religion. Both groups are targeting the carefully erected barriers between church and state.

This is dangerous, not only because it fosters intolerance, but also because it challenges, in the spirit of de Maistre, the idea that political argument should be based on human reason.

Once political conflicts become clashes of faith, compromise becomes impossible. A believer cannot bargain over a sacred principle.

You can’t argue with God. (Or your version of God.)

The article reminded me of Robert Jones book The End of White Christian America, which probed the anxieties–and rage– of white Christian men, as the racial, religious, and cultural landscape continues to change in ways that erode their previously privileged position.

When I was researching my 2007 book God and Country, I came across the very useful categorization of the nation’s founders into “Planting Fathers” and “Founding Fathers.” The Puritans were Planters. They came to the New World for “religious liberty,” which they defined as freedom to worship the right God in the right church and establish a government that would require their neighbors to do likewise. One hundred and fifty years later, the Founders who drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights defined liberty very differently–as the right to follow one’s own beliefs, free of government interference.

What had intervened was the Enlightenment.

Our legal framework may be based on Enlightenment understandings of liberty and the role of government,  but America is still home to lots of Puritans who reject that understanding– along with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, evidence and empiricism.

The continuing culture war between our contemporary Puritans, secularists, and adherents of  non-fundamentalist religions raises some important–and too often neglected–questions: what good is religion? do modern societies still need it? what separates “good” religions from harmful ones? what’s the difference between a religion and a cult?

My youngest son has suggested a useful distinction between good and bad theologies: If a religion makes you struggle with the hard questions–what does it mean to be honorable, to act humanely, to treat others as we would want to be treated, etc.–it’s probably good.

If, instead of helping you confront the questions, it provides you with the answers, it’s bad.

To which I will add: if your religion leads you to support a leader whose behavior is contrary to everything you profess to believe because he promises to erase the line between Church and State and restore White Christian male privilege, you are a flawed person embracing a deeply flawed theology.

 

 

The Danger Of Fundamentalism

Ah…religious belief in its infinite varieties…

Media outlets have reported the death from Coronavirus of a pastor who pooh-poohed the pandemic as “mass hysteria. The Reverend Spradlin was visiting New Orleans with his wife and family to ‘wash it from its sin and debauchery.”

Better he should have washed his hands.

Then, of course, we have corporate religiosity from the ridiculous and dependably theocratic major shareholders of Hobby Lobby. (I’ve noticed that their religious convictions always seem to be those that save them money…). According to a report from Dispatches from the Culture Wars,

It’s bad enough that Hobby Lobby is refusing to follow the CDC’s recommendations and remaining open because the wife of the owner had a vision from God; they’re now making it worse by denying paid sick leave to employees who are ill, which dramatically increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus to both employees and customers.

Hobby Lobby’s sick workers will be required to use personal paid time off and vacation pay or take an “unpaid leave of absence until further notice.”

So if an employee doesn’t have any vacation time left and gets sick, they have to choose between going to work while sick or not being paid. Inevitably, some will choose to go to work because they need the money and that means more transmission of their illness, whether it’s the coronavirus or some other condition, to other employees and to customers. I guess that vision from God included a command to put lives in danger. But of course, they’re “pro-life.” Whatever the hell that could possibly mean.

As reprehensible as Hobby Lobby’s insistence on imposing the owners’ religious beliefs on their employees, it obviously isn’t going to do the extensive damage being facilitated by the theocratic throwbacks who support Trump. The New York Times ran an article recently about Trump’s dependence on the Religious Right as a voting bloc and the policy consequences of their extreme hostility to science.

Donald Trump rose to power with the determined assistance of a movement that denies science, bashes government and prioritized loyalty over professional expertise. In the current crisis, we are all reaping what that movement has sown.

As the article notes, hostility to science has characterized religious nationalism in the United States. Today’s “hard core” climate denial comes almost exclusively from religiously conservative Republicans.

And some leaders of the Christian nationalist movement, like those allied with the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which has denounced environmental science as a “Cult of the Green Dragon,” cast environmentalism as an alternative — and false — theology.

This anti-science “thinking” hobbles America’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

On March 15, Guillermo Maldonado, who calls himself an “apostle” and hosted Mr. Trump earlier this year at a campaign event at his Miami megachurch, urged his congregants to show up for worship services in person. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not,” he said.

Maybe Reverend Maldonado should read up on what happened to Reverend Spradlin. So should the Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne. Howard-Brown occupies the pulpit of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida. This “pious” man mocked people concerned about the disease as “pansies” (do I detect a smidge of homophobia??) and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church “when the rapture is taking place.”

As the Times noted

Religious nationalism has brought to American politics the conviction that our political differences are a battle between absolute evil and absolute good. When you’re engaged in a struggle between the “party of life” and the “party of death,” as some religious nationalists now frame our political divisions, you don’t need to worry about crafting careful policy based on expert opinion and analysis. Only a heroic leader, free from the scruples of political correctness, can save the righteous from the damned. Fealty to the cause is everything; fidelity to the facts means nothing.

There have always been people who desperately cling to “bright lines”– who see every issue as  black versus white, even as modernity ushers in ever-expanding areas of grey.

Whether adherents of fundamentalist religions, or political “true believers,” they pose  a clear and present danger to reality, and to the rest of us.

 

The Anti-Fact Party

Here in Indiana, we joke about the time the Indiana House of Representatives passed a measure purportedly changing the value of  pi. That was in 1897, and Republicans controlled the chamber.

Things haven’t changed all that much. This year, similar GOP idiocy has apparently manifested itself in Ohio. 

High school test question: How old is the Utica shale formation that Ohio is drilling for oil and natural gas?

Answer: 6,000 years, just like the Bible says.

According to critics, HB 164, the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019—which every single Republican in the Ohio House of Representatives and two of its Democrats voted for—would bar teachers from dinging that answer, which is 444 million years off the mark, if the student claims “sincerely held religious beliefs” for making it. And this would apply to all science tests. For example, under this belief, astronomers couldn’t possibly be right about the Andromeda Galaxy being 2.5 million light-years distant from the Milky Way.

One of the critics is Gary Daniels, the chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio. He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the bill would protect students’ religious rights, a good thing. But it also would keep teachers from taking off points for answers that conflict with science, stating that they “shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work,” he said. And that’s far from what education should be about.

The author of the bill disagrees with the ACLU’s analysis, contending that the measure simply protects “religious self-expression”–although he is apparently unable to point to any examples in which Ohio schools have suppressed or otherwise denigrated “religious self-expression.”

Given the facial absurdity of a bill that would protect a student in the above example–and the amount of misinformation circulating on the web– I consulted Snopes, which  merely lists the issue as “unproven.”

The Washington Post quoted Ohio’s legislative services analysis, and followed up with the ACLU’s interpretation of the bill’s language.

Per the legislative services, the bill would

Allow students to engage in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork or other assignments;

Prohibit public schools from rewarding or penalizing a student based on the religious content of a student’s homework, artwork or other assignments. (emphasis mine)

Per the ACLU

Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the measure does in fact allow students to answer homework questions and other assignments incorrectly, based on religious doctrine rather than science — and not be marked wrong. Cleveland.com quoted him as saying: “… this legislation clearly states the instructor ‘shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.’ ”

Amber Epling, spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, based her analysis on the language of the measure. She also contends that it would allow students to be scientifically incorrect if they incorporated religious belief into a test response.

The bill’s language–which is at the very least open to interpretation–gives rise to an obvious question: If the bill is not an effort to legislatively “overrule” science, and if there are no examples of religious expression having been penalized, what, exactly, was it intended to accomplish?

According to the sponsor, “protecting students’ rights to express their faith encourages hope in the face of violence in schools and rising rates of drug abuse and suicide.”

Shades of “thoughts and prayers.”

And more students would excel in math if legislators would just change pi to make it easier to remember….

 

Speaking Of Christianity…

Yesterday’s post was about the ongoing effort of Christian culture-warriors to maintain their privileged position in American society–their insistence that the laws of the land reflect their particular theological perspectives.

That effort is nothing new. What is new is their diminished percentage of the American population. A recent study by Pew was headlined “Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”

In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.

The Pew study found that both belief and observance had declined; attendance at religious services is down, especially among younger respondents, reflecting what the report called a “generation gap.” Some forty percent of Millennials are “nones.”

Given the fact that it is evangelical Protestants, rather than members of mainline denominations, who have been most likely to demand prayer in public schools, attempt to post religious texts on public buildings, and protest laws protective of LGBTQ citizens, I was particularly interested in the following:

The share of U.S. adults who are white born-again or evangelical Protestants now stands at 16%, down from 19% a decade ago. The shrinking white evangelical share of the population reflects both demographic changes that have occurred in the United States (where white people constitute a declining share of the population) and broader religious changes in American society (where the share of all adults who identify with Christianity has declined).

The survey reported demographic information only, and didn’t get into motivations, but in addition to the normal historical ebb and flow of religious fervor, it seems likely that the embrace of Donald Trump by evangelicals has repelled people–especially young people. An article by Peter Wehner in the Atlantic makes a point that others have echoed.

The enthusiastic, uncritical embrace of President Trump by white evangelicals is among the most mind-blowing developments of the Trump era. How can a group that for decades—and especially during the Bill Clinton presidency—insisted that character counts and that personal integrity is an essential component of presidential leadership not only turn a blind eye to the ethical and moral transgressions of Donald Trump, but also constantly defend him? Why are those who have been on the vanguard of “family values” so eager to give a man with a sordid personal and sexual history a mulligan?

Wehner worries about the likely consequences of that blatant hypocrisy, a worry that other evangelicals share.

While on the Pacific Coast last week, I had lunch with Karel Coppock, whom I have known for many years and who has played an important role in my Christian pilgrimage. In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, Coppock—who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism—lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion, he told me, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”

For years, these “pious” Christians have mounted assaults on separation of church and state. They have insisted that laws should favor their beliefs; they take as a given their right to dominate the culture. They continue to diminish and stigmatize those they label “sinners,” and fight even modest efforts to recognize the equal civic status of those others.

I’m sorry for people like Wehner who truly “walked the walk” and are helplessly watching their co-religionists betray their faith. But I’m not at all sorry that many more Americans have now seen–and rejected– the hypocrisy concealed behind a curtain of false piety.