Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Freethinkers Rule OK

I left the church behind a long time ago. It seemed like the most sensible thing to do, once I realized just how similar the fundamental stories of Christianity were to all the other stories ancient peoples used to explain the world and their role in it. The imagination of humankind isn’t really infinite, even when creating infinite beings.

To remain a Christian seemed to me to require one of two approaches. I could either stretch the concepts I was learning to be true around the strong central beliefs of the Bible, or I could wrap myself inside the cocoon of what I had been taught, and decide that the rest of the world was wrong about everything that mattered to them.

Neither approach seemed worth the effort. Christianity had some beautiful stories, and several beliefs which set the basis for my own humanist approach to life. Love others as you love yourself. That seemed pretty simple. Why did I need to deny all that was implied by that simple sentence in order to maintain belief in a knowledge system which was contradicted by every alternative belief system, including the seemingly hundreds of different Christian sects?

I’ve always remained fascinated by religion, however. I mean, I went to Lutheran schools for 13 years, so there’s a big part of me that’s been influenced by these beliefs. Read a little about the history of any religion, and you’ll see the enormous role humans play in their construction. Just look at the difference between the Gospel as preached by Jesus in the decades-later reconstructions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the fire-and-brimstone restrictions on behavior thrown out there by Paul in all those letters that end the New Testament. Basically, Paul created Christianity as we know it. There’s very little in what Jesus said that leads to the concepts of Paul.

You may have noticed we’re involved in something called the Culture Wars, with the battle lines being drawn between fundamentalist Christians and, uh, everybody else. It seems as though the Christians are winning, though not if you listen to them whine about how persecuted they are. But, that’s probably because their definition of the battle is rather different than mine. How do you fight a war when one side says, “Okay, you guys believe whatever you want to believe, and act in whatever way you need to in accordance to those beliefs, as long as you don’t mess around with my right to believe and act differently” while the other side says, “Uh, uh, you don’t understand, we know absolutely what is correct (and just ignore the fact that historically we’ve erred on the side of knowing the wrong thing quite a few times) for all peoples in all situations, so you can’t do what you want.”

I understand that it’s not every Christian, or every sect of Christianity, or, for that matter, every person of any faith who’s fighting me in this regard. Many people realize that the United States of America has been built on a diversity of opinion, of resistance against both the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the minority. There is no special power given to members of any one creed, and this allows all of us, even those of us who don’t believe in any God, to contribute to the good of the whole society.

It turns out the division between a secular view of the United States and a Christian view is nothing new. I’ve just finished “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” by Susan Jacoby, and I’ve learned a few things, let me tell you. For instance, you know the canard that America was founded by Christians, and thus this country was always meant to be a Christian nation? Guess what? It conveniently lets out the fact that they very specifically argued over the question of whether or not God should be mentioned in the Constitution, and they decided that it would be better not to do it. These people knew what happened when specific religions were aligned with a state, and they didn’t want to see that happen here.

Jacoby covers a lot of ground, but she gives some pretty good stories about the fears of none other than Baptists and Presbyterians that the more numerous Episcopalians would foist their world views on these poor innocent believers of somewhat different faith. She greatly admires Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” whose role in spearheading the American Revolution is well known to us even though it was white-washed out of history for 100 years because he followed that one up with trying to talk everybody out of belief in God. She covers the intersection of feminism and abolitionism with the freethought movement, and doesn’t shy away from the ways in which both pushed aside the atheists and secularists in order to try to achieve their more narrow aims. Robert Ingersoll, perhaps the nations greatest orator in the 19th century, gets plenty of ink as one of the heroes of the last age in which Americans of vastly differing opinions on religion could at least stand a chance of getting a fair hearing.

Into the 20th century, she places the start of our contemporary version of the Culture Wars back to the Scopes Monkey Trial. From that point until the Roe v Wade decision of 1973, secularists assumed they were on the path of ultimate success. This was something of a legacy from the previous century, when progress seemed to be the favored storyline. It was so easy to watch success after success and decide that the other side would inevitably give up and accept the truth.

Of course, religion is a fundamental need of humans. I mean, you can get past it, if you spend enough time thinking about it, but it’s been so deeply ingrained in so many cultures across the globe throughout history that we have to assume it’s not going anywhere. I’ve gone back and forth between thinking it needs to be completely eradicated, and thinking it could serve a harmless role in society. I see the overwhelming Patriarchal controls of Christianity as it has been historically practiced, and I wonder how it can ever be reformed. And yet, there are Christians who attempt to democratize their religion, who are compassionate towards all people, even those who are remarkably different from them.

Jacoby tells of the many fundamentalist Christian churches, and even some of the more mainstream churches, in the 1950s and early 1960s which played such a horrible role in supporting racism against the Civil Rights Movement. There were fears of the unknown, hatred of those who were different, and a determination to keep things the way they had been for as long as anybody could remember. The parallels between this and the current anti-gay zeal of many Christians are obvious to me. And yet, to the other side, it is just as obvious that gays truly are sinners beyond redemption, or at the very least, sinners capable of leading society down a path that takes us all beyond redemption.

How can we compete with beliefs which insist that abortion is murder? That Terri Schiavo isn’t really brain-dead? That evolution never happened? That sexual desire can simply be ignored outside of marriage between males and females? These are absolute opinions, based on interpretations of the Bible which are not even the only ones possible to people who believe in the truth of that book. There is no compromising with these beliefs. There is no live and let live.

“Freethinkers” does nothing to provide hope that this war will ever be won, though it does offer enough history to prove that individual battles can be fought to protect the rights of Americans to differ. At the very least, it shows that we didn’t just suddenly get this way. I don’t know if the country is ready for another Robert Ingersoll, but until we get one, the rest of us have to stop holding our tongues, and argue with the forces attempting to ignore what has been learned through hard work, study, and experience.


Blogger tonypatti said...

"To remain a Christian seemed to me to require one of two approaches. I could either stretch the concepts I was learning to be true around the strong central beliefs of the Bible, or I could wrap myself inside the cocoon of what I had been taught, and decide that the rest of the world was wrong about everything that mattered to them.

"Neither approach seemed worth the effort."

Not to mention both of these approaches are dishonest, and dishonesty and christianity only mix when denial overcomes reason. And yet there are probably many other ways of accepting and dealing with christianity.

The first step for me was to rid myself of the notion that the bible and the church had the same authority as god. This can't be true, even though many fanatics believe it to be so true that they would condemn you to their favorite conception of hell rather than attempt to accept it.

Aquinas tried to reconcile christianity with Platonism, and even he had to admit, at the very last, that there was a need for revelation. or pure belief, beyond any and every rationalization he could work out. This is where my discovery that I have to admit that I'm a christian begins. When I'm hurt, and when I'm laying someplace bleeding afraid I'm going to die, I always say the same thing "Oh god, make it stop!" I think it's more than simple semantics, I think it's from my earliest exposures to church, and some deeper need that can't be explained. I really had a hard time trying to tell myself I didn't believe when the instinct was so strong to turn to a higher power when I find myself in the worst of times.

But everything after this simple fact is open to debate and reason and a small bit of mysticism. I found myself asking, after reading horoscopes, or dealing with acupuncture or yoga or massage therapies, or any of the other mystic clap-trap hipsters find themselves drawn to at one time or another, why I could find any validity at all in Zen Buddhism, for example, yet turn my back on Christianity, when the emotional resonance is so strong?

Once Marnie Mills advised me that I needed to get more spirituality in my life and I agreed, and said, “Let’s go to church.” You’d have thought I asked her to lay down and worship the devil - anything but that! And all the lapsed Catholics I know - their faith against religion is so powerful that it’s kind of like protesting overmuch.

We all regard Christianity through the same limiting and authoritarian lenses provided for us by the church, and even more by our own inchoate thoughts about what god is and what we “should” believe. Whenever an atheist tells me he doesn’t believe in god, I agree with them wholeheartedly, because I can’t believe in their idea of what they think the concept god means, either. If you can define it, then you have limited it, and I think the limitation of our own ability to imagine infinity and timelessness make it impossible to completely understand god.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe. I kind of have to believe, because it would be dishonest to deny it.

I get a big kick out of religion since I take the bible and the church with a grain of salt. But I do find a lot of compelling wisdom amidst the superstition and paternalism. There have been many attempts to clear up the matter, and some of them are quite useful for leading a happier life by any estimation, and that seems to be where I find comfort in it.

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