One bad apple … (Okay, more than a few bad apples.)

This thoughtful piece on by the Rev. Chloe Breyer (and you know right there it’s probably not written by a fundamentalist Christian wink) points out that obviously not all Christians are rabid, hate-mongering flat-earthers, so why are the extreme right-wingers getting all the attention?  Where’s the silent, moderate majority?

Last Wednesday, Dr. Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, along with other progressive faith leaders, spoke at a sparsely attended press conference in Midtown Manhattan. Their purpose was to encourage alternative religious voices in the public square. These religious leaders staged this meeting in order to launch the Vote ALL Your Values Campaign, which celebrated some recent accomplishments: over 450,000 voters registered; a corps of 400,000 progressive religious activists recruited; hugely successful religion-based ad campaigns; and more than a million voter guides (describing poverty, health care, and education as religious issues) distributed. Citing the necessity of a “faith-rescue operation” from the religious right, the Rev. Jim Wallis proclaimed a beginning of the end of that faction’s “dominance over faith and politics.”

One reason the right has reigned despite progress like this is that the tools used for studying and reporting on religion haven’t kept pace with the increasingly complex impact of religious convictions on national and international politics.

Breyer describes the various pollster categories used, and then points out what we often miss:  that strong religious faith does not necessarily equal a literalist viewpoint, nor does it mean that no people who self-identify as very religious can’t also be socially progressive:

Where, for example, would the political views of a member of Evangelicals for Social Actions show up in such a survey? Though she might agree that tradition is worth preserving and that scripture is highly authoritative, she would not qualify as an evangelical “traditionalist.” Why? Because rather than focusing her energies on the single passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans used by antigay members of the religious right, she might instead take seriously the over 2,000 biblical verses relating to poverty and spend her time developing micro-enterprise lending programs in poor countries or advocating increased foreign aid. But she might not qualify as a “modernist” since she could easily disagree that all world religions contained the same truth. This person, like other religious conservatives with socially progressive views, falls below the radar.

Another reference to the Suskind article, this time with a good point that I completely missed:

Suskind’s article does a great disservice to progressive religion. Rather than illustrate why the theology emanating from the White House is rotten from a religious standpoint, Suskind uses all of the muddied definitions of the word “faith” interchangeably—from the most technical to the most prosaic. Purposefully or not, he leads his largely secular, liberal, and affluent audience to indulge their deepest and least rational fears: Every American believer is a potential King Canute, confessing a higher power today and telling the sea to turn back tomorrow. (Steve Waldman wrote more about George Bush as spiritual hallmark in this “Faith-Based” article.)

In other words, Bush is giving his fellow evangelicals a bad name, as another Slate article discusses.
Finally, Breyer issues a call to progressives to get out there and be heard, in the name of battling oversimplification of faith and politics:

[A]t a time when, as Jim Wallis puts it, the answer for many “is not less religion, but better religion,” the general public as well as the person in the pew is entitled to a more thoughtful, nuanced understanding of the potential of religious belief along with its pitfalls.

And I think we can all get behind that.  What we need here is more nuance.  Ironically, what we as atheists would probably appreciate is more religious voices to be heard, this time from the ones with whom we’re more likely to be able to live in peace.


9 thoughts on “One bad apple … (Okay, more than a few bad apples.)

  1. That’s an excellent article and a good reminder to us that there are plenty of Christians out there that we non-believers can appreciate and would like to hear more from as a counter to the extremists.

    I’m accused of being anti-Christian on a regular basis and the truth is I have no problems with the majority of them, but I can understand how I can give the impression of being anti-Christian because I bitch so much about the troublemakers.

    Thanks for sharing that one with us, GM. I think it’s important that we keep stuff like that in mind.

  2. I think that while there’s both value (and danger) in some of Bush’s “faith-based” initiatives (at least these was value in bringing up the subject), overall he’s probably done more harm to the idea of religion in the public forum than good, by his pandering to a particularly outspoken and narrowly-focused group of Christians at the expense of other voices.

  3. Is there really such a thing as better religion?

    I mean, once you accept that your destiny is in the hands of a capricious and indomitable God who is as willing to torture and abandon you as he is to redeem you, how do you perceive your existence as open-ended and self-determined? If life is a gift given, then it is bestowed voluntarily and without expectation of compensation. If not, it is a calculated manipulation of matter for personal and egotistical gain. How do you meet a god worthy of adoration who will use your potential so dispassionately?
    Do you consult the Bible, which is vague, contradictory, mutable and many-versioned to fashion your core beliefs?

    How do you rectify a basic tenant of the religion, which is that it isn’t what you do that dooms you to hell but, instead, what you don’t do?

    No matter what, you’ll always find yourself searching for an expert (whether it be a human or a book of rules) to guide you to a secure and comfortable state of awareness and perhaps no one never gets there, or if they do it’s likely due more to abandonment of reason and curiosity than to the procurement of absolute knowledge.

    Religions, by their very natures, are inexact and flawed methods for understanding the meanings of life and afterlife probabilities.

  4. Brock, all of the problems you refer to here are peculiar (and I use the word advisedly) to Christianity.  You won’t find threats of heaven and hell by a capricious god in Buddhism, for example.

    I think searching for meaning in one’s life and striving to live by a moral code are commendable things.  It’s just a shame that the insistence on an invisible being, the guilt, and the oppression of others all end up perverting the search for truth.

  5. I think searching for meaning in one’s life and striving to live by a moral code are commendable things.

    But how do you come by meaning unless you accept that you were given a mission? In other words, if life, by beginning, was just an accident expressed, what does it have to prove? How does it justify looking at itself and saying “I have goals to meet”. Who gave it goals? Who gave it value?

    Unless you accept that life is it’s own justifier. That to stay alive is meaning defined.
    No apologies for living are needed. No ONE else need be thanked or worshiped for your existence.

    But still, we often feel compelled to credit and serve someone or some THING because of our lives.

    I guess that’s why I tend to believe there will be an existence for all after these physical lives. It’s hard for me to imagine, once alive, that anyone would have a need or even an inclination to die completely. And so I feel that through our own desires to exist, we will always continue to, in some way, in some form, in some expression and through some awareness that satisfies each of us.

    Not > Let there BE life and it was so, but > Life,  while being, it is so, and so, and so…

    What else could the ultimate meaning of life be but to live?

    I truly hope that someone else reading this is able to make at least some sense of what I said.

  6. (note: I started writing this before Brock posted a second time and want to respond to his first post)
    Brock, I can appreciate your comments because I often feel the same way.  But I gotta say that people who play well with others, no matter what the religion (or lack thereof), all have one thing in common:  they understand that religion is idiosynchratic (just as all facets of culture are). One doesn’t have to be an atheist to accept the fact that everyone is different or to believe in self-determination.  I think in Christianity, one of the key bases for this acceptance is that the Bible was written entirely by humans.  It, like the rest of the religion, must be viewed in its context as an historical item, not as the unquestionable voice of God.  Christianity is full of ways to enable tolerance and self-determination if one but looks for them.
    The capricious and indomitable God worthy of your disdain is a creation of the worst of Christians, not of the best…not even of the majority.

    In my opinion, the lack of hypocrisy inherent in lack of belief is most often (and loudly) championed by atheists because we ourselves could not reconcile the differences between our religions and other paradigms and so we simply dropped out of our religions and now assume that everyone who believes does so either in spite of the same internal conflicts or out of sad ignorance of those conflicts.  Either way, we find such foundations of belief to be dispicable and clearly devoid of reason.  This perception is born out of the unfortunately dilemmic nature of common American logic—you either like it or you don’t, it’s good or evil, black or white.  ‘Everyone is different’ is reduced to a smug, self-righteous cover-up for (defense against?) us vs. them while acceptance and the understanding of true idiosyncrasy are lost.  I am not directing this solely at you, Brock.  If anything, this is me talking to myself and more generally to other atheists; I thought you might enjoy listening in. 

    But this sort of two-sided logic doesn’t realistically address the issue.  Everyone deals with anomalies differently and there are many Christians who both believe in God and perceive themselves as having self-determination.  (I sure wish I had met one before I disavowed my former religion.)  Let me provide you with some examples (I am going to stay focused on Christianity since I know about it and it seems to be what Brock is mainly talking about):

    I think my high school history teacher put it in interesting terms—he said that people who believe in God usually do it in one of 3 ways:
    God once: he created the world and left it on its own; he does not have the capability to intervene
    God twice: he created the world and used to intervene, but he can’t now
    God three times: he created the world, intervened in the past, and continues to intervene to this day
    You could make reasonable arguments within Christianity for any of these three ideas.

    In anthropology of religion, I read a paper proposing that God is the collective consciousness of humanity, a sum far greater than its parts, more of a cultural structure than a benevolent anthropomorphic entity. Thus, God can be many different things to different people without contradiction and we can understand all of the world’s religions in a new perspective without resentment.

    One of my best friends in high school was a mormon.  She wore a ring that said “CTR”, which means “choose the right”.  I think that’s a beautiful and very human way to live.  Her mother encouraged me to read tarot cards for herself and others at a birthday party because she felt she had to understand everything about a situation before she could “choose the right”.  CTR is supposed to be a major pillar of the mormon religion, but most of the outside world rarely hears about it.

    My friend’s parents are quite devout Catholics who accept the truth of evolution and want to keep prayer and ID out of schools.

    These paradigms and the people who subscribe to them have quite clearly found a middle ground between fundamentalism and atheism.  Why should I spite them for finding a way to mediate good moral grounding with open-mindedness and a whimsical belief in the fantastic?  So it’s not for me.  It doesn’t make them wrong.  That is the amazing mystery of humanity.  As devoutly atheist as I become, I know that anything I believe or know is without any demonstrable, undeniable proof.  Every time, I come back to the same indelible limits of knowledge inherent in my existence.

    Religion, being an element of culture, drives the creation of the individual, even as it is changed by the individual.  The same is true whether your religion is Christianity, Buddhism, or Einstein. So science is the religion of the day.  Faith gave rise to science, in many ways.  I don’t want to declare atheism and then close my mind to all else, satisfied with the theory of relativism and the scientific method.  I’ll instead await the next enlightenment with hope, humility, and curiosity.

  7. I quite agree with your second post, Brock.  I don’t like most of the language in the United Declaration of Human Rights for that same reason.  It uses “inherent dignity” as a justification, which sounds like a God-given thing to me.  Which, as we all know, makes it debatable.  Let’s get down to the basics: No one likes to hurt, so let’s all agree to be nice to each other.  Sometimes I think they should write the UDHR like a children’s book.

    “What else could the ultimate meaning of life be but to live?”

    I think that is a beautiful way to put it.  In a world absent of absolute knowledge, the one thing I think we can all agree on is to live.  Somehow, that makes it the right thing to do.

  8. Excellent points, shana, and so many of them! Thanks! Sometimes I think the paradox of Christianity is what has kept it around so long: people love a good brain-teaser.

    I also think, though, that if there was once a God, he slunk away in shame of his work ages ago. Some humans may be impressed with the plan he put together, but I doubt he ever really was.

  9. If by some mircale of fate the church can be saved from itself, let it be so.  I for one believe the organization as a whole should be scrapped, and it’s followers can find something better to believe in, such as something real.

    After all, none of the ideals found in the bible can’t be found elsewhere.  After all, the most sacred and one of the very very few saving graces of the church, the golden rule, is yb no means something new, because these exist as well…

    Taoism: the yin-yang, good and evil circulate.
    Wiccan: the Rule of three, what is done returns 3-fold.
    Karma: what goes around comes around.
    Science: with every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    The list goes on, but the point is that the chruch is not necissary and exists as a spiritual, philosophical and literary doppelganger, nothing more.

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