Unbelief on the Move, thank the good Lord!

News worth noting: the number of American who claim no religious affiliation (the Nones) has passed the number of white evangelical Christians, according to an ABC/Washington Post Poll.

Year                              2003         2017

White evangelicals     21%         13%

No religion                   12%          21%

This is a trend that’s been building for quite some time and will continue to build because the percentage of under 30s who count themselves among the Nones is 35%.   It’s noteworthy because it begs the question that is the subject of Seven Sacraments for Everyone: if you’ve given up on religion, where does your moral code come from? God or the gods deliver the faithful their marching orders through Holy Writ and its interpreters, those priests, pastors, imams, rabbis, and gurus who instruct the average Joe, Yusuf, or Rajeev on what is right and what is wrong. But if you’ve given up on all that, where do you go for some idea of a moral code? Do you look into your heart? But hearts are different. They’re influenced by culture and temperament. Is it possible that there can be a range of moral codes out there in the world, that what’s wrong for me can be right for you? Some say yes.

But on the big moral questions, the answer must be a resounding “no.” We have to find a universal moral code, applicable to everyone, especially as the world grows smaller through our technological innovations. When people on different continents are connected ever more closely via the media and transportation, we’ve got to make sure we’re tuning into the same moral wavelength or the connections become collisions —fatal collisions.   If we care anything about peace, we have to have some solid common ground to stand on.

Philosophical common ground is what is lacking so much in the Middle East, as the fight over the physical ground continues. Who has the right to own the land where Abraham and Jesus walked? If you look at the Holy Scriptures or listen to the religious leaders, you’ll find support for whichever side you’re on, and this method of determining what’s right will dig us deeper and deeper into the quagmire that is the Middle East.  Netanyahu is getting his support from those Jews who believe that narrative of divine real estate and also from evangelical Christians who point not just to Genesis, but to the book of Revelation as guidance for their stance on things like making Jerusalem the capital of Israel and the Palestinians be damned… literally, they would say.

With the Nones on the move in America and even stronger in much of Europe there is hope that eventually we will be able to synchronize our moral codes, focusing on those joyous experiences that we all share by virtue of our membership in the human race.   Among the most important is belonging to a group, but not just a localized group, a family, a clan, a gang, or Us, the Chosen People, but the entire neighborhood, community, country–the world.  At that point we may be able to override the momentum that has brought the Middle East to the brink of blowing itself up and the whole world with it.

But all this will take time.

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The Guru and the Evangelist

If you want to get the wheels of your mind a-whirling, try watching Wild, Wild Country and Come Sunday back-to-back on Netflix.   The first is the story of Osha (Baghwan Sri Rajneesh), the guru who wanted to create a paradise on earth in Oregon in the 1980s and the second the story of Carlton Pearson, the Pentecostal preacher from Tulsa who came to the realization that there was no Hell and was booted out of his church as a result of his revealing that….um… secret.

Both these stories are fascinating, and what ties them together are the images of the congregations gathered around their main men by the thousands, listening raptly as they sermonize, philosophize, theologize, and mesmerize. Each of the two flocks is looking for a leader, someone to trust, to tell them what to do, what to believe, and they are convinced they have found them in the person of this hirsute, sanpaku-eyed oracle, and the urbane, telegenic preacherman.   These well-meaning men and women, these votaries of divine love have unburdened themselves of Reason, and filled that spot in their brains with a blind trust in the Master/Minister.   The images of both groups of disciples rapturously chanting, singing, dancing and carrying on in general around their leaders is enough to make a Humanist shake his head in wonder. They are, as the ancient Greeks used to say, ecstatic- ex statis—out of themselves. They’ve arrived at a different place through the power of the group and of their faith in the Beloved Leader. Those same Greeks called it being en-theos (enthusiastic)—having the god within you, and Dionysus never had it as good in ancient Athens as Osho and Bishop Pearson did at the height of their careers.

What is it in Homo sapiens that craves this super-powered mentor-figure? Is it that our self-awareness has revealed the dark places of the universe so clearly that without some strongman to support us, we would drift into a kind of madness? Over and over again we see it: masses of people seeking the answers and finding it in the latest charismatic man-of-words.

But the story of Carlton Pearson shows how far mentor-worship will go: only as far as it doesn’t butt up against a sacred text or two. So when Pearson concludes that a merciful God would never send the victims of Rwandan genocide to hell simply because they had never been “saved” in the Pentecostal sense of the word, he loses his congregation, or a large part of it. The Bible says “Only through Christ” can you avoid the flames of Hell, and that’s the end of it for many people—no asterisks for genocide victims who never hard of Jesus or for little children who can’t talk yet. They too must burn.

Bishop Pearson has opted out of that group.  He’s now editing the Bible and has come up with something called the Gospel of Inclusion.  I’m not sure what that entails, but it’s perhaps what I would call “universalism”—the idea that there is no single path to the Divine, and that divinity can be approached by paying attention to the seven universal sacraments—the peak experiences that are part of being human–no sacred text needed.

Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho) and the Sacrament of the Group

Drop everything and watch Wild, Wild Country on Netflix, the incredible tale of guru Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho), his attempt to create a paradise on earth in Oregon, and how it all went wrong. This should be required viewing at any university’s humanities program.   How could people of good will so bent on creating a world of love and peace end up hated and feared and persecuted by an entire state? It’s a clash of cultures with so many missteps on both sides.

First of all, comes arrogance.   You can’t roll into a place with a chip on your shoulder, claiming you’ve got all the answers, that you’re going to wave your magic wand and presto! all the local yokels will see the light, leave their former ignorant lives and join you in your ecstatic dance around the guru.   It’s not like the Spanish coming to the New World and the natives witnessing the impressive technological marvels this new culture had to offer. No, the Oregonians who lived nearby just saw a bunch of weird people all dressed in red who looked like they were stoned half the time.   It didn’t help when the front-woman for the Rajneeshees was Sheela, who seems to never have spoken about the locals without her lip curling into a sneer.

On the other hand, the county clerk in Oregon seems to have clearly violated election law and gotten away with it scot free.   The law in Oregon said that you only had to be a resident in Oregon for 21 days before an election in order to register to vote.   The Rajneeshees idea to win the election was to bus in street people from all over the country and give them a home in their commune–food and shelter in exchange for work.   They would then be eligible to vote and presumably vote for the representatives that Sheela wanted.   This is a scary strategy—one that any wealthy group could exploit to tip an election, but the law is the law. It was appalling to watch the county clerk with the backing of law enforcement refuse to register the newcomers, calling to mind the denial of voting rights in the South in the 60s.

But the main thing you get out of this 6-part series is just how powerful the Sacrament of the Group is. This need to belong is so strong within us—we want to be part of something, anything that will give our lives meaning.   All these people flocking to gurus in India, and later to be part of a commune in Oregon, agreeing to wear the same color clothing as a badge of honor that now you truly belong to “the master”—wow, to an outsider you look like nothing but automatons who have checked your reason at the door, giving your minds over fully to a con man who has hypnotized you into accepting his will as law.   There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the denizens of the commune as they tell us how happy they were in those days back in the 80s under the guidance of Osho and Sheela, but what it looks like is they were lobotomized by their desire to belong, as so many gang members are today, so many cult members, so many teenagers anxious to conform to the in-crowd at their schools.

There is also a Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. Every human being needs teachers and friends who will guide them and support them as they go through the twists and turns life presents them. It’s not exactly clear what Osho was all about—he certainly had charisma, but in the end was he on some kind of power trip, basking in the adulation his votaries were only too willing to offer?   The moral seems only too clear: never abandon Reason and Humility as you navigate the rough waters of existence.

 

Thomas Carlyle, the Church and the Sacred

An op-ed piece in the New York Times today reminds us of the power of the Church to satisfy the longing to be part of a group–the Sacrament of the Group as I call it in my book.  Writer Margaret Renkl explains that she has periodically given up on the Catholic Church for various reasons I have mentioned in this space in the past, but she is nevertheless still drawn to it.  She misses the congregation, the babies, the prayers for peace, the feeling that you’re on the same track with like-minded people.

She writes:

“I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.”

The sacred can be found all around us, of course.  It doesn’t have to start with the idea of a God, or gods, it’s inevitably part of who we are as human beings.    Divinity is simply in us, in our thoughts and actions and connections to the world.   For example, Renkl notes that she often feels that God is more present when she’s taking a walk in the woods than when she is in the church building itself (the Sacrament of Nature).   She also misses the singing at Sunday mass (the Sacrament of the Arts).  Our connections with nature and with the arts are essential parts of our humanity and bring us closer to a sense of the Divine, as do the other sacramental aspects of our human existence.

Renkl’s observations are an echo of the so-called “Clothes Philosophy” of Thomas Carlyle.  It goes like this: clothes determine the appearance of men and women, yet underneath those clothes is a body–a body much more real than coats and dresses.  In the same way  our institutions like the Church are merely “visible emblems” of the spiritual forces they represent.   Even in his day (early 1800s) Carlyle found the Church was worn out and almost worthless, but the Spirit beneath the Church’s “clothes” was still there and needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Where can we go with these kinds of sacred longings if we’re not happy with the churches we grew up with?  How can we keep the Spirit alive?  There are a few alternatives, and they are growing. Places like the Humanist Hub in Boston offer a regular meeting to the non-theists, the “Nones” out there who want to find like-minded people ready to acknowledge the need for the Sacrament of the Group. To the theists I would say, that a humanist’s conception of the Divine is not far removed from yours–it’s two sides of the same coin, or as  Carlyle put it:  “the name of the Infinite is GOOD, is GOD,” .

Roy Moore and the Sacrament of the Group

The big news was that Roy Moore lost the Senate race in Alabama, but the amazing story that goes along with it was that two-thirds of white women in that state voted for him. Even though it seems pretty obvious to an objective viewer that his accusers were telling the truth and Moore was lying about his escapades of the past, these ladies, who you would think would be up in arms against him, still gave him their vote. Why would they do that?

Well, one reason could be the way they prioritize their values : the danger to society from abortion, same-sex marriage, and all the rest of that kind of baggage outweighs their distaste for a man who was preying on teenage girls years ago. Another reason could be that they simply think the accusers were lying.   But a third important explanation was floated this week by the The Cut (one of New York Magazine’s online sites).   In an interview with neuroscientist Jonas Kaplan they raise the possibility that “motivated reasoning” is at work here. This is the phenomenon where once we buy into something psychologically, it’s not so easy to shake it off.   We’re “motivated” to stay with our initial choices.   This can be seen in many different types of thinking, but political thought is certainly an excellent example.

The fact is that we need to belong to something. Whether it’s a family, a community, a church, a party, a country, it’s in our DNA to establish ties to others, and once we’ve created those bonds, we will defend them. We don’t want to hear any criticisms, in fact the criticisms just trigger a defensiveness to the point of unreason: you must be wrong, because I know I’m right.   This is what got Trump elected and kept those Alabama women on board with Moore.

It’s all part of the Sacrament of the Group. Bonding with others can be exhilarating. In a stadium when your team wins in the final seconds or at a political rally when victory is declared, emotions rise to the level of euphoria. We’re part of something– What a great feeling!   It’s a way to transcend the mundane and get closer to something truly glorious.   The groups we choose mean so much to us.

But the danger of course is that it blinds us to considerations that are important.   As Hamlet reminded himself, the Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.  How do we keep from backing the wrong horse or the wrong idea?    Given that this impulse to defend is programed into us, rooted in our DNA, the only answer is an education that includes a check on this aspect of our behavior, a moral education, like the lessons we learn that curb other evolutionary impulses, like stealing what we want, or assaulting women at will.   These impulses were valuable to our primate ancestors, but vices for  men and women.

Every school curriculum should include an acknowledgement of motivated reasoning, and practice in how to step away from it.   Beginning with young children, we should emphasize that whenever you enter into a discussion with anyone, you should say to yourself , “I know what I think, but maybe I’ll learn something from this other person and change my thinking.”   Really listening, weighing evidence…it’s called keeping an open mind. It’s not something many of us currently practice.

A frontal attack on people’s beliefs and values makes them circle the wagons and fight back, tooth and nail.   A softer approach has a better chance of getting somewhere, and those chances would increase if our educators would instill a respect for the viewpoints of others.   It’s in the state’s interest to foster this kind of thinking, to combat  tribalism.  This is one reason why public schools are so important.

Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland

 

More senseless killings, this time in Portland Oregon.  A mentally-disturbed man was verbally abusing two Muslim teen-aged girls on a train and ended up killing two men trying to intervene.   The killer had a troubled past, to say the least, and most recently came to police attention for his angry rants at a Free Speech Rally. In case you’ve missed them, these rallies are being held around the country by the alt-right following the dust-up on college campuses over uninviting conservative speakers, and in case you missed that, these were right-wing individuals whose views are unpalatable to some students on the left.  When there were complaints and protests about these speakers, their bookings were cancelled. “What happened to Freedom of Speech?” the conservatives ask, with good reason.

The Free Speech Rallies have been steeped in anger as the alt-right organizers and masked Anti-Fascist protesters on the left taunt each other and generally act like they would like nothing better than to get physical. The police have kept them apart mostly, but a lot of the people are young, and, as in the 60s, they are a volatile group.   It doesn’t take much for one person to do something stupid and the next thing you know “dying for a fight” is literally where we are.  Rallies can be powerful, transcendent moments, part of the Sacrament of the Group, but in the wrong hands they become the antithesis: angry mobs out of control, with the energy of the group reinforcing unthinking acts of violence.  Here’s a description from someone who was at the Boston rally—there was no violence there, but depressing doesn’t begin to cover it.

And now the promise of real violence has been met. Two good men are dead and one wounded because a guy with a tricky grip on reality was stirred up by all the acrimony in the air. He took his rant into a train and pointed it at these poor girls.  How many of us would have the courage to stand up to him as these men did?

With a president who seems indifferent to the unrest he’s already caused and the mayhem that is waiting in the wings, don’t expect any improvement in the rhetoric from the leadership anytime soon, no Lincolnian appeals to our better angels.  But in the name of sanity, folks, please, calm down!  Don’t waste your time taunting people you don’t agree with. Talk to them if you feel you must– the chances of changing anyone’s mind may be slim–but it’s more likely to happen in a respectful atmosphere than in a super-charged anger zone.   What good does it do to toss around words like Fascist or carry an insulting placard? It’s just more fuel for the overheated atmosphere we live in.   Save your energy and organize for the next election, whatever side you’re on.  Let each side have their rallies, and if you must, quietly protest ideas you find reprehensible, but when you mock, jeer, or threaten the other side, especially to their face, it does nothing to advance whatever cause you’re fighting for.  It’s undignified and unworthy.

 

Christians Awake! Quit the Cult

The death of Tony Alamo in federal prison this week brought to mind all the damage done in the name of Jesus Christ by charlatans disguised as men of God. Here’s a guy who managed to convince hundreds if not thousands of people that he had a direct line to the Lord and if they would only turn over all their money and assets to the Church he created, they would be able to listen in and salvation would be theirs.

Presto! a cult is founded.

He had a TV ministry back in the late 70s and made a fortune selling, of all things, designer rhinestone jackets to pop stars, jackets that are still being sold online for a hefty sum. Shouldn’t that be a tip-off that all is not right in the New Jerusalem when your spiritual leader is selling both salvation and sequins?

Salvation: it’s what so many are looking for–a way out of the morass that their lives have become, or, perhaps they are just spiritual seekers, looking for a creed, a guru, floating around like chemical ions, waiting for that attraction, that pull that will create a bond to make their lives complete in a blinding flash, and I do mean blinding.

Alamo did a lot of sleazy things, but the worst was using salvation as a threat to get women and girls as young as 15 to sleep with him. He was on the run from the FBI for years and when they finally caught up with him, he ended up with a jail term of 175 years. At the sentencing Alamo is reported to have said “I’m glad I’m me and not the deceived people in the world.”

And there you have it. There are the Tony Alamos and there are the deceived.   But there are also the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, who (we can only hope) will eventually outnumber both groups and combat hubris and ignorance with Humanism.

You don’t need a guru, you need to recognize that the sacred is all around us and does not involve complete surrender to a charismatic leader.   We all feel the need to belong to something—that’s the Sacrament of the Group. We also need people to guide us through life. That’s the Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. But the Tony Alamos of the world represent the dark side of both of those sacraments, when greed, lust, and ego masquerade as Goodness.

It all boils down to this: don’t abandon reason in your search for the Spirit.

The Women’s March: God vs. the Goddess

The Women’s March in Washington, D.C. –how can you even begin to describe it? It was out-of-this-world, a super-high, a transcendent moment according to my friends and family members who were there. The Climate March in NYC was mighty good, but this was beyond the Beyond.   It was electric. The energy that was flowing, the feeling of solidarity, of sisterhood, of caring… Despite the enormous crowds—and people were packed into the subway cars, jammed against each other in the streets, unable to move much at all—there was never a feeling of anxiety, of anything but this tremendous, invigorating Oneness with women everywhere. The Giantess has awakened! as one of my friends put it. Or perhaps the Goddess.

This is the Sacrament of the Group in a more powerful manifestation than has ever been found before. Millions of women all around the world, demanding a change.  My friends couldn’t sleep that night.   Too much on their minds, too many possibilities for the future. Even as they drove away from DC on Sunday they found the Spirit of the March lived on, all the way back home: at a rest stop where someone had chalked onto the sidewalk “What Did the Women’s March Mean To You?” and hundreds of replies scribbled up and down the walkway. At a gas station where young women in their 20s recognized them as fellow-marchers by their pink hats and exchanged stories. At another rest stop where a group of women were hugging the cleaning lady who hadn’t been able to march.

It was a day for transformation for everyone who was there.

And then there were the Fundamentalist Christians. A small group. All men. Off to one side of the street with signs 10 times bigger than anyone else’s. “God hates gays!”   “Have you gotten HIV yet?” “Here are the reasons you will go to hell (at least a dozen, led by abortion)” They had a bullhorn, and they looked grim, and they wouldn’t shut up.

So to them, all these women, coming together to protest the actions of the Gropen-Führer, were nothing but sinners in the hands of an angry God.

So much work to be done.

Trump and the Lord of the Rings

I finally understand Donald Trump.  We decided to watch the first part of The Lord of the Rings again last week, and at the very end—do you remember?—when Frodo has brought the One Ring safely to the elf-home in Rivendell and everyone has gathered to decide what to do about it, there’s that scene where the ring is sitting on a pedestal and they all begin to argue about what to do next:  Use it to fight Mordor! Destroy it! Lose it in the ocean!    These are all good people from the different races of Middle Earth, and they all want to do the right thing, but the power of the ring is so great and so sinister that the argument becomes super-heated. Suddenly we see a close up of the ring itself and reflected in it are the angry faces of the elves, dwarves, hobbits and men, shouting at each other, growing red in the face, about to come to blows—a perfect image of the ring’s power to bend them to its will.

That’s what Trump does. He is the ring, making everybody crazy around him. Every time he opens his mouth or hits twitter there’s another round of media attention and everyone goes berserk.  At rallies, on talk-radio, on NPR, on TV good people get mad and start yelling at other good people. No one listens to anyone else, they just holler and scream and mock and tweet and sometimes even lash out, punching whoever is closest.  We’re all in its thrall, and by “its” I mean the power of anger.

Where does this analogy take us?   Where is our Mt. Doom, that place where we can un-make this power?   Is it in a protest march? A prayer for a speedy impeachment?   Or what?

Protests are fine –we need them too to send messages to our leaders–but what we also need  is  to recognize how reactive we’ve become and do something about it.   Limiting the time we spend with the media would help.  This 24-hour news cycle is making us all nutty.      Of course we have to keep up with events, but so many of us have become news junkies, that’s all we think about.    It’s eating away at us, devouring our very beings. Before you know it we’ll all be like Tolkien’s Nazgul, those black riders, the ring-wraiths, who were once men but are now the mere shadows of human beings, their bodies and spirits destroyed by the power of the Dark.

Let’s stop providing the fertile soil for the chaos the ring sows. Let’s turn off the radio and the screens and go play with our kids or  go to a community supper.   Perhaps instead of reacting to tweets, we could turn directly to our fellow citizens and try to understand what they’re telling us. Let’s get better at listening, and go into conversations willing to learn something we didn’t know before, and let’s hope our interlocutors are willing to do the same thing. Let’s be the change we want to see, as the old saying goes, and model the kinds of behaviors we wish to see take root.

 

 

What is a Post-Christian?

Great article in the NY Times Magazine this week: “The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing” about Bart Campolo, a star in the world of evangelical Christianity, who left it all behind to become the humanist chaplain at USC in Los Angeles.    Campolo is described as a “post-Christian”—someone who loved everything about the Christian ministry except the Christianity, that is, his focus was on community building, friendship, taking care of those in need, those going through a hard time, and not on the virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracles which some would call magical thinking.  By talking with Greg Epstein (Good Without God), the humanist chaplain at Harvard and head of the Humanist Hub, Bart eventually found his way to his new position in LA.

The article raises the key question: Can we have the benefits of what an old-style religion offers without the supernatural?  We better all hope the answer is a resounding “yes!” because it’s so often the supernatural–that metaphysical quagmire–that creates the zealots, so caught up in the phantasmagoria of paradise, angels, hell, and transubstantiation that all the humanity has been wrung out of our brief lives here on this Earth and we’re left with an electorate determined to create God’s kingdom on Earth with all the bigotry and hatred that too often go with it.

I particularly like the picture at the head of the article. Look at the crowd of college students bonding through laughter at something Bart is saying.  That’s the Sacrament of the Group, creating those invaluable human-to-human connections through humor. They will remember more about their time in that group and that leader than in any classroom they’ve ever been in.