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.

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,” .

Calling All Exorcists! Demons on the Loose!

The news out of the Vatican this week is that there’s a shortage of exorcists. The answer? A big training program to take place this April in order to bring the supply up to a level with the demand.   Apparently in Italy there are about half a million cases of demonic possession a year and only about 200 priests available to drive those demons out. The number of cases of possession has tripled there recently, according to one exorcist, because of the popularity of fortune tellers, tarot, and witches. The exorcists will learn the Catholic rites and be sent on their way, armed with the cross and holy water to do battle with the forces of evil.

Are you shaking your head at this? Are you thinking what a bunch of silly mumbo-jumbo? You would not be alone in our increasingly secular world. But the interesting thing is the superstition angle.   If you’re not an ardent Catholic, you would look on this whole demonic possession thing as some ancient attempt to account for what we today would attribute to a psychological disorder. The abnormal mind was a mystery back then, so our ancestors pulled a Being out of thin air, fashioned it in their own image, called it the Devil, gave him a mission, and voila, he’s still with us today, living not in in the minds of the mentally ill, but rather, the skeptic would say, in the minds of gullible Catholics.

But if you are a serious Catholic, you would say the superstition works the other way around: it’s the people going to a tarot reading, or an astrologer, or trying to tap into the collective unconscious who are, sadly, being lured into a superstitious swamp, led by none other than the very Devil they claim to scoff at. One German prelate, Helmut Moll, an expert on exorcism, admits the existence of psychological illness, but adamantly insists that possession is just as real. The priest has to work with the doctor to differentiate the two, he says, but each has a different, but important task to do.

Two versions of reality! What’s a confused 21st century seeker to do? Well, if our education system were working properly, you’d hope they’d ask, “Is there any evidence that your view is the correct one?”

The Catholic: (thrilled that he will now win the argument) Oh course there is!   Look at what Jesus did in the Gospels! There it is in black and white! Straight from the pen of unknown scribes who wrote decades after Jesus died and who I’m sure would never make up these stories.

The Astrologer: (equally thrilled)  Of course there is!  My predictions are correct 30% of the time!

The Seeker: (silently places his Bible and his star chart in a box and sends them to the national Museum of Curiosities)

G.B. Shaw on Right-Wing Christians

I heard a powerful speaker yesterday at the Humanist Hub, just off Harvard Square. Eugene Scott is a writer for the Washington Post whose specialty is religion and politics. One of the things he said especially struck me: you have to divide American Christians into two camps. In the first group are those you could have a conversation with and perhaps come to some agreements with about public policy. These are thoughtful people, not too happy with Trump, who might be willing to admit that the Bible is not a word-for-word dictation from the Deity.

The second group of Christians are people who will never be convinced to change their thinking on anything. They feel threatened by social change, they like Trump, facts are fake news, and their heads are stuffed firmly into the far-right sands, unable to contemplate the world the rest of us live in. They want nothing less than a return to what they think made America great in the past. They want a Christian nation, a Roy Moore nation, where we fix the problems facing us by putting prayer back in the schools.

This parallels what George Bernard Shaw had to say in a short piece from 1932 called The Black Girl in Search of God, in which he excoriates the hide-bound Christians of his day for not being able to distinguish the fact that there are several “Gods” in the Bible, each an improvement over the one that appeared before it. The God of Noah was a primitive God, an angry God, Who wiped out virtually the entire human race and then was appeased by Noah’s offering of the “sweet savor” of burning flesh.   The God of Job, on the other hand, was on familiar terms with the Devil, was philosophical, argumentative, and tolerant. “People who cannot see the difference between these two Gods cannot pass the most elementary test of intelligence: they cannot distinguish between similar and dissimilars.” Later, the Bible introduces us to the God of Micah and of course Jesus—each more different still.

In his typical style, Shaw does not mince words when it comes to religious extremists: “People whose education in [science and history] is derived from the Bible are so absurdly misinformed as to be unfit for public employment, parental responsibility, or the franchise.” In other words, fundamentalist Christians cannot be expected to vote with any discernment. As Eugene Scott said, you pretty much have to give up on ever trying to convince them of anything: they are blinded by the Bible and Breitbart News.

So where does that leave us? I would hope that the Seven Universal Sacraments would provide some relief from this schizophrenic society outlined by Shaw and Scott. We share common ground in the physical world and we need to find common ground spiritually and politically.

The other place it leaves us is the public schools.  The homeschool movement along with the Christian schools are worrisome.   What is actually being taught there?  If we don’t support public education and create safe spaces where “similar and dissimilars” can be analyzed and discussed, where our citizens can be taught to think instead of simply believe, where we can engage religious fundamentalists in some kind of meaningful dialogue, then we’re going to remain stuck in Trumpland, sniping at each other, lurching from protest to protest, waiting for the next scandal, stupidity, or slaughter.

It’s a lot to fix.

Pope Francis and the Lord’s Prayer: The Devil is in the Details

This week Pope Francis made an announcement: the version of the Lord’s Prayer that we all had to learn in our various tongues contained a bad translation of one line: “lead us not into temptation.” It should be don’t let us “fall into” temptation, because God is good, and would not “lead us” into temptation, as if He were engaged in some sting operation for the FBI, just waiting for us to snatch at the bait before leaping out with a big “Ah ha! Just as I suspected!” and consigning us directly to the appropriate level of hell. No, He does not work that way, Francis tells us. Rather it is the Devil who is out there leading us to temptation, working against all that God wants for us, slipping little enticements our way, hoping we will forget the precepts of parent, priest, and parochial school for just one minute of sinful pleasure, whether it be a lurid leer at a coveted co-worker or some private worship of His rival god, Mammon.

For those who suspect that the Devil may be a figment of someone’s imagination rather than an actual intelligent being of some kind, Francis’ textual concerns are somewhat disheartening, playing as they do into the superstitious aspects of religion that get us bogged down in pointless arguments about miracles and other parlor tricks that are reported to have occurred two millennia ago. The reaction to Francis’ pronouncement has already ranged from scorn to puzzlement to thoughtfulness.  Verily, in good sooth, “the devil is in the details” of this prayer, one of the pillars of Christendom.

But if we reframe Francis’ thoughts, it’s not so far out there for someone of a humanist stripe to accept, because what he’s really saying is we can make bad choices and good choices in life, and what we want is to avoid the bad and head toward the good. Whether it’s God helping you to lean in one direction and the Devil prodding you in the other with that infamous pitchfork of his, is something that shouldn’t distract us from the point that we need to exercise some moral judgment in our lives on a daily basis, and the gauge for making those choices has to be the Greater Good, which is rooted inevitably in avoiding hurt to others, and bringing as much joy as possible to those around us.   Old Nick, Beelzebub, and Co. are those selfish genes in us all, the impulse to have it all for ourselves, the bestial instincts that helped us survive the rigors of natural selection as we climbed up through the evolutionary branches.   Once we became self-aware a different ethic arose and God, in the form of the Greater Good, was born, you might say, or we were born again in God, if that is more to your liking.   However you think of it, the result is the same in the end: get out there and spread compassion to make the world a better place.

An interesting side note is that the phrase “The devil is in the details” derives from a much earlier German saying: “Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail”—it is not the Devil, but God who lives in the details.  Focussing on getting the little things right can bring us closer to our higher selves.  It’s the zen of washing dishes, of being mindful in all of our daily tasks and interactions.

 

 

The Unpardonable Sin: Examples from Christianity and Islam

The Bible contains a cryptic passage in Mark 3:28-9 where Jesus tells his disciples that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven

But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

There have been a lot of sermons written on this idea of the unpardonable sin, but perhaps what it really means to “blaspheme against the Holy Ghost” is to deny the divine spirit that exists in each of us, that part of us that raises us above the beasts and makes us human.

We have seen examples of what it is to deny our humanity too often recently.   A death cult has grown and spread that under the guise of religion, of serving a deity,  demands that its faithful seek out innocent people and kill them in any manner possible. Blow them up, hack them to death, gun them down—it doesn’t matter.   Men, women, children, Christian, Hindu—it’s all the same if they are infidels. That’s the way to a better world, by starting a war of attrition that will end with a lot of people dead, but remember, the infidels don’t matter, and the faithful die as martyrs and martyrdom is a great blessing. It must be true, that’s what the holy men say, and if I doubt what they say, then perhaps I am an infidel too.

Lest we in the Western World get too righteously indignant, let me remind you of an event that occurred back in the 13th century. At that time in southern France a sect of Christianity spread called Catharism, which among other things, rejected the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and so, logically, rejected the priest’s power to perform these miraculous rites. Rome got worried about this challenge to its power, and let it be known that if anyone would take up arms against these heretics, all past sins would be pardoned, and not only that, any sins committed in this crusade against the Cathars (Albigensians) would be pardoned too.   That was nothing short of a license to rape, plunder, and murder at will, and there were plenty of knights and desperados kicking around who were just waiting for an opportunity like this.   Led by the newly-formed Inquisition they ravaged, ravished, and burned these unfortunate, good-hearted people, until none of them were left, one of the first recorded genocides.   The crusade succeeded and God smiled once again on his servants in the Vatican. It was just a warm-up for the Inquisition which continued to torture and immolate infidels and apostates for six centuries.

I’ll have more to say about the Cathars later, but the point this time around is that we’re re-living that horrible time in history, where religious leaders utterly distort the central message of the founders of their faith.  It’s no longer “help people who are suffering,” but “believe what I tell you or I will kill you.” The focus should not be on conversion, but compassion.   To twist that around is to forget we are human beings, it’s to become a kind of monster that sees a crowded street full of people, full of life,  as nothing more than a place to spill blood.  That is the unpardonable sin.

More on Jimmy Carter’s Relationship to the Bible

I began to worry that my post about Jimmy Carter leaving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) may have been some of that fake news we’ve been hearing so much about, but no, some investigation revealed that it was real (see “Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible”). However, to my surprise, I found out that it was a recycled story from 2009.   Carter had written it back then as an open letter to the SBC and an Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald and an online periodical The Age republished it as if it were brand new in April of this year. It was picked up and put on Facebook where I found it, and my commentary was in turn picked up by a Christian website Daily News Update –but to my surprise they titled the lead-in headline “More Apostasy — Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible.”  The thrust of my post was that this was welcome apostasy, that Carter was right to reject the belief that women should be subservient to men even though St. Paul tells us that’s the way it should be. My point was that everyone should be in the business of editing the Bible, and every other holy book we have latched onto here on Middle Earth.

There are two kinds of people in the world:

  1. Those who believe that God has delivered sacred words to holy men who wrote out lessons for posterity

2. Those who do not.

But even if you are in the first group and believe God has spoken to us through prophets, wouldn’t you agree to at least one of two propositions?

A) That the holy men or, later on, the  scribes who wrote things down, may have been in error at times or have been reflecting their culture as it existed at the time they wrote

B) That we still have to live together peacefully with those in the other group, or with those in groups who have a different holy book

If you agree with the first proposition, the task then becomes to comb through the sacred texts and figure out what might be words to live by and what might be myth or cultural bias or let’s just say something that doesn’t make sense. That’s what Carter did. He believes that God did not proclaim that a woman should submit to her husband’s will. He believes that women have equal rights in a marriage.

If you can’t bring yourself to the point of doubting that the holy book could be wrong about anything, it is to be hoped that at least you would subscribe to the second proposition, and could find common ground with those of other faiths or of no faith through the Seven Universal Sacraments.  Think about it.

 

 

 

Christianity and Islam in the Pursuit of Pain

The greatest threat to the modern world can be found in the revival of a belief from the Middle Ages: the pursuit of pain is a good thing. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his recent book The Swerve, once upon a time there was a notion that inflicting pain upon our sinful bodies was a holy pursuit.   To mimic the kind of pain that the Savior experienced on the road to Golgotha would allow us to share the sanctity of His suffering, so it was not unusual in those benighted times to wear a hairshirt, or to find groups of flagellants publically flogging themselves with iron-pointed whips, or monks beating each other with rods, all in an effort to imitate Christ.

Common sense would dictate that this is a bad idea. It calls to mind that unfortunate group of young people today who are cutting themselves in order to feel the pain.   Any parent who finds their child has sunk into this practice will get that child to a therapist as quickly as possible.   Homo sapiens is programmed to  pursue the pleasures of life, not the pains, but in the Middle Ages a powerful force overrode this basic instinct. That force was belief in the afterlife.

Yes, the afterlife… The Great Beyond… The Happy Hunting Ground– or the Not-So-Happy if you have been a sinner and failed to get right with God before the end. As Greenblatt reminds us, Sir Thomas More’s 16th century book Utopia which was so progressive in many of its policies (sharing the wealth, universal health care, freedom of religion) drew a hard line in the sands of that fabled island: if you did not believe in the rewards and punishments of a heaven and hell, you would be executed immediately. Rejection of an afterlife was dangerous in Utopia, because without the fear of hell, More felt that people will always try to lie, cheat, and murder their way into greater wealth and power.    We only need jails and punishments in the here and now because people don’t believe in the punishments of the hereafter.

Sir Thomas may have been right about the power of the fear of God.   Certainly there is no sign since the Enlightenment began increasing the ranks of the atheists that we’ve created a Utopia anywhere, though Scandinavia may be getting close. But More was beyond a doubt wrong about making the afterlife the foundation of his belief system. Under radical Islam, that belief is what is causing so much senseless death and destruction every day, coupled as it is with a revival and glorification of the medieval pursuit of pain.   Who would ever have believed that this cult of death would take root in the 21st century, a cult where suicide bombers and martyrdom become the highest form of community service, where men and women are encouraged to undertake “missions” that they know will lead to their painful deaths, all for a misguided idea that a reward awaits you in Paradise?

Some might argue that it’s not belief in an afterlife per se that is the problem, but rather, the particular afterlife that is being peddled to these would-be heroes.  But the problem here is that, if you are a rational creature, you would like some evidence of which afterlife that’s being offered by the religions of the world is the genuine article and not some knock-off fakery.    How would you talk a suicide bomber out of his belief that the koranic Paradise is really there, just waiting for him if he blows himself up in the right spot? By offering him an alternative view? Christ on the cross? Abraham’s bosom? Angels hosanna-ing?

What would therapy be for a deluded young person whose greatest aspiration is to be a martyr? Perhaps if we do in fact need the fear of God to keep the world from disintegrating it should be the God of Compassion–focused on making this life as pleasant as possible for as many as possible without reference to what happens when we cross that unknowable Divide.

Christians Awake Part II: What Do You Believe?

Part I was about a cult begun by an egomaniac, exploiting people in the name of Jesus. Part II asks what is the difference between a cult and a religion? Is it that religions don’t set out to exploit people?  But what about what they say they believe?

Consider three anecdotes about friends who were raised as Catholics:

1) Today some of us were sitting around and the subject of religion, then communion came up. Someone said, “You know, the Catholics believe that when the priest blesses the wafer, it actually turns into the body of Christ—it’s not a symbol for them, it really is His body.” One of my colleagues who was raised Catholic, and had gone through First Communion at the age of 13 was dumbfounded—she didn’t attend services anymore, but somehow she had missed that central tenet of the Roman Church all these years.  Now she just shook her head in disbelief and a pained look crossed her face.

2) A few years ago I was talking with a Catholic friend and the subject of the Immaculate Conception came up.   “That’s the same thing as the Virgin Birth,” he said—that Mary miraculously conceived even though she was a virgin.” I corrected him, reporting that it’s actually the belief that Mary herself was conceived immaculately, that is, free from the taint of Original Sin. Her mother, St. Anne, conceived the normal way, they say, but God acted on Mary in the womb, removing that sin so she would be a proper vessel (if that’s the phrase) for the baby Jesus. My friend stared at me a moment, somewhat shocked, then heaved a big sigh.

3) A friend who went to a Catholic school in a major city told me recently that the moment he became an atheist was when he was 14 and the bishop came to visit their school.   The boys were all lined up in the chapel to honor his visit, and here he came, down the aisle in his robes, his finery, and on his hat, the mitre—or “that pointy hat” as my friend called it. In that moment he said to himself, “How can we take all this seriously? There is no way that God wants him dressed like that.”

It’s presumptuous for a non-Catholic to make these observations, but the point is simply this: if you say you are part of a group, Catholic, Protestant, or anything, shouldn’t you know what that group’s beliefs are? Otherwise, if you can’t buy into those beliefs, or accept the rituals and the dress, shouldn’t you call yourself something else to avoid confusion?   And if you can’t buy into some of those beliefs, which beliefs are you buying into? The ones that seem more reasonable?

Do you get to do that? Pick and choose?

Most church leaders would say no.

The Humanist would say yes, that’s exactly what you should be doing.