Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Religion: A Scary Thing, or The Scariest Thing?

Ugandan MP David Bahati has introduced a bill to punish homosexuals with the death penalty. No mention of his religious leanings in that story, but it turns out that Uganda is governed in part by fundamentalist Christians with ties to the American fundamentalist group The Family.

Never let it be said that Christian fundamentalists are less extreme than their Muslim counterparts.


J G-W said...

A gay Mormon friend of mine recently had a chat with his dad, in which his dad suggested that tolerance of homosexuality was linked to political, economic, and social decadence. Someone suggested that if that were the case, then Uganda should be one of the most advanced civilizations in the world.

But... You're trying to bait me with this title, aren't you? I mean, seriously, are you really putting Mother Teresa, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Albert Schweitzer in the same bailiwick with David Bahati?

J G-W said...

Hey, and let's not forget... Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu... All people who did the things they did not in spite of, but because of their religion; who found in their religion the strength to face incredible adversity in the struggle for justice.

If you categorically condemn religion, you have to explain why in some people religion seems to motivate the opposite kind of behavior that you find in the bad apples like Bahati...

Knight of Nothing said...

I wasn't trying to bait you or anyone in particular; the title of this post is an homage to the outrageous quotes of Stephen Colbert, who often says things like that. And they never fail to make me laugh!

That said, I place myself squarely in the camp of Sam Harris, who argues (to my mind quite persuasively) that religious belief is still a perversely unacknowledged part of the furnace that drives conflict in the world.

I'd never place those *people* in the same category as David Bahati. But Mother Teresa's Catholicism has moral failings, as does Christianity in general.

Harris says of religion: the problem with the word 'religion' is that it's kind of a suitcase word, like 'sport' - it really has no meaning. There is lawn bowling, and thai kickboxing. Both could be called 'sport', we don't have any illusions about which is more dangerous. But we do intellectually provide safe haven to violent, hateful people like Bahati by calling all of these insane beliefs 'religion' and tolerating them because of that label.

Knight of Nothing said...

By the way, I am sorry that you felt baited.

J G-W said...

My comment about baiting was tongue in cheek... I just like to tease you when you go on your anti-religion rants. :)

Bowling is obviously the more dangerous of the two sports. If you dropped a bowling ball on your head, it would give you a severe spinal injury, if it didn't kill you outright. Even Wii bowling gives me a sore arm!!!

But seriously... My point is that whatever weaknesses you see in Mother Teresa's Catholicism or Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Evangelicalism or Gandhi's Jainism as religious systems, these individuals accomplished what they accomplished because of the spiritual and moral strength they derived from there religion. No Catholicism, no Mother Teresa. No National Baptist Convention, no Dr. King. No Jainism, no Gandhi. And so on.

You could argue that without the religious systems, these individuals might have been great and done great things anyway. I'm not sure how you could make such a the counterfactual line of reasoning convincing, though to explore it would raise interesting questions about the nature of faith. Nevertheless, all three of these individuals (and others like them) were educated in societies where secularism was a powerful force, and yet none of them found the moral strength to do what they did drawing on principles of secularism. They turned to religion. And they inspired others to follow their lead through religion.

As for the situation in Uganda (and the United States)... To take up your sports analogy... You've studied Karate, and so has Göran. There's a spiritual component to Karate -- especially as it evolved in its lands of origin. I've watched enough Karate movies to know that there's a morally right way to do Karate, and a morally wrong way to do it. You can use Karate to bully, harass and hurt people, or you can use it to instill confidence and protect the innocent. (That's the whole point of The Karate Kid!)

If you abolish Karate because of the bullies, you lose all the good that Karate does...

I don't know if there are inherently evil sports. Probably cock fighting.

Knight of Nothing said...

No religion, and we do lose some luminaries, it is true (though I'm not sure I count Mother Teresa as a luminary, obsessed as she was with condoms and abortion). But no religion... no Al Qaeda, no Moral Majority, no Taliban, no Osama Bin Laden, no Thornton Stringfellow, no David Bahati, no Pat Robertson, no Ted Haggard, no Inquisition, no witch hunts, no Jihad, no Crusade, no Proposition 8. And on and on. Probably not a good idea to try and tally up a score that way.

I guess I didn't explain the suitcase/sport metaphor well enough. You can put anything into a suitcase, but it does not make the items within it akin to one another. A bomb in a suitcase is a categorically and eitologically different thing than a baby blanket. Both can be placed within, even into the same piece of luggage, but that doesn't mean that they share any common history, purpose or goal. The word 'religion' is just such a box.

In the case of my sport example, I did not mean to imply that a particular sport was bad, only that each has a completely different interaction with the physical world. In lawn bowling, a divot in the grass may result from careless handling of a ball. In thai kickboxing, the athlete is systematically conditioned to kill off all of the nerves in his shins in order to minimize the pain to himself, while transforming himself into a weapon to maximize damage inflicted upon another human body. It is a sport of violence. The two could not be more unalike.

Trying to compare Jainism with Osama bin Laden's Islam (or David Bahati's Christianity) would be absurd. And affording both of them the same tolerance and deferral because each claim the title of "religion" is dangerous, and well, a scary thing.

J G-W said...

Well, I actually agree with your suitcase metaphor.

But if it's an apt metaphor, then you can't condemn the "religion" suitcase because David Bahati put poison in it!

You can't even condemn the religion suitcase if the majority of people -- as you suggest -- put noxious stuff in it.

There's a basic religious principle that everything proceeds from the heart. If the heart is evil, it will bring forth evil. If the heart is good, it will bring forth good... It's just wrong to condemn the good hearts for what the evil have brought forth.

Knight of Nothing said...

But we aren't really talking about good and bad hearts, we're talking about belief systems. And some of these religious belief systems condone, and even sanction, cruelty and vile behavior. There are wicked individuals, but I think that there are a lot more good people whose religious beliefs prevent them from doing good.

J G-W said...

It's not doctrine that prevents people from doing good, but fear of violating convention. Doctrine is just an excuse... You can't read the Gospels or the Epistles of Paul for too long without realizing that genuine religiosity doesn't hesitate to put humanity over doctrine. "The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (That's Jesus talking, not Karl Marx.)

So, au contraire, it is all about hearts, and how much people are willing to put themselves on the line for what they know is right. That's true religion.

My two cents.

Knight of Nothing said...

Jesus also said, " jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law until all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

So which is it, Jesus?

We can't know if David Bahati's heart is good or evil by the lens of Christianity, because he is acting on behalf of his faith.

Are you arguing that people who cleave to explicitly religious doctrine or dogma that you don't like are misguided or evil? I know you're not, but I think it's a little pat to say that real religion doesn't do this or that. Real religion has made people say and do horrific things.

I admire the form of 'religion' that you practice, only to me it doesn't look like religion at all. It looks and sounds like a personal, mystical, spiritual quest. A far cry from the dogma of the American Religious Right or the Taliban.

J G-W said...

Love is the fulfillment of the law. "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" That's the fulfillment of the law Jesus is speaking of.

True religion is a mystical, spiritual quest. Early Christianity was called by its adherents simply "the way." If that sounds like Eastern mysticism, there's a reason for that. There is a distinct, discernable pathway of the heart that is objectively real, that religion is supposed to be designed to put us in touch with.

Of course the religion that is most evident -- especially to those who look at it from the outside -- is the bloated, commercialized, prostituted parody of religion that masquerades as spirituality when in reality its about political and social power, coercion, and intolerance. It appears in the Bible as "the Whore of Babylon." To accept the claims of David Bahati and his ilk to be representatives of the true religion is to take propaganda of the Whore of Babylon at face value... That's all.

You can know whether David Bahati's heart is good by the lens of Christianity because "by their fruit shall you know them." If their fruit is despotism and murder, what does that tell you?

Knight of Nothing said...

You lose me when you say "true" religion is a certain way. The pope, Jerry Falwell, David Bahati, David Koresh, and Osama bin Laden would all self-identify as religious people, which is to my mind the only quantifiable measure of defining what is religion. Your definition of "true religion" sounds nice, but in my experience your usage is in a tiny minority.

I think average members of faith would even agree with you that their religion is about dogma and rules (political and social power), and have no problems with that.

J G-W said...

I've just started reading Spirit and Reason, an anthology of essays by Vine Deloria, Jr. (author of Custer Died for Your Sins and God Is Red). Deloria is best known for his Indian activism, but he deserves credit as a brilliant philosopher and theologian as well.

On the subject we're discussing he wrote, "The real interest of the old Indians was not to discover the abstract structure of physical reality but rather to find the proper road along which, for the duration of a person's life, individuals were supposed to walk."

In other words, there is no redemption for humanity in Western science (which he critiques for being devoid of morality and for viewing the relationship between man and nature as a master-slave relationship). NOR is there redemption in the kind of religion that prioritizes "dogma" over the way we "walk."

It just reminds me that, while a majority of people living in westernized cultures probably agree with your definition of religion, I am reminded again and again by people from many different spiritual traditions -- Western and non-Western -- that those who are most thoughtful and closest to the heart of their tradition utterly reject that definition of religion.

I do agree with you that abuses of religion MUST be harshly criticized. But criticism won't save us unless we have something positive to substitute for what's being torn down. That's why I'm sensitive about criticism that implies all religion is evil. It discourages people from exploring the riches available at the heart of our religious traditions.

I think another sports analogy is in order... A sport like Karate requires many years to become proficient in and a lifetime to master. It takes commitment. What would you say someone takes a single Karate lesson, and then proclaims that Karate is impossible and it doesn't work because after one lesson they can't split a board with their bare hand or successfully block a punch? A Karate master would know better, and simply reply that you have to keep working at it.

If there were no Karate masters... If there was nobody who had experience and could testify that all that work and discipline does in fact lead somewhere profitable, it wouldn't make sense to commit to study it, because you'd have little indication that it could do what it promises.

Because there are Karate masters, we do have some reliable witnesses that there's more to the discipline than meets the eye after a single lesson.

True religion works the same way. But when you categorically condemn all religion because of the bastards and fuck-ups, you discourage folks from entering into a path that I believe we must enter into if humanity is to achieve true maturity...

Knight of Nothing said...

Forgive me for being glib, but I might say that true science doesn't view the man-nature relationship as a master-slave one, and that not only is true science *not* devoid of morality, it is in the process of discovering morality's origin and evolution.

Do you see what I mean about the problem with claiming the "true" nature of something?

Practically speaking, "religion" is used in quite a different way than the way you are using it; you seem to concede that. And these "bastards" and "fuck-ups" and "whores of Babylon" (all pejorative labels) actually claim to be "true" followers of their respective religions; fervent and disciplined acolytes of their faiths, and might hurl some pejorative labels of their own (apostate, sinner, heretic, infidel). Luckily, as it turns out, moral philosophy needs no deity, no dogma, no catechism, no miracle, and no church hierarchy (read: no religion) to evaluate the relative "goodness" of religious believers.

Your analogy about karate is actually a good argument to replace religion with karate. The average person who studies karate for a while learns a bit about his own physical limitations, improves his cardio-vascular health, gains a respect for the training and discipline that its mastery requires, and perhaps feels a sense of accomplishment because he is able to do something he was not able to do before.

Meanwhile, I would venture that there is no such predictable result for the average person who studies religion in this way; he might be a better person, or he could be a much worse person. That was the implicit point behind my original post: that as a system of thought and belief and action, religion's aggregate effect is uncertain or neutral at best. Not a reassuring result, in light of its thousands of years spent building a justification for its necessity.

J G-W said...

Sam - You're really telling me that there's no way to tell the difference between the validity of faith that stifles expression, murders people, and amasses power in the name of some abstract ideal, and faith that promotes self-knowledge, mutuality among peoples, and respect for the planet? That both kinds of faith are morally equal and indistinguishable, and therefore must be categorically condemned either together or not at all?

Knight of Nothing said...

I am not trying to antagonize or frustrate you. I'm definitely not saying that; I'm trying to express is simply that 1) the way I use the term "religion" - an organization devoted to a set of institutionalized beliefs, rules, and practices - is correct and proper, 2) that this is what I condemn categorically.

I agree with you, John: what you call "true religion" is morally superior to what I call "religion," but I have tried (apparently wildly unsuccessfully) to convince you that the way you use the term does not match the way most people do, and that our disagreement over the term itself continues to shelter religious people who are morally repugnant.

J G-W said...

Well, I don't know why we can't agree to disagree on this.

I would want to end, though, by refining a couple of points. First of all, I would never apply the term "Whore of Babylon" to people. I use it to refer to a system. In general, I am concerned about the way in which certain political/economic/social/religious systems contribute to exploitation and spiritual corruption and deadness.

In case you couldn't tell from the flattering terms I use to refer to religious corruption, I have no interest in sheltering morally repugnant behavior under the umbrella term of "religion."

But neither am I delighted by spiritual illiteracy -- which is what I'm afraid is promoted when all forms of spiritual practice are lambasted as superstition and stupidity, also under the umbrella term religion...

Knight of Nothing said...

We can agree to disagree. My last words...

The vast majority of religion as it is practiced is dogmatic and hierarchical. This is simply "calling a spade a spade."

Often enough, the sacred texts of said religions provide justification for morally indefensible acts.

Finally, I draw a very strong distinction between "spiritual practice," which implies an individual act, and "religion," which implies quite a lot more.

Thank you for the discussion!