Archive for December, 2007

FYI

Hey, folks, I’ve been quiet lately and it’s partially because I’m out of town soon. I’ll tell more about my trip and the spiritual insights I came to while I was there when I get back. Be well, enjoy your various holidays, and be at peace.

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Terrible

This is awful. I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the shootings in Colorado at a couple of Christian centers in Arvada and Colorado Springs. If not, an article is here. Edited to add: I should have said first thing that my heart goes out to the families of the victims and those who were hurt in the attack. I hope that healing comes swiftly to these folks.

Here’s what impressed me the most, though:

Ashley Gibbs was getting into a car with David Harris when they heard the gunshots….

They stayed in the vehicle and prayed for the gunman.

“It was obvious that he was in some sort of pain and going through a lot,” Gibbs told NBC’s “Today” show. “I just prayed God would bring him peace.”

This is why I’ll never be an atheist. Even if there were no God – and I think there is – moments like this would create one. As long as people of any faith can set their own needs and fears aside to help someone else, we’re not lost.

Mitt Romney’s speech

I didn’t see Mitt Romney’s speech about religion last night, so I can’t comment on it intelligently, although I do plan to read the transcript. Here, though, is a very interesting take on the speech from an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. Juan Cole is a very well-informed man; he speaks Arabic and follows the news in the Middle East (with a special emphasis on Iraq due to the war there) both as it’s reported here and as it’s reported in Arabic.

Anyway, his take on Romney’s speech was not very positive. If you don’t feel like clicking through, here’s the money quote:

Kennedy wanted to be accepted as an American by other Americans. Romney wants to be accepted as a conservative Christian by other conservative Christians.

This conundrum is the price the Republican Party is paying for pandering to the religious Right. Can a secular person even win the Republican nomination any more? If you make yourself captive of the Protestant Right, then you will discover that they believe Mormons are heretics. The Republican Party has established its own litmus test, and since it has been a dominant party in recent years, we’ve all been affected by it. Romney’s plight in finding it hard to be accepted by that constituency mirrors the plight of secular and unchurched Americans, on whom the very people Romney is sucking up to want to impose their narrow and sectarian values.

I have to say, as an agnostic, I find the Republican party scarier every year. While it isn’t the party for me anyway – I don’t agree with many of their positions, even if I do agree with others – the progressing religiosity of the Republican party is scary to me. Perhaps this is good context for my earlier post about religion being scary, to which some folks took a bit of exception. I believe quite strongly in the concept of the separation of church and state, for the very good reason that our nation has many different religions represented. Since many religions take it as an article of faith that theirs is correct and others are not, no religion in a pluralistic nationa like ours can be trusted to have power over others. That protects Christians from Muslims, Muslims from Jews, Jews from practically everyone, and Mormons from Buddhists. Or, you know, whatever.

But there seem to be those elements in the Republican party who want America to be, not just a Christian nation, but a Christian-only nation. The idea of a nation with many Christians? I have zero problems with this. I live in one. But a Christian nation? That wouldn’t be a very happy place for someone who is (a) not Christian, or (b) not religious. And in the last few years I’ve heard an awful lot about how people like me are evil, inspired by Satan, and undermining the former righteousness of America. Remember how Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on the ACLU, gays, feminists, and various other groups whose opinions don’t fit with his? I’m sure he was only the most public, not the only, religious leader to draw that conclusion.

This kind of thing has lent itself to the somewhat cranky tone of many of my posts of late. Frankly, being agnostic is sometimes kind of a rough gig. I find myself being drawn to the more inspired and all-embracing aspects of religion, and then driven away by the religiously political folks who think they aren’t for people like me and aren’t afraid to say so. And with every campaign cycle, they say it more and more. They talk about how judges who don’t rule on cases the way they want them to should be assassinated. They talk about how women who want control over their own lives and bodies are murderers. They talk about how gay people shouldn’t have rights like everyone else, and some of them even suggest that they should be executed.

I don’t have to be gay or a woman or a party to a lawsuit to find that terrifying. I don’t have to be anyone, in fact. I just have to read history (or the newspaper) to know how religious feelings sometimes become so intense that they override any sense of justice, fairness, or empathy with others. I used the example of the Taliban the other day, and I’m reading a book right now about how anti-Jewish polemic in the Bible, subsequent events in history, and the characteristics of German Lutheranism (and the leadership of a genuine wackjob) led to the horror of the Holocaust (or the Shoah, as some Jews prefer for it to be called).

I don’t have to believe that America is headed for anything like that to be worried at the prospect of what would happen to me or my fellow nonreligious folks if extreme political Christians ever found a way to impose their beliefs on our government.

Since I’ve posted about this before, I suspect that folks will suggest that I should focus on matters spiritual rather than the craziness of the political. Believe me, I try. But I’m guessing that I’m not the only agnostic/unchurched/secular person who feels this same fear. And as discussed in yesterday’s post, fear upsets the balance between reason and faith. I find that I can’t relax into the kindness of a religion when I feel the need to defend myself from many of its followers.

I would almost argue that in this day and age, Christians who want to spread the good news might have to come to grips with this problem first.

Consider what’s happened to Islam. It’s a venerable religion with more than a billion followers. Yet the acts of extremists who have twisted the tenets of the religion to fit their violent agendas have firmly associated Islam with terrorism, at least in some parts of the world and certainly here in America. If Christianity becomes too fully identified with intolerance and repression, what is its chance of spreading the good news?

Reason and faith

I don’t know what most folks think about Al Gore. I’ve always liked him without knowing too many specifics about him; environmentally concerned, a long-serving senator who helped pass the legislation that brought about widespread access to the Internet. (No, he did not try to claim he invented the Internet from scratch. I really get tired of that nonsense.) But I think he might have written one of the most timely books this year.

Sometimes I think of him as America’s Professor, in that he’s focused his efforts on teaching the country about the issues he feels strongly about ever since he lost his bid to actually lead the country. His latest book, The Assault on Reason, has got to be one of the most reasonable and intelligent books I’ve read this year. And whatever you may think of his voice or his preoccupation with wonky things, his thoughts on the compatibility of reason and faith are really important right now.

Yep, the compatibility of reason and faith. That’s a lovely phrase. I don’t think that religion is irrational or that intelligence is secular. What I get upset about are people who insist on a choice between the two. And unfortunately, there are plenty of those. Al Gore ain’t one of them.

What I like about his book is that he believes the real villian is neither religion nor reason, because both are necessary. He describes how the Enlightenment, which transformed a feudal and violent world into a literate and more rational world (if not necessarily less violent!), led to a belief that people could govern themselves rationally instead of allowing kings who were supposedly divine to lead with whatever brutality they desired. But he also acknowledges that reason wasn’t the only answer.

The Age of Reason also had a dark side, of couse. Claims to reason have justified appalling atrocities, including the so-called scientific racism that justified Nazi anti-Semitism and so much else. Moreover, the abstract nature of reason made some of its most zealous practitioners dangerously numb to human realities rooted in emotional attachments and shared feelings of responsibility for community, family, and nature. [emphasis mine]

Gore says that it’s fear, not reason or faith, that upsets the balance between spiritual and secular considerations. And he’s got a point. I can’t think of a better example than the Taliban.

As many people know, this theocracy emerged in the chaos of Afghanistan, after years of a proxy war between colonialist Russians and American-funded mujahideen had destroyed any semblance of government, order or law in that country. After so much death and destruction and terror, these men – many of whom grew up in refugee camps along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan – thought that the solution was Islam. Initially, they brought order to the country, at least to some extent. But in the extremity of the terror around them, they made Islam into a terrible thing too, using violence and occasionally murder to impose the purest Islam they knew onto everyone in the country. Their fear of anything that might corrupt the purity of their Islam led them to conduct public executions and even to assault other religions. Remember how they blew up those 6th-century statues of Buddha in the Bamyan valley of Afghanistan?

If Gore is right, and I suspect he is, the answer to the conflict between religious values and science is not for one of them to win. It’s for everybody to just settle down and think instead of being so afraid. The terrorists are not just about to blow us all up and we’re not all just about to slide downward into the pits of hell, nor do we need to invade any more countries or let anybody open our mail to keep us safe from, well, anything.

End rant.