Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Some random thoughts on religion and the public discourse....

I wonder, during the Christmas season [actually, I wonder most of the time, but I'm only getting around to writing this now], if there is any possible middle ground left in American discourse over religion.

Thomas Jefferson wrote

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

That wasn't strictly true in Jefferson's day, as Patrick Henry could have attested after litigating the Parson's Cause against the established Anglican church of Virginia, or any citizen of Massachusetts could have explained [as he or she paid taxes to support a State Church until the 1830s].

Jefferson is talking about an ideal society in which religion neither extends into, nor affects the course of government and the right of the governed. Doesn't exist and hasn't existed, even in the United States, although we've arguably done better than most other countries in riding the dynamic of having a high degree of evangelical [here not strictly used to denote Christians] believer in a society that aspires to religious pluralism and a secular State.

I remember, growing up, that the two subjects you did not discuss in polite company were politics and religion. Today, these seem to be the only subjects [aside from the incompetence of the Eagles' coaching staff and quarterback] that you can discuss around a few drinks.

The extremes are daunting.

There's Christian reconstructionist Gary North, who writes [much to my chagrin, in Libertarian-oriented venues]:

The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant - baptism and holy communion - must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel. The way to achieve this political goal is through successful mass evangelism followed by constitutional revision.”...

As a tactic for a short-run defense of the independent Christian school movement, the appeal to religious liberty is legitimate. Everyone who is attempting to impose a world-and-life view on a majority (or on a ruling minority) always uses some version of the liberty doctrine to buy himself and his movement some time, some organizational freedom, and some power. Still, nobody really believes in the whole idea. Politics always involves establishing one view of the ‘holy commonwealth,’ and excluding all other rival views. The Communist Party uses the right of free association to get an opportunity to create a society in which all such rights are illegal. The major churches of any society are all maneuvering for power, so that their idea of lawful legislation will become predominant. They are all perfectly willing to use the ideal of religious liberty as a device to gain power, until the day comes that abortion is legalized (denying the right of life to infants) or prohibited (denying the ‘right of control over her own body,’ after conception, to each woman). Everyone talks about religious liberty, but no one believes it.

Then there's Anonone at Delawareliberal, who opines [in a post that is representative rather than exceptional--I'm not singling him/her out as anything but an effective spokesperson here]:

Anybody who professes a belief in god or gods or fairies or leprechauns or Zeus other supernatural deity is in denial of both modern science and history.

And it isn’t just the old testament - I refer to the “sacred” books of ALL the major western theist religions. Much of the new testament was written by a confessed murderer who was extremely intolerant of anybody who did not agree with him. Yet christianists call him a “saint”.

[The problem, Anonone, is that I do hold theistic beliefs, and I would be willing to bet you any amount specified that I could go the distance with you on theology, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and quantum physics, and do so in good company with large numbers of world-renowned historians and scientists. So in the specific I bridle at this statement. In the general, however, understanding the context--that you're talking about people who want a 6,000 year-old Earth and faked fossils put there by God to test our faith--I can't dismiss the observation without merit.]

Religion is, in fact, central to understanding our nation's history, from the Pilgrims and Puritans fleeing religious persecution, as our mainstream historical narrative has it, to the influence of the Protestant doctrine of Salvation through Grace [rather than the Catholic Salvation through Works] that tied into our concept of Democracy and, just incidentally, established the US as the nation containing the largest number of Christians insisting on literal Biblical inerrancy anywhere in the world.

When we wash religion out of the historical narrative [as public school textbooks are wont to do], we deprive students of an understanding of just what intellectual and political risks free thinkers like Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman were taking.

When we wash religion out of the historical narrative, we lose the dramatic conflict between the Social Darwinists, with their particular brand of non-religious but equally pseudo-scientific distortion of the concept of natural selection.

On the other hand, when we allow the rewriting of history by politically active evangelicals like the Constitution Party's Chuck Baldwin, we get garbage like this:

America’s birth is directly linked to the birth of our Savior. In fact, the United States of America is the only nation established by Christian people, upon Biblical principles, and dedicated to the purpose of religious liberty. This truth is easily observed within America’s earliest history....

The sentiments and statements of America’s founders make it clear that this nation has enjoyed a love and appreciation for the rights and freedoms recognized in Natural Law that is unique in the annals of human history. No other people have such a heritage.

I'm still waiting for Chuck to explain how Biblical principles of religious exclusivity square up with the political principle of religious liberty, but I'm sure he'll explain that ... some day.

There's an almost insurmountable mountain to climb these days, thanks in almost equal measure to televangelists and their polemic equivalents on the atheist side (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, et al), who make arguments that are equally tendentious, equally vicious attacks on everybody who does not think the way they do.

In that vein I can almost (but not quite) understand the yearning for some sort of legitimate dialogue that keeps leading Barack Obama to cast about with can only be called a tone-deaf ear for some clergyman to help him start it. So far he's found the Reverend Wright and Pastor Warren. I think maybe he needs to give up before somebody calls strike three.

Then there's Christmas. The Delaware blogosphere this year has no shortage of brilliant posts that point out the dysfunctional intersection of mass consumerism with popular [almost secular] religious traditions on real people and their families, including Donviti to Brian Shields.

Where's the answer to a society which needs to find the appropriate dynamic between personal belief and public policy?

I wish I knew.

I suspect that there is a glimmer of an answer in the concept of free will and an understanding of the concept of the infinite.

Virtually all forms of what Anonone would characterize as western theistic religions require a personal decision--an act of free will--to achieve enlightenment or salvation. That should translate, for both believers and non-believers, into a doctrine of non-coercion. Of course there is the issue of what constitutes coercion versus what constitutes legitimate persuasion.

Yet I think a good place to start would be a mutual agreement to the absence of disdain in public discourse.

For the religious--those like Rick Warren who believe that "people who don't accept what Jesus said will end up where Jesus said they'd go."--it is important to recall, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did in his book God and the World prior to becoming Pope, that if God's mercy is infinite, then no earthly religious authority has the authority to limit Her capacity for the salvation of anyone. [No, Ratzinger/Benedict didn't say Her.]

There would be a lot more civility if a lot more religious folks could manifest some sincere humility about the limits of their possible understanding of God, and a lot more non-theists could really act like they take seriously the idea that the existence of God can neither be proven nor disproven via scientific argument.

No easy answers, and I suspect I've failed even to raise the right questions. But I do think it's important to keep trying.


Hube said...

How many times have I written this here? ;-) "Excellent post, Steve!"

Delaware Watch said...

I still don't get the implication one sees everywhere in pieces like yours Steve that because America's origin is indisputably tied up w/ religion that it must--and it is desirable that it (not that you implied this point)--continue this legacy. If you don't think that throwing off unverifiable metaphysical claims as the basis for some official social policy is progress, at least recognize that few nations (perhaps none given enough time) don't change considerably from their origins. To play on a Biblical metaphor, few people find that new wine is best contained by old wine skins. Legacy is not a ball & chain but part inspiration and part shame if the WHOLE truth were told (like the legacy of slavery in the US).

I believe that US would do far better w/o constructing its social policy based in any way on religious belief. I can still think that and believe in the freedom of religion and religious expression. In fact, I think that the extent to which religion cooperates w/ the status quo and tries to become it is the extent to which it loses its prophetic role to stand against the excesses and wrongs of the status quo. Rendering unto Cesar is neither becoming Cesar nor maintaining an uncritical stance about Cesar's accession to power. After reading about what happened to the Loyalists during & after the revolution, I think the American Cesar good use a good retrospective historical spanking.

Steven H. Newton said...

I wrote about the continuing influence of religion as an observation, not a statement of preference.

The "founder effect" is, for whatever reason, much more pronounced in the US than in most other industrial nations. I was arguing that you can't understand how we got to where we are now without understanding the continuing role of religion in policy and politics.

I, too, would like to see religion far more divorced from public policy-making, if for different reasons than you, perhaps (you because it retards the adoption of progressive policies, me because Big Religion tends to be as coercive as Big Government).

As for "unverifiable metaphysical claims" my response is (a) see my lengthy comment on Brian Miller's piece about how to argue with non-believers (I'm too tired to write it over); and (b) I think there is a strong case to be made that scientism, or naturalism, or scientific materialism has not in fact made the case that items like the existence of a deity are not falsifiable (which is the term, rather than "unverifiable" that they would use).

Part of the problem is that the serious dialogue between science and religion takes place these days in some relatively rarified straits, with parties on both sides staying (by choice) as far away from Richard Dawkins and Rick Warren as they can get.

Anonymous said...

Please stop the misinformation and misdirection.
"like the legacy of slavery in the US"

Truth is the first slave was sold in 1609. The US filed it's Declaration of Independence in 1776, 167 years later. THE US inherited slavery. And BOTH the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution laid the framework for individual and human rights, and has diminished the inherited beginnings ever since.
Second, THE US Colonies received less than 10% of the slave trade, the majority went to the
Carribean and to South America.

Peddle your regrets for the USA somewhere else. Blame the countries that had large Navies and who transported the Slaves as Commerce. NOT the USA.
Perhaps you could write and move to those areas of the World, if complaining about the vestiges of Slavery are so important to you.
Stop Holding the USA responsible, and PLEASE do not even think of proposing RESTITUTION. Most of US Citizens had nothing to do with Slavery, No Ownership and no benefits from Slavery.
Obviously Anonymous, attack the argument, not the person.

The Maryland Crustacean said...

Hey, Steve. I am a little late in reading this post all the way through but, for what it is worth coming from me, well done!

Steven H. Newton said...

or what it is worth coming from me

It means plenty. I suspect that both of us love a decent argument as much as anything....

It's also quite healthy for all the unbelieving swine (hi, Brian, and Brian, and Mat, and Tyler!) with whom I hang out to see a wide spectrum of belief....

Anonymous said...

I'm not an unbeliever... I just rarely express my opinions on religion. Usually it would be the equivalent of bring a water pistol to a war. I don't know much, I just know what I feel, and I haven't been able to put it into words yet.

I celebrate in my beliefs in a very personal way, rarely even sharing with family.