It’s Not How Wrong You Make It; It’s How You Make It Wrong
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
This December 6 will probably not go down in infamy, although it was the day Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor, took the stand for religious liberty. That is, for all people of faith. In defending his Mormonism, he observed that the only religion that should be reviled as un-American was “the religion of secularism” with its belief that faith should be “a private affair with no place in public life.” Although he made some noises about the separation of church and state, he did not go so far as Kennedy in 1960, who in fact argued that religion was a private affair.
Given the chance to talk about their own beliefs in August 2007, the Democratic candidates for the presidency mostly sunk to the challenge. Asked if prayer could have prevented disasters like Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse, most of them mumbled conventional non-responses. John Edwards had the courage to state that his own prayers did not prevent his wife’s cancer or his son’s death, adding “I don’t think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer.” In this view he agrees with the deepest thinkers of Judeo-Christian tradition. For the most part, however, Americans prefer their religion dumb, as do the radical Islamists on the other side of our war on terror.
In a recent review of John Gray’s book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Chris Hedges — author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America — summarizes Gray’s message thus: “as the era of liberal intervention in international affairs wanes, it is being replaced with ‘primitive versions of religion’ that will be used to fuel apocalyptic violence.” Gray believes that religion has been highjacked for morally obnoxious ends, whether in today’s Islamist jihad or Christian crusade, whether the September 11 attacks or the invasion of Iraq. According to Hedges, however, Gray believes there is a role for faith, beginning with the acknowledgement of human sinfulness, “the core of great theology” and “‘a civilizing perception'” that “is being lost.” The trouble with today’s crusaders and jihadists is that they are wrapping themselves in the mantle of divinity to cover the narcissistic and animalistic urges that really drive them.
“Smart” religion manifests quite respectable intellectual histories of questioning and debating the fine points of scripture and doctrine, on the premise that the unexamined faith is not worth living. Islam’s commentaries go back centuries; Buddhism’s millenia. We can cite Jewish theologians from Maimonides to Martin Buber, Christians from Thomas Aquinas to Paul Tillich. Nowadays Christianity in its more thoughtful mode is breeding entirely new ways of reading biblical and ecclesiastical tradition, such as Hans Küng’s radical review of Catholicism and the feminist theology of Elizabeth Johnson.
On the other hand, we have the fundamentalists — those who claim without a trace of Christian humility that only they can read the mind of God. They don’t need to think because they believe.
Our home-grown fundamentalists claim that every sentence in the Bible is true and inerrant. It doesn’t take long at all to discover that this is dumb religion at its dumbest. In his study Misquoting Jesus, the thrice-born (once to fundamentalism, thence to full intelligence) Bart D. Ehrman writes of his discovery as a Bible scholar that the book was anything but inerrant. Never mind the outright fantasy, from the myths of Genesis to the miracles of Acts; the four gospels can’t even get their facts in sync. Mark has Jesus crucified the day after the Passover seder (14:12); John the day before (19:14). Luke records the holy family returning directly to Nazareth after the nativity; Matthew sends them to Egypt (2:19-22). And so on.
Ehrman’s personal revelation was that, even if you bought the original scripture as the word of God, millenia of translation and copying mistakes — not to mention the intentional bias of sundry theological shifts over the ages — had largely erased that original. What has come down to us are several variant manuscripts infected with human error. To accept everything in the Bible as literal, one of the following must be true: one has not actually read the book, one has not remembered what one has read, or one has self-lobotomized, embracing stupidity as the first principle of faith.
To paraphrase the devout eighteenth-century Englishman Dr. Samuel Johnson, ignorance is not a sin unless it is voluntary.
Dumb religion lacks even the consistency of folk belief. God becomes an uncomplicated being, a Santa Claus writ large who dispenses rewards to the good and punishments to the bad, and who as a loving father likes you better than anybody else.
Whenever I hear survivors of a disaster citing prayer as the reason they survived, I want to ask them about all those who prayed and died anyway. This week a would-be missionary gone ballistic fired off shots in a Colorado Springs megachurch, killing two teenaged girls and injuring other parishioners before being shot by a security guard who also belonged to the church and who was presumably doing what Jesus would do. When interviewed, “hero” Jeanne Assam asserted, “God guided me and protected me . . . it was me, the gunman, and God.” No one asked her why God wanted the two churchgoing teens to die, or why, if God was in charge, he let the gunman into His house in the first place. No one asked because such commonplace statements of belief are just television for the soul.
During the fires in Southern California this October, some American Talibangelists declared the holocaust as God’s punishment for the region’s liberal attitudes, even though the most ravaged suburbs lay in Republican precincts, and churches were laid waste along with the mini-mansions. As always, the best religious reaction matched the humanist one, as people of all faiths and no faith alike pulled together to help out. Calls to prayer sprinkled the media, and many who prayed — especially in the company of fellow sufferers — doubtlessly enjoyed momentary comfort before filing their insurance claims. Like meditation, prayer can provide a person peace and consolation. Placebos actually do work.
Shortly after the worst had passed, the San Diego Union-Tribune had a page one story about a destroyed church under the title “Worshippers reflect on blessings, losses.” The church’s deacon declared that such acts of God really have no connection with God. One parishioner phrased it thus: “This isn’t a God situation, this is a Mother Nature thing.” Imagine that: a Christian proclaiming that the Goddess, the Earth Mother — not God — governs this world!
Tell that to Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, who this summer publicly prayed to the Lord to bring rain to his drought-ravaged state, joining Alabama Governor Bob Riley in seeking heavenly assistance to tweak the natural order.
Or tell it to the Renaissance and Enlightenment Christians who laid the foundation for what was then called “natural philosophy.” Scientific pioneers like Nicholas Copernicus, the Catholic cleric who advocated a sun-centered planetary system, René Descartes, who advanced mathematics as the divine language, and Isaac Newton, who bequeathed us physics — all believed they were deepening our understanding of God and his creation by explaining the latter empirically. It was the church who broke this bond by going after Copernicus, as it would later go after Darwin and others; it could ignore the contradictions within scripture or between scripture and practice, but not those between scripture and science.
Nevertheless, in the wake of Newton — himself a very conventional Christian — arose Deism, the belief that God had created Nature and set its immutable laws in action before withdrawing into a long retirement. Ergo, the much noted silence of the modern God: His existence was immanent only in the clockwork perfection of the natural world. And because His creation was perfect to begin with, He doesn’t make exceptions in the form of miracles or answers to prayer.
Thus, if today’s believer really wants to find a moral in such disasters as the late firestorms or Katrina, Creation is speaking loudly and clearly. Record-breaking hurricanes and floods, worsening droughts and fires in all hemispheres, melting polar ice and rising temperatures worldwide — if one is looking for messages from God, this one is written in huge letters across the heavens: STOP FUCKING THE WORLD. Or if you believe that Mother Nature, not God, is in charge: STOP FUCKING WITH ME.
In either case, what is needed is a leap of faith, joining our climatologists who conclude that the evidence we see today bespeaks a hotter world a-coming. If we create hell on earth, it will be our doing, and prayer alone won’t stop it. The creator has spoken.
To prove they are listening, Southern Californians must follow their attendance at prayer meetings with attendance at city planning meetings, where they can insist that no more pricey suburbs get built along the region’s fire-prone hillsides and canyons. Residents of the Gulf Coast besieged in turn by flood and drought can do the Lord’s work by restoring wetlands. Americans can atone to God or Goddess by reducing their carbon footprints, thus actually embracing the personal sacrifice basic to all true creeds. Join that new generation who now embrace the stewardship of creation as a tenet of faith.
Smart religion points out that you can’t have everything you want, that you pay a price for over-indulgence, and that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, even unto the seventh generation. Science, in this case, agrees.