Monday, February 12, 2007

Critics of Religion

Atrios made a post Saturday, inspired by the Marcotte-McEwan controversy, where he lays out his views on commenting about religion. It’s a thoughtful statement that I respect and largely agree with.

He starts in a funny place, though:

To me, one of the biggest barriers to having any kind of honest discussion about religion generally and religion in politics specifically has been in the rise of ecumenical and interfaith alliances of all kinds. While these things were probably well-intentioned, they tend to first divide people into "faithful" and "faithless" camps, and work to obscure the wide differences in religious belief and practice among the "faithful."… The substitution of largely meaningless and undefinable words like "faith" and "spirituality," which merely point to an undefined belief in something, for the more concrete "religion," which connotes a specific set of beliefs, traditions, and practices, has prevented an honest examination and understanding of what religion actually is, in its many forms, in this country.

I’m not sure of the relevance of this to Marcotte-McEwan; maybe there is a connection in Atrios’s mind that he doesn’t make explicit. But I have a couple of objections. One, substituting “spirituality” for “religion” is a real problem for organized religion. It has to do with the ascendancy of individualism over institutionalism. (“Sheilaism” is one term for a belief system that is spiritual but not religious.) Atrios implies that it’s a plot, or deception, or other incursion by religious authorities into mainstream life. If anything, it’s an incursion of pop culture into religion. Two, the complaints about interfaith alliances and shifting terminology—I fail to see the point, other than it complicates the reality of lived religion and makes things harder for Atrios to understand. He takes a defensive attitude: Somebody’s obscuring things. A better attitude would be: This is complex, I might not see all the angles, maybe I ought to tread lightly, ask for clarification, etc. Duncan would probably never make a blunt value judgment about African-American or Latino culture, partly for fear of giving offense unintentionally. Well, the same potential exists when you comment on a religion that’s not your own.

The post of Amanda's that generated the most outrage was the one about Plan B, the Virgin Mary, and the “hot white sticky” Holy Spirit. That one didn’t make me mad when I first read it; didn’t push my buttons. On reflection, though, I think I see how it could have made other people sincerely angry. It was funny, and it made a legitimate debate point about Plan B contraception. It was also a big fat finger in the eye to Christians who care about the Virgin Mary and the Trinity. And those are central to the faith life of many if not most Christians. The Vatican's views on birth control are not nearly so central. (Here is another tentative observation: the Trinity and the Virgin Birth are among Christianity's most irrational or abstruse beliefs, and just as they appear the most ridiculous articles of faith to outsiders, they are particular sore spots for insiders--the hardest items of doctrine to sign on to, the biggest source of doubt or ambivalence. Best to steer clear of those if you can, Mr. or Ms. Politician.)

Maybe I'm guilty of pushing my pre-existing agenda, and probably I'm in the dreary albeit familiar position of stressing the tone of criticism over the content. But it's a fundamental political task, finding common ground between groups of overlapping but not identical priorities. Establishing trust and good will is a major part of that task. And when you attack religious differences recklessly,you risk destroying good will by treading on tenets or practices that are precious and intimate to many, many people.

Duncan B. recognizes a crucial distinction, between the “many paths to God” viewpoint and the proselytizing, judgmental, one-path-only viewpoint. The latter approach is the one that most often merits criticism, precisely because it involves imposing Tom’s beliefs on Dick and Harry. I don’t think Duncan sees, though, that the “many paths to God” posture is the one that leads to interfaith alliances. There are reasons not to hold out much hope for interfaith dialogue, but I think it should be encouraged.

Incidentally, Butterflies & Wheels pointed me to this opinion piece by a Mark C. Taylor, who teaches religious studies at Williams College. (As usual, I take a slightly different point from the piece than B&W does.) Taylor is troubled by the increasing resistance to a comparative-religions approach among undergraduates, and argues that critical and comparative study of religions is a key to meeting the challenges of the next century.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, the vestige of an earlier stage of development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. It is now clear that religion is not going to disappear. Indeed, the twenty-first century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable a few short years ago. These conflicts will be less struggles between belief and unbelief than they will be clashes between believers who have the faith to doubt and those who lack it. The warning signals are clear: unless we establish a critical dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts some people welcome and others fear will surely become even more deadly.

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