Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We Are the Hollow Men

When I saw a link to a Salon article called "So What If America Is the Most Religious Nation?" I thought it was by the dread and inconsistent Mary Elizabeth Williams, so I clicked to see what she had to say on the subject. Instead the article turned out to be by one Bernard Starr, "formerly professor of developmental and educational psychology at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College, writes a blog for the Huffington Post. His latest book, 'Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality and Psychology to be Truly Free,' is published by Rowman and Littlefield." (According to the image at Amazon, however, the subtitle of the book is "What Spirituality Provides that Psychology Can't.")

The article itself was about what I expected, summed up well by its subtitle, "If you compare creed and deed, the claim is hollow." Starr begins with a derisive swipe at atheists:
A Rice University study of 275 scientists at 21 “elite” research universities in the United States found that while 61 percent declared themselves atheists or agnostics, 17 percent have attended church services. Whether genuine devotees, just hedging their bets or doing it for the children (as some say), there’s little doubt that America is a religious nation.
I haven't checked all the links in his essay, but clicking through to the Rice study gave me reason not to trust the author. I checked it because I wondered if the 17 percent who have attended church services were 17 percent of the self-declared atheists or agnostics, or 17 percent of the total sample. It was the former, but it's still meaningless. I'm an atheist, and I've attended church services, either with my mother's family when I was a child, or more educationally at a variety of churches with my father until I was about ten. As an adult I've very occasionally attended services with believing friends, but without any real interest (let alone conviction) on my part. I attended Friends' silent meetings a few times while I was in college about 40 years ago, but while I found them interesting and attractive -- an atheist could be a Quaker, I believe, without compromising his or her atheism -- I haven't been back in a long time. Read the linked article yourself and see if you think Starr described it accurately.

Starr also shows his ecumenical knowledge by rendering the plural of "mitzvah" as "mitzvahs" instead of "mitzvot," though I admit I'm nitpicking. From there, of course, the lengthy piece is mostly about the gulf between "creed and deed" in American religion, ranging from poverty to our inadequate health care system, concluding with our sins against ecology:
In our hubris we forget that we are guests on a tiny rock floating — in an infinite universe of rocks — that uniquely supports life in a delicate balance of natural and mysterious forces. We have the choice and the responsibility to act. Or, as one theologian cautioned: ”God will not save us.”
Another nitpick: human beings are not "guests" on the earth: we are part of the biosphere, no more guests than bacteria. beetles, or wildebeests. (That's an acceptable plural form, along with "wildebai.") He concludes:
What is religion?: Love, caring, serving, giving, sharing, oneness, brother and sisterhood, compassion and selflessness. Summed up: “Thy neighbor is thyself.”
Yet one more nitpick: "Thy neighbor is thyself" is not biblical (it almost sounds as if he confused "Love your neighbor as yourself"), and I couldn't find it on Google. Nor does it ''sum up' Starr's list of virtues. I think it stinks of solipsism: my neighbor is an Other, but that's no reason not to engage with him or her. Like people who talk as though diversity is okay only as long as we're all alike anyway, Starr seems to think we should only care for others because they are us anyway. (We have met the enemy and he is ... ?) Jesus did better than that with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

What really stinks, though, is Starr's definition of religion. First, you can find love, caring, serving, giving, and the rest as virtues in most religions, but that is because they are human virtues. Human beings created and constructed and revised our religions, so it's hardly surprising that our virtues (as well as our vices) found their way into the religions we made. It would be just as accurate to say that religion is hate, disdain, demanding, taking, enmity, indifference, and selfishness, because we put in those qualities too.

Second, most atheists and agnostics would agree with Starr's list of virtues, or most of it. So he's either claiming that atheists and agnostics don't care about love, caring, etc. — which is false — or it implies that we’re really “religious” after all, whatever we happen to think. I think that virtues are double-edged, and can easily spill over into vices, but that's another post. If Starr wants to claim that I'm really being religious, despite my atheism, when I exercise compassion, then he's engaging in religious imperialism, and failing in several of his virtues.

Third, and more important, Starr is playing the game of No True Scotsman. He defines religion so as to suit himself, but he's begging the question. How does he know what religion "is"? I'd say it's reasonable to suggest that instead of idealizing and abstracting, we should look at a real-world religion and see what it looks like.

Read the entire New Testament, or if that’s too much work, read just one of the gospels in its entirety.  (Mark is the shortest one, if that helps.) True, Jesus talks about love, but he also talks about demons, the final judgment, miracles, the wrath and vengeance of God, the torments of hell, and becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven.  (That last one is in Matthew, not Mark: 19:12, to be exact.) "Love" in the New Testament is actually hard to reconcile with love as human beings know it.

I've found that pointing this out infuriates liberal Christians more than almost anything I can say about their cult. They pay lip service to "holistic" interpretations of the Bible, but in practice their approach to the Bible is fiercely one-sided. They pick one or two verses out of context, usually “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which is, of course, an Old Testament quotation), “Let him who is without sin be first to cast a stone” (which probably isn’t an authentic part of the New Testament anyway but a later addition), and maybe “God is love” (from one of the Johannine epistles, again out of context) or Paul’s hymn to love from 1 Corinthians. They ignore the context in the gospels: the faith healing, the hellfire and brimstone preaching, the apocalyptic threats and promises, the hostility to sex and the body (such as “If your eye leads you to sin pluck it out”), the hostility to the family in favor of the cult (“Those who do the will of my father in heaven are my mother and brothers and sisters”, “Let the dead bury the dead”), and so on. But reading for context is difficult; cherrypicking verses to bash your opponents with is easy and more fun.

Then look at what people want from religion. A few years ago I wrote about a Pew Poll on the factors that bring the fallen-away back to church. "Those who leave the ranks of the unaffiliated cite several reasons for joining a faith, such as the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%)." Not "I felt there wasn’t enough love, compassion, giving, or selflessness in my life," but something more like "I felt there wasn’t enough praying, kneeling, incense, hymns, organ music, and sermons in my life." To each his own, of course. Look at other world religions, and you'll see that this tendency isn't limited to Christianity. Buddhism, for example, began as an iconoclastic sect that broke off from Hinduism; agnostic about and indifferent to gods, the Buddha stressed right thinking and right practice, boiling everything down to a simple list of Noble Truths. Before too long (if indeed Gautama ever really had gotten rid of these accretions), Buddhism became a religion of rites and hierarchies. In practice, religion includes simplicity and complexity, leveling and elitism, compassion for suffering and contempt for those who haven't freed themselves from illusion.

Finally, to refer back to the original subtitle of Starr's book, neither "psychology" nor "spirituality" has much to be with being free. Most modern psychology denies the existence of human freedom, as far as I can tell: free will is an illusion, we’re the slaves of our brains or our genes. Most spiritual traditions are at best ambivalent about freedom: it’s more a come-on for religious hucksters: come follow me and do what I tell you to do, and you’ll be free! No, thanks. Freedom is a complex matter, but neither religion nor psychology has said much to say about it that I’ve found useful.