Sunday, May 18, 2008

Post No. 7: You Asked for Religion, You Get Religion (and Politics)

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

It has been said that if one wants to maintain good relations with others in social conversation, one should avoid a discussion of religion or politics. That is unless, of course, everyone in the room feels somewhat similarly about the subject matter. I’m a guy who never saw any reason for anger or tension in interpersonal relationships, and consequently I avoided discussing religion in the past. Why get into an argument unnecessarily that will not advance anyone’s interests? That being said, four recent events prompted me to share my thoughts, or perhaps I should say, my observations.

The first was obviously the frequent reference to religious issues in the current campaign for the presidency, above and beyond Mormonism, Jeremiah Wright, and John Hagee. The second was a surprisingly large number of regular readers of my blog who were interested in whether I thought God existed. Interestingly, all of the readers were women in their late forties or early fifties, who I had known for over twenty-five years. I was immediately intrigued by the fact that they would even ask the question. I gained the impression that they were not inquiring as to whether I believed, but rather whether there is a God. The mere asking of that question poses significant risks. I imagine that only friends over such a lengthy period can ask another friend a question so fraught with potential complications.

The third event was a simple, innocuous, two minute conversation in a gas station earlier this week. I asked a driver at an adjacent pump for change for a bill. He responded that, at that particular moment, he was doing the Lord’s work, and with his blessing, by providing it to me. I vaguely recall responding by saying, “Well good,” or something along that line. However, he surprised me by stating that my response and the tone of my voice suggested to him that I was a non-believer. He further indicated that it was my choice of words that led him to that conclusion. There was an accusatory tone in his voice, and a sense of disappointment that I had not yet chosen to believe, even though I said absolutely nothing to lead him to that conclusion.

Moving on to the fourth and most recent event or series of events, I watched two programs on C-Span2 Book TV, where the authors discussed religion. The first featured Randall Balmer, the author of God in the White House (http://books.google.com/books?id=MjvJGwAACAAJ&dq=%22God+in+the+White+House%22&lr=&ei=8GswSLW0K5CkzgTm3NC1Cg). During his discussion, Balmer suggested that politicians use and manipulate religion, in any manner that they see fit, to advance their political interests and goals. He also told the story of how evangelicals became a force in American politics. Apparently in the early 1960s, they were unsuccessful in having any influence on the abortion debate. However, according to Balmer, during the Johnson administration, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Shortly thereafter, the Internal Revenue Service issued a ruling to the effect that any organization that practiced racial discrimination did not qualify as a charitable organization. Balmer further indicated that he had it on good authority, from the individual that sought the involvement of evangelicals in politics, that the IRS ruling was the precipitating event.

The second book discussion took place at the Discovery Institute. David Berlinski discussed his new book, The Devil's Delusion, wherein he argues that science does not disprove the existence of God or refute the Intelligent Design concept. (http://www.amazon.com/Devils-Delusion-Atheism-Scientific-Pretensions/dp/0307396266). Roughly two years ago, I pulled out my sister’s old college philosophy textbook, and I started reading the section on the existence of God. There were many discussions of the issue by the great philosophers, on both sides of the argument. I quickly concluded that the discussions was far too intellectual for me, and did not address the issues of everyday, ordinary people, as well reasoned as they may have been.

I had the same feeling watching the Discovery Institute discussion. Virtually everyone in the room was an intellectual heavyweight, even the young college students. I was absolutely fascinated by the discussion, but finished watching the show feeling convinced that such an analysis does not take place in the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. I doubt that such a discussion even takes place amongst the talking heads and consultants on the news shows. I am reasonably sure that the vast majority of people make their decisions about religion in a different fashion – namely whatever works for them and provides them spiritual comfort.

At some early point in my life, I read something to the effect that religion serves the purposes of those who subscribe to it. It provides meaning, purpose, direction, hope, and structure to the lives of humans, and the events that surround them. While I recognize its function from a spiritual, operational, and anthropological perspective, there are many things that I do not understand. You see, I can’t really say that I am a believer. I would have to say that I am a “middle of the roader,” which is a very dangerous status. As another author once said, I thought that being a centrist would mean that folks on both sides of the aisle would find something with which they could agree in my writings. I now understand that it also provides both sides with something which they can both attack.

I recognize the possibility of a deity. I do not denigrate, criticize, or despise those who firmly believe, nor do I feel ill will to those who firmly do not believe. But I’ll tell you, I just wish that God did not work in such mysterious ways, not that I have any control over the subject.

I would like for God to talk to me, touch me, speak to me, or otherwise engage me. I’d just like a clear sign. Additionally, I should note that it does not help to have others tell me that if I simply gave my heart and mind to God, and let him in, he would come in. I just need something more, and I suspect that there are others who feel similarly. I am continually amazed at how confident and self-assured others are about their connection to God. My Father swears that he talks to God. Why has God not chosen to have that same level of connection and conversation with me? Was I left out, or is it about something that I failed to do? I’ve been trying valiantly for 56 years to figure this religion thing out.

I’m not going to get into all of the debates and discussions that have been held repeatedly for thousands of years. Far brighter people have addressed virtually every aspect of religion. I am also fully cognizant that when one raises questions about something, people naturally assume that you have a particular agenda. However, in this instance, and for purposes of this article, I am simply trying to understand the manner in which adherents of different religions treat others and the views of others. This took on a complexion of its own during the recent political campaigns. Interestingly, to my surprise, Balmer indicated that there are currently 4,500 different religions in the world. That being said, I would like to pose some questions to all of you who are more sophisticated and learned than I, to assist me in further developing my thoughts.

How are people chosen to be adherents to a particular religion? Are people born in a certain geographical area based on their acceptability to God? Should we blindly follow the religious views of our parents or should they be questioned and challenged? Is it acceptable for one to modify or adapt the basic tenets of their religion to fit their particular societal, operational, spiritual, and political needs, or should one strictly adhere to the religious tenets and practices that existed at the time that the religion was founded? Is it appropriate for one to be born in one religion, and to then switch to another? Is it necessary for members of one religion to demonize and attack adherents of other religions? Is there one “right” religion which would suggest that the others are “wrong?” Is there one religion that is “better” than the next? Is the basic underlying purpose of religion to ultimately guide people toward doing “good,” however that may be defined? Is physical violence, imposed on adherents to a particular religion who have strayed, or against those of a different religion, ever justified and acceptable in the eyes of God?

For those of you interested in such questions, I strongly suggest that you avoid watching the History Channel, because you will only become more confused. A recent show discussed the books of the Old Testament which could have been included in the Bible, but were left out for various reasons. The program discussed the individuals and groups who made those decisions, and why. I was stunned to find out that there was an earlier version of the legend of Adam and Eve in the Jewish tradition, where Eve’s predecessor was a woman named Lilith, who was Adam’s equal. According to the academic theologians (who interestingly appear to be less dogmatic than practicing religious leaders), the whole course of human history and the relationship of man to woman, including the concept of sex, were dramatically influenced by this “substitution” of Eve.

Additionally, in the same program, the theologians mentioned that the “devil” is never mentioned by name in the Book of Genesis. There is a reference to a serpent. They further noted that it was the practice at the time, when a new religion was being introduced and adopted, to “demonize” the former religion, and one way of depicting the other religion as less desirable was to depict it as a serpent.

Back to the political arena, are we so concerned about the stability of our constitutional form of government that we should be legitimately concerned about one single person’s religious beliefs? Should political candidates question the religious devotion and practices of other candidates during campaigns? Are we to assume that the conduct of the United States is backed by, and has the blessing of, God, and that the conduct of other countries, where other religions are dominant, is not? If God is such an important force in the lives of Americans, despite that piece of paper that suggests that there is a separation of church and state, why doesn’t our society function more like a theocracy? Why do we not have in excess of 600 religious rules and laws like some other major religions? Did we check with God, or the Bible, to determine the manner in which we should handle and treat the enemy combatants captured during our war on terror?

My concern is, and always will be, the provision by our leaders of a structure and a construct thus enabling others to follow and understand their conduct. I would suspect that it is also an issue for our children watching the religious exchange between our candidates. I don’t know, perhaps the lesson to be learned is that you can do whatever you want to do if you believe and feel that God will support it, and thus you do not have to explain your actions to others. As I am in connection with virtually all of my articles, I do not feel any more comfortable now than I felt at the beginning of the generation of this piece.

I will conclude by mentioning yet another book discussion involving Michael Meyerson, author of Liberty’s Blueprint. (Http://www.amazon.com/Libertys-Blueprint-Federalist-Constitution-Democracy/dp/0465002641/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-6367001-4872918?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1211136469&sr=1-1) In his work, Meyerson tells the story of how James Madison and Alexander Hamilton mounted a campaign to convince the citizenry of the need for a federal constitution and its parameters. Meyerson notes that they did not rely on sound bites and bombastic claims. They wrote 85 separate essays on the subject matter, and then physically traveled around the country making their case for federalism. Meyerson argues that the two patriots emphasized that the resultant product would not be a political compromise, but rather a system that would work. They wanted to convince their audience of the soundness of their concept by reason. Some of our political leaders, on both sides of their aisle, might benefit from employing a similar approach to the religious discussion and the role of religion in our government and politics. Virtually anything would be better than what exists today.

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

6 comments:

  1. This should be an interesting discussion.

    Obviously, our founding fathers sought to enjoin the federal government from forming a single religion (as Britain had when our ancestors left there) as is stated in the constitution. They did not mean for there to be the sort of separation of church and state that has evolved in the courts since. (They left it up to the States to decide) But that discussion is for another day.

    I think we should focus on the very root of the religious vs. non-religious (notice I didn't use the word atheist). I think the argument centers around absolute moral law (as written by god in the bible) vs. relative moral law. Relative moral law is evolving, cultural law and can explain other religions' different take on things. (Christians and Jews believe in absolute moral law) everyone else is pretty much in the relative camp. (some exceptions)

    So what is the big deal you ask? Relative moral law explains why abortion can be morally acceptable, compared to those who are on the absolute side who believe it is murder. This also get's to the root of the homosexual marriage issue, another religiously charged difference in our society over the last 25 years.

    This core difference cuts across all racial and gender boundaries. Thus if there is ever going to be a resolution of these differences, then there will have to be a decision as to which is the position of our government and our societal foundation - absolute vs. relative moral law. I think it would be easier to get "Code Pink" to support our military and the war in Iraq!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Religion and politcs have a long and inglorious relationship. In many ways our society seems to going back to pre-enlightenment thinking on this question. I would simply recomment three books for your consideration: Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian, Richard Dawson, The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great.

    Claude

    ReplyDelete
  3. It is now 9:13 pm on the east coast of the United States. A new History Channel program entitled, "The Link" has just started. There have been some recent scientific discoveries about the potential origin of humankind. The evidence goes back 47 million years. You may find this interesting.

    http://www.history.com/shows.do?action=detail&episodeId=448600

    ReplyDelete
  4. Physicist Stephen Hawking has changed some of his views on religion, which are revealed in a new book. Click here for more information about his transformation.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi, this documentary is worth watching if you haven't already seen it...The God Who Wasn't There....http://www.thegodmovie.com/
    Enjoy some of the posts here!!

    ReplyDelete

"There Are More Than 2 Or 3 Ways To View Any Issue; There Are At Least 27"™

"Experience Isn't Expensive; It's Priceless"™

"Common Sense should be a Way of Life"™

Opportunity to Serve as "Guest Author"

This forum was designed to be YOUR forum for the civil exchange of ideas by people with all points of views. We welcome the submission of articles by all of our readers, as long as they are in compliance with our Guidelines contained in Post No. 34. We look forward to receiving your submissions.