Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Rumination, sparked by a recent discussion on Joe's blog

I grew up in a relatively small town with a Catholic father and a born-again-Christian mother. My parents raised me Catholic because that was the deal they made when they got married. This is somewhat ironic, since my father never attended church regularly and still does not, while my mother attends church at least once, and often twice, a week. They sent me to a local Catholic church with a neighbor, and my father did make sure that I went through the First Holy Communion and Confirmation processes. My mother whispered things to me when my dad wasn't around about her beliefs and her church; I vividly remember her explaining to me sometime in the 70s how UPC codes were a sign from the book of Revelation that the end of the world was coming. (Please don't ask; it still freaks me out.)

As I got older, I thought a lot about these two Christian faiths to which I was exposed. Both made me uncomfortable for multiple reasons. I simply did not agree with many of these two churches' positions on social issues. I did not like the Catholic Church's insistence on form and rules over substance; the way that priests (at least the ones I encountered) treated their parishioners; I disapproved of the extravagance and showiness -- not to mention the purported infallibility -- of popery. I did not like the submissive nature of my mother's church, in which one had to give up one's life and apparently free will to a vague yet scary notion of an all-powerful god; the extent to which one had to perform mental gymnastics in order to live one's life according to What The Bible Said (which wasn't clear at all); and other things, too.

As a young adult, I had an epiphany (if you'll pardon the pun). First, I realized that I couldn't solve the problem of my dissatisfaction with these religions by playing pick and choose: e.g., I don't like the Catholic Church's attitude toward homosexuality, but I'll ignore that and go to church anyway. That felt dishonest to me, particularly since there wasn't much about either religion that I affirmatively liked.

I also realized that I did not have to choose one or the other of the faiths of my parents. I decided that what was important about religion, or spirituality, wasn't a pro forma adherence to what one's family did (in my case, that didn't even really solve the problem, since there were two not-always-consistent faiths) but rather a sincere belief in some religion or model of spirituality. Or none (although that's a belief in itself). I went through a phase of being nothing, and then when T. and I were engaged, we decided to check out some local churches, since we both wanted to get married in a church. (Yes, illogical, isn't it?) We found an Episcopalian church with a wonderful rector and extremely laissez-fair Episcopalianism seems to work for us. At least right now.

Lately, the issue of religion and politics has been all over the place. Every time an Islamist blows himself up (taking numerous others with him, natch) in the name of establishing an Islamist state. Every time a conservative politician talks about banning stem cell research. Each new incident of violence in Iraq where Sunni and Shi'ite are pitted against one another. Even on knitting blogs like Joe's, where I participated in an often-heated discussion about gay marriage bans.

The intersection of religion and politics raises unbelievably complex issues, and I've been able to come to only one firm conclusion: the only way to peace and prosperity -- in religion and politics -- is tolerance and acceptance of other's differences. That means that any religion that says "my way or the highway (to hell)" is a Bad Thing. I don't care what else a particular religion says or doesn't say; the very act of saying "my way is the only way" is, to me, the root of all evil. Islamists who would fly airplanes into buildings to kill strangers because those strangers believe something different. Fundamentalist Christians who would deny equal rights under the law to homosexuals because homosexuals believe that their sexuality is a given and not a chosen sin. Catholics who would ban stem cell research because it uses embryonic tissue and the Catholic Church says abortion is bad. And so on.

I believe that the founders of our government shared my queasiness at the establishment of any one religion by a political state. Most of them came from England, where the Anglican Church is intermeshed in government and which at the time was extremely intolerant of other religions. They purposely set up a government in which religious institutions played no role. The Constitution (in the form of the first amendment) prohibits the establishment of any one religion by our government. These principles are under attack by religious groups of all kinds. It doesn't matter whether they call themselves Christians, or Catholics, or Muslims, or Rastafarians, or The First Church Of The Immaculate Flip-flops -- the intolerance is the same. Certain groups (of course not ALL in all groups) want to enshrine their individual religious beliefs in our laws and thereby impose them on others.

This I do not understand. I believe in a country where anyone can worship anyone or anything they wish, or not, and that's their own personal business. Certain religious principles -- for example, human sacrifice -- cannot be allowed for obvious reasons, but otherwise, if you are worshipping your own god in your own way and not hurting anyone else, you should be given the freedom to do so. But getting that kind of respect for one's religion requires that you give it to others. And there's the rub. I have yet to hear a reasonable answer to the question "Why can't you simply live your own life according to your religion without attempting to legislate others into conforming to your beliefs?"

While I was mulling over this post, I ran across a news story describing how a manufacturer of religious toys tried to give a talking Jesus doll to the Toys for Tots program. Toys for Tots said no, thanks. The vice-president of Toys for Tots explained why: "We can't take a chance on sending a talking Jesus doll to a Jewish family or a Muslim family." And in a perhaps-not-shocking display of intolerance, the toy manufacturer's response was that "anyone can benefit from hearing the words of the bible." (Even if it's not their holy book and they don't believe it's the word of God.)

Our society cannot survive "my way or the highway" religion. We can't tolerate it in free toys for kids who don't have any, and we can't tolerate it in our legislature. It will surely lead to hell on earth for us all.

Not to mention a really un-fun Christmas for a bunch of poor kids.


Knittah said...

Carol, I went through a similar process to the one you describe. I could not reconcile any claim by a religion that "we are right and everyone else is wrong" in my head. It just made no sense to me. I searched a long time before I found a faith that explicitly taught the elmination of prejudice, and followed through with the teaching. Any religion that causes hate is no religion at all. Here is the pertinent quote from the Baha'i writings, "religion must be the mainspring and source of love in the world, for religion is the revelation of the will of God, the divine fundamental of which is love. Therefore, if religion should prove to be the cause of enmity and hatred instead of love, its absence is preferable to its existence. "

Thanks for another excellent post!

Kate said...

Say it loud Sistah! As a lapsed Catholic I agree 100% with your words. I dislike the way the Church treats women as second class citizens and the hypocrisy they show in dealing with the many cases of sexual abuse. They all seem to forget the basic precept of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

jillian said...

Well said! I've thought on this, and agree with everything you've said. Religious intolerance of any kind is a bad thing. But at home (the US), I have been truly shocked and dismayed at the power fundamentalist christians have developed over government and the breaking down of the separation of church and state because of crazy "God talks to me" Bush, among other reasons.

It has led me to wonder if the very freedom of religion this country was founded on inherently created this problem, i.e., the populace has been free to practice their given religion for so long that some forget it IS a freedom and begin to believe their way is the only way.

I am currently embarrased to be an American and feel like our civil liberties, particularly gay rights, abortions rights, and rights to privacy are sliding into the dark ages.

Mel said...

Amen and well said. If some people would just spend as much time on their own souls as they do worrying about everyone else's, it would be a much happier world.

Anonymous said...

A quote from Andre Gide sums up my views on religion (and a lot of other things, too): "Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it."

Anonymous said...

Very well said, Carol. I couldn't agree more, and certainly couldn't have said it as well. kmkat, I really like that quote.
Here are two things my old Grandpappy used to say. "The nearer to church, the further from God" and then
"There is none so virtuous as the reformed prostitute".
What I find really strange about the "my way or the highway" in religion is that if these people ever bothered to examine the bedrock beleifs of other religions (not the whacko fringes, but the basic bedrock doctrine) they would find they are all similar, with different stories to illustrate the same moral points.
As I've said before, fanatics, whatever they may be fanatical about, are dangerous people.
Barb B.

jill said...

Every time I get confronted by someone who thinks that religion should be more intertwined with government (which, admittedly, is rarely: I think I emit liberal vibes the way frat boys in the 80's reeked of Drakkar Noir), I just say, "Okay. But what if it isn't *your* religion that ends up being the dominant one?"

I take the opportunity provided by the gaping, fishlike, "how could that be?" silence to move rapidly away from someone I am sure would then proceed to bore me beyond human endurance.

Bridget said...

My mother used to say that there were no people worse to spend time with than someone who had been converted to Catholicism, or a reformed smoker (as you may guess, my mother was raised Catholic - by a divorced! mother - and smoked like a chimney). I used to wonder what she meant, but as I got older, it became clearer.

I admire people who are so in tune with their religious beliefs, that they really inform their daily life, while not trampling all over those who believe differently. Unfortunately, those people are awfully hard to find.

Re: The whole talking Jesus doll thing. Tell me that if Mattel or some large toy company had come out with it, there wouldn't be an uproar by the fundamentalists. (Hey kids! Coming next year in time for the holidays - a talking King Herod!)

P.S. Working for a religious organization, I can tell you the Catholics have no corner on the market of hypocrisy ... sigh.

Anonymous said...

While this country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, we have to remember that our religious history was quite a bit more complicated then that "ideal."

When the Puritans showed up and settled the Mass Bay Colony they did not come celebrating religious freedom. No- instead wanted to found a theocracy, and "purify" the Anglican church. They set out on an "errand into the wilderness" in hopes that through their example, they would be able to reform the the English Protestant tradition. At the beginning they did not wish to actually seperate, but rather to be an example of "purification" and a covenantal government which would lead England to a "truer" form of Christianity. In doing so they formed an rather intolerant government which led to both Ann Hutchinson and Roger Williams getting sent off to Rhode Island, the hanging of multiple Quaker evangelists and the destruction of the Native tribes in the region. Yet the Puritans founded our great universities of learning, gave America some of its independant spirit, and were some of the earliest and toughest patriots.

Add to the in-fighting and power plays, the theological rifts of the Great Awakening and you are fast forwarded to the revolution. Our founding fathers were rather dismayed by the Puritan experiment to the north, and they had to contend with Anglicans in the South, Quakers in Pennsylvania and a whole mess of pietistic branches sprinkled everywhere. Although many were Diests, the majority of the men who signed the Constitution were Christian clergymen and they were pragmatists. They understood that in order to stand united against England and France they would have to implement religious tolerance.

But we cannot forget our friends the Puritans-- because from them two great trends in American religion sprouted-- American Evangelicalism and the American Protestant Mainline (Unitarians, liberal congregationalists, etc).

Sorry about the history lesson but I think its really important to keep these issues in mind when talking about the present because religion and politics have always been an issue in this country and will forever be. Its important to remember the legacy of the Puritans theocratic experiment, Quaker religious tolerance, and the hatred that Protestants had (and some still have) for the Catholic church. Its also important to remember that America really invented evangelicalism and fundamentalism, as well as Pentecostalism and Mormonism, and that we have exported these faiths all over the world.

The reason for this is because we exist in what sociologists call a "spiritual marketplace" that is unique to America. With no state church or long tradition of any kind of specific religion all religions exist in competition- they they all try to grab and power- both religious and political. That's how this country is and it probably will not change.

The other problem is that both sides have a hard time talking to the other. or even trying to understand each other and that is because both sides of the debate have misconceptions about what the other is like.

There is a great book out there called "Spirit and Flesh" by James Ault. Its an ethnography of a fundamentalist Baptist church which was written by a very secular nonbelieving sociologist. He spends a lot of time trying to reconcile some of the same issues you bring up and treats them thoughfully and with great care. I had my students read it this semester and they loved it- I highly recommend it as a way to try to understand the "Christian right."

As a historian of American religious history I always believe that you don't have to like what the other guy is saying, but you have to do your darndest to understand. Most Americans are really not that "right" or "left" but rather somewhere down the middle, yet it remains hard to find common ground.

Sorry for the long comment, but thank you for your thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

Carol, for many people this "my way or the highway" attitude extends to every aspect of their life. I have worked with the public for a decade now, both in retail (my job) and in education (my degree), and I can tell you that from my experience a lot of American men and women have little patience, compassion, respect or tolerance for others. I work at a national department store where over and over again I see total strangers acting so rudely and hysterically it seems almost barbaric and definately illogical. On the flip side, as a student teacher I see irate mothers and fathers who expect unrealistic and preferental treatment for their children. Why? It seems in many respects our society has become so intolerant and skewed. Where is the counter-balance to this irrational philosophy?

Of course, I'm writing this at 2 in the morning after a stressful day, so I myself am a little biased, but you get the drift.

Emily said...

It's interesting that you bring up the difference between having an established church and not. It transpired at my women's group the other night that people were totally unaware that we have such a system (in UK) and that it is very different form the secular, post-revolutionary situations in the US and France.

We ended up discussing how important religion (specifically, Christianity) seems to be in the US in comparison to here in the UK - (although, similarly, our whole system of law and society has built from a time when Christianity was pretty much universal). Here my experience is that most people who would see themselves as left wing (not New Labour!), or unconventional in terms of sexuality, relationships, etc are explicitly NOT Christian - perhaps Buddhist, 'Spiritual' or atheist. It surprises me how many American people on a GLBT list I read, and on relatively radical blogs describe themselves as Christian. Doesn't surprise me in a bad way, just very differerent.

Sonja said...

I very much enjoyed your intelligent and heartfelt post, and I share many of your thoughts and feelings. One thing I would like to add regarding the gay marriage issue. If there is a separation of church and state in this nation, then why is the state involved in the "sacred institution" (GW's phrase) of marriage? My answer is to get the state out of the marriage business. All state sanctioned unions should be civil unions, not marriages. Let the churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and such figure out the marriage thing, separately. Civil unions should be available to adults over 18. End of discussion.

mindy said...

This is something I've always struggled with. I wonder, if since everyone (that term is used loosely) is so adamant that THEIR God is the one true God, then perhaps there is one being that manifests itself in different forms? Then I wonder about the Bible, which is an interpretation of a translation of an interpretation etc. Anyway, that's how I have to view it in order to have any peace. There is a Church that I loosely attend (funny, its Episcopalian) because it is filled with kind people who don't "thump" at you. And I have never once been told by any of them that my brother is currently roasting in Hell (thats a rather important point for me). There is a line in a song that rings true for me almost more than anything I have heard preached to me, and certainly more than anything I've been told by the fanatics who have tried to save my loosely-believing soul- "In the end, only kindness matters." That's what I hope is the truth.
There. Now I've done my little bit of "preaching". Sorry. Great post, Carol, very thought provoking.

Aarlene said...

I find it astonishing that the religious right in this country think they are different from the Taliban.
Is it charity if you are force fed a religion in order to 'qualify' for the gift?

Anonymous said...

What is all this fuss you're making about the purported infallibility of potpourri?

Anonymous said...

Oh, I see -- that's popery.

Never mind.

Anonymous said...

I think we need to strive for more than just tolerance of each others differences. We need to find a way to embrace our differences and unique ideas. I was raised Episcopalian, and became a pagan witch back in my teens.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, thank you! I was raised Jewish, our neighbors were Episcopalian, and we celebrated Christmas (and Easter, if we were so inclined) at their house and church, Passover and Hannukah at our house. I went to a private school that at the time had chapel every morning, with hymns, the Lord's Prayer, etc. I think it taught me to be more tolerant, and I now can't deal with any religion that insists they have the only ticket to Heaven.

And yes, civil unions should be the only legally recognized union, with a religious ceremony if one is wanted by the participants. Apparently that's the system in France and it works very well. Civil unions should be available to everyone, as well.

Diane said...

I'm a poor 8 yr old kid and you give me a talking Jesus doll? Was I that bad all year? Did you run out of GI Joes and Barbies?

MsAmpuTeeHee said...

* amen *
So to speak. My "religion" doesn't use that word, but you get my drift ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm thankful that I was born lacking the "religious gene" although the whole range of religion-spirituality is of interest to me in a "the inhabitants of the island eat WHAT?" sort of way. I do have friends who are truely devout yet struggle with the conflicts (and outright obscenities) contained in each of their religions.

Carol, your post and the comments from those who have a religion, have lost one, or aren't even looking for one are all thoughtful and set an example of a level of humanity that many churches have neglected to espouse.

Jude in obscureknitty

Donna D said...

Great post, thanks for speaking out!

Kathy said...

For all the "peace and love" that religions say they promote...much of the hatred and wars seem to have their start in religious beliefs. How do we get to a place where we're concerned about the happiness of all and the ability to provide for one's family, whether or not they believe in the same diety or any at all? My daughter was told by a classmate when she was 8 that she wasn't a "good" person because she didn't go to church each Sunday. But it's OK that she came to our house and stole toys from our 3 year old and that her parents are both having affairs and don't put seat belts on her kids...
Oh, sorry, off on a tangent. I am so tired of people qualifying their goodness and charity. It's hard to keep your eye on just doing something good each day, for your family - for others - and not worrying about organized religion, because they sure aren't worrying about me.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the objection to giving out Jesus dolls for Christmas-it celebrates His birth, after all. Why would Jewish/Muslim kids go to a Christmas celebration anyway? (not trying to stir the pot, just saying we can't be "pc" all the time,esp. on a religious holiday)

Anonymous said...

I thought that your opinion was well thought out and reasonable. However, I think that you are skewed somewhat against Christianity (not that organized religion hasn't given you an excuse for this!!). You state: "And in a perhaps-not-shocking display of intolerance, the toy manufacturer's response was that 'anyone can benefit from hearing the words of the bible.'"
Why would you label a company as intolerant for wanting to give a toy of Jesus on Jesus' birthday?
That is what CHRISTmas is. And the purpose behind Toys for Tots is to give Christmas presents. Whoever celebrates Christmas is celebrating the birth of Jesus. If a Muslim or Jew doesn't want to celebrate it, that is their prerogative.
As a Christian, I readily admit that I can and do learn from the sacred (and other) writings of other religions. Why would you consider me as intolerant for assuming the same for others concerning the Bible?

Carol said...

The reality is that Christmas has become a secular holiday. Lots of people celebrate Christmas without having any strong religious attachment to Christianity. I know Jews who "celebrate" at Christmas time, and I know families of mixed faiths who straddle more than one religion.

If the organization that gives out the toys wants them to be neutral as regards religious content, then the toymaker should respect that. And being respectful of other religions means not assuming that they NEED to hear about yours. It means assuming that they can have a perfectly fulfilling spiritual life according to the tenets in which they believe even if they never hear the words of YOUR religion. It's cramming your religion down someone's throat when they said they aren't interested and you don't respect that.