Religion and Spirituality Archive


What Religion Can Learn From Homeland Security

Monday, June 11th, 2012

If there is one thing we know about religion, it is that the United States is far more religious than any European country.  80 percent of us tell pollsters we’re “Christian,” and over 90% of us tell them we believe in God; 40% are regular church-goers.  Megachurches may look like metastasized malls, and their message may often be hyped-up watered-down feel-good, but the crowd size says it’s working well enough to draw many thousands of people a week.  As a nation, we trust in God – it even says so on our money.
However, when you start asking how many people actually attend church, it’s a much different picture.  Researchers counting actual church attendance in more than 300,000 Christian congregations totaled 52 million people, or 17.7 percent of the American population in 2004.[1]  About 82% do not attend church regularly.
 
The fastest growing faith groups in the country are atheists and nonbelievers. In just the eleven years from 1990 to 2001, they more than doubled, from 14 million to 29 million, from 8% of the country to 14 percent. There are more than twice as many nonbelievers and atheists as there are evangelicals.[2]  Since it’s hard to believe everyone would have the nerve to tell a pollster they were an atheist or nonbeliever, the real figures are almost certainly higher. We don’t read this in the media because there are no savvy or powerful groups pushing the story.

In the Southern Baptist Church, baptisms of people in the eighteen to thirty-four age group fell 40 percent, from 100,000 in 1980 to 60,000 in 2005.  Most of these data come from evangelicals and others “inside” religion, not from Christian-haters. From 2000 to 2005, church attendance declined in all fifty states, and the states with the biggest decline were in the New England region: a traditional bastion of church-going.[3]  When asked to rate eleven groups in terms of respect, non-Christians rated evangelicals tenth. Only prostitutes ranked lower.[4]
 
When religion scholars wave these data off by saying (correctly) that churches are always being born and dying, they’re failing to mention that these times of death and resurrection are occurring within the much deeper fact that religion in America has been in steady decline since the 1800s.  America churches have not kept up with population growth in over a century.[5] 
 
Current Critiques of Religion
 
Religion’s protective halo has been dissolved by the acids of time and moral scandals around sexual hypocrisy and abuse.  Critics are rushing to pile on churches the way predators take out the weakest members of the herd.  We’re no longer surprised to read broad and blunt assessments like these:
 
1.       “There’s no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ.  The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.”
 
2.       “Open heartedness, compassion — it’s a capacity from birth. It must be possible to increase that.  The majority of the 6 billion people [on Earth], I think, you can count as non-believers. We must find ways and means for promotion of these values” among these non-believers.
 
3.       “A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us.  The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western [culture]….  Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society.  The post-Christian narrative … is based on an understanding of history that presumes a less tolerant past and a more tolerant future, with the present as an important transitional step.”
 
4.       “Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making.”
 
5.       “Both papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy require widespread and unchallenged ignorance to sustain their claims to power. Both are doomed as viable alternatives for the long- range future of anyone.”
 
6.       “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.  Democracy requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”
 
Most readers can guess these statements came from some of the “new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and lesser-known enemies of religion.

But no.  These six quotations come from, in order, Pope Benedict XVI,[6] the Dalai Lama,[7] Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. (President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY – one of the world’s largest),[8] religion scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong,[9] retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong,[10] and President Barack Obama.[11]  The background against which religion is viewed has changed.  Prominent people on the inside of religion have acknowledged what pundits won’t notice: our religions are becoming – and for growing numbers have already become – increasingly irrelevant to our lives.  This is true of both supernatural religions promising eternal life elsewhere and later, megachurch preachers that downplay the supernatural afterlives in favor of their here-and-now prosperity gospel, and liberal religions seeking wisdom for living here and now (or at least a hideout where they can find like-minded people).

Some may wish we could return to an imaginary yesteryear when everyone who mattered believed the same thing, and their beliefs held our world together, but we know it won’t happen.  We can’t unlearn the industrial and scientific revolutions any more than we could wish away evolution, a 4-1/2 billion-year-old Earth, and a nearly fourteen billion year old universe.  Nor can we unlearn what we have learned about mythology, the history of religions, and the broad theistic, polytheistic and non-theistic array of healthy beliefs serving people in the worldwide smorgasbord.  Religious beliefs are matters of personal taste, not wildly incongruent factual claims.
 
Today’s greatest awakening seems to be among the “church alumni” who are leaving the churches in droves.  American Christian churches lose six thousand members a day: more than 2 million people a year,[12] while the U.S. population increases by 3.3 million a year.  America and religion are heading in opposite directions.
 
Within Roman Catholicism alone, nuns have been an endangered species for decades, and the ratio of congregants to priests gets larger each year.  Nationwide, 1,200 priests retire or die each year, while only about 450 are ordained to take their place.[13]  We’re seldom told that all the Catholics in the U.S. represent just seven percent of the world’s Catholics.  Catholicism has become a third world religion, and the gap between what professors and priests know, and what people in the pews hear, dwarfs the Grand Canyon.  Even now, few Catholics are aware that in 1999, Pope John Paul II said that “heaven” was not a place, but a state of mind.  That kind of candor, while admired by liberal theologians, is not likely to play well in the demographics of the Church’s Third World future — if it would even sit well for many who attend Catholic churches in the U.S.[14]

Christmas and Easter, Christianity’s two highest holy days — both adopted from far older faiths — have morphed into high-profit days for merchants.  Almost all the Christmas and Easter decorations — as well as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and the rest of our holidays — are put up and paid for by merchants, not churches.  These decorations and ads for shoppers may best be seen as “bait” cast by merchants.  Large chains like Wal-Mart can make a third of their annual revenue during the Christmas shopping season, where Santa Claus replaced Jesus long ago.
 
When religions can’t even attract people with promises of getting to live for millions or billions of years in a members-only heaven elsewhere and later, they are in dire straits.  Think about it: if people actually believed they could live forever elsewhere and later, simply by following the teachings and beliefs of one of the 38,000 Christian sects in the world, church attendance would approach 100 percent, the pews filled with hopeful and desperate people.  But as their behavior shows, they don’t believe the supernatural stories.  
 
More than 60 years ago, theologian Rudolf Bultmann anticipated this.  He noted that the passage of time had “demythologized” biblical religion, and asked what, if anything, a demythologized Christianity still offered to modern people.  The continually decreasing number of people in churches suggests that if religion has a useful message, they aren’t hearing anything that makes them want to go to church.  Almost all of these observations have come from “insiders” – people friendly to religion, not church-haters.  To say the “evangelical nation” is falling,[15] or the American churches are “in crisis”[16] is like wondering if all the glaciers might be looking a bit smaller.  
 
  
But Seriously: Homeland Security?
This is where theologians and religions could learn a lot from Homeland Security. Moving from a broad philosophical perspective to a clear down-to-earth factual situation that sheds light on the biggest problem in American religion today, here’s a real-world problem with clear parallels to religion:
 
A local police officer radioed late one night to his dispatcher that he had just seen a state highway patrol officer’s car with a door open stopped along a highway.  The officer said he was going to go back to make sure the patrolman was OK.  That patrolman was lying in a ditch, barely alive, having been shot eight times with a rifle.  The local police dispatcher decided to use plain English rather than code in broadcasting a call for help. 
 
Had she said “10-33,” her department’s code for “officer down,” it would have meant something very different to the Missouri Highway Patrol: “traffic backup.” Instead, every state trooper within miles responded, and the officer lived.  Being able to communicate quickly and effectively in ordinary language can mean the difference between life and death – both literally and metaphorically.
 
9-11 and the Katrina disaster in New Orleans showed dramatically that different police and emergency units simply can’t communicate in those old-timey code languages, because different agencies use different codes.  Federal officials from the department of Homeland Security are now requiring that police officers use plain talk rather than their “10-codes” when responding to a crisis involving multiple agencies.
The people who need to know what’s going on can’t communicate because they speak different dialects.  If the matter is important, they must be able to say what they mean in ordinary language.  So if federal Homeland Security officials have their way, the next time a police officer arrives on the scene, he’ll simply radio back “I understand” instead of “10-4.”[17]
 
When applied to the world of God-talk, the lessons from Homeland Security are revolutionary, crossing over the threshold to secular religion in ordinary language.  In ecumenical or inter-religious discussions – or efforts to reach the tens of millions with no brand-name religion — theologians and preachers need to be able to explain what on earth they mean by words like God, Sin, Repentance, Salvation, Grace and the rest if they are to rescue the messages of their religion from jargonian captivity.  
 
A century or two ago, preachers could rely on most people accepting the supernatural world picture in which phrases like “He ascended to Heaven” were coherent.  But that’s no longer true, when the majority of our planet’s six billion people are, as the Dalai Lama put it, “non-believers.”
 
If it’s important that police and emergency services be able to communicate in plain talk, it is equally important in discussions of religion, ethics, moral courage, and character formation.  Ordinary language includes the people that jargon excludes, and builds bridges rather than linguistic walls.
 
Though it may seem rude to say so, god-talk is no more sacred than 10-4 talk.  It’s merely the medium, not the message.  When it no longer communicates life-giving messages to all those trying to reconnect with all the people seeking wisdom for living more authentically here and now rather than elsewhere and later, it needs to be translated into this-worldly ordinary language.  Expecting theologians and preachers to speak in plain talk rather than Capitalized Words may be naive. But if they can’t, history may well see them as accomplices in the ongoing death of a Christianity that is relevant to this world.
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[1] Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week? An Alternative Approach to Measurement”) in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 3 (September 2005): 307-322. Also see David T. Olson’s The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008), p. 23

[2] Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. 53.

[3] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008), p. 37.

[4] Wicker, p. 143.

[5] Olson, pp. 144-145.

[6] Sydney Morning Herald, July 28, 2005 (http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/western-churches-a-dying-breed-pope/2005/07/28/1122143939067.html)

[7] A version of this speech appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 6, 2009.

[8] Quoted in “The End of Christian America,” by Jon Meacham, Newsweek magazine, April 13, 2009.

[9]  From an interchange with biologist Richard Dawkins in the September 12, 2009 issue of The Wall Street Journal in the “Life & Style Essays.”

[10] Bishop John Shelby Spong in Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994, p. 99.)

[11] From Obama’s “Call to Renewal” address on May 28, 2006.  The full address is at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal/

[12] Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (HarperOne, 2008), p. ix.

[13] CBS Evening News, July 17, 2007

[14] July 21, 1999.  Google pope 1999 heaven for dozens of sources and commentary.

[15] Christine Wicker, ibid.

[16] David T. Olson, ibid.

[17]  See “10 codes going away?” in Police Link, December 13, 2009 by John Scheibe. http://policelink.monster.com/news/articles/128269-10-codes-going-away.

Davidson Loehr is author of the book
America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher

When God Demands An Abortion

Friday, June 8th, 2012

The fundamental position of both the Roman Catholic church and the pro-life movement is that the most important of all considerations is the brute fact of a single individual human life. Every single human life is considered sacred, even at conception: more sacred than any other consideration. It is the quantity of life that is being defended, not the quality of that life.

As the Christian writer Tertullian said eighteen centuries ago: "That is a man [sic] which will be a man: you have the fruit already in the seed."   And if it is to become a person, then either to actively stop conception from taking place, as birth control does, or to actively terminate the development of that zygote and fetus, as abortion does, is seen as a sin against the wishes of God, and must be stopped. As a conservative theologian might put it, "God demands it" — assuming they have this God-business right.

This is why those who think of themselves as pro-life have such zeal, fervor and such a deep commitment to stopping what they see as a murderous crime against not only the individual conceptions, fetuses and babies, but against God Himself.

Let's look more closely at this.

The pro-life argument against abortion is easy to reduce to its inherent absurdity. If one human life is good, then two are better, a million are better yet, and the seven billion we have on the earth now are miracles of life to be welcomed and encouraged. But why stop with only seven billion?   Why not seven trillion? The question on this worldwide scale is not when to stop population growth, but how it can ever be stopped.
On a smaller, more personal scale: if an individual life, in and of itself, is always good, no matter how many children the mother has had by what age, no matter how many are crowded into a single woman's life, a family's life, or the squalor of inner-city ghettos, then how could anyone committed to "pro-life" ever argue for birth control or abortion?

Ironically, the best theological model for abortion as a moral choice — and often, a necessity — comes from the Roman Catholic Church, in a papal encyclical called Rerum Novarum , written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. It has been updated by the church three times, in 1931, 1961, (and 1991), to modernize the language and polish a few of the concepts.   The title "Rerum Novarum" means "On New Things," which also fits its adaptation to today's issues of birth control and abortion.

This 30-page essay did more to change the social structures of the western world than the entire   "Social Gospel Movement." It brought about revolutions in attitude that were absolutely fundamental in getting both churches and governments to change child labor laws and help establish workers' unions all over the world. And the encyclical had this power because it was, at bottom, a theological argument of the first order: in theological jargon, an argument about what God demands.

What God demands is not the absolute minimal undeveloped lives of oppressed human beings in dead-end environments. Pope Leo's God — and any god worthy of the name — demands that our labors enable us to live fully, to realize the full potential of human beings. That means time for education, leisure, time for relaxation with friends and family, time not just to bear life like a burden, to love it, to live it, like free and empowered human beings.

Pope Leo XIII contrasted humans with lower animals, which he called "brutes":
"The brute has no power of self-direction, but is governed by two chief instincts". These instincts are self-preservation and the propagation of the species". But with [humans] it is different indeed". It is the mind, or the reason, which is the chief thing in us who are human beings; it is this which makes human beings human, and distinguishes them essentially and completely from the brute. ("Rerum Novarum," in Seven Great Encyclicals, New York: Paulist Press, 1963, p. 3)"

And what is the role of the Church in all of this?   "Its desire is that the poor, for example, should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and should better their condition in life; and for this it strives."   And if conditions exist which rob humans of the possibility of living like people created in the image of God, if people found themselves in

"conditions that were repugnant to their dignity as human beings" if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age–in these cases there can be no question that within certain limits, it would be right to call in the help and authority of the law [to do what] is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the danger."

And why?   Why must the Church and the law do these things?   Because God demands it!   Demands it, because humans must be given living conditions which allow them to develop fully to the limits of their potential as educated, intelligent, creative, and joyful people. It is for that they were created, and conditions which make that nearly impossible are not merely wrong: they are evil.

"On New Things"

Times have changed. The population of the world has increased five-fold since 1891, and 39-fold since the era when the Bible was written, when the world's population was estimated at about 180 million. The effect of overpopulation and under-education on the possibility of living like fully developed human beings is deadly. The pressures on single mothers and working families without the support of large extended families or social safety nets have never been this brutal.   Neither the religious scriptures of the West nor established theological traditions have yet had to address this changed situation — these "New Things" — regarding birth control and abortion.

Now they do. And both the fact and the threat of more unwanted births and of more human beings is now among the most destructive variables that make it impossible for billions of people to grow into their true nature and highest possibilities. They will be driven instead, as Pope Leo said of the "brutes," by only two instincts: self-preservation, and reproduction.

In theology, we make two important distinctions between gods and idols.   Idols are almost always more seductive ("seduction" means "to lead astray").   But idols — fake gods — cannot lead us toward a more full, integrated and authentic life.   We know this is true about exalting money, power, sex or drugs as the gods that rule our lives.   Now unrestricted breeding and overpopulation have joined the other anti-life forces. The wages of these reproductive sins that exalt quantity of life over quality of life are the death of many possibilities for the mother and the children who are brought into a home and a world that cannot and will not care for them.
Would you like to see what it looks like when human beings live only like animals, driven only by surviving and breeding?   Go to Mexico City, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, or dozens more big cities, all over the world. Picture the ghettos, slums, and shantytowns of the world, and you will see the evil conditions, and the results of those evil conditions.

Do you want to see it up close, one-on-one?   Look at pregnant teen-age girls, trapped in a system from which neither they nor their children are likely to escape. Nor are there many kinds of employment open to most of these women. Often lacking even high-school educations, what are they to do?   They can be prostitutes and their boyfriends can be pimps, drug pushers and drug takers.   Or they can be exploited laborers living at the edge of starvation and kept there by a system that can demand from them what it chooses and give them no more than it must.

It is perhaps the first time in history that those who want to defend their position as religious must begin to recognize that both birth control and abortion are not only an economic necessity today, but also a religious one. People cannot live like human beings in the squalor of the slums and shantytowns in which they will forever be defined, like brutes, by the basic animal instincts of self-preservation and breeding - and, of course, sexual and economic exploitation.
And when sex education doesn't exist, when birth control fails, and the only hope left for a woman, a family, a ghetto, a city, a nation or a world is an abortion; when an abortion is the only means left of removing evil conditions which threaten to return this human or these humans to the level of mere brutes, then the church, the state, and all who really honor the possibilities of life must not only condone abortions, but help women get them, safely and easily. God demands it.

The world doesn't need more people; it's already overcrowded.   We will reach a global population of seven billion any day now.   Reproduction is not a high calling: anything that lives can breed.   The higher calling is asking whether we can be proper stewards of the life we already have.   If we can't, it is wrong to let our higher possibilities be smothered by the fertile effects of forceful, sometimes forcible, mating calls.   We are meant for more than that, and are urged - commanded - not to settle for less.

This demands widespread sex education: God didn't give us brains just to fill up our skulls.   In a pro-life world of the highest order, condoms should be as plentiful as teen-age hormones, if we are to prevent our lowest capacities from putting all higher aspirations out of our reach.   "Just say No" doesn't work any better for sex than it does for war.   The more we understand about ourselves, the possibilities for our lives, and the costs and potential rewards of becoming a parent, the more likely we are to choose a path that is both beneficial to us, and worthy of God.

Davidson Loehr is author of the book
America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher

America's God

Friday, April 6th, 2012

As even ancient theologians could have seen, the U.S. worships at the altar of Pluto: the god of riches and death.  Our Plutocracy has become desperate in its end stages.  The gap between the rich and the rest is now bigger than it was during the Great Depression 80 years ago.

Robert Reich reports that the richest 1% of us own more than 50% of all shares of stock.  The next 9% own 40%.  Most of us own only a tiny sliver of the stock market, including the stocks included in our 401(k) plans – if we even have such plans.

The only real wealth most of us own is in our homes, but our President is helping, if not cheerleading, as the bankers foreclose on millions of our homes, hoovering what’s left of lower and middle class wealth up to the top.  Then, without any financial leverage, the political and economic significance of 90-95% of our citizens evaporates. (1)

It’s not immediately clear why riches should be lead to death. That link came from the older Greek god Hades, on whom Pluto is based.  Hades was god of the underworld, which we call Hell.  We’ve been carried to Hell in a gilded hand basket, dumped into the abyss of insignificance.

These are Theological Issues

It’s a tough time to be a theologian, since membership and attendance at worship services has been declining for many decades. Church attendance is now around 18% and still falling.  The first words that come to mind when people hear the words “church” or “preacher” are apt to be “sex scandal” and “hypocrite”.  When asked to rate eleven groups in terms of respect, non-Christians rated evangelicals tenth.  Only prostitutes ranker lower, though some see this as an unfair attack on prostitutes. (2)

But even if religion is in wholesale decline, theology offers a unique way of framing gods, lives, integrity and fulfillment: a here-and-now – rather than elsewhere and later – “salvation,” meaning a kind of wholeness and authenticity.  This may sound like good psychology, and it is: “psyche” is the Greek word for “soul.” But understanding our gods as the psychological allegiances that show our priorities – our “ultimate concerns,” as Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich put it – isn’t a newfangled idea.  Martin Luther said we all had gods, which could be seen from our behavior.  It’s good psychology, but also good theology.  It’s most helpful to understand theology as a “grammar of faith,” whether it involves one god, or thirteen in the Greek Olympic deities. (3)

So. To say that America’s god is Pluto, the god of riches and death, is a theological – mythical – way of saying that the excessive love of money leads to the death of our full humanity and wholeness, both as individuals and as societies.  Both mythology and theology are best understood as psychological studies.
No one would say that even a significant minority of Americans act in the imitation of Jesus.  But most would agree that we are a capitalist society with a lot more emphasis on buying than praying.  After 9-11-2001, President G.W. Bush advised us to get back to normal: “Go shopping.”  Jesus may have thrown the money-changers out of the Temple, but here, some megachurches have ATM’s.

Pluto’s realm as the patron deity of Plutocracy and capitalism has family resemblances to St. Paul’s line in his letter to the Romans: “the wages of sin are death”.  The word “sin” comes from a word in the Hebrew scriptures.  The word het that’s usually translated as “sin” came from an ancient archery term that simply meant “to miss the mark.” The “mark” in this theological sense is living as God intended – which means how to live in a way that is useful to us, and worthy of the highest, most compassionate ideals we know. By tradition, the highest ideals are associated with God (or Good, in philosophical tradition).

It’s a bit clumsy to use theological concepts that we’ve been taught to associate with supernatural realms.  But once the concepts are translated into ordinary language, they can be useful.  It’s the only way they are useful.  Since our gods represent the constellations of values that determine so much of our behavior, one of the most important questions is whether or not they are worth serving.  Most gods, including Pluto, are not.  So theologically speaking, if Pluto – the god of economic riches – isn’t worth serving with our lives, then doing so would be missing the mark of becoming more fully human and living a life we can say we are glad we lived that way when we look back on it in one year or fifty.

In 23 years as a Unitarian minister, I conducted a lot of memorial services, and always encouraged family and friends to augment my eulogy by coming forward and sharing their own memories about this person.  I never once heard anyone praised for how rich they had been, how seductive, powerful, how attractive, intimidating or frightening they had been, or how rigorously they toed the line of whatever orthodoxy they had been taught to parrot.

The things we most cherish about people are so very commonplace: they cared, they touched us, they were generous with their compassion: they seemed to embody the spirit of life itself.  They were – in Gibran’s lovely phrase – inspiring examples of life’s longing for itself.

When framed this way, very few people would buy the idea that exalting the pursuit of wealth above all else could mark us as very wise, or even very fully human.
(Homo sapiens means “man the wise.”)

And what of the “death” associated with exalting the lust for wealth to the status of a god? It leads to some interesting questions. To what extent is the decline of the American Empire due to our placing profit above people?  We’re the only developed nation on earth that defines health care as a commodity, available only to those who can pay for it.  We’re spending trillions of dollars on illegal invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and four other wars of choice in Yemen, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa and Columbia – a defense budget larger than those of all other countries in the world combined!  Our society is in such a frightening state of economic and political disarray at least partly because we have been taught to worship capitalism – the creedal form of Plutocracy. Our wars are deadly examples of Pluto hiring Ares/Mars, the god of war, who is always an eager mercenary.

We are on a road toward death when our government – and our President – are rushing to serve Plutocracy’s high priests on Wall Street, off-loading the trillion dollars of debt they created through greed, deceit, and incompetence – letting them return to their old habits with the blessing of our government, while trampling the vast majority of citizens underfoot in their rush toward all that glitters? If so, the death will come from serving an inadequate deity, and pledging allegiance to a god that’s so woefully self-serving it acts like a cancer, killing both its host – the U.S. economy and culture – and itself.

These involvements absolutely contribute to our loss of respect and power in the world. Will we find that throwing trillions of dollars toward our effort to steal oil or location from others, kill them by the tens of thousands, and sacrifice the lives of thousands of our own soldiers … will we find it contributing to the death of the American Empire, as it has killed so many other dreams of empire?

There is a deadly inhumanity in this worship of Pluto, which received its classic expression in the myth of King Midas.  The ability to turn everything we touch into mere gold is missing the mark by a mile – or a lifetime.

Signs of Hope

There are a few signs that people may be coming out of the capitalist trance.
On May 29, 2009 The New York Times carried a story by Leslie Wayne titled, “A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality”:

When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good.  Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath”–  a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good”.  It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.

Bill Gates has put a third of his wealth into the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the largest private endowment fund in the world.  In 2006, Warren Buffet announced that he would start giving away 85% of his billions to charities – over 80% of that to the Gates’ foundation.  Others with far more money than they could need are learning how to start charitable foundation as well. If the pursuit of wealth were enough to fulfill a life, there would be no urge to start charitable foundations.  Yet there seem to be growing numbers of rich people starting such foundations.  Right now, America has the feel of F. Scott Fitzgeralds’ 1925 book The Great Gatsby, saying that the (capitalist) American Dream didn’t even work for the rich.

This urge seldom goes the other way: we couldn’t imagine the Buddha, Jesus, the great saints, prophets and sages, or more contemporary spiritual giants like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. or the Dalai Lama chucking it all and sending their resumes to land a corporate job (though their resumes would be interesting to read). Ghandi was reported to have a net worth of less than five dollars at his death. But almost no one thinks that’s any measure of his worth.

Tellingly, our citizens don’t admire the Arab leaders – and the Arab citizens don’t admire our leaders. The real strength of these movements is that they are class wars, where the great majority of citizens are rising against the self-important leaders who control the wealth, and push their people down into poverty and fear.  There will be losses, and right now it looks like Libya may be one of them.

Today, movements from inside and outside our Plutocracy are staging remarkable citizen uprisings, from the Middle East to England’s UK Uncut movement and the US Uncut movement targeting the businesses of rich corporations and individuals who pay no taxes.

Pluto’s reign is under attack.  If the citizens can replace their leaders who – in addition to whatever other charges can be made against them – have, as Amos put it 2500 years ago, sold the poor for silver (or coltan) and the needy for a pair of Nike’s, this second decade of the 21st century may become the decade when the spirit of life rose up to reclaim and reassign the power from leaders who want to rule their citizens rather than serving them.

Both individually and collectively, the narrow pursuit of wealth is the worship of a god that’s just not worth worshiping. And the “wages” of this kind of missing the mark can include the death of our empathy, compassion, humanity and empire.

Endnotes:

(1) See Robert Reich’s blog of 2 February 2011, “The Bulls on Wall Street Not Helping Main Street.”
(2) Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. 143.
(3) Originally, there were twelve Olympic deities.  Six were male: Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Poseidon, Hades, and Hephaestos.  Six were female: Hera, Athena, Demeter, Artemis, Aphrodite and Hestia.  By the time of Plato, both Hestia and Dionysus were mentioned as gods, then the legend has it that Hestia stepped down from her place among the twelve Olympic deities, letting Dionysus take her place.  Hestia was goddess of the hearth.  She was almost never drawn or sculpted.  She was the spirit of what made the difference between a house and a home, or a church service and a worship service.  The reason Hestia had to be dropped from the dozen deities is because the number twelve, in the ancient world, was a symbolic number implying that all the astrological bases were covered.  It’s also found in Israel’s twelve tribes, the twelve labors of Hercules, etc.

Truth Seeks Light; Evil Loves the Dark

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Reposted from Firedoglake.

It’s hard for an American to admit that we have become a country whose President now claims the power to arrest and detain indefinitely – or even order the assassination of — any American citizen that the President – without official charges, trial and conviction – sees as some sort of threat. Future leaders are not likely to give up this power.

We’re in a distinctly American form of plutocracy, where Wall Street’s short-sighted greed has interbred with car-crash journalism and political expediency to create our cultural motto, “What have you done for me lately.” It’s worth asking the sobering question of what poor and middle class people honestly think they can offer politicians and Wall Street’s metastasized profit-makers to compete with Big Money — though the answer isn’t comforting.  Sweet liberals may rattle on about a government of, by and for the people, or airy ideals of truth, justice and equality. But that country is a nostalgic dream out of touch with everything except maybe Disney World.

The signs of our times are not warnings of a potential slide into an American version of fascism — wrapped, as Sinclair Lewis said in 1935, in the American flag and waving a cross.  The signs are of a nation whose government has already passed the point of no return, from a nominal democracy or republic into a de facto tyranny.  It’s been decades since doing the right thing could trump doing the profitable thing.

The death throes of our American Empire are spastic, furious and futile. Michael Moore – but not our politicians or mainstream media — has reminded us that America is actually fighting not two wars, but six: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the horn of Africa and Columbia – that we know of.  Wars are cash cows for the military-industrial-congressional-media complex.  Our soldiers are equipped with sophisticated weaponry that is as ill-suited to fighting a guerilla war as it was in Vietnam a half century ago.  We’re maintaining around 800 military bases in other countries, spending about $1,000,000 a year per soldier in Iraq. This is happening as we sink more deeply in debt, and have become the obvious financial target of opportunity for China, who can send us into a nearly bottomless Depression any time they decide they will no longer buy our Treasury bonds.

We live in an age of not only manufactured consent, but also manufactured terror.  The Keystone Cops x-raying, frisking and groping us at our airports has caught no “terrorists.” Its purpose isn’t to catch “terrorists,” but to regiment our citizens to a New World Order in which our government can humiliate us, give us orders, and herd us like sheep.  Evangelical humbugs may still quote St. Paul, insisting that those who govern us are our trustworthy shepherds, reciting from the trusty King James translation: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God (Romans 13:1).”  The “shepherd” metaphor is actually a good one, as long as we remember that the only reason shepherds take care of their sheep is so they can fleece them, and eventually convert them to lamb chops, living off of their meat.

What was to have been the Show Trial of Ahmed Ghailani is a recent reminder of the huge gap between our increasingly secretive government and the world most people recognize as reality.  On November 17th, a federal jury in Manhattan convicted Ghailani of conspiring to destroy U.S. buildings and property in the 1998 truck bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.  But Ghailani, 36, was acquitted on 284 other counts, including the top charges of murder and murder conspiracy.  The only count on which he was convicted took place in Kenya and Tanzania.  President Obama, who sought convictions rather than justice, has responded by declaring that he can hold prisoners in Guantanamo indefinitely, without trials or convictions.

If evil loves the dark, truth and justice demand the light.  So, giving justice a try, Ghailani’s case was brought before the civil law system that we have trusted to try serial murderers, rapists, traitors and crimes so far over the line between good and evil that even reading their details makes our skin crawl.  The result: just one conviction for a crime committed three years before 9-11, and on foreign soil.  It is a measure of the blanket denial of our leaders.  When examined in the light, it doesn’t look at all like “terrorism” is what’s going on.  It’s a name used to mesmerize the masses while our military-industrial-congressional-media complex escalates its wars all over the world and escalates its police state at home.

Creating True Believers

Our government’s secrecy, recently embarrassed by the Wikileaks – has done what such secrecy nearly always does: creating an inner circle of True Believers.  Will we also indict the New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegle et al, as well as all radio, television and internet servers who published the leaked documents?  Our muzzled mass media seldom mention how many people in other countries are pointing out the comical irony of a country bragging about its “freedom,” while imprisoning and pursuing whistleblowers who have used that freedom to shine an international spotlight on our government’s lies – at home, in the Middle East, and in our international diplomacy all over the world.  We’re not used to being the punchline of jokes.

Our leaders no longer want truth; they have come to demand compliance — sheep-like obedience.  Perhaps there are still some sweet liberals who will imagine that we need not worry too much because we’re all reasonable people, and once this current unpleasantness has passed, we’ll be back to normal, where NPR and PBS can continue shoveling their soothing Muzak for our intelligentsia. Here’s how an observant young lawyer has put it:

“A few of them still hold the banner high.  Even after all their defeats they still prophesy the inevitable collapse of the regime every month, or at least once a year.  Their stand has a certain magnificence, you have to admit, but also a certain eccentricity.  The funny thing is that one day, after they have stood fast through all their cruel disappointments, they will be proved right.  I can already see them strutting around … and telling everybody that they had predicted it all along.  By then, however, they will have become tragicomic figures.  There is a way of being right that is shameful and lends its opponent undeserved glory.” (1)

These words are chilling because, while they could have been written last week, they were written more than seventy years ago, as he watched his country’s democracy descend into the malignancy of the Nazis.

How could it have happened?  How could Germans possibly have morphed into Nazis without realizing what was happening to them?  And how could it happen here?  This too was described decades ago, by a man named Albert Speer.  Younger readers may not recognize the name, but Albert Speer was the only top-ranking Nazi to confess, and to describe from the inside how a democratic, artistic, creative Germany was turned into the Nazi death machine so easily:

“In normal circumstances, people who turn their backs on reality are soon set straight by the mockery and criticism of those around them, which makes them aware they have lost credibility.  In the Third Reich there were no such correctives, especially for those who belonged to the upper stratum.  On the contrary, every self-deception was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world, which no longer bore any relationship to the grim outside world.  In those mirrors I could see nothing but my own face reproduced many times over.”(2)

These insights came to light only after the Nazi machine was destroyed, along with millions who died during the World War required to cut off the ugly head of Naziism.  They could come only after the tragic slaughter of innocence because they had no equivalent of a Daniel Ellsberg, Bradley Manning (allegedly) and Julian Assange and his Wikileaks.  These men are among our age’s prophets: those putting their lives on the line to serve the kind of truth that may help set us free, if only we will muster the courage to see and to hear that we have become something ugly.

ENDNOTES:
1. Sebastian Hafner, Defying Hitler, p. 202
2. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) Why we Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, 2007, p. 65

Davidson Loehr is author of the book
America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher

What's Truth Got to Do With It?

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Imagine a man who lived some time ago.*  From an early age, he was drawn to religion.  He went to the formal service every week, sometimes even taking notes.  He believed everything his church taught him, never felt a need to challenge the teachings, and tried to live as he was told he should.  He took his church’s teachings literally: God rewarded or punished us for how we had lived on earth, by assigning us to an eternal heaven or hell after we died.  He internalized these teachings until he didn’t even have to think about them; they became part of his nature.

This man took tremendous comfort in knowing that he would spend eternity with God, and kept that thought in mind when making hard ethical or moral decisions.  He made and kept friends easily: perhaps because he forgave easily, as he had been taught at church, and looked for the good in everyone he met.  The man married, was a good provider, a good and faithful husband, and helped his wife in raising two happy and healthy children, as well as a third child who was troubled and troubling almost from birth.  He gave generously of his time for what he saw as healthy civic causes, and was in all ways a good citizen who seemed to bless his world as he passed through it.  He lived to see several of his grandchildren come of age, grieved deeply over one killed in the war-du-jour. Several years later, he passed away peacefully in his sleep.  Everyone in the town came to his memorial service, and many of them spoke of the ways in which his kindness had touched them.  Some of their stories could move anyone to tears of gratitude for this man’s life.

Two weeks after he died, it was suddenly proven beyond all doubt that almost everything the church had taught him was wrong: there was no God, nor any afterlife with rewards or punishments.  So: we can say the man’s beliefs were false.  But can we say his life was false?  If not, what does truth really have to do with living a fulfilling life?  How would we judge whether someone’s beliefs are good?  If metaphorical trees are known by their fruits, then religious beliefs must be judged by our behaviors, especially toward the weaker and those who don’t share our beliefs.

It’s no coincidence that this has been the message of history’s best prophets and sages, nor the fact that it has always been – and will continue to be – the broad path: the path that Jesus and most other sages and prophets have preached against for millennia.

* Adapted and expanded from a story by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Science’s Salvation Story

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Using the words “Science” and “Salvation” in the same breath needs some preparation so people in both camps don’t hyperventilate.  “Science” means “knowledge.”  It can’t guarantee that the knowledge is good, or that it will still be considered true in a year.  “Salvation” can mean “to save,” or to make healthy and whole (with its connection to the word “salve”).  Using the word in scientific circles or communities of religious liberals, “salvation” usually means to help people come to their full humanity here and now rather than elsewhere and later.  Some say that, defined this way, we should slough off the religious jargon, and just speak in plain ordinary language: we’re hoping to help ourselves and our society become more integrated and whole around universally admired behaviors like fair play, truthtelling and compassion.  For now, being able to use both jargon and plain talk will open the dialogue to a very wide spectrum of people and beliefs.

The kind of wholeness “Science” can offer is intellectual integrity, in which we don’t have to check our brains at the door.  It’s a kind of salvation/wholeness through understanding – overwhelmingly intellectual.  When we capitalize Science and say things like, “Science says…” or “Science tells us …” we are anthropomorphizing the word, making it a stand-in for a capitalized “God.” In the real world, we don’t have “Science.”  We have sciences and scientists, who often disagree about how to connect what they see as facts.

Some scientists believe they do have a salvation story that can offer us greater intellectual integrity here and now, and some people find that to be adequate – though I’d side with Christopher Hitchens in saying that science is “necessary but not sufficient.”  Some scientists want to offer us the intellectual integrity of thinking about our beliefs with the same rigor scientists use in their “scientific method.” This puts the salvation/wholeness they offer in the same key as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s saying, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”  It is a powerful kind of wholeness that is impossible when what we know and what we believe contradict each other.

More than being simply defenders of facts, modern cosmologists, for example, are offering persuasive arguments that we live in Deep Time and infinite space that were inconceivable when the world’s religious scriptures were written — and that make the worldview of most traditional religions incoherent today.  Deep Time means putting the evolution of humans, and the four billion year story of life on earth against the background of around 13.8 billion years since the universe began in, they assume, a Big Bang.  Infinite space means just that: for all practical purposes, the distances between the far reaches of the universe are infinite.  The light from all the stars we see has been traveling for thousands, millions or billions of years before reaching us on Earth. We couldn’t reach the stars whose light has come the furthest to reach us – stars that may not even exist any more – in a hundred million lifetimes, traveling at the speed of light.  It is impossible even to imagine a distance of seven or eight billion light years.  Cosmology has been popular since Carl Sagan’s television program Cosmos, thirty years ago.
But the most revolutionary science today isn’t cosmology, but ethology: the study of comparative animal behavior.  Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz was the founder of ethology, and argued that comparative animal behavior offered a much stronger proof of evolution than comparing bits of fossilized skeletons.  Today, ethologists are producing more detailed observations of animal behavior every year – often filmed, many on YouTube — and it’s clear that we share many of those behaviors with dozens, hundreds or thousands of other species.

Primatologist Frans De Waal, the most articulate and prolific of the current ethologists, has compared the way we do politics with the way chimpanzees do – and found a near-perfect match.  His 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics is still in print, and in 1994 Newt Gingrich assigned it to all who were just coming into Congress.  The message seemed clear: if you’re going to play politics at this level, you need to understand how it works.  Ethologists are claiming political, ethical and moral behaviors for their field of study that once belonged to religion and philosophy. Just a few of De Waal’s book titles show some of the scope of behaviors we share with hundreds or thousands of other species:

  • Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes
  • Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals
  • Peacemaking among Primates
  • Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
  • Our Inner Ape: Why We Are Who We Are
  • The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.

There is even, understandably, some territorial behavior emerging, as when De Waal wonders how religions could think they have unique insights into the human condition because “They’re just too new.”  When religion loses any special claim to behaviors like empathy, compassion, altruism, trusting and fair play, it has lost much of the foundation that has already been eroded by the passage of time.  But ethologists, new neuroscientists and scientists in new fields like evolutionary psychology are sketching a view of human nature as part of the broader behaviors found in many other kinds of animals.  There is a revolution brewing here.
And whether it’s likely or not, students preparing for the ministry need to begin learning enough about cosmology, ethology, neurosciences and evolutionary psychology to have some idea about the world in which we live – quite different from and infinitely larger than – the world people thought they lived in when the world’s best-known religious teachings originated.  19th Century author Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in 1841 that theology needed to grow into its legitimate heir: anthropology, the study of humans.  Ethology takes the search one step beyond Feuerbach, showing that human behavior, motive, ethics and morality can be best understood by seeing our behaviors on a continuum with many other species: as Darwin would later say.

So, yes: our sciences are weaving an intellectual understanding about human nature, human behavior, including empathy and compassion that have already become at least as important in aspiring preachers’ tool kits as the Bible and religious writings.

Scientists – as well as religious believers – are right to say that the education of ministers is willfully ignorant without them.  Some very basic religious assumptions, teachings and preachings must change for, as William Russell Lowell had already observed 165 years ago, “New occasions teach new duties.  Time makes ancient good uncouth” — not merely wrong, but insulting and uncouth. The kind of salvation/wholeness a scientific perspective can offer is an intellectual salvation by understanding.

All this said, however, there is also an important list of things our sciences can’t offer to us: ways in which mere intellectual correctness falls naively, painfully short of cradling our enduring yearnings.

The list would include music, dance, rituals, a community of mostly like-minded people trying to take their lives more seriously and needing a community where that vulnerable quest can be done with some safety.  Other serious shortcomings of mere knowledge include our love of rituals to magnify the significant moments of our lives: baptisms, wedding ceremonies, memorial services, inspiring sermons calling us to become More, to envision ourselves serving something both true and compassionate — though the role of truth may be seriously over-rated here.
And what about potluck dinners, community parties and social functions – or a place, a building where we can gather within a mood of reverent seriousness – and, hopefully, compassion?

Dishonest or willfully uninformed religion is, if not a sin, at least a moral outrage and an insult to people’s intelligence and seriousness.  But without the warmth of genuine human interaction with each other and our wider world, mere knowledge can become “corpse-cold” – as Ralph Waldo Emerson once described 19th century Unitarians.

With regular church attendance at only 18% and continuing to decline, we’re not only “Bowling Alone” as Robert Putnam put it.  We’re increasingly being alone and growing alone.  E-mails and Tweets can’t take the place of hugs, kisses, or just touching each other.  Since we are, as ethologists are showing us, a profoundly social species, we can’t grow to our full humanity, can’t become whole, can’t find real this-worldly salvation – either through sterile truth or out-of-date religious stories and hollow rituals.

So we live in a transitional time, when neither outdated religious orthodoxy nor empirically constrained sciences can help the majority of our people grow into their full — and most fulfilling — humanity.

Hence the anguish.

Davidson Loehr is author of the book
America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher

The Story of God’s Birth

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

We know that a baby’s birth and early life story shape behavioral styles that are often carried through adulthood.  We express it through aphorisms: “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree”; “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Others link childhood trauma or abuse with adult behavior. The Greeks said, “Character is destiny,” and saw society’s responsibility to form people of good character as paramount. The same is true for the birth stories we write for our gods.

It’s easiest to see this among the Greek gods, since their gods were such obvious projections of both psychological dynamics and natural forces. Hermes, the Greek Trickster god, stole Apollo’s cattle in the evening of the first day he was born, later inventing the lyre, and trading it to Apollo in return for all the cattle.  It doesn’t take long before we realize that this is the story of a Trickster god, and neither gods nor humans will ever be able to trust him.   He’s charming and seductive, but with Hermes, you can never be quite sure.

When it comes to Yahweh, the God of the Bible and of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the birth story is not part of the religious stories, but part of the real-world history of the ancient Hebrews studied by historians and biblical scholars.  Since these facts weren’t incorporated into the myth as they were for many Greek deities, it is important to understand how Yahweh’s early historical evolution still hounds believers, and is the dimension of Yahweh that Christopher Hitchens described as “not good.”

The earliest Hebrew traditions show that Yahweh was a Bedouin war god from the deserts of Edom and the surrounding regions. His warlike characteristics are shown in his name: "Yahweh" is an abbreviation of his official, longer name, "Yahweh Sabaoth," which means, "he assembles armies." Yahweh's name identifies this god as primarily the military commander of his people.  When he became identified with the tribe of ancient Hebrews, he kept his war god attributes, and added a “tribal chief” character.

The covenant he made with “his” people was modeled on an ancient Hittite sovereignty treaty, and was what we would expect from a war god or tribal chief. He would be their god, and they would be his people.  If they obeyed him, he would protect them; if they disobeyed, he could destroy them (or let them be taken into captivity, as by the Babylonians).  That deep character of war god and tribal chief has been in the forefront of Western religions, to varying degrees, ever since.  How many priests and ministers have made a living pretending to fix things for you with God – when they’re really not doing much more than playing Hermes’ role: persuasive but not necessarily true?

Yahweh was an odd god, narrowly conceived.  Compared to Zeus, Yahweh was a celibate.  He had no sex life at all, no significant interactions with women, no children (except in the poetic sense of claiming the Hebrews as his “children”).  The earliest Christians, soaked in Greco-Roman culture, tried to construct a Jesus who was Yahweh’s son, then tried to define Jesus as both fully divine and fully human, a hybrid no theologian has ever been able to make much sense of.

Some of the poets whose writings appear in the Bible tried to soften God, sometimes gave him feminine characteristics.  But the Yahweh identified with laws for stoning disobedient teen-agers and women to death remained a god of war, with a warrior’s lack of sensitivity or concern for women, and capital punishment for disobedience.  He was and remained a Man’s Man.  Worshiping him could be done only through male rabbis – women weren’t even allowed in the same space as men – and later male Popes and Imams.  The sexual abuse of children by priests has been known about and covered up by the Catholic Church throughout its history.  Only in a narrowly conceived men’s club could pedophilia be seen as what has amounted to an entitlement of male priests: accusations Pope Benedict XVI even tried to dismiss as “petty gossip.”

Women are property in patriarchal societies growing from a war god and tribal chief.  The practice, still part of many weddings where the officiant asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” was a literal transfer of property.  Shiite Islam also has its misogynistic and murderous attitudes toward women, from narrowly read lines in their own tradition.  But all these brutal traits spring from and reflect the story of Yahweh’s birth as a war god and early life as a tribal chief.  Western Biblical religions are a men’s club, sanctioned by a man’s God.  Pope Benedict even put the ordination of women at the same level of moral disgust as the sexual abuse of children by priests.  Many suspect he will still try to hide pedophile priests, as he will oppose the ordination of women or married priests – unless they are already married when they transfer in.  Don’t try tracing the logic of that one or your tongue could get stuck in a nasal passage.

Conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims still find their home as members of the tribe of God’s people.  The Catholic Church’s insistence that “there is no salvation outside of the Church” and conservative Christians’ proclamation that “Jesus is the (only) Way” both maintain the strong connection to the anciently and narrowly conceived tribal and war god.

Religious liberals are trying to replace the ancient bipolar god of conditional love/hate with the more universal perspective that many roads lead to “salvation” (in the non-supernatural sense of wholeness and authenticity). This converts Jesus from “Son of God” to an avatar: an embodiment of our highest calling and capacity, a guide to living more wisely and compassionately here and now, rather than elsewhere and later.

Can Western religions with their war god baggage be transformed into religions content to be one of many useful paths where even their God is just one option among many, but no longer The Way?  Can liberal religions, offering all carrot and no stick, both empower and challenge?  Church attendance in the U.S. has been declining for over a century, and Christian churches are now losing over two million people a year, so the answer isn’t yet clear, though the trajectory seems to be.  In the meantime, the growing number of atheists (now numbered at about thirty million) and many millions of other “church alumni” no longer speak in God-talk, and find their inspiration — as do many “believers” — through literature, movies and television.  We’re in the middle of a slow, huge, spiritual revolution.  Stay tuned.

Davidson Loehr is author of the book
America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher

Apatheism: the Third Path

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Few people would expect a radically modern attitude toward religion or the gods from the oldest story in the world.  The epic of Gilgamesh is a story over a thousand years older than the Iliad or the Bible.  It was only discovered – written in Cuneiform on hundreds of baked clay tablets – in 1850, and the text wasn’t deciphered and translated until the end of the 19th century.  Stephen Mitchell, the author and translator of many religious and poetic pieces – and whose translation and commentary I’m relying on here — has said that Gilgamesh “is a work that in the intensity of its imagination stands beside the great stories of Homer and the Bible.”  German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote: “Gilgamesh is stupendous! I consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person.  I have immersed myself in it, and in these truly gigantic fragments I have experienced measures and forms that belong with the supreme works that the conjuring Word has ever produced.”

The story lives up to its hype.  Gilgamesh was a historical person who ruled the city of Uruk in what is now Iraq over 4,750 years ago.  He saw himself as “modern” because writing had just been invented in Mesopotamia a couple centuries earlier.  At any rate, his religious questions – and his answer – sound a bit ahead of all times, including ours.

He didn’t question the existence of the gods.  He knew they existed – he had even killed one!*  Instead, he asked whether or not the gods were of any use to people.  He had lost his soulmate, the wild man Enkidu, who really was his other half, his completion.  The gods were angered at Gilgamesh for killing one of them, though they blamed the wild Enkidu for his brash threats against the other gods.  But killing a god demanded vengeance, and the gods decided to kill Enkidu, who fell ill and died several days later. So the gods needed to be considered, but killing the only person Gilgamesh had truly or deeply loved didn’t make them useful.  (Some translators say the original text implies a sexual relationship between the two men.)
Consumed by grief, Gilgamesh no longer saw a meaning or purpose to this life, and wondered if the gods could at least grant him immortality as reparation for the deep pain of living without his soulmate.
There were no contemporary reports of the gods doing this, but there was the legend of an old man named Utnapishtim and his wife, who were granted immortality long ago for making an ark to survive The Flood.  (This was the original story, from which the much later Flood story in the Bible was derived.)

Gilgamesh traveled to the ends of the earth, where he found that the legend was true.  He put his questions to old Utnapishtim: What is it, this immortality business? Can the gods do it?  Where can he find them to make his case?  But Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh the gift of immortality had been given to him and his wife as a one-time deal, and the gods didn’t do that any more.

Disappointed, Gilgamesh asked just what we might ask today: were there any pharmaceuticals that could do the trick?  Yes, there was one, but it too was just a one-time deal.  It was a plant that grew at the bottom of a deep lake, but had the power to remove the fear of death – and perhaps to make one young again.
Gilgamesh feared death, but not a deep lake.  He swam to the bottom, got the magical plant, and returned to his boat.  He rowed to shore – he was still very far from home – and when he saw a clear pool, he got in to bathe, leaving the magic pharmaceutical plant lying beside the pool.  Anyone who understands stories will know this was a mistake.  The plant was eaten by a snake, which then quickly slithered away – shedding its skin as it went.

With the loss of that magical plant, all hope of living forever vanished, giving Gilgamesh much to think about on his long trip home.  Yet it was during that trip home that he finally came to his wisdom: the wisdom that could indeed remove the fear of death.  He had built great walls around the city of Uruk, and knew those walls would let at least his name live on. So, he realized, we can find an earthly sort of immortality through things we do and build.  And the wisdom about living – which had been offered to him early in his journey when he was not ready – was finally his to own:

“Savor your food, make each of your days a delight, bathe and anoint yourself, 
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house, 
love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.  That is the best way for a man to live.”

He rebuilt the temple that was sacred to Ishtar – a move to calm his people, though a kind of calm he no longer needed.  (So from the start, there was a naïve literal form of religion for the masses, and a nuanced form for the spiritually adept.  It’s reminiscent of Seneca the Younger’s famous quote: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”)  For Gilgamesh, the gods were useless, and the meaning of life had to be found through plunging fully into this life here and now rather than worrying about one that he knew would never come elsewhere and later.

In believing the gods existed but were useless, he was neither a theist nor an atheist. He was, in the world’s oldest story, the first person whose attitude about the gods can be called apatheism.  The gods are there, but he just didn’t care, and proceeded to live the rest of his life fully and well without worrying about them, filled instead with friends, dancing, music, love, creating things, writing poems, and rejoicing in the awe-inspiring but transient gift of life.  Then, when the time came, he would just slide away, out of this life which, if lived fully and well, was quite enough.  Many people today may still find Gilgamesh’s solution to the meaning of life to be more life-giving and empowering than the answers to be found in a lot of churches.

Obama’s Transparency

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

I'm looking through you, where did you go?
I thought I knew you, what did I know?
You don't look different, but you have changed;
I'm looking through you, you're not the same.
(The Beatles: McCartney and Lennon)

All in all, liberals were happier when he was opaque.  Since January 2009, we have been confused by the disconnect between Candidate Obama’s words, and President Obama’s actions.  The two Obamas often seemed as different as Dorian Gray and his portrait up in the attic.  The public Mr. Gray seemed smooth, even charming.  But he wasn’t.  Meanwhile, out of sight, that picture stored in his attic devolved into a grotesque and twisted picture of the real Dorian Gray.

The rhetoric of Candidate Obama and his speech writers was brilliant, crafted to win the Left and enough of the Center to put him in office.  We loved to think he represented hope and change we could believe in, where whistleblowers were embraced as democracy’s necessary critics.  We believed our nation could regain much of the respect it had lost over the past 30 years, and especially since G.W. Bush’s disastrous presidency. We could again become that “city on a hill” where the quality of our truth, compassion and justice could become a beacon to the rest of the world.  We would bring our soldiers home from the “dumb” war in Iraq – which Mr. Obama had voted against repeatedly as a Senator.  We would give our citizens single payer or at least public option health care. We would restore our failing schools to their earlier days of excellence.  We would respect international law and the consensus of good people everywhere.  And so on.

It seemed too good to be true, and it was.  Since taking office, Mr. Obama’s actions have – with a few significant exceptions like supporting gay marriage – showed him to be a great friend to rich corporations, a hand puppet of the military-industrial-congressional complex, and of Big Money in all its forms.  To oversee the greedy banking industry, he brought men from Wall Street who had played active parts in disabling our economy and sending an economic tsunami throughout the world.  It seemed like recruiting foxes to guard the henhouse.  Why would he do that?  He helped offload a trillion dollars lost by Wall Street’s casino capitalism – and he loaded it on the backs of taxpayers, letting the bankers return to their greedy high-stakes gambling and their self-flattering bonuses that showed the country who controlled whom.  Why?  Then he singled out Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric – America’s largest corporation — as his favorite, the CEO he appointed to head up his “Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.”

Mr. Obama didn’t mention that GE paid no income tax in 2010, and even claimed a $3.2 billion tax rebate from those of us who pay taxes.  GE’s giant department of tax lawyers has been called the world’s best tax law firm.  So Mr. Immelt is a symbol of … what? — corporate greed, combined with selfish indifference to the US, where it took $5 billion in profit last year – plus the $3.2 billion bonus we the taxpayers gave them?  Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on GE, which is just one of the 83 corporations in the top 100 that reportedly paid no tax last year.  We taxpayers pay their taxes, though of course we don’t have enough money to pay them – which leads, in a tortured kind of logic, to the government deciding to cut the social services and safety nets that keep millions more of us from sliding down into what is looking like our new permanent underclass – like India’s Untouchables.

For those of us who stayed in denial longest, it hurt like hell to see that President Obama was a Trojan Horse.  What a compelling Trojan Horse he made!  Liberals were dizzy at the sight of a brilliant black man in the White House, and his beautiful family as the new cast of Camelot.

Yet, Obama had caved in without even a fight on the single-payer or public option national health care plan.  The United States was, and still is, the only developed nation on earth that sees health care as a commodity available only to those who can afford our exorbitant health care prices – sometimes for second-rate health care.  Obama actually escalated some of G.W. Bush’s foolish wars of choice, and increased government secrecy.  Obama even put out a hit on an American citizen, and claimed the right to arrest, hold indefinitely, torture or kill anyone he chose, without charges, a trial or conviction.  It is so deeply embarrassing to have our country, at the direction of our President, hold whistleblower Bradley Manning in a style of solitary confinement that several who have seen or heard of it describe as torture.  To hear some of our elected and appointed officials speak of wanting to kill Manning now – without the unnecessary bother of a trial. These were the kind of stories a lot of us grew up hearing about the former Soviet Union, Chairman Mao’s China, Chile’s dictator Pinochet (put into office by our CIA), or the bloody Shah of Iran (ditto).  We were raised to be proud we lived in a country where this could never happen.  And so on.

Now Mr. Obama’s people are threatening to arrest, imprison and – it goes without saying – torture the Australian citizen Julian Assange, for doing what our Fourth Estate is supposed to be doing.  There is no mention of arresting the NY Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel or the other leading world newspapers who, like Assange, published classified documents sent to them by others.  We have become an embarrassment to much of the civilized world.  Who would have guessed it?

For many around the world, the (current) Last Straw came last month, when Obama ordered his first use of a veto during more than two years of his presidency.  As Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab wrote on February 19:

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN raised her hand vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Jewish settlements. The resolution supported by 14 countries including US allies repeated the exact same language that the Obama administration has said to the Israelis, to the Palestinians and to the public. Calling Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories illegal is reflecting the reality of international law. The World Court at the Hague has said that Israel's activities in the occupied territories are illegal.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco gathered sound bites from several commentators (which I have included here).

Zunes says Obama shares G.W. Bush’s contempt for international law, placing him to the right of even the conservative governments of Great Britain and France.  And “despite his distinguished legal background, Obama has demonstrated … he has even less respect for the law than Richard Nixon.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch said that Mr. Obama “wants to tell the Arab world in his speeches that he opposes settlements, but he won’t let the Security Council tell Israel to stop them in a legally binding way.”

Gideon Levy wrote in Haaritrz that Obama’s veto “was a veto against the chance and promise of change, a veto against hope.”  Irony just drips off that one, but no more than it drips off the spectacle of the U.S. making war against Israel’s enemies in the Middle East, bankrupting our economy – and cutting social safety nets for the regular citizens who pay taxes, rather than multi-billion dollar corporations that don’t.

Obama’s veto also puts him to the right of liberal and moderate Jews.  Israeli journalist Ami Kaufman wrote angrily in the Jerusalem Post that “The US has lost any ounce of credibility it had left with this latest move.” Others note that this veto shows that the US cannot be trusted to mediate any peace process in the Middle East.

Obama even offered the gift of $3 billion of “security incentives and fighter jets” to Israel if they would just put off building new (illegal) settlements for 90 days — money it’s probably safe to bet Israel will get anyway. Yes, AIPAC has enough connections and behind-the-scenes clout to make life miserable for Mr. Obama.  But allowing the selfish wishes of a special interest group to trump concern for the United States?  Doesn’t this land in the general ballpark of treason?

It at least lands in the lap of deception.  What’s on display before the rest of the world is not only Obama’s duplicity, but the duplicity of our nation, as he offers glib rationalizations for our invasions of countries with a lot of oil – countries that are also among Israel’s enemies.

Finally, President Obama’s talk and his walk can be brought together only by understanding that his talk is for sedating the Left and Center, while his walk serves the far right wing, both in Israel and in the U.S.

Paraphrasing the Roman Seneca of twenty centuries ago (who said it about religion): to the wise, political rhetoric is false; to the masses, it is true; and for the rulers, it is useful.

In a sad way, we’re glad to have at last the transparency, Mr. President.  But we’re looking through you – you’re not the same.

americafascism Davidson Loehr is the author of America, Fascism and God.

America's Wily Coyote Moment

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

The funniest thing about Wily Coyote is how far he has gone beyond the edge of the cliff before he gives that big-eyed “Uh-oh!” expression, realizing he’s got a long fall coming.  It isn’t funny to the coyote but it is to us.  It’s our schadenfreude: the joy we derive from the misfortune of people with whom we don’t identify.  Many world leaders are now facing Wily Coyote moments, with more to come.  As the citizen uprisings continue, we discover that we are siding with the citizens, not their leaders.  And as we’re seeing in Wisconsin, we’re not siding with our leaders either. In one of history’s ironies, Muslim Arabs have become our role models for courage and determination against governments that systematically keep their citizens poor, frightened, and easy to control.

Because of long habits of brutality by their leaders, all these societies had immense income gaps between the rich and the rest, as we also have.  Their rulers have all claimed some version of “emergency power,” enabling them to use whatever force is necessary to make their citizens compliant.  The “emergency powers” claimed by tyrants like Mubarak and Gaddafi have strong family resemblances to the U.S. “Patriot Act.”  The result of all this is machinery to keep citizens under control and ineffectual.  Noam Chomsky has offered this view of the operative principle of many governments, including ours:

“As long as the population is quiet, acquiescent—maybe fuming with rage, but doing nothing about it—everything’s fine, there’s nothing wrong, it’s all under control. That’s the operative principle.”(1)

He could be speaking about almost all countries on the planet.

If we really think our President and members of Congress are working for us, and that their polluted political channels are our only hope, then we are doomed to be settling for one compromise after another, in the perverse hope that those who rule us will instead want to serve us — especially after we have proven ourselves so easy to rule.

As the Libyan rebels are finding, it’s hard to win an armed rebellion because the government has many more weapons, and much better organization.  If the ruler is pathological enough – as Gaddafi has proven himself to be many times – armed rebellion will probably end in mass slaughter on a scale that will make the citizens unlikely to try it again for a very long time. But with the possible exception of Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, non-violent but non-compliant uprisings are showing the masses of citizens reclaiming and using their power.

A few weeks before Tunisia’s uprising began, citizens in England were already organizing their plan to dissolve England’s economic disaster by making the rich corporations and individuals pay their fair share of taxes. They called themselves UK Uncut, meaning an England that can resolve its financial disaster without cutting social services or the country’s infrastructure.  They decided to educate other citizens to the fact that if the biggest tax-dodgers in the country paid their fair share, the economy would be fine.  They reasoned that the only way to attack capitalist organizations would be to cut their money supply.  They did this by blocking entrances to stores owned by tax dodgers, and spreading the word through the social network.  Other citizens joined them, including many police, as their movement is still spreading throughout the United Kingdom.

The citizens of the Middle East and Britain have realized that, once your government has been bought or seduced by money and power – once it exists mostly to rule you rather than serving you – the official political channels will no longer work to change anything important.  They found that the citizens have immense power, if only they will claim it, and combine it with the courage to protest systems of grossly unequal income distribution that may be legal, but are not morally or ethically right.  The citizens (in every country where there are uprisings) believe this nullifies the law’s authority.

Bringing it home
Citizens can be robbed and pushed into poverty by the brute force of tyrants with armies.  Gaddafi has threatened to murder half a million of his own people  However, it’s surprising to learn that the masses can be pushed even further into poverty by democratically elected leaders in countries like England, Israel and the U.S.  Israel’s poverty rate in 2007 was about 24%, with 35.2 percent of all children in poverty – compared with 8 percent of children twenty years earlier. (1)

According to the CIA World Factbook (30 December 2010), Israel had a higher percentage of its people in poverty than Egypt (20%), the United Kingdom (14%), and the United States (12% — a figure many have challenged as too low).  But even the U.S. has a higher poverty rate than Libya (7.4%) and Tunisia (7.4%).  Even in democracies the government’s actions are not serving their people’s wishes.  They have been hijacked by leaders who take their orders from rich corporations, rather than their much poorer citizens. All these uprisings involve class wars between the rich and the rest.

Once citizens realize that power can be theirs through sheer numerical advantage if only they will organize, focus, and seize that power, Wily Coyote is ten feet past the edge of the cliff.  People in Britain and the Middle East saw this before we did in the U.S.  But citizens have seen it in Wisconsin, where over 100,000 gathered to protest the governor’s assault on worker unions, and they are now attempting the recall of sixteen Republican leaders.  If they succeed, it may well galvanize citizens all over the U.S. to “Get up, stand up”.

In the U.S., even the most committed Republicans and Democrats are realizing that we have been consistently and intentionally misled by our leaders.  All five presidents since 1980 – Ronald Reagen, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, GW Bush and Barack Obama – have used the rhetoric of their speech writers to keep their followers complacent, like the hypnotist’s trick of swinging a pocket watch back and forth to hypnotize audience members.  They have all talked the talk of serving our citizens in this great God-blessed America, but their actions have consistently helped break worker unions, and kept those with the most money from having to pay a fair share of taxes.  In their different styles and to different degrees, all of our last five presidents have been corporate lap-dogs.  In their January 21, 2011 Citizens United vs. Federals Election Commission, the Supreme Court empowered corporations to buy or rent as many lawmakers as they need to get laws that favor them at the expense of the vast majority of our citizens.  In return for the favors our politicians do for their corporate sponsors, permanent revolving doors have been installed between Congress and the corporations that sponsor it.  And how did Bill Clinton make a hundred million dollars between 2000 – 2008?

President Barack Obama, as well as a majority of our 535 elected lawmakers and a 5 to 4 majority of the Supreme Court, have been and will remain the hand puppets of our best connected corporations and special interests (like AIPAC, the NRA, health insurance companies, Big Pharma, and the ever-present military-industrial-congressional-media complex) and their courtiers on the Supreme Court.  It is the self-serving interests of the largest corporations that our politicians mean when they say “America’s interests” – not the interests of health care, education and jobs that are the interests of the vast majority of Americans.  It is time for us, then our leaders, to realize they have already gone beyond the edge of the cliff.

Endnotes:

(1) Interview with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,” February 2, 2011.

(2) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, p. 439.

americafascism Davidson Loehr is the author of America, Fascism and God.