Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Religious Moderates of the World, Unite!

It's inherently difficult to get moderates and even-tempered folks to get riled up, hence their being moderates.  America's religious landscape has become increasingly polarized and extremist, both in terms of increased zeal of fundamentalists and conservative Catholics, but also in the increasingly strident, intolerant tone of the new unbelief embodied by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

The most intelligent voices are completely written out of our religious discussions, which usually ends up being a red-faced yelling match between Bible-thumping ignoramuses and smug, insufferable atheists of the Bill Maher stamp. Everyone in the middle, from agnostics to Prebyterians to lapsed Catholics, is sidelined, even though those who are not fundamentalists for the Bible or soldiers for human reason make up the vast majority of people in this country. Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists are especially disadvantaged by this dualistic construction of our public debate (where only Christians like Pat Robertson get to talk), and Muslims are only allowed in to be attacked or to defend their basic right to practice their faith, whether it be in rural Tennessee or lower Manhattan. Religion is not simple, it is startingly complex, mysterious, and multifaceted. Those who present questions of faith and religion in simplistic terms are stupid at best, malevolent at worst.

(This is why I enjoyed Hal Crowther's piece in the Oxford American where he castigates the fundies but defends a more tolerant practice of religion, rather than just dumping it all out, Richard Dawkins style.)

Neither side speaks to me, mostly because I've been in both of their camps, and became disillusioned.  I grew up in a very devoutly Catholic family living in a rural diocese often considered the most conservative in the nation.  I was an altar boy for five years, briefly considered joining the priesthood, and took part in a couple of anti-abortion protests.  For a long time this ironclad Catholic belief fulfilled me, until I started learning the church's history and reading philosophy.  I then very quickly found the church and its faith demands to be ridiculous, mendacious, and incapable of being followed.  These thoughts were already in my head in high school, and once I went to college (ironically at a Jesuit university) I quickly stopped going to church, and soon declared myself to be an agnostic, then an atheist.  I enjoyed entering theological debates with my more devout fellow students, drunk with the powerful arrogance of my new way of thinking.

I'm not sure how, but over time, my views moderated.  I spent a long time thinking of myself as a "culturally-Catholic agnostic."  Much of this had to do with the fact that I knew plenty of people from a variety of faiths and denominations whose belief seemed to bring out the good in them.  I am still frightened at what horrible acts zealotry can spawn, but I am equally convinced that many great people, such as Gandhi, MLK, and Sarah Grimke, were strengthened, nurtured, and driven by their faith, and contra the new atheists, would not have done what they did without it.

Nowadays I'd call myself an Agnostic Episcopalian.  After going to an episcopal church with a friend a couple of years ago, I have been attending services off and on.  The ritual still speaks to my soul, and the hour I spend in church is positively therapeutic, even though I don't fully believe the words I say and hymns I sing.  It feels good to be part of a loving, accepting community, and to listen to a pastor who is just as much a humanist as he is a Christian.  Of course, to the fundies (and the clergy of my former church) I am an unbelieving apostate who is breaking bread with sodomites and their allies, members of a denomination that has strayed from the true path of Christ.  To the atheists, I am an idiot and a weakling seduced by the blandishments of unreason and emotion.  Whatever they all may say, I don't really think of myself as wither an apostate or a mental weakling, but as a spiritual seeker who has finally found a home.

Perhaps it is time for a new ecumenical movement that embraces ambivalence, mystery, and uncertainty rather than castigates it. According to our public discourse, there are only two choices: zealotry and apostasy. Both are thin spiritual gruel. Instead, why not a lavish feast of different faiths grounded in mutual respect and humanity? It's time for the fundamentalists and the apostates to spend time on the sidelines for a change. I have a feeling that the rest of us would be a lot happier.

Footnote: One relatively recent, great book on the effects of Biblical literalism by James Simpson (Burning to Read), really got me thinking about all this. He argues that the Reformation did not lay the groundwork for the emergence of liberalism (as the Whiggish view goes), but in fact was marked by fundamental intolerance grounded in the doctrine of Biblical authority. Reading his account of the early English Reformation has a lot to tell us about America's current religious culture.

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