Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps, Part II: Thank God for Economic Destitution

A few months ago I pointed out that while more mainstream evangelicals may know better how to couch their statements so as not to be so vulgar, there is really little difference between their widespread beliefs and those of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (“Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?, 31 July 2012). Adding to this litany, Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, had the following to say shortly after the reelection of President Obama (Beamon, Todd and Kathleen Walter, “Franklin Graham to Newsmax: ‘We Have Turned Our Backs on God’“, Newsmax, 15 November 2012):

Maybe God will have to bring our nation down to our knees — to where you just have a complete economic collapse. And maybe at that point, maybe people will again begin to call upon the name of almighty God.

In Christian apocalyptic fantasies, ten percent unemployment, diminished lifetime earnings, lost homes, trillion dollar deficits and worse aren’t economic happenstance or the work of the greedy and short-sighted on Wall Street. They are the just deserts that a jealous god reigns down on those who would create a pluralistic society. One can almost see the Reverend Graham with one of those brightly colored signs outside the house of a poor family being evicted: “Thank God for Foreclosures.”

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Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?

What makes the recent comments of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan T. Cathy regarding homosexuality, as well as Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert regarding the Aurora shootings particularly galling is just how close they are to the sentiments of Pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Consider: here is Mr. Cathy’s remark:

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, “We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

And here is Rep. Gohmert’s assessment of the mass shooting in Aurora:

We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country and … what really gets me as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs and then a senseless, crazy act of terror like this takes place.

You know, when people say, where was God in all of this? … where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present.

In Rep. Gohmert’s mind, mass shootings aren’t chance, or human actuated events, but specific, willful, malicious omissions on the part of God.

How else are we to interpret this than as saying that God will indiscriminately strike down your fellows should a nation defy his will? And how is this anything other than the unavoidable opposite of the notion that God takes favor on those who obey him? But insidiously, how far is it from statements such as these to Pastor Phelps’s “Thank God for IEDs”?

For the remainder of this argument I defer to a thousand years of disputation over the incompatable triad.

Millennial Spirituality

I have been saying that the fastest growing religion in the United States is not the non-denominational, evangelical mega-churches, or Mormonism or any other such easily identifiable thing, but the hazy category of “spiritual but not religious.” Today the front page of USA Today brings more grist for the mill (Grossman, Cathy Lynn, “Survey: 72% of Millennials ‘More Spiritual Than Religious’,” 27 April 2010):

Most young adults today don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows.

If the trends continue, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group’s survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.”

Among the 65% who call themselves Christian, “many are either mushy Christians or Christians in name only,” Rainer says. “Most are just indifferent. The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith.”

The line about seeing churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships was a nice gag, but more evocative for me would be to say that if the trend continues, we will soon start to see churches in the U.S. closing as quickly as they are today in Europe. Declining religious sentiment is an aspect of modernization and what’s amazing is that religion has managed to persist with such strength so long into the age of scientific reason.

In addition to the point about “spiritual but not religious”, this survey also makes Daniel Dennett’s point that belief in belief is far more widespread than actual belief. There are a significant number of people who self-identify as “Christian” when asked, but don’t attend church, don’t ever pray, don’t read the Bible, don’t think “what would Jesus do”, or “God’s watching” in their moral considerations, don’t take religious identity into consideration in forming their interpersonal associations and don’t talk about god to other people.

Some sociologists need to get on this “spiritual but not religious” category. What do people who so identify believe? I have no idea. I imagine that being so ill-defined it’s a bewildering hodge-podge of belief.

I always joke that “spiritual but not religious” means you like green tea and yoga. But maybe there’s no accident in these two tropes. The future belongs to Asia and “spiritual but not religious” might be an early manifestation of Asian culture beginning to exert the kind of global influence that Western culture used to enjoy.

Is “spiritual but not religious” a sort of scientific illiteracy? There are all these people for whom religion has no practical consequence in their life, but find the alternative unpalatable? I’ve known a number of people who believe in what I call a “prime mover” god: the whole big bang story sounds too implausible so they invoke god to get the story rolling, but then he drops out as a narratively compelling actor.

I know plenty of people who are essentially atheists but owing to the stigma of the label, simply won’t take the final step of self-identification as such.

Is it a bad faith version of Pascal’s wager, where people think of non-declaration as a hedge: If I don’t say anything, god won’t know and I may still be eligible for the afterlife should I turn out to have been wrong.

Do the “spiritual but not religious” respond to religion in politics? I imagine that to be “spiritual but not religious” means rejection of religion as ideology and dogma in favor of religious sentiment. Political invocations of religion tend to be religion as ideology and dogma at its most strident. But many of these people continue to identify as Christians. Is their identification sufficiently deep for them to respond to the identity group politics of religion?

American Ecumenicalist Pluralism

Charles Blow tells an amusing story about the essential ecumenicalist pluralism of the United States (“Heaven for the Godless?,” The New York Times, 26 December 2008, p. A25):

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

The full study results are here (“Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life,” 18 December 2008).

I suggest that this means that Americans are essentially communitarian, consequentialist and anti-foundationalist in their moral outlook.

For the fundamentalist religious person, right belief about metaphysical and factual matters is paramount and right behavior secondary. Right belief is often seen as being of such a higher order of importance that it alone is sufficient and gross moral deviance on the part of the righteous is perfectly acceptable, hence modern day religious fanaticist terrorism. But for most Americans it is the reverse. The conception of the good is primary and they bend the rest of their beliefs around this. The particular beliefs that lead to the right behavior aren’t all that important, just so long as the result is someone who is a good person. (I think here of Aristotle’s suggestion in the Nicomachean Ethics that for he who has “been brought up in good habits … the fact is a starting point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting-points.” §1095b)

But if Americans don’t believe that right and wrong consist in adherence to a particular book of maxims, then where do they think they come from?

People decide right and wrong prior to religion — at least logically prior, if not chronologically prior. Most people think religion an okay source of moral instruction for children, but eventually attain a level of ethical sophistication where they use their own standard of right and wrong to judge religious teaching, rather than vice-a-versa. It’s Daniel Dennett’s point that many more people believe in belief than actually believe. Chronologically, I imagine people probably go through something like Kierkegaard’s three phases of the slave, the knight of infinite resignation, and the knight of faith. People develop an idea of good from their upbringing, a host of stories in the culture, their moral exemplars, their conception of their own life, their own moral experimentation and so on. Moral discourse is an equal opportunity endeavor. Armed with that, they recognize fellow good people based on an intersubjective or commonly held standard — differing one person to another, but demonstrating “family resemblance.”

The Christian right attempts to bolster the case for its monolithic policy preferences by arguing that the United States is a Christian nation, that it’s becoming more religious or that religion is essential for morality. To the degree that any of these are true, it’s not in a way that helps the case of the right. Americans are essentially pluralist, tolerant, even polyglot, pragmatic and not particularly concerned with the finer points of principle — exactly what one would expect from a real liberal democratic polity.

American Pseudo-Religion; Science and Experience

The title of David Brooks’s op-ed Tuesday, “The Neural Buddhists” (The New York Times, 13 May 2008), sounded cyberpunk and that was enough to entice me to read it. Turns out it’s some comments on the trend in neurological and genetic research toward characterizing the religious tendency and the religious experience. A lot of the editorial is wishful thinking on the part of a religious conservative, but then there’s the musings from which the piece draws its title:

This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

I often point out that the fastest growing religion in the U.S. today is not Mormonism or any branch of Christianity, but the poorly conceptualized “spiritual but not religious” (“Teens: Spiritual, But Not Religious,” smarties, 11 January 2005). This isn’t some entirely post-1960s baby-boom or gen-X phenomenon. It is the latest manifestation of a long line of uniquely American religion stretching from the Enlightenment deism of the founding generation to the transcendentalism of the late Nineteenth Century to the Progressive era psycho-spirituality of William James. It pulls together an idiosyncratic combination of Christianity, grand historical conspiracy theories à la the Freemasons, various strains of mysticism, yeoman pragmatism, naturalism, popular science, amateur philosophical speculation, do-gooderism, health fads, self-help, popular psychology and positive thinking. It’s all of a piece with American mesianism, paranoia, individualism, pragmatism and the melting pot. It’s a little incipient and a little too convenient for the American way of life, having dispensed with the hard truths and the dark side of religion as well as any of the really imposing moral injunctions, but there it is. And Mr. Brooks is right to point out that the best fit for this among the ancient religions is Buddhism.

As for the rest of the article, it’s just the ontological argument for the existence of god without the minor premise. And the refutation is the same today as it was in the Eighteenth Century: you can’t imagine something into existence. A recurrent dream of Pegasus, however deeply felt, is not the existence of Pegasus. Conversely, the Pegasus of the recurrent dream is not what people would mean were they to speak of the existence of Pegasus. The question isn’t whether one has a particular brain experience. People have all manner of experiences, imaginary and not, as well as everything in between — in fact, the vast bulk of human experience probably lies somewhere between the real and the imagined. The question is whether or not a given experience correlates to an existent external state of affairs.

Amidst the natural sciences the question of correlation between a purported experience and a state of affairs external to mind is not something determined in some crass way. “It really happed.” “No it didn’t.” “Yes it did!” There is simply no sense dwelling on a single instance. Scientists discount a sample size of one. If there is too much dispute over a particular instance, simply drop it in favor of further inquiry. Fleeting and unitary experiences are dismissed in scientific practice in favor of what might be called the intersubjective (see e.g. intersubjectivity or intersubjective verifiability), the societal nature of scientific knowledge or a Wittgensteinian denial of a private language in favor of the essentially public nature of our scientific discourses.

For all of Nietzsche’s fretting that the death of god had unchained the Earth from the Sun, religion was every bit as arbitrary and subjective as its adherents today accuse irreligion of being. In the end, the whole of society swings over the abyss on a tether of fundamentally ungrounded beliefs. Science at least has the merit of basing its propositional criteria on egalitarian public discourse. Religion is based on all manner of purportedly private experience — revelations, miracles, conversations with the gods, passions, et cetera — all considered beyond criticism. Some people are chosen, enlightened or who knows what — the plans of the gods are inscrutable — and the rest of us, not so exalted, accept or reject religious belief on the authority of those possessed of such experiences. To those who prefer something more determinate, Jesus reiterates the Deuteronomic injunction, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7, Deuteronomy 6:16).

This is one of the major divisions between science and religion. Were science to start poking its nose into religious business, the religious person would object that the spiritual is a realm of deeply personal experience, not subject to the critical dissection of all comers. And yet in it’s public aspect, religious practitioners are expected to take the word of people having had religious experiences. No attempt is made to abstract an experience away from an individual experiencer. Religion believes every obscurantist story that any old quack tells, at least where not condemned by religious authority.

A recognition deeply built into the practice of natural science, even if never properly conceptualized or explicitly taught, is the recognition of the fallibility, or at least the broad diversity in function, of the human mind. The well observed fact of low brain performance, stretching from simple poor judgment, forgetfulness, error, misperception and dishonesty to careerism, optical illusions and dreams, all the way to delusion, mental disorder, group psychology and mass hysteria has been incorporated into the background of scientific practice. In this regard a particular theory of mind is a part of the body of scientific practice. And, importantly, it’s not a complicated theory of mind — though one can pursue it to various levels of sophistication — but rather one built upon rather day-to-day observation of human foibles. I think the books of reference here are not any of the ones that Mr. Brooks lists, but David Linden’s The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God or Gary Marcus’s Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.

One doesn’t have to search very far in one’s own life to find examples of how the brain, while a miracle of evolution, only works so well. At least a couple of times a week I experience a random, spasmodic jerk of some extremity. My cube neighbor at work, my brother, my highschool physics teacher and a former priest all have facial ticks, some rather elaborate, of which I am certain they are completely unaware and were they to become aware, would not be able to control. So-called religious phenomena — feelings of destiny, hearing voices, talking to god, heightened emotional states, impulses, a sense of unity, feelings of disembodiment — are of a piece with this. I don’t deny that religious people have the experiences that they claim. Subjective experiences are experiences nonetheless. What I deny is that such experiences have any greater significance.

Or for that matter there is the even more commonplace matter of difference in perspective. In this sense science is a highly stylized political methodology for producing consensus amidst the rocky shoals of vast differences in human experience.

These commonplace observations are the cause for the emphasis on repeatability and independent verification in scientific practice. It’s not enough for one person to have had an experience, or even for a very large number of people to have shared that experience for it to be established as a scientific fact. The standard for a scientific fact is that it must be something accessible to all; it must be something determinately replicable. A scientific community employs a fairly common engineering method for combating error: given that humans are cheap and plentiful, accommodate for the very low performance of each individual unit of scientific production by performing each task in redundancy. The inaccuracy of any given unit is cancelled out over the span of the entire system.

This is also the cause for the conservatism in science when it comes to abandonment of a long-standing theory. Nonscientists are fond of pointing out one or two contrary studies or a handful of unexplained mysteries and thinking a major theory overturned. The more efficient explanation is to discount early anomalies as human fallibility. The efficient practice when dealing with a theory propped up by thousands of observations, millions of person hours of labor and the consilience of logically related theories and at the same time a small set of recalcitrant data is to wait and see. That’s not to say that anomalies are dismissed — from economics, to discount something is to calculate the present day value of something that will potentially be of a different value in the future — they are merely tabled pending additional information. But should the accumulation of anomalies reaches a critical mass, they will eventually be widely admitted into the corpus of accepted fact. It’s the other side of the redundancy equation.

“We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.” True, just not the ones Mr. Brooks is thinking of. I think that what we’re seeing is essentially Antony Flew’s “Theology and Falsification” playing out on a societal scale. Atheists keep on raising unanswerable objections to religious belief — and not just in polemics, but ubiquitously in the zeitgeist — and religious people are staging a fighting retreat by continually lowering the bar and circumscribing ever more narrowly the propositional territory it is that they are defending. Neural Buddhism, spiritual but not religious — people may continue to profess all manner of confusion on the matter — it’s all a track to an essentially irreligious society.

America’s Revolutionary Guard

J.K. Rowling suggests a difference between the Christianists in the United States and those of other countries (“J.K. Rowling Reflects on Fame, Fans and Harry Potter,” The Associated Press, 19 July 2007):

I had one letter from a vicar in England — this is the difference — saying would I please not put Christmas trees at Hogwarts as it was clearly a pagan society. Meanwhile, I’m having death threats when I’m on tour in America.

Of course, even the letter from the vicar is preposterous as European Christians appropriated the decorated pine tree as part of the symbolry of Christmas from early European pagans in an attempt to compete with preexisting celebrations long before — fictional, mind you — pagans reappropriated the tree to themselves.

Money is always a compelling issue — witness our China policy just for starters — and we’ve got a lot of it so people have to deal, but I wonder at what point the rest of the word declares the U.S. a bunch of incorrigible kooks and throws up their hands? Will the day come when a foreign author simply avoids the United States market, when an author is subject to the Salman Rushdie treatment in the United States? One can already almost see the analogy between the United States and Iran. A young, costal, cosmopolitan elite committed to freedom and secularism oppressed by a self-appointed and semi-officially condoned bunch of religious thugs. I can almost hear the first report of a Christian enforcer throwing acid in the face of a feminist on a book tour.

All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

Via TPM Cafe and Think Progress, today for the first time, a Hindu gave the opening invocation in the Senate. Considering that the other hundred-and-few-score days that Congress is in session the invocation will be safely Christian, one might have imagined this to be a harmless gesture toward the religious diversity of the country. But no, Christian activists were in the Senate gallery waiting to shout down the Hindu guest:

“Lord Jesus, forgive us father for allowing a prayer of the wicked, which is an abomination in your sight”

Operation Save America was somewhat involved in this protest and put out a press release (Kleefeld, Eric, “Christian Right Activists Disrupt Hindu Chaplain In The Senate,” TPM Cafe, 12 July 2007). TPM Cafe’s Eric Kleefeld spoke with the head of Operation Save America, Rev. Flip Benham (ibid. “Head Of Christian Right Group Calls Hindu Senate Invocation ‘Gross Idolatry’“):

“Our answer is,” Benham said, “When one stands up in the face of gross idolatry being allowed in the Senate, in the chamber of the United States Senate, it is incumbent on a Christian to stand up and speak the truth. No matter what, we must obey God rather than men.”

“When you stand up and are arrested, and the Hindu is allowed to go free, this country has gone upside-down,” Benham added — though when asked, he later clarified that he does not believe people of other religions should be arrested for their beliefs. “Now, why are Hindus allowed here? Why are Muslims allowed here? Because we are a nation that’s free, built upon the principles of almighty God.”

Typical. Christianists will say something that on the surface seems like advocacy of religious freedom, but then always qualify the performative avowal in a way that voids the phrase of any meaning. Yes, yes, Hindus and Muslims shouldn’t be arrested, but they should remain quiet and stay out of the public sphere. They should acquiesce to a political order in which they have no part — and trust that such an order will treat them justly. And in a portent of how justly they would be treated, if they won’t voluntarily vacate the public sphere, witness how Christian vigilantes will be there to force them out.

To me, the truly chilling part of Mr. Benham’s remarks is his assertion that “No matter what, we must obey God rather than men.” So what, again, is the difference between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists? Oh, yeah, Christians haven’t started routinely bombing places. At least not yet. Remember, god’s will must be obeyed “no matter what.”