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Boxing Day

with 3 comments

For years now, it’s been my custom to spend a fair chunk of my Christmas Day reading about atheism.   For many years it meant reading one particular book about atheism, called The Final Superstition, by Joseph L. Daleidan, which I found in a Barnes and Noble in Pasadena, Florida one Christmas we spent at my parents’ house.  I think it’s mostly a kind of reaction formation.  There are tons of religious messages everywhere, and me being me, I have to be contrary, so I end up reading the opposite.

This tendency of mine has been considerably reduced in recent years, for whatever reason, and this Christmas it came down to looking through the latest copy of a magazine called Free Inquiry.  For those of you who know nothing about the atheist/freethough/humanist movement in the United States–and those of you who aren’t even aware there is one–Free  Inquiry is the flagship publication of the  Council for Secular Humanism, an organization founded by a SUNY philosophy professor (now emeritus) named Paul Kurtz, after he had departed from the older American Humanist Association over a few differences of opinion that probably would seem minor to most of you but that didn’t seem minor to the people involved at the time, and don’t seem minor to many of them even now.

I think it would be an interesting project to trace the history of the Council for Secular Humanism, which is something of an impressive undertaking.  By ow there are two magazines–Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer–“Centers for Inquiry” across the United States and in several foreign countries, Prometheus  Press (one of the most successful small presses in the US and the only one dedicated to freethought and skepticism) and CSICOP, the Center for the  Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.  CSICOP was called in by the Vatican to be one of the groups investigating the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and it is supported by a number of world-class magicians.  If you want to find out if a psychic is real or not, you don’t call in a scientist, you call in a magician.  There’s a reason  why Uri Geller could not bend spoons when he was sitting next to  Johnny Carson.

Anyway, like I said, that would be an interesting project, and it would be made more interesting if I could compare it to another and similar project launched close to the same time:  William F. Buckley’s founding of both National Review and the modern American conservative movement.  The relative fate and ultimate influence of those two are more a matter of a study in personalities than in content, and those personalities fascinate me.

However, at the moment,  I want to discuss something in this particular issue of FI, which I think was the December-January issue whose announced theme was “the future of religion.”  I could go on at length about various articles in this thing and my problems with them.  There’s one with graphs and charts where a gentleman tries to “prove” that the reason more Americans are religious than Euripeans is that American society is “dysfunctional” relative to other  Western societies, the healthiest of which he confidently pronounces to be Norway.   I liked the charts, because it made it possible to see at a lance that he was confusing “largely monocultural” with “healthy”–that is, his criteria for what made a society “healthy” are all much more likely to be met in societies without significant substantive cultural diversity, because the mere fact of diversity itself will cause some of those problems.  It was also interesting to see what he left out.  

But the thing that struck me about this article and others in this issue of the magazine had to do with something that is pervasive in freethought publications, and that is the utter lack of any knowledge about the history of Christian theology and the equation of “traditional religion” with “fundamentalism.”

One essay–the latest in a regular column by a Canadian professor–declared that Vatican II had changed everything by declaring that there were other paths to salvation besides Christianity–see, even the Catholics themselves admitted that they were not the one true way, there were other ways as well.  Actually, the dogma is “outside the Church there is no salvation,” but it is also that it is impossible for man to know who is inside the Church, since the  Church is the body of which Christ is the head and only the head can know who the members really are.  Therefore some people who seem to be “outside the Church” may still be saved through Christ, but unaware of that until they meet their Savior in paradise.  This line of thought did not start with Vatican II.  It goes back to Augustine and was thoroughly developed in Aquinas and elaborated on at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.  In this respect, Vatican II  changed nothing at all.

The big problem, however, was exhibited in several of the essays, which confidently assumed that “traditional religion” was Biblically literalist and that any declaration that parts of the Bible were to be taken as metaphors or images was something “new” that represented the attempts of frantic believers to come to terms with the devasting proof of modern science that God does not exist.

Actually, Biblical literalism is an invention of twentieth century  American Protestantism–note the twentieth century.  And even within American Protestantism, literalism was, until very recently, a minority position.  Augustine posited something very like the modern theory of evolution to explain how creation was actually effected on earth, and right through the time when the Church was supposedly prosecuting Galileo for saying the earth went around the sun, it was simultaneiously supporting a school at the Vatican that taught just that.  Well, okay, Galileo is another story, and a long one, and maybe I’ll get to that some day.

Today, I just want to ask a question–I can rail all I want at Free Inquiry and its cousins (including Richard Dawkins) for beating religion on the head on the basis of misinformation and general ignorance.  They do a lot of that.  But the fact remains that they’re able to do it because their misinformation sounds plausible to a lot of people.

I think one of the most destructive aspects of the rise of the “religious right” in American politics has been the fact that it has presented a small and insular aspect of Christianity as if it were Christianity.  Everything the FI authors say about Christianity would be true if Christianity were American folk Protestantism.  Everything they assume and attack as Christianity is in fact American folk Protestantism, and that’s the case even when they think they’re attacking the Catholic Church.   And when they run across an anomaly they can’t deny–like, say, Mr.  Buckley himself–they tend to run around developing psychological theories to explain it away (he didn’t really believe it; he was so brainwashed by his childhood he couldn’t break free of it).

American  folk Protestantism is Romanticism in religion–it is a religion of the emotions, not of the mind, and it often hates and fears the mind.  But it is not Christianity, and it isn’t even Protstantism.  It is essentially outside tradition religion more than inside it. 

I was going to use a poem by John Donne to illustrate all this, and I probably will get back to it tomorrow, so just consider it now, written in the sixteenth century by the great poet of the English reformation:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

It’s called Holy Sonnet 14, and in spite of the violence of its emotion, you can tell by reading of it that Donne would never have collapsed to the floor in an eruption of glossolalia, slain by the spirit into mindless

Written by janeh

December 26th, 2008 at 11:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Boxing Day'

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  1. I like Boxing Day. Nice, quiet (my province has it as one of the remaining Shop Closing Act days, so no madness at the malls until tomorrow), nothing to do but snack on leftovers, maybe do a bit of desultory stuff on the computer, pay a casual visit or two, and sleep or read or watch a DVD. And we haven’t got the horrible weather that was forecast, so it’s good to get outside. I can’t remember another winter when every other place in Canada EXCEPT here got smothered in terrible winter weather at the same time. Nice.

    I can’t say I read much atheist literature at Christmas or at any other time, but I have frequently noticed people attributing to me (or other Christians) beliefs that aren’t mine, and in some cases aren’t those of anyone else I know, or possibly totally contrary to most Christian ideas. I mean, I know there’s a fairly broad range of Christian beliefs out there when you consider all the little breakaway sects and quarrelsome schismatics or near-schismatics and the lamentable lack of religious education of some adherents, but sometimes the stuff people come up with about Christianity are really bizarre.

    Leaving aside the small minority (I assume) who are setting up straw men, I suspect a lack of theological education is the problem. Most people have difficulty trying to put themselves mentally in the position of someone they disagree with thoroughly, and it takes a bit of time and effort to work your way through what’s actually being taught and the theological implications thereof. A lot of people who are actually churchgoers don’t do it, so it’s not surprising that opponents don’t.

    I think I just have an analytical turn of mind, as well as a lack of experience with and knowledge of folk Protestantism (well, unless you count one or two rather odd discussions about dinosaurs and how actually attending church should be determined by what you got out of it and how you felt about it). If someone is saying something about the Old Testament or bits of it applying or not applying today, I like to read up on what people have been saying about the place the Law should have in a Christian way of life. It never occurred to me (until I read people claiming that it should) that I should take every single law in the Old Testament literally, because nothing I read or heard indicated that. What I read was more along the lines of the meaning of the word ‘murder’ or ‘killing’ than on following ritual laws that hardly any Christian in history has obeyed.


    26 Dec 08 at 1:16 pm

  2. It is the nature of factions to represent themselves as the whole, or at least the REAL movement. The jungles used to be full of heavily-armed fuzzy studies majors who could explain to you why they, and they alone, interpreted Marx correctly. The “Real IRA” is a bona fide faction’s name, and DON’T get a vegan started on the evils of vegetarianism. (It would of course be tacky for me to mention “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” in this context, so I won’t.)

    The better question is why for some time now many critics of Christianity have accepted as typical of the whole factions which would not be so accepted were they speaking for environmentalism or “progressivism.” Ignorance would do for an explanation, of course, but I suspect those critics simply find slaying straw men safer and easier then engaging properly-armed opponents. This does not make them wrong on the broader issue, but it does make them ineffectual.

    It is the responsibility of the critic to distinguish the failings of an individual from the faults of a faction, and those from problems which are inherent in a movement. The deficiencies of James Earl Carter or even of the Congress of the United States do not refute democracy.

    But if the test of the critic is knowing and honestly describing what it is he criticises, the test of a movement is how far someone can go and still escape criticism because “he’s one of ours.”

    Another day for that one.


    26 Dec 08 at 1:42 pm

  3. I can be classed as an agnostic Jew and don’t feel qualified to comment on Christianity. But I grew up in a small town where we were the only Jews. And joined a Protestan Youth group when I was a teen. Back then (the early 1950s), most of the town went to Church (Catholic and about 5 Protestan), no one worried about the Catholics having released time in school once a week for Church lessons, divorce was rare and no one considered abortion to be acceptable.

    I really would like to know how so much changed in only 50 years.


    27 Dec 08 at 12:54 am

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