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My Problem With Religion, 9

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So, I’ve been doing even more thinking, which is probably a bad sign.

But it occurs to me that one of the reasons US  politics may be as rancorous as it is at the moment is that people in the US share an underlying assumption they may not be aware of, and that they might even deny if they were ever confronted by it.

I thinkn that, in the absence of an overaching narrative that unites the entire nation–or the entire West, for that matter–the only form of legitimation left for our ideas about myth, morality, and meaning is…the democratic majority.

In a way, this is nothing new.  Narratives succeed because they become the shared basis of a culture, which means because they become the narrative of a majority.

In this case, however, nobody is actually straightforwardly voting for one narrative or the other.  The issues on the table are at least presumably practical–will there be health insurance provided to everybody y the government?  will the Post Office continue in existence? 

But the fight is, for a solid minority on both sides, not about the practical issues.  In fact, in some ways the whole thing begins to seem very odd to people who are not worried about establishing that foundational narrative for themselves, for people who simply have one and don’t thnk about it, or for people who have never thought about it and therefore now assume that they still have the one their grandparents did.

And in some cases, the particular issues do not make a lot of sense, and the methods of supporting a narrative make even less.

One of the things I’ve always been very bemused by is the way in which so much of the self-proclaimed “religious” right has managed to adopt the philosophy and narrative of Ayn  Rand, who was vehemently and decidedly not just non-religious, an not just anti-religious, but anti-Christian.  A good quarter of John Galt’s famous rant in Atlas Shrugged consists of blaming Christianity for nearly everything that’s gone wrong in the Westsince Aristotle, and that includes Marxism, which Rand was among the first to note the Christian aspects of.

Okay, that sentence should have been shot.

But you see what I mean.  To a solid quarter of the country, a national majority vote in favor of George W. Bush wasn’t just a choice of presidents, it was a judgment on the validity of their myth, morality and meaning.  The same was true of a good quarter of the country when a national majority came in in favor of Obama. 

And these people cannot simply calm down and make sense.   Human beings need narratives to survive.  Once you become conscius that the narrative you grew up with is no longer something you can believe in, you’re compelled to find another one, fast.

And you will.   What never happens, as fas as I can see, is that people simply drift with no narrative at all.  Even full-blown schizophrenics (or maybe especially full blown schizophrenics) have narratives that work for them.   If you really do start drifting, you’ll find something quick that works for y ou, at least in the short run.

But it does have to work.   And it does have to be adopted organically by a large proportion of your citizenry.   If either of those things are lacking, what you get is the end of the Soviet Union.

It’s also a curious aspect of this whole thing that the narratives both minority factions in American society now cling to depend on identifying as minorities, at the same time they try to claim majority support. 

The environmentalist-feminist-multiculturalist wing, for instance, defines itself as persecuted by fascists, white men and Christians.  The atheist wing defines itself as persecuted by believers.  The Christian wing defines itself as persecuted by the other two.

And as long as the main narrative requires persecution to work–or the myth of persecution–it will and must remain a minority narrative.  Majority narratives require a way to function when they’re winning, an explanation that continues to make sense when the people who adopt them can no longer plausibly claim to be persecuted.

I’m going around and around here.  My head is not in good shape this morning. I’ve had very little sleep and very little sanity over the las several days. 

With any luck, tomorrow I’ll be able to get back to linear thought.

But I did want to point out that I meant it.  Right now, the strongest contenders for something that could evolve into a majority narrative aren’t the various political positions, but the fiction-based communities. 

Trekkies, as I pointed out to Robert in a post, have communities–organized communities–of adhereents on every contintent and in almost every country in the world.  They have a shared set of scriptures.  They engaged in organized joint actions of numerous kinds, including charitable work.  They have a full code of ethics and morality and a clear vision of the future and what it is supposed to bring. 

Look at feminism these days and what you see is a small–and rapidly dwindling–band of academic Mrs. Grundys, huddled away in safe little groups and aging by the second.  Multiculturalism is being jettisoned across Europe as the reality of Islamic minorities becomes more real.  Environmentalism as a narrative is held by almost nobody but the real kook fringe.  The rest of the world picks and chooses practical ideas–and some environmentalist ideas are very practical–and leaves the rest alone.

But the Trekkies are growing in number by the day.  And they’re not the only ones.

What I do not think is possible is a return to the Christian narrative as the one the West will share.

To be post-Christian is not the same thing as to be non-Christian.  The post-Christians have lost the ability to accept the Christian narrative as real.  It’s not that they consciously reject it.  It’s that they see nothing they need to reject.

Written by janeh

August 14th, 2009 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'My Problem With Religion, 9'

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  1. Personally, as a Christian, I don’t consider that persecution has started until religion is used as a reason to prevent someone from working, put someone in prison, attack them on the street (not counting, of course, routine street violence), torture them, or of course execute them. I don’t see that as part of western society. People are occasionally rude and ignorant about Christianity, but rudeness and ignorance are not persecution.

    I added the job criteria because I strongly oppose artificial roadblocks in the way of attempts to be self-supporting. There are certain jobs I wouldn’t hold for ethical reasons, but fortunately I’ve always been able to find others. However, there have been times and places (USSR during the Communist era, for example) when being active in your religion outside certain very narrow limits would make you officially unstable and unsuited for most jobs. If not worse.

    Anyway, Christianity preceded (and will outlast in one form or another) both the current Western malaise, and of course modern democratic governments. However useful it may be as a component in a narrative undergirding a political system, it does have an independent existence, even in countries with state churches. Perhaps especially there. Maybe Western Christianity will be re-invigorated by a missionary effort out of Africa, but if so, it will be too late to help the US in its current malaise.

    I think you need a multipronged approach. A civilization doesn’t exist because of a religion or a philosophy or a political theory or a novel or a movie or the stories we tell children or the stories we tell in our histories. It’s all that and more besides. You can’t pick out one element, fix that, and then set things running again.


    14 Aug 09 at 1:23 pm

  2. I’ll hold off on Trekkies until the DVDs get here. Two other points: first, I’d have said the Movement and Religious Right narratives don’t require that the believers be minorities. They require that the believers be persecuted–and, ideally, by nutcases. I’ll admit this is a little tricky when you win an election, but there’s always some way of explaining how Those People are still blocking the arrival of the earthly paradise, and how That Person in the White House is not one of Us, but a mere politician. I’ve read articles by ovement people explaining how clandestine conservatives within the educational establishment were preventing the wonderful outcomes inherent in bilingual education, for instance.

    (Of course, I knew an old man still convinced in the 1970’s that Prohibition would have worked, if it hadn’t been deliberately sabotaged by the drinkers. Sometimes implementing an agenda can be very tough on the believers.)

    Second, while I don’t expect “Christianity” to be the dominant narative of the West in 30 or 50 years, but the narrative might well be Christian. In that case, it will be a specific denomination–maybe Baptist. Maybe Mormon. Maybe something I haven’t heard of or don’t take seriously. But when one of the great tightening-ups comes along, it has rules and an agenda, and doesn’t take “whatever seems good to you” to be a moral program. The range of what is accepted as Christian is very wide. The range of moral behavior 50 years from now, whoever calls the shots will be much narrower.


    14 Aug 09 at 8:05 pm

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