The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Talking Religion, In Good Faith

Last week, in a meandering wrap-up post on the Edwards blogger debacle, I posted this.

In fact, one of the things I’ve been thinking about in light of this weeks events is that the religious left and the non-religious left (or “the left” and “the other left,” and you can decide yourself which is which) have got to find some way of working together, and coming to an understanding on how to fight stuff like what I mentioned above from both a religious and non-religious perspective. Is there’s a way to do that while respecting both religious belief and non-belief? I don’t know, but we’re close enough to being in the same boat to make it worth considering.

Well, it looks like this week that conversation is starting to happen. Of course, it’s a bit bumpy, but it’s been interesting to see the discussion going back and forth.

Over at Faithful Politics, I found this addendum to a previous post on how to talk about religion, apparently in response to Atrios pointing out the double-standard made evident by Mitt Romney’s statement, “We need to have a person of faith lead the country.”

Right. That’s not considered bigotry. But if you were to say, “I don’t think we should have have person of faith lead the country,” you’d be accused of anti-religious bigotry. Nevermind that Romney’s statement is essentially bigotry against non-religious Americans, if you follow it to its logical conclusion; if you’re not religious, you’re not fit to hold office.

As I’ve pointed out before, it okay to say whatever you want about atheists or non-religious people. No one’s going to call it bigotry or anything else. But I think they should. Why shouldn’t that particular sword cut both ways? Especially when wielded against a minority? If people who criticize religion can be called “anti-religious bigots,” then we ought to create a category of “religious bigots” for people who would disparage or discriminate against non-religious people.

So, I found it interesting when FP added these truisms to his earlier post.

1.) It is always ok to disagree with the policy positions of a particular religious group. (ie. I support using condoms in Africa to fight AIDS and wish the Church would.)

2.) It is never acceptable to ridicule the customs, practices, or fundamental ideas of the sacred of a particular religious, atheist or ethnic group. (ie. Joking up Mormon prayer clothes–as several blogs did; spreading blood on Muslim men; Marcotte ridiculing the Holy Spirit, etc);

3.) In general, one looks to the offended group and their history to understand whether and why one has been intolerant. (ie. Even banal statments “clean and articulate” may reflect some historical bigotry; same with Romney going to Henry Ford’s estate.)

4.) Overgeneralization is always offensive. (ie Virgill Goode: all Muslims are X; Marcotte: all Catholics are Y; Hardaway, “I hate gays;” Mormons can’t be Prez; or Romney saying people of no faith can’t be Prez, etc)

At a glance, I don’t see anything there that I would object to. It’s all very (admirably) Gandhian. However, as I noted in my comment on the above post, the other side doesn’t play by those rules and never will. So, if you’re a non-religious person, you can practice neutrality until the cows come home. But if you open your mouth to criticize a particular religious belief, or religion-based policy, you’ll probably end up getting pretty bloodied anyway.

The problem is that it’s still considered “rude” to speak critically of religious beliefs, institutions, or persons. But it’s still OK for people like Romney to make statements like the one above, and pretty much get a pass from the media and the general public. Meanwhile, the rest of us are wondering how far is too far? It’s probably going to far for me to say that this scripture or that sacred book is no more factual than, say, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and has even less to do with the real world. Can I say that a particular religious belief has no basis in reality, is destructive of human life and human happiness, and has no business being a basis for public policy? Is that going too far?

Who knows? That’s why so many quietly agnostic people remain quiet, rather than risk offense and having all hell (pun intended) break loose on them.

It would probably be going to far to say something like this statement from an Anglican priest living in New Zealand. [Via Phrayngula.]

If my resistance to deem New Zealand to be a Christian nation makes me a traitor, as Brian Tamaki suggests, take me to the Tower, or the New Zealand equivalent, for it would be greatly preferable to living in such a country.

You might think, then, that I am one of the 48.8 per cent of non-Christian New Zealanders.

I am not. I am an Anglican priest serving an Auckland church. And no, I’m not Bishop Richard Randerson under a nom de plume.

As an immigrant from America I know what it means to live in a Christian nation. That’s why I left. New Zealand’s respect for human rights is why I chose to live here as a permanent resident.

He goes on to list a litany of reasons, before finally closing with this.

What is ultimately important in a Christian nation is that all its citizens experience Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Personal salvation is their sole concern. Personally experiencing Jesus’ ultimate return in sword-brandishing glory is their goal.

Survival of the species isn’t even on the list. Not only is it not on the list, they actively oppose anything that might delay Jesus’ estimated time of arrival. He is expected, according to Scripture, to come in a time of great tribulation.

So bring on war, famine, disease and natural disaster. The more the better, for it will be that much sooner a vengeful Jesus will come to square accounts with the infidel and lift the saved to heaven.

… The rest of us welcome the proposed National Statement on Religious Diversity. We only hope it will become law and not merely an aspiration.

Our only reservation is that it promotes tolerating all beliefs.

That sounds noble, but not all beliefs are created equal.

As we see in America, some work against the common good.

But, as I pointed out earlier, you can’t say that in America. Not without consequence. Not right now, at least, when you’re required to show the proper deference and respect to religious belief. But the stream, despite the admirable recommendations from FP doesn’t flow both ways. Over at Gene Expression, I found this astonishing quote from Sam Harris regarding religion.

I do not deny that there is something at the core of the religious experience that is worth understanding. I do not even deny that there is something there worthy of our devotion. But devotion to it does not entail false claims to knowledge, nor does it require that we indulge our cultural/familial/emotional biases in an unscientific way. The glass can get very clean-not sterile perhaps, not entirely without structure, not contingency-free, but cleaner than many people are ready to allow. One need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to experience the “ecstasies of Teresa” (or those of Rumi, for that matter). And those of us with the benefit of a 21st century education can be more parsimonious in drawing conclusions about the cosmos on the basis of such ecstasy. Indeed, I think we must be, lest our attachment to the language of our ancestors keep their ignorance alive in our own time.

But it’s easy to miss the beginning of Harris’ statement and get wrapped up in the rest of it. Ironically he goes “too far” in the end, in his criticism of religious belief, and not far enough in the beginning with his statement that “something at the core of the religious experience is worth understanding.”

Razib points out:

Evangelical Christians often say that their aggression in preaching their “Good News” is from love and altruism intent, would you not give a drowning man a helping hand and pull him up so that he could grasp at the glory of everlasting life? On a deep psychological level Sam Harris is, I believe, no different, he sees humanity drowning in false belief and he must witness. But do not confuse this for a coldness to religion and God, it is hot rage which motivates him, and Harris’ openness to Eastern mysticism suggest that he still seeks a way to save humanity from the drowning oblivion of materialistic naturalism.

But Harris lack of deference to religion is taken as a “coldness to religion and God,” and to the notion of spirituality in general, because he moves from that point right back to a highly critical take on religion and its implications for humanity.

So, how do we find a way to talk about it; to speak critically of religion as it takes its apparently inevitable place in the public square and in the government itself?

Enter Jim Wallis, with the following recommendation on his God’s Politics blog, from an open letter to Kos of Daily Kos.

So Kos, let’s made a deal. How about if progressive religious folks, like me, make real sure that we never say, or even suggest, that values have to come from faith – and progressive secular folks, like you, never suggest that progressive values can’t come from faith (and perhaps concede that, in fact, they often do). If we progressives, religious and secular, could stop fighting among ourselves (shooting ourselves in the foot) and join together on some really big values issues – like economic fairness, health care, and a more just foreign policy – think of the difference we could make. How about it?

Of course, Kos responded that he didn’t know what Wallis was getting at in his response to a previous post in which Kos wrote this.

If a candidate sincerely gets his or her values from religion, then that’s fine. The Bible is a wonderfully liberal text. And when it’s sincere it doesn’t come across so grating, so imposing. Compare Obama’s talking about religion to Bush’s “favorite philosopher” b.s.

But religious values are no more superior than the values I learned from my abuelita (and most Latinos will get a good sense of what my value system looks like just by referencing the word “abuelita”). They are no more superior than the values Tester learned on the farm from his farmer father and grandfather. Or the values that Webb learned while proudly wearing his uniform. Or the values someone might learn by contemplating the great philosophers. Or whatever.

Wallis later responded to Kos’ response, attempting to find common ground. And there may yet be much common ground to be found between the religious and non-religious left. But, as I’ve noted before, the compromise requires more sacrifice on the part of non-religious progressives, at least on some issues.

What do I mean by a progressive party? Certainly one that stands for economic justice and social justice. What we have right now in the Democratic party is a leadership that’s only willing to go half the way, and work on issues like poverty and war, but stops short on social issues in the interest of not offending voters who are either unconcerned with or even opposed to progress on those issues. From a party chair sitting down with Pat Robertson to netroots activists believing they need to support candidates who aren’t progressive on some issues in order to win elections, to a party now distancing itself from the principle of church/state separation, we’re inching closer to what I predicted we’d get a while back.

… And what of those progressive who care about and are working on issues like war and economic justice, but who are also passionate about social issues? What do we do with a party that seems to want less to do with those issues?

The problem is that we’re stuck in a party that’s not so much progressive as it is “progressive-to-a-point,” stopping short of some progressive values in pursuit of voters who do the same.

At least part of the anger on the part of non-religous progressives probably stems from the noticeable pattern of backing off issues like marriage equality, choice, and church/state separation, in pursuit of “partially progressive” voters who are either squeamish about those issues or think they’re not important enough to talk about right now; a page right out of Wallis’ own playbook for reaching out to progressive evangelicals.

Some of the anger stems from the reality that, apparently, in this new, more religious Democratic party, some of us are inevitably going to get left behind. Or maybe it’s not inevitable, but it’s unclear right now whether we’re actually trying to get to the same place on those issues, or whether some of us risk getting derailed if we go a long for the ride (and chip in for gas money).

And it leads me to a question; one that I saw today, but in the form of a statement that was the title of an editorial in the Bangkok Post. Apparently, America isn’t the only country wrestling to keep church and state from completely crawling into bed with each other. The tile of the article? “Religion Needs No Special Status.” And it addresses an effort to make Buddhism the national religion of Thailand, a majority Buddhist country, despite the fact that the constitution makes no such declaration, but does declare equal protection for all faiths.

Aside from being a statement that’s unlikely to get a lot of support back here in the states, it contained a few points that are (I think) relevant to us anyway.

[T]hey [the supporters of making Buddhism the national religion] maintain that the definition would prompt the state to recognise the importance of Buddhism, to protect and support it more. They maintain that this would help Buddhism to flourish, and therefore serve to boost people’s moral standards and the health of society as a whole. In the real world, where a minority religion in one place can be a majority in another, where inter-faith tolerance and dialogue are the only salvation against deadly religion-based conflicts that have flared up worldwide, such an argument is highly contentious.

First, how can Thai nationals who are Muslims or Catholics feel at one with a law that officially identifies with another religion? Buddhists in this country already prevail over other faiths by their sheer numbers. Adding the ”national religion” status to it would be so grandiose, so imposing as to leave no room for practitioners of different religions to breathe, and would not be conducive to peaceful co-existence or meaningful inter-faith dialogue. Above all, it would be a boon to them to heed the words of the late reformist monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu: ”Learn from other religions.”

Second, that a religion which is practised by an overwhelming majority of the 64 million population should be seeking help and shoring up from the government is absurd. It is true that Buddhism has been weakened by misconduct among monks, commercialism and politics within the Sangha Council, but these problems would not go away with a new definition. If the supporters of a national religion truly wish to see Buddhism thrive here or elsewhere, they must cooperate in ridding it of all the corroding practices and make the religion relevant to the lives of the people in our modern society.

Substitute Christianity from Buddhism, and you get the general gist of it.

And, on “learning from other religions, there’s an interesting article in today’s Washington Post about “spiritual eclecticism” featuring a Wiccan army chaplain, who was upon conversion denied a chance to minister in Iraq.

A year ago, he was a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. He sent home reports on the number of “decisions” — soldiers committing their lives to Christ — that he inspired in the base’s Freedom Chapel.

But inwardly, he says, he was torn between Christianity’s exclusive claims about salvation and a “universalist streak” in his thinking. The Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which collapsed the dome of a 1,200-year-old holy site and triggered a widening spiral of revenge attacks between Shiite and Sunni militants, prompted a decision of his own.

“I realized so many innocent people are dying again in the name of God,” Larsen says. “When you think back over the Catholic-Protestant conflict, how the Jews have suffered, how some Christians justified slavery, the Crusades, and now the fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, I just decided I’m done. . . . I will not be part of any church that unleashes its clergy to preach that particular individuals or faith groups are damned.”

He explored Buddhism, among other paths, before settling on Wicca, which (ironically) he learned about from the army’s overview of religion, and he still meditates and draws from other faiths. According the article, he quotes Dr. Seuss as often as he quotes religious scripture. What drew him to Wicca, he says, was that there was no declaration of a “one true path” or condemnation of other faiths.

“If these guys,” he says, referring to Wiccans, “had told me that ‘We are the one path, the Star-bellied Sneetches, the true vessels of enlightenment for the lost world’ — I’m so tired of all that, I would not even have slowed down to take a second look.”

He says he understands why strangers might think “a mortar round must have landed too close to this guy.” He recalls, with a chuckle, that a friend once gave him a diagnosis of “multiple religions disorder.”

But it’s a disorder that perhaps would serve both the religious left and the non-religious left well, particularly in the context of what’s called “a deep ‘not knowing'” in this post at WoodMoor Village Zendo.

Still, what grabs my attention the most today is the notion of a “spiritual eclectic,” a person who has no set spiritual or religious identity, who reads broadly and deeply about various religious and spiritual practices, who serves, like Larsen, in a tradition, yet who feels called not by exclusivity in one faith but by the threads of interconnection they see in religious life.

… Methinks oftentimes this spiritual eclecticism is not valued, even though so many folks I meet articulate precisely a less than certain spiritual or religious identity.

Many of the students with whom I speak about religion find themselves expressing a deep “not knowing,” and also a strong spiritual eclecticism. Just this past Friday I had a chance to speak with a student who fit that description. She was raised in one tradition, tried another, was clear about some basic religious and spiritual beliefs, but had not found a “home” for them, and moreover, much of what she held as belief was intriguingly integrated from various traditions. What troubled her was not the patchwork quilt of spirituality she had partly put together, but that she felt a bit rudderless without a community to anchor her. She had not yet decided that she did not have to throw her lot with one religion or another, that her own counsel was good enough. Then again, she wanted to fit in, to feel fellowship, to feel rooted somewhere. This tug and pull between eclectic individualism and community, between blazing your own path and fitting in, especially in religious and spiritual matters, presents quite a dilemma for us all, but I find it so prevalent in students with whom I come in contact. It always leads to great conversations. For Rev. Larsen unfortunately, it ended up costing him his position in Iraq.

It goes back to something I’ve referenced before, by Pema Chodron, about religious belief as a response to uncertainty.

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and nonBuddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

… Nontheism is finally realizing that thereís no baby sitter that you can count on. You just get a good one and then he or she is gone. Nontheism is realizing that itís not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth, and the truth is inconvenient.

For those who want something to hold on to, life is even more inconvenient. From this point of view, theism is an addiction. We’re all addicted to hope — hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

Chodron writes a lot about “relaxing with uncertainty” or “groundlessness.” It struck me that this was the task before the student referenced in the Woodmoor post, and the task addressed in the Chodron piece I just mentioned. In this case, I think that may be the key to any kind of dialogue between the religious and non-religious left. Maybe both sides could stand to have a little less ground under their feet and being OK with that.

That may be where we have the jump on the other side, in that perhaps progressives are more willing to consider that someone else may have a point, and that there’s more than “one way.” That’s not possible if you believe you’ve cornered the market on truth and morality, and that everyone’s gonna hafta get with your program or go (quite literally) to hell.

I said earlier that the other side doesn’t play by the rules that FP laid out, and never will. However, if the religious and non-religious left can play by those rules with each other. It might be a step forward. On the other hand, it won’t make much news or win anyone a media platform. In fact, if you try it with the other side, you’ll probably get shouted down if you get the chance to be heard at all.

So, maybe all the above with work between the non-religous and religious folks in the progressive coalition. But it I don’t see it being effective much beyond that. Maybe that’s another strategy for another time.

In all honesty, I think that religious progressives are about the business of putting into practice the very recommendations of the the column above, that of “ridding it [religion] of all the corroding practices and mak[ing] the religion relevant to the lives of the people in our modern society.” And I believe that non-religious progressives are about the same business. (Is it possible that both are “doing God’s work”?)

That’s because they, we, share many of the same values, and they stem from two different sources; one religious and the other not religious. If it’s possible that there are many paths to the same place, then we might be moving toward (roughly) the same destination. But it’s likely we’ll need each other to get there. And we’ll need to trust each other to navigate from time to time.

Is it possible, maybe, that we need to “have faith” in each other?


  1. Damn T, I always learn something when I read your blog– but this is absolutely great stuff! I will need to print this all out and take a couple of days to absorb it all. Love the NZ quotesKeep up your fantastic work!


  2. As soon as I got to the ‘truisms’, Terrance, I couldn’t read any more of it. Why exactly can we not make fun of a religious belief if we feel like it? Consider the words of Salman Rushdie: “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.” Salman Rushdie

  3. Scion:

    Go ahead and make fun if you want–my guide was intended for people involved in campaigns or teaching in public schools. But I think it is usually inherently cruel and counter-productive to do so. And I would answer your question with another question. Why don’t we “make fun’ of other deeply personal choices or external characteristics? In general, many of us don’t because we give respect to the person qua person– whatever their choices or external characteristics. The choice to be or not be religious is deeply personal, as personal as a person’s sexuality or personality. It is entitled to respect, just as every individual is.


  4. Also, Scion, Salman Rushdie is an example of how NOT to conduct an Interfaith dialogue–he is closer to a bomb-thrower like Michelle Malkin than a peacemaker like Rabbi Heschel.

  5. If faith is so personal, you all should learn to keep it to yourselves.

  6. Damn that’s a good post. Among other things, you’ve collected some of the best, most incisive quotes on the topic ever.

    Can you get it published for posterity? Expand it to a book?

  7. Re: FP

    I was tempted to say, “who cares if Rusdie is a bomb thrower?” and leave it at that. But there is more to this issue, I think. Many bomb throwers have earned their popularity from being just that – a bomb thrower.

    You (apparently) suggest that some things are off limits. Would entertainment legend Mel Brooks agree with you? Here is an unambiguous bomb thrower if I ever saw one. Whether or not you enjoy such films as ‘Blazin Saddles’ or ‘History of the World – Part 1’ cannot undermine the fact that Mel Brooks has made a career, and a respectable treasure chest, off of irreverent humor.

    Mel Brooks is a Jewish man who has written, directed, produced, starred in, and shared with us his comedy that not only makes light of things we like to enjoy but he has also made light of: Judaism, black people, gay people, white people, native americans, writers, actors, producers, Nazis, Latinos, Catholics, Germans, etc etc… He is an equal opportunity comedian.

    Or what about Nathan Lane? Here is a gay man who has starred in such films as ‘The Birdcage’ where Lane played a cross dressing (or whatever you prefer to say) homosexual, giving in to all the campy stereotypes and making it enjoyable (for some, at least).

    Saturday Night Live, whether you like it or not, has provided us endless irreverent humor for at least thirty years. To my knowledge no ethnicity, minority, majority, religion, etc has been spared the axe on this show.

    Which reminds me of a skit SNL did not too long ago about the controversy surrounding Vincente Fox (Mexican President, former) and his alleged bias against blacks. SNL did a short skit as part of their Weekend Update with actors playing both Vincente Fox and Al Sharpton. They traded jibes and ethnic jokes with all the levity for which SNL is known. The skit was ended with ‘Fox’ and ‘Sharpton’ sharing with us the ‘ol truism, “If we can’t laugh at ourselves then who can we laugh at?”

    Because I frequently make fun of cats means in no way that I hate cats or would be cruel to them. Sometimes we need a little humor, irreverent or not, in our lives to help break the stresses of said life.

  8. I forgot to mention ‘The Producers’ (a Mel Brooks AND Nathan Lane production) which was based on irreverence and what people consider “off limits”. This movie I think helps illustrate the point… The characters Bloom and Bialystock set out to make the most offensive musical they could as part of a fraudulent scheme… and it ended up being a huge success for them both.

  9. Scion:

    In general I agree with you that artistic bomb throwers are different than folks who really try to create tension between people and then use it for their own purposes….Mel Brooks, Natham Lane, etc are satirical and their targets are genrally fairly broad. I would support Rushdie’s right to defecate on any religion he sees fit, but I wouldn’t hold up that type of an expression in any sense as a model of how we talk to each other about senistive and personal choices.


  10. To help this comment from being misinterpreted, I need to begin by saying I’m absolutely NOT subtly or openly urging people to become Muslims. Even as I’m not suggesting we should all become Jews or Christians. But if “enough people” (whatever that number must be) embraced the three religions’ COMBINED revelations about God and the Messiah He promised to send us, they could end the Religious War that is currently emerging throughout the world, in which militant Muslims seek to cleanse the earth of “unbelievers.” Still, there remains the sad thought that no one with the slightest knowledge of religious history can reasonably expect “believers” to bring peace on earth!

    To make “real peace” among themselves, members of all three religions would each have to alter some portion of their own manmade beliefs. But, in a typical example of “religious unity,” Muslims, Christians and Jews, alike, have always been unwilling to alter any part of their own beliefs! So, each embraces their own clergy’s interpretations of their own Sacred Book — interpretations that have provoked hatreds and wars throughout their shared religious history. And those are the same interpretations that are now driving us into a “shared” nuclear war.

    Of course, so many self-centered Christians are so convinced they will be “whisked away” before violence consumes the rest of the world that they have no incentive to alter their own understanding. And stubborn Jews are so accustomed to being persecuted and ostracized, they have long since closed their ears and their minds to the beliefs of “outsiders.” And self-satisfied Muslims believe, so thoroughly, that the whole world will someday be “Islamic”— in whatever way they define “Islam” — they can scarcely bring themselves to denounce the violence their “extremist” members are wreaking. After all, what the “fanatics” are doing could be “God’s Will.”

    So, here we are with each religious family too convinced their understanding is too right to be altered. Each convinced the others should change. Each “deep-down” resigned to enduring whatever happens or gladly anticipating their own “deliverance.” And each convinced that all they can do is urge their fellowmen to “convert” or urge them to practice “tolerance” — as though “believers” have ever proven truly tolerant of other beliefs for more than an occasional public minute!

    All the while, Jews need to recognize the world’s Messiah, rejected by their presumptuous clergy, because Jesus did not do what they expected the Messiah to do for them. And Christians need to recognize Abraham’s One and Only unseen God, Who, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures which introduced Him to the world, never inferred He was one of three gods, as Christianity’s brazen clergy identified Him. And Muslims need to recognize that they have not become God’s “chosen people,” whose “Holy Land” has been usurped by Jewish “infidels” supported by Christian “infidels” (another name for “unbelievers”), as their egotistical clergy declares.