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Monday, June 16, 2014

America, The Bible, And Taking Things Literally

It is not news that America is a very religious country. A recent Gallup poll (2010) found that about two-thirds of Americans — 65 percent — say religion is important in their daily lives. Among high-income countries, only Italians, Greeks, Singaporeans and residents of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states are more likely to say religion is important.  Not only are we a religious nation, but extremely fundamental in our beliefs. The same Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that ““God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago” and that nearly 33 percent say that the Bible ““is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word” (reported by Charles Blow in the New York Times 6.8.14).

This literal belief in the Bible is not simply a matter of personal conviction.  If so many people believe that God himself is speaking the words of the Bible, then references to current political issues such as sex, marriage, gender, and the family must also be absolutely true, unequivocal, and unchallenged.
The political divide in the United States is, according to many, getting worse.  The divide can be characterized in many ways – rich/poor, urban/rural, white/black, coastal/Midwest, gay/straight, and educated/semi-literate.  The biggest divide, however, goes unreported – logic vs. illogic. How can any reasonable, rational dialogue be carried out on difficult but important social issues if approximately one-third of the country has already made absolute a priori judgments about them?

There are many hypotheses about why there are so many conspiracy theories in the United States, and scholars have for over fifty years speculated on the nature and origin of these impossible, absurd ideas about Obama, vaccines, fluoridation, radio waves, Washington, and the international Jewish cabal. 

The conclusions have varied significantly.  Some researchers, such as Richard Hofstadter claimed psychopathology:
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action. http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/conspiracy-theories.html
Other investigators saw social dislocation, disaffection, and marginalization as factors which distorted reality and encouraged a deformed solidarity among true believers. Some scientists were harsher in their appraisals, citing ‘dispositional factors’ – people are simply wacko:
Conspiracy theorists are more likely to blame Hofstadter’s  ‘preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network’ even when adequate situational explanations are available. This may be especially true when people are outraged or distressed and seek to justify their emotional state by claiming intentionality of actions even in the absence of evidence.
Despite the saliency of these arguments, they overlook one essential point.  An unquestioning, literal interpretation of the Bible – in other words an abandonment of logic in favor of faith – leads the way to absolutism, myth, and the occult in all other areas of consideration.  The Bible is filled with improbable events – tales of virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, cataclysmic floods, gardens of earthly paradise and many more.  Looked at from a rationalist, secular point of view, these Biblical stories are poetic allegories, symbolic of divine power, grace, and charity.  Such fables have been common since the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh written in the 18th century BC:
Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, was a wild man created by the gods to stop him oppressing the people of Uruk. After an initial fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close friends. Together, they journey to the Cedar Mountain and defeat Humbaba, its monstrous guardian. Later they kill the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her advances. As a punishment for these actions, the gods sentence Enkidu to death.
In the second half of the epic, Gilgamesh's distress at Enkidu's death causes him to undertake a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. He eventually learns that "Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands" (Wikipedia)

The Hindu Ramayana (4th Century BC) follows in the same tradition and tell the story of Rama, an avatar of supreme god Vishnu, whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka. The Bhagavad-Gita (3rd Century BC) sets forth God’s precepts for the good life
The Gita outlines the methods how to live a virtuous life and lists the attributes necessary to overcome the vices through the four pillars of yoga, meditation, inculcation and service. The Gita is very specific in the methods of renunciation and transformation, but it is very subtle in time and history of its revelation.
The Gita directions are written in the first person and are the direct versions of God. The Ramayana history however is written in the third person and it is mainly the praises of God in the form of the stories of Rama and other characters depicting good over evil. Most of the stories are based on separation in family, surrounded by grief and attachment. The Gita teaches renunciation of the vices and promotes cooperation, honesty, unity and purity in family life based on pure actions (Yogi Khem Jokhoo, Imperishable Jewels of Knowledge)

In other words, anyone who subscribes totally and resolutely to the absolute literal veracity of these religious works and who rejects any suggestion of metaphor, allegory, or parable has already suspended rational thought; and once that disciplined cognitive process is abandoned, it is hard to retrieve it and apply it to secular issues.

Of course most fundamentalist Christians are quite capable of separating the two. Many of the best-known evangelists are faithful to the Word of God, but as relentlessly logical, calculating, and secular in expanding and managing their religious enterprises.  On a simpler level, even those Christians who believe that the world is only a few thousand years old know how to work the remote, read a timetable, and balance the checkbook.

The point is not that Biblical literalism fundamentalism completely takes over ratiocination.  It simply makes illogical assumptions easier.

Psychologists Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles (The Psychologist, July 2010) have explained this phenomenon in terms of conspiracy theories:
A ‘monological belief system’ allows conspiracy theorists to easily assimilate explanations for new phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to understand or would threaten their existing beliefs. Those, for example, who more strongly endorsed 9/11 conspiracy theories were also more likely to believe in other, seemingly unrelated conspiracy theories.
This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of conspiracy theories – once you have adopted one theory on the basis of internalized feelings, selective ‘evidence’, and socio-pathological needs, you easily adopt others.
The authors go on to say that conspiracy theories that surround complex topics offer certainty in a shifting landscape:
A conspiracy theory helps explain those ambiguities and provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty. Or that the human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance.
It is far easier for a moderately-educated, marginally-employed, geographically-isolated American to accept the Word of God on homosexuality than to sift through competing claims on genetic predisposition, psycho-social conditioning, political currency, and civil rights.  The Bible is clear on marriage which can only occur between a man and a woman; and therefore legal arguments are beside the point.

There is a case for literalism, however.  “Don’t touch the peonies!”, shouted my mother out the kitchen window. “What is so hard to understand?”.  ‘Walk-Don’t Walk’ signs shouldn’t be parsed for interpretation.  In Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Ivan constructs his life to be literal.  Everything in its logical, ordered place, enabling him to lead an untroubled life.  This architectural world comes apart when he finally accepts that he has a terminal disease.  Everything is subject to interpretation, second-guessing, metaphor, and parable.  He is facing extinction, he reminds himself, and everything goes.

All of us, like it or not, live in both worlds – the nuts-and-bolts and the ephemeral.  Most of us try to keep a firewall between them; but do so only feebly. Even the most slavishly secular – like Ivan – have to begin to wonder at some point what life is all about, and we go wobbly and New Age. It hasn’t been that long since our ancestors believed that Zeus threw thunderbolts down to Earth or that God himself decides to wipe out the barley crops of ancient Egypt with a plague of locusts.

The most passionate environmentalists do not only believe that climate change is upon us, but that Armageddon is approaching.  They do not come right out and say it, but God is in play.  Not the Old Testament God who got angry at Man and caused floods, fires, and pestilence; but a New Age God incarnated as Mother Earth, Maya – an organic spiritual entity that feels the pain of environmental rape and pillage.  Something must be spiritually wrong with Man, these environmentalists say, who can willfully ignore the plight of his mother and who is dismissive of the Christian principles of caring for and respecting others.

So if fundamentalists take things literally and see the work of God everywhere; and if secularists let faith and religion sneak into even the most supposedly rational of intellectual enterprises – science – then we must truly have lost our senses and our way. 

Two of the greatest Christian theologians – Augustine and Thomas Aquinas – grappled with the issues of faith and religion throughout their lives; and the Catholic Church, for all its pomp, ceremony, Vatican cabals, and sexual delinquency, has adamantly maintained that salvation is a matter of both reason and faith just like Augustine and Aquinas averred centuries ago.  Recent Popes have been openly suspect of new fundamentalist sects which open the door to wild, irrational belief and its corrosive nature. 


In the well-known chapter The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan says that Christ was wrong in offering man the freedom of choice, for that opened the way to the corruption of his Church which was based on “miracle, mystery, and authority” – keeping the faithful happy, expectant, and obedient, regardless how that absolute faith became distorted and subjective.

Today’s spiritual individualism, this intimate relationship with Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, opens the door to magic, superstition, and indiscipline far worse than the Catholic Church and recent Popes have ever imagined. The logical precepts of Augustine and Aquinas have been thrown out the window, irrelevant and unnecessary in an age of illogical faith.

Luckily for us American business will always keep us on track and will always be a bastion of absolute logic and cognitive discipline.  Making money these days is a matter of sophisticated hardware, predictive software, genetic modification, brain-computer interface, artificial intelligence, and savvy marketing.  With all the insanity in churches or swirling around the political arena, thank God for business.  We can go off the rails on environmentalism, invoke God in our missionary zeal to spread democracy throughout the world, and distort Evolution until it is unrecognizable; but we will always invent cool things, build better widgets, and proudly ride the capitalist steed.  “The business of America is business”, Engine Charlie Wilson said; and no statement is more literally true.

1 comment:

  1. Hey,That is a CRAZY tale about that recovery. Might I ask when it happened? Phenomenal article, btw. A great part of the congregation – especially the individuals who most think they are the genuine Christians – are so profound in apostasy its brain boggling. Their day is nearing however – an illustrious pruning is headed's. It makes me dismal for the youngsters and feeble among them, however I will be happy to see that type of "Christianity" reach its auspicious. Thanks all!!


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