Part 2: liberal religion

I usually criticize conservative religion because it represents the greatest threat, and not because, as some believe, I’m ignorant of liberal religion. As one who would like to have some form of religion in my life, but who long ago rejected the conservative faith of his childhood, I have been a Unitarian; read quite a few books by religious liberals; and was the target of my liberal sister’s proselytization efforts for decades. My most recent book by a liberal was A Religion of One’s Own by Thomas Moore (pictured), which came out this year. The first thing I did upon finding it at the library was to turn to the index and count the references to God. I was surprised to find that God only appeared on pages 14-16 of the 272-page work, but this was the part of the book that I spent the most time pondering because it represents the views of millions of religious liberals, served as a source for this post, and because I considered his other thoughts obvious.

The virtue of conservative religion is that its meaning is clear even when its illogical or has no basis in fact; its downside is that it leads to oppression. The virtue of liberal religion is that its potential for oppression is low, but on its downside, its theology is devoid of meaningful content. For example,

“Jesus walked on water,” says something, whereas,

“The best way…keeps the reality of God, but emptied of our ideas of who or what God is…” is so devoid of value that I suspect Moore of writing it without reflecting upon its implications. For to believe in a God about whom one can have no conception means to believe—without the least evidence—in a God that might be good, but then again, might be evil; a God that might be compassionate, but could just as easily be bloodthirsty; a God that might be sentient, but could be an unconscious force, and so on down the line through every conceivable characteristic, including existence, because to affirm that God exists is to hold at least one idea about “who or what God is.”

“God is in the space between sentences. God is the unspoken and the unwritten…God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere…You look until you see nothing tangible, and that is God.” (Moore)

What is the difference between a God about whom nothing can be said—and therefore might not exist—versus atheism, and why pray to such a God (“I’ll speak to God out of extreme need”), prayer being an act that surely implies belief in a deity that is conscious, loving, powerful, omnipresent, compassionate, and fluent in human language? Just as Descartes claimed to throw out all knowledge except for a belief in his own existence, and from that one belief to completely rebuild his identity as a white European Catholic male of a certain age, height, weight, number of teeth, and so forth; I doubt Moore’s honesty when he prays to that about which he insists nothing can be known. Such contradictions are common among liberals.

Various liberal churches teach a course entitled “Living the Mystery,” in seeming unawareness that its synonym would be “Living the Ignorance,” mystery being but a euphemism for not knowing. Those who use the capitalized word believe they have a greater spiritual awareness than the rest of us, but of what does their awareness consist? I don’t know despite having tried awfully hard to find out, and my considered opinion is that it’s simply a case of the emperor having no clothes. Liberals themselves would see it as akin to Gnosticism—not that they use the word—in that, if you’re on the inside of the movement, you get it, but if you’re on the outside, it just looks like silliness.

Not every liberally religious person would agree with Moore on every point (he doesn’t identify himself as a Christian for one thing), but all share his vagueness. My sister often said to me, Your problem is that you’re stuck in the teachings of your fundamentalist childhood, and this causes you to think that either a great many things can be said about God, or else God doesn’t exist. My response was that if some universally benevolent being or force that is deserving of the title God really does exist, then surely its existence would be so obvious that none could doubt it. To simply say, as she did, that I define God as the universal impetus toward good, and my goal is to align myself with that good, strikes me as no different from secular humanism except in its unfathomable insistence on retaining the word God.

Like conservative Christianity, liberal Christianity holds to the parts of scripture it likes and disregards the rest. For example, it’s big on the story of the Good Samaritan but silent on “Put every man, woman, child, and animal, to the sword, but keep the young virgins for yourselves.” How do liberals justify this? About some things, they deny that God (however defined) really said them; others, they identify as metaphors. Fine, but how do they know what God really said, or what God’s numerous genocides, wanton murders, and other atrocities, are metaphors of. Metaphors are only useful inasmuch as they relate to things that exist in reality, but liberal Christians mostly use them to clarify other metaphors, and this makes them substitutes for reality rather than definers of reality:

“What is God?”
“God is the ground of being.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that God is the soil, and we are the seed.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“God is the substance in which we live and move and have our being.”

I see no reason to think that vagueness, ignorance (aka Divine Mystery), and endless metaphors, constitute heightened spiritual awareness, and in every field but religion, even religious people regard them as muddled thinking and therefore as impediments to truth. I think of liberal religion as what’s left when everything has been taken from religion except the need to believe. By claiming that vagueness, ignorance, and metaphor, represent spirituality, liberals leave themselves less open to attack simply because there’s so little to attack. Talking with them is like biting the air in that you’re free to do it all day, but why would you? Maybe they can’t help it. Maybe there really is a gene that tends toward religious belief and is weak or absent in those who lack such beliefs. If so, it’s not to the blame of the one or the credit of the other, but is merely a fact, although I would consider it a regrettable fact in the case of believers and among those who, like myself, can neither believe nor escape the impulse to believe if only to cope with a life of endless pain.

I find that the only direction one like myself can go is toward liberal religion, yet I am no more welcome there than I am among conservatives because most liberals regard my unwillingness to use their terminology to prove that I’m unworthy. As Moore put it:

“Atheism tends to be nothing more than yet another too-earnest religion with the added problem of being excessively rationalistic.”

This by the same man who believes in a God about which nothing can be said. In my wide experience, most liberals regard atheists as excessively rationalistic based solely upon the fact that they are atheists (agnosticism being an acceptable alternative), it never occurring to them that the terminology might simply be different. I say this because when I get beyond the God-talk, I find little in liberal writings with which I disagree. For example, Moore’s admonitions to appreciate beauty, cherish the moment, help other people, and find depth in the commonplace, are characteristics of sensitivity and maturity rather than theism, yet he relates them to theism and believes that atheists are less than because they don’t use the word God, a word about which he himself has such reservations that, “I sometimes just use the letter G.” Why, having abandoned two of the three letters is he hell-bent on keeping the third? I know it matters to him because if it didn’t, he wouldn’t insult those who have abandoned the third, not that he thinks any more highly of people who believe in a God whose attributes are knowable:

“We need to grow out of that kind of religion….I don’t want to make little of God by pretending God is a ‘he’ pulling strings in the sky. I’d rather not use the word if it’s going to be so small and inadequate.”

Terminology is to liberals what dogma is to conservatives in that conservatives imbue words with meaning and require that the meaning be accepted, while liberals take meaning from words, and require that the words alone be embraced. Frankly, I don’t much care if liberals believe in a God whom they define as the impetus toward good, or the spirit of love, or that about which nothing can be known. So that I won’t portray myself as more tolerant than I am, I should add that I can’t begin to fathom the adoration that many of them feel toward Christ, and I find their devotion to the word God so lifeless that it troubles me in the same way that I would find it troubling if someone freeze-dried their dead cat, set it on a pillow, and insisted that everyone go along with them in pretending that it was alive. Yet, we all have our little oddities, and I wouldn’t reject them because of theirs, but they do reject me because of mine (it’s easier to be rejecting when you’re not in a tiny minority). I prefer liberal theism to conservative theism only because liberals are unlikely to openly oppress me, but their contempt for atheists is no less complete. It’s just less understandable.

I answer my detractors

A judge permitted this Catholic statue to remain on federal
land in Montana because it "does not reflect a religious purpose."

Every atheist who criticizes religion is criticized for those criticisms on two counts. (1) If you don’t believe in God, religion is none of your business. (2) You don't criticize every form of religion equally, so you're obviously ignorant of the diversity within the religious community. I will use my next two posts to address these criticisms.

To argue that the only people affected by religion are those who are religious is to display an astonishing degree of ignorance when not a day passes on which people who aren’t religious or who belong to the wrong religion are assaulted, beaten, beheaded, blown to pieces, censured, cursed, disowned, fined, fired, imprisoned, molested, ostracized, raped, ridiculed, run out of town, shot, stoned, taxed, threatened, or otherwise persecuted in the name of one God of Love or another. Granted, Moslems commit the worst of the atrocities, but religious oppression exists everywhere that religion exists. Even so, I’ll limit the rest of this post to the harm done by the dominant political face of modern American Christianity, primarily as it relates to federal and state government.

(1) In 1954 (the same year that “under God” was put in the Pledge of Allegiance, and two years before “In God We Trust” was put on money), Congress enacted 26 U.S. Code § 107. This law has been a boon to “ministers of the Gospel” because it exempts them from paying income taxes on their housing expenses. It has likewise been a boon to churches because they can get by with paying less to clergy. The rest of us currently pay an additional $700-million in taxes to make up the deficit. Why were members of the clergy given such a break? Because it was the era of the nuclear arms race and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the government wanted to curry God’s favor while standing strong against “Godless Communism.”

(2) Churches avoid taxes by calling themselves charities. I say calling themselves charities because they enjoy significant perks over other charities, perks that cast doubt upon whether they really are charities. For example, unlike other charities, churches don’t have to pay an application fee to apply for their income tax exemption, and they don’t have to submit a yearly Form 990 to prove that they’re actually using their money to help anyone. Even in cases of obvious abuse, there is little the IRS can do because Congress enacted “heightened procedures” that make auditing a church so complicated that it rarely occurs.

(3) October 5, will mark the sixth annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a day on which approximately 1,500 pastors openly violate Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) which prohibits charitable organizations from engaging in political campaigning. These clergy invariably support conservative candidates and conservative causes, and many of them send videos of their sermons to the IRS, confident that the IRS will do what the government usually does in regard to the crimes of the church, which is to ignore them.

(4) To comply with IRS Code 501(c)(3), Congressional lobbying on the part of churches must be “insubstantial,” but churches are free to hold this rule in contempt because “insubstantial” isn’t defined, so the IRS finds it difficult to hold them accountable even if it had the will and a Congressional mandate to do so.

(5) Churches and church-run organizations get preferential treatment in regard to how they treat their employees. A church can fire you for holding the wrong religious beliefs, political alliances, or moral values. It can also deny you insurance benefits for birth control and abortion and, conceivably, for blood transfusions in the case of Jehovah's Witnesses and psychiatric counseling in the case of Scientologists, etc. Now, Christians who own businesses that are in no way connected to a church are claiming the same privileges in the name of religious freedom.

(6) Church leaders have long been given preferential treatment in criminal investigations, which is partly why child molestation by clergy is hard to prove. Another grave problem is that Catholic leaders commonly use the 700-year-old doctrine of “mental reservation” to justify lying to investigators.

(7) Christian lying in matters pertaining to state-church separation is so common as to be expected. For example, in 1964, a 51-foot cross was erected atop Skinner Butte Park, a public park adjacent to downtown Eugene, Oregon, where I live. In 1969, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the cross violated both the state and federal constitutions in that it represented government endorsement of the Christian religion. In 1970, the city held an election in which the cross was designated “a memorial to the veterans of all wars in which the United States has participated,” despite the fact that the cross hadn’t been intended as a war memorial, or that non-Christian veterans would no more want to be represented by a cross than Christian veterans would want to be represented by the Star of David. The cross was finally removed in 1997, 28 years after the Supreme Court ruling. Such cases happen again and again and again, year after year after year. The fact that so many Christians find it so easy to lie so blatantly about matters that don't even pass the straight-face-test, serve as a major reason for my distrust of Christian morality.

(8) Many state governments favor the church. For example, Mississippi recently passed Senate Bill 2633 which requires schools to provide for prayer in classes and at school events. It also passed Senate Bill 2681, which requires that “In God We Trust” be put on the 216-year-old state seal, and that legalizes discrimination against homosexuals—or anyone else—in the name of religion. Mississippi doesn’t appear to care that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out school prayer in 1962 and that various federal laws prohibit either government or private enterprise from favoring some groups over other groups. For example, you can’t legally give discounts to those who bring their church bulletins to your restaurant on Sunday, nor can you refuse to rent an apartment to atheists or gay people. Unfortunately, such laws are commonly and openly ignored, particularly in the Bible Belt, and if you complain, you can expect your job, your property, your friendships, your person, and even your pets, to be at risk.

(9) Mississippi’s Senate Bill 2681 was named The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because religious people commonly regard any and all limits on their ability to force their religion on others as being a violation of their own freedom. When I was a boy in Mississippi, Scripture was used to deny accommodations for black people with the result that it could be difficult for a black person to find a place to eat, sleep, or use the toilet. The bigotry continues, only the faces of the oppressed have changed. I could give similar examples of laws from other Southern states, laws that are clearly meant to reward those whom the state considers desirable (Christians) while punishing those it considers undesirable (the rest of us). I think it likely that most politicians would agree with the first president Bush: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots.”

(10) The church as a whole has consistently opposed the expansion of human rights. This was true when Native Americans were being forced onto reservations, and it was true during the time of slavery, integration, workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, Japanese internment, and the social reforms of the New Deal. It was and still is true in regard to the modern feminist movement, health care reform, abortion rights, homosexual rights, marijuana reform, and assisted suicide. Although some believers have been at the forefront of the struggle for human rights, religion as a whole has ever and always been dragged in the direction of freedom and knowledge while screaming Bible verses to support its ignorance and oppression. After all, the Bible abounds with verses that support genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism; and although it is silent on abortion, workers’ rights, euthanasia, assisted suicide, health care reform, the rights of children, and other advancements that didn’t exist when it was written; in America, at least, the church as a whole has never hesitated to claim that God opposed these advancements. 

(11) Where religion goes, so goes poverty, disease, crime, and ignorance. This can be seen by comparing the quality of life standards among religious versus non-religious countries as well as among religious versus non-religious states. I will grant that the presence of religion in an area that is crime-ridden and impoverished—aka the Bible Belt in this country—does not in itself prove that religion is the cause of these problems, but surely states in which the majority of the populace considers Christianity to be of major importance in their lives and who believe that they are under the personal guidance of God’s Holy Spirit should be able to get something right from time to time, that is if religion really is a salutary influence. Unfortunately, their contributions to world betterment are primarily limited to: sanitizing history textbooks; restricting labor unions; erecting religious monuments on government property; passing laws that force abortion clinics out of business; making sure that every public school student gets a free Bible; praying to Jesus at any and all public events; forcing biology teachers to teach “Intelligent Design”; gerrymandering voting districts in favor of Republicans; passing voting laws in favor of Republicans; trampling the rights of homosexuals and non-Christians; reducing or eliminating government benefits to the poor and disabled; and passing laws against passing laws that limit how much fat and sugar burger joints can put in their products. Those who favor such measures invariably consider Jesus and themselves to be on the same page about these and every other public issue. 

For every example of religious bullying I have given in this post, I could have given scores of others, but how many does one need to be convinced that the dominant political face of American Christianity isn’t dedicated to loving ones neighbors but to controlling them? As with Moslems who favor Sharia law, it is a form of Christianity that aims to curry God’s favor through purification, and the purification of the masses can only be conducted through intimidation, coercion, and violence. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me,” and millions of his American followers have taken such divisive verses to heart at the expense of his more salutary sentiments. Oddly enough, American Christianity seems unaware that its own values have changed radically over the last several decades. When I was a boy—in the ‘50s and ‘60s—many if not most Christians believed that divorced people were unfit to teach or preach; that God opposed racial mixing (much less interracial marriage); that a Catholic president would do whatever the pope ordered; that it was appropriate to refer to people born out of wedlock as bastards their whole lives through; and that the Bible forbade gambling, tattoos, and anything that was sexually explicit. They used Scripture to prove that blacks were inferior to whites, that homosexual sex should be a felony, and that women shouldn’t wear a man’s pants or take a man’s job. It might be claimed that America’s God is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” but his values and demands have changed radically over the decades, especially as they affect behaviors that younger Christians regard as acceptable.

The current political and social climate is a mixed bag for atheists. On the one hand, religion is becoming increasingly allied with government, but on the other, the population as a whole is becoming increasingly secular. As I see it, the reason that American Christianity has become more militant since the attack on 9/11 and the election of a black president with an un-American and un-Christian name, is precisely because of its decreasing popular support. I wish I could say that we’re seeing its death throes, but the religious climate can change rapidly and dramatically. If global warming should continue to cause crop failures, massive forest fires, and frequent large storms of one kind or another; or if terrorists come up with more devastating ways to attack us; or if tension with Russia or China becomes a serious threat; maybe we’ll go back to the hyper-religious McCarthy era. I’ve seen enough changes occur at such a fast and unexpected rate that I don’t trust anything to last or to be predictable, whether its for good or ill.

My career

You might think that nineteen years of formal education would have qualified me for the labor market, but, alas, you would be overlooking the three years I flunked high school, my alienation from society, my ignorance of what I wanted to do, my conclusion that most employers are assholes, my parents’ belief that failure represented my best effort, and my belief that every job I ever had was beneath me. Fortunately, I married Peggy, a woman who is steady, stable, dependable, behaves professionally, and acts sensibly; in short a person whom employers trust and fellow workers respect. Since I’ve known her, she has worked in lowly positions at a pizza parlor and a fried chicken franchise. She also worked as a bridal consultant at a jewelry store and taught high school math and science, but spent most of her working years as a registered nurse, a job from which she plans to retire altogether on July 4 after having worked part time for many years.

I, meanwhile—since we married in 1971—have been an undertaker, an ambulance driver, an inhalation therapy technician, a phlebotomist, a department store clerk, an elementary school teacher, a handyman, a remodeler, and a mechanic’s helper in a Jaguar repair shop. Some of these jobs only lasted a few months. The teaching job lasted four years (I resigned following a yearlong dispute over a beard I had grown the previous summer and refused to shave), and others continued off-and-on for more than a decade because I either didn’t want to work fulltime or I went from employer to employer. The most I ever made in a year was $8,166 (which was very little even then), and that was when I taught school in Mississippi. It was the last job I held which was both fulltime and intended to be permanent. It ended in 1977.

My primary job since then has been that of houseperson for Peggy and me, a term that—for lack of a better one—I will use for purposes of this post, although it falls short of describing my duties because I also (with the help of my father) built one of our four houses, did considerable work on two others, and maintained them all including the land they occupied, which, in one case, was eight acres. I’ve also been responsible for maintenance on whatever two vehicles we owned (doing most of the work myself), handling our investments and other business affairs, doing our shopping (except for Peggy’s clothes), paying our bills, and so forth. Peggy has worked hard as a nurse, but once she left for the day, she was completely free, even on her days off.

There being no word that describes the scope of my work, I used to tell those who asked What do you do? that I did everything on the homefront except balance the check-book and fill-out the income tax form. This was literally true until Peggy started cutting back her hours and consequently took on a little more of the domestic chores. Most notably, she usually cooks supper now, cooking never being something that I enjoyed with the exception of soups, breads, and crackers. Even so, she still doesn’t know how to do laundry, find her way to the supermarket, run a credit card through a scanner, or do a great many simple things on a computer, and she resists my efforts to teach her.

Peggy has always liked having a houseperson, but the response from others has been uneven. My mother called her my meal-ticket, and others have also implied—if not stated—that I was little better than a gigolo. From the other side, many women have asked Peggy (usually while looking longingly at me) if they could borrow me for awhile, and they meant it as a compliment, it being abundantly clear to anyone with an open mind that we have adequate wealth without either of us having to work all that hard, and that I regularly do—or at least did—work that might very well have cost more than her yearly earnings if she were to hire it done. Unfortunately, society as a whole holds the occupation of househusband in lower esteem than any other job, which is to say it is viewed with contempt. According to every survey I’ve ever seen, my job—and my atheism—have each caused me to be more scorned than if I were a homosexual, a drug addict, a pedophile, a Communist, a Moslem, an illegal immigrant, a person of color, homeless, or morbidly obese. As a result, I tend to imagine that people either hate me or will come to hate me once I tell them about myself. If anything, this causes me to tell them sooner rather than later. I’ve been advised that if I were less open less quickly, people would see what a splendid person I am and be better able to bear what they perceive as my faults when they later learned of them, but since it hurts more to be rejected by someone I’ve come to like than by someone I don’t know, I seldom follow this advice.

Various natural traits make me a good houseperson. For example, I work well with my hands, learn well from books, and have a long history of working as a tradesman, so there are few jobs I won’t tackle. I’m so clean and organized that some consider me neurotic (given that my accusers are invariably slobs, I would argue that the neurosis is on the other foot). I also have an above average ability to anticipate other people’s needs, and I’ve spent years perfecting this ability for Peggy. I wash her glasses, kill her spiders, bring her slippers, turn down her covers, organize her closets and drawers, open her mail and lay it out neatly, hand her a towel when she dries her hands, give her the best of whatever food we’re sharing, move cut flowers to whatever room she’s in, and so on. Few people have jobs that they perform with such love as I perform mine. My work has had the effect of making Peggy my raison d'ĂȘtre to an extent that she cannot reciprocate. Her contribution to my welfare is surely more important than my contribution to hers (the primacy of food trumping even that of clean laundry and unclogged drains), but it isn’t direct and personal. She’s my wife, my best friend, my career, and, to a degree, my employer. Except for my writing, reading, and a few academic interests, nearly everything that I am and do is oriented toward her. The downside of this is that I would find life without her to lack purpose, and she would find it hard to function without me. I’m forever trying to teach her one thing or another so as to lighten her burden in case I should die first, but she is remarkably resistant, partly because she’s a procrastinator and a bit lazy regarding things she doesn’t want to do, and partly because she doesn’t want to acknowledge my mortality.