Why The Good Guys Can't Win: A Sort of Sermon
Then as luck would have it, today when I was moving my car to avoid the street cleaners, I chanced to hear an NPR interview with Karen Armstrong, the pan-religionist ex-nun who has written bestselling books on Buddha, Muhammad (her spelling), The History of God (relations between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and a bunch of others. Her new book is about looking at how religious traditions in what is apparently called the “Axial Age” all developed prophets that said, in essence, “Forget religion and embrace compassion”—people like Buddha, Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, Confucius, Mohammed, Lao-Tse (the Taoism guy), and Socrates. (And they didn’t get to it, but I assume when she’s talking about Buddhism, she’s talking about the later development of Mahayana Buddhism, “the wide path” that accepts many styles, not Hinayana, which I seem to recall is more obsessed with maintaining tradition.) Karen’s ultimate argument should surprise no one: we need to get back to these original voices of compassion and unity, and avoid all the traditions that divide us!
Having these two idealists echoing in my head has inspired me to make an assertion that I wish more people realized: It’s never gonna happen. Bad religion drives out good religion, and the forces of human history always tend toward suckiness.
Let me start by taking on Street Prophets. It’s all very well to want to combat the ugliness of evangelical Christianity in the media. Any good person would desire this. But the raw fact is that you can’t really oppose evangelical Christianity with open-mindedness. Evangelical Christians think they are the only REAL Christians. To “share” Christianity with other traditions would destroy their very reason for being—they are nothing if not the best, most truthful, most committed form of real Christianity. The only way they’ll ever share the name “Christian” with another group is if they profit from it—by saying, for example, “Christians everywhere are upset about stem cell research” and hoping that the casual listener will assume this includes mainstream Episcopalians, liberal Catholics, and every good person of a Christian-shaped faith—when really it’s only a concern for evangelical Christians and their literalist sectarian colleagues: the Mormons, The Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the like.
It’s like being in a relationship and having an argument about, say, how to raise the kids. In any such argument, the person who cares more always wins. (“Fine–if it matters so much to you, we’ll just raise them Jewish.”) And no one cares more about defining Christianity than evangelical Christians. Their god may seem nice in public, but in the back of every evangelical’s mind they know that God punishes disobeying nations and sends all unbelievers to a very literal hell—and only evangelicals really “get” this, and if they don’t spread the word the entire world is lost. What’s more, they are presented on all sides with actual scientific facts—about evolution, about physics, about the history of the Bible—that call all their dearest claims into question, and their only defense is to get out the megaphones and try to shout the world down, insisting repeatedly that what they believe really is true, and who cares about experts and scientists? By contrast, the God of liberal Christianity isn’t vengeful, doesn’t damn people, and accepts pretty much all of modern knowledge, and therefore provides neither sufficient fear nor cultural resentment to energize their adherents. There are good fighters in this war, as I will explain later, but they won’t come from any liberal church that seeks reasoned dialogue. Reasoned dialogue doesn’t make good TV.
Which is why I’ve decided I don’t like Karen Armstrong. I’ve mentioned in the past that I really like nice, life-affirming people from all religions who embrace compassion and ignore everything hateful in their traditions as well as others. (Because every tradition contains something hateful, with the possible exception of Taoism.) But there’s a limit, and Karen Armstrong seems to have slipped into dangerous foolishness when she suggests that we all need to return to compassion and that “real” Christianity isn’t what evangelicals practice, and “real” Islam is a religion of peace, etc. It’s as disingenous as evangelical Christians are when they say “real” Christians don’t ordain women. (“But what about the Presbyterian Church?” “They’re not real Christians.”) It’s often called the No True Scotsman fallacy, and open-hearted religious types use it all the time to talk about the joys of “real” religion instead of diagnosing the religion that real people actually practice.
Islam is a particularly painful case in point. There are so many Muslims in the world, of course most of them are entirely peaceful, for the simple reason that most people prefer to live peaceful lives. Most are probably culturally Muslim the way other people are culturally Buddhist or culturally Christian: people who believe you should live your life and try to do what’s right, but ignore anything in the religion that seems outright crazy. But the fundamentalist wing in Islam is armed and militant. Is there anyone from the moderate or liberal wing in Islam who’s willing to stand up with a machine gun and shout, “ISLAM IS A RELIGION OF TOLERANCE, DAMMIT!” Of course not. And so the moderates lose. The worse your conservatives are, the more powerless the liberals become. And I hate to say it, but the only way forward is for Muslims to abandon their myths the way Jews abandoned theirs. No, the Koran was not dictated by God, and textual criticism proves it. There were no Seven Sleepers at Ephesus who survived in a cave for a hundred and eighty years. No, slavery is not a good thing. (Tell that to St. Paul, too, you Christians!) And I honestly don’t see any way out of our current crisis that doesn’t start with even more cultural humiliation for Muslims—sort of like the black eye fundamentalists got at the Scopes Monkey Trial—but I think it would be better if this humiliation could be ascribed to impersonal science rather than Western imperialism. But that’s a whole nother essay.
But before I dig myself into too deep a hole, I should add that I’m not just picking on Islam here. It’s the West in general. I think it’s scientifically provable that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three most dangerous religions anyone ever wrote down. If, as Malise Ruthven asserts, fundamentalism is “an attempt to read myth into history” (i.e. to take scripture literally), then Judaism gives the fundamentalist reader every reason to assume that God wants the Jews to possess Israel no matter how many women and children have to die; Christianity suggests quite naturally that Jews are going to hell and want to be blamed for Jesus’ death, and that there’s literally no value in doing anything but converting other people; and Islam demands the establishment of a form of government that violates all kinds of basic civil rights. Other religions don’t have this particular problem—I can’t even imagine what a fundamentalist Taoist would look like—but to be fair to evil Hindus and Buddhists, there isn’t a religion in the world whose conservatives treat women with equality.
I guess this is what annoys me most about the Karen Armstrongs of the world. The pious cant from the lazier religious liberals is that “all religions are of value” and, in a related thought, “science and religion don’t conflict; they simply occupy different spheres of human experience.” In fact, I first found myself irritated by Armstrong when, in The Battle For God, she claimed that the mistake fundamentalists make is that they confuse Science with Myth. The Creation Story, she said today, was never intended to be taken literally—it was a religious meditation on the value of human life.
I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. Religion has always tried to explain things. It is always in conflict with science, because science always has better tools, provable theories, and hence a better explanation, and that's why science has constantly made religion retreat. It's not a regrettable accident of history---it's the inevitable result of having conflicting theories. The only religion that would never conflict with science would be one that made extremely modest claims—that God is unmeasurable, doesn’t do miracles or answer prayers, and only fills in the parts of the human experience that science can’t explain. This is a god of the gaps who gets tinier every year. Anyone want to sign up for that tiny-ass religion? I didn't think so.
As for the claim that “all religions are of value," this only makes sense if you believe, basically, “The purpose of every religion is to teach compassion, and everything besides that is expendable.” Which would seem to suggest that you don’t really need religion at all, do you? Be compassionate, and save your Sundays for something more fun than sitting on a wooden bench. In this respect, I think fundamentalists are right: if you don't take the Bible literally, and you're not an atheist or an agnostic, you're just kidding yourself. The Bible never intended to be a bunch of pious stories you could ignore if you wanted. If it's true, then science is wrong; if it's not, there are a thousand books that are smarter, wiser, and better written. Read those.
Anyway, when it comes to fighting the conservative stranglehold on Christianity in the media, I have a different idea: First, educate the media—forcefully and repeatedly—to distinguish between “Christianity” and “evangelical Christianity.” If every time someone called themselves a Christian, some reporter would ask, “Do you mean that you think everyone should convert to Christianity if they want to avoid hell?” we’d know a hell of a lot more about their form of Christianity than we do now. If every time Bush said, “Islam is a great religion,” someone asked him, “So are you saying that Muslims aren’t going to hell, even though the Bible seems to suggest otherwise?” he’d have to either put up or shut up: sound like a reasonable, loving human being, or cater to the assholes in his religious base. If people really knew what evangelical Christians actually believe—and especially the things they’re embarrassed to admit they believe—they’d be a lot less popular than they are. (The worst thing about evangelical Christians is that they don’t even really believe in democracy—they only want a democracy where everyone agrees with their interpretation of the Bible so no one sins and then God rewards the virtuous finally-Christian nation with prosperity. This is precisely why evangelical politics should be fought so relentlessly. But of course that’s another whole essay as well.)
Second, you can’t combat bad religion with good religion, because bad religion lies, appeals to ugly human instincts (avodance of fear, lust for cultural power, etc.), and can’t be trusted to fight fair. But you CAN combat bad religion with an equally passionate and militant humanism. I want to see bumper stickers that say, “Religion was made for man, not man for religion—Jesus” and “Get your religion away from my freedom,” and “Happiness—it’s not just a good idea; it’s constitutional,” and “One democracy under as many gods as people want.” In fact, let’s dust off Thomas Jefferson and, with him, declare “eternal emnity against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” You can’t fight “God wants everyone to be Christian!” with a cry of “God is more complicated than that!” But you can definitely say, “Your form of religion is dangerous and get the fuck away from me with your fear-mongering, anti-democracy God.” And I hate to say it, but if it came down to a fight, I’d be willing to pick up a gun to defend myself. I can tolerate everyone except someone who wants to silence me.