Monday, June 1, 2015

Religion is not the problem – a reprise

For some time now I’ve been trying to find words to explain how I view the place of religion in modern times, particularly in regard to the rights of gay and lesbian people to dignity and equality before the law.  In reading over what I have written the past few years I have to laugh at how I seem to alternate between outrage and dismissal.  I seem to run back and forth like a headless chicken between defining religion as a force for evil and seeing it as largely irrelevant.  Some time ago (August 2014) I titled a thought piece Religion is not the problem.  All the while banging on in the belief that religion can be toxic, and that Steven Weinberg hit the nail on the head when he said,

Religion is an insult to human dignity.  With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

It's not that the truth is in the middle.  It's that how you see religion depends on how you define it. Turn it one way and it is clearly toxic.  Turn it another and it is benign.  I'm my own collection of blind men and religion is my elephant.  

That said, here's what I've been thinking about lately on the topic: 

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When you hear about the quest for gay rights in America, often the struggle is described as one between a battle between God's word and the willful self-centeredness of the wicked.  Or, to view it from the other side, between a retrograde religion-based homophobia and a secular humanist notion of individual freedom.   Both sides buy into the notion it's all about religion.  Right-wing homophobes routinely frame the arguments against homosexuality in terms of sin.  Gays can only “get right with the Lord” by renouncing their homosexual ways and becoming heterosexual – or if that is beyond them, at least becoming celibate.   Even when they frame it in terms of the "destruction of civilization," what they mean is the destruction of God's plan for civilization.  Now that homophobia has become a bad word, most religious groups insist they are not homophobic at all.  They are merely trying to do God’s will, they tell you.  Which appears to be that you can look, but you can’t touch (conveniently ignoring Jesus’s claim that if you lust after someone you’ve already committed adultery.)

This claim that homosexuality is an insult to religion and to God is based on a false dichotomy. The cultural struggle is not between religion on the one hand and secularism on the other.  Increasingly, non-LGBT people of a religious orientation are throwing their support behind their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, some just barely, others with unabashed enthusiasm.  Where the groups stand along this spectrum can be seen from their stance on same-sex marriage.  To start with the Protestants, a "low enthusiasm" example is the Episcopal Church, which blesses same-sex relationships and sanctions their union, but will not marry gay people in most cases.  At the same time, however,  twelve years ago they installed a non-celibate gay man as bishop in Vermont and more recently, in 2009, a lesbian became a suffragan bishop in Los Angeles.  Other mainstream Protestant Churches represent the full embrace end of the spectrum.   The United Church of Christ, The Unitarian/Universalists, the Quakers, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Presbyterians all sanction same-sex marriage and welcome lesbians and gays into membership without reservation.  Lutherans have appointed gay bishops and priests in Sweden and in Germany, and the first gay bishop was appointed to the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in California in 2013.  If someone tells you Christianity and homosexuality are incompatible, they are making the mistake of claiming they are Christians and Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Quakers are others are not.

Anti-gay sentiment comes from such Protestant groups as the Baptists, both American Baptists and Southern Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and Pentecostalists.  Opposition to gays is not universal, however, even among these groups, as attested to by the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a group started in San Jose, California in the 90s which has taken a pro-gay stance.

Just as Lutherans are divided on this issue, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) representing a conservative (anti-gay) view, and the ELCA representing a progressive view, the Roman Catholic Church can be seen as a barbell with “cultural Catholics,” centrists and others in the middle who don’t ask questions, and two critical masses taking opposite positions.  On one side are those who insist only the pope and the hierarchy may speak about doctrine with authority; on the other are those who follow their conscience and routinely turn a blind eye to the dictates of their supposed leaders.  The difference, of course, is that the LCMS does not claim to speak for the whole Lutheran body of believers, while Catholics on the right maintain they have an infallible right to speak for God.    Any survey of Catholic attitudes, whether on birth control, same-sex relations, acceptance of divorced persons, and stem-cell research, to name the chief flash points within the church, reveals the weakness of that assertion.  Most Catholics, in America at least, show up on polls to be more progressive than most of their countrymen on social issues, well ahead of the average.

American Jews are similarly divided.  Orthodox groups are in opposition to same-sex marriage; Conservative and Reform Jewish groups are in favor.

Muslims are known round the world to be virulently anti-gay.  Only in three Muslim countries do as many as 10% of the population find homosexuality morally acceptable – Uganda, Mozambique and Bangladesh.  Ten Muslim countries impose the death penalty.  A Saudi Ministry of Education textbook from  2007-8 advocates burning gays to death or throwing them from cliffs and tall buildings.  Iran has executed over 4000 homosexuals since the advent of the Islamic Revolution.    In Lebanon, on the other hand, polls show younger people are displaying the same patterns of greater acceptance of gays and lesbians as elsewhere in the world, with 27% of those under 30 saying homosexuality should be accepted.  That figure is deceptive, of course, since Muslims are not distinguished from non-Muslims in this poll.  Nor, I should point out, are “religious Muslims” distinguished from those who are non-religious and more accurately identified as “culturally” Muslim, a distinction difficult to make in countries where identifying oneself as non-religious can cost one one’s freedom, or even one’s life.   Once they leave their more restrictive places of origin, they tend to take on the cultural values of their new home.  In Germany, for example, a number of feminist women have emerged, still identifying themselves as Muslims - even religious, and not merely cultural Muslims - seeking to reform their faith from within.  I'm thinking of Necla Kelek and Seyran Ates, in particular.  It's an uphill climb, but their presence shows the potential is there.

The point is there is no foundation for the claim that gays are hostile to “religion.”  The claim is a category error.  A more accurate category line would run between those open to change and those holding fast to tradition for the sake of tradition.  The labels commonly applied to these two groups are liberal/progressive and traditional/conservative respectively.  As is often the case, the labels fail to capture the full complexity, since both groups wish to conserve some things and change others.  I prefer the terms open and closed.

The closed church focuses on who’s in and who’s out, who are sinners and who are saved.  The open church tends to cite the “judge not, lest ye be judged” passage.  The closed church is driven to impose law and order (God’s will as they insist they know it); the open church focuses on compassion, mercy, understanding, forgiveness and leaves the punishment, if any is due, to God. The closed church insists those in the open camp are not legitimate believers.  The open church bewails the fact that the closed church worships the golden calf of literalism and misses the message of inclusion.  The closed church walls itself from error.  The open church is by nature ecumenical and seeks to tear walls down.

I’ve been reading a lot of analysis of the Irish Referendum on May 22 in which the Irish voted 62% to 38% to amend their constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry.  It's worth noting that the preamble to this 1937 constitution, still in effect, begins:

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,
We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial…

Ireland has always been seen as one of the most catholic countries on the planet. The church still controls all the public schools, and as recently as 2011, 84.2% of the Irish Republic still identified themselves as Catholics.  Only women who had the means to travel to England had access to abortion until recently and children of mixed marriages had to be brought up Catholic, according to the Ne Temere policy  dictated by the church in 1907 and in effect until 1970.  The 1937 Constitution also made divorce illegal, a ban appealed only in 1996. 

The Catholics of Ireland, like Catholics everywhere, had long ignored the ban on contraception, but the in-your-face figure of 62% sounded to many like the death-knell of the Church in Ireland. 

I doubt it's the death-knell.  A knock-out blow, to be sure, but it’s premature, I think, to claim that the Irish Catholic Church no longer speaks with authority on matters of morality.  I think what is going on is that the Irish who still identify with the church, a number much smaller than in previous years, but still significant, apparently, are now increasingly identifying with the open church, and no longer with the discredited closed one.  They have not become atheists overnight.  They have simply recognized that their leaders have made themselves largely irrelevant.  It’s not just the irreligious who voted for gay rights.  It’s the open-minded folk of Ireland.

Something similar is happening in Australia.  According to the 2011 census, just over a quarter of the Australian population identifies as Catholic, only slightly more than those who identify with no religion.  But they are faced with a scandal of huge proportions that will no doubt lead many Australian Catholics to lose faith, if not in their religion, certainly in their official church.  First off, it is headed by the Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, a man who has been identified as heavily involved in cover-ups of child abuse.  A great enabler.  Just last night the story of Pell’s decision to throw victims of priest abuse under a bus and save the institution – a classical move on the part of the closed faction of the church – was featured on Australia’s 60 Minutes program, available here.  

By using the open to closed scale, rather than the religious to non-religious scale, you can see why it is that people who see religion in terms of poetry, metaphor and inspiration, and something to center one’s life around, outside the realm of science and evidence-based truth – the open sort, in other words  ­­­– tend to get along with people of other religions and no religion at all (provided they too are open).  And you can see how it is that the clerics and their allies among the Catholics can team up with groups like the Mormons on things like Proposition 8 in California, despite each group’s oft-expressed conviction the other group is going straight to hell.  They are simply two closed groups being practical about shutting down a common outsider.
Evangelicals, like Mormons and Muslims and hierarchy-based Catholics, are, for all their claims to have “seen the light” just another closed group.  Like the Catholic priests unable to deal with sexuality except to deny it, because that’s what their closed system demands, Evangelicals are notorious for producing one sexual hypocrite after another, many of whom go down in flames after representing themselves as models of virtue – precisely because their closed system forces them into denial about their problems, whether that problem is with sex or some form of addiction.  A particularly tragic case recently was the Duggar family.  They began by representing themselves as the model Christian family.  God, we are told, had dictated that they should have “19 children (and counting?)” and Josh, the oldest son would find his way onto the so-called Family Research Council, an organization whose purpose it is to hold back the rights of LGBT people.  The FRC has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate-group.  The problem is not so much his homophobia as his hypocrisy.  While his mother was campaigning against the rights of trans-gendered people to use gender-appropriate rest rooms, claiming they would use the opportunity to abuse children, she knew that her own son, Josh, had sexually abused his sisters at a young age and she had covered it up.  The parallels to Archbishop Pell are obvious – in a closed system, one acts to protect the institution at the expense of the individual. 

The conflict between those on opposite sides of the open-closed axis is routinely described as a clash of cultural values, often as a war between Culture A and Culture B.  It’s really not a war.  It’s a reflection of a deep-seated disposition to adhere to authority on the one hand and to lift oneself out of the webs of self-deceit all cultures spin and all parents raise their children to embrace, on the other.  It’s not coincidental that church sexual scandals seem to happen more frequently among closed groups or that scandals are so common.  Today, it’s a Missouri Synod (read: conservative, more closed Lutheran than open Lutheran) preacher who is discovered to be trolling the gay sites for sex.  Tomorrow it will be another paragon of orthodox virtue – they have more at stake in trying to represent themselves as true believers, true followers, insiders who toe the line.   Careers will continue to be destroyed, and there will be pronouncements of the need for prayer and forgiveness from friends and condemnations to hell from others.
But for all the storm and the stress, religion is not the culprit, but rather just one of the fields of battle.

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