The God Syndrome: How the Puritans Destroyed Democracy

Would you buy a used car from this God?

Or share a beer with him?

Or marry him?

Or want him to be your dad?

Or run your company?

Or your country?

Well it depends.… What God are we talking about?

Ask “Do you believe in God?” in the U.S., and most people will say yes they do. (The current percentage ranges from 64% to 87% depending on how you tweak the question. See this Gallup poll.) Back in the postwar 1940’s through the 1960’s, the percentage was steady at around 97%. (See this Time Magazine summation.) But what God were those polls asking about?

  • The God of the Bible?
  • The God of “Christendom” — the loose amalgamation of European/American countries that had roots in The Church with a capital T and C?
  • Or are we talking about the God of this or that denomination, non-denominational parachurch, megachurch, lone-tree independent Bible church, living room Bible study, or men’s warrior weekend retreat?
  • Or can God just be some kind of mystical or transcendent spirit for the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd?
  • Or maybe a neighborly “Look, I’m kind of busy here, but okay, I’m not a religious person but yeah I think there’s a God”?

Baby Boomers like me grew up with a sort of Age of Enlightenment/ socially acceptable God. Miracles and taking the Bible literally had taken a hit back around the time the USA was declaring itself into existence. The Church survived thanks to its centuries-old institutional dominance and because people in the Western world still needed to believe in God to give meaning to their lives and structure to their societies. (Even Nietzsche worried that doing away with God would throw the human race into despair and anarchy.) As a result, God went with the flow, branching out like a river finding different courses that eventually take on prefixes like the “north fork,” “middle fork,” “south fork.”

One fork followed a course set in the late 1900’s by less conventional thinkers, who created a hybrid pseudo-scientific God that carried on the Age of Enlightenment preference for science and rationality while embracing the newly emerging social sciences, particularly psychology. That fork eventually drifted toward a more generalized “universal spirit” that became today’s “the Universe” as a God substitute.

The USA’s Roman Catholic loyalists and “mainline” Christian Protestant denominations hung onto ritualistic form while entertaining new substance. If church-going folk noticed, they were probably too busy to care:  from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, the human races’ addiction to periodic savagery kept the citizens busy alternately patriotically supporting wars and cleaning up their messes. While the theologians and academicians reinvented God, the people kept showing up on Sundays and putting cash and weekly “pledge” envelopes in the offering plates.

In time, Christians could be Christians without ever having read the Bible, society could still function, the march of progress could still charge ahead, and the average paycheck-earning, family-raising American could still belong to a religious institution that took care of weddings, babies, and burials without making too many demands on anybody’s personal piety. Christianity became nominal – an American birthright, like citizenship – which is why I could go to college in the 1970’s and ask my new roommate what church he went to – a routine part of making acquaintance. (“I’m Jewish,” he replied. Oh brave new world!)

But for some, all this rational humanistic scientific touchy-feely religion was a serious problem. They were the Remnant – the Bible-believing literalist true believers, the true sons of the Protestant Reformation and worthy descendants of their Puritan New World early adopter forebears. Mostly, they were carrying the torch lit long ago by a New England hellfire and brimstone evangelist named Jonathan Edwards who set off an anti-Age of Enlightenment insurgency known as the “First Great Awakening” in 1741 with his signature sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (The Second Great Awakening came a century later in a storm of tent revivals.)The Jonathan Edwards fork of the God flow gave us a steady supply and worldwide legacy of revivals, “church renewal” movements, Baptists and fundamentalists, early 20th Century tongue-speaking Pentecostals and the 60’s and 70’s Gifts of the Spirit “Charismatics,” and a whole host of fervency-generating events and movements that were big enough to be noticed but that mostly stayed around the edges of the mainstream.

And then a miracle happened.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the Remnant their stamped ticket to cultural dominance.

Along with belief in God, most Americans in 1973 believed that humans are “living souls” – each person an immortal divine personality placed in a mortal human body by the specific touch and intent of God. (A lot of Americans still believe that, it seems.) As a result, Roe v. Wade wasn’t about procreative biology, it was about the murder of God-given souls. The Remnant rose up in God-snorting fire-and-brimstone unity — the newly emerging Evangelicals morphed into the Christian Right, and God’s will became a political juggernaut.

All you really need to know about the Jonathan Edwards fork of the God flow is the signature title of his sermon. But consider also Edwards’ famous conclusion that “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

I.e., if God is in a mood to feel charitably inclined toward us, we’re good. But if not…. we’re toast.

Burnt toast.

Literally.

The Remnant’s God is the Biblical God, which the “Good Book” describes as…

  • A “man of war.”
  • When he goes to war, the objective is genocide — men, women, children — no survivors. Except for the women kept alive for the soldiers to rape.
  • He’s misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic.
  • He is a most emphatically a “He” – a male — an iron-fisted patriarch.
  • He rules as an obsolete authoritarian. He is answerable and accountable to no laws, no moral or ethical codes – to nothing and no one. What He says goes and if you don’t like it you die – or suffer for a long, long time… forever, actually.
  • He doesn’t just want to be revered and worshiped, he demands it.
  • He has absolutely the lowest opinion of both those who revere and serve him and those who don’t. He teaches them that they’re flawed from birth, that no matter what they do, they can never please him. Each of them is born under a sentence of condemnation. But He expects them to try to make Him happy anyway. Good luck with that.
  • He has planned the total destruction of the Earth and all its people, has the means to do so, and threatens to do so at any moment.
  • After He destroys everything, if you’re on his bad side – which nearly every is – your fate is to be tortured and tormented forever. Of all the billions of people who’ve ever lived, only a few will be exempt from this destiny.
  • And all of that is a good thing.

Oh, and did I mention that the Biblical God is merciful and kind, and that He loves us?

There’s more where all that came from – lots more – all of it from the Bible, the source code for the three “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Muslim). Christianity adds an addendum – the “New Testament” – which describes, among other things, how:

  • God arranged to have his “son” beaten, whipped, and tortured to death, even though he begged for mercy.
  • The purpose of which was to “save” the few “chosen” to “glorify” Him forever.
  • That was an expression of God’s “mere pleasure,” I guess.

The Remnant was created in this God’s image.

And it gets worse.

The Remnant has now become radicalized – turned into an armed cult, a belligerent, raucous, enraged mob ready, willing, eager, and able to do the bidding of the one they believe is God’s “Anointed” leader. Since the final year of the 2020 Presidential campaign through today, the Remnant has been openly at war with the USA’s democracy, intent on replacing it with their own fascist, authoritarian ideology, with the enthusiastic backing of their heroes in Congress and Commerce (the rise of the Christian Right perfectly coincided with the evangelistic overthrow of economics by the Friedman Free Marketers, giving us today’s Social Darwinist version of capitalism).

What we’re seeing is the Revenge of the Puritans.

The Founding Fathers convened in the context of the Jonathan Edwards vs. the Age of Enlightenment fight to the finish. They thought they had forged a new republic with appropriate safeguards to prevent the creation of the kind of God-sponsored theocracy their ancestors had escaped.

They were wrong.

If took nearly 250 years, but the Founders have finally lost. They can’t answer the Liberty Bell any more. It’s not just cracked, it’s been melted into swords along with the plowshares.

The Angry God and the Sinners in His Hands have overrun the gates of reason and science, ethics and the rule of law, all notions of community and “We the People,” and everything else in the Founders’ even-handed attempts at envisioning an enduring republic. They fawn over this God and his Anointed, reveling in his love and pleasure, carrying on as countlessothers have done for thousands of years, making sure that life is never anything other than solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

This God has been the face of Western Civilization for thousands of years — as long as written history – and still is. This God’s story is Western history — and not just Western history, but World history. And now, this God has entirely hijacked the USA’s history as well.

This God has poisoned the individual and collective minds of our entire species for so long that we can’t imagine life without Him.

This God is why the world’s dismal history keeps repeating itself.

We need to hold this God accountable. The trial would last an eternity. We don’t have time for it. We need to ban Him now, exile Him beyond discovery, beyond reclamation.

It will take time.

We have no time.

We need to get over this God. He has done unimaginable, incomprehensible damage to individual and collective lives for far too long. We need to write him out of our laws, our nations, our lives. We need to cleanse and detox our bodies and brains of Him.

The God Era needs to be over. We need to get over our God Syndrome.

We can’t imagine it.

We need to imagine it.

Because unless we banish this God, we cannot reinvent life to meet the challenges of the 21st Century and beyond. Because if our minds and cultures remain polluted and poisoned by our thoughts of this God and all the institutions and structures and… everything… the human race has created in His name from time immemorial… we will be unable to create anything other than in His image, as we have already done for millennia.

No of course there’s no hope that this could ever happen.

There needs to be hope that this could ever happen.

Because hope that it could ever happen is our only hope.

Beliefism [7]: When the Good News Isn’t

Quick review…

“Beliefism” refers to the dynamics of belief.

Belief promises it can do the impossible – actually do it, not just make you think it did.

Christianity and self-help take the same approach to doing the impossible – following advice that originally came from Jesus:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11:24 ESV

Believe, don’t doubt, believe it’s a done deal, and there it is – the impossible! What if it doesn’t work? Self-help’s answer is to keep trying — which usually means keep buying. Christianity says it’s because the impossible you wanted wasn’t God’s will.

 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. 1 John 5:14-15 ESV

Even Jesus didn’t get a free pass on that one.

We know the story, and it’s as horrible, gruesome, ugly, awful as it gets.

Jesus is about to be arrested, beaten, whipped, and tortured to death. He goes off to talk to God — his “Father” – to see if there’s a way out.

 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39 ESV

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.[a] Luke 22:39-44 ESV

Sweating blood? This is from healthline.com:

“Hematidrosis is an extremely rare condition in which you sweat blood. It’s also known as hematohidrosis and hemidrosis. It’s so rare that many people don’t know it exists or if it’s real. But sweating blood has been seen throughout history. The Bible mentions Jesus sweating blood while praying before the crucifixion. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about soldiers sweating blood before battle.

“While these may or may not have been real depictions, hematidrosis is a real condition. Blood sweat can occur on any surface of the body. The face and forehead are common locations.

“There isn’t much information available on hematidrosis. Because it’s so rare, it isn’t clearly understood. However, hematidrosis generally happens when a person feels intense fear or stress. Someone facing death may have this kind of fear or stress, for example. When you are under stress, your body goes into flight-or-fight mode.

“But in rare instances, the flight-or-fight response can trigger the rupture of capillaries in the body. Capillaries are tiny blood vessels located throughout tissue. They carry essential nutrients to different parts of the body. Capillaries are also located around the sweat glands. In cases of severe fear or stress, these tiny blood vessels can burst and cause blood to exit the body through the sweat glands.”

We know how it ends. God was committed to Jesus’s murder. He didn’t answer Jesus’s prayer.

Some Father….

Its gets worse.

Jesus is Christians’ model in all things. No surprise then, that the Bible chapter Christians often regard as definitive on the topic of faith (the book of Hebrews, in the Christian New Testament) teaches that not getting what you want is Christians’ highest achievement. It starts this way:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 ESV

This sounds familiar. We see the mountain, we want it to move, but it’s still sitting there, big and immoveable. As far as we can see, it hasn’t moved, but we have to believe, be convinced that it will.

Mind over matter.

The power of positive thinking.

The passage continues…

“And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6 ESV

To get something from God, first we need to believe in God. Okay, got that – seems pretty obvious. Then we need to believe God “rewards those who seek him.” Okay, got that too – that’s why we’re asking God for what we want.

And what are the rewards we can believe God will give us? The passage answers by listing faith heroes, and then we get these summaries of how God rewarded them:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two,[a] they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:35-40 ESV

Talk about bait and switch.

We just went from moving mountains to it’s a good thing to get mocked, flogged, chained, imprisoned, stoned, and sawn in two….

The Good News That Isn’t

I never saw this when I was a Christian. I knew all these passages of scripture, heard them taught over and over and over, but never did what I just did – never tried to follow the “do the impossible” line all the way through. If I had, I wouldn’t have done it the way I just did. I would have kept to the party line – I would have patched up the holes with all the rationales and explanations, all the convoluted theology, all the hack sermons, all the spin on why not getting the “reward” you want, why getting something horrible instead… is the “good news.”

I didn’t see that because Beliefism keeps you in the fold, keeps you close, keeps your mind from asking too many questions. But once you’re out, you can start to think again. You can wonder what was Jesus thinking when he said all that stuff about believing the impossible into existence? And what was I thinking when I spent years and years living in this failed reality? Obviously I wasn’t – thinking, that is — I was deluded, under the thrall of Beliefism.

I can’t blame Christianity and self-help, or the people who practice them. They are what they are. What made them toxic for me is that I believed. I put myself under Beliefism’s spell.

But those days are over. I don’t miss them. I don’t miss trying to do the impossible. I don’t miss Beliefism.

Requiesce in pace.

Beliefism [6]: Christianity and Self-Help Do The Impossible

I was a Christian for two and half decades and a self-helper for a few years after that. Both had the same source code for doing the impossible. Jesus was the original coder and pitchman:

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

This is classic mind over matter – or more accurately, heart over matter. Ask “Where’s your heart?” and most people would point to the place in your chest and throat where you feel strong emotion. The belief that moves mountains is something you feel strongly. Plus you need to not doubt. Doubt is when you switch the channel to your intellect and wonder if it’s really going to work. Finally, you have to believe that the thing you want “will come to pass.”

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11:24 ESV

That’s classic power of positive thinking – no surprise that self-help is all over it:  visualize, use “affirmations,” create vision boards, keep it fresh by buy buy buying more books, classes, seminars, and conferences, and if you’re really serious, hire a coach.

Jesus, on the other hand, preferred to ramp up the emotional commitment with inspirational stories about being persistent (the widow who pestered the judge, the guy who pestered his neighbor, etc.) and about going all in on your heartfelt ideas (the pearl merchant who sold his entire inventory to buy one perfect pearl).

Let’s give this a try.

One night a circuit-riding evangelist told our campus Christian group we could use all that believing in our hearts, not doubting, and believing we had already received it to heal anything we wanted. I was nearsighted. Next day I put my glasses in my pocket and sailed out across campus. People kept saying hi and I didn’t know who they were. I felt stupid and antisocial, and was getting a headache. I put my glasses back on.

When it Doesn’t Work

Beliefism’s response when the mountain doesn’t move is…

  • It’s all your fault.

You don’t have enough faith. You’re doubting. You don’t actually think it’s going to happen./

As in Jesus’s stories, belief only has one solution:  go deeper, further, invest more, take a bigger risk. Belief seeks its own perfection through the elimination of doubt — that’s why extreme belief always  ends up as fundamentalism. Once you’re in, you need to get further in, and you can’t look back and start questioning, because that would be doubt. Trouble is, if it didn’t work the first time, it’s probably not going to work the third or the thirtieth – you can double down, triple down, quadruple down, but nothing is ever enough. You’re trying to move a mountain – or walk across campus without your glasses – which is something you’ve never done before, and of course you’re going to be wondering if it’s going to work or not. But as soon as you start wondering, that’s doubt, and doubt means it’s over. So cover your ears and eyes and plunge forward.

Rewind, repeat.

How much faith do you need?

Jesus makes it sound like it shouldn’t have to be that much.

“For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”[a] Matthew 17:20 ESV

Most of us have never opened a package of mustard seeds to see what size they are, but we assume from the context that a mustard seed must be small, so when it comes to believing things, small is beautiful. That’s how this advice was rendered when I was a Christian.

Nothing like a little false consolation on Sunday morning.

Start talking about mustard seeds and now you’re trying to measure faith. Christians did that all the time. “I don’t have enough faith.” “I need to pray harder.” “I wish I had more faith.” “I need to stop doubting.” Things like that. It’s crazy-making.

One thing is sure:  the buck stops with you. If the thing you want doesn’t happen, you fail. You didn’t believe enough, you’re doubting, etc. etc.

But there is something else you might try….

Schmoozing the Old Man

“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” John 14:13 ESV

“Be sure to use my name when you ask my dad for stuff,” Jesus advises, “he likes that, because he likes to take the credit for what happens.” That advice is why Christians end prayers with “in Jesus’ name, amen.”

But wait… we started with Jesus saying we could tell themountain to move. Now we’re fussing about asking.

Read the fine print, I guess.

One of Jesus’s disciples refined it further:

 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. 1 John 5:14-15 ESV

So if we want to be confident – i.e., not doubt – we need to ask “according to his [God’s] will.” As a friend used to say, we need to ride the horse in the direction it’s already going. This is Belifism’s second response when the impossible doesn’t’ happen:

  • The thing you want has to be God’s will.

The impossible we want has to be something God already has in mind, otherwise it’s not going to happen. Even Jesus wasn’t couldn’t get a free pass on this one.

We’ll talk about that next time.

Beliefism [Part 4]: Believing is Seeing/ Belief Turns Toxic

Believe your way into a new reality – visualize it, set an intention, create a vision board… soon you’ll manifest it! You’ll get the mansion, the corner suite, the all-inclusive beach vacation! That’s how life works – it’s the law.

So goes the self-help gospel, and guess what? It works. Well sort of. The world does conform to what you believe. You actually do see what you believe. Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and there it is – right in front of you.

Only trouble is, it’s a self-validating loop. You are in fact seeing what you’re believing. And that’s a problem.

Behold Your Algorithm

Belief works like the Algorithm Gods. You shop something online, now it’s all over your feeds. You think, oh come on, that’s so obvious. But algorithms are dumb, they don’t know any better, they just crunch the data. You looked at some ads, you must want to see more, and never mind that you already bought it — algorithms are slow to get to message. Our brains process belief the same way – they’re fleshy lumps of responsiveness. Once you believe something, your brain is on it. Get interested in that car and it’s all you see on the road — it’s the same dynamic, except once you buy it, your brain is quicker to move on.

Join the Club

The Algorithm Gods offer up social media support to keep you focused and happy so you’ll tithe that five-star review. Our brains have been doing the same thing for a long, long time – long before the Algorithm Gods were a gleam in some techie’s eye, since the human race developed language about 150,000 years ago. You tell somebody what you believe, and their brain zips through the dummy algorithm belief thing, and now there’s two of you with neuropathways installed and running the same outlook on life. Then the two of you then share it with a bunch of other somebodies who share it with more, and soon everybody’s brains dutifully line up and you’ve got a group, team, tribe, cult…

When communal belief goes viral, it consolidates, strengthens its grip on all those brains. They share a similar outlook, which creates similar experience, which reinforces similar outlook, and around it goes. All that similar outlook and experience builds institutions, creates cultural norms, myths, and symbols. Now you’ve got law, government, economics, religion, literature, history….

The process is known as emergence:  what starts inside (as belief) takes on external shape; the word becomes flesh and dwells among us until we share worldview and reality. If you don’t see it the way the community does, it’s because you don’t believe. Change what you believe, and you’ll get with the program.

Beliefism 101

I was immersed (baptized – literally) into this communal belief dynamic when I went back to college after becoming a Christian during a gap year. At first I hung out with my old friends in party central, but it  was boring, listening to Led Zeppelin when everybody else was taking hits when the joint went around. So I hung out on my new dorm floor, which was not a party animal zoo, and we got busy doing the non-party things you do at college.

I’d see my new Christian friends at meetings, say hi around campus, sometimes join them for lunch… but before long I got the word:  I needed to be around more. I needed to stay “in fellowship,” needed to sit with the pack at meals, that sort of thing. I was new at the Christian gig, so I complied. I complied so well that pretty soon I’d been selected to be “discipled” by the leadership, so I could help take over and run the fellowship after they graduated.

That was the end of my new friends in my new dorm. My roommate was a nice guy from Iowa, a serious student who’d lived — , mostly as a spectator — in party central where I did the year before my gap year. After I got my calling into campus Christian leadership, I became the Christian Roommate From Hell – never around, always too tired from being up late every night “doing ministry,” nothing to talk about anymore, always doing something weird, apparently too uppity to hang out and do the usual dorm stuff. It never occurred to me to change course – my new Christian life was too important.

Sigh.

Beliefism is the same, no matter the object of belief.

What I experienced was communal belief in action – the power of a shared belief system to control thought and behavior – what I now call “beliefism.” I have since converted back out of Christianity, where I’ve learned that what I experienced back then would have been the same if I had joined a different belief system (such as the campus Communists, which my roommate accused me of doing). Beliefism readily swaps belief in this for belief in that — religion, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives, you name it, it’s all the same.

Beliefism also doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. Reason and discernment only enter the frame once beliefism has built its self-referential judgments about what is reality and how things really work – that’s when they get busy codifying what conforms and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish or eradicate. They also start keeping a list and naming names of who’s with the program and who isn’t, who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe, who’s us and who’s them.

Communal belief and its institutions manage entrances and exits, enforce conformity, and punish dissent, resulting in a special kind of brain shutdown known in other circles as “mind control” as “brain washing” – terms coined in the Korean War and developed in the Cold War, when American fingers pointed at China and the Commies because we’re the good guys and we would never do that! Yes we would. We do it all the time. It’s an everyday, worldwide experience – it’s what happens to the human brain and to human culture when we build individual and cultural identity around beliefs.

Brain Shutdown

Beliefism shuts down nonconforming brain activity. There are some places we just don’t go – they’re out of bounds, they don’t conform. We don’t see them because we don’t believe them. Our mental options are now limited – like what was going on in the mind of the street evangelist I heard once who made a pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” went his pitch, “so there must be a God who does.” That was his proof for the existence of God, and for Creationism. He could have understood the complicated universe if he took the time to learn the math and physics, but instead he took the shortcut:  he believed instead of knowing. But then beliefism led him to take another step:  he started knowing what he believed it was The Truth, with two capital T’s. His reality was True; the rest of us unsaved people waiting for buses needed to get clued in.

He wasn’t in possession of all that Truth and Reality, his brain was possessed by it – his brain was running it over the requisite neural pathways, supported by the requisite brain chemicals. That’s why he was certain that he knew something else the rest of us didn’t. Being a decent sort of a guy, since he was now in possession of the Real Reality Forever and Ever Amen, it was worth lugging his amp and microphone to the street corner across from the bus station to tell the rest of us about it. He was there on the street corner to help us out, because part of his pitch was that if we didn’t get it right, we’d all go to hell. But the good news was, all we needed to do was believe what he believed and we’d be good, no problem.

The Path to Toxic Belief

It’s not hard to see how belief’s mind control goes toxic. Beliefism runs in stealth mode:  we see the things we believe and all the doctrines, ideologies, societal structures, institutions, and practices that support it, but we don’t see beliefism at work. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine the worldview our beliefs have created, or how that worldview creates and sustains our world. Instead, we see the emergent reality and accept it as The Way Things Are, Forever and Ever Amen. We believe in the things we believe in until we know them. And when we know them, we defend and promote them, we become faithful believers, we become evangelists.

At that point, belief becomes ideology – honored and held sacred to the point where the risk/return matrix gets warped and passionate belief becomes mass delusion and unchecked ambition, where belief’s communal mind-control becomes way too powerful for its own good — a clear and present rolling on, gaining momentum because there’s nothing to check it, no outside reference, no commitment to an external ethical standard, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it except its own good opinion of itself. Belief-as-ideology consolidates its power, crowns itself with its own authority until we’re left with only what is belief-approved – the standard, authorized version.

That’s when belief takes its final shape as fundamentalism and fanaticism, committed to the eradication of its longtime nemesis doubt. Power becomes domination becomes oppression, and belief opposes, bans, shuns, shames, punishes, tortures, and murders doubters and unbelievers. It becomes nationalistic and militaristic, launches campaigns of domestic and international terrorism and genocide. The faithful march off on the Crusades. They seek the purity of the race. They drink the Kool-Aid. They storm the Capitol. They repeat history. They replay the western civilization biograph in the name of the western God. And they call it all “progress.”

And to think it all began as a release of brain feel-good hormones in satisfaction of an evolutionary survival urge to band together and share information. We needed that, all those 150,000 years ago. We still do. Which is why belief still gives usa sense of purpose and meaning and mission, still provides incentives and rewards, still makes us feel inspired and enthusiastic, fired us up to try to do great things.

But now this….

Continued next time.

Blueprint for Fascism Part 5

This series has been looking at fascism’s Biblical worldview and narrative. Last time, at the close of Part 4, I said we would look next at “Christianity’s claim that God and His genocidal directives don’t apply to New Testament religion.” On reflection, that topic is irrelevant to this series, so I’m going to wrap up without it.

I was showing my age. When I was part of evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, there was an assumed theodicy that the New Testament God had somehow superseded the Old – He was kinder and gentler, and so was the gospel. (“Theodicy means vindication of God. It is to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil, thus resolving the issue of the problem of evil.” Wikipedia) I was shown the door out of that world over 20 years ago. It took most of those years for me to get re-situated until I could say, “Hey, would you look at that – I’m an atheist now!” In the meantime, the world I left behind changed to the point where it no longer needed its kinder, gentler God and kinder, gentler gospel.

The churches I’d been associated with were only peripherally related to the rising new Christian Right, although in hindsight I can see that we were less peripheral than we wanted to think. The shift was already underway by the time I got out – it was a product of the times, moving in sync with the USA’s economic, political, and cultural shift. Under the new militant nationalist regime, the old theodicy was unnecessary.

I didn’t see this happening while it was going on around me. I think most of us didn’t. I’ve only become aware of it because about 4-5 years ago I realized that I didn’t know how life works any more, and started reading and writing to try to catch up. Because I was detached from the church, my worldview hadn’t moved with the times. I was on the outside looking in. I had become part of the new fascism’s Other and didn’t even know it.

As I tried to understand the brave new world I was now living in, I made the faulty assumption (one of many) that the Christianity I once knew was still the same, and therefore I couldn’t understand how it had suddenly rallied behind Trump and the Republicans and their new American fascism. Turns out there was nothing sudden about it, and the Christianity I’d left behind wasn’t the one that had done the rallying. But I didn’t notice, and that’s why I was about to write this Part 5 on a topic that wasn’t relevant.

Instead of doing that, I’ll end this series by referring you to an article I read just this weekend by someone I follow on Medium who has been paying attention: Dear Christians: We Need to Talk, by Manny Otiko Medium (Jan. 15, 2021). In addition, if you’re interested in generally learning more about the rise of the Christian Right, here’s a list of short histories told from a variety of viewpoints:

Christian right – Wikipedia.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right – POLITICO Magazine

Movements | Religious Right | Timeline | The Association of Religion Data Archives (thearda.com)

The Christian Right, The Twentieth Century, Divining America: Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center

Religion and Right-Wing Politics: How Evangelicals Reshaped Elections – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Blueprint for Fascism – Part 2

In this series, we’re looking at fascism’s Biblical roots. Last time, Part 1 distinguished worldview from ideology and began a list of fascism’s defining features. Let’s continue with the list.

Us vs. Them — Racism

Fascism thrives on identifying Us vs. Them. They look, talk, and act differently, follow different customs, traditions, and holidays, listen to different music and express themselves in different art forms. They are usually foreigners, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ[1] crowd, artists, intellectuals, and anybody else who’s not with you and is therefore against you. People of a different race are particularly easy to pick out of the not welcome crowd.

“American fascism… is a clear derivative of centuries of supremacy, slavery, and segregation. That old America never went anywhere, it seems — it was just hibernating. And now it’s back with a vengeance, seeking to reinstate something very much like the America it used to be. So where Islamic fascism is theofascism, American fascism is something subtly different: I’d call it proto-fascism.

“That means something like: ‘fascism before fascism’ or ‘the original fascism.’ I say that because the Nazis in fact both admired and studied America’s supremacist institutions — from Jim Crow to slavery to the elimination of personhood — and modeled their own new society after America’s lost one. So if America is reverting back to an older form of social organization, where whites lived above everyone else, where once they literally owned everyone else — who were the first fascists of all, the Nazis…or the Founding Fathers?

“I know that Americans won’t like to hear that. So go ahead and pick holes in it if you can. I have thought about it intently, and I have to concede, as much as I admire America, this logic appears to be immovable to me. Hence, I think what’s emerging in America is proto-fascism — the original variant, when settlers arrived on the shores of a Promised Land — and decided that it belonged only to them as masters and lords, hence everyone else already there was a subhuman, hence they needed slaves to till their fields.” [2]

Economics

Fascism thrives on economic inequality.

“America became the first rich country to collapse to the new wave of fascism. Why? Because it was the most capitalist country in the world. Capitalism implodes into fascism — inevitably. Why? Because capitalism concentrates capital among those who already own it, which starves labour of gains. That causes the middle class to crater, and inequality to spike. In their desperation and fear, the imploded middle begins to punch down, taking from the even more powerless what was promised to them — security, riches, stability, belonging, status. That sequence describes America perfectly, in hard empirical terms: the rich became ultra rich, but because they took more than 100% of the economy’s gains for decades, the middle class imploded. That fresh poverty produced a turn to a demagogue, who blamed everyone weaker for it — immigrants, refugees, foreigners, etcetera. The Trump voter isn’t the poor black — he’s the declining white.

“So the second half of America’s grim, weird collapse I’d describe as implosive fascism. Implosion of the middle, driven by economic stagnation, is a necessary feature of every fascist collapse — but it’s especially true in America.”[3]

Somebody’s got to pay for it, and rich supporters get richer through fascist cronyism. Meanwhile, the economically disadvantaged flock to fascism and support government policies that widen the inequality gap at their own expense. They do so for a lot of bizarre reasons,[4] but from a religious point of view, lifestyles of the rich and famous is their heavenly destiny — Heaven is where they’ve got a mansion waiting.[5]

Fascism’s Dismal Checklist

If we assemble the above together with the identifiers we saw in Part 1, we have guidelines for recognizing fascism.

Fascists prescribe simple fixes for complex problems.

  • It’s not an ideology, it’s a method, a system for thinking and doing.
  • Fascism feeds on grievances, identifies the enemies responsible, and sets the populace against them.
  • They take on the role of national saviors.
  • They expand their self-concept to the size of the state itself.
  • They subvert, discredit and eliminate societal and governmental institutions that defy or impair them.
  • They ascend to power through the ballot box and then undermine democracy from within.
  • They systematically eliminate opposition one small step at a time.
  • They attack the judiciary and the media.
  • They tell lies as the new truth, repeating them incessantly until they become the new truth, the new reality.
  • They denigrate science and academia.
  • They threaten political competitors and dissenters.
  • They foment bigotry and racism;
  • ,,,male dominance and misogyny;
  • …persecution of the LGBTQ community;
  • …stonewalls against immigrants and foreigners;
  • They praise autocrats and encourage worldwide drift to authoritarianism.
  • Fascism ascends in times of accelerated social and cultural upheaval.
  • …in the aftermath of demoralization and defeat;
  • …after great recessions and other forms of drastic economic displacement;
  • …during times of extreme economic inequality;
  • …in the waning stages of an economic miracle,
  • …when new artistic and creative forms are displacing the old standbys;
  • …when scientific developments offer shocking new perspective on the fabric of life and reality;
  • …when democratic institutions are unstable and the notion of “freedom” takes on new meaning;
  • …when there is widespread disorder;
  • …when a visceral, nostalgic appeal to tradition emerges.
  • Fascism promotes the heavy hand of authoritarianism, and a return to law and order.
  • Fascists promote extreme militaristic nationalism.
  • They use military marches and staged spectacles and rallies to stir up support.
  • They lionize the military and police.
  • They bully, abuse, threaten, intimidate, promote hostility, and encourage their followers to do likewise.
  • They belittle traditional heroes and societal role models of leadership.
  • They glamorize national history in ways that support their cause, and ignore national embarrassments, failures, weaknesses.
  • They adopt religious narratives and forge religious allegiances.
  • They equate national identity with divine purpose and chosen status.
  • They express contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism.
  • They endorse a natural social hierarchy that prizes social and economic elites.
  • They purport to support the vanishing and lost middle class, but only to the extent the middle class is willing to subordinate self-interest to the good of the nation.

But of course fascism doesn’t run off a checklist. (“Let’s see, how are we doing on bigotry today?”) The list entries are embedded in fascist culture. They are socially normative. They serve as measures of allegiance and duty. They create a narrative of how life works, is and ought to be, and maintain practices that support individual and collective compliance with that narrative.

Fascism’s Religious Narrative

Fascism’s narrative is as follows:

  • A utopian past when life was better and people were better off;
  • A fall from grace – a turning away instigated by the evil Them;
  • An awakened nostalgic and righteous yearning to restore lost utopia;
  • The need for a beneficent intervention – salvation – to get back to the good life;
  • The arrival on the scene of a savior, whose charisma commands a following;
  • The emergence of the congregation of the faithful – a chosen population of aggrieved victims transformed into the superior Us;
  • War and final judgment meted out on Them.[6]
  • The Golden Age of the victorious.

The Biblical narrative is everywhere in Western culture – from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to Yankee Stadium to the Capitol Building. And it explains fascism’s religious ties and obsession with holy war.

“Old fascism didn’t abhor ‘religion’ as much as we imagine. It was a deeply mystical exercise, steeped in its own mythology of sacred blood and divine…. A homeland of the pure, strong, and faithful. Cleansed of the weak and impure — who are dirty, filthy subhumans.

“A militant message broadcast by armies of demagogues…. Jihadis who took up the call. And destabilized society after society. By bombing and shooting up places where civilized and decent values were being enacted: hospitals, schools, festivals. Minorities targeted, jailed, imprisoned, hunted, eliminated. New institutions built — justice systems, law enforcement agencies, whole new kinds of morality police. Society finally reshaped in the image of the perfect and the pure and the strong.”

“Islamic fascism we might say is something like theo-fascism. It is explicitly ‘religious’ — and faith trumps nationhood. It isn’t mere ‘nationalism’ — its goal is something like a new caliphate, in the extreme, or at least a federation of united Islamic states, proudly clean and faithful.[7]

Mussolini – Fascism Christened

Mussolini gave “fascism” its name, which he took from an ancient Roman symbol.

“Fascism [is a] political ideology and mass movement that dominated many parts of central, southern, and eastern Europe between 1919 and 1945 and that also had adherents in western Europe, the United States, South Africa, Japan, Latin America, and the Middle East.

“Europe’s first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, took the name of his party from the Latin word fasces, which referred to a bundle of elm or birch rods (usually containing an ax) used as a symbol of penal authority in ancient Rome.

“Although fascist parties and movements differed significantly from one another, they had many characteristics in common, including extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites, and the desire to create a Volksgemeinschaft (German: ‘people’s community’), in which individual interests would be subordinated to the good of the nation.”[8]

Mussolini’s “Clerical Fascism” and Trump’s Christian Right Fascism

Fascism seizes power by degrading legitimate government and spurring the electorate to rally in patriotic mob scenes, celebrating their own political disempowerment. And then get God on your side. Mussolini rose to power 100 years ago on the strength of “clerical fascism.”[9] “Clerical” referred to Roman Catholic clergy whose interests were propounded by the Italian People’s Party[10], which later split over whether the church should overtly support fascism. Fascist Italy recognized Catholicism as its state religion. Mussolini’s defining rally was his March on Rome.[11] A hundred years after Mussolini, Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the Christian Right have followed the same historical blueprint.

Violence and “the Unthinkable”

What happens when fascism makes its move? As we saw last time, worldview resides with the most basic human impulses – where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[12] Fascism therefore asserts itself with crassness and brutality.

“What tends to happen is violence. Of a spectacular kind. War, atrocity, barbarity. Genocide. The unthinkable…. [T]here is only room for one master race, one Promised Land, one fatherland, one people who are the strongest and purest.”[13]

Violence? Check. Think of the Proud Boys. Think of Trump’s SS troops attaching citizens on city streets.

The unthinkable? Check. Thinks of Trump and the Republicans blatant all-out assault on the defining right of democracy – the citizens’ right to vote — everything from calling votes (only those against Trump) fraudulent to appeals for suspending the Constitution and imposing martial law.

And it all begins with a Biblical worldview.

The Fascist Bible

When I say “Bible,” I mean the Christian Bible. The first part is the “Old Testament” — God’s original deal with ancient Israel. The second part is the “New Testament” — God’s new deal that includes the “Gentiles” – the non-Jews. The second part is Jesus and post-Jesus, but since he was a Jew and it was mostly written by Jews, there’s a lot of carryover. Muslims and Jews buy into the parts of the Old Testament that include Abraham, so they and Christianity are called the “Abrahamic” religions. Therefore “Abrahamic worldview” could be substituted for “Biblical worldview.” It’s the same God in all three.

Extreme Nationalism

Extreme nationalism lies at the heart of fascism. It is also the essence of Abrahamic religion. God choses a nation to be His. That nation becomes Us, which makeseverybodyelse Them. God provides detailed laws through his representatives — prophets, priests, and kings — for how We are supposed to behave.[14] Conformity is the lowest compliance standard; loyalty and zealotry are preferred. Nonconformity, disloyalty, disrespect, doubt, dissent are crushed. One of the worst things God’s favored nationcan do is act like Them – take up foreign customs, marry internationally, etc. The Old Testament is therefore several hundred pages of rewind and repeat re:  how it goes for both Us and Them, and often it’s hard to tell who’s got the worst deal.

The Totalitarian God

Abrahamic religion imposes a hierarchical structure with God at the top. God enjoys absolute sovereignty and is not accountable to anyone for anything. God’s word is Truth, His will supreme, His power absolute. Totalitarianism is authority without accountability, therefore God is a totalitarian ruler.[15] Plus, because God is… well, God… He is in charge of not just his own nation, but all nations. All national sovereignty derives from Him. On this point, the New Testament section of the Christian Bible restates and summarizes Old Testament political worldview:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Romans 13:1-5[16]

National sovereignty that derives from God is similarly unaccountable. Accordingly, “the divine right of kings” protected English monarchs with its declaration that “the king can do no wrong,” and the concept was imported into the Colonies as “sovereign immunity,” which protects federal and state officials.[17] The divine right of kings and sovereign immunity, like God’s rule, are therefore ultimately totalitarian. Which means that a fascist in power is God’s man and can do no wrong unless God intervenes.

Biblically-based national sovereignty answers the question I began Part 1 of this series with:  how is it that the Christian Right can support Trump? The answer is that Trump is God’s man in the same way that Mussolini was God’s man. They are because the Bible says they are. They carry on the succession of divinely-appointed national leaders all the way back to the Old Testament kings.

Farfetched? Fantastical? We need only listen to the rationale given by one of Trump’s Men –former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his defense of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, to learn that the Christian Right doesn’t find this farfetched or fantastical in the slightest. Instead, it is a validation of legitimacy.

“If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you,,,, If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified.”[18]

Sessions invoked the Bible to substantiate the United States’ God-derived national sovereignty. The authority of God and the Bible is totalitarian, beyond accountability. Since the United States derives its national sovereignty from God and the Bible, it enjoys the same totalitarian authority, above any law other than its own. Its laws are good and moral by definition, and its government and government officials are free from fault because its laws say they are.

  • “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul.”
  • “God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
  • “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.”
  • “Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful.”
  • “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Sessions’ case justifies national xenophobic indifference to the plight of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse. the homeless, and tempest-tossed.[19] Instead, the United States government is free to terrorize them at the border. The same concept applies to America’s national history of legal slavery and normative racism, as well as its institutionalized homophobia and misogyny.

Next Time

In sum, the Bible narrative – the story of God’s relationship with his people — illustrates the dynamics of fascist government. And the Bible’s God is a prototype of a fascist leader.

We’ll look further into these things next time.


[1] For an updated treatment of the acronym, see LGBTQIAPK: Let’s Unpack the Acronym, Harlot (Mar. 19, 2018),

[2] Hague, Umair, The (New) Fascism of the 21st Century, Medium (Aug. 7, 2019)..

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas, K R, Why DO the poor keep voting for the rich? Medium (Dec. 26, 2019)

[5] “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2 NKJV

[6] Wikipedia – Fascism

[7] Hague, Umair, op cit.

[8] Fascism | Definition, Meaning, Characteristics, Examples, & History | Britannica

[9] Clerical fascism – Wikipedia

[10] Italian People’s Party (1919) – Wikipedia

[11] March on Rome | Definition, Events, & Facts | Britannica. March on Rome – Wikipedia

[12] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

[13] Hague, Umair, op cit.

[14] See the “blessings and curses” of Deuteronomy 26-28.

[15] For a breakdown on how the CIA categorizes dictatorial forms of government, see Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism — What Is the Difference? ThoughtCo. (June 5, 2020).

[16] See also Daniel 2:20-21, Daniel 4:17, Jeremiah 27:5, Proverbs 21:1.

[17] Wikipedia – Sovereign Immunity. See also Wikipedia – Sovereign Immunity in the United States. McCann, Miles, State Sovereign Immunity,” National Association of Attorneys General, NAGTRI Journal Volume 2, Number 4. Although the article is technically about state – vs. federal — sovereign immunity, the quoted text applies to both.  See also the following quote from this monograph from the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York based firm with a reputation for its commitment to diversity”  “At its core, the doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the proposition that the government cannot be sued without its consent – that is, ‘the King can do no wrong.’ Sovereign immunity is simple in concept but nuanced in application.”. Pugh, George W., “Historical Approach to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity,” Louisiana Law Review Volume 13, Number 3 (March 1953).. Citations omitted.

[18] YouTube. See Wikipedia — Trump administration family separation policy.

[19] The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty, The Atlantic (Jan. 15, 2018)

Reparations [4]:  The Essential Doubt

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.

Kathy’s Song[1]
Paul Simon

We saw last time that the U.S. government could waive its legal defense of sovereign immunity to pave the way for slavery reparations. It would take more than a legal reckoning for that to happen. Law lies on the surface of society, readily visible, but it has deep roots in history and ideology, national identity and mission, values and beliefs, ways of looking at the world and how life works.[2] These ancient root systems invoke fierce allegiances deeply embedded in human psyche and culture. Because the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity is grounded in Biblical doctrine,[3] laying it aside requires doubt and dissent of the highest order – national treason and religious apostasy in a single act.

Doubt of that magnitude is rare beyond description but not without precedent. Consider, for example, Germany’s reparations for World War II, which required not only the international banishment of Nazism, but also the German people’s moral renunciation of Nazism’s philosophical and political roots stretching back to the 19th Century.[4]; In comparison, the USA”s roots of slavery (and hence racism) extend back to the earliest New World settlements, which imported English common law, including the divine right of kings and its nationalistic version, sovereign immunity. Renouncing the latter to pave the way for slavery reparations would require a similar American moral renunciation of centuries of related social, economic, and political ideology and set new terms for a post-racism American state.

That, in turn, would require a reckoning with the “first cause” roots of the divine right of kings and sovereign immunity.

The First Cause Roots of Sovereign Immunity

A “first cause” satisfies the human desire for life to make sense by assigning a cause to every effect. Trouble is, as you trace the cause and effect chain to its remotest origins, you eventually run out of causes, leaving you with only effects. That’s when a first cause comes to the rescue. A first cause has no prior cause – it is so primary that nothing came before it but everything came after it. Since knowledge can’t reach that far back, a first cause is a matter of belief:  you take it on faith, declare the beginning into existence, and go from there.

Western civilization’s worldview historically identified God as the ultimate first cause.

“First cause, in philosophy, is the self-created being (i.e., God) to which every chain of causes must ultimately go back. The term was used by Greek thinkers and became an underlying assumption in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many philosophers and theologians in this tradition have formulated an argument for the existence of God by claiming that the world that man observes with his senses must have been brought into being by God as the first cause.

“The classic Christian formulation of this argument came from the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who was influenced by the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aquinas argued that the observable order of causation is not self-explanatory. It can only be accounted for by the existence of a first cause; this first cause, however, must not be considered simply as the first in a series of continuing causes, but rather as first cause in the sense of being the cause for the whole series of observable causes.

“The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant rejected the argument from causality because, according to one of his central theses, causality cannot legitimately be applied beyond the realm of possible experience to a transcendent cause.

“Protestantism generally has rejected the validity of the first-cause argument; nevertheless, for most Christians it remains an article of faith that God is the first cause of all that exists. The person who conceives of God in this way is apt to look upon the observable world as contingent—i.e., as something that could not exist by itself.”[5]

God is the ultimate Sovereign from which all lesser sovereigns – the king, the national government — derive their existence and legitimacy. God’s first cause Sovereignty justifies God’s right to rule as God sees fit. The king and the state, having been set into place by God, derive a comparable right of domination from God. The king and the national government are to the people what God is to them.

The Divine Right of Kings

When kings ruled countries, their divine line of authority took legal form as the Divine Right of Kings.

“The divine right of kings, divine right, or God’s mandate is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It stems from a specific metaphysical framework in which the king (or queen) is pre-selected as an heir prior to their birth. By pre-selecting the king’s physical manifestation, the governed populace actively (rather than merely passively) hands the metaphysical selection of the king’s soul – which will inhabit the body and thereby rule them – over to God. In this way, the ‘divine right’ originates as a metaphysical act of humility or submission towards the Godhead.

“Consequentially, it asserts that a monarch (e.g. a king) is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from divine authority, like the monotheist will of God. The monarch is thus not subject to the will of his people, of the aristocracy, or of any other estate of the realm. It implies that only divine authority can judge an unjust monarch and that any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict their powers runs contrary to God’s will and may constitute a sacrilegious act.”[6]

The Divine Right of Kings was a favorite doctrine of the first King James of England, who commissioned what would become the King James Version of the Bible partly in response to Puritan challenges to the Church of England’s doctrine of an ordained clergy that could trace its lineage to the original Apostles.

“Divine right of kings, in European history, a political doctrine in defense of monarchical ‘absolutism,’ which asserted that kings derived their authority from God and could not therefore be held accountable for their actions by any earthly authority such as a parliament. Originating in Europe, the divine-right theory can be traced to the medieval conception of God’s award of temporal power to the political ruler, paralleling the award of spiritual power to the church. By the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the new national monarchs were asserting their authority in matters of both church and state. King James I of England (reigned 1603–25) was the foremost exponent of the divine right of king….”[7]

“While throughout much of world history, deified potentates have been the rule, in England, absolute monarchy never got a solid foothold, but there certainly was the attempt. Elements of British political theory and practice encouraged absolutism—the idea and practice that the king is the absolute law and that there is no appeal beyond him. Several movements and ideas hurried along the idea of absolute monarchy in England. One of those ideas was the divine right of kings,

“In England, the idea of the divine right of kings will enter England with James VI of Scotland who will come and rule over both England and Scotland as James I in 1603 and will commence the line of several ‘Stuart’ monarchs. James had definite ideas about his role as monarch, and those ideas included the divine right of kings. Here are just a few of James’ statements that reflect his view that he ruled by divine right:

      • Kings are like gods— “…kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.”
      • Kings are not to be disputed— “… That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy….so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power.”
      • Governing is the business of the king, not the business of the subjects— “you do not meddle with the main points of government; that is my craft . . . to meddle with that were to lesson me . . . I must not be taught my office.”
      • Kings govern by ancient rights that are his to claim— “I would not have you meddle with such ancient rights of mine as I have received from my predecessors . . . .”
      • Kings should not be bothered with requests to change settled law— “…I pray you beware to exhibit for grievance anything that is established by a settled law…”
      • Don’t make a request of a king if you are confident he will say “no.”— “… for it is an undutiful part in subjects to press their king, wherein they know beforehand he will refuse them.”

“James’ views sound egotistical to us today, but he was not the only one that held them. These views were held by others, even some philosophers. For example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a work called Leviathan in 1651 in which he said that men must surrender their rights to a sovereign in exchange for protection. While Hobbes’ was not promoting the divine right of kings per se, he was providing a philosophy to justify a very strong absolute ruler, the kind that the divine right of kings prescribes. Sir Robert Filmer was a facilitator of the divine right of kings and wrote a book about it called Patriarcha (1660) in which he said that the state is like a family and that the king is a father to his people. Filmer also says that the first king was Adam and that Adam’s sons rule the nations of the world today. So, the King of England would be considered the eldest son of Adam in England or the King of France would be Adam’s eldest son in France.”[8]

King James, Witch Hunter

King James had no impartial academic interest in a Bible translation that supported his divine right:  during his reign, the “Cradle King” accumulated a long list of covered offenses that included mass murder, torture, injustice, tracheary, cruelty, and misogyny.

“The witch-hunts that swept across Europe from 1450 to 1750 were among the most controversial and terrifying phenomena in history – holocausts of their times. Historians have long attempted to explain why and how they took such rapid and enduring hold in communities as disparate and distant from one another as Navarre and Copenhagen. They resulted in the trial of around 100,000 people (most of them women), a little under half of whom were 
put to death.

“One of the most active centres of witch-hunting was Scotland, where perhaps 
4,000 people were consigned to the flames – 
a striking number for such a small country, 
and more than double the execution rate in England. The ferocity of these persecutions can be attributed to the most notorious royal witch-hunter: King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 became James I of England.

“Most of the suspects soon confessed – under torture – to concocting a host of bizarre and gruesome spells and rituals in order to whip up the storm.… James was so appalled when he heard such tales that he decided to personally superintend the interrogations… while the king looked on with ‘great delight’.

“James’s beliefs had a dangerously misogynistic core. He grew up to scorn – even revile – women. Though he was by no means alone in his view of the natural weakness and inferiority of women, his aversion towards them was unusually intense. He took every opportunity to propound the view that they were far more likely than men to succumb to witchcraft…. He would later commission a new version of the Bible in which all references to witches were rewritten in the female gender.

“Most witchcraft trials constituted grave miscarriages of justice…. If the actual facts of a case were unsatisfactory, or did not teach a clear enough moral lesson, then they were enhanced, added to or simply changed.”[9]

When the new King James Bible substantiated the King’s divine right to carry on these activities, and when the USA imported the king’s divine right into its legal system as sovereign immunity, both acknowledged God as the first cause of these legal doctrines. Like the King, the U.S. government also has a long list of covered offenses:  the treatment of slaves during the reign of legal slavery mirrors King James’ obsession with brutalizing, lynching, and murdering witches.

In the U.S., where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of Americans believe in God  (depending on how the question was asked), there remain many ”Christians [for whom] it remains an article of faith that God is the first cause of all that exists.[10] As a result, we see in the USA’s current social and political climate both explicit and implicit affirmation of the following Bible passages (which the online source appropriately expresses in the King James version) to substantiate the ability of national leaders to avoid accountability for acts of governance that sponsor this kind of horrifying treatment of citizens.[11]:

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” Romans 13:1-5, KJV

“Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck. For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.” Psalms 75:5-7, KJV

“Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding:” Daniel 2:20-21, KJV

“This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.” Daniel 4:17, KJV

“I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me.” Jeremiah 27:5, KJV

“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Proverbs 21:1, KJV

“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king. And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD. And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” 1 Samuel 15:23-26, KJV

“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” Acts 12:21-23, KJV

The Ultimate Focus of Doubt:  God

In “Abrahamic” cultures — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian – the Biblical God is the first cause of the divine right of kings and sovereign immunity. The full force of patriotic nationalism and religious zeal therefore originates with God – which explains why a surprising number of European nations had blasphemy laws on the books until not that long ago, and why some nations still do.[12]

“Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, or sacred objects, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.”[13]

God, it seems, like kings and sovereign nations, has much to be excused from. Aside from the Biblical God’s sponsorship of war, genocide, mass murder, rape, torture, and brutality to humans and animals, a list of modern labels would include misogynist, homophobe, and xenophobe. But of course you don’t think that way if you’re a believer, because that would be blasphemy, often punishable by death, often after the infliction of the kind of cruel and unusual punishment reserved for the faithful and unfaithful alike. As for the latter, the Bible makes it a badge of honor for the faithful to suffer in the name of God:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,” Hebrews 11:  35-39.ESV

Transformation Made Possible by Doubt

Nonbelievers not vexed with these kinds of rights of the sovereign and duties of the governed are free to doubt God’s first cause status and its derivative doctrines, laws, and policies. In the USA, doubt embraced on that level would open the door to any number of contrary beliefs – for example:

    • The state does not enjoy superior status — historically, legally, morally, or otherwise – that gives it a right to act without consequence.
    • The people governed are therefore not bound – theologically, morally, or otherwise – to submit to government that is not responsible for its actions.

Once you’re no longer worried about breaking faith with God as the first cause of your national institutional structure, a while new “social contract” (also discussed last time) between government and the people becomes possible – a contract that would, in effect, not be satisfied with paying only descendants of slaves “damages” for past harm, but would look to establish a fresh national vision of the duties of those who govern and the rights and freedoms of the governed. The result, it would seem, is the possibility of ending the USA’s institutionalized racism for good.

[1] Who was Paul Simon’s Kathy? And whatever happened to her? See this article from The Guardian.

[2] See the Belief Systems and Culture category of posts in my Iconoclast.blog.

[3] The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, Andrew L. Seidel (2019). Although the USA was not founded as a Christian nation, its core values and beliefs, like those of other Western countries, are Classical and Biblical in origin.

[4]  See Alpha History and The Mises Institute on the historical origins of Nazism.

[5]  Encyclopedia Britannica. See also New World Encyclopedia and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[6] Wikipedia – The Divine Right of Kings.

[7] Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.. See also the New World Encyclopedia

[8] Owlcation

[9] Borman, Tracy, James VI And I: The King Who Hunted Witches,  History Extra (BBC Historical Magazine)  (March 27, 2019)

[10]  Encyclopedia Britannica. See also New World Encyclopedia and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[11]Bill’s Bible Basics.”

[12]  Wikipedia – Blasphemy law.

[13]  Wikipedia – Blasphemy.

Reborn Losers: Christian Cosmology and Worldview Are a Setup to Failure

Christian cosmology and worldview are complicated, stressful, and impossible. Trying to comply with them is a set up to failure. That failure begins with the concept of who we are as human beings living in human bodies.

I was a Christian, now I’m not. Sometimes I find it useful to write about what I believed then and compare it to what I don’t believe now. I try to express it simply, avoid religious assumptions and overtones, resist the urge to cringe at what I used to think and exalt in what I think now. Instead, I try to lay aside judgment, notice what comes up, and wonder about it. That’s the ideal, anyway — sometimes it’s more difficult than others to remain dispassionate. Today was one of those.

I wrote about cosmology (how the universe is organized) and worldview (how life works on Earth). Reading it afterward, it seemed that the Christian beliefs, institutions, and culture that dominated my life — and have dominated Western thought for two millennia — are about equal parts quaint and fantasy. I didn’t see it that way when I was immersed in them, but my last several years of study– especially neuroscience, psychology, and history — have upended my former cosmology and worldview, and taken my self concept with them.

I previously understood “reality” and my place in it by reference to a Truth outside of me. Today, I’m aware that everything I experience – including what I believe or not – is processed within my biological being.[1] My new sense of self and reality are now physical, not spiritual.

That shift has brought new clarity, simplicity, decisiveness, energy, focus, hope, joy, freedom, gratitude, and lots of other new dynamics I really like. By contrast, what struck me most about my former beliefs was how complicated they were, how stressful to maintain, and ultimately how generally impossible. Clinging to them was a setup to failure – I especially like being free of that.

The Trouble Starts With A Soul

Approaching life here by reference to a Truth out there leads us to believe in things that exist outside of us– in people, in ideas, in entities, in institutions…. That kind of thinking derives naturally from another foundational belief: that each person has an independent existence — a soul living inside their body – that sorts through available belief options and chooses this one over that.

“If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“This sense that we are individuals inside bodies is sometimes called the “ego theory,” although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’”[2]

My Christian worldview bought all that, and also held that the soul is our highest and best self, because it came from where Truth dwells. It also held that it’s hard on a soul to be in a human body. The doctrinal specifics vary – we deliberately chose to screw things up and our souls took the hit for it, our souls got damaged in transit or in installation, or there was a flaw in the source code that eventually moved them away from their ideal nature, etc. – but the end result is that the soul’s potential good influence is minimized or lost, leaving us in the throes of “sin” – falling short of the perfect divine plan for what our souls could have been if they hadn’t gotten fouled up. And since the soul’s waywardness is foundational, its problem isn’t just sin but “original sin” – the beginning of all our troubles. We don’t just struggle with garden-variety human nature, which is bad enough, but with “the flesh,” which is worse, in fact so dreadful that it puts our eternal destiny at jeopardy.

That’s where it all begins:  with a divine, timeless, perfect soul trapped in an imperfect human body. The result is a hapless human subject to all kinds of cosmic misfortune.

And it only gets worse from there.

The Cosmology and Worldview That Was (And Still Is)

It’s tricky to line up a flawed soul in a flawed body with an external perfect standard of Truth. As a result, we’re constantly screwing up our reality compared to Reality. Plus there’s the problem of perception and deception –-not seeing Reality clearly – and the problem of temptation – enticements plying on our fleshly nature that just aren’t going to end well. It’s hard to keep a clear head in the midst of those pressures, and for that we have experts – people we have to trust to know things about Reality that the rest of us don’t.

But sooner or later all fall down – experts along with everybody else. Birth is the soul’s doorway into its precarious life in the flesh, and death is the doorway out. It would be nice if the door had been designed to swing both ways so we could check in with Truth and get straightened out now and then, but it shuts firmly in both directions, and no peeking. Which means our attempts to live here by reference to what’s over there are always seriously handicapped.

Sometimes you hear about people who get a backstage pass to go there and come back, and then they write books about it and go on tour and tell us what’s it’s like. That makes them a special kind of expert, but their reports often are full of all sorts of universality, which makes them doctrinally suspect. Fortunately, there are superhuman beings– kind of like us, kind of not, but at least conscious like us, and able to communicate – to help us out. Sometimes they make the trip over here, sometimes they snatch someone from here and show them around over there and then send them back, sometimes they open up a clear channel to communicate with somebody over here, and sometimes — and this is the best – they can be born as one of us and not have a problem with losing their soul’s connection to Truth while they’re here. The point is, one way or another, when they really need to communicate with us, they figure out how.

The whole lot of them rank higher than we do: the human race is in charge of the Earth, but they’re in charge of us (and everything else). God out-ranks everyone, of course – He[3] created everything, including them and us, and although the whole thing sure looks like a mess to us it doesn’t look that way to Him – or to them either, I guess. God is the ultimate creator, communicator, executive, and enforcer, and He has more consciousness than all the rest of us combined.

“Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. In physical reality the tree fell, the storm bowled over a house, the man survived the car crash, the woman died prematurely, the earth orbits the sun, the cosmos exists. For many people these events, big and small, must have a consciousness and an intentionality behind them. God is that consciousness.”[4]

Of course, God is busy, which is why He has all these underlings. They’re arranged in a hierarchy – it just makes sense that they would be – and range from great big scary powerful cosmic superheroes who get to make great big scary visitations and announcements and cause all kinds of great big scary events, all the way down to petty bureaucrats, drones, and proles just doing their dull but necessary jobs (but even they outrank us in the grand cosmic scheme).

“When our anthropomorphism is applied to religious thought, it’s notably the mind, rather than the body, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods. In the diverse cultures of the world, gods come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they always share is a mind with the ability to think symbolically just like a human. This makes sense in light of the critical importance of theory of mind in the development of our social intelligence: if other people have minds like ours, wouldn’t that be true of other agents we perceive to act intentionally in the world?”[5]

These conscious beings from over there sometimes pick a human or a whole tribe of humans to mediate Truth to the rest of us. Those people get a special supernatural security clearance, and we give their key personnel special titles like prophet and priest.

So far so good, but even Truth – also known as Heaven – has its internal power struggles. There’s a war over there between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons, and other kinds of beings in the high places, and some of it spills over into reality on our side of the divide. We therefore need to be careful about which of our experts are authentic and which aren’t, who they’re really serving and who they aren’t. The stakes are high, and if we’re wrong we’re going to pay with a lot of pain and suffering, both in this life and forever when we go through death’s one-way door.

And just to make things more complicated, these other-worldly beings sometimes use human experts as their agents, and they can be undercover. Plus, to make things impossibly, incomprehensibly complicated for our by now totally overtaxed souls, God and the other good guys sometimes take a turn at being deceptive themselves. The Cosmic Screenwriter apparently thought of everything in a bid to make our predicament as over-the-top bad as possible. In fact, some of what’s going on behind the scenes, taken right out of the Bible, would make a modern fantasy series blush with inadequacy – for example the part about the war in high places[6]:

“Ask, for instance, the average American Christian – say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible – what gospel the Apostle Paul preached. The reply will fall along predictable lines: human beings, bearing the guilt of original sin and destined for eternal hell, cannot save themselves through good deeds, or make themselves acceptable to God; yet God, in his mercy, sent the eternal Son to offer himself up for our sins, and the righteousness of Christ has been graciously imputed or imparted to all who have faith…. Some details might vary, but not the basic story.

“Paul’s actual teachings, however, as taken directly from the Greek of his letters, emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels…

“The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. .. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph.

“For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God.

“In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

Okay then.

But despite all this vast, elaborate cosmic tangle, over there mostly keeps its own counsel about it all, while still not letting us off the hook. And, although it’s tempting, I won’t even get into all the subterfuge and confusion and (over here, at least) just plain stupidity about when the whole mess is going to resolve into that final day when “God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

And On It Goes (And it went on way too long already, but I wanted to make a point.)

Western culture has been living with all that for over two millennia. A couple hundred years ago, in a time we call “The Great Enlightenment,” some thinkers started trying to convince us that enough is enough, maybe we ought to try out a different cosmology and worldview, based on rational thought and not just fantasy and belief. There’ve been some takers, but overall the Great Endarkenment has rolled on. I’m not as old as Yoda, but I’ve personally seen, heard, and lived all of it. A whole bunch people in the States still do, and not all of them live in Texas.

The cosmology and worldview I just reviewed are complicated, fanciful, stressful, and impose impossible demands on that impaired soul seeing it all through a glass darkly. No wonder belief systems – both secular and religious – devolve into take-it-or-leave-it fundamentalism, where questioning is punished by both God and man, and you can delegate your cosmic responsibilities to the demigods in charge. Fundamentalism dispatches our impossible obligations and blinds us to what the Bible itself says is the final outcome of all our believing: The Big Fail.

The Big Fail

We really should have seen it coming – the Bible lays out the ultimate terms of what it means to believe all of this in brutally unmistakable terms. At the end of a much-quoted and much-beloved recitation of faith heroes, the Epistle to the Hebrews provides this summary of what it means to be your highest and best self:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”[7]

That’s how it ends: total failure — all promises broken, all expectations dashed, all frauds revealed … after it’s way too late for any remedy.

Can We Find a Better Way?

Yes, I am aware that there’s one last phrase in that passage:

“…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”[8]

What precisely is that “something better”? I’m clueless, but all the obvious difficulties don’t stop at least one thinker[9] from trying to preserve the value of the soul as our highest and best self, even if modern neuroscience has finally ended its sufferings. The key, he says, is to reinvent the soul to make it relevant to modernity:

“What is the point of gaining the whole world if you lose your soul? Today, far fewer people are likely to catch the scriptural echoes of this question than would have been the case 50 years ago. But the question retains its urgency. We might not quite know what we mean by the soul any more, but intuitively we grasp what is meant by the loss in question – the kind of moral disorientation and collapse where what is true and good slips from sight, and we find we have wasted our lives on some specious gain that is ultimately worthless.

“It used to be thought that science and technology would gain us the world. But it now looks as though they are allowing us to destroy it. The fault lies not with scientific knowledge itself, which is among humanity’s finest achievements, but with our greed and short-sightedness in exploiting that knowledge. There’s a real danger we might end up with the worst of all possible scenarios – we’ve lost the world, and lost our souls as well.

“But what is the soul? The modern scientific impulse is to dispense with supposedly occult or ‘spooky’ notions such as souls and spirits, and to understand ourselves instead as wholly and completely part of the natural world, existing and operating through the same physical, chemical and biological processes that we find anywhere else in the environment.

“We need not deny the value of the scientific perspective. But there are many aspects of human experience that cannot adequately be captured in the impersonal, quantitatively based terminology of scientific enquiry. The concept of the soul might not be part of the language of science; but we immediately recognise and respond to what is meant in poetry, novels and ordinary speech, when the term ‘soul’ is used in that it alerts us to certain powerful and transformative experiences that give meaning to our lives.

“Such precious experiences depend on certain characteristic human sensibilities that we would not wish to lose at any price. In using the term ‘soul’ to refer to them, we don’t have to think of ourselves as ghostly immaterial substances. We can think of ‘soul’ as referring, instead, to a set of attributes of cognition, feeling and reflective awareness – that might depend on the biological processes that underpin them, and yet enable us to enter a world of meaning and value that transcends our biological nature.

“Entering this world requires distinctively human qualities of thought and rationality. But we’re not abstract intellects, detached from the physical world, contemplating it and manipulating it from a distance. To realise what makes us most fully human, we need to pay attention to the richness and depth of the emotional responses that connect us to the world. Bringing our emotional lives into harmony with our rationally chosen goals and projects is a vital part of the healing and integration of the human soul.”

Full Acceptance

It seems honorable that someone would attempt this kind of synthesis, but I personally don’t see anything worth salvaging. Instead, I think this might be a good time to acknowledge something that Christianity’s troublesome cosmology and worldview have dismissed all along: human nature. In that regard, I find the following thoughts from a writer I particularly admire[10] to be bracingly clarifying, and in that, hopeful

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. .. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of conscientiousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others. [citing Gray, Straw Dogs]

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

We are not going to “conquer our humanness” by continuing our fundamentalist allegiance to a complicated, stressful, and self-negating cosmology and worldview. How about if instead we try full acceptance of our conflicted and flawed humanity, where we find not grandiose visions but simple hope for our small todays?

[1] I also believe there is an independent reality that is more than my brain’s construction of it. Not everyone thinks so. Maybe more on that another time.

[2] Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2012)

[3] We get that theoretically God, as a spiritual being, probably wouldn’t have a gender, but we’re generally more comfortable giving him the male pronouns.

[4] Graziano, Michael S. A., Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013)

[5] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

[6] Hart, David Bentley, Everything You Know About The Gospel Of Paul Is Likely Wrong, Aeon (Jan. 8, 2018). David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a philosopher, writer and cultural commentator, who recently published a translation of The New Testament (2017).

[7] Hebrews 11: 35-39.

[8] Hebrews 11: 40.

[9] Cottingham, John, What is the soul if not a better version of ourselves? Aeon (Mar. 11, 2020). John Cottingham is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Reading, professor of philosophy of religion at the University of Roehampton, London, and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford University.

[10] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

 

Debunking the Debunkers

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

The Who[1]

Debunkers believe we’ll be better off without all the bunk. If only it were that simple: the basic premise of debunking might not hold up, the “truth that lies on the other side of bunk is elusive, and there are strong social forces that oppose it. Plus, once free of it, we tend to replace old bunk with new.

UVA Professor Emily Ogden defines “bunk”:

“‘Bunk’ means baloney, hooey, bullshit. Bunk isn’t just a lie, it’s a manipulative lie, the sort of thing a con man might try to get you to believe in order to gain control of your mind and your bank account. Bunk, then, is the tool of social parasites, and the word ‘debunk’ carries with it the expectation of clearing out something that is foreign to the healthy organism. Just as you can deworm a puppy, you can debunk a religious practice, a pyramid scheme, a quack cure. Get rid of the nonsense, and the polity – just like the puppy – will fare better. Con men will be deprived of their innocent marks, and the world will take one more step in the direction of modernity.”[2]

Sounds great, but can debunking actually deliver?

“Debunk is a story of modernity in one word – but is it a true story? Here’s the way this fable goes. Modernity is when we finally muster the reason and the will to get rid of all the self-interested deceptions that aristocrats and priests had fobbed off on us in the past. Now, the true, healthy condition of human society manifests itself naturally, a state of affairs characterised by democracy, secular values, human rights, a capitalist economy and empowerment for everyone (eventually; soon). All human beings and all human societies are or ought to be headed toward this enviable situation.”

Once somebody calls something a “fable” you know it’s in trouble. Plus, there’s no indisputable “truth” waiting to be found once the bunk is cleared out.

“There is no previously existing or natural secular order that will assert itself when we get the bunk out… There is no neutral, universal goal of progress toward which all peoples are progressing; instead, the claim that such a goal ought to be universal has been a means of exploiting and dispossessing supposedly ‘backward’ peoples.”

The underlying problem with debunking seems to be the assumptions we make — about what’s true and false, what we’ll find when we sort one from the other, and most importantly, who’s qualified to do that. Debunking requires what cultural anthropologist Talal Asad has called “secular agents” – a species that may not actually exist.

“Secular agency is the picture of selfhood that Western secular cultures have often wanted to think is true. It’s more an aspiration than a reality. Secular agents know at any given moment what they do and don’t believe. When they think, their thoughts are their own. The only way that other people’s thoughts could become theirs would be through rational persuasion. Along similar lines, they are the owners of their actions and of their speech. When they speak, they are either telling the truth or lying. When they act, they are either sincere or they are faking it… Modernity, in this picture, is when we take responsibility for ourselves, freeing both society and individuals from comforting lies.”

I.e., secular agency is a high standard we mostly fall short of. Instead, we do our best to conform to social conventions even if we don’t personally buy into them. A sports star points to the sky after a home run, a touchdown, a goal, acknowledging the help of somebody or Somebody up there… a eulogy talks about a deceased loved one “looking down on us”… a friend asks us to “think good thoughts” for a family member going into surgery… We don’t buy the Somebody up there helping us, the “looking down,” or the “good thoughts,” but we don’t speak up. Instead, we figure there’s a time and place for honesty and confrontation, and this isn’t one of them.[3]

“Life includes a great many passages in which we place the demands of social bonds above strict truth…. [In] the context of some of the stories we tell collaboratively in our relationships with others, the question of lying or truth does not arise. We set it aside. We apply a different framework, something more like the framework we apply to fiction: we behave as if it were true.”

So what’s left of debunking? Well, it still has its place, especially when it’s used to call the Bunk Lords to account.

“What then is debunking? It can be a necessary way of setting the record straight. I’m by no means opposed to truth-telling. We need fact-checkers. The more highly placed the con artist, the more his or her deceptions matter. In such cases, it makes sense to insist on hewing to the truth.

“[On the other hand,] the social dynamics of debunking should not be overlooked …, especially when the stakes aren’t particularly high – when the alleged lie in question is not doing a whole lot of harm.”

To Play Along or Not to Play Along

When I was a late adolescent and lurching my way toward the Christian faith, a seminary student advised me that, “Sometimes you just need to act as if something is true. You do that long enough, and maybe it will actually become true” – which I took to mean that, even if you’re full of yourself right now, in the long haul you might be happier fitting in.

Maybe, maybe not. You might also feel that, since the things we believe are always in progress anyway, why not be real about what’s up for you right now.

“At these times, what is debunking? It’s a performed refusal to play along.… It’s the announcement that one rejects the as-if mode in which we do what social bonds require.”

Plus, there seems to be a countervailing urge that sometimes prevails over socially playing nice: when we feel like we finally got it figured out, the scales fell from our eyes and we can see clearly now, we can see life for what it really is,,, get to that beatific place, and you want to tell everybody, even it if steps on their toes – which it does, but being newly enlightened and detoxed, you can’t help yourself.

Thus the “as if” game becomes a choice: playing along preserves social currency, opting out drains it. Which do you want?

Why Bother?

There’s also the “Why bother?” issue. Debunking is often preaching to the choir while the unconverted stay that way – in fact, they never even hear what you have to say; it never shows up in their feed.

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”[4]

In light of all this cognitive self-preservation, not rocking the boat can seem like the more reasonable choice:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”[5]

But even if acting as-if is socially acceptable, sometimes you just can’t help but go after it.

Take “magical thinking” for example — a socially acceptable practice and favorite debunking target.

Magical thinking is based on a claim of cause and effect, and therefore offers a sense of predictability and control, It sounds scientific and reasonable, which makes it socially acceptable, but it’s neither; it’s faux science because you can’t test or verify it, and its not reasonable because there’s no logic to it, you can only believe it or not. The masquerade makes it a prime target for debunking.

Magical thinking [is] the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world. Examples include beliefs that the movement of the Sun, Moon, and wind or the occurrence of rain can be influenced by one’s thoughts or by the manipulation of some type of symbolic representation of these physical phenomena.

“Magical thinking became an important topic with the rise of sociology and anthropology in the 19th century. It was argued that magical thinking is an integral feature of most religious beliefs, such that one’s inner experience, often in participation with a higher power, could influence the course of events in the physical world.

“Prominent early theorists suggested that magical thinking characterized traditional, non-Western cultures, which contrasted with the more developmentally advanced rational-scientific thought found in industrialized Western cultures. Magical thinking, then, was tied to religion and ‘primitive’ cultures and considered developmentally inferior to the scientific reasoning found in more ‘advanced’ Western cultures.” [6]

Recent converts are notorious for their intolerance of whatever they just left behind[7] and therefore the least likely to play along with social convention. So, suppose you’re a recent convert from magical thinking and someone drops one of those refrigerator magnet aphorisms. You’ll weigh a lot of factors in the next instant, but sometimes there are just some things people need to stop believing, so you’ll go ahead and launch, and social peace-keeping be damned. You do that in part because you’re aware of your own susceptibility to temptation. This is from Psychology Today[8]

“How many times a day do you either cross your fingers, knock on wood, or worry that your good luck will turn on you? When two bad things happen to you, do you cringe in fear of an inevitable third unfortunate event? Even those of us who ‘know better’ are readily prone to this type of superstitious thinking.

“Further defying logic, we also readily believe in our own psychic powers: You’re thinking of a friend when all of a sudden your phone beeps to deliver a new text from that very person. It’s proof positive that your thoughts caused your friend to contact you at that very moment! … These are just a few examples of the type of mind tricks to which we so readily fall prey.”

The article provides a list of seven “mind tricks” taken from psychology writer Matthew Hutson’s book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, and invites us to “See how long it takes you to recognize some of your own mental foibles.” Here’s the list, with abbreviated commentary from the article:

  1. “Objects carry essences. We attribute special properties to items that belong or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, or has a particular quality we admire… the objects are just objects, and despite their connection with special people in our lives, they have no inherent ability to transmit those people’s powers to us.
  2. “Symbols have power. Humans have a remarkable tendency to impute meaning not only to objects but to abstract entities. We imbue these symbols with the ability to affect actual events in our lives.
  3. “Actions have distant consequences. In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our unpredictable lives, we build up a personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts.
  4. “The mind knows no bound We are often impressed by the apparent coincidence that occurs when a person we’re thinking about suddenly contacts us. For just that moment, we believe the event “proves” that we’re psychic.
  5. “The soul lives on. [Why] do adults hold on so stubbornly to the belief that the mind can continue even after its seat (the brain) is no longer alive? The answer, in part, comes from the terror that we feel about death.
  6. “The world is alive. We attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones. We read into the faces of our pets all sorts of human emotions such as humor, disappointment, and guilt. If our latest technological toy misbehaves, we yell at it and assume it has some revenge motive it needs to satisfy.
  7. “Everything happens for a reason. The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us… For the same reason, we believe in luck, fate, and chance.”

Magical thinking is one of my personal bugaboos, therefore my personal list would be longer than seven.[9] Those things make me twitch. You?

And speaking of mortality…

Miracles: Magic Gets Personal

We can (and do) make up all kinds of things about what it’s like “up there,” but we can’t really imagine it any more than we can our own death. There’s a lot of research about why that’s so[10], but as a practical matter we have to imagine death while we’re still alive in the here and now, but to do it properly we’d have to be there and then — a problem that explains the popularity of books that some call “heavenly tourism,” about people who go there and come back to tell us about it.[11]

We want our heroes and loved ones looking down on us because we miss them. Losing them makes us feel small, helpless, and powerless — like children. So we draw pictures of clouds and robes and harps and locate them there. Childish? Sure. But preferable to the idea that “they” vanished when their body and brain stopped biologically functioning. Why we like one over the other isn’t clear if we can step back and think about it, but we don’t. Instead we’re so freaked about the trip down the River Styx that we follow convention.

For the same reasons, praying for a miracle that staves off death persists in the face of little to support it.[12]

“Writing Fingerprints of God, my 2009 book about the science of spirituality, gave me an excuse to ask a question that I never openly considered before leaving Christian Science, one that was unusually freighted: Is there any scientific evidence, anything beyond the realm of anecdote, that prayer heals?

“It turns out, the evidence is mixed. Beginning in the 1980s, we’ve seen a rash of prayer studies. Some seemed to show that patients who were prayed for recovered more quickly from heart attacks. Another study found that prayer physically helped people living with AIDS.

“But for every study suggesting that prayer heals a person’s body, there is another one showing that prayer has no effect — or even makes you worse. Does prayer help people with heart problems in a coronary care unit? Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found no effect. Does it benefit people who needed to clear their arteries using angioplasty? Not according to researchers at Duke. In another study, prayer did not ease the plight of those on kidney dialysis machines. And don’t even mention skin warts: Researchers found that people who received prayer saw the number of warts actually increase slightly, compared with those who received no prayer.

“The most famous study, and probably the most damaging for advocates of healing prayer, was conducted by Harvard researcher Herbert Benson in 2006. He looked at the recovery rates of patients undergoing cardiac bypass surgery. Those patients who knew they were receiving prayer actually did worse than those who did not know they were receiving prayer.

“In the end, there is no conclusive evidence from double-blind, randomized studies that suggests that intercessory prayer works.

“Prayer studies are a ‘wild goose chase that violate everything we know about the universe,’ Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and author of Blind Faith, told me: ‘There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody’s thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person. None.’”

“And yet,” the author continues, “ science has embraced a sliver of my childhood faith, a century after Mary Baker Eddy ‘discovered’ Christian Science in the late 1800s. If scientists don’t buy intercessory prayer, most do agree that there is a mind-body connection.” She also finds some connections in “another new ‘science,’ called ‘neurotheology,’” citing how the stimulation of certain brain areas can deliver the same sensations as meditation, contemplative prayer, spiritual ecstasy, and even out-of-body experiences. As a result, she wonders if the brain might act as a kind of radio: “Is the brain wired to connect with a dimension of reality that our physical senses cannot perceive?”

“Researchers have tried to replicate such out-of-body experiences, which are always after-the-fact anecdotes that cannot be tested. These experiences, they say, suggest that consciousness can exist separate from the brain — in other words, that there may be a transcendent reality that we tap into when brain functioning ceases.

“I am not asking you to believe that consciousness can continue when the brain is not functioning, that there is a God who answers prayer, or that people who pray or meditate connect with another reality. I’m not asking you to believe that all mystical or inexplicable experiences are simply the interaction of chemicals in the brain or firings of the temporal lobe. That’s the point: You don’t have to choose. Because neither side possesses the slam-dunk argument, the dispositive evidence that proves that there is a God, or there isn’t.”

I.e., she’s saying that the impermeable curtain of death means we can’t prove or disprove either the brain-as-a-radio theory or the materialist belief that when your body stops so do you. Thus we’re free to choose, and one’s as viable as the other. Obviously, unlike the Psychology Today writer, this ex-Christian Scientist is not a committed debunker. On the other hand, her reference to the lack of “dispositive evidence that proves that there is a God, or there isn’t” takes us to straight to the ultimate debunking target.

Debunking God (or not)

God is the ultimate debunking target (patriotism is a close second), and the “New Atheists[13]” are the ultimate God debunkers. They’ve also been roundly criticized for being as fundamentalist and evangelical as the fundamentalists and evangelicals they castigate.[14] That’s certainly how I respond to them. I discovered them when I was fresh in my awareness that I’d become an atheist. I put their books on my reading list, read a couple, and deleted the rest. I’d left the fighting fundamentalists behind, and had no desire to rejoin the association. On the other hand, I am grateful to them for making it easier for the rest of us to come out as atheist – something that current social convention makes more difficult than coming out gay.[15]

From what I can tell, there are lots of people like me who didn’t become atheists by being clear-thinking and purposeful[16], it was just something that happened over time, until one day they checked the “none” box beside “religious affiliation.” Atheism wasn’t an intellectual trophy we tried to win, it was a neighborhood we wandered into one day and were surprised to find we had a home there. As one writer said,

“My belief in God didn’t spontaneously combust—it faded.

“I wasn’t the only kid who stopped believing. A record number of young Americans (35 percent) report no religious affiliation, even though 91 percent of us grew up in religiously affiliated households.

“Our disbelief was gradual. Only 1 percent of Americans raised with religion who no longer believe became unaffiliated through a onetime “crisis of faith.” Instead, 36 percent became disenchanted, and another 7 percent said their views evolved.

“It’s like believing in Santa Claus. Psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Jaqueline Woolley have found that children’s disbelief in Santa Claus is progressive, not instantaneous. First kids think that the Santa in the mall or library is real, then they think he’s not real but still magically communicates with the actual Santa, and so on, until they finally realize that Santa is composed of costumed actors. “Kids don’t just turn [belief] off,” Goldstein says.

“Likewise, losing faith happens in pieces.”[17]

It seems fitting we would exit religion that way, since it’s the way many of us got into it in the first place. Yes, some people seem to have those Damascus Road conversions[18], or maybe a less dramatic “come to Jesus meeting,” as a friend of mine says, but more often religion just kind of seeps into us from the surrounding culture.

“I used to love this illustrated children’s Bible my mom gave me. Long-faced Jonah inside a yawning blue whale felt warm and right. My brain made these feelings. When we enjoy religious or associated experiences, like snuggling up with Mom reading the Bible, our brain’s reward circuits activate. Over time, religious ideas become rewarding in and of themselves. This is a powerful, unconscious motivation to keep believing.

“When I began to see my colorful Bible as boring and childish, those same reward circuits likely became less active. Religious experiences produced less pleasure. This happens involuntarily in people with Parkinson’s disease, which compromises the brain’s reward centers. [That is why] people who develop Parkinson’s are much more likely to lose their faith.”[19]

The New Magic – Or, maybe I’m just skeptical about skepticism.

But then, it’s common that having been debunked of religion, we transfer that same commitment to something else – maybe magical thinking or some other unverifiable belief system. Turns out there’s a neurological reason for that: the neural pathways that ran our old belief system are still there, so we just load them with new content:

“For many years I believed in both creationism, with a God whose hand I could shake, and evolution, a cold, scientific world that cared nothing about me. Because when we lose faith, our brain’s preexisting belief networks don’t dissolve. They’re updated, like a wardrobe. ‘Even if someone abandons or converts [religions], it’s not like they’re throwing out all the clothes they own and now buying a whole new set,’ says Jordan Grafman, director of brain injury research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and a professor at Northwestern University. ‘You pick and choose what you leave and what you keep.’

“New beliefs join the same neurological framework as old ones. It’s even possible that an existing belief network paves the way for additional beliefs. [Another researcher] has found that kids who believe in fantastical beings are more likely to believe in new ones invented by researchers. “I think it’s because they already have this network that [the new belief] kind of fits into,” she explains. Sometimes the new beliefs resemble the old ones; sometimes they don’t.

“Most non-religious people are ‘passionately committed to some ideology or other,’ explains Patrick McNamara, a neurology professor at Boston University School of Medicine. These passions function neurologically as ‘faux religions.’”[20]

And then, having been newly converted to our new faux religion, we’re set up for another eventual round of debunking.

Meet the new boss.

Same as the old boss.

[1] Here’s the original music video of We Won’t Get Fooled Again. Watching it draws you all the way back into the turbulent, polarizing 60’s — if you remember them, that is — and the tone feels eerily similar to what we’re living with today. By the way, who said, “If you remember the 60’s, you really weren’t there”? Find out here.

[2] Ogden, Emily, Debunking Debunked, Aeon (Aug. 12, 2019). Ms. Ogden’s Aeon bio says she is “an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, and an author whose work has appeared in Critical Inquiry, The New York Times and American Literature, among others. Her latest book is Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (2018).” All quotes in this section are from this article.

nk’ means baloney, hooey, bullshit. Bunk isn’t just a lie, it’s a manipulative lie, the sort of thing a con man might try to get you to believe in order to gain control of your mind and your bank account. Bunk, then, is the tool of social parasites, and the word ‘debunk’ carries with it the expectation of clearing out something that is foreign to the healthy organism. Just as you can deworm a puppy, you can debunk a religious practice, a pyramid scheme, a quack cure. Get rid of the nonsense, and the polity – just like the puppy – will fare better. Con men will be deprived of their innocent marks, and the world will take one more step in the direction of modernity.

[3] This social convention has been around a long time: like the Bible (something else we might like to debunk) says, “There is a time for everything under heaven … a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”   Ecclesiastes 3: 7

[4]This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017):

[5]Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017).

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica.

[7] See Volck, Brian, The Convert’s Zeal, Image Journal (Aug. 22, 2019). See also this Pew Center report.

[8] 7 Ideas We Really Need to Stop Believing. Psychology Today (May 08, 2012).

[9] Mr. Hutson’s list is based on “a wealth of psychological evidence,” while mine comes from my own anecdotal judgment that magical thinking has led to all kinds of delusional decisions and disasters in my life. The irony of using my own subjective perspective to debunk my own life doesn’t escape me. – it ranks right in there with The Who’s resorting to prayer in the hope they won’t be fooled again.

[10] Doubting death: how our brains shield us from mortal truth, The Guardian (Oct. 19, 2019).

[11] Like Heaven is For Real, by Alex Malarkey. Yes, that’s his real name.

[12] The Science of Miracles, Medium (Feb. 7, 2019).

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Wikipedia.

[15] What Atheists Can Learn From The Gay Rights Movement, The Washington Post (Apr. 3, 2013). Coming out as atheist is even trickier if you’re in the public eye: ‘I Prefer Non-Religious’: Why So Few US Politicians Come Out As Atheists, The Guardian (Aug. 3, 2019); The Last Taboo: It’s harder in America to come out as an atheist politician than a gay one. Why? Politico Magazine (Dec. 9, 2013)

[16] Such as Andrew L. Seidel, an “out-of-the-closet atheist” and author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (2019).

[17] Beaton, Caroline, What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Believing in God: It’s like going off a drug Vice (Mar. 28 2017).

[18] The Acts of the Apostles 9: 1-9.

[19] Beaton, op. cit..

[20] Ibid.

A Talk at the Rock: How to Instantly Polarize a Crowd and End a Discussion

AreopaguslImage from Wikipedia

The Areopagus is a large rock outcropping in Athens, not far from the Acropolis, where in ancient times various legal, economic, and religious issues got a hearing. A Bible story about something that happened there two thousand years ago provides surprising insight on today’s hyper-polarized world.

Backstory:  A Dualistic Worldview

In the 17th Century, Frenchman René Descartes sorted reality into two categories: (1) the natural, physical world and (2) the unseen world of ideas, feelings, and beliefs. This duality was born of the times:

“Toward the end of the Renaissance period, a radical epistemological and metaphysical shift overcame the Western psyche. The advances of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon posed a serious problem for Christian dogma and its dominion over the natural world.

“In the 17th century, René Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind was an ingenious solution to the problem this created. ‘The ideas’ that had hitherto been understood as inhering in nature as ‘God’s thoughts’ were rescued from the advancing army of empirical science and withdrawn into the safety of a separate domain, ‘the mind’.

“On the one hand, this maintained a dimension proper to God, and on the other, served to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).

“In one fell swoop, God’s substance-divinity was protected, while empirical science was given reign over nature-as-mechanism – something ungodly and therefore free game.”[1]

Descartes articulated this dualistic framework, but it had been around from prehistoric antiquity. It still persists today, and neurological research suggests the human brain comes pre-wired for it. This is from Psychology Today[2]:

“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.

“Neurologists explored the activity of certain key regions of the human forebrain – the frontal lobe – trying to understand how the brain switches between tasks. Scientists generally accept the idea that the brain can only consciously manage one task at a time….

“However, some researchers are now suggesting that our brains can keep tabs on two tasks at a time, by sending each one to a different side of the brain. Apparently, we toggle back and forth, with one task being primary and the other on standby.

“Add a third task, however, and one of the others has to drop off the to-do list. Scans of brain activity during this task switching have led to the hypothesis that the brain actually likes handling things in pairs. Indeed, the brain itself is subdivided into two distinct half-brains, or hemispheres.

“Some researchers are now extending this reasoning to suggest that the brain has a built-in tendency, when confronted by complex propositions, to selfishly reduce the set of choices to just two.

“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’

“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.

“One of our popular clichés is ‘Well, there are two sides to every story.’ Why only two? Maybe the less sophisticated and less rational members of our society are caught up in duplex thinking, because the combination of a polarized brain and unexamined emotional reflexes keep them there.”

“Less sophisticating and less rational” … the author’s ideological bias is showing, but the “unexamined emotional reflexes” finger points at both ends of the polarized spectrum. And because our brains love status quo and resist change, we hunker down on our assumptions and biases. True, the balance can shift more gradually, over time – the way objectivity ascended during the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment, but Romanticism pushed back in the 19th — but usually it takes something drastic like disruptive innovation, tragedy, violence, etc. to knock us off our equilibrium. Absent that, we’re usually not up for the examination required to separate what we objectively know from what we subjectively believe — it’s all just reality, and as long as it’s working, we’re good. If we’re forced to examine and adjust, we’ll most likely take our cues from our cultural context:

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives. We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from our family, friends, and culture, and, once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible.

“There is [a] potent force shaping the particular patterns we perceive around us. It’s what anthropologists call culture. Just as language shapes the perception of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child constructs meaning in the world. Every culture holds its own worldview: a complex and comprehensive model of how the universe works and how to act within it. This network of beliefs and values determines the way in which each child in that culture makes sense of the universe.”[3]

Culture has been sculpting the human brain ever since our earliest ancestors began living complex social lives millions of years ago. It’s only when the cultural balance runs off the rails that our brains scramble to reset, and we’re stressed while they’re at it. We would do well not to wait until then, and learn how to embrace both ends of the dualistic spectrum, argues one computational biologist[4]:

“Neuroscience was part of the dinner conversation in my family, often a prerequisite for truth. Want to talk about art? Not without neuroscience. Interested in justice? You can’t judge someone’s sanity without parsing scans of the brain. But though science helps us refine our thinking, we’re hindered by its limits: outside of mathematics, after all, no view of reality can achieve absolute certainty. Progress creates the illusion that we are moving toward deeper knowledge when, in fact, imperfect theories constantly lead us astray.

“The conflict is relevant in this age of anti-science, with far-Right activists questioning climate change, evolution and other current finds. In his book Enlightenment Now (2018), Steven Pinker describes a second assault on science from within mainstream scholarship and the arts. But is that really bad? Nineteenth-century Romanticism was the first movement to take on the Enlightenment – and we still see its effects in such areas as environmentalism, asceticism and the ethical exercise of conscience.

“In our new era of Enlightenment, we need Romanticism again. In his speech ‘Politics and Conscience’ (1984), the Czech dissident Václav Havel, discussing factories and smokestacks on the horizon, explained just why: ‘People thought they could explain and conquer nature – yet … they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it.’ Havel was not against industry, he was just for labour relations and protection of the environment.

“The issues persist. From use of GMO seeds and aquaculture to assert control over the food chain to military strategies for gene-engineering bioweapons, power is asserted though patents and financial control over basic aspects of life. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge (1976) referred to such advancements as ‘techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’. With winners and losers in the new arena, it only makes sense that some folks are going to push back.

“We are now on the verge of a new revolution in control over life through the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9, which has given us the ability to tinker with the colour of butterfly wings and alter the heritable genetic code of humans. In this uncharted territory, where ethical issues are rife, we can get blindsided by sinking too much of our faith into science, and losing our sense of humanity or belief in human rights.

“Science should inform values such as vaccine and climate policy, but it must not determine all values…. With science becoming a brutal game of market forces and patent controls, the skeptics and Romantics among us must weigh in, and we already are.”

That’s probably good advice, but we need to push through a lot of cultural status quo to get there. That’s especially true because the 20th Century brought us change at ever-accelerating rates — objective reality went spinning away and we crashed into the extreme belief end of the spectrum:

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard — letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts.

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”[5]

When we can agree that our conflict is a matter of my data vs. yours, we can debate rationally. But when it’s my beliefs vs. yours, what used to be discourse dissolves into stonewalling and shouting. Belief seeks its own perfection by eliminating doubt, and therefore devolves into fundamentalism, where discussion is a sign of doubt, punishable as heresy. Fundamentalism can be secular or religious – it’s the dynamic, not the content, that matters

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical. They are utopian. They will lead us out of the wilderness to the land of milk and honey.”[6]

Fundamentalism is where the open mind goes into lockdown. Objectivity loses its grip and the question “Are you with us, or against us?” gives way to its declarative version, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”[7] Dualistic thinking ceases to be more than a source of “popular clichés,” and becomes instead a rigid disincentive to public discourse, as competing polarized beliefs dig in for a grinding, maddening war of attrition. What used to be public discourse is lost in a no-man’s land of intellectual wreckage created by each side’s incessant lobbing of ideological bombs at the other’s entrenched subjective positions. Each side is convinced it has a God’s-eye view of reality, therefore God is on its side, which motivates securing its position by all necessary means.

A Talk at the Rock

The Christian scriptures illustrate how all this works in a story from one of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.

“Now while Paul was… at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’[8]

The Epicureans and Stoics were the materialists of their day – their thinking leaned toward the objective side of the dualism. When Paul came to town advocating ideas (the subjective end of the dualism), their brain patterning couldn’t process Paul’s worldview. They needed time, so they invited Paul to a Talk at the Rock (the Areopagus).

At this point, the author of the story –- widely believed to be the same “Luke the beloved physician”[9] who wrote the Gospel of Luke – inserts a biased editorial comment that signals that nothing’s going to come of this because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”[10] I.e., reasonable consideration — public discourse – was going to be a waste of time. But Paul had prepared some culturally sensitive opening remarks:

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’”

He then offers up the idea of substituting his ‘foreign god’ for the Athenians’ statuary, altars, and temples:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

You can sense the crowd’s restless murmuring and shuffling feet, but then Paul goes back to cultural bridge-building:

“Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [referring to a passage from Epimenides of Crete], and as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[{From Aratus’s poem Phainomena].”

Nice recovery, Paul. So far so good. This feels like discourse, what the Rock is for. But Paul believes that the Athenians’ practice of blending the unseen world of their gods with their physical craftmanship of statuary, altars, and temples (a practice the church would later perfect) is idolatry, and in his religious culture back home, idolatry had been on the outs since the Golden Calf.[11] At this point, Paul takes off the cultural kit gloves and goes fundamentalist:

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s precisely the point where he loses the crowd — well, most of them, there were some who were willing to give him another shot, and even a couple fresh converts:

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

“Some men joined him and believed….” That’s all there was left for them to do: believe or not believe. You’re either with us or against us.

Paul had violated the cultural ethics of a Talk at the Rock. It was about reasonable discourse; he made it a matter of belief, saying in effect. “forget your social customs and ethics, my God is going to hurt you if you keep it up.” With that, the conclave became irretrievably polarized, and the session was over.

Paul triggered this cultural dynamic constantly on his journeys – for example a few years later, when the Ephesus idol-building guild figured out the economic implications of Paul’s belief system[12]:

“About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.  For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.’ When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”

Jesus had previously taken a whip to the merchants in the Temple in Jerusalem.[13] Apparently Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen saw the same thing coming to them, and made a preemptive strike. The scene quickly spiraled out of control:

“So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.  But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”

A local official finally quelled the riot:

“Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

“And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” and when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.”[14]

It Still Happens Today

I spent years in the evangelical church – we were fundamentalists, but didn’t want to admit it – where Paul’s Talk at the Rock was held up as the way not to “share your faith.” Forget the public discourse — you can’t just “spend [your] time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” you need to lay the truth on them so they can believe or not believe, and if they don’t, you need to “shake the dust off your feet”[15] and get out of there. These days, we see both secular and religious cultural institutions following that advice.

Will we ever learn?

[1]How The Dualism Of Descartes Ruined Our Mental HealthMedium (May 10, 2019)

[2] Karl Albrecht, “The Tyranny of Two,” Psychology Today (Aug 18, 2010)

[3] Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] Jim Kozubek, “The Enlightenment Rationality Is Not Enough: We Need A New Romanticism,” Aeon (Apr. 18, 2018)

[5] Andersen, Kurt, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017)

[6] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

[7] The latter came from Jesus himself – see the Gospels of Matthew 21: 12-13, and John 2: 13-16. Jesus was a belief man through and through. More on that another time.

[8] The Acts of the Apostles 17: 17-20.

[9] Paul’s letter to the Colossians 4: 14.

[10] Acts 17: 21.

[11] Exodus 32.

[12] Acts 19: 23-41

[13] Mathew 21: 12-17; John 2: 13-21

[14] Acts: 23-42

[15] Matthew 10:14.