Beliefism [Part 3]: Evangelists on the Rebound/ Belief is Biological

Evangelists on the Rebound

Life without God offered plenty of substitutes:  self-help and its academic sibling positive psychology, “New Thought” churches that tried to make a science out of religion; Age of Enlightenment intellectuals, rationalists, humanists, skeptics who were determined to purge our thinking of nonsense, materialists who think “the meat thinks,” and an assortment of New Agers, vortex-finders, shamans, psychics, dietary supplement pushers, energy healers, kinesthesiologists, life coaches, “alternative healers,” magical thinkers, and miscellaneous gurus. They were a free-for-all of mixed motives and monetization strategies — confident, happy, friendly, an doften rich , And unlike me — the Christian evangelist failure — they  had no problem evangelizing like crazy. Part of that was a sign of the times — evangelizing was trendy back then, corporations were in the first wave of creating job descriptions like “brand evangelist,” which meant a salesperson on a higher plane –credentialed, trustworthy, cool.

Plus there was all this God-talk. In my Christian days we were careful about too much God-talk, lest we scare off the lost/unchurched. These Christianity substitutes didn’t have that problem. They were religions claiming they weren’t religions because they didn’t use religious vocabulary  — xcept for the ubiquitous “God,” which eventually morphed into “the Universe.” Free of old religion language meant they were free to carry on like that good ol’ time religion – for example the atheist group that met on Sunday mornings for music, teaching, and fellowship. Seriously.

One of the more fascinating new religions was atheism. I was just starting to suspect I’d become one of them when I discovered the “new atheists” and their “four horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett). I thought this will be great, these new atheists will help me with my new atheism. I sampled a couple of Sam Harris’s books, and they were ferociously evangelistic. They and the other atheists, humanists, rationalists, and skeptics I came across always seemed to be looking for a fight  – they were out to convert you. (One exception:  Christopher Hitchens and his book Mortality. I read it twice, and we’ll talk more aboutthat topic another time.)

I suppose it was like being on the rebound – having just left one broken faith relationship, it was tempting to bounce into another, but for me the temptation wasn’t hard to resist. I wasn’t ready, all that similarity made me wary. So I kept my foot on the brake, watched, studied, took notes. After a few years, I started to see that the issue wasn’t God vs. non-God, religion vs. non-religion, it was believing in the first place. Like Christianity, these new religious substitutes all started with things you couldn’t know, you could only believe (or not). The whole structure grew from there.

I was seeing Beliefism in action. As I said last time,

Beliefism is about the dynamics of belief –what happens to us individually and when we believe things in groups.

Belief always works the same way, regardless of the thing believed.

Beliefism 101:  Belief is Biological

If there’s anything we need to understand about belief, it’s that belief is all in your head. The phrase usually comes with an eye roll:  you’re out of touch, delusional. Strip out the accusation and the more precise version is, “At this moment, your brain is creating different beliefs about reality than what my brain and the other brains in our cultural context are creating.” Belief is both individual and communal, and it happens in our heads.

Belief is biological. We believe with our brains.. Our brains are cells, tissues, differentiated regions, pathways, circuits, hormones…. That’s where beliefs, ideas, dreams, visions, things we imagine, causes we support, ideals we embrace come from. They’re all biology in action.

We weren’t taught that; we don’t think that way. Instead, we think beliefs come from an alternate reality – Someplace Other that’s not made of the same cosmic stuff we are. Beliefs aren’t grungy like the here and now, they’re elegant and aloof, enduringly above the rabble. They have classy names like Mystery, Eternity, Heaven, Somewhere Else, Up There, The Other Side of the Veil. Beliefs give us Spirit and Past Lives and The Universe, the Eternal Soul, God and gods, Angels and Archangels. (Devil and Demons, too, which you’d think we could do without, but not so fast – the bad guys have their own useful purpose.)

If we’re going to have there and here, them and us, we need passageways and communication links. Trips back and forth (round trip for supernatural beings, one-way for humans) are invested with special solemnity, fear and reverence, and communications come with special zest and fervency – they’re not just more spam, they’re revelation, awakening, inspiration, conversion, flashes of brilliance and insight, dramatic impact. We’re taking Moses and the Ten Commandments, the voice from Heaven, the disembodied fingers writing “mene, mene, tekel, parsin” on the wall.

All those connections engage and empower us, connect us to Truth and Higher Power. They line us up with all the meaning and purpose that all the supernatural beings and ancestors and wise ones who live in that invisible realm of spirit, soul, truth, celestial glory and power are a position to offer us – all of them “up there” who “look down on us” and care enough to magically set things in motion to teach us a lesson or even give us a hand now and then. We want all that, and we’ll go to great lengths to get ourselves properly aligned to keep the channels open.

All for the sake of something that happens in our brains. All that transcendent, invisible, spiritual, mysterious realm that accompanies us through life exists in the spongy stuff inside our heads. Belief in God is generated by the same biology that distinguishes a tree from a toadstool.

Belief is biological.

Got that?

We need to get that.

We almost never do.

There’s a piece of lab equipment they call “the God helmet.” The lab tech puts it on you and zaps a certain area in your brain (the same area that’s responsible for epileptic seizures), and you have a religious experience. They tested it on a group of nuns. Their response was, “Isn’t it wonderful that God put a receptor in our brains so we can communicate with him!” Science can create religious experience, but nobody – scientist or not – can prove or disprove God or anything else that exists in the realm of belief. You can only believe it or not, and when you do, you bring it into existence. You become the belief’s God, it’s creator and lord. So, brain-zapping lab tech or not, if you want to believe it’s God making your religious ecstasy happen, you’re going to believe ii.

Most people like it that way. Too much “it’s all in your head” makes us feel small. We’d rather follow the grand tradition of dressing up the Other and what it has to say with poetry, and writing it in a book:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:  8-9

And then, having said that, we fill up the book with God’s thoughts, having just said we’re not capable of knowing them.

Anybody else see a problem with that?

How can we do that? Easy:  God and God’s thoughts both exist in our brains. They sit in there not far from each other, with highspeed wiring linking them together. Belief makes the trip from “I can’t do this” to “I can do this” in a nanosecond.

Belief becomes Beliefism when it grows up. We’ll talk more about it next time.

Beliefism [Part 2]: Evangelicals and Evangelizing

Believers had a double duty:  to be evangelical (believe the right stuff) and to evangelize (tell everybody about it – also known as “witnessing”). The first part came naturally — I was a good student,. The second part, not so much. Of all the things I ever did as a Christian, witnessing was hands-down the most awkward and humiliating. I was a total witnessing failure from the get-go. That was a problem because if you were in love with Jesus you’d want to tell everybody, wouldn’t you? (Well, um, no, not really. I mean, my wife and I, we just sort of… dated. Which means I spent a lot of years wondering if I really loved Jesus after all.)

Witnessing

Early on, I met some Baptists for whom witnessing was their highest and best good. That’s how they fulfilled the “Great Commission” — where it says in the Bible we’re supposed to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. I was still wondering if it was okay to smoke marijuana now that I was born again when they pushed a stack of “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts into my hand and said, “There’s a Billy Graham movie in town next week. You can be a counselor.” (Apparently if you’re a newbie it strengthens your faith if you start witnessing right away.)

My job as a counselor was to execute the basic Billy Graham evangelistic closing strategy. The movie would end with an “altar call” – an invitation to “go forward” and “give your life to Christ.” A few of the counselors would go forward right away (one at a time, so it didn’t look preplanned), so it looked like they were answering the call, and then crowd psychology would kick in and make it easier for other people to join them. Then the counselors would work the crowd and share the Four Spiritual Laws with the sinners so they would “come to Jesus.”

One night the only person who went forward was one of the counselors. He stood there alone for a long, awkward time before the lights finally went up. I thought about joining him like I was supposed to, but I went with some of my “unbeliever” friends and… well, I just didn’t feel like it. I have a vague memory of going forward and “sharing the gospel” only once, talking to a guy while his girlfriend looked on, and never closing the deal. Like I said — a total witnessing failure.

The Surprise Exit Strategy

As it turned out, being a witnessing failure turned out to be my exit strategy.

Evangelizing wasn’t optional — everybody needed to pitch in to help save the lost because for one thing the Second Coming wouldn’t happen until we finished the job, and besides you were a total loser if you didn’t. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but a lot of us were witnessing failures, so we looked for approaches that didn’t involve cold calling or the Four Spiritual Laws.

The last nondenominational denomination I belonged to was founded by a former L.A. music producer named John Wimber who looked just like Jerry Garcia. He got “saved hard” and figured out how to start a church for ex-Jesus Freaks who’d tried to grow up and get real jobs but missed that 1960’s vibe. He called it Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which became “the Vineyard” (which was confusing, because there was a wine shop by that name) and it went viral (before “viral” existed) in the 80’s. It started as a “church renewal,” but that didn’t last long – people got tired of trying to renew a church that already had to live through the 70’s and really wasn’t in the mood for more of that, so Wimber and the Vineyard settled on“church planting” as its Great Commission fulfillment strategy.

Church planting meant putting together a good soft-rock band, funny sermons, recovery groups, food banks, “newly single” Bible studies, and generally being hip and young and trendy and cool enough to draw a crowd to your converted freshly painted former warehouse with an awesome sound system. Plus, we weren’t trying to save the lost, we were trying to make it cool for the “unchurched” – a more clinical, managerial term – to come to church. Same dif but hey, words matter.

“Church planter” was the highest level of cred in the Vineyard, so of course I had to be one. I bailed on my career, sold our house, loaded the family into the minivan, and followed the moving van 1500 miles to plant a new church for the unchurched. My wife starting crying before we left the Denver city limits, and kept it up all across Kansas. If ever there was a sign from God for how my church planting mission was going to go, that was it.

Turned out I was a victim of my own success:  I was good enough at drawing an unchurched crowd that I got blacklisted for “sheep stealing.” The problem was that they weren’t all unchurched — some of them came over from the sponsoring church, and the pastor was pissed that I was “sheep stealing.” Never mind that Wimber’s official church planting policy was don’t worry about that, they don’t belong to anybody, they’re all God’s sheep. (Christians like to talk about how people are like sheep. It’s a Bible thing – the book was written when counting sheep was like counting money.) Official church planting policy or not, sheep stealing still got me kicked out, and that’s what got things rolling on eventually getting me all the way out.

Once I was out, the good news was, I didn’t need to evangelize anymore. The bad news was, my life was ruined. But the truth was, I was the one who had ruined it by believing what I believed. I’d been playing by the believer rules, but they’re set up so the house always wins — you’ll never get it right and when you don’t it’s always all your fault. (Duh – that’s what “sin” is all about, right? Note to self:  maybe you’re free to believe what you like, but there are consequences if you act on what you believe – as some of the mob that stormed the Capitol found out when they went home and got a knock on the door and it wasn’t Jesus standing on the other side.)

Faith on the Rebound

Between life with God and life without God, I ran across lots of church substitutes:  self-help, positive psychology, “New Thought” churches, intellectuals. rationalists, humanists, skeptics, and materialists; and an assortment of New Agers, vortex-finders, shamans, psychics, dietary supplement pushers, energy healers, kinesthesiologists, life coaches, “alternative” healers, and miscellaneous gurus. They were a free-for-all of mixed motives and monetization strategies, and they all evangelized like crazy – plus there was more God-talk than in my Christian days. (We were always careful about too much God-talk, lest it scare the lost and unchurched away.)

The most obnoxious evangelists were the “four horsemen” of the “new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. I thought this will be great, they’ll help me with my new atheism,, but I only made it partway through a couple of their books. (One exception:  Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality, which I read all the way through twice. We’ll talk more about its theme later on in this series.) The same was true of the other atheist offerings I came across –associations, conventions, websites, books, webinars, video series, TV specials, interviews. It was always the same menu:  arguments for and against God and why life without God was better. Like you could argue God and a better life in or out of existence.

From what I could tell, the whole mixed up crowd of Christianity substitutes was a lot of people on the rebound — rushing from one broken faith relationship to another. They were religions claiming they weren’t religions because they had a different vocabulary – like one atheist group I came across that met on Sunday mornings for music, teaching, fellowship…. Seriously.

The issue wasn’t God, it was the believing part.

In time, it became clear that the issue wasn’t God vs. non-God, it was believing in the first place. Belief always works the same way, regardless of the thing believed. Years of wandering through the land of religion substitutes and studying how they worked revealed they all shared the same dynamics, which I’ve come to call beliefism.

Beliefism is about the dynamics of belief –what happens to us individually and when we believe things in groups.

More next time.

Beliefism [Part 1]: The Accidental Atheist

Seeing the Light

I didn’t mean to become an atheist. It just sort of happened until one day I checked the “none” box and made it official. No ceremony, just a realization. “Atheist” wasn’t an option for “religious preference” – “none” is less dramatic than “do you consider yourself to be one of the faithless, the godless, the terminally backslidden?” Well yes, as a matter of fact  I do, but that doesn’t mean I dash from cover to cover to evade the Heavenly Zot Finger. In fact, being an atheist isn’t at all like I once thought it would be.

Then and Now

I went to church when I was a kid because everybody went to church when I was a kid. After a year of Hippie wannabe partying my first year of college, I became a Jesus Freak, then a Pentecostal, a charismatic, an evangelical before there was such a thing, a fundamentalist although nobody would admit that’s what we were, plus I booked time in “nondenominational” churches and “parachurches,” and along the way hung out with Baptists, Catholics, Episcopals, and Lutherans. A journeyman Christian, we’ll call it.

The Redemption Story

All those versions of Christianity pretty much believed the same things, plus each had its own points of doctrinal purity that justified producing under its own label. Mostly, we preferred just “Christian” –our way of signaling don’t worry, we’re not sectarian here, we’re in the sweet spot, right down the middle, no other adjectives needed. The basic story was pretty much the same everywhere.

  • The human race enjoyed a utopian past when life was good.
  • But then we blew it. We “fell.”
  • In our defense, we had help – the Devil made us do it. But still it’s all our fault we’re so screwed up.
  • Before we get blasted by the heavenly zot finger for being terminally incompetent at life, we get a knock on the door of our “heart” (not the one that pumps blood, but the one that chokes you up when you get emotional). If we answer the knock, Jesus is standing there with an invitation back to the Garden. We’d love to go, but we can’t get there, not in our current condition.
  • So we’re going to need help. We need God to forgive us for falling, and we need a Savior to handle the necessary arrangements. That’s Jesus, too.
  • Once Jesus gets things fixed up with God, all is forgiven and we get citizenship in God’s Kingdom. People today who’ve never had a king in charge before think having a king is just the greatest thing.
  • Plus, everybody in the Kingdom is related, so we’ve got all this new family we never knew we had, with God himself presiding fatherly-like at the head of the table. There are definitely benefits to showing up for family gatherings and remembering birthdays.
  • Having a king means we’re subjects and servants – which people today who’ve never had a king also think is just the best thing – which includes being conscripted into the King’s army, which means we’re always marching off to war with the cross of Jesus going on before. Since our new King is more powerful than any human pretenders, that means we get to totally waste everybody who’s not part of us, because if you’re not with us you’re against us, and if you’re against us you lose. We have God on our side, after all.
  • So we go along through life and if things go as promised (they never seem to) life is better than it would have been if we’d never answered the knock (which by now seems a long time ago), except that part of the deal is that we need to suffer and be persecuted and if we’re lucky we might even get martyred. (You don’t get free grace for nothing.)
  • What keeps us going through all those trials and tribulations is that one great day (which is always going to happen any minute now and never does, but we need to live on the alert in case it does) we’ll have it really good forever and ever amen.
  • If you die before that day comes and you believe all the right things, you get the pre-opening move-in special to Heaven, unless you’re a Catholic, in which case you might need to wait in a giant waiting room for awhile.
  • Meanwhile the heavenly zot finger has been charging up all this time for one good last blast. Some branches of the family think we’ll get a free pass out before that happens and everybody else will be Left Behind where they’ll get a taste of what hell is like before they get there for good. Other branches aren’t really sure the world is going to blow up quite that way, even though we could do the job ourselves with nukes or climate change.
  • One way or another, when you get to your own end, it could be anything from “no worries, it’s all good” to “this is really going to hurt.”

Okay, so maybe that was a little snarky.

But it is a fair summary of what I heard and learned and personally believed for over two irretrievable decades of my life. Snarky gets old fast, and I don’t want to make it a habit, but it has its place. The pen is not always mightier than the sword, but irony and sarcasm can put things into useful relief. I go back to snarky now and then, like I did above, when I want to remember what it felt like to look around and wonder, did I really believe that? Looking at it now, it seems so complicated. convoluted, contradictory. Snarky is the voice of anger, and we need anger to tackle big challenges — like refashioning an outlook on life .that’s different from what you’ve been believing and practicing for a long time.

Snarky gains traction by fueling inner outrage. For me, that involved being willing to admit that I had some not so nice and friendly feelings about where I’d come from.

  • Regret and resentment about what my God days cost me.
  • Disgust about what the Bible actually says, and dismay that I never noticed.
  • A revulsion reflex that kicks in whenever I see Christian symbols or see Christians doing Christian things or speaking or writing Christianese. (My wife is a Jesus fan. She says I’ve developed an anaphylactic reaction.)

Regret, resentment, disgust, and revulsion keep me alert to the reality that there are consequences to what I believe. Feelings like that weren’t welcome during my Christian years. You weren’t supposed to feel that way – you needed to forgive and be forgiven, put it behind you, be grateful that you were reconciled to an angry God who had every right to punish you for that original Adam and Eve transgression.

Emerging from the Christian faith is hard.

But it’s harder to resist the dawn.

Impossible, really.

“It suddenly dawned on me,” we say. Dawn has its sudden moment when the sun finally crests the horizon, but it’s been coming long before — gradually, inexorably. From the first hints of light, it’s going to happen, and no holding it back.

“I saw the light!” Christians sing, describing lightbulb flash conversion– like the Apostle Paul getting blasted off his horse with a heavenly light and a voice from heaven. People who had “testimonies” like that had special status in the Christian groups I was part of – you were cooler if you got “saved hard,” as one Christian leader liked to say. So you would make the fish a little bigger and little harder to catch every time you told your own fish story. I did that — most of us did — like my AA friend who said his group liked to tell “I got so drunk one time that…” stories.

By contrast, getting unsaved wasn’t like that. No light bulbs, no heavenly light, no getting saved hard.

Just the dawn.

The Dark Side of Perfection

dark side

Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

“The Enlightenment was a curse and a blessing.” Chris Hedges writes in  I Don’t Believe in Atheists,

“Its proponents championed human dignity and condemned tyranny, superstition, ignorance and injustice.

“But there was a dark side to the Enlightenment. Philosophers insisted that the universe and human nature could be understood and controlled by the rational mind. The human species, elevated above animals because it  possessed the capacity to reason, would break free of its animal nature and, through reason, understand itself and the world. It would make wise and informed decisions for the betterment of humanity.

“The disparity between the rational person  and the instinctive, irrational person, these philosophers argued, would be solved through education and knowledge.”

Sounds exalted, but we know better. Neuro-psychology — including Nobel-prize winning research in behavioral economics[1] –shows that we rarely reason our way to informed decisions. Instead, we rationalize our choices and behaviors after the fact to ensure that they line up with what we were individually and culturally predisposed to decide and do in the first place.

“Rationalization happens in two steps: A decision, action, judgement is made for a given reason, or no (known) reason at all. A rationalization is performed, constructing a seemingly good or logical reason, as an attempt to justify the act after the fact (for oneself or others).”

Then, once we are full of rationalized belief in the rightness, truthfulness, fate, destiny, inevitability, divine initiation  of our belief and actions — and therefore ourselves and our place in the world and in history —  we believe what we believe to a fault, which makes us capable of all sorts of evil in the name of good.

“If we see ourselves as the culmination of a long, historical process toward perfectibility, rather than a tragic reflection of what went before, then we are likely to think the ends justify the means. …

“Fascists and communists combined violent, revolutionary fervor with the Christian millenarian dream of a heaven on earth. They adopted the pseudoscientific doctrine that it was possible to have complete knowledge and complete mastery of the human species. It was that fusion of utopian violence and industrial and bureaucratic power that marked the birth of totalitarianism.”

Once we get rolling on the path to perfection, we can pick up unlikely allies along the way, as has been the case with the radical secular and religious fundamentalists:

“The liberal church also usually buys into the myth that we can morally progress as a species.

“It is this naïve belief in our goodness and decency — this inability to face the dark reality of human nature, our capacity for evil and the morally neutral universe we inhabit — that is the most disturbing aspect of all these belief systems.

“There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature.

“We are not advancing toward a glorious utopia.”

After his unrelenting excoriation of rational and religious fundamentalists and their allies, Hedges identifies one kind of belief system that seems to have opted out of the rush to dystopia.

“An atheist who accepts an irredeemable and flawed human nature, as well as a morally neutral universe, who does not think the world can be perfected by human beings, who is not steeped in cultural arrogance and feelings of superiority … is intellectually honest. These atheists may not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality. They hold an honored place in a pluralistic and diverse human community.

“Atheists, including those wo brought us the Enlightenment, have often been a beneficial force in the history of human thought and religion. They have forced societies to examine empty religions platitudes and hollow religious concepts. They have courageously challenged the moral hypocrisy of religious institutions. The humanistic values of the Enlightenment were a response to the abuses of organized religion, including the attempts by religious authorities to stifle intellectual and scientific freedom. Religious authorities, bought off by the elite, championed a dogmatism that sanctified the privileges and power of the ruling class. But there were always religious figures who defied their own. Many, such as the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, were branded as heretics and atheists.

“The pain of living has also turned honest and compassionate men and women against God. These atheists do not believe in collective moral progress or science and reason as our ticket to salvation. They are not trying to perfect the human race. Rather, they cannot reconcile human suffering with the concept of God. This is an honest struggle. This disbelief is a form of despair, not self-exaltation.”

I found this short and surprising passage the most hopeful and personally affirming in the book.

[1] Richard H. Thaler is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Cass R. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School Professor. Together, they wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009). See also The Nobel In Economics Rewards A Pioneer Of “Nudges” — Richard Thaler becomes one of very few behavioural economists to receive the discipline’s highest honour, The Economist, October 9, 2017 and This Headline Is A Nudge To Get You To Read About Nobel Economist Richard Thaler — Okay, it’s not a very good nudge, but his work is really important! Vox, October 9, 2017.

Life in Paradise (You Don’t Want It)

commune family

It’s just another day in paradise 
As you stumble to your bed 
You’d give anything to silence 
Those voices ringing in your head 
You thought you could find happiness 
Just over that green hill 
You thought you would be satisfied 
But you never will- 

The Eagles

A couple posts back, we heard award-winning journalist and ex-war correspondence Chris Hedges say that,

“The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment.”

Belief in the perfectibility of human beings and human society, he says, turns religious zealots and rationalist diehards alike into fundamentalists — a mindset that spawns all kinds of evils. The problem isn’t that one believes in God but the other doesn’t, but that neither of them actually believes in sin:

“We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgement that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in our species. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human. These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak, and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.

“We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril. Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed — though not equally flawed. Sin is the acceptance that there will never be  a final victory over evil, that the struggle for amorality is a battle that will always have to be fought. Studies in cognitive behavior illustrate the accuracy and wisdom of this Biblical concept. Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive. This understanding of innate human corruptibility and human limitations, whether explained by the theologian Augustine or the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been humankind’s most potent check on utopian visions. It has forced human beings to accept their own myopia and irrationality, to acknowledge that no act, even one defined as moral or virtuous, is free from the taint of self-interest and corruption. We are bound by our animal nature.”

Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists

“Sin” in this context is not a doctrinal concept, it’s an acceptance that human beliefs and institutions are all imperiled because… well, because they’re human:  we’re not perfect; our belief systems and the institutions aren’t either. Sin means our utopian visions blind us to our shadow side:

“James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, spoke of the “old triumvirate of tyrants of the human soul, the libido sciendi, the libido sentiendi, and the libido dominandi. [The lust of the mind, the lust of the flesh, and the lush for power.] Adams, who worked with the anti-Nazi church leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1935 and 1936 in Germany, warned us that these lusts are universal and intractable. They lurk beneath the surface of the most refined cultures and civilizations. ‘We may call these tendencies by any name we wish,’ he said, ‘but we do not escape their destructive influence by a conspiracy of silence concerning them.’

“The belief that science or religion can eradicate these lusts leads to the worship of human potential and human power. These lusts are woven into our genetic map. We can ameliorate them, but they are always with us’ we will never ultimately defeat them. The attempt to deny the lusts within us empowers this triumvirate. They surface, unexamined and unheeded, to commit evil in the name of good. We are not saved by reason. We are not saved by religion. We are saved by turning away from projects that tempt us to become God, and by accepting our own contamination and the limitations of being human.”

Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists

Sin explains why so communes and other “intentional communities” usually fail:  they begin with visions of utopia, but end up “reproduc[ing] many of the same tyrannies that people were trying to escape: egoism, power struggles, envy, mistrust and fear.” “Utopia, Inc.,”. Aeon Magazine (Feb. 28, 2017)

Sin also explains cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer Christian Jarrett’s “evidence-based … 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature.” The Bad News On Human Nature, In 10 Findings From Psychology,” Aeon Magazine (Dec. 5, 2018).

More coming up on the dangers of the perfection myth.

The Price of Paradise

The Price of Paradise

We looked last week at war correspondent and journalist Chris Hedges’ book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, in which he argues that the “new atheists” and religious believers share the same flawed fundamentalist zeal for utopia that leads inevitably to dystopia.

That post enjoyed some prescient timing — a new book taking the same position came out about the time I was writing it:   The Price of Paradise by Iain Overton, scholar, journalist, Executive Director of Action On Armed Violence, and Expert Member of the Forum on Arms Trade. The latter published a book release interview entitled “Understanding and Beginning to Address Suicide Bombing– An Interview With Iain Overton on “the Price of Paradise,” (Apr. 8, 2019) in which Mr. Overton said this:

“The most notable fact – and the reason I wrote the book – has been that of a major shift towards suicide bombing use, especially in the last decade both in terms of attacks and casualties. More than 40% of all people killed by suicide bombers since their first use against the Tsar of Russia in 1881 have happened in the last five years.

“This is in large part because of a major spike in attacks by Salafist jihadists. Such a dark trend has, though, deep historical roots.  In the book I argue that ISIS is, effectively, the sum of the parts of previous suicide bomb campaigns.  It has elements of the utopianism of the Russia revolutionaries of the 19th century; the militarism of the Japanese kamikaze; the Islamic notion of sacrifice as developed in Iran under the Ayatollah Khomenei; the strategic logic of Lebanese terror groups; the targeting of civilians as seen by Hamas; the cult of the leadership as seen under the Tamil Tigers; and the millenarianism and global conflict as summed up by Al Qaeda.

“In addition to this, though, modern day Salafist jihadist suicide bombers have a profound sense of ‘end of days’ – a millenarian logic that means, to those bombers, death is loved more than life and their sacrifice is integral to the creation of a glittering Islamic future.

A review in the Evening Standard said this:

“In his sweeping survey of suicide bombings — from the first documented modern suicide bomber, Ignaty Grinevitsky, a revolutionary who murdered Tsar Alexandar II in St Petersburg in 1881, to today’s jihadists — veteran journalist and human rights activist Iain Overton sees a vision of utopia as a common thread.

“Despite the different national, ideological and historical contexts of suicide bombers in countries as disparate as Russia, Japan, Iran, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, America, Europe and beyond, all are driven, we are told, by religious messianism and zealotry. A wish for paradise and an all-consuming religious sentiment unites nearly all of them, including secular revolutionaries, Marxists, insurrectionists and jihadis.

The reviewer wasn’t convinced:

“Overton’s overarching and parsimonious argument erases core differences in motivation and ideologies between suicide bombers across time and space. Surely, the drivers behind their actions are more complex and multi-varied than a single cause?”

On the other hand, the reviewer commended the book’s analysis of what happens when one utopian vision clashes with another — in this case, the impact of the USA’s War on Terror:

“Where Overton’s book excels is in explaining the consequences of the US’s (and Europe’s) overreaction to suicide bombers, particularly after 9/11. America’s global war on terror was costly in blood and treasure, as well as counterproductive.

“In November 2018 Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs released the Costs of War study in which it was calculated that the US will have spent $5.9 trillion on activities related to the global war on terror from 2001 until October 2019.

“Despite this staggering sum, not to mention that incalculable human cost, the number of jihadist fighters only multiplied in the same period from about 37,000 to 66,000 fighters in 2001 to about 100,000 to 230,000 in 2018 (according to a report by the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies).

“Overton also underscores the corrosive effects of the global counter-terrorism campaign on the rule of law and open society in Western democracies.”

Hedges made a similar point in I Don’t Believe in Atheists:

“Terrorists support acts of indiscriminate violence not because of direct, personal affronts to their dignity, but more often for lofty, abstract ideas of national, ethnic, or religious pride, with the goal of a utopian, harmonious world purged of evil. The longer the United States occupies Afghanistan and Iraq, the more these feelings of collective humiliation are aggravated, the greater the number of jihadists willing to attack American targets. The strident support of some of the new atheists for a worldwide war against “Islamofascism” is a public relations bonanza and potent recruiting tool for Islamic terrorists. It fuels the collective humiliation and rage we should be trying to thwart.”

I.e., utopian visions are fatally flawed, and so is fighting one utopian vision with another.

More to come..

Heaven: A Clear and Present Danger

1939, THE WIZARD OF OZ

Religion’s endgame is perfection:  bliss, rapture, Heaven, life everlasting, enlightenment, Nirvana, mystical union. Perfection is your reward — in this life and the one to come — for practicing what your religion preaches.

The Age of Enlightenment is also after perfection:  Utopia, the march of civilization, the triumph of human progress, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It puts its faith in reason, science, technology, humanism.

Historically, religion and the Enlightenment have been sometimes friends or at least respectful adversaries, but nowadays they are — like everything else — polarized, wary, distrustful, disrespectful, and often vicious adversaries. But their shared endgame makes them barely distinguishable in their attitudes and agendas says Chris Hedges in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which he wrote after debating Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — two of the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.”[1]

The book’s title might be too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”  Hedges doesn’t have anything against atheists in general, but he has a lot against the new atheists, likening them to religious fundamentalists:

“The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment.

“We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and trust in an absurdist faith.

“These atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a non-reality-based world,  one where force and violence, self-exaltation and blind nationalism are unquestioned goods. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.

“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.”

And that’s just a taste. The whole book is like that. It’s like reading the Prophet Amos — it thunders.

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19     as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:  18-24 NRSV

I Don’t Believe in Atheists has the most wildly polarized reviews I’ve ever seen. People love it or hate it, and the ones who hate it, hate it savagely — beginning with the book’s title, which apparently commits the unpardonable sin of not making it instantly clear whose side it’s on. Hedges, for his part, believes that the fatal flaw of both religious and secular fundamentalism is that neither actually believes in sin.

There’s a lot to talk about here. More coming up.

[1] For more on the new atheists, you might investigate the Closer to Truth video series “Is Atheism a New Faith?”.