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"God in America" - not really


13 October 2010. "God in America," a mini-series produced for PBS by Frontline and American Experience, should have been called "The History of Protestant Evangelicalism." At least then the title would have been honest. Of course, one could no more produce an honest program about god or gods in America than one could produce an honest program about the Easter Bunny or Hamlet in America. The truth has to be about the concepts of god; for god, as always, remains hidden, invisible chameleon that he is, ready to be called into service by any madman or mad woman who seeks to prey upon the poor saps who are consumed by fear of eternal damnation, boredom, and the uncertainty of everyday existence in an often hostile world of people and things. In this country, god has, from its beginning, been wrapped in a little black book called the Bible, a hodgepodge of immorality and absurdity. Wave that little book in the air and speak with authority about being saved from your crappy life and being united with happy, righteous souls for all eternity, and, if you are mesmerizing enough, thousands will beat a path to your door. They won't care what you're selling. It couldn't be worse than what they've got to look forward to.

At least that was the picture I got from watching the first two hours of the program, which seems to be mainly the view of Stephen Prothero, whose face and comments return again and again throughout the show. As I said, god makes no appearance in the program, not that we should expect him to. But the folks depicted don't talk much about god, either. They mostly talk about fear of hell and the desire for salvation and redemption. Oh, and they talk about freedom of religion, which for most of the people depicted seems to have meant little more than the freedom to persecute those who disagreed with them about matters they considered "biblical."

The program is mainly about the religious disputes of some of the Protestants who emigrated from Europe. There is nothing about the religious beliefs of those who were already here, maybe because those beliefs played no part in American history, except as examples of what happens to those vanquished by Christian armies. (The show did begin with the incursion into New Mexico by the Spanish. I suppose the viewer is being encouraged to wonder what this country would be like had the natives of the east driven out the Europeans as had the natives of the southwest. In any case, we all know what eventually happened to the Pueblo and other indigenous folks when the "Americans" came with or without evangelists.

The first two hours of the program focuses on Protestant evangelicals and two major political conflicts. The more important one was resolved by establishing the Bill of Rights with its guarantee that Congress would not make any laws regarding an establishment of religion, which I take to mean that Congress is not to establish a national religion. I do not take it to mean that Congress is not to make any laws that affect establishments of religion. In fact, I consider the latter interpretation to be absurd on its face. It is inconceivable that the Framers wanted to give religious establishments unlimited power to regulate themselves in whatever way they saw fit. If that were so, then should a religious community desire to revert to the ancient practice of child sacrifice, it would be none of the government's business. To assume the Framers intended religions to be free of legislative restrictions is to assume the Framers were morons.

The other political issue taken up is the control of public schools by Protestants. The persecution of Catholics continued in Protestant America for most of our history. Now we have a Supreme Court packed with Catholics. But we still have many schools and other public institutions where Protestants (usually) insist on leading prayers or other ineffective incantations, despite Supreme Court rulings that government-based organizations are not to favor any particular religion. It seems like the most basic issue of fairness: religion should be kept out of government affairs. There are too many religions with too many differences of opinion on the most trivial matters to suggest that no harm can be done by saying a "generic" prayer to start a city council meeting or to start the day in a public school. One can understand the inane practice of team prayers before high-school football games. If your whole life is devoted to fantasies, why not fantasize that an omnipotent being is watching you play games. More to the point, this being is ready to intervene, if need be, on your behalf. If you want to control people, what better way than to convince them that there is an omnipresent busybody watching their every move? Can one construct a more egocentric or Orwellian viewpoint? I'm reminded of Steve Martin's cynical character in Leap of Faith before he enters the revival tent: let's go give some meaning to these meaningless little lives. (I'm paraphrasing.)

One can only imagine how dull and fearsome life must have been like for many people if the evangelical characters that dotted the American landscape in the 19th century could mesmerize thousands and turn them into babbling idiots. To be fair, I've only watched the first two hours of "God in America." The people depicted so far are part of the story and it remains to be seen whether the freethinkers and all those non-Protestant religious folks get a fair hearing.

On a side note, I've just finished reading Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Religion poisoned the minds of most of the European immigrants and their descendants depicted in "God in America." The imprint of eternal hellfire was imprinted in their minds as children and corrupted their every thought in adulthood, or so it seems. That religion in the form of evangelicalism was also the antidote to the poison is of little consolation. And, of course, these days one can hardly reflect on religion without speculating about the superstitions people would have if religion were suddenly taken away from them. I have no doubt that irrational beliefs and behaviorsmany of them harmful, sadistic, and cruelwould continue were religion to vanish. But at least people wouldn't wallow in the fear of eternal damnation, making them vulnerable to the emotional elixirs that require them to leave both their shoes and their minds at the door.

Having Hitchens's narrative fresh in my mind made it all the more obvious to me as I watched Prothero's narrative unfold: religions and god-intoxicated people can't mind their own business. They are driven to infect your life and impose their hideous visions and practices on you. That would be invidious enough, but they must also damn you as evil and immoral if you object to their monstrosities.


14 October 2010. The third hour of "God in America" is devoted to the Civil War. I find nothing entertaining or amusing about the Civil War. The carnage and destruction to the country that had been built over little more than half a century may have been inevitable given the inclusion of legal slavery in the Constitution. In any case, it was certainly inevitable that humans on both sides would try to give the war a grand meaning in the scheme of things. Issues of states' rights and slavery would be elevated to the status of things Almighty God takes a special interest in.

God wants slavery to end. God sanctions slavery. Both sides can quote scripture to their favor. God is on the side of the Union. God is on the side of the Confederacy. Both sides can wave their little black books to emphasize their righteousness and impress themselves with their infallibility. Lincoln, portrayed as a deist who comes to see God's will being enacted in the carnage and destruction, is certainly one of the most tragic figures in our history. He became so despondent that he looked for a divine sign to guide him or made a pact with the divine, depending on how one looks at it: if the Union prevails at Antietam, I'll issue the Emancipation Proclamation and free the slaves in the rebellious states. What if the south had prevailed at Antietam? Would Lincoln have capitulated and claimed it was God's will?

The Union wins because God wanted slavery to end: so say the victors. Why did God want slavery to end, and why now rather than earlier or later? Those who claim to divine the will of the gods always have an answer, so don't expect to stump them with some silly question that reveals god's imbecility. Perhaps god wanted to torment the freed slaves and their descendents for several more generations with promises of equality in the segregated and Jim Crow south and hypocritical north? To these diviners of the divine will Almighty God was punishing a nation of people who had declared themselves the new and improved "chosen people," with the same result, one might add, as the Jews of old. This is what happens when you choose a wrathful god to choose you as his special people and requires you to be righteous. Well, at least you always have a ready explanation for why things go badly.

The moral of the story should be: god had nothing to do with the success or failure of this nation, with the institution of slavery, the genocide of the natives, or the Civil War. God didn't will segregation or Jim Crow. God has no chosen people. People choose themselves to be the chosen people. People choose to kill, steal, enslave, and destroy. That they use god as a shield and an excuse for their immoralities is of psychological interest, perhaps, as is their incessant ranting about the need for redemption. The chosen people, indeed.

The Jews do get their own segment in the fourth hour, devoted in part to Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), the man who brought Reform Judaism to America from Europe where it had begun after the French Revolution. Here I can't fault the makers of this program for their selectivity. The Reform movement is a beautiful example of one road traditional religionists can take when faced with the fact that what might have been fine practices two or three millennia ago don't seem so fine in today's modern world. One response to this fact is to say the hell with the modern world. The old way is the right way and that's that. That's what some Jews have done and it is what some Christians have done, viz., the fundamentalists that respond to advances in Biblical scholarship and science by rejecting both.

Another approach to the clash between the traditional and the modern is to strip down the traditional to its bare essentials, the items that can't be abandoned without abandoning the essence of the religion. Thus, items like dietary prohibitions of shellfish, requirements regarding hygiene or hair, dress restrictions, stoning people to death for adultery, and the like could be dropped. The Ten Commandments, the chosen people idea, genital mutilation, no eating of the pig, and the like, must be kept. The problem with this approach is that the hardcore traditionalists won't budge, and the reformers can't agree on what's essential. Wise alienated many rabbis with his "trefa dinner" to celebrate the first graduation from his Hebrew Union College. The menu included every food prohibited in Leviticus 11 except pork. Wise did not attack traditional Judaism as a hostile enemy, but as a loving friend who wanted to see Jews live and prosper in the modern world. Today, Reform Jews far outnumber Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in America. One can only hope that someday reformed Muslims will far outnumber their traditionalist brethren.

It is probably true that fundamentalist Christians are far outnumbered by those Christians who accept that the Bible can't be literally true and, if it is to be read at all for truth,  it must be read as a set of allegories and myths. As one of my students eloquently, though accidentally, put it: the Bible is not a single book, it is the copulation of many books. I'm sure the Roman Catholic Church sometimes regrets that it ever authorized the copulation known as the Vulgate. How were they to foresee that someday there would be a printing press, translations, and enough people who could read them to cause trouble for Rome? Once this collection of "authorized" texts as "god's word" was established, it was only a matter of time before its grosser errors would be recognized, not to mention the disputes that would arise as to which books were authentic and which were the work of mere men. This problem, of course, is independent of the Protestant problem, where each individual can wave his little black book and claim to read and understand god's will directly without the need of any authoritative or infallible church.

Again, however, there have been attempts by Christian pastors and theologians to reform Christianity with love and concern, rather than with hostility and anger. Yet, like Rabbi Wise, they have been met with as much hostility and anger from traditionalists as from atheists. In any case, "God in America" does a decent job of covering the response of evangelical Protestants to Biblical criticism and modern science, i.e., the idea of evolution by natural selection as the origin of our species. William Jennings Bryan, though he had many fine qualities and defended many fine ideas, was depicted as the Biblical simpleton he was. (Francis Collins comes off in similar fashion when he discusses religion with Bill Maher in Religulous. When asked why a significant event like the virgin birth didn't make it into two of the gospels, Collins responds with the ineffable notion that such an omission is exactly what you'd expect if the gospels were true.)

In its abbreviated format, "God in America" explains as well as can be expected how some tried to accommodate religion to the modern world and change it to fit with the times, and how the reactionaries responded with an entrenched fundamentalism. One group saw the necessity of change to maintain and progress in religion. The other saw the necessity of preserving the ancient, encrusted beliefs to prevent all hell from breaking loose. Is god a dolt or a genius? A dolt say the fundamentalists; a genius say the modernists. The biggest stretch in imagination, in my view, was the attempt of the producers to see in the religious divide between traditionalists and modernists a foreshadowing of our current divide in politics that pits the merely conservative versus the more conservative, though the very conservative refer to the merely conservative as "liberal." We are still fighting the battle that began more than two centuries ago regarding the role of religion in politics. We're still fighting the battle over the role of the federal government in our lives. It will be interesting to see how the producers of this program will portray the idea of the Christian white man's burden that dominated America's attempt to set up an empire in both South America and the Orient.

Some of us, when contrasting science with religion, have praised the former for changing its mind when the facts change and damned the latter for holding its ground when everything beneath it was collapsing. Reform Judaism exemplifies one way a religion can change. Liberal Christian theology that rejects such things as belief in the Virgin birth or in the story of Exodus is another example of "progress" in religion. Some religions have shed ancient myths and falsehoods like snakes shedding layers of skin. These "revised" religions are dubbed heresies and anathema by those devoted to the ancient ways. Change has also gone in the other direction, i.e., gotten more convoluted and distant from fact. See the stories of Muhammad and Joseph Smith for examples.


Before watching and reviewing the last two hours of "God in America," I bring you this interlude regarding a Point of Inquiry podcast featuring PZ Myers, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Chris Mooney discussing religion.

One way in which religion changes is that people stay with the ancient religion but pick and choose what to actually believe. Many people who belong to an organized religion don't call themselves atheists or agnostics, but the sum of their religiosity seems to consist of little more than some vague feeling about the mystery of existence. Others call themselves Catholics and ex-Catholics, but the difference between the two in terms of beliefs they consider central to their lives may be negligible.

One wonders how many Catholics accept all the beliefs set forth in the Nicene creed. Myers proffers that the list of beliefs required there is so absurd and false that one is duty-bound to attack those who claim to accept them. (Please don't take me literally.) The problem is that many of the same people who profess belief in the Trinity (God the Father Almighty, Jesus the only "begotten" son of God, and the Holy Ghost who "proceeds" from the Father) also profess that it is good to love other people and to be charitable. Many of them are also scientists and see no serious conflict between their religious beliefs, however alien they might seem to reason, and science.

No atheist I know considers it foolish to believe that it is good to love other people and to be charitable. It would be unconscionable to attack or criticize a religious or secular person for such beliefs. But it would likewise be unconscionable to stand by mutely while some man dressed in flowing robes tells you that you are damned to eternal hellfire if you don't accept the absurd doctrine of the Trinity. On the other hand, the doctrine of the Trinity is so irrelevant to science and just about everything else on earth except as a required belief to be a member of a certain religious community that one wonders why an atheist would bother ridiculing the belief. If you really want to hear an intelligent person babble and burble, ask an eminent Catholic scientist to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

A belief that is not so recondite as the Trinity and one that is relevant to the lives of many people, religious and secular, is belief about abortion. Hecht claims that Catholics have the most abortions, which you wouldn't expect since the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is murder. One study on abortion I found, done in the mid-1990s, says that women who live with a partner outside marriage or have no religious identification are 3.5-4.0 times as likely as women in the general population to have an abortion. The study also claims that Catholics are as likely as women in the general population to have an abortion, while Protestants are only 69% as likely and Evangelical or born-again Christians are only 39% as likely. Of course, it is possible that Catholic women who have abortions believe they are committing a mortal sin and rush off to confession as soon as possible after the abortion. It's also possible that many of these women consider themselves Catholics but don't accept the Church's doctrine on abortion.

According to the BBC news, a survey in 1999 of leading religious leaders in England found that only about 3% believe in the Biblical version of creation, only 13% believe Adam and Eve existed, and 25% reject the virgin birth story. Of course, religious surveys may be suspect: one survey found that 15% of atheists and agnostics accept the virgin birth myth.

Even though religious people might identify with some church, synagogue, or mosque, the beliefs of each individual in the congregations may not be as uniform as their leaders might like. On the other hand, many people never go to church or synagogue and yet consider themselves Catholics or Jews. Still, I find it hard to accept Hecht's claim that atheists and religious believers mostly believe the same things. (Or did she say that we mostly feel the same things? Anyway, she says something to the effect that when she talks to people who say they are religious, they don't seem all that different from herself, even though she's an atheist.) The discussion involving Hecht, Myers, and Mooney is more about form than substance, about tone rather than content. It is unfortunate, but concern with manners has taken precedence over concern with morals. (For another example, see the NYT article "Atheists Debate How Pushy to Be.")

There is a place for a discussion regarding how much respect to give religious beliefs and practices, but the courtroom might be a more important arena for this discussion than an atheist or secular humanist convention. Whether it pays or doesn't pay, in whatever sense of pay you feel like defending, to be blunt and rude when dealing with religious beliefs or acts matters way less than whether our laws let people get away with pedocide in the name of religion. Faith-healing cases where children die because their parents prayed for them instead of getting them proper medical care are well publicized. Not so well publicized are barbaric practices still engaged in by certain ultra-orthodox Jews that involve the rabbi drawing blood with his mouth from the mutilated penis of a baby. Rabbi Yitzhok Fischer gave herpes to several boys in his capacity as a mohel. At least one boy died. Never mind that the rabbi in question "is known internationally as a caring, skilled, and conscientious mohel." He's putting his mouth on a baby's mutilated penis in a religious ritual that may have made some sort of sense millennia ago to the desert people who invented it, but which should not be tolerated today. (Christopher Hitchens discusses this practice and this rabbi in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.)

To those who still wonder whether religion and science are compatible I point to the Rabbi who sucks on the mutilated penises of babies because he thinks God wants him to do this. Do you really think that minds sunk to this level of ignorance can do science? I know. Bad example. There are rather harmless metaphysical beliefs (like belief in the Trinity) that shouldn't affect one's ability to accept and understand, say, evolution by natural selection. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks it odd to ask if religion and science are compatible when there are so many religious people doing science. It is disturbing to see people reject science because of a belief in the infallible truth of documents written hundreds or thousands of years ago that are obviously false, misguided, or misinterpreted. As long as they leave me alone, let these traditionalists reject science. But if they want to live in our communities, they must obey the laws. If we write laws that allow people to abuse their children or commit any other heinous act in the name of religion, we bring as much shame and ignominy upon ourselves as do the worst religious offenders.

We do have a problem in this country because the First Amendment prohibits Congress from "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. Apparently, the Framers didn't realize that some religions consider it the duty of its members to kill or enslave anyone who doesn't accept their religion. Some religions consider anyone born to a father in the religion to be a lifetime member of the religion with no right to leave. They also consider it a duty to kill anyone who tries to leave the religion. This is not an unsolvable problem, since the members of such religions, if they did not modernize their views and abandon their ancient killing customs, would be violating many other laws under which they could be prosecuted. But there is an obvious problem with the language that the Framers used. The words seem to imply that religious exercises are all benign or at least socially acceptable. We have our Constitutional fundamentalists, like Scalia, who think we must apply these words literally. But even Scalia admits we have to look to the time at which the words were used to get their intended meaning. In the context of the 18th century, the Framers clearly did not intend to give people the right to enslave or kill other people as part of a religious exercise. It is simply not true that the Constitution forbids the making of any law restricting the activities of people who hide behind the shield of religion. It is not true to say: I'm an American. I can do anything in the name of religion because the First Amendment says so.

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