A Long Answer to a Few of Jamie’s Comments

Jamie, I adore you.  And not just because you quoted e.e. Cummings in my comment section. Okay, lots to chew on here and so new post so the comment section doesn’t burst.

Jamie says:

“I have to say that by definition all churches (maybe all religions) are cults.  The question is what degree of harm do they do to humanity and individuals.  I would argue that, again, all religions and churches harm humanity in some way or another, to varying degrees, as may all philosophies when “mis-applied”.  Do they ever do any good?  Good and evil are subjective ideas.  They may help an individual here and there, or even more widely, but it could never make up for the amount of damage they cause society as a whole.  Historically speaking, they may have been more useful to society at a certain point in any individual culture’s develpoment.  This seems to no longer be the case.

. . . Humans build and destroy society.  Humans are society.  By what methods do they build society?  information, education, charity, justice, order, etc.  All “things” that can be gotten through secular means.  By what methods do they destroy society?  Lies, misinformation, selfishness, greed, combativeness, intolerance:  these are the domain of religion, especially the latter.”

First, let me agree with Sage in saying that living w/in an ancient moral framework is not all bad.  Nor is it all good, as it turns out. There is lots of secular and religious evil and intolerance (subjective perhaps but influential) in the world and teasing one from the other would take some kind of social gaia-esk math equation I am not capable of performing.

Now, that’s just a dogmatic cop out, however, on a blog that wants to discuss secular and faith-based issues.  And so, let me take just one or two things on, at a bird’s eye level. As far as diving deeper, I will be announcing details, next week, of my faith/secular online book club.  Stay tuned and please join!  Especially you, Jamie. I need you.

Let’s start with intolerance. History is religious.  Secularism’s day has not dawned. Therefore, looking back and declaring intolerance as a product of religion is simply too easy.  It would be like me accusing secularists of being selfish because they do not have all that many well-established, influential charities when 100 years ago being a secularist was taboo and got you blacklisted from people in power.

In other words, we don’t know a world without religion. It is still embedded in our politics and education and social clubs and so parsing out the intolerance that stems from religiosity vs. what stems from general in-group thinking is very difficult.

For example, one could say France’s new law against wearing Burqas in public is a secular and political intolerance. One might also argue that Jan Brewer’s new Arizona law carding Hispanics is political intolerance of a race, at worst, or immigrants at best. Yet, as secular as they may be, religious tie-ins abound in both cases.

In regard to politics and intolerance, I believe America is one of the most tolerant places to live, and we can thank founding deist fathers for building a tolerance for change into our government, but even they had no tolerance for granting rights to Native Americans, African Americans and women.

So, let’s say we get rid of religion once and for all (Stalin tried, incidentally [okay that was a rude dig]).  Secularism reigns. Finally. I’d bet my last dollar that all any secular in-group would need is a threat (in groups being countries, towns, political platforms, social clubs) and *poof* intolerance and potential subjective evil-doing. But why? Because there are inherent problems with being tolerant and taking a stand to protect your resources or your world view, yes?

I am reminded of a recent article from New Scientist about the hazards of feeding a growing population without plowing down protected environment for agriculture space. Who is intolerant in that example? What secular humanist value reigns more true — environmental protection or relieving world hunger? I think a lot of life decisions boil down to platform support like that, regardless of one’s take on deity existence.

Okay, here’s one more that ties back in with politics, faith and tolerance.

Some argue faith is anti-science (philosophically and politically) and therefore doing harm.  I think philosophically this is not necessarily true.  We tend, in media, to get the polarized argument from two extremes (Dawkins and Fundamentalists). Science and belief can co-exist and there are scientists with faith (out there writing books and whatnot) just as there are religious leaders embracing and supporting science. Really, you ask, like who is writing these books? Stay tuned for book club. 🙂

Politically, yes, faith-based groups may be hindering Science with political influence. But see above argument on tolerance. As an Atheist arguing that the world would be better, more tolerant, more progressive, without religion, well, you know, that’s kind of an intolerant, (arguably non-progressive) view. The most tolerant of groups is probably the Universalists and I doubt they hate science and I bet some of them believe in creator god.

So, who’s ready to take out the Unitarians?!  Get your pitch fork!  They’ve been rendered defenseless by their tolerance!! 😉  JK.

For me, it really does come back to what Sage said.  These issues are fascinating, worth exploring, worth debating (see book club next week). But when it comes to living your life, day to day, my Romanian Orthodox sister-in-law is the real deal. There’s no point in fighting to crush her world view. I sincerely believe no good can come of that. Just as I believe no good can come of eliminating the faith of people like Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, or the Dali Llama.



  1. “Live together, die alone.” The theme of the TV show LOST. Also a great missional attitude for the church. The early church were small communities of people reaching out to make their areas of influence better places. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick (or at least paying attention to them, unlike the culture of the time), and clothing the naked. Even worship is community-minded as ‘liturgy’ means ‘work of the people.’

    So when I hear certain pastors say “We’ve done away with ritual and liturgy” I can tell exactly what type of church they are building. A church of the me, and alter to the idol of the self and to privatization. I’m not saying privatization is inherently bad or evil, but without a corporate balance or mindset, it’s extremely limited and potentially dangerous.

    To put on my sociologist hat, I’d say that the move towards individualism is the result of the economic slide from capitalism to consumerism. Capitalism is about making quality stuff and taking pride in the value of labor (something Carnegie did). Consumerism is all about making stuff people will buy in the cheapest way possible (hence we get CEO’s sending jobs overseas and netting 24% while the middle class erodes.

    The difference would be that in capitalism there is a wider-view, that “When I come up/make it/start a business, my community comes up too. past, present and future.” In cosumerism it’s “When I come up, I get mine.”

    I think the church is a good thing when it’s community minded, connecting people with people, and helping the least of these in their mist. When it’s not, we get all the problems which cause the “image problems that Christianity is facing.”

  2. I think my only concern is that once we all splinter off we might become billions of these micro-groups (our nuclear family) and say FU to the rest of the world.

    I actually don’t think that’s going to be the case. The Gates Foundation and Clinton’s thing (what is that the “Clinton” Foundation? They aren’t very original with these names.) are good examples of powerful groups doing good outside the church.

    And actually, religion going away might actually be better for the needy because we wouldn’t have to continue to spend all this money on these ridiculous mega-churches.

    “I wish corporations would adopt a secular humanist ethic in their conduct.”

    In defense of business, I don’t think you can ask them to do that. And it’s not because they are all run by greedy assholes. You really have to look at business as a jungle. It is a life or death struggle. Being too socially conscious, at the expense of growth and profit, will likely kill the business.

    Microsoft got so big (and hated) that governments wanted to break them up. Now Bill Gates runs the largest foundation in the world.

    You might find this interesting:
    “Andrew Carnegie thought of himself as a man of the people and a hero of workers, and his philanthropy and statements in support of unions seem to reaffirm these beliefs. However, in his own mills, Carnegie often refused to give in to union demands and slashed wages. In these instances his pursuit of personal wealth won out over his political leanings, revealing his “double role.”

  3. I’d like to think that the people with the money would step away from the religious groups. There’s tons of value in groups that are bound by an ethical code and I wish corporations would adopt a secular humanist ethic in their conduct. AND, of course, there are many many great people who have added to the value of society through and because of their religion. The question is do we need it anymore. We are capable of coming up with a code of ethics and forming groups that strive to better the human (and all sentient beings) condition without the book of Leviticus. So unless God is sending me to hell, her moral code is doing nothing but muddying the waters for a real debate. As long as people point to A book with singular conviction and say that all the answers are in said book, there can never be a civil debate, thus hampering society at this juncture. And this isn’t just theory. Women are stoned to death because of the teachings in the Koran. Gay men are harassed and abused because of the teachings in the Bible.

    The only Christian group that I’ve ever really grooved on is the Christian Scientists. Totally ironic title. But I love it. They don’t proselytize and they don’t believe any of this is real. Sin is mental error. Jesus showed the way. Some of their members refuse medical treatment in life and death situations. Are they a cult?

  4. I will say this… Christianity and Islam have a terrible image problem. (Judaism fortunately still has that wrongful persecution thing going for them. But they are doing a great job of ruining their brand equity as well.)

    It’s to the point that I would rather face eternal damnation than be a part of those groups.

    Because there are billions of people on the planet these groups will probably always have an audience.

    But I suspect the people with money will slowly but surely move away from these groups. We just don’t need all the drama.

  5. Thanks for weighing in Holly! And for propping up my arguments. You say, “Like religion, politics depends on people to organize themselves into groups. And thus, making changes in secular society already resembles religious belonging in crucial ways… it is a matter of making them in the form that puts forward certain values over others.”

    What this made me think of is the inherent problem of ethics and morality in large organizations that are secular. Soul-less, behemoth corporations come to mind. How does a large company, like say AIG, act ethically in the world without morality in its mission statement? Is it possible? Or does this “mission” always degrade to the needs of top stock holders? Ah, another book club topic for the list. 🙂

  6. I teach in Religious Studies, so this response is more from a professional perspective…but I’m going to see if I can make it fun.

    I’m with you, Rocky, that the battle lines are drawn in this debate by media pundits trying to sell the drama, thus, creating “teams” and putting them opposite of each other.

    Another problem is scale: the theory-level conversation (of putting religion aside in favor of science) is all fine and dandy for a book or a chat over dinner but living from that 35,0000 feet height is impossible. As you note, we are all much more tied to relationships and our personal histories where these ideas have held sway.

    And as you conclude with, religious people have made some pretty amazing changes in favor of civil society, i.e. MLK and Gandhi being two stunning 20th century examples, not to mention the regular church goer who has fed a family with her food donations or sponsored a political refugee. What you are left with is a lot of intricate philosophical arguments against the existence of God against “I like the Sunday potluck time after worship.” It is hard to argue against a quality potato salad and experiences of belonging.

    Yes, church is perhaps group-thinkish, but “thinking for oneself” does not make a successful political slogan. “Working together” does. Like religion, politics depends on people to organize themselves into groups. And thus, making changes in secular society already resembles religious belonging in crucial ways… it is a matter of making them in the form that puts forward certain values over others.

    Looking forward to the reading list for your book club!

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