Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, August 18, 2003  

The news doldrums of late summer give us an opportunity to reflect on less immediate, but important issues, as Nicholas Kristof did last Friday. Writing about religion and culture, Kristof identifies a trend toward unthinking faith in America. And not just among the religious, but tellingly, the nonreligious as well.

So here's a fact appropriate for the day: Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent)….

Americans believe, 58 percent to 40 percent, that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. In contrast, other developed countries overwhelmingly believe that it is not necessary. In France, only 13 percent agree with the U.S. view….

Yet despite the lack of scientific or historical evidence, and despite the doubts of Biblical scholars, America is so pious that not only do 91 percent of Christians say they believe in the Virgin Birth, but so do an astonishing 47 percent of U.S. non-Christians.

Kristof is making the point that there are a number of different kinds of religious beliefs. The one that's on the rise in America, however, is a dogmatic view.

Amy Sullivan, writing today on his article, takes issue. Her view is revealing and makes Kristof's all that more potent. Sullivan, a Christian liberal and intellectual, argues that Kristof misses the long history of Christian intellectualism.

My initial reaction is, perhaps, pithy but true: The same way that Martin Luther King, Jr., Henri Nouwen, Cornel West, C.S. Lewis, not to mention Copernicus, Descartes, and even Einstein did or do….

Kristof hangs his point on the fact that large numbers of Americans -- both Christian and non-Christian -- say they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. I really don't know what to say to that except that it doesn't tell me much of anything. Large numbers of Americans also think we've found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

…[I]f he's saying that religious people are poorly educated, easily manipulated stooges (as the Washington Post so famously said a few years ago), then he should make that clear. Bemoaning the fact that "the great intellectual traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches are withering," as he does instead, leaves us nowhere.

That Sullivan misses Kristof's point means its worth a second iteration and perhaps some more context. Kristof (whom I believe is also a Christian) isn't arguing that Christianity is anti-intellectual. He's arguing that Americans are--as they often have in the past--turning away from science and reason and retreating into rigid dogmatism. He sees within this move a grave danger: it's exactly this kind of dogmatism that leads to the certainty of an Osama bin Laden (or a Pat Buchanan).

At the heart of religion is a paradox. On the one hand, the questions with which religions are concerned are those that can't be answered through the scientific process. They require a different kind of insight, one based on (variously) faith, intuition, or experience. Yet on the other hand, in order to avoid the nihilism of uncertainty, religions constantly try to provide some support for sustaining this inquiry. Thus, in the Christian context, one has faith in the answer to the questions without requiring a kind of scientific proof. But that faith can, of course, move toward certainty and dogmatism if the confidence of one's faith leads one to think he's found the answers.

Among the industrialized world, no culture is as deeply steeped in religion as America's. Whether or not one is actively Christian, in America one still holds culturally-sanctioned religious beliefs (we're almost all deists, whether we copt to being Christian or not). Over the course of our history, this has led to moments of great religious ferment--almost always in the "absolute faith" mode. In the 1830s, for example, this kind of grassroots mysticism reached a pitch and religions sprang up throughout the country, all fueled by unwavering faith. It was from this period that Mormonism arose; at the time Joseph Smith was preaching his discovered gospels, he was competing amongst a din of religious leaders. While their teachings differed dramatically, they all shared that characteristic American quality of being highly mystical and experiential.

As with everything there are two sides to this coin. Mysticism can lead individuals to personal transformations. I think it's safe to say that most religious leaders have had experiences of this kind; it informs and guides their beliefs. The most insightful among these leaders are able to hold the questions of religion open. They understand that the value is in the question itself, not the answer.

There's a great danger, however. When people open themselves up to mystical experience, they are extremely vulnerable. There are countless examples of the wreckage of people who, during authentic mystical transformation, opened themselves up to charlatans; followers of Jim Jones, Rajneesh, David Koresh, and on and on speak to this. The danger of mysticism is that there's no safety switch, no circuit breaker--once a person gives himself over to absolute faith, there is nothing to persuade him he's wrong. I think the mistake most mystic-charlatans make is that they allow themselves to answer the questions. Once that's done, there's no action that can't be committed with the confidence it's God's work. Then you have the unyielding views of the religiously dogmatic.

It's Americans' nature to think of ourselves as the ultimate answerers. We put a man on the moon, for crying out loud--we can do anything. Yet there's nothing special about American insight. Dogmatism in our hands is no different than dogmatism in the hands of an Indian Hindu, Iranian Muslim, Israeli Jew, or Burmese Buddhist. Kristof wasn't talking about Christianity. He was talking about dogmatism. As we can see with his numbers, and as we've seen in the rhetoric of our leaders, he's got a point.

posted by Jeff | 10:18 AM |
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