Over the past few decades, since the emergence of fundamentalism on a grand worldwide scale, there has been much written about identifying the characteristics that can turn religion toward the vicious, psychotic and destructive. Scott Appleby’s, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation, and Charles Kimbell’s, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, define some of the terrain that takes religious adherents down the path to hatred and the devaluation of life. Appleby’s book, in particular, tries to describe the distorting factors of belief that lead religions from formational paths to peace and a flourishing life to an instigator of pathological evil.
Unfortunately, much less is written about religion when it becomes embarrassing, although it is a far more common phenomenon in Western cultures. Many of us have at least one sibling, cousin, uncle, aunt, neighbor or member of a church who models religious belief as an embarrassing spectacle, projecting the image that religion is primarily a coping mechanism for the simple of mind or the troubled of heart. Religious detractors discredit the entire enterprise of personal and corporate faith by pointing to the silliness of religion as much as the malignancies. As a matter of fact, hard-boiled secularists get a lot of mileage out of cartoons of ancient religious traditions that are on display by some religious believers. Comedian Bill Maher’s popular movie/documentary, Religulous: The Truth is Near, is the classic example. I would wager most people in Western nations who avoid churches, temples, mosques or other religious gathering places are kept away more by the crazy and embarrassing things explored in Religulous than the violent and evil.
Every time Looney-Tune representations of religion occur, the mission of a faith tradition, and all serious religion, is tarnished. I think one of the major conflicts serious people of faith or spirituality have with embarrassing religion is that it is difficult to distinguish oneself and a faith tradition from the awkward, ignorant statement, the goofy assertion, or the obnoxious action.
When I was younger, I felt the urge to confront the cartoonish public display of religious belief, but quickly learned such confrontation created two spectacles, instead of just one. Now I want to hide under a rock when I see people of faith do clownish or stupid things in public; I recently had such an experience while on a work trip in San Francisco.
Three men were walking down Fisherman’s Wharf, two carrying signs calling for repentance, with threats of the fires of hell for those who did not, and one talking fast with a loudspeaker strapped to his back. Hebrew and Christian scriptural verses dealing with judgment and condemnation poured from the street preacher’s mouth like the waters of Niagara, and he frequently stopped to yell into the open doors of bars and restaurants.
In a particularly outrageous act, the man approached a woman standing outside a store and told her she was going to hell unless she repented and accepted Jesus as her personal savior. She replied to him that she and God were fine, just as a boyfriend or husband appeared in the doorway and shooed the street preacher away. As the preacher turned, he said over his shoulder through the loud speaker with a cocksure voice: “I have news for you, young lady, you are not okay and are headed for hell.”
You rarely get a chance to see such spiritual arrogance and religious foolishness on full display in the middle of a busy street. The man with the loud speaker seemed to think he understood the Christian notions of salvation and judgment so thoroughly that he could apply that knowledge to the life of a young woman, even though he apparently knew nothing at all about her.
Understanding salvation and judgment in the Christian tradition requires a profound understanding of ancient Hebrew and Hellenistic cultures. Both concepts require a great deal of nuance and context, as the meaning of both terms shifted according to many factors impacting both religious traditions. Making application of these concepts to lived reality requires a heart and mind schooled in justice and mercy and how the two interrelate in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Only then can someone speak of the Christian notions of salvation and judgment with any real meaning. Forget passing judgment on what awaits an individual on the other side of the grave. Although such prognostications are delusional within the context of the meaning of the two words, it did not stop the fellow with the loudspeaker.
The Internet recently experienced an equally obnoxious example of people talking about religion with insufficient knowledge of their subject. During the HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian and famous atheist author Sam Harris made sweeping generalizations about Islam and set in motion an embarrassing conversation about the merits and demerits of this ancient tradition.
The actor Ben Affleck passionately disagreed with their comments, called them “gross” and “racist,” and sent the panel discussion (if you can call it that) into a spiral. (If you missed the action, you can see the interview here)
After the show, the Internet lit up to pass judgment on the scattered discussion: “Ben Affleck Goes Ballistic,” opined one blogger; “Liberals can’t handle the truth about Islam’s woes,” claimed an op-ed in the New York Post; “Bill Maher and Sam Harris Debate ‘Islamaphobia’ with a Defensive Ben Affleck,” asserted a writer on Patheos.com; and a columnist in Psychology Today referred to “Affleck’s incoherent rant.” On the other hand, fans lined up behind the actor. “Why Ben Affleck is Right, Bill Maher is Wrong, and Sam Harris is Jaded About Islam,” wrote a columnist for the Huffington Post. Meanwhile on the pop scene CNN commentator, Piers Morgan, tweeted, “Brilliant by Ben Affleck,” and actress Rosie O’Donnell tweeted, “Ben Affleck for President.”
If you take faith seriously and have committed much time trying to understand it, the Real Time conversation wasn’t very serious. You can decide the people you think won the argument, but I think everyone lost.
Harris received so many negative reactions that he devoted a long post-mortem on his blog trying to explain what he was trying to say. Bill Maher gave an interview to Salon.com, in the hopes of articulating why he and Harris were not demonstrating bigotry, but rather defending liberal principles based on solid research. It appears Affleck has decided not to further explain his thoughts or motivations. (Incidentally, Christopher Ingraham, formerly with the Pew Research Center, checked the “facts” of both Maher and Affleck, based on Pew data that Maher brought up in the argument. Based on the data, he found they were both wrong (see here).
Aggravated voices, unfinished thoughts cut off by talk overs, vague references to “facts,” sloppy arguments, and a host of untested assumptions. This is the kind of style and tone in conversation that we labor not to have at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. These are unproductive ways to communicate, but sometimes such embarrassing encounters expose the deeper values and assumptions that are the real source of disagreements.
In the case of the Real Time “word brawl” Maher and Harris exhibited a fundamentalist point of view about religion that is not too dissimilar from the narrow perspective of the street preacher in San Francisco. Their biases toward religion have so shrouded their thinking that they cannot really test their underlying assumption: religion is primarily twisted, deluded, and dangerous to the common good.
Maher and Harris will concede that there are good people of faith in the world. But, they see these individuals as peripheral, perhaps even accidental, to the religious enterprise. Serious people of faith believe – and experience – the exact opposite.
Sam Harris described his view of religion with a telling metaphor. He suggested that Islam’s believers exist in concentric circles of acceptance of the tenets of the religion’s doctrines (the enemy for him is religious ideas and the behavior resulting from those beliefs.) In the center of the religion, he said, are the jihadists, who find life cheap and extinguishable. In a second concentric ring from the center, Harris places Islamists, who want to reestablish the Islamic controlled culture of a caliphate, but would not strap dynamite to their bodies to do so. On a third ring is the conservative Muslim population, repulsed by violence but holding all kinds of “illiberal” ideas about women, homosexuals and other issues that are incompatible with a democratic way of life. One can assume faithful, but critically thinking Muslims exist somewhere on the periphery of the concentric circles, but he didn’t consider them worthy of mention.
Later in the discussion Harris makes an even more revealing comment: “There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS. And, we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform” Islam. Translation: people who are enlightened enough to see religion as a cultural encrustation (i.e., who are smart enough to think like Harris) are the potential “reformers” of evil and embarrassing religion.
This is a particularly American idea. A reformer rides into town on his white steed, kills off the bad guys, gives the town folk some backbone and purpose for their simple life, and then mounts his horse and rides off in to the sunset. Of course, this kind of narrative can make a decent Western, but people from outside institutions do not transform systems, whether religious or not. Reform comes from within, led by women and men connecting with the depth of a religious tradition’s wisdom.
Just for the record, those of us who take faith seriously find religion an indispensable source of wisdom. It isn’t the only wisdom in the world, but it is a type of insight that helps us grow into more caring, thoughtful and compassionate human beings. It gives us strength to endure the profound challenges we face in life, and assists us in overcoming and even laughing at adversity. It inspires us to live our lives, bury our dead, and even face our own last moments with hope and anticipation. For us, the inner ring of religion is occupied by those who enflesh the core beliefs of our traditions, not the behaviors that emanate from what Miroslav Volf refers to as the “malfunctions” of faith.
Members of the Islamic tradition, not Sam Harris, would need to identify the believers that should reside in the inner concentric circle of that religion. But as a friend of many Muslims and as someone with a keen interest in the nobility in the tradition, I would put 17 year-old Malala Yousafzai, the remarkable Pakistani girl who survived a gunshot in the face and just won a Nobel Prize, in the first circle. I would also place next to her Iranian civil rights activists Shirin Ebadi, and Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Nicholas Kristof mentions Dadkhah in the Affleck-Harris conversation. The Iranian lawyer was recently given a nine-year sentence for defending marginalized people in Iran in the court system, including many Christians.
From my own tradition, the Christian inner circle would not consist of people bombing abortion clinics, wearing sheets at KKK meetings, or burning Korans. It would include Christians throughout history who advanced education, promoted health care, established social service agencies, took a front row seat in the abolition, child labor law, women’s rights and Civil Rights movements. The inner circle would consist of people who inspired their generation to think beyond a materialistic frame of reference to dream of a richer world of liberty matured by justice, people like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. More contemporary individuals would consist of Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dag Hammarskjöld, and lesser known people like Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan – the four women abducted, raped, and shot to death in El Salvador in 1980 because of their work with the poor.
Maher and Harris are bright guys, but their assumptions about religion are so pockmarked with blind spots that when it comes to this subject they are really not too far removed from the San Francisco street preacher. All three have one thing in common: they really don’t understand religion or the role faith plays in the lives of millions upon millions of people who do not use religious ideas to promote evil or silliness, but rather use it to inspire themselves and others to make substantive contributions to the human race.
When religion becomes embarrassing, either at the hands of those who love it or hate it, I guess the best response really isn’t to hide under a rock. But, God knows that rock can look mighty attractive sometimes.