Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Straight to Jesus

studying the Christian gay-conversion movement

If you only talk about things that make sense, it takes a long time to understand people. When someone tells you that the Sun rises in the East, you really haven't learned anything about him. But if he tells you that the Sun rises in the West, and if you can draw him out on the topic rather than running away in terror, you're well on your way to figuring out what makes him tick.

Tanya Erzen is an ethnographer who did her dissertation field work at New Hope Ministry, a California program devoted to "healing" gay men of their homosexuality. In other words, she plunged right into the heart of the Christian Right and set up shop in a West-pointing Temple of the Sunrise. If you can stand it, her new book Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement is a crash course on the worldview of conservative Christianity.

New Hope runs a year-long live-in total-immersion program that gay Christian men join voluntarily in hopes of becoming heterosexual. Partly because she was the only one who could consistently make the Internet connection work, Ms. Erzen was allowed to hang around the ministry office and follow the progress of one class of such men, while she contacted and interviewed men from previous years. It's a fascinating journey. In recounting it, she does a good job of mixing personal observations of the men with historical, political, and theological background.

The men come off as complex and sympathetic characters. I'm left with the impression that Erzen came to care about deeply about some of them. She tells us very little about herself, but occasionally exposes a little of the guilt of a double agent from a LeCarre novel. She quotes an anthropologist: "They told their subjects carefully who they were, but then did their best research when their subjects forgot." The men of New Hope frequently seem to forget that Erzen is studying them.

Cutting to the chase, the program doesn't work in any medically definable sense. In spite of a few widely publicized cases (some of whom backslide spectacularly later on), there is no evidence that any gay-conversion programs change a person's sexual desires. Fifteen men start the New Hope program, several don't finish, one dies in what may or may not have been a suicide, and all report continuing to feel attracted to men at the end of the year. Some continue struggling to overcome their homosexuality, while others end up embracing a gay identity. Years later, one man from a previous New Hope class sends Erzen an invitation to his traditional male-female wedding.

And yet, many of the men who complete the program are glad they came, several stay on to take the leadership training, and the leaders of the program -- ex-gay men themselves -- continue to soldier on, waiting for the Sun to rise in the West tomorrow.

Erzen resists the temptation to say these people are just nuts, and instead tries to understand how their worldview operates. The gist amounts to this: These men were raised in the conservative Christian worldview, and believed strongly that being gay had separated them from God. Most came from small towns or rural environments that had no gay culture, and they simply accepted the right-wing Christian view that they had to choose between being gay and having any values in their lives that go deeper than sex.

What they really wanted was not heterosexuality per se, but to have a relationship with God again. New Hope provided that. In place of a godless gay identity, New Hope gave them an ex-gay identity, in which they and Jesus together are struggling against their flawed sexuality. As long as they struggle, as long as they confess their "falls" and re-pledge their loyalty to Jesus, they can be right with God.

Of course, the possibility that actively gay men can have a relationship with God, or can manifest deeper human values in their lives at all, doesn't enter into this picture. There are points in the book where this seems quite tragic. The men are wishing for relationships that go beyond casual sex, believing that such relationships are only possible with women in some distant heterosexual future -- and they don't seem to notice that the other gay men in the program are wishing for the same thing.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book is the sixth, which discusses the wider politics of the ex-gay ministry. Early in the movement's history, Christian conservative leaders like James Dobson wanted nothing to do with them. But in the late 90's the Christian Right's anti-gay campaign changed its tactics. As gays and lesbians became more visible in the culture and in the media, hateful gay-bashing tactics were becoming counterproductive. By embracing the ex-gay movement the Right could put a more compassionate surface on its anti-gay agenda. They could continue to portray the gay lifestyle as godless, valueless, and corrosive to society, but could offer at least the pretense of an alternative: Through the healing power of Jesus, gays could give up this destructive life and choose instead to have a normal heterosexual life.

The men at New Hope were deeply conflicted about Dobson's appropriation of their ministry for political purposes. On the one hand, at last they were getting recognition and respect in the larger Christian community. At last their testimony was being welcomed at Christian conferences. But many, especially those who came for personal healing and not to be part of a movement, did not sympathize with an anti-gay agenda at all, and resented the fact that their testimonies were being used to promote one. They wanted gays to be protected against hate crimes and to have equal rights in employment and housing.

And they knew the program was being oversold. Brian (the man who later sends the wedding invitation) wrote to Erzen: "To be honest with you, I've never heard of one person who's ever said that that [complete heterosexuality] is where they've come to. I don't expect it to."

Chapter Four describes the pseudo-science behind gay conversion. Again and again, human sexual pathologies are presented as if they were uniquely gay phenomena. Like "emotional dependency", which one theorist describes as "an all-consuming, even obsessive need to be with the love object." I'd guess that half of Nickelback's songs are about the heterosexual version of this, but the Christian theorists seem not to have radios.

Ultimately, Erzen comes to describe what happens at New Hope as a "queer conversion". She builds this on the academic notion of "queer theory" which denies "that sexuality is is an essentialist category determined by biology or judged by eternal standards of morality and truth. Instead, queer theory argues for the idea that identities are culturally and historically determined rather than fixed; sexual practices and desires change over time and do not consistently line up with masculine or feminine gender expectations." What New Hope and its related ministries have done, Erzen believes, is create the new sexual identity of ex-gay. It's not heterosexual, not celibate, and yet it is different from any gay identity previously recognized in this culture. It has its own community and its own practices.

No doubt, the conservative Christian leaders of the ex-gay movement will bristle at this analysis, particularly at the absence of "eternal standards of morality and truth". But I'd like to hear them offer a better explanation of what they're doing. They know that the simplistic concept of "healing" doesn't cover it.

I have barely scratched the surface of this book in these few paragraphs. Liberals should read this book, if for no other reason than to attach sympathetic characters to points of view that will probably continue to seem bizarre. Minds can only stretch so far.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Right and Left Together

What Religious Liberals and Conservatives Have in Common

a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Church of Quincy , Illinois November 12, 2006

Opening Words

Hatred can never cease by hatred. Hatred can only cease by love. -- the Buddha

First Reading

From Who's Afraid of Freedom and Tolerance? in the Fall, 2005 issue of UU World.

If there is one basic thing conservatives do not understand about religious liberals, it is [our] sense of commitment. They see us champion choice over obligation, but misunderstand our reasons. They understand us to be advocating a superficial and nihilistic way of life. They think we want to choose our own moral codes so that we can pick easy ones that rationalize our every whim. They believe that we want the freedom to define our relationships so that we can walk away from anything that looks difficult.

James Dobson described the liberal viewpoint this way in a speech before the Council for National Policy:

There are no transcendent values that will stand from time to time. When human life becomes inconvenient, you can get rid of it, because it was not created by God, because there is no God, and it's all subjective and whimsical and you make up your ideas as the circumstances arise.

This expectation of superficiality colors everything conservatives see us do. Protest marches, for example, look like petulant expressions of transient anger rather than evidence of an enduring commitment to a vision of a better world. Put-downs like 'do-gooder' don't disparage our desire to do good; they question its stamina. Today, they suppose, we want to save the whales, but tomorrow we'll move on to whatever new cause is fashionable. As we lack a fixed scripture or any other visible anchor, they think, our commitments must surely blow with the wind. And because this picture looks so absurd and foreign to us, we don't bother to deny it.

In fact, religious conservatives and liberals share more concerns and beliefs than either commonly admits. Both have loyalties that go beyond self and the convenience of the moment. Both reject the materialism of popular culture. Both seek something more substantial than the momentary satisfaction of desire or the endless striving after status. The committed [liberal] life is a different way to pursue these goals, not a denial of them.

Second Reading

From a speech by James Dobson to the Council for National Policy. This section of the speech comes shortly after the one quoted above, where Dobson has presented what he calls the “postmodern” or “relativistic” view of morality. He continues:

Now, obviously, not everyone accepts this notion. And I'm here to talk to you today about those who don't. ... They're good people. They love their kids. They love their spouses, their families. They love their God and they are very, very concerned about what's happening today. They see this moral freefall. They see this moral relativism and they're very concerned about it. It contradicts everything they stand for and they also feel under attack. They feel under assault by Hollywood and they can't do anything about it and by the rock music industry that just sells sex and violence and all sorts of evil to their kids.

And MTV they see the television and ... cable TV and all those sorts of things. They see it and they're very alarmed about it and they can't do anything about it. They feel the culture has got their families. The culture is like a river that flows in front of us and their kids are caught in this current and they're being carried downstream and so many of them are being wounded by it. ...

These people out there are worried about what they see and they're in contradiction with the elite and with the cultural trend setters and it is very difficult for any of us to get anyone in government to understand those people or to treat them like they had a legitimate point of view, and that is my concern.


Back in April, I talked about what theists and atheists could learn from each other. Today I want to discuss a different reconciliation: What religious liberals have in common with religious conservatives.

This sermon had its start right after the previous one, from two conversations I had here in Quincy with old friends. One of them told me more-or-less what was in the Dobson reading – that the fundamentalists he knows seem to feel just as powerless as religious liberals do. I responded tactfully, saying something like, “They own the government. What do they want?”

Apparently, that's not how it looked to them – even before Tuesday. Sure, political leaders flatter the religious right and pander to it, but still the country moves in the wrong direction – from their point of view as much as from mine. They look at “this moral freefall” and imagine that some hidden liberal establishment must still be in control.

In the second conversation, another friend told me about his son, a young man not too far out of high school. The son works an unskilled job, and seems to have no plan for doing more with his life. Now, under other circumstances that lack of career ambition could be downright admirable -- if, say, it meant that he had rejected materialism and was putting his energy into doing good or making art or even just appreciating this beautiful world. But, as his father tells the story, it just reflects a lack of depth, a failure to grasp that something important is going on in life. If the son can keep gas in his car and occasionally buy something for his girl friend – well, what more is there?

As I listened, I imagined how such stories often play out: Eventually it gets old, going from one lousy job to the next, hanging with buddies who never grow up, and never quite living up to your responsibilities. After a while -- maybe after a divorce or an illegitimate child or two -- disillusionment sets in.

And then, as I imagine the story, he's born again. Suddenly disillusionment is broken, and there is something deep and important in life: Jesus – Jesus as interpreted by a conservative church. Not the compassionate Jesus of the Beatitudes, but the apocalyptic Jesus who someday will save the Good and send the Evil to Hell. Hallelujah!

Now, from here this sermon can go two ways, and I've actually written both of them. The sermon I'm not preaching today explores why I don't expect this young man to have a liberal awakening. You see, I don't resent the power of the religious right to awaken such people, I envy it. Because liberal religion has a class problem. Where is our transforming message for the unskilled and the uneducated? Why is it so hard for us to call people of all classes and backgrounds to a deeper, more meaningful life?

But this morning I want to take the other path by asking this question: How does my second conversation illuminate my first one? How does my friend's son help us understand this strange feeling of helplessness on both the Left and the Right? I feel oppressed by the James Dobsons and Jerry Falwells, only to discover that they feel oppressed too. Isn't somebody winning? Shouldn't somebody feel empowered?

To start answering that question, I want to raise this one: Assuming that this young man really is the way I've imagined him, what religion does he belong to today? Because whatever it is, I think that's the religion that's winning.

Now, I'm not asking where he was baptized or whether he attends services somewhere. I want to know about the religion he's actually practicing. The superficial approach to life, the belief that you buy some things and satisfy some desires and that's all there is -- who teaches that? Is that liberal? Is it conservative?

I think it's neither one. And that's my answer to the paradox:: Religious liberals and conservatives alike feel that America is slipping away from them because it actually is. This other religion, which is neither liberal nor conservative nor even moderate, is actually in control.

Now, I understand that it's hard to take this argument seriously. I seem to be talking about some kind of consumer hedonism, and surely it's just a metaphor to call that a religion. There is, after all, no Church of Consumer Hedonism in Quincy or anyplace else, no place where people are getting together this morning to celebrate the superficial life and preach the Consumer Hedonist theology. Because there is no Consumer Hedonist theology or theory of the afterlife or anything. There is no clergy, no membership list, no newsletter, no committees or any of the other trappings that all others religions have.

So it's tempting, when we talk about religion, to leave Consumer Hedonism out. Later on I'll describe the problem that causes, but before I get to that, I need to explain why it makes sense to call Consumer Hedonism a religion at all.

I think the reason Consumer Hedonism looks different from other religions is that it's the dominant religion of our society. The dominant religion always looks different.

You see, when a religion truly dominates a society, it's like air. You don't see it, and you can't point to it because it's everywhere. A dominant religion doesn't seem to have members because everyone is a member. It doesn't seem to have a temple because the World is its temple. The reason we don't see the temple of Consumer Hedonism is because we live in it. We can't get outside of it.

Only when your religion doesn't dominate society do you need a building like this one. Churches are like fortresses; you build them because the world out there is foreign territory. You enclose a space that your religion can dominate, because it can't dominate the world out there. If it did, you wouldn't need any special schools or rituals. Just by living, people would breathe in your teachings. Just by living, they'd perform your rituals.

The fundamental questions a religion needs to answer aren't about God and the afterlife, they're about life here and now. What should we be trying to do? Where should we look for fulfillment? What is going to save us from misery? What really matters and why? Some religions may need a theory of God or the afterlife to make sense out of their answers, but Consumer Hedonism doesn't. That doesn't mean it's not a religion.

So what are Consumer Hedonism's answers? Basically this: Only two things are really worth doing in life – satisfying your desires and projecting the right image. If you could do both, you'd be as fulfilled as it is possible to be. So how do you do it? You satisfy your desires by buying things and by manipulating people into giving you what you want. And you cast the right image by aligning yourself with the saints of Consumer Hedonism, the celebrities.

No Sunday school teaches us how to worship the celebrities, but we all do it. Sometimes we imitate them. We wear their t-shirts and sunglasses. We repeat their famous lines, which we know by heart, as if we learned them from a catechism. Or we worship them from afar. We know their nicknames, their cars, their pets, and the convoluted mythology of who has been married to who.

If you fall out of step with the celebrities, no church council has to vote to shun you. It happens automatically. Conversations just pass you by. Everyone else laughs and you're there saying “What? What?”

But if you could be one with the celebrities, if you could have the same car or the same haircut or learn to flash the same smile – you'd be so cool. How could you not be totally fulfilled?

Except for the Amish and a few other closed communities, every child in America is raised Consumer Hedonist. Most of us still practice it. Here's a test. It's a take-home test, self-graded. Psalm 38 says, “In thee, O Lord, is my hope.” Where is your hope? When you daydream about a better life, what specifically are you hoping for?

Better things like a house or car?

Physical satisfaction like food or sex?

Something to improve your image, like a big promotion or a diet that really works?

Or maybe you think about money, which stands in for all three? Some people hope in the Lord. Some people hope in the Lottery.

Whatever your hope is, wherever you look for a better life, that's the religion that is real to you, the one you're counting on to save you from misery. And not until you become disillusioned with that religion will you have any deeper spiritual awakening.

Most of us do get disillusioned at some point, because Consumer Hedonism is all sizzle and no steak. You actually can't be fulfilled by satisfying your desires and impressing people. Brad Pitt and Britney Spears will not save you. We all know that at some level, but Consumer Hedonism laughs at our knowledge. It sells us movies about its own emptiness and invites us to project an image of being wise to it all. You can buy things to flesh that image out, and imitate a whole other pantheon of celebrities. "This medallion comes from Tibet. It's, like, so spiritual."

No matter how many times we fail to consume our way to fulfillment, it always seems like our own fault. We bought the wrong things. We picked the wrong celebrities. (Tom Cruise really did not come through for me this year. And I don't even want to talk about Michael Jackson.) Salvation-by-coolness could still work, if you were just a little bit cooler.

No it couldn't. Don't try again. Don't try to do better this time. It doesn't work.

It doesn't work because there really is something deep and important going on in life, and you can only find fulfillment by connecting with those deeper values. This is the message of both liberal and conservative religion. Both. If you can't hear that message in the other side, listen harder.

Liberals and conservatives alike reject the emptiness of Consumer Hedonism, and nurture values that transcend desire and image: Values like family and friends and community. Compassion for the stranger. A just society. Appreciating the wonder of creation. Building a personal relationship with Beauty and with Knowledge and with Understanding. When those values are part of your experience of every moment, when you have trained yourself to experience them as immediately as you experience your physical desires, you're there. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

The main difference between religious liberals and religious conservatives is in where they look for those values and how they hope to bring them into the world. Conservatives look to traditional values, a way of life that they believe worked for our ancestors. Typically, a conservative faith has a Golden Age it wants to preserve or restore: Eden, ancient Israel, the Jerusalem of the Apostles, the Medina of Muhammad, or even the small-town America of Norman Rockwell. Conservatives see the deeper values of those communities being replaced by practices that satisfy more superficial desires.

Liberals, on the other hand, attach their vision of deeper values to a future Utopia or to a Platonic ideal. They see themselves not as restoring a Golden Age, but as marching onward and upward towards a world more perfect than has ever existed before. Two centuries ago, a world without institutionalized slavery was a complete dream. No Golden Age had ever achieved it. But here we are.

Whether the Past or the Future makes a better home for our dreams of higher values -- that would be an interesting debate to have with the conservatives. And we could have it – after we recognize our common struggle against Consumer Hedonism and its empty values. The beginning of a productive liberal/conservative dialog is for both sides to acknowledge that we share a nightmare, a Dystopia:

  • Where all relationships are transient.

  • Where life is cheap.

  • Where winning is everything.

  • Where no one will sacrifice for the common good.

  • Where impulse satisfaction outweighs any consequences.

  • Where the innocent are not protected.

  • Where the old are cast aside and the next generation is left to raise itself.

  • Where profit is the ultimate argument, and money answers all questions.

  • Where no one is willing to stand on principle, and truth doesn't matter.

We both see that path and we both don't want to go there. In theory, we could work together to avoid it. But in practice we can't even talk about it in a civil tone. Why? Because we both imagine that Consumer Hedonism isn't really a religion, and so we let it slip out of the picture. We both forget what we've been struggling against, and instead imagine that we've been struggling with each other.

And so, when liberals defend freedom and tolerance, James Dobson hears the voice of Consumer Hedonism saying that "There are no transcendent values ... it's all subjective and whimsical and you make up your ideas as the circumstances arise."

And when conservatives defend traditional values, we liberals also hear the voice of Consumer Hedonism: “It's all about striking a pose, building yourself up by tearing others down, projecting an image of goodness and righteousness without having to do the hard work of compassion.”

Neither side has to lie to make its case, because Consumer Hedonism has in fact corrupted and subverted people on both sides. That's what it does, and it does it very well. You set out to make the world a better place, and you end up buying things and striking a pose. You try to take The Road Less Traveled, and you wind up at The Road Less Traveled Gift Shop. You try to walk the narrow path, and you wind up buying a t-shirt that says “I Walked the Narrow Path”. Whether you set out to the Left or to the Right, the gravity of Consumer Hedonism is always pulling you back.

So how do we restart the liberal/conservative dialog? I think we begin by recognizing the trick that has been played on both sides. We've all been left holding the bag. We all look guilty. And so we're all going to have to calmly and patiently deny accusations that we can't imagine any sane person making.

So, for example, liberals really do need to say that we support marriage and don't want to tear it down. I feel silly saying that. I've been married for 22 years. I've nursed my wife through two life-threatening illnesses. What sane person could imagine that I want to tear down marriage? But conservatives do imagine it, because Consumer Hedonism does undermine marriage, and I've been left holding that bag. So I need to reassure them. I need to emphasize that I support gay marriage because I support marriage. Whether people are gay or straight, when they turn away from transient promiscuity and sign up for the more challenging life of commitment, I support that. I understand that they didn't do it that way in the Golden Age, whenever it was, but I hope for a future that is better than the past.

On the other side, religious conservatives need to say that they don't want a theocracy, that they aren't aiming to set up a Christian version of the Taliban here in America. I'm sure they'd feel silly saying that. Because what sane person could imagine that they want Christian Taliban? Well, I could. A little reassurance would really help.

Holly Near has a song called Singing For Our Lives, and I've heard it several times in Unitarian churches. One of the verses starts, “We are gay and straight together.” And you can keep the song going as long as you like by doing that verse again with other kinds of difference: young and old, black and white, rich and poor, and so on. One substitution I've never heard in a Unitarian church is “left and right.” Because we don't think of ourselves as Left and Right together. We built those walls to keep the religious right out, not to welcome them in and sing.

I thought about writing that song into the order of service, but I decided it would be too manipulative. I don't imagine that I've been that convincing. Most of you, I suspect, are probably still not ready to sing about Left and Right together.

So I'm not going to ask you to sing it. I'm just going to ask you to think about it. What if liberals and conservatives could realize how much they have in common? What if we all understood that traditional values and progressive values are allies against the real enemy, which is no values at all?

That's the vision I want to leave you with. It may not be Eden or Utopia, but I like it.

Closing Words

Never let your zeal outrun your charity. -- Hosea Ballou

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Freedom, Reason, Tolerance, and ...

Recently I've been trying to write something about the common beliefs and values shared by UU's. And so, of course, I went back to the well-known triumvirate of Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance. And it hit me like a ton of bricks that those three aren't enough. There's got to be more.

Why? Because none of the three will get you out of bed in the morning. Freedom opens up all kinds of possibilities for the people who do decide to get out bed. Reason tells you how you might achieve your goals, if only you had some goals. And Tolerance will keep you from wasting your energy trying to kill people who have different goals. All three are valuable, assuming that there is already some motive force in your life.

When we talk about Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance being the core our faith, we must be taking something else for granted. What could it be?

Friday, September 29, 2006

God of Our (Founding) Fathers

Two years ago I read and summarized the Supreme Court's decision on the Pledge of Allegiance case (Elk Grove v. Newdow), in which liberal and conservative justices alike justified their positions by unleashing armadas of quotations from the Founding Fathers - often the same Founding Fathers. At the time, I entertained the fantasy of writing a book that would make sense of all the apparent contradictions in the Founders' views of religion in public life and demolish the all the out-of-context quotes on both sides.

Well, I can take that assignment off my list, because somebody has done it already: Newsweek editor Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation is the book I wanted to write.

The War of Quotations

In his dissent in Newdow, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote:

The phrase "under God" in the Pledge seems, as a historical matter, to sum up the attitude of the Nation's leaders, and to manifest itself in many of our public observances. Examples of patriotic invocations of God and official acknowledgments of religion's role in our Nation's history abound.

The Chief Justice goes on to list several, including President Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation, which begins "Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the problems of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor ..." He notes that Lincoln included the phrase "this nation, under God" in the Gettysburg Address. And he demonstrates that God also appears in the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy.

In a case about public displays of the Ten Commandments (McCreary County v ACLU), Justice Scalia made a similar list, focusing on the Founders and the early Republic. He quotes the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1789: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Washington's Farewell Address says: "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." In 1798 President John Adams wrote: "we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. ... Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. ... It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Scalia quotes Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address:

I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.

Scalia concludes:

These actions of our First President and Congress and the Marshall Court were not idiosyncratic; they reflected the beliefs of the period. Those who wrote the Constitution believed that morality was essential to the well-being of society and that encouragement of religion was the best way to foster morality.

Justice Souter, writing the majority opinion in McCreary, strikes back by noting that President Jefferson refused to issue Thanksgiving proclamations because he believed they were unconstitutional. In a letter to John Adams, James Madison wrote that the "tendency to a usurpation on one side, or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence of the Government from interference [in religion]."

The American Atheists' brief on behalf of Newdow also quotes Madison:

Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst. ... And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.

Another frequently quoted example is from the Treaty of Tripoli that the Washington and Adams administrations negotiated and the Senate ratified unanimously in 1797: "As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion ..."

So the battle swirls. The Declaration of Independence attributes our rights to the Creator. The Constitution never mentions God, and only mentions religion when it bans religious tests for holding federal office. At the time the Bill of Rights was written, six states had some form of established church. By 1834, none. So did the Founders intend to protect the established churches of their own states? (In his Newdow dissent, Justice Thomas holds that they did.) Or was the Bill of Rights part of a disestablishment movement that didn't fully succeed until the next generation?

In short, the religious statements, writings, and deeds of the Founders can be mined today by both liberals and conservatives. Why is that? Did the Founders think and say a lot of contradictory stuff about religion? Or did they have a coherent point of view that agrees in some ways with today's conservatives and in other ways with today's liberals?

Meacham believes that (although they did represent diverse religious viewpoints) the Founders eventually came to consensus about the basic principles that relate religion to government. Although they sometimes clashed on specific issues, the framework in which they discussed those issues held up, and has held up ever since.

Diversity of Personal Belief

Before describing that consensus, a few words should be said about the diversity of the Founders' personal beliefs. Religious conservatives sometimes imagine the Founders as more-or-less like themselves, and portray the current state of American religion as a fall from some colonial Eden. In fact the Founders came from a number of denominations (many of which had been at each other's throats in England) and had a variety of personal beliefs. Some of them would be welcome in conservative Christian churches today and some would not. I'm sure Jerry Falwell would be happy to have fellow Virginian Patrick Henry in his congregation. Thomas Jefferson, not so much. Jefferson believed, for example, that the doctrine of the trinity was not just false, but incoherent. "Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them, and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves priests of Jesus." It's hard to imagine Jerry sitting still for that.

Some of the Founders seem to have intentionally clouded their public statements about religion. Ben Franklin, for example, can be presented as an atheist, a Deist, or a devout Christian depending on which of his writings you choose to quote. At least one recent book, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked by Louis Menand, claims that Franklin engineered this vague and contradictory image for himself. Meacham refers to ""the elusive, shape-shifting Franklin." And John Adams (who served with Franklin as American representatives in Paris) wrote: "The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker."

Personal beliefs aside, were the Founders of one mind about the relationship between church and state? Not always. Prior to the writing of the Constitution, for example, Patrick Henry wanted Virginia to pay "teachers of the Christian religion" with public money. Jefferson and Madison fought him on this and won. In 1774 the Continental Congress argued about whether to start its sessions with prayer. Future Chief Justice John Jay opposed an opening prayer on the grounds that the delegates' religious views were too diverse for them to pray together. Sam Adams favored a prayer, believing that a skillful clergyman could bridge their differences and lead a prayer acceptable to all. Adams won.

Public Religion

Meacham sees the resolution of the Continental Congress' prayer debate as a key step in the development of what he (following Franklin) calls public religion. American public religion represents a compromise between two views of government the Founders wanted to avoid: (1) a government explicitly based on the beliefs of a particular religious sect, looking to an established priesthood to bless and justify its actions; and (2) a government based on nothing more than individuals and factions wrangling over their private interests.

From the Declaration of Independence onward, the Founders presented a vision of historic scope, and used religious language to express it. The Founders' America has a purpose higher than individual interest. And so, the Declaration finds individual rights not in the barrel of a gun, but in our legacy from the Creator.

At the same time, the Founders avoided using religious language in an exclusive or sectarian way. The Declaration makes no reference to Jesus, for example, in spite of the fact that the Congressmen themselves claimed to be Christians of one sect or another. The God of the Declaration is referenced in purely functional terms. "Creator" is not just a synonym for the first person of the Christian trinity, but refers to who-or-whatever created the world. Similarly, "Nature's God," "the Supreme Judge of the world," and "Divine Providence" refer to roles that a specific god would fill in more-or-less any religion of the day. A Jew - New York had a synagogue as early as 1730, and its rabbi was among the officially recognized clergy present at Washington's inauguration - would have had no trouble relating the language of the Declaration to concepts in his own religion.

Another Jefferson composition, Virginia's statute on religious freedom, also exemplifies this artful use of religious language. It begins: "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free ..." But the statute, according to Jefferson, was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination."

Meacham summarizes:

[The Founders] wanted God in American public life, but, given the memory of religious warfare that could engulf and destroy whole governments, they saw the wisdom of distinguishing between private and public religion. In churches and in homes, anyone could believe and practice what he wished. In the public business of the nation, however, it was important to the Founders to speak of God in a way that was unifying, not divisive.

Meacham spends most of his book showing how this usage has served the country well, from Washington adding "so help me God" to his presidential oath to FDR reading a D-Day prayer over the radio to John Kennedy reminding the country that "God's work must truly be our own." In each case, the specific theology was left to the individual imagination, and yet a unifying message of higher purpose was captured.

Of all the opinions in Newdow, Justice O'Connor's comes closest to Meacham's point of view:

Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve, however, I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution. This category of "ceremonial deism" most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto ("In God We Trust"), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as the Star-Spangled Banner, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions ("God save the United States and this honorable Court").

Solving the Quotation Paradox

Today, liberals and conservatives alike can quote the Founders to advantage, because conservatives can quote the Founders' public statements, while liberals can quote the Founders' behind-the-scene expressions of inclusive intent. The apparent contradiction is largely anachronistic: Language that was inclusive in the 18th century can be divisive in the 21st. The diversity of religious views in America has increased tremendously since the founding, and continues to increase. What public statements and ceremonies the Founders would support today is open to interpretation.

Meacham's reconstruction of the Founders' concept of public religion points to a way out of our current dilemma, but it is not an easy way. Public religion does not give us a checklist, a simple set of rules for judging the religious content of government activities. Rather, it calls on us to examine our motives: Are we trying to express our country's unity behind a purpose higher than any individual or factional interest? Or are we defining the nation according to our own religious views, and classing those who disagree as something less than full citizens?

Again, O'Connor seems to have gotten the balance right. In Newdow she recalls her words from Lynch v. Donnelly:

Endorsement, I have explained, "sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community."

Going Forward

If the Founders' tradition of public religion is to go forward, I believe we face three hard challenges:

(1) In this era of 9/11, of Abu Ghraib, of clashing civilizations, of waterboarding, of terrorism, of enemy combatants, of WMD, and of a war whose only constant is the claim that it is not about oil - does America still a higher purpose? Or are we just a particularly successful gang of individuals, bound by nothing more than the desire to save our own skins and maintain our disproportionate share of the world's wealth?

(2) If we do have a higher purpose, can we express that purpose in any common language, symbols, ceremonies, or images? How can we affirm it, celebrate it, and pass it on to our descendants?

(3) And if other Americans try - sincerely, if imperfectly - to express that purpose, can we hear them? Can we listen with a generous and open heart? Or are we compelled to put the harshest, most sectarian interpretation on any words other than our own?

I can only hope that American society is still equal to challenges like these. If not, God help us.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Heroes and Martyrs

I had to leave a lot out of my review of Sam Harris' book The End of Faith in the Fall issue of UU World. I had three books to cover in 2000 words, so (as I explained to my wife at the time) "Many fish in that barrel remain unshot."

In the published review, I focus on two issues: how Harris' self-image of rationality masks the violence of his ideas, and his incomprehension of any form of religion other than fundamentalism. Another issue I want to address is the desire (widespread among a certain kind of Humanist) to interpret the ideas and actions of religious people as totally Other, rather than noticing the basic human impulses and experiences that religious and secular people share.

The religious type most Other to Harris is the Muslim suicide bomber. He pictures the aspiring Muslim martyr as an individualist trying to get to Paradise, who devalues his current life because of his insane religious worldview. Harris quotes a Muslim scholar denouncing the "craven desire to live, no matter at what price and regardless of quality, honor, and dignity" and finds nothing there but "suicidal grandiosity".

But wait a minute. Aren't there any non-Muslims, people of every religion and of none, who lack a "craven desire to live"? Don't Humanists also admire people who value something more than their own lives? People who would rather die than live without "quality, honor, and dignity"?

Of course we do. We call them heroes.

Western history is in fact full of stories in which people die willingly for a larger cause: Thermopylae, for example, or the Alamo. And while Patrick Henry in fact did not die rather than give up his liberty, we admire him for saying that he would. My own religious people, Unitarian Universalists, count among our ancestors Michael Servetus, who let John Calvin burn him at the stake rather than renounce his views.

And yet for some reason we judge Muslims to be insane when they refuse to act like homo economicus, the rational individualist postulated by economic theory. Economicus, as the theory has it, is trying to "maximize utility". In other words, he's trying to find a good deal, one where he gets as much as possible while giving up as little as possible. If you're trying to understand shoppers at a mall, the economicus model works pretty well. Understanding a suicide bomber as homo economicus, however, requires some adjustments: He gives up his life and gets (as far as we can see) nothing in return. Why would he do that?

Well, the economists recognize another situation in which people give up something valuable in exchange for nothing: fraud. In other words, homo economicus is still a rational decision-maker trying to maximize his utility, but someone has been corrupting his decision-making process with false information. Somebody tells you that you're buying the Brooklyn Bridge, you imagine the fantastic wealth you're going to garner from charging tolls on it, and so you fork over your life savings. You give up everything and get nothing – like the suicide bomber.

In this framing, Heaven plays the role of the Brooklyn Bridge. Some mullah tells the prospective martyr that after he blows himself up he'll be met at the gates of Heaven by 72 virgins. Such a deal! (I'm still trying to imagine the mindset of the mystic who had this vision. What kind of obsessive-compulsive would count the virgins?) Sam Harris explains it this way:
To see the role that faith plays in propagating Muslim violence, we need only ask why so many Muslims are eager to turn themselves into bombs these days. The answer: because the Koran makes this activity seem like a career opportunity. ... Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible.

Or at least unintelligible to Harris. And not just Harris, who is echoing what the crusading atheist Richard Dawkins wrote a few days after 9/11:
Could we get some otherwise normal humans and somehow persuade them that they are not going to die as a consequence of flying a plane smack into a skyscraper? If only! Nobody is that stupid, but how about this - it's a long shot, but it just might work. Given that they are certainly going to die, couldn't we sucker them into believing that they are going to come to life again afterwards? Don't be daft! No, listen, it might work. Offer them a fast track to a Great Oasis in the Sky, cooled by everlasting fountains. Harps and wings wouldn't appeal to the sort of young men we need, so tell them there's a special martyr's reward of 72 virgin brides, guaranteed eager and exclusive.

And Dawkins is explicit about applying an individualistic rational-agent model:
If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life highly and be reluctant to risk it.

But let's think about some of the other people who died on 9/11 – the firemen who raced into the burning towers and perished when those towers collapsed. Were they rational agents maximizing individual utility? Did they not value their lives? What was going on in their heads?

Undoubtedly many of them were religious, but I doubt they were running up those stairs in order to get to Heaven faster. Instead, I suspect they would have given community-oriented justifications: “It's my duty” or “Somebody needs to help those people” or some other variation of what rationalist icon Mr. Spock says before apparently sacrificing his life at the end of The Wrath of Khan: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Homo economicus would never make a statement like that. Spock, Michael Servetus, the 9/11 firemen – they all failed to maximize utility. They made really bad deals.

Or did they?

Maybe the world of homo economicus is not the world we live in – or should live in. Maybe the only reason our society survives is that some people are willing not to maximize individual utility. If a secular worldview means becoming a rational individualist, if it means turning into homo economicus, then it's not surprising that the Bin Ladens of this world think we're all cowards. Because it's true: economicus is a coward. It must give Bin Laden great confidence to see Western writers praising the craven desire to live, and counting his people insane or deluded because they value something more highly than their own lives.

On the other hand, if Osama thinks much about those New York firemen, it might give him pause.

When Richard Pape studied suicide bombers in Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, he found people very different than Harris and Dawkins would have us imagine. First, he did not find religion to be a determining factor. Secular nationalist movements like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka also have had no trouble generating volunteers for suicide missions. The key belief is not in an afterlife or in religious martyrdom as a road to Paradise, but rather that the community faces annihilation. (Note carefully: not that the individuals in the community face annihilation. We're not talking about genocide; we're talking about the destruction of a way of life. This is another commodity homo economicus would not know how to value.)

And Pape did not find that the bombers fit the pattern Dawkins suggests: "testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world". Nor were they depressed losers who had nothing to live for. Instead, Pape found that suicide-bombing volunteers tend to be relatively successful members of their communities: a little more educated than average, a little more affluent than average, and frequently husbands and fathers. Under other circumstances, the bombers and the firemen might have found that they had a lot in common. (A notable exception are the “black widows” of Chechnya – women whose husbands and/or children have already died in Russian attacks. They are Muslims, but not testosterone-sodden ones.)

In short, Pape concludes that within their communities suicide bombers often fit the hero profile: They look on themselves as leaders, and so are the first ones to step up when the community is endangered and a hard job needs to be done.

What's "completely unintelligible" about that?

The Muslim suicide bomber is unintelligible only if we start, as Harris and Dawkins do, from the assumption that they must be totally unlike us. And since we – rational scientific Westerners – are the best kind of people the world has ever known, people unlike us must be bad. They must be deluded. They must be losers. They must be insane. They must be guys so desperate for a date that 72 virgins in the afterlife sounds like a really good deal.

But if we imagine that our enemies are working from the same basic human template we are, if we introspect and ask what possible impulse could make us volunteer to die – then the answer is not so hard to find: They want to be heroes. They believe their way of life is in danger, and they are willing to sacrifice themselves to keep their community's enemies at bay.

The delusion here, the misperception we need to fight, is that suicide bombers can intimidate us with their sacrifice – because we in the West have completely forgotten what the heroic impulse feels like. Attacks like 9/11 make sense only if you believe that America is entirely populated with economici, and that the mere sight of men willing to sacrifice their lives for a higher purpose will cause us to run in horror.

In short, projecting Otherness onto Muslim suicide bombers does no one good, and makes it harder both for us to understand them and them to understand us. We need to recognize – and communicate – that the impulse to sacrifice Self for Community is not Muslim or even religious. It's human. Americans – even Humanist Americans, I hope – still feel it.

And if Bin Laden eventually gets his way, if understanding fails and the ultimate Clash of Civilizations begins, I can only hope that I too will find more in my soul than the craven desire to live.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reviewing Harris, Dennett, and Aslan

Secularism and Tolerance After 9/11, my review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Reza Aslan's No God But God is now up on the UU World web site. The physical magazines have been mailed to subscribers and I got mine yesterday.

Over the next few weeks I plan to write articles here that spin off of that review and go deeper into various points. (I hope to post the first one later today.) But this would be a good place to have a general discussion.

Let me kick off that discussion by saying a little about why I grouped these three books and wrote this article. For a lot of Humanists and secularists, 9/11 created a sense of urgency about religion. Secularist scholars had been saying for centuries that religion would fade away as science advanced, but it just isn't happening. Instead we seem to be in retreat -- especially in America, but also across the Muslim world: Fundamentalism is advancing and becoming more influential, not fading away. We're still battling over teaching evolution, and it seems unimaginable that America could ever elect an atheist president.

Harris and Dennett are each in their own way saying that secularists have been too complacent and have been playing too nice. We need to actively go after religion, not just wait for some inevitable historical process to play out.

The problem I have with both books is that they preach only to their own secular choir. They present religion in such an oversimplified and stereotyped way that no person who is actually religious will be moved in the slightest by either book. Believers will feel that they have been slandered by people who just don't get it, and (if anything) will be hardened against any real doubt.

Buddha is supposed to have said that hatred will not end through hatred. Well, ignorance will not end through ignorance either. If Humanists are going to carry the battle into the religious community and convert anybody, they're going to have to understand who their potential converts are and why they aren't already Humanists. Harris and Dennett not only don't do this, they seem to have no interest in doing it. For both authors, real religion is fundamentalism. Anybody who isn't either a fundamentalist or a Humanist is just trying to have it both ways.

I picked Aslan's book as a way to contrast this Humanist caricature of religion -- and especially of Islam -- with a genuine thinking person trying to make Islam work in the 21st century. Holding Aslan in mind while you read Harris and Dennett makes the latter two books fall apart; you quickly realize that Aslan's point of view is represented nowhere in the Harris/Dennett picture of religion.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Can we "just say no" to irrationality?

This is one of several blog entries that spin out of the book review column I wrote for the upcoming Fall issue of UU World. One of the books I discuss in that column is Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Briefly, this book claims that a world in which WMDs are so easily obtained can no longer afford “irrational” worldviews, which includes just about all religions.

Harris notes all the wars and atrocities in which religion can be implicated, and then proposes rationality as the solution:
Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately. [page 79]

As the book's argument evolves, however, Harris comes dangerously close to proposing his own genocidal project against Islamist countries that acquire WMDs.
In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime – as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day – but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. [page 129]

Personally, I don't think this idea is rational at all, but I don't doubt that Harris got here by trying to be rational. Which raises an interesting question: Is trying-to-be-rational always the best way to secure the fruits of rationality?

I'd like to propose an analogy: abstinence-only sex education. Its proponents claim that abstinence is the only 100% effective method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. But, of course, this is only true if you succeed in abstaining. Because the attempt to abstain frequently fails, teens who choose abstinence as their sexual strategy, if I remember correctly, actually are as likely as anybody else to get pregnant and are significantly more likely to catch an STD.

I wonder if the same thing happens with rationality. All kinds of good things follow if a person succeeds at being rational. But abstaining from irrationality is at least as hard as abstaining from sex, and people like Sam Harris frequently wind up rationalizing actions every bit as horrible as those put forward by people who barely value rationality at all. Might not some of them be better served by devoting themselves irrationally to a code that tells them to “love thy neighbor as thyself”?

All things considered, I wonder who gets better results.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Girls are victims, boys are losers

I've been thinking that I should blog some of the more substantial comments I leave elsewhere. That way not every post on F&RS will be indigestibly long.

Lots of people have been buzzing about Tamar Lewin's series The New Gender Divide that started in Sunday's New York Times. In particular, I ran into discussion of it at TPM Cafe, in an article by Joan Chalmers Williams, which prompted me to make this comment:

I think both sides need to be careful on this subject. It's very easy to go out and find a few quotes to support your preconceived ideas, and correspondingly hard to get objective data.

Here's what I see through the lens of my particular biases: When girls systematically underperform or behave self-destructively, it's assumed that they are victims of a system skewed against them. When boys systematically underperform or behave self-destructively, it's because they lack virtue. Girls are victims; boys are losers.

Both genders, for example, feel pressure to make their bodies fit an unrealistic ideal image. Girls starve themselves and get implants hoping to be Barbie. Boys take steroids hoping to be Michael Jordan. The coverage of these parallel issues, from my view, looks completely different. I read many sympathetic articles about anorexics, and even about girls who submit to cosmetic surgery, but steroid-taking boys are cheaters.

What if we could look at the pressures on college students without the victim/loser filter? According to this article, "For men, it’s just not cool to study." That used to be true about women, especially in math and science. Then feminists considered it a cultural problem, a way that girls were held down. Perhaps we should look at the boys' situation the same way.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Evolution and the Elements of Religion I: Ritual

Recently I was writing the Bookshelf column for the upcoming issue of UU World, reviewing (among other recent books) Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I was disappointed in the book, because Dennett seemed more interesting in using the evolutionary point of view to discount religion – “See, it wasn’t revealed by God!” – than to understand it.

I’ve been similarly unimpressed by books that want evolution to validate religion, either by finding a “God gene” or in some other way. In either case, religion becomes one big thing to be judged in its entirety. As soon as that happens, our current understanding of and attitudes toward religion get projected back in time. We find ourselves evaluating prior eras of human history based on how we feel about the present.

And yet, I’ve long been a fan of speculation about the evolution of human consciousness, and (separately) a fan of religious studies. Isn’t there some way to put the two together to help us gain insight? I think there is, but the insight to be gained is into the pieces of religion, the components out of which it is built. These pieces evolved at different times, as parts of human worldviews as different from each other as they are from our current modes of consciousness. Each evolved for its own reasons, and not to be part of that complex construction we currently call religion.

And so, I won’t be looking for a God gene, because I think that (on an evolutionary timescale) God is a comparative latecomer to religion. And instead of explaining everything about religion, I want to speculate about three of its most important components: ritual, scripture, and theology.

Of all the components I will discuss, ritual is the oldest. It predates not only scripture and theology, but language itself. Given the extent to which language has become inseparable from our sense of what it means to be human, it can be hard to imagine our nonverbal ancestors. (It's tempting to call them preverbal, but that's another way of projecting our standards backwards, making their lives look forward to ours.) What went on in their minds?

It’s easiest to think about what didn't go on. The nonverbal mind has no interior monologue – no chattering voice in the head saying, “Now I’m here by the river. After I’ve rested a few minutes I’m going to head back to the cave and see if any meat is left on the rabbit bones. Oh, there’s Og. I wonder what he wants?” Our nonverbal ancestors didn’t have stories or fictional/mythical characters. They weren’t able to communicate detailed descriptions of places. At best, they might be able to remind each other of shared experiences, and (at a second level, by implication) of the places where those events took place.

Hardest of all for us to grasp, though, is that they had no verbal crutch for memory. Our life story chains our memories together like charms on a bracelet. Words are a scaffolding from which our memories can hang. If I ask you to remember something from 1999, chances are you will first figure out which segment of your life 1999 belongs to: Were you in school then? Married? Had your children been born yet? How old were they? What house were you living in and what job did you have? Once 1999 is situated among those landmarks, memories will flow freely. But in the absence of an abstract story to tie them together, your memories would be disconnected. Something in the immediate environment might cue a memory, but without the crutch of words, without a well rehearsed story of your life, memories would lack context. And if nothing reminded you of an event, you would forget it. The nonverbal mind is a mind of the present.

We might be tempted to consider our nonverbal ancestors less than human, but they are clearly also something more than apes. In Origins of the Modern Mind Melvin Donald refers to this stage of human existence as mimetic culture. He postulates that humans of this era (approximately 1-2 million years ago) had the ability to communicate by mime. In other words, they could re-enact an event for the specific purpose of communication. Even the most intelligent apes in the wild seem not to do this. A chimp may learn to crack nuts by watching and imitating another chimp, but he will not then go over the hill to another group of chimps and mime: Bobo is over there cracking nuts.

Mime involves more than the ability to imitate; it also requires a theory of mind. In order to mime well, you need to imagine how others are perceiving you. That means that you imagine your fellow beings as having thoughts, and you believe that you can guess what those thoughts are. (Apes seem not to do this.) And, as in charades, you need to recognize when someone has grasped part of your message so that you can move on to the next part. If your audience is misinterpreting your mime, you need to recognize that quickly as well, so that you can back up and correct. Mime, in other words, is even more complicated mentally than it is physically.

Nonverbal humans also seem to have had rhythm. In response to a beat, humans of all cultures spontaneously start tapping their feet or swaying in rhythm, and people walking together tend to fall into step. (Psychologists call this entrainment.) Other primates do not. Tribes of monkeys may migrate or hunt together, but they do not march.

This combination of abilities allows the creation of public rituals – repeated group activities which each successive generation can learn and integrate itself into. This gives the community something it never had before: memory. A nonverbal ritual may survive intact even after all the individuals present at its creation have passed away. With memory comes culture – a suprabiological pattern of information that can preserve itself and even evolve without needing to change the genome.

We can see the evidence of this culture in archeological remains. While earlier humans made tools (and even apes make tools to a limited extent), mimetic culture produced the first standard toolset. In other words, mimetic humans passed down particular tool designs for hundreds of thousands of years. The toolmaking we see among apes seems to be an expression of spontaneous creativity: Gorillas, for example, have been seen uprooting small trees in order to lean on them while peering into a stream for food. But there is no evidence that they ever think: “Walking sticks are handy, I think I’ll make one just to have in case the need arises.” The blades and hammers of the Oldawann toolset, on the other hand, are hard to make, and the materials to make them are far removed from their occasions of use. Clearly the tools were valued as things in themselves, and were made in a setting where they were not immediately needed.

The content of the earliest rituals, of course, is lost. But we can guess this much: The communal memory was small by our standards, so the cultures that survived must have packed only the most essential information into their rituals. Perhaps the rituals identified the tribe’s best toolmakers and encouraged the young to imitate them (leaving the actual training to more spontaneous one-on-one sessions). Perhaps the rituals taught members of the tribe ways to recognize each other as comrades, and so allowed tribes to grow larger than they could if they relied purely on individual recognition. Perhaps they taught group hygiene (such as the disposal of dead bodies) and so prevented disease.

If we recognize such rituals as the beginnings of religion, we need to be careful not to project our later religious ideas onto them. Modern rituals can point to complex ideas communicated verbally, but most of the ideas we currently identify with religion cannot be communicated by mime and ritual alone. How, for example, would you mime the concept Creator of the Universe? (The modern game of Charades fools us about the capabilities of mime by adding verbal supports. The solution to the puzzle, after all, is a set of words. And rather than communicating the complete idea, we often mime the words one-by-one or even break a long word up into syllables. Nonverbal cultures couldn’t do this.) At most, a ritual might be able to re-enact the deeds of a hero who slew a great beast or a mother who gave birth to a great child. Anything more godlike than that seems to me to be completely off the scale.

Any abstract notion of sin or of salvation is similarly off the scale. A nonverbal culture could mime the characteristic gestures of a recently deceased person, and perhaps communicate the notion that s/he is journeying to some other place, but the afterlife could not have a detailed landscape. And how would you mime Watch out or you’ll go to Hell! to a disobedient youngster who didn't already have the idea of Hell in his head?

Abstract rules of behavior can’t be mimed. Consider the Golden Rule. You might act out specific examples of someone acting badly and then later being treated badly in the same way, but the abstraction would have to happen in the mind of the audience. Mime is far better suited to teaching specific behaviors than abstract rules.

Abstract psychological statements are no easier. Try miming: The men in my family have bad tempers or My childhood left me with a poor sense of self esteem, but I overcame that problem later in life. A simple When I was a child ... is hard enough to mime. You wouldn’t do it just to chat.

Now, even if you agree that certain ideas can’t be communicated in mime and ritual, you might believe that our nonverbal ancestors thought them anyway. But consider what this means. An idea that can't be communicated can’t be contained in the cultural memory. Each person who has the idea has to rediscover it independently. Imagine, for example, that you were a nonverbal mystic genius or (expressing the same idea theistically) that you were specially loved by God. Suppose God showed you a vision of the creation of the Universe – the full six-day extravaganza later written down in Genesis. That information would die with you, because you would have no way to communicate it to your successors. The vision could survive only if God showed it independently to someone in each generation. A true theist, I suppose, would not see this as impossible; but I want you to understand exactly the level of divine intervention you need to postulate.

Even for an individual, it is hard to remember an idea you have no way to represent. Present-day mystics understand that the experience of a truth-beyond-words is very difficult to bring into your everyday life. And unless you develop a technique for recreating the experience, eventually you remember little more than: “I had an experience of a truth beyond words.” Our nonverbal ancestors would have had the same difficulty with a truth-beyond-mime.

Even so, our ancestors might have had many ideas they couldn’t communicate, just as we do. But they would be the kind of ideas everyone learns just by living a human life: Losing someone you love hurts really bad. Getting old sucks. People are self-centered. If recognizing an idea requires special genius, the idea either has to be representable in the cultural memory or it will have no lasting effect.

What can these evolutionary speculations tell us about ritual as it appears in our religions today? First, it explains that feeling of heightened awareness we feel in the presence of ritual. If ritual was once the only way culture passed from one generation to the next, and if culture was itself a powerful aid to survival, then people would evolve to be especially attuned and susceptible to ritual. That susceptibility would persist even after the circumstances that favored it faded away.

Second, those tasks that mime and ritual handled well a million years ago are probably still being handled by mime and ritual today. Evolution is conservative. If a mechanism handles a particular task well enough, evolution will build new systems on top of it rather than redesign from the ground up. That’s why we still have an appendix: The mechanism that builds our organs works well enough that the disadvantage of an extraneous organ doesn’t cause a new mechanism to evolve.

And so even today, group membership and identity is largely a matter of ritual. That’s why many Catholics felt lost when the Latin mass was dropped, even if they comprehended no Latin and were unable to say what all the phrases meant. The physical experience of participation in the mass – knowing when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, and what syllables to utter in response to other utterances – gave them a deep sense of belonging that mere commonality of belief could not replace.

Not all rituals of group identification are so obvious. But if your group coheres, if it has a sense of shared identity, then you have rituals. No matter how intelligent and rational and evolved your members may be, their group identity springs from that (perhaps hidden) set of rituals. If you disturb those rituals in the slightest way, your community will be roiled by primitive waves of ire. And since those waves originate in the nonverbal human consciousness, you will have a hard time discussing exactly what is wrong.

Finally, to the extent that a religious practice seeks to recapture the immediacy of the nonverbal mind – its lack of inner monologue or its in-the-moment awareness, for example – ritual is going to be essential. You’ll never be able to talk or reason your way to satori.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

GA Journal -- Comments Accepted

I'm back from the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in St. Louis. The main thing I did there was write a journal for the official GA web site. (Of course that's not what I claim in the journal, but a journal that says "Today I sat in my room and wrote a journal" wouldn't have had much appeal.)

Like the rest of the GA web site, my journal didn't allow comments. I asked, and they weren't going to be moved on this. The Unitarian Universalist Association is still too afraid that somebody will post some off-the-wall comment, and then somebody elsewhere will say, "Over at the official UUA web site, they say ..."

So my compromise is to recap here what I said there, and you can comment as you like.

My pre-GA post is pretty light, and is mainly noteworthy for my statement of the Law of Temporal Perspective: "Any day sufficiently far in the future seems to contain infinite time." You can also see a picture of me in my short-haired beardless mode. This is the picture that has finally convinced me to have my teeth whitened.

On Wednesday I was still pretty light in my afternoon post. The picture here is from my drive down from my parents' house in Quincy, Illinois. Missouri Highway UU crosses Route 61 on the way to Bowling Green. I took a picture of the exit sign and intentionally misinterpreted it as an exit for that famous Missouri Unitarian landmark, the UU Bowling Green.

The late-night part of the Wednesday post talks about the reception that a group at the UUA had for UU bloggers, and what I wish we had talked about. This thread got picked up over at Philocrites.

Thursday I wrote about the Church of the Larger Fellowship worship service, which rocked. Two great ministers, a congregation that sings loud, and a choir performing part of a new cantata based on the UU Sources.

Friday contains a lot of little stuff. I flash back to the strangeness of worshipping with thousands of UU's at the opening ceremony Wednesday, wander around the Exhibit Hall looking for funny buttons and t-shirts, and point out that if Peter Laarman really wants to start a dialog with the religious right, he should stop calling them "Christofascists". At least in public. And then there's the strange sense of embarrassment that comes from picking up the UU-Men newsletter at their booth and realizing that I wrote the lead article; it's like I'm standing there waiting for somebody to look at my badge and say, "Oh, you're Doug Muder."

By Saturday I was comfortable enough writing the journal to get serious. The first entry is after listening to Bill McKinny talk. He's a UCC minister and the president of the Pacific School of Religion. His talk tied in with the Laarman/Sinkford workshop that I had covered the day before on the regular web site. This issue that struck me, and I think I'll do a separate post on that issue here soon, is what part UU's can play in the formation of a religious left to balance the religious right. The language of a religious left is going to be mostly Christian -- can we shout "Amen!" to that?

Then I posted about the Rebecca Parker workshop, for which I also did the event coverage. This got me rambling about another question that deserves its own post: UU's are such pessimists about where the country is going, but somehow I never hear them take that into account when they plan their personal lives. We can talk about the melting polar icecaps one day and get excited about buying a beachfront vacation home the next. What's up with that?

In my final entry Saturday, I got snarky for the one and only time in the GA Journal -- I don't think Deb Weiner at the UUA has read this far into my journal yet, and I wonder if I'll hear about it when she does. I couldn't take Mary Oliver's Ware Lecture. In my imagination, the committee that invited Oliver is entirely made up of elderly women saying, "Wouldn't that be lovely?" For balance, next year we should invite Michael Jordan.

Sunday I did a survey of what the other UU blogs were saying about GA. I'm sorry if I missed yours. Dan Harper got me going on the strain of being an introvert at GA.

Then I did a wrap-up where I enthused about my GA experience in general, promised to provide an outlet for comments on this blog, and expressed my intention to go to the next GA in Portland.

As I said, I'm sorry I couldn't accept your comments on the official site. Feel free to post them now.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Meet Me in St. Louis

This week I'm at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in St. Louis. I'm blogging my experience of the conference at the conference web site.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Going Home Again

On April 2 I got to do something I had often imagined: I preached in my home town of Quincy, Illinois. I grew up in Quincy, went to its Lutheran grade school from kindergarten through 8th grade, and graduated from its public high school. Quincy is an old Mississippi River port, and I have (at one time or another) walked or bicycled every inch of it.

For its size -- Quincy's population of about 40,000 has been more-or-less steady since the 1840s -- the town has more than its share of American history. Mormon founder Joseph Smith once appeared in court there in front of Judge Stephen Douglas. A few years later, Douglas debated the upstart senate candidate Abraham Lincoln in Washington Park. That day probably wasn't the first time Lincoln applied Jesus' line, "A house divided against itself cannot stand" to slavery. But I doubt many people in the crowd were expecting it.

In spite of the fact that I was preaching at the Unitarian church instead of the Lutheran church I grew up in, a lot of my personal history was represented in the room. My father (celebrating his 84th birthday that day) was making his first visit to a UU church. The congregation applauded him, and he was embarrassed and pleased at the same time. My best friend from the Lutheran grade school was there, as well as two close friends from high school -- and my wife Deb, of course.

Aware that not even Jesus had done well preaching at home, I had fretted about what to say. UU churches vary from liberal Christian to militant atheist, and I didn't have a good reading on this one; I'd only been there once. Plus, I didn't know how many of my old Lutheran friends might show up to wish me well, and I didn't want to gratuitiously offend either them or my father. (That's one of my rules: Never offend people unintentionally.) But I also wanted to say something, and not just mouth some ecumenical mush.

So the question was how to turn the potential diversity of the room into an opportunity rather than a challenge. And that's where my topic came from: If theists and atheists could really talk to each other -- not argue in circles or sit in polite and stony Midwestern silence -- what could they learn?

Meeting at Infinity: What Theists and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other
A talk by Doug Muder at the Unitarian Church of Quincy
Quincy, Illinois
April 2, 2006

Opening Words
The opening words are from the Roman historian Plutarch: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled,it is a fire to be kindled.

A Footnote to All Prayers
by C. S. Lewis

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

from Nathan Gardels' Interview with Salman Rushdie
One of the reasons my name is Rushdie is that my father was an admirer of Ibn Rush'd, the 12th century Arab philosopher known as Averroes in the West. In his time, he was making the non-literalist case for interpreting the Koran.

One argument of his with which I've also had sympathy is this: In the Judeo-Christian idea, God created man in his own image and, therefore, they share some characteristics. By contrast, the Koran says God has no human characteristics. It would be demeaning God to say that [God has human characteristics]. We are merely human. He is God.

Ibn Rush'd and others in his time argued that language, too, is a human characteristic. Therefore it is improper - in Koranic terms - to argue that God speaks Arabic or any other language. That God would speak at all would mean he has a mouth and human form. So, Ibn Rush'd said, if God doesn't use human language, then the writing down of the Koran, as received in the human mind from the Angel Gabriel, is itself an act of interpretation.

The original text is itself an act of interpretation.

from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
We instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by the intellect as any other object is handled. The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be unique.

Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. 'I am no such thing,' it would say; 'I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.'

A Unitarian Universalist church is just about the only place in American society where theists and atheists can meet, be open about their beliefs, and compare notes about their experiences. That’s because we don’t have an official doctrine of God – the institution doesn’t tell you what to believe.

Now, you might think this would lead to some amazing discussions, the kind of conversations you can’t hear anywhere else. I don’t know whether you manage to have them here in Quincy or not, but in my experience such conversations are disappointingly rare. Most Unitarians, whether they believe in God or not, have learned to avoid the subject. It just starts arguments, the arguments are always the same, and no one is ever convinced. Why go there?

Last year I heard this riddle: Why do so many UU’s go to divinity school? Because they can’t talk about God in church.

I think this is unfortunate, because theists and atheists experience life differently, and learn some very different lessons from their experiences. Probably any particular bit of wisdom can be learned on either path, but some bits are easier to learn on one path than the other. Which is why I think that theists and atheists could teach each other a lot if they could only sit and talk calmly. Today I hope to give that conversation a nudge by pointing out how much there is to gain and how to avoid some common dead ends.

Theist, Atheist, Agnostic
Before going on, I need to dispose of the word agnostic. An agnostic, literally, is someone who doesn’t know, and claiming to be an agnostic is a polite way to drop out of those dull and unproductive debates. “I don’t know, you work it out among yourselves. Call me when you get it solved.”

But what, exactly, is the agnostic claiming not to know? For example, I’m agnostic about the capital of Bangladesh; I don’t know what it is. I’m agnostic about the existence of intelligent life in nearby solar systems. It’s a good question, but I just don’t know the answer. God is a different kind of question, because the word God means so many different things to different people. Whose God is the agnostic claiming not to know about?

Spinoza, for example, identified God with the natural workings of the universe, and left no room in his theology for miracles or responses to prayer. He didn’t think he was an atheist – his books are full of references to God – but everyone else in the 1600s thought he was. And in order to be agnostic about Spinoza’s God, you’d have to doubt the existence of the universe.

The C. S. Lewis poem points to an even deeper problem. It isn’t just that God has many different meanings, but that any God worth the name is actually beyond human conception. To Lewis, if you have a definition of God, you’re wrong. Because, unlike other words, God doesn’t point to an object or a concept, but rather points outside conceptual systems altogether. It is a word for something beyond words.

That’s why, for example, orthodox Jews aren’t allowed to say the name of God, but rather refer to God as ha Shem, the Name. That practice reminds them that even though they talk about God, they don’t really have a handle on him.

For the purposes of this talk, I’m going to use a pragmatist definition of theism and atheism that should do away with the need for the word agnostic, and so block that way out of the discussion: If you have in your head any concept of God, and if that concept influences your behavior, then you are a functional theist. If not you are a functional atheist.

In other words, in the course of your everyday life, does God come up? Do you make different choices, live differently, or handle your anxieties differently, because you think about God? That test should push most agnostics into one camp or the other. And it may push some self-professed theists or atheists into the opposite camp. A believer whose belief doesn’t affect his life comes out as a functional atheist, and an anti-believer who tries very hard to annoy God – he counts as a functional theist.

One thing I like about this definition is that it makes theism a matter of degree: Some lives are profoundly altered by a belief in God, while others are just influenced a little around the edges. Only those not affected at all count as atheists. But much of what I have to say about theists and atheists also applies to discussions between people who are theists to a greater or lesser extent.

Small Gods
So, assuming that you’re a functional theist, what of value might you learn by talking to a functional atheist?

First, as you try to communicate your concept of God to a doubter, you may notice that it has gotten small. In general, when you only hang around with people who agree with you, your concepts tend to shrink, like clothes that are washed and washed, but never worn. It’s the tension of opposition that keeps a concept stretched out.

The Christian writer Ruth Tucker tells of a friend who took her grandson out to play miniature golf. The sky looked threatening, but the boy announced that he would pray for God to hold back the rain until they had finished. That’s exactly what happened, and both the boy and his grandmother took this as evidence of the power of prayer. But Tucker wonders “if we really want our grandchildren or anyone else to have that image of God – one who holds back the rain for us to play golf. Is God then like a genie in a bottle, ready to do our bidding?”

To hear many fundamentalists tell it, God is a character in a book. He has a personality. He has moods, gets angry, and would do terrible things if cooler heads like Moses didn’t calm him down. And over the years he’s made so many promises and commitments – which he’s incapable of breaking – that he’s completely bound up. If we repent, he has to forgive us. If we believe and are baptized, he’s forced to take us to heaven. We’ve got God in a box. We’re the ones in control.

Compare than tiny notion of God to the one Salman Rushdie described: a God so great that his will and wisdom cannot be captured by any human language, one for whom even the original scripture can only be a human interpretation. The medieval Christian theologian William of Ockham put forward the notion of the radical freedom of God. Omnipotence, he taught, can’t be bound. You can’t bargain with it. You can’t make deals. Whatever you think you’ve been promised, God is free to do as He will.

That’s what a truly large God looks like. If you spend more time with atheists, their skepticism may keep your God from shrinking.

False Security
Atheistic concepts can shrink too. They settle, like the corn flakes that don’t fill up the box any more. Atheists are often too complacent about the potential of science to solve all the mysteries of life.

Sometimes when I hear atheists talk among themselves, it’s as if they’re back in the 1700’s, when Newton had all the basic laws of the universe worked out, and any question could be answered if we only had better instruments and could do longer calculations.

In one sense the optimism of that era was justified: Science has gone on to solve many mysteries. Many phenomena that once could only be explained by God’s whims now are understood as the workings of natural law. But that progress cost Newtonian science some of its most treasured concepts: time, space, and causality. Today’s science shows us a much weirder universe than Newton could have imagined. I doubt he’d be comfortable here.

Einstein lived long enough to be uncomfortable with the next scientific revolution: quantum mechanics, which brought randomness back into physics. “God,” Einstein protested, “doesn’t play dice with the Universe.”

And Bohr is supposed to have answered, “Albert, stop telling God what to do.”

The advance of science leaves no room for complacency. If science does unlock the most basic mysteries of life and human consciousness, it won’t just be a matter of learning a few more facts and tweaking the theory. Our current worldviews, no matter how scientifically sound they seem today, will be shaken to the ground.

If you hang around with believers, you may pick up an attitude of awe and humility in the face of the unknown. And that, I believe, would be healthy.

Depth: the Universal Problem
There’s a lesson here for both sides. Everybody who builds a worldview – whether they center it on God or not – has trouble getting the depth right. Your worldview has to be simple enough that you can function in it, and yet it has to be complicated enough to let you think about the real problems of life. That’s hard.

Knowing how hard it is, when intelligent theists and atheists contemplate each other’s worldviews, the immediate impression on both sides is that the other view must be too shallow. The theist imagines that an atheist world is just meaningless mechanism. The atheist imagines that the theist attributes every mystery to God’s will, and leaves it at that. In fact, everybody has trouble getting the depth right. You might compare notes on that.

Taking Theist Experience Seriously
Another thing theists and atheists might teach each other is the value of individual experience as opposed to abstract ideas. If you talk to believers, you’ll often hear a story like this: “For years I didn’t take religion seriously. And then one day I realized that God loves me and wants me to have a better life. Now, after years of struggle, I have that life.”

The content of the struggle differs from person to person. Maybe this believer had to give up drinking, while that one had to patch up a marriage or stop lying or focus on the kids. Some had to dedicate themselves to a social issue like peace or hunger. They did it for God, and life is better now.

You may object to this way of telling the story. You might point out that they could have done those things anyway, without God. But that’s not how it happened. And you’re never going to convince a person that the events of his own life didn’t happen or aren’t significant.

And so, all those atheist arguments about ideas – about the problem of evil and the contradictions in scripture – they just don’t hit anything. The theist may look bewildered and have no response, but you’re not persuading him.

Taking Atheist Experience Seriously
On the other hand, theists are too quick to project their experiences onto atheists. They imagine the atheist must have a god-sized hole inside him, that he must feel empty and hollow.

What if he doesn’t?

Oh, everyone feels discouraged or disheartened from time to time, but in the long run you’re never going to convince a person with a full life that he actually has an empty one.

And you know the conversion experience? That moment when you found God? How suddenly the world looked new and anything seemed possible? Believers need to understand that everybody gets that experience. It’s not specific to any particular religion. A lot of atheists had that experience when they dropped their concept of God. And so, you can testify until you’re blue in the face, but all you’re doing is reminding the atheist how good it felt to become an atheist.

Both sides need to understand this: Not everyone who disagrees with you is stupid or obstinate or hard-hearted or evil. Some people disagree because they have experiences that don’t fit neatly into your categories. You need to respect that possibility if you’re going to have a productive conversation.

When God Speaks
Nothing separates theists and atheists more than the phenomenon known as the voice of God. At certain peak moments, and sometimes even more often, a believer may feel the presence of a higher intelligence, commune with it, learn something about what it wants, and even hear it as an audible voice.

To the atheist, this is all insanity. Worse, he can take a step back and see many groups of people, all claiming to hear the voice of God, and all wanting to do completely different things. Often they kill each other in riots or wars, and it only seems a matter of time until two sets of believers square off with nuclear weapons.

It may seem like there’s nothing to talk about here.

If you’re an atheist, and one of your friends suddenly knows what God wants him to do – or worse, knows what God wants you to do – it’s a real conversation-stopper. Where can you go from there?

And from the other side, you’ve just had one of the most meaningful experiences of your life, and your atheist friend wants to check you into a mental hospital – what’s to discuss?

If the choices are either that you know the will of God Almighty or that you’ve gone stark raving mad, there isn’t much to discuss. But I want to close by suggesting a third possibility, something that reasonable people on both sides may be able to talk about.

Two Kinds of Epiphany
The word epiphany has two common usages. In religious settings, it means witnessing a manifestation of the divine. Hearing the voice of God, for example, is an epiphany. In secular settings, an epiphany is a sudden realization, an a-ha! or eureka! experience. I want to suggest that these two usages have more in common than we usually think.

Let me explain. My first career was in mathematics, which may be the oldest intellectual tradition on the planet. It goes back at least as far as Egypt and Sumer, and the earliest human writings were probably tally marks to help people count. Whenever you have a tradition like that, where many people work on a common enterprise over centuries, they create structures of thought that are finer and grander than individuals can think up for themselves.

And there are moments – I’ve experienced them myself and seen them in my students – where a piece of that fine, grand tradition explodes into your consciousness. In an instant, after hours of apparently fruitless effort, the student suddenly understands not just what I’m saying or what the book is saying, but what mathematics is saying. Suddenly, the student has his own relationship with mathematics, and may even tell me how I could have expressed the idea better.

I used to think mathematics was unique, but recently I’ve been having the same experience reading legal decisions. At some point, you stop hearing the individual voice of this judge or that one, and start to hear the voice of the Law, the voice of the centuries-old legal tradition that the judge is trying to represent.

Here’s what this secular experience of epiphany feels like to me: I suddenly have thoughts in my head that are bigger and grander and even louder than anything I’ve ever thought on my own.

They sound a little like the voice of God.

Respect versus Reductionism
There’s a danger in observations like this. For generations, unbelievers have trivialized religious experiences by classifying them with similar secular experiences, usually disreputable ones. The visions of saints get lumped together with those of schizophrenics. St. Paul just had an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus. And so on.

Believers are right to object to this treatment.

But at the same time, they shouldn’t be like William James’ imaginary crab, who is offended to be classified as a crustacean. It is possible to discuss the secular context of religious experiences respectfully. Religious objects may not be just human objects, but they are at least human objects. Cathedrals are at least buildings. Scriptures are at least books. The things we know about buildings and books are relevant to them.

Whatever else a religion may be, it is at the very least a tradition in which many people have been thinking about the same questions for a long time. Like mathematics. Like law. Religions contain some of those fine, grand ideas that are too big for anybody to create alone. And when you study a religion, those ideas can explode into your head in an epiphany.

But which kind? Are those loud, grand thoughts in your head a manifestation of God? Or are you having an a-ha experience about your religion? How would you tell the difference?

The Human Tradition
Admitting the possibility of a secular epiphany with religious content changes both sides of the discussion. It allows the atheist to admit that the believer may sane; that the epiphany may contain deep wisdom;and that it may indeed be one of the most significant experiences of a person’s life.

And if you are a believer, this possibility allows room for interpretation and thought. The higher intelligence you have communed with may or may not be God Almighty. Possibly you have heard the voice of your religious tradition, the collective intelligence of all those ingenious people who have believed before you. That is no small thing.

It does not trivialize your experience to accept that someone else may hear the voice of his religious tradition, or even the voice of his secular tradition. He may also have ideas in his head that are bigger and finer and grander than either of you could have invented.

His revelation may sound different from yours. This is not something to get angry about or try to suppress. This is a marvel. This is a wonder. This is something to sit and contemplate in humility.

When this possibility is acknowledged, suddenly there is more to this business of religion than geniuses and lunatics, more to it than true prophets and false ones. Your tradition and mine may each represent collective intelligences beyond our individual ability to encompass.

And yet God, if there is one, may be greater still. God may be greater than words and voices.

And if we – people of all religions or of no religion – can remain in heartfelt communion, if your revelation and mine can speak and listen to each other, then the streams of our separate traditions can flow together. And we create the possibility that somewhere down that stream, somewhere in the distant future, someone may have an epiphany of the human tradition that encompasses us all.

Closing Words
The closing words are by the British occultist Austin Osman Spare: “In a universe that defies description, all systems of belief can only be false.”