Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paul Manship's Diana

The Varieties and Vagaries of Religious Adherence ("Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Deux)

[This is a continuation of the previous post titled "Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Un.]

All too often religions are thought of like bowling teams: our only choices are to (a) join an existing one, or (b) start your own; and, moreover (c) you can easily tell precisely which team any given person is on just by reading what it says on the back of their shirt. According to the "bowling team model" religions are neatly separated and mutually exclusive - and there are no ambiguities or difficulties in determining a given person's religious "identity".

Fortunately religious traditions as they actually exist in reality (as opposed to the ideas about religion that exist in some people's heads) offer far more complex and interesting possibilities than bowling teams do. Most significantly, a single person can easily belong to multiple religions, as the following examples demonstrate:

(1) In Japan it is quite common for people to adhere to both Buddhism and the ancient Shinto faith. A 1996 study found that if you added the number of Japanese adherents of Buddhism and Shinto together, the total was over 50% more than the population of Japan!

(2) Followers of the Afro-Carribean religions (Santeria, Candomble, Voudoun) are very often also church going Christians. Here is a recent article based on an interview with a Los Angeles Santero (priest) who says of those who follow Santeria: "If you asked what their religion is, they’d probably not say `Santeria.’ They’d say `Catholicism’ – that they are Catholics.”

(3) In ancient Pagan cultures of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, people could and did belong to multiple cults without any conflict or inconsistency. In fact, James Rives, in his Religion in the Roman Empire, has gone so far as to call into question to what extent one can speak of separate religions at all with respect to classical Paganism: "people thought not so much in terms of 'different religions', as we might today, but simply of varying local customs with respect to the Gods." (p. 6)

(4) In medieval China a "harmonization" movement grew up among people who believed that Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were ultimately not in conflict with each other, and could be followed simultaneously.

(5) In Tibet during the 19th century a movement known as "Ri Me" arose, this was a "non-sectarian" movement including three of the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and also the ancient Bon religion that existed long before Buddhism came to Tibet.

(6) Many Nahuatl speaking Indians in Mexico still retain their indigenous religious practices and beliefs while also regularly attending mass. See for example Timothy Knab's fascinating book War of Witches.

(7) Unitarian Universalist churches today often serve as gathering places for Wiccans and Buddhists who are semi-formally affiliated with the UU church by way of CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) and UUBF (Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship). But even UUers who aren't Pagan or Buddhist often do not identify themselves as Christian, while many UUers do identify as Christians.

Very few scholars (or non-scholars) who venture to discuss the possibility (or, more often than not, to simply assert the non-possibility) of the existence of Pagans living in the very midst European Christendom during the Middle Ages ever make their assumptions about the nature of religious identity and adherence explicit. One of the few exceptions to this rule was Paul Oskar Kristeller, the most influential 20th century Renaissance scholar in the Anglophone world (although Kristeller himself was German). As discussed here previously, Kristeller explicitly stated in some detail in his essay Paganism and Christianity (chapter four in Renaissance Thought and its Sources) that there were only two religious options available (or at least there were only two options exercised) during the Renaissance: (1) variations on Christianity or (2) unbelief. What has appeared to some to be Paganism, Kristeller claimed, was nothing more than a combination of:

i.) "cases of conduct in public and private life that were not in accordance with the moral commands of Christianity"
ii.) "a certain amount of religious indifference"
iii.) "the steady and irresistable growth of nonreligious intellectual interests"

Kristeller assures us that this was all there was to it. Nothing to see here - certainly no Pagans, although maybe, possibly, an atheist or two. So, according to this most prestigious of Renaissance scholars, there simply was never any Paganism in the Renaissance at all, but instead there were merely the moral failings of Christians, the religious indifference of Christians, and the wandering intellectual interests of Christians. Just in case anyone could possibly miss his point, Kristeller added the explicit insistence that "the religious convictions of Christianity were ... never really challenged." [my emphasis]

Kristeller is first of all, and very obviously, assuming that Christianity and Paganism are mutually exclusive religious identities. But the assumption of the absolute, unquestioned and unproved impossibility of someone being both a Christian and a Pagan is not the end of it. Kristeller also assumes that any, even the slightest, adherence to Christianity makes one a Christian, whereas the criteria for being a Pagan, although nowhere stated even vaguely by Kristeller, are obviously far stricter (in fact, Kristeller implicitly defines being a Pagan in such a way that it is essentially impossible for such things as Pagans to exist).

As the examples listed at the beginning of this post clearly demonstrate, Kristeller's views on religious identity are unsupportable. In the cases of people who devoted their entire lives to studying Orphism, Hermeticism, the Chaldaean Oracles, the Theurgy of Iamblichus and Proclus, Magia, Astrology, Kaballah, etc, one must, to give at least the appearance of objectivity, allow for the possibility of people who harbored Pagan beliefs, thus making them at least somewhat Pagan, even if they simultaneously harbored Christians beliefs, thus making them at least somewhat Christian.

There is also the question of those who change religious identities one or more times during the course of their lives. This seriously problematizes the use of simple declarations such as "person X is/was an adherent of religion Y", for we must also be told over what time period X was an adherent of Y. How much more problematic, then, are statements of the form "everyone was an adherent of religion Y"?

Some say that even Voltaire embraced Christianity at the very end of life, although others insist that when the priest demanded that he rebuke Satan, Voltaire replied, "now is no time to start making new enemies." It is also claimed that Oscar Wilde converted to Catholicism as he was about to die, but even if true this was almost certainly just to spite the Church of England, and therefore, understandable and almost forgivable. These deathbed conversions are routinely introduced as objections when Voltaire or Wilde are referred to as opponents of Christianity (they are both hero figures for modern atheists, Pagans, contrarians and freethinkers generally).

Once we enter the 20th century there finally begins (but only just begins) to be something approaching genuine religious freedom in the West. Obviously such freedom cannot be limited to choosing one's preferred brand of Christianity, with the only other option being an atheism that still defines itself, even if negatively, in terms of the Christian "God". Genuine religious freedom must, and can only, mean the freedom to practice any kind of religion one wishes, and in particular it must very specifically include the freedom to leave and even renounce Christianity and take up some other, completely unrelated, spiritual path.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many Westerners began to "look to the east". Some of these cases are fairly straightforward conversions, as is the case with such spiritual pioneers as Alexandra David-Neel, Alan Bennett, Christmas Humphries, Christopher Isherwood, Beatrice Erskine Lane, Ruth Fuller, and Mira Alfassa.

Other cases are much more ambiguous. T.S. Eliot, for example, was not atypical of his time, or his type, in his flirtation with "the East". In fact he went well beyond mere flirtation to something more like heavy petting, but he never went so far as apostasy (unlike David-Neel, Bennett, Humphries, etc). Just how far Eliot went can be seen in his most famous work, perhaps the most famous English language poem of the 20th century, which ends with a quote (in the original Sanskrit) from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, "datta, dayadhvam, damyata", that is, "give, be compassionate, be self-controlled" -- followed immediately by the traditional close of Hindu prayers: "shantih shantih shantih". The Wasteland was written in 1922, when Westerners still felt that they could confidently take whatever they wanted from India (still a British colony) without any fear of losing their Western-ness or even their Christian-ness. In fact, since India was the jewel in British Imperial crown, some likely even believed that appropriated "hindoo" embellishments highlighted the power and glory of Western culture.

Then there is the case of Alan Watts, who at a very early age made a conscious decision to move away from Anglicanism, in which he was raised, in favor of Buddhism. By age 16 he was the secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge (founded by Humphries), and by 23 he was in New York and part of the very first circle of serious students of Zen in America, studying with the first resident Zen teacher in the United States, Sokei-an Sasaki (whose daughter in law Watts had married). But by age 30 Watts had not only returned to the Anglican Church, he had become a priest!

More recently another Englishman, named Paul Williams, not only became a Buddhist, he ordained as a monk and became a world renowned Buddhist scholar. But then after 20 years as a Buddhist he announced that he had converted to Roman Catholicism, and a rather conservative variety of Catholicism at that. We are very fortunate to have Williams' book The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism -- his own account of a personal journey to Buddhism and back again.

One of the most famous and fascinating converts to Christianity in the 20th century was, of course, Bob Dylan. Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman, the son of Jewish parents, and whose grandparents were Russian and Lithuanian Jews. Dylan famously converted to Christianity in the late 70's, and even though his album Slow Train Coming disappointed, or even alienated, or just plain pissed off, a lot of people, the single Gotta Serve Somebody was his first hit in three years and won him a Grammy. Dylan's next album, Saved, came out in 1980 and, like Slow Train Coming, was also overt in its proselytizing. But by 1983's Infidels there was little or no mention of religion any longer in Dylan's music - although some continued to hunt for hidden religious messages. In 2009, three decades after his conversion, the "is he or isn't he" question is still debated. It appears very likely that he still considers himself a Christian, but that he no longer wants to talk about it and doesn't think it's anybody's business. It also appears likely that whatever form of Christianity he adheres to is very personal and idiosyncratic, and, therefore, unlikely to be met with much approval by the vast majority of other Christians, especially the movers and shakers in the Christian music industry.

My favorite case of modern religious obfuscation is that of British Prime Minister (and American Presidential Poodle) Tony Blair. Blair apparently has been a deeply religious man since his college days, and all during this time his heart belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, but he chose to feign affiliation with the Church of England out of political expediency. Blair's official explanation for why he waited until the day after stepping down as PM to admit that he had been living a spiritual lie his entire adult life was that he did not want people to think he was a "nutter". You see, half a millennium of Anglicanism has convinced the British people that anyone who actually cares about religion must be insane.

One final example of these modern vagaries is Stephen Batchelor, whose so-called Buddhism Without Beliefs should probably, in the interests of truth in advertising, be rebranded as Protestantism Without Jesus. Batchelor is astonishingly honest in his description of how he arrived at his supposedly belief-devoid version of the Buddhadharma. According to his essay Deep Agnosticism, Batchelor was, along with other young people of his generation (Batchelor was born in '53, moved to India in '72 and ordained as a Buddhist monk in '74), originally drawn to Buddhism "as a kind of act of defiance, a kind of rebelliousness against what we viscerally disliked ... in our own culture..." But as he aged, Batchelor made peace with, as he says, "the roots of my own culture" and came to regard his youthful rebelliousness as "naive, adolescent and idealistic." But Batchelor doesn't want to take personal responsibility for his own spiritual trajectory; rather, he insists, stupidly, that the correlation of cultural conservatism to age is an inviolable metaphysical commandment: "denial of one's cultural upbringing, is not actually possible to sustain." Batchelor, then, represents a bizarre inversion of the phenomenon of those, like T.S. Eliot, who dally with Buddhism, Hinduism, whatever, without converting: Batchelor, on the other hand, wishes to remain firmly rooted in his "cultural upbringing", while yet pretending to be Buddhist.

OK - so can we put the "bowling team model" of religion out to pasture now? If we find people during the Middle Ages who profess Christianity but who also give clear signs of adherence to Pagan religious traditions, can we start to approach such cases with a more subtle and nuanced frame of mind -- as opposed to a blind, hamfisted insistence that everyone, everywhere, at all times, absolutely had to be 100% Christian? The need for a greater appreciation of the complexities of religious identity is even more acute when religious persecution and dissimulation are widespread, as was the case throughout most of the history of European Christendom.

Should Francis Collins be blacklisted for being a Christian?

Back in the day, "Atheism" always had such a reliably subversive ring to it. Atheists were freethinkers, opponents of bigotry, sworn enemies of hypocrisy. But for the last several decades a certain faction of the Atheist camp has been working very hard to distance themselves from their laudably subversive legacy and to "go mainstream". This trend has been around for a while, going back at least to James Randi and Martin Gardner.

But the "New Atheists" hardly deserve to be categorized along with Randi and Gardner, who for all their faults, are nevertheless men of intelligence, wit and genuine talent. The defining characteristics of the New Atheists, on the other hand, are their humorless bellicosity and predictable, obnoxious evangelizing.

The roots of the New Atheist phenomenon go back to the 1970's, when CSICOP, the "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and Other Phenomena" was formed. Since that time these proselytizing atheists have focused their energy and attention on (1) influencing the mainstream media, and (2) attempting to silence and ostracize any scientist who publicly professes religious views. Sam Harris' NYT piece attacking Francis Collins nicely combines both of these, and provides a textbook example of a leading New Atheist in action. (For those who don't know, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project who also happens to be an evangelical Christian, has been nominated by President Obama to head up the National Institutes of Health.)

Harris makes it absolutely clear that, in his own words, Francis Collins' "credentials are impeccable", and that the only reason for opposing Collins' nomination is that Collins' religious beliefs "should be of concern."

Don't get me wrong. I think that Collins', or anyone else's, religious ideas are fair game. That is to say, if there is something about Collins' religion that Sam Harris doesn't like, then Harris has every right in the world to criticize Collins on that basis.

But criticizing someone's beliefs is completely different from demanding that the person in question be blacklisted on the basis of those beliefs. Having a democratic society that is committed to freedom of religion and freedom of expression requires both the freedom to hold and express whatever religious beliefs one likes, and the freedom to express criticisms of beliefs one disagrees with. In practice, though, these freedoms are meaningless unless they are understood to absolutely guarantee freedom from discrimination based on one's religious beliefs.

Harris' indefensible "argument" is just an inversion of an old Christian canard from the days of the Enlightenment. Back then Christians routinely tried to stigmatize criticism of their religion by claiming that any such criticism, in and of itself, automatically constituted a sign of moral depravity . It was asserted at the time "that the atheist has no awareness of right and wrong, and no respect for justice", in the words of Jonathan Israel in his fascinating and monumental work Enlightenment Contested (p. 164). Today Sam Harris and his ilk similarly contend that any profession of any religious belief whatsoever is automatically a sign of an inability to "think like a scientist".

But where is the proof that Sam Harris knows how to think like a scientist? Does he, for example, provide any evidence that Collins' religious beliefs have interfered with his, or anyone else's, scientific research? Collins received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Yale in 1974, and his M.D. in 1977. He has been involved in scientific research for almost 40 years. The "impeccable credentials" that Sam Harris dismisses as irrelevant include pioneering research in the genetics behind human diseases such as cystic fibrosis, leukemia, and Huntington's disease -- and that was before he was tapped to succeed James Watson as head of the Human Genome Project.

And while we're at it, just how did the religious beliefs of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle interfere with their scientific research? Or, for that matter, Johannes Kepler, Joseph Priestly, Michael Faraday, or Max Planck?

The bottom line is: go ahead and exercise your first amendment right to criticize Collin's religious ideas all you like, but don't forget that the first amendment also guarantees Collins', and everyone else's, right to be free of any discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs.

Previously in this blog I offered a few suggestions with respect to formulating "A Pagan Response to the New Atheism". The first suggestion was:
1. Modern, western Pagans have a unique contribution to make to the critique of the New Atheists. We can point out both (a) where they are right, which is usually when they stick to the well-worn critiques of Christianity that go back to the Enlightenment and even back to classical antiquity, and (b) where they go wrong, which is pretty much any time they venture off that well-worn path. Nevertheless, in their blind hatred of everything religious, they often go overboard even in their critique of Christianity.