Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Getting Beyond "God"

Karen Armstrong On "God"
In the opening pages of Karen Armstrong's A History of God we learn that she grew up in a religious Catholic family, was a nun for a decade or so, and also that she has "made a number of television programs about the early history of Christianity and the nature of religious experience".

But the sum total of all of her experience during the first forty plus years of her life (which also included post-graduate study of literature followed by teaching English at a girls' school), was that she had come to the conclusion that "God seemed an aberration, something that the human race had outgrown." [p. xix] In other words, she had finally managed to discover what any reasonably precocious teenager immediately realizes upon first encountering the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Did Armstrong at this point try to make up for lost time, perhaps by seeking out spiritual alternatives to this "God" that she now believed herself, along with the rest of the human race, to have outgrown? No. She appears to be incapable of imagining any kind of spirituality beyond the simple, binary choice: God versus no God. As dissatisfied as Armstrong was, and as much as she felt that "God" had never really "impinged" on her, she still could not imagine a religious world-view defined without reference to "him".

Armstrong demonstrates just how frighteningly effective 17 centuries of brainwashing has been on the western psyche: even when the sheep stray, most of them never stray very far. Armstrong lists some of the catechism lessons she learned as a girl, along with some other aspects of Christianity that she had come to view as "pompous and arrogant", or "incorrect", or even "a fabrication of theologians centuries after the death of Christ". But she shows not the slightest hint of ever having seriously considered even the possibility that other religions, completely unrelated to Christianity and it's "God", might have something more to offer.

Armstrong does have this much to say on non-Abrahamic religious ideas and traditions: "I have deliberately confined myself to the One God worshipped by the Jews, Christians and Muslims, though I have occasionally considered pagan, Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of ultimate reality to make a monotheistic point clearer. It seems that the idea of God is remarkably close to ideas in religions that developed quite independently. Whatever conclusions we reach about the reality of God, the history of this idea must tell us something important about the human mind and the nature of our aspiration." [p. xxii]

Armstrong displays the depth of her understanding of Pagan religiosity when she tells us (on p. 92) that "Educated pagans looked to philosophy, not religion, for enlightenment. Their saints and luminaries were such philosophers of antiquity as Plato, Pythagoras and Epictetus." This would be like saying that "educated Christians look to philosophy, not religion" because they read Augustine and Aquinas! Ancient Greco-Roman philosophers worshipped the same Goddesses and Gods, at the same Temples and other sacred places, and performed the same religious rites as their fellow Pagans. These philosophers did not abjure the Pagan religions of the societies they lived in, although they did think about religion more deeply than others, and, thank the Gods, write down these thoughts so that these could still be read during the Gods-less Dark Age of oppressive monotheism that was to come.

"Default, 'Normal', Best"
But what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with Tiger Woods? Excellent question!

Gwen Sharp noted recently in her blog (Sociological Images) that Brit Hume's spritual advice to Tiger Woods provides a very good example of how common it is for Americans to unthinkingly assume that Christianity is "the default, 'normal', and best religion for everyone" (thanks to alexandrabond at her blog Helleneste kai Grammateus for the link to Sociological Images).

Sharp's co-blogger, Lisa Wade, had also pointed out a similar religious cluelessness evinced by Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia back in October when he tried to argue that a Christian cross is a perfectly good all-purpose symbol for representing all religions!

It needs to be strongly emphasized that it isn't just the FOX News crowd who seek to present Christianity as, essentially, the only religion that matters, or at least as the normative religion (which usually ends up amounting to the same thing). An only slightly more subtle form of this kind of religious chauvinism is found in the writings of Karen Armstrong, as already discussed briefly above. Armstrong assumes (usually without ever clearly saying so or attempting to justify the assumption) that all religions are intrinsically monotheistic (or at least "remarkably close" to monotheism) and then further assumes that Christianity can serve unproblematically as the normative form of monotheism, and, thereby, for all religions whatsoever.

Armstrong's verbal slight of hand is accomplished while distracting her audience (who are every bit as uncritical and fawning as Brit Hume's) with the words "God" and "compassion", which she uses as thinly disguised stand-ins for "Jesus" and "the teachings of Jesus" respectively. Other religions (starting, naturally, with Judaism and Islam) are validated, according to Armstrong's approach, only because she insists that they all conform to her (at best only vaguely articulated) conceptions of "God" and "compassion".

Armstrong recently provided yet another example of her conflation of "God" with religion in her article Think Again: God in the pages of the November/December issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The following excerpt demonstrates this conflation nicely:
Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.
Armstrong's relentless "God"-fixation is reflected in the way that she breaks that piece up into sections dealing with God and politics, God and violence/intolerance, God and poverty/ignorance, God and women, God and science, God and democracy. But nowhere does Armstrong bother to explain, or even clearly and explicitly articulate, her unquestioned assumption that "God" is synonymous with all things religious -- and that this has always been so going back to the very dawn of humanity! And that is why Brit Hume's world-view is infinitely preferable to Armstrong's. Hume makes assumptions, but he knows what those assumptions are and states them plainly. Armstrong is at best half-aware of what she is assuming, and never comes close to spelling it out.

But wait, there's more. In the endeavor to present their religion as "the default, 'normal', and best religion for everyone", liberal and conservative Christians have started receiving a great deal of assistance from what might appear to be an unlikely quarter: Atheists.

Take Richard Dawkins, for example (please). In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins baldly asserts that the world's largest polytheistic religion, Hinduism, is really just "monotheism in disquise". Dawkins declares that he cannot be bothered with the details of religions that he is not familiar with. With a wave of the hand he announces that he "shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply 'God'". [p. 35] Dawkins doesn't stop there, though, and further explains that in his jihad against "supernaturalism in all its forms" he has chosen to "concentrate on the form most likely to be familiar with my readers ... today's three 'great' monotheistic religions." [p. 36]

Notice how nicely Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins manage to arrive at the same place. They are agreed in their desire to lump all religions together, and they are agreed that "the three 'great' monotheistic religions" serve nicely to represent all religions whatsoever. They are agreed that theirs is a debate about "God".

And so we have Richard Dawkins (and other Atheists) writing their critiques of "God" and Karen Armstrong (and other Christians) writing in defense of "God": The God Delusion (Dawkins), God Is Not Great (Chistopher Hitchens), The God Fraud (Sam Harris), The Case For God (Armstrong), God Is No Delusion (Thomas Crean), God and the New Atheism (John F. Haught), and so on.

Can anyone doubt who "wins" all such debates, before they have even commenced? It is all those who wish to portray our spiritual alternatives as the lifeless dichotomy: "do you believe in 'God', nor not??" Christianity is strengthened whenever the argument is put forth that it's conception of "God" is proper focus of all criticism or praise of religion. This strengthening is all that much greater when those who are making this argument are (supposedly) non-Christians! I say "supposedly" because those who accept the Christian view of divinity as normative are already themselves essentially Christians, whether they realize it or not -- whether they call themselves Atheists, or not.

Well, how did I get here?
When European Christians first began their conquest of the western hemisphere, those they were conquering were often described as "without ... religion or knowledge of God" (Richard Eden) or as "observing no religion" at all (Pedro Cieza de Leon), and similar observations.

The two examples just given above are both from Jonathan Z. Smith's essay Religion, Religions, Religious (which is the fifteenth chapter in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor). According to Smith, both the Protestant Reformation and the European conquest of the world forced European Christians to come up with new ways of thinking about and talking about religion(s). The words that form the title of Smith's essay have gone through a fascinating evolution over the last five centuries.

By the early 17th century, a fourfold division of humanity's religions was being proposed: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and "Idolatry", as was done by Edward Brerewood in his Enquiries touching the diversity of languages and religions through the chief parts of the world, first published in 1614. In that work Brerewood estimates that about 1/6 the human population is Christian, one fifth "Mahumetans", and the rest "Idolaters". Brerewood devotes a chapter to "The Jews dispersed in several parts of the World", but does not include Judaism in his broad estimates of the distribution of religions apparently because of the relatively smaller number of Jews. Concerning the Jews, though, Brerewood does provide the following brief description of their expulsion from much of western Europe during the 13th through 16th centuries:
The first country of Christendom whence the Jews were expelled, without hope of return, was our Country of England, whence they were banished, Anno 1290 by Kind Edward the first. Not long after they were likewise banished from France An. 1307 by Philippus Pulcher: Onely of all the Countries of France, in the jurisdiction of Avignon (the Pope's state) some are remaining. Out of Spain, An. 1492 by Ferdinand and shortly out of Portugal, An. 1497 by Emanuel. Out of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Anno 1539 by Charles the Fifth. In other Regions of Europe they are found, and in some of them in great numbers, as in Germany, Boheme, Polonia, Lituania, Russia, and part of Italy, specially Venice and Rome. In Greece also a great multitude, wherein two Cities (beside all them of other places) Constantinople and Thessalonica are esteemed to be about 160000 Jews.
[Enquiries, 1674 edition, p. 113]
In the essay previously mentioned, Jonathan Z. Smith describes how the fourfold division of Brerewood and others was a seamless continuation of the "dual vocabulary" developed by early Christians as a natural expression of that religion's "us versus them" approach to theology. The resulting vocabulary was firmly in place already by the 4th century AD, and this "dualistic" view of religions continued unabated right into the 19th century when:
Christianity, in some imagination of its ideal form, became the norm in which Judaism and Islam problematically share. Adopting a term from Muslim discourse, these three 'Abrahamic religions' form one set over and against an undifferentiated other [i.e. 'idolatry'].
[p. 276, emphasis added]
Smith also also alludes, in the same essay, to the way in which the parade of warring sects, each excommunicating all the others (especially whichever sect it had spawned off from) resulting from the Protestant Reformation, transformed the traditional Christian obsession with heresiology into the study of "sects" in a more objective and less judgmental sense. (This is a great irony since "heresy" originates in a Greek word that simply refers, without negative connotation at all, to a school of thought.) And the internal study of the various "sects" of Christianity led to "a pattern that holds to the present day: that the history of the major 'religions' is best organized as sectarian history, thereby reproducing the apologetic patristic heresiological model." [p. 275]

World Vision: Only Christians Need Apply

For World Vision staff in the United States, Christian faith is a prerequisite for employment ... The status of World Vision U.S. as an equal opportunity employer does not prevent the organization from hiring staff based on their religious beliefs, so that all staff share the same religious commitment ... World Vision U.S. has the right to, and does, hire only candidates who agree with World Vision’s Statement of Faith and/or the Apostle’s Creed.
[From World Vision website]
There’s no encouragement for a career here if you’re not a Christian ... We’re very clear from the beginning about hiring Christians. It’s not a surprise, so it’s not discrimination.
[Fabiano Franz, World Vision’s national director for Mali, as quoted by Krista Kapralos of globalpost.com]
Religious groups that receive federal funding are currently allowed to exclusively hire only members of their own religion to fill positions whose salaries are paid by public funds. WTF? That's right. US tax dollars are used to directly subsidize religious discrimination in employment.

In a July, 2008 speech on "Faith Based Initiatives", during a campaign stop in Zanesville, Ohio, candidate Barack Obama pledged to end this discrimination (which was officially sanctioned by the Bush Administration).

During the Zanesville speech, Obama said: "As someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state. If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can't discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion."

How does this play out in practice? Well, for example, in Mali, a nation that is 90% Muslim, World Vision will only hire Christians for such "charitable" projects as the West Africa Water Initiative. If World Vision finds it impossible to fill a position with a Christian, they either simply wait until a qualified Christian can be found, or they temporarily fill the position with a non-Christian, who will then be fired and replaced with a Christian as soon as possible. One such non-Christian is Bara Kassambara, a Muslim.

Writing for globalpost.com, international correspondent Krista Kapralos describes how Kassambara "kept his mouth shut" during his year and a half stint working for World Vision in Mali (control over the project he worked for was eventually transfered to another agency). "Every day, all of his coworkers paused for prayer time. There were frequent Bible studies, and constant talk about Jesus. Kassambara attended the required events, but otherwise quietly focused on his work: bringing clean water to rural Mali."

(Kapralos talked to Kassambara while in Mali for three and a half weeks late last year on an trip funded by the International Center for Journalists. Investigating the activities of US-backed faith-based aid agencies was a major focus of her work in Mali. Check out her website in the near future for her upcoming "Stories From Mali". Reading that story of hers at globalpost was the original inspiration for this blog post, tgcwcid.)

But World Vision makes no distinction, in terms of employment discrimination, between Mali, where it receives US foreign aid money, and the US, where it receives federal "Faith Based Initiatives" funds. Here is what all World Vision employees in the United States are "committed to uphold":

Statement of Faith

  • We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
  • We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  • We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
  • We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, regeneration of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
  • We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
  • We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
  • We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Apostles' Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. AMEN.

For much more on the use of US foreign aid money to support Christian missionary work around the world see the four-part Boston Globe expose on the subject, from 2006 (written by Farah Stockman, Michael Kranish, and Peter S. Canellos of the Globe Staff, and Globe correspondent Kevin Baron):
Part 1: Bush Brings Faith to Foreign Aid
Part 2: Religious right wields clout
Part 3: Together, but worlds apart
Part 4: Healing the body to reach the soul

Here is an excerpt from part two of that series, specifically on the subject of how "Christian aid groups raise suspicion in strongholds of Islam" (gee, THAT sounds like a good idea, huh?):
Fighting terror with Christ
While Christian Hospital officials insist they are there to heal, not to proselytize, World Witness's own literature suggests that part of its mission is to spread Christianity.

A brochure for the hospital says ``The Jesus Film" ``is shown to all patients," and goes on to say that "the hospital and staff feel that through Christ, terrorism will be eliminated in this part of the world," a phrase that offended Muslim leaders who say Islam is about peace, and not violence.

"If I am given such a message, I ask, 'Why are you spreading hatred among human beings? What is your agenda?'", said Abdul Rauf Farooqi , a Lahore-based member of the board of the National Religious Schools Council.

Christian groups say that view is mistaken. The Rev. Frank van Dalen , World Witness's executive director, said "The Jesus Film" is only shown in the waiting room, and not constantly. He winced when he was shown the brochure's reference to eliminating terrorism through Christ.

"That's a dumb thing to say. It doesn't work that way," he said.

Still, critics say, the Bush administration's special efforts to reach out to faith-based providers, the vast majority of whom are Christian, almost can't help but raise suspicions in Muslim countries.

"I think it's important to step back and look at the wisdom of putting faith-based components into a program like this that is operating in a Muslim nation. The last thing we want to do is create the impression in the Muslim world that the US government is funding groups that seek to convert Muslims to Christianity," said Rob Boston , spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "When USAID gives money to religious groups that put Christian symbols in their facilities, and leave evangelical tracts lying around, it's hard to draw any other conclusion [than] that it looks like proselytizing."

Defenders of the Christian groups say religion shouldn't come into play. "As long as it effectively delivers the good the government offers -- such as medicine -- the organization should not be discriminated against simply because it is motivated by faith," said Ryan Messmore , a religion specialist with the Heritage Foundation.

But far from discriminating, USAID has become a growing source of funds for Christian groups in the Muslim world. USAID spent $57 million from 2001-2005 (out of a total of $390 million to nongovernmental agencies) to fund almost a dozen projects run by faith-based organizations in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Afghanistan, according to records obtained by the Freedom of Information Act. Only 5 percent of that sum went to a Muslim group, the Aga Khan Foundation of the USA, which was given approximately $3.5 million for projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And even that amount is well below what the Aga Khan Foundation received under the Clinton administration, including $4.9 million in fiscal 2000 alone.

In the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami, no Muslim organization has been awarded a prime USAID award for relief work in Indonesia -- a sore spot among Muslim groups that want to help there.

In fact, of the nearly 160 faith-based organizations that have received prime contracts from USAID in the past five years only two are Muslim.