Saturday, May 22, 2010

Good Fences Make Good Religions? On Stephen Prothero's New Theory of Religious Hygiene

"There is no Method of Reasoning more Common, and yet none more blameable, than in philosophical Debates, to endeavor the Refutation of any Hypothesis, by a Pretext of its dangerous Consequences."

[David Hume, Of Liberty and Necessity]

In simpler, more innocent times, religion scholars who fancied themselves as having things weighty and wise to impart to a wider audience churned out middlebrow coffee table books on World Religions.

If the author was lucky, and/or well-connected, and if the product was deemed sufficiently marketable (with one of the primary criteria for determining the commercial prospects for any book on religion being its inoffensiveness) the book might be picked up by a Major Publisher. In the most fortunate of cases, the Major Publisher would even deign to promote the book in such a manner that people (well, some people, anyway) would come to know of its existence, and perhaps even purchase it -- perchance to read it.

But things change. Please try to keep up.

In these 21st century times of ours, inoffensive coffee table books on World Religions are quickly going the way of all flesh, or at least the way of the cassette tape and the floppy disk. What Major Publishers want today in middlebrow books on religion is, instead, polemics and controversy.

And the important thing for all would-be religious controversialists and polemicists is not how one stakes out a positive position and defends it. The new business model demands that all authors, regardless of what position they are promoting, must shock and horrify the reader with the presentation of dangerous, irrational enemies who must be vanquished, else we are all doomed. In a word: it is not enough to be right: others must be wrong. Very, very wrong.

Enter Stephen Prothero, professor of Religion at Boston University, and his new book with the ludicrous subtitle: God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World.

Prothero's book is actually in many (in fact, most) ways really just another middlebrow popular survey of World Religions. And if that were all it aspired to be, then it's great wealth of distortions and factual inaccuracies could hardly be held against it, since these are no more out of place in the World Religions genre than are straight-faced interviews with Nostradamus "scholars" on the History Channel.

But Prothero takes the usual admixture of information and misinformation and frames it within a polemical narrative against the "dangerous" and "seductive" idea that -- horror of horrors! -- "all religions are beautiful and true."

To be sure, few are able, on their own, to discern the dark menace lurking behind this seemingly innocuous sentiment, but, fortunately for us all, Stephen Prothero has been able to decode and expose the diabolical machinations of Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Huston Smith, Joseph Campbell, and their kumbaya-ist co-conspirators!

And just in time. Who knows what horrors might await humankind if this "well-intentioned" but "ethically irresponsible" "all religions are one meme" were allowed to continue to daze and confuse the tender hearts and minds of our impressionable youth and to further sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.

Dear Surfer, as you can by now plainly discern, I, too, alas, have succumbed to the newfangled fashion for religious polemics and controversy. For I claim nothing less than that Stephen Prothero is promoting an idea that is indeed dangerous, although I cannot honestly claim to see any way in which it could ever be thought of as seductive, except to the extent that the American upper-middle class serious non-fiction hardback-book-buying readership has seldom, if ever, encountered a simplistic ahistorical hyperbolic confabulation, presented by a Noted Academic complete with footnotes and ideologically stereophonic pimpage by NPR and the WSJ, that it did not like.

However, before going further, in order to explain why Prothero's idea is so dangerous I need to first tell you a little about my grandfather.

"They're just different."

I loved my grandfather -- he was a good man whom I respected and still admire. He was a deeply religious Christian, and he applied himself with enthusiasm to living a moral life, and to being compassionate and generous to others. And he did this without the arid grimness that one might (unfairly) expect from deeply religious people, but rather with an easygoing amiability that was both completely sincere and downright charming.

But my grandfather didn't like Jews. "They're just different," he would say. He also didn't much like African-Americans, whom he referred to as "coons." They were different, too.

Grandpa never finished high school, fought (and was wounded) in WWI, and (except for his military service) lived his whole life in the small factory town in Indiana where he was born and is now buried.

When he came back from the war he was still a very young man, and for most of the next decade the state of Indiana was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan's grip on the state (they even controlled the Indiana delegation to Congress) ended by the late 20's, but that was due to sex and money scandals, not because of any disenchantment with the racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant message of the KKK, a message which continued to be very popular and continued to be championed by Republican and Democratic politicians of the Hoosier state (who were often the very same politicians previously backed by the Klan).

To me it seems overly harsh to label my grandfather a racist and an anti-Semite, but factually speaking that's what he was. It is, however, also a fact that he was a product of the time and place that he lived. And it's also a fact that he wasn't all that different from Barack Obama's grandmother, whom President Obama once characterized as a "typical white person."

A very great deal of what comes under the headings of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism -- and bigotry generally -- can be summed up in those words of my grandfather: "they're just different." And this emphasis on differentness continues to be at the heart of the often more subtle (although not always so) forms of bigotry that are still alive and well in America in the 21st century.

The closest present-day equivalent to the KKK is the infamous CCC, the Council of Conservative Citizens. These fine citizens claim that they are not racists, but, instead, their Statement of Principles says that they advocate "cultural, national, and racial integrity", and also that "the United States is a European country." Interestingly, the very first principle of the CCC is that "the United States is a Christian country."

Sam Francis, the author of the CCC's Statement of Principles, has been called "the philosopher king of the American radical right". Francis edited Pat Buchanan's 2002 book The Death of the West. Far from trying to distance himself from Francis, Buchanan literally eulogized him upon his death in 2005 with these words: "When God created him, He endowed Sam with a great gift—one of the finest minds of his generation."

Francis, although proud to call himself a "paleoconservative", was actually very typical of the new approach to race among radical rightists generally: emphasis is placed not on the inferiority or superiority of races, but only on the essential differentness of races. Of course this is very little, if at all, different from the typical racism of the Old South, which emphasized segregation while demonizing "race-mixing", all the while proclaiming a benevolent, loving, Christian attitude toward "the negro".

"As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various)"

By this point you might be asking: what in blue blazes do my grandfather, the Klan and the CCC have to do with Stephen Prothero and his new book God is not One??

Well, Prothero has taken his title from William Blake's very first illustrated book: All Religions Are One. Blake's "book" was in fact a little poem with only about 250 words altogether, so we can look at the whole thing before proceeding further:
The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness

The Argument.
As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences.

This faculty I treat of.

Principle I. That the Poetic Genius is the true Man, and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from their Genius, which by the Ancients was call'd an Angel & Spirit & Demon.

Principle II.
As all men are alike in outward form, So (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius.

Principle III.
No man can think, write or speak from his heart, but he must intend truth. thus all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual.

Principle IV. As none by travelling over known lands can find out the unknown, So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more; therefore an universal Poetic genius exists.

Principle V. The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation's different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where call'd the Spirit of Prophecy.

Principle VI. The Jewish & Christian Testaments are An original derivation from the Poetic Genius. This is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation.

Principle VII. As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various), So all Religions , &, as all similars, have one source. The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius.
With Blake's words in front of us, it is now much easier to make clear the reason I have brought up the unpleasant subject of racism: because racism is, in its essence, the denial of human equality. And human equality is the underlying theme of Blake's All Religions Are One!

Prothero is completely clueless about the implications of his insistence on the essential differences between religions, and in particular the way that he frames his argument with respect to William Blake. To see just how potentially dangerous this is, it is first necessary to recognize that Prothero insists on denying (or at least minimizing to the point of exclusion from any serious consideration) any essential unity to Religion itself, while being equally insistent that religions, plural, each possess a great degree of internal coherence, and that this internal coherence within each religion creates fixed, neatly separated, mutually exclusive religious identities.

In other words, Prothero is conceptualizing religions in exactly the same way that 17th, 18th and 19th century Europeans conceptualized races. And Prothero's theory of Religious Hygiene (that is, that the separate religions should be kept separate for everyone's good) can be deconstructed in exactly the same way that so-called "scientific racism" was finally debunked conclusively following WWII.

Whence the urge to create fixed, neatly separated, mutually exclusive religious identities?

Before I go any further let me be clear: I don't believe that Stephen Prothero is an evil man who has intentionally written a book with a racist subtext. But I do believe that he is a stupid man who has unintentionally written a book with a racist subtext.

The theory of race starts from really existing, easily observed variations in human biology. But from there "scientific racism" imposes sharp boundaries separating a few distinct "races" from each other. It bears emphasizing that these "races" are not invented from scratch. In fact, they correspond closely to popularly imagined boundaries separating humans into different groups. The groupings themselves are real enough, to an extent, but in practice, the lines separating these groups, especially when examined closely, are blurred, and all too easily crossed. The essence of scientific racism is that it provided a "scientific" validation and a much needed reinforcement to a popular belief based in part on objective observation, in part on social conventions, and in part on a myriad of psychological and other factors, many of them far from ennobling. In this way, "race theory" provided an objective-sounding pretext for using the belief in separate races as the basis for social and political policy and also as a guide for individual behavior.

It is essential to be able to distinguish between (a) casual observations of human variability, and (b) the positing of immutable "differences" that unalterably separate groups of human beings from one another. In my opinion, the insights gained from the spectacle of "racial science" and its eventual downfall can be applied to better understanding Stephen Prothero's proposed scheme for a scholarly sounding reification of religious identities.

To be honest, prior to encountering Prothero's new book, I had not looked all that closely at the relationship between racial identity and religious identity. But others had:
[I]n the United States and throughout the Americas, from the fifteenth century through the twenty-first -- religion has been inextricably woven into both racial and national identities, to such an extent that "race," "nation," and "religion" have each defined the others. These seemingly distinct discourses of difference have at times borrowed and at times contested each other's rhetorical authority, reinforcing and undercutting each other's social hierarchies, mixing and mingling in unresolved dialectics irreducible to any one term. If we fail to appreciate the relationships among these categories of collective identity, we will be unable to grasp the contours of our own histories -- that of the United States, and those of the Americas more broadly.
[Henry Goldschmidt, Introduction to Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas, p. 5]
What Henry Goldschmidt has to say above is further elaborated upon below by Daniel B. Lee, who contributed a chapter (in Goldschmidt's book, co-edited with Elizabeth McAlister) on A Great Racial Commission: Religion and the Construction of White America:
For the development of an enduring racial self-description, the late nineteenth century was a particularly innovative period for White people in America. The decade after the Civil War significantly changed the racial and religious landscape of the country. For the first time, Native Americans, emancipated Blacks, and new immigrants from all over the world challenged the cultural hegemony of Anglo-Saxon Christians with their undeniable presence. In the midst of an increasingly diverse population, many White Americans turned to religion as a source of racial and national unity . . . .

My analysis ... begins with the theoretical assumption that there is no natural way to be White, act White, or communicate as a White person. There is no a priori metaphysical bond or primordial solidarity between Whites or between the people of any other racial or religious group. White society first emerges when people communicate about sharing "Whiteness." Communities of people construct themselves and their others as they communicate. A society, such as Whites exchanging race talk, for itself and its environment in an entirely self-referential, autological manner.
[Daniel B. Lee, Chapter 3 in Religion, Nation, and Race in the Americas, pp. 85-86]
In my opinion it is far from coincidental that in the early 21st century Prothero has come along with a simplistic narrative reifying the boundaries that reassuringly separate "the rival religions that run the world." Indeed, this is a time when America is facing a crisis of identity of far greater, and far more complex, proportions than anything it faced in the late 19th century.

Up until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America as a nation still accepted as legitimate the idea that Whites should enjoy de jure political superiority, at least in a large part of the US (the South). Even after 1965, though, White Americans still continue, to this day, to enjoy de facto political and socio-economic superiority. Even if that continues into the future, at least in terms of raw demographics Whites will be a minority in the US by 2050. According to projections by The Pew Research Center, 40 years from now the combined Latino, Black and Asian population of the US will be 51%, while the total White population will be 47%.

Race has become, thank the Gods, completely discredited as a "discourse of difference." But Prothero is now trying to promote a mode of religious discourse primarily based on difference in a way that very closely mirrors the now discarded concept of "race". By (1) emphasizing and exaggerating the differences between religions, (2) denying any spiritual common ground between religions, and (3) ignoring the often vast differences within religions, Prothero is engaging in exactly the same kind of psycho-social engineering as the race theorists of the past.

Because it really is quite fitting, I will end with Robert Frost's poem "Mending Walls." Frost did not himself coin the phrase "good fences makes good neighbors," but it was from him that I learned of it. And it was my 7th grade English teacher, Mr. Mann, a conservative southerner and a Mormon, who was teaching during the early 1970's in a very liberal suburb of Washington DC, who taught me to appreciate this poem. Thanks, Mr. Mann!! [Scroll down below the poem for links to other posts on Stephen Prothero.]

Mending Walls
by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Previous posts from this blog on Stephen Prothero:
Who, if anyone, is Stephen Prothero arguing with, other than himself?
How Stephen Prothero mangles the economics-politics-religion analogy
The basis of universal spirituality
Contra Prothero