“Think as I think,” said a man,
“Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad.”
And after I had thought of it,
I said: “I will, then, be a toad.”
— Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
It can be dangerous to bisect any part of the world around us into two paths, but I have come to view human expressions of religion as two intertwined “threads” in the “fabric of culture” over time. One is the ethical, which is primarily about how we live together (or don’t). The pursuit of the ethical, which I have written a lot about here and goes back to our earliest days as a species, is inextricably embedded in human languages, law & culture over thousands of years. In practice, the sacred-secular mix that this produces either works, and our culture survives, or it does not work, and our culture dies out.
Although sectarian ethical stances do sometimes drift over into religious dogma, which is my second “thread,” dogma is most of the time an assent to assertions of what happened at particular times in the past, and what will happen after we die. Even using the same religious writings at times, different sectarian authorities pick and choose different events and writings as incontrovertibly fundamental and “true.” Rejection of dogma can mean expulsion from a particular faith community, and, if such is your dogma, from a particular outcome after death.
Contrary to popular pundit opinion, let me assert that the ethical in religion can never be far from political discourse. We cannot help it, even if we cast our theological ethics conceptions in more secular language to make them palatable to a broader audience. Less frequently, however, the dogma of particular religious sects injects itself into political discussion in America, demanding acceptance, no matter how absurd. And the most absurd of dogma is now forcing itself on the political stage as I write this.
Good people disagree
In my writings about ethics, I usually ascribe the dilemma of why “good people disagree” on important moral questions to the reality that our own brains can usually generate at least four good answers to every ethical question. We evolved (or were created, if you will) that way. Our brains try to make up duties and rules to live by; our brains instantly come up with “expeditious end” solutions to threats; we empathetically “feel the pain” of others; and we like to cogitate endless abstract solutions to real dilemmas (note: you are currently reading the latter).
Throughout much of human history, these often-conflicting ideas for resolving human conflict have been expressed in “God language,” which is the verbalization, the writings, and the traditions of human religion. It has only been in the last 2500 years that the non-religious human languages of philosophy and science have evolved to be good enough to stand either in support of, or in opposition to, religious moral language. And yet, “God language” remains the “first language” by which most Americans talk about the moral dilemmas facing themselves and their families. As it is for the conventional languages of other parts of the world, Americans are mostly monolingual when it comes to the language of ethics.
Politics, which is the broad brush of methods and rules by which we govern ourselves, started out in human culture expressed in religious language, when kings and generals claimed divinely-bestowed power. Even though we today often try to bury the “G word” from the secular political sphere, it is never far from view. The most noble voices of civil rights throughout the 1960s came from Black pulpits, and those preachers were (and continue to be) stridently opposed by many white religious leaders.
We function as a society because we generally accept most of these evolved religious-to-secular rules. I assert that the very reason we still fight religious-legal wars over issues like immigration, war, and abortion is because the remaining issues are really hard. Any thinking person can, for instance, make a good case for both why we should and should not be in Afghanistan. I personally know zero vocal pro-choice advocates who are themselves deeply “pro-abortion.” Good people disagree because we face conflicting moral values, duties, and empathies, not just between ourselves, but within ourselves. It will always be so.
Dogma in the public square
I have written before that my first introduction to Darwinian evolution in biology came from a ninth grade Earth Science class in a very conservative community in Michigan in the 1960s. I recall no battles in my school district over the content of this class. However, nasty fights over the teaching of science, and the insistence on inserting “Intelligent Design,” which the courts have defined as religious dogma masquerading as science, continue today in many of the nation’s schools and state education commissions.
The losers in this debate have doubled down in their religion-derived anti-science sentiments, however, and that rage pops out whenever there is an opening. The current Covid-19 vaccine debate is only the latest manifestation. I always have to stress here that most practicing Christians and their ministers have no objection to the science behind the vaccines. This means (media writers please take note) that it is not “Christians” making religious claims against vaccination, rather particular religious sects that pressure their followers into “believing the absurd” as an important dogmatic stance for preserving their unique social niche and authoritarian power.
Sectarian religious dogma does far too often get a secular foothold. Tax dollars have supported the building of monuments to Genesis literalism such as Kentucky’s Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. I have asserted that it is sectarian religious authorities conspiring with elected officials who perpetuate the myth of white American “manifest destiny” to institutionalize the exclusionary theologies of dominionism and “the elect”, at the expense of ethnic minorities, indigenous Americans, equality-seeking women, agnostics, and religious objectors. This is the theology-entwined-culture behind the current wave of voter suppression and new laws punishing the public expression of dissent in Florida and other states. Certain sects of religious conservatives, even though they have millions of followers and hold numerous political offices, have been convinced by their pastors that their dominant power in modern culture is under threat.
So gullible are the believers in these religious and political dogmas that they cannot be convinced that seven million more Americans voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election than voted for Donald Trump. The resulting January 6 storming of the capital has yet to be condemned by a majority of Republican Congress members, nor will they affirm the reality of the vote count. The religious-turned-political dogma is that the God-chosen President Trump really won the 2020 election. I have personally realized only recently that, in America, “small-d” democracy by the vote of the people is only recognized as long as rich, white, conservative men really hold the keys to political power. We are headed toward religious autocracy.
The Pascal bet
Taking a personal and political stance on a particular piece of religious dogma is a kind of probabilistic bet. For some, it is literally a belief that you are betting your post-death existence on whether you assent to all of the religious assertions that your leaders have selected as fundamental. Choosing to “be a toad,” as 19th-century novelist/poet Stephen Crane asserted, can often come with literal rejection from friends and family, plus the existential fear of going to Hell.
The French polymath Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) expressed this as a classic wager and chose to “bet on God.” As I have expressed before, the problem with “Pascal’s wager” is that the “God” of millions of Christians, let alone other non-Christian religious believers and non-believers, is often 180 degrees in opposition on most key political issues of the day from the views of most militant sectarian self-identifying Christians in control of many state legislatures. Which “God” will you bet on?
There are about 200 different active Christian denominations in the U.S. alone, not to mention many thousands of other religious faiths worldwide and going back throughout history. Most denominational splits have historically occurred over disagreements on dogma, and so if your religion says that you need to get all of your beliefs correct in order to assure your eternal salvation, your odds for checking every box correctly are pretty long. Biologist Richard Dawkins noted that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.” Indeed, the final answer may well be “none of the above.”
My view is that a little religious-based humility (itself one of the better Christian dogmas, I think) would benefit everybody, and perhaps turn down the temperature in the political sphere.
- The first ethical dilemma
- Believe because it is absurd?
- Your four (or more) ethical brains
- Worth a read: Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio
- Worth a read: Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality by Frank Wilczek
- Constantine, Putin, Trump and the co-opting of religion
- Stopping the speeding train to autocracy
- The new religious Machiavellians
- Kids, can you say epistemology?
- Iowa, abortion and ethical nuance
- Mind-body dualism and religion – the hard debate