04/28/15

Privilege, Oppression, but above all, Nonviolence

I had an interesting conversation with my students today about social systems of privilege and oppression in the context of the Baltimore riots that are taking place right now. (For other articles about the riots, see here and here). We’re at the end of a class on ethics, social systems, and civics, and the current events are an opportunity to apply the concepts we have been discussing all semester.

What I learned from today’s conversation is that we can be educated about privilege and oppression and still not apply it to real situations because when assessing current events, we default to the mantras of the very social systems that need critique. It’s worse than denying that social structures exist, because in this case one admits their existence, but never grounds them in any actual occurrence. Sure, racism is a part of our social structure, the thinking goes, but Trayvon Martin? Michael Brown? Eric Garner? or Freddie Gray? These were all about something else, anything else than social structures that consistently support our devaluation of their lives.

I learned that we value property, and we value nonviolence. For some reason, when property is destroyed, all bets are off. The line of thinking goes something like this. “Yeah, it’s a terrible thing that a guy died from his treatment in police custody, but you can’t destroy your own city! That affects other people!” There is a conditioning that goes on when we see physical structures destroyed that we associate with the height of anarchy. (Except in movies—then we love to see stuff blow up.) For some reason when people are destroyed in the same way, it doesn’t affect us similarly. So some peoples’ stuff is more important than some peoples’ lives. We ought to be honest about this.

Even more interesting is the idea of nonviolence. It came up multiple times in our class conversation that violence ultimately doesn’t solve anything. Don’t these looters know they are sabotaging themselves by becoming violent? Why don’t they look at MLK or Gandhi and imitate their approaches? Set aside the fact that a casual watcher of Selma can see that successful actions were so because they provoked violent retaliation. We’re not really talking about an ethical ban on violence anyway. We’re talking about violence when it applies to the average citizen. Police violence, the violence of the state? These are not critiqued in the same way. If I ask my students, “Do you think it is right that a young man dies in police custody, likely because of his rough treatment at the hands of police?”, they would say, “No, but…”

It’s not simply no, it’s “No, but.” And it’s with that qualifier I realize that all abstract talk about systems of privilege and oppression is of little value unless you can apply it to events that are taking place. “It’s terrible that a guy died, but we can’t tolerate riots!” It would be a huge step forward if we could just turn the sentence around. “It’s terrible that this violence and rioting took place, but we can’t tolerate police brutality!” Why can’t we have that conversation instead of the one we are having?

People express incredulity at the fact that rioters are using violence. “Don’t they know that it undercuts their aims?” But why? Why is it that violence expressed by the average citizen, is automatically thought to be counterproductive when state violence, whether military violence abroad or police violence at home, is automatically assumed to be at worst necessary, and at best productive? This presumption colors the way we respond to these incidents, and is exactly the reason that some act out in violence in the first place.

“Don’t people know that they’re actually delaying justice for the victim by distracting people from solving the case?” What if violence, instead of being an ignorant explosion, was conceived as a response to justice delayed? A belief that the current police and justice system will prevail on the side of right requires a certain amount of trust in the system. Of course I trust the system. It has in general done right by me. But what if the system betrayed my trust on a regular basis by treating me or those in my community unfairly? Would I be wise to continue to trust in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Or would I insane? Of course I gamble on the justice of the system, because historically my bets have paid off. But at some point it would become stupid to do so if it was never in my interest.

It takes significant faith to continue to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary, and this is often why religion is a tool of the oppressor against the oppressed. But how can we blame lack of education when people respond with violence? Education shows that nonviolence, when met with violence, can win sympathy to a cause. It also shows that violence is the foundation for every significant civilization in history, and it is the most brazen of hypocrisies to denounce it as if we don’t think it’s a viable tool to upset the status quo.

You could read this as an apology for violence, which it’s not intended to be. But you can’t hide behind education if you immediately condemn violence without being to recognize legitimate, long-endured oppression. Education doesn’t teach you to abhor violence. It teaches you to be able read the situations around you without resorting to a black and white binary to define your world.

12/19/14

No-Filter Living

Nearly once a day I experience a sort of emotional flood that is constituted by the absolute immensity of the world’s problems and my utter inadequacy at even beginning to deal with them. When I experience these feelings, which might be brought on by climate change, cruelty to animals, blind consumerism, discrimination against the homeless, etc., I invariably also reflect on the consistency or inconsistency of these feelings. Have I always been like this?

The short answer is no, because in the past I had a life filter. This filter made it much easier to pursue day-to-day existence because I could justify my place in the world. I was a lowly and insignificant sinner that nonetheless God found valuable enough to preserve for eternity. I never thought much about the practical implications of this scenario; I was too focused on the supernatural ones. But the practical ones are much more important.

This filter drastically limited my concern in a few ways. By focusing my primary concern on my own insignificance and God’s paradoxical fascination with my individuality, my beliefs implicitly assured me that everyone was as self-focused as I was and that this was the way it was. It was not desirable by any means, but it kept shaping the sense of personal guilt that necessitated the existence of a divine being to solve.

It also shaped everything else in the world that wasn’t “me.” First, it told me that these things weren’t fundamentally my problem. Disasters, pollution, deforestation, and factory farming among others were not things in my power to change, and God had them in control anyway, so why duplicate the worry? Any problem in the world was up for negotiation based on this paradigm, but the anthropocentrism of Christian belief removed most non-human concerns from the picture.

The problems of humanity were indeed problems, but as I’ve mentioned before the problems were not poverty or hunger or preventable disease but unaccounted sin. Therefore the Christian diagnoses only one primary problem, sin, with myriad different faces. Once it has diagnosed, it prescribes, and the prescription is as uniform as the diagnosis: salvation.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. I’m come to believe that it’s not the sense of guilt that is wrong. That guilt really isn’t imposed by religion; religion just capitalizes on it, controls it and then promises to dull the pain. That guilt, that primordial “sin” is a constitutive part of being alive.

On this view, institutional religion has the problem fundamentally backwards. In its efficient manner, the institution notes that it is much more practical, effective, and satisfying (to the individual) to treat the symptoms than to perform the endless labor of searching for causes and addressing root economic, political, and social problems. But alleviating the pain of “sin” through the tantalizing promise of eternal existence removes the consistent invariable link we have to the world, that sense of guilt, of accountability for the injustice we face.

We are cowards in that regard, and often justifiably so. But we have an addiction that justifies our cowardice. One cannot expect the religious adherent to behave according to the interests of broader secular society. Why? Because the believer faces the constant concern of their drug being diluted. Follow this process. The individual experiences feelings of helplessness, aloneness, inadequacy, fear, inability, etc., and seeks a remedy. The religious tradition diagnoses these as problems that can and should be remedied and provides a “pill” for it. This pill, however, comes with a long list of instructions and counter indications, one of which is that the accommodation of other treatment frameworks, or even less alternative understandings of the nature of the problem, will lessen the effect of the pill, or perhaps prevent it from working entirely. Fear of withdrawals from addiction are strong, usually strong enough to override external concerns or alternate ways of thinking. If one drug solves all your problems, then it should solve everyone else’s as well.

It is an uncomfortable thing to recognize the extent to which you are not only inextricable from the world in which you live, but accountable for its ills. When I teach ethics, I find that student beliefs about the world are not really motivated by a sense of right and wrong, even though they will profess maxims and truths as if they are the source of their ethical behavior. Rather, their views are often shaped by their perceived ability to do something about the issue. The more distant they feel from an issue, the less able to grasp it, the more students are likely to utter phrases such as, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “It’s our nature.”

When dealing with poverty and the question of social supports like welfare, the concern invariably arises that there are those who take advantage of the system. It is difficult for us to imagine how those, when provided with some modicum of financial and/or social support, don’t immediately throw away their addictions and coping strategies and throw themselves wholeheartedly into becoming productive citizens like the rest of us know we are. Yet we are abusers too. We abuse in a much more socially acceptable way. Comparatively we may do no great harm, but few do, on their own. The system does not brook dissent or difference well. The difference between the lower and the upper echelons of society is that the latter have elaborate and well-established institutional means to mask their exploitation of societal norms, and the former do not.

We are intolerant of substance abuse in impoverished communities because it has no veil to hide behind. You earn the right to alter your consciousness only to the extent that you can lie to yourself about what it is and convince society to go along with the ruse. Which is a more powerful drug, the one that allows you to escape your problems for a day, or the one that rearranges the entire world in your image and eliminates your concern for things beyond yourself? Perhaps in the end, they all perform the same function.

I note this all because if we hadn’t the institutional support of a conflation of symptom and cause, more would be able, in the rawness of pain and obligation, to encounter contemporary issues and work toward effective solutions. Not only would we understand symptoms and causes appropriately, we would not be side-tracked with protecting our own addictions, and mistaking them for the solutions.

11/17/14

Forgetting What It Feels Like…

I became a Christian when I was around 7 years old. It was at a summer camp for elementary schoolers. I wasn’t quite old enough to attend the camp, but my parents were part of the staff. I remember sitting around a campfire with a few dozen other kids singing songs and hearing stories about Jesus. The night ended with the typical “altar call,” one of many during the week I’m sure. It represented the culmination of the week’s efforts and the ultimate reason a group of adults would take kids out into the wilderness: to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

This was no Jesus Camp, but there were certainly heavy doses of emotional “encouragement” involved. A beautiful outdoor night, a warm fire, soft music playing in the background, a heartfelt narrative about how we were probably feeling guilty for all the sinful things we had done in our lives and how great it was that a Jewish carpenter turned deity was able to take care of all that. It is acceptable to manipulate the variables to “help” impressionable, malleable children draw a particular conclusion—that they need to give their hearts to Jesus—when it is something Christians approve of, that affirms their own worldview. Further, when a child, unable to vote, drive, or make any other significant decisions by him or herself, makes what is supposed to be the most important decision of his or her life, this is presumed to be wholly autonomous and respectable, whereas nearly any other decisions made by a child at this point are likely to be dismissed as the product of immaturity.

In any case, I was feeling sufficiently guilty and emotionally depleted. After most of the kids had left, I remained at the campfire and a few leaders led me through the ‘Sinner’s Prayer.’ I was emotionally relieved at not having to carry around the burden of my own sins anymore. Of course, having grown up as a pastor’s kid, nothing much really changed. In the scope of things, I was a pretty good kid, and I already was at church Sundays, Wednesdays, and other times in between. But I’d gained two things: freedom from sin, and an eternal guarantee.

I remained a committed Christian for over twenty years. One of the things I find interesting about my exit from religion was that it was not nearly so dramatic. Of course, conversion is made instantaneous, at least in evangelical Christian circles, by the narratives we use to accompany it, ones that seem to emphasize the power of God to change people immediately, if only they are willing. Maybe it is God’s reluctance to let go, then, that marks the process of deconversion. Looking back, I can see at least a yearlong process of exiting from the faith, and if I consider all the variables involved, it was probably more like four years.

What surprises me now is that, several years removed, I am forgetting what it felt like to be a Christian. Those outside Christianity typically critique it for its logical contradictions or its collateral damage, but the advantage of the former Christian is that they lived the religion. As many evangelical Christians note, it is not a set of doctrine or dogma—at least not just these things—but a relationship. Misunderstanding the sincerity of this belief is understandable, if one has not experienced it, but it should be taken seriously, no matter how wrongheaded it ultimately is.

When encountering religious obstinance, over same-sex marriage for example, I increasingly find myself to willing to dismiss it as ridiculousness or hardheadedness. This may be the external result, but it also maintains the internally coherent worldview for many Christians. When a Biblical literalist notes that ignoring Scripture in one place means the entirety of Scripture is threatened, he or she is not making an argument about interpretation, but about the foundation of his or her existence. It is saying, “my world may crumble if I accept that change, and I’m not willing to take that risk.”

To a certain extent, that is true. The world as I knew it did crumble when I left the faith, but not in apocalyptic fashion. It was more like a building that, damaged through significant storms and left unprepared, gradually weathered to decrepitude and ultimately collapsed under its own weight. I don’t think the debris will ever get completely cleaned up, but it no longer serves a functional purpose.

10/6/14
Whaa…?

Religion and the Mafia? Open questions about a (seemingly) fruitless argument

For a few days I resisted commenting about the latest round of statements from Bill Maher and Sam Harris and responses from Reza Aslan—and more recently Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof on Real Time—over the subject of Islam. [Maher also did a debrief here.] Part of me thinks that any response to the debate may actually deepen the problem it is purportedly trying to solve.

There are two points, however, that I think are important to note.

The first is that we should be attuned to the rhetoric involved. Rhetoric does not mean untruth. It is involved to an extent in most of our speech and particularly when we are trying to sway others. We want to consider the rhetoric—what facts are chosen and what facts are left unsaid, what arguments are used—in conjunction with the content of the argument. None presents a complete version of the issue. This is not a requirement, but it should be clearly understood.

  • Maher—who is both a comedian and an atheist—argues that the religion Islam, more than Christianity, is responsible for widespread violence and laws that violate the core principles of Western liberalism.
  • Aslan—a scholar currently doing a good job positioning himself as an authority on religion—responds that Maher makes such statements because he’s ignorant about the complexity of religion…and the violence Maher speaks of is not a religious problem, but a political/social/cultural/geographical problem.
  • Affleck—an actor promoting a movie who also (probably) donates to charitable causes throughout the world—says Maher’s statements are racist. Some people are good, some people are bad, and we should condemn the bad and not lump the good in with them.
  • Kristof—a reporter and activist who has emphasized the strong links between the oppression of women and religion—says Islam plays a significant role in justifying oppression, but there are also many Muslims doing great things in the world, even fighting against extremism within their own traditions.

Despite what Aslan (and other scholars) contends, I don’t think one needs significant or specialized knowledge to speak to this issue. In other words, one doesn’t need to be a scholar of religion to say something here. I think all of the people involved meet the requirement of engaged citizens.

The second and more important point is really a question. What is the desired result?

What do Maher and Harris think would be the best possible outcome regarding Islam (and then probably religion in general)? It isn’t to coerce—compel by force—people to give up religion. Maher says as much, and it would violate the core principles of a liberal, just society he says he values. What Maher and Harris are implying is that no individual, group, institution, or country should be able to commit violence or justify oppression through religion. Argue, debate, and try to convince—but don’t coerce.

If their goal is as I describe it above, the rhetorical approach Maher uses is less than ideal. He makes a comparative claim that Islam is worse than other traditions in terms of its oppression of women. He bases his argument on certain facts, and Aslan and others respond with different facts. I see little productive value in the debate on this level, even if it were true, because neither side knows whether more people are free or oppressed under Islam. More importantly, neither side really thinks that is the point. If one side or the other could successfully prove that one more person is oppressed by Islam than free, or vice versa, would that end the debate over the benefit and harm of religion? Doubtful. It’s more than that.

Maher’s approach is not wholly ineffective, because it certainly promotes conversation, and Maher seems to want to shock people into awareness of his argument. But it (obviously) alienates quite a few people, and arguably the very people who could exert the most influence for change.

With that said, shouldn’t a reasonable person agree with the principle that religion should coerce no one? If there are those who disagree with this idea—or simply prefer to ignore it because they are not being coerced—shouldn’t that, as much as to what extent Maher’s and Harris’s claims are true or false, be a topic of discussion? I think people should be just as angry at Christianity because states like Idaho have laws that protect prayer as an alternative to medical treatment and as a result allows parents to let their children die from Type 1 Diabetes and food poisoning. Maher contends we shouldn’t because it doesn’t affect as many people. The point, however, is the same. At what level of harm should we shift our focus from isolated individuals to traditions? Do we not ignore the issue by arguing over “correct” interpretations of religious doctrine and texts?

It seems that one underlying fear of those who react negatively to Maher’s claims is a fear of the ignorance of the populace. This is a legitimate fear, which recognizes many people are unable or unwilling to think critically and will use the condemnation of a tradition’s dogma as a legitimation for their own fearful violence and bigotry. This should be recognized and dealt with, but ignorance cannot serve as an excuse for silence.

But what if we come at the question from the other side? What of the objections of Aslan, Affleck, and others?

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that most people who identify with a religious tradition are “good” people by (non-religious) societal standards. That observation is at the core of most objections to criticisms of religion.

Does the fact that religious people can be good negate the argument against oppression and bigotry in religious traditions? Does the good outweigh the bad, and are we measuring again by sheer numbers? If so, this would also be a more productive point around which to center the debate, because it would indicate that the presence of people who are ‘good’ by broad social standards protects religion from social critique. In one popular version of this argument put forth by the Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong, and other, religion itself becomes “that which promotes good.”

If though, as reasonable people would agree, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, et al. have been the impetus for at least some oppression and bigotry throughout history and in the present, what then? Is it possible for us to sincerely investigate the extent of that role? Is it an all-or-nothing proposition?

But the biggest question, I think, is the relationship between religion and other forms of privilege. If other cultural elements of privilege and oppression are inextricably intertwined with questions of religion, particularly when religion manifests in its most extreme forms, what does that mean? Harris claims that the element of religion is a more primary motivation for oppression than economic or political factors, but his claim is debatable, particularly because religion always manifests strongly in times of crisis. Alternately, other scholars have claimed that religion is a tool (inappropriately) used to express cultural frustration. If religion manifests violently when it is accompanied by cultural deprivation, how does it manifest in areas of relative cultural privilege? What is cultural influence of a religious tradition if it is correlated with violence among oppressed peoples and “peace” among privileged peoples?

If we are to make a serious claim that other factors aside from religion are primarily responsible for religious violencewe have to to consider the possibility that other factors aside from religion are primarily responsible for religious peace, do we not? What if this is true?

Rather than draw any immediate conclusions, I’d like to leave these questions open. I welcome any thoughts.

08/23/14

Removing the “New” from Religion and Atheism

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 11.38.41 AMDuring the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Lawrence Krauss, who is a physicist and relative newcomer to the New Atheism camp, debated Peter Rollins, who has become known as a leading thinker in Emerging or postmodern Christianity. Their debate was billed as “New Atheism” versus “New Religion,” although neither man sat well with the title his side had been given.

I have seen Krauss in other debates, particularly in Unbelieversthe recently released movie featuring him and Richard Dawkins arguing with a host of religious conservatives, primarily Christian and Muslim. What I found amusing in this particular debate, however, is that Krauss didn’t quite know what to do with Rollins. They had too much common ground. Rollins argued three things about New Atheism. First, he claimed that it can and has become for many an identity source just like religion, meaning that it is not functionally different from the religious traditions it decries. Second, he suggested that the direct attacks against fundamentalism serve to strengthen rather than weaken it. Lastly, he proposed that atheism does not have the “capital” to serve as a viable alternative to religion.

In terms of its function, it is undeniably true that atheism can become as much of an unthinking identity as religious tradition, but it should be unpacked a little bit. Rollins argues his case by suggesting that fundamentalism is not the problem, but the solution to a problem. It is this deeper problem that can be seen in fundamentalism and atheism alike, although I would add that the historical and fantastical accretions of religion make it a more hospitable location for dogmatism than atheism. In any case, while Rollins doesn’t specify what the deeper problem is, it can obviously take many forms in economic or social deprivation (or a defense for economic and social privilege), but almost always in a skewed sense of identity that needs reconciliation. I have spoken with people for whom atheism is clearly an identity, having shifted from a negation of religious belief to a positive affirmation of an absence of religion as a dogmatic stance.

In this case, it would be difficult not to agree with those Christians and Muslims who argue that New Atheism, or simply atheism, has developed into a position akin in many ways to religious tradition, which means that it can become unthinking. Krauss is much less able to recognize this position than is Rollins, because Krauss appears to be a clear and logical thinker. He doesn’t and doesn’t need to bank on an atheist identity. Consequently, while he acknowledged that atheism for some can become a positive identity, something more than “not-skiing” as a sport, he doesn’t understand it as a common, albeit illogical, approach. It is ridiculous to Krauss that an intellectual stance or what amounts to subjecting religious wisdom to scientific scrutiny could become a dogmatic stance, because it is clear that it shouldn’t. Indeed, it violates the principles of a scientific approach to form a dogmatic stance about it. In fact, it’s logically impossible to establish a dogma around a fundamental openness to new evidence. However, it is entirely possible to rest on such a stance based on what recent scientific thinkers have said about religion, namely that it is patently false. Without possessing the ability or will to question the truth of particular situations, one can easily and freely adopt the stance that all religion is false and religious folks are imbeciles, just as many religious folk are convinced that atheists are willfully ignoring God or are influenced by the devil.

Rollins, on the other hand, understands the paradox that even a belief in nothing, or the negation of belief in something, can become itself something. In a slightly different form, this has been one of the primary points of his critique of Christianity. According to Rollins, most Christians already know that the claims they make are untrue on some level. Consequently, when they are criticized from the outside for the ridiculousness of their claims about prayer or God’s will, etc., Rollins recognizes that, contrary to curing them of their illogic, it will often drive folks further into their irreconcilable positions. As a recent example, the Friendly Atheist was incredulous that the missionary doctor who received treatment for Ebola from an experimental drug spent most of his time in his first speech on release giving thanks to God for saving him rather than the drug and the doctors who nursed him back to health. However, the doctor no doubt didn’t refuse the experimental drug when offered so that God could do the work of healing. He simply holds two contradictory positions: one, that God healed him; and two, that modern medicine saved him. The first position makes no sense unless God likes the two white missionaries more than all those who have died from Ebola in the most recent outbreak. The second position makes enormously more sense: the missionaries received proper medical care and lived, others did not and died. Paul Farmer talks about this from a practical perspective in a recent interview on Democracy Now.

To put it another way, religious believers cannot fully accept the world scientifically until they address its incompatibility with their belief, but the only way to address the fallacy of their belief would be to fully adopt an open and questioning stance, a scientific stance. What many atheists are unwilling to admit is that this is much more than an intellectual shift. It carries tremendous social and psychological baggage, and it is predicated on sufficient cultural capital, on social, political, and/or economic stability. Rollins thus realizes, I believe, that directly exposing the contradictions of particularly conservative religion is inefficient at best, which was revealed by his third point against New Atheism, that it lacks the cultural capital to provide religious folks with an alternative. This point, too, is fundamentally inconceivable to Krauss and the like, who cannot grasp that the lies we tell ourselves rival the power of truths about the universe, even when the latter are demonstrably true and the former are not.

In terms of a paradigm shift, then, Rollins’ position is perhaps more viable. It is true that he has an economic interest in maintaining ambiguous ties with Christianity because liberal or postmodern Christians are primarily the folks that come to hear him. To the outsider, of which Krauss provided a quintessential example in this debate, Rollins’ circumlocutions seem unintelligible. His is the language of the existentialist, the language of deconstruction, but it is also storytelling, narratives that Christians are familiar with. If he could succeed in recasting Christianity not around dogmatic principles about the world and the afterlife, but around breaking down those principles and questioning our dogmatic assumptions about the world, the fundamental and unthinking ways that religion allows folks to operate in would be shifted. Religion would not provide a safe haven for rigid belief and unthinking behavior. It is certainly not to say that it would eliminate it. The very fact that atheism can provide that same haven for unthinking should be an indication that institutionalization, not the content of an institution, is all that suffices to become dogmatic.