Secular Religion: Jesus For the Faithless

Living in a post 911 world I imagine that many readers might think that traditional religions offer a more immediate and present danger to us than the type referred to in the title. If you read a daily paper or watch any news on t.v. there is no shortage of stories featuring absolutely lethal fundamentalist religious sects engaged in an endless list of utterly savage behaviors. Isis, Hezbollah, Taliban, Al Queda. It’s like the Beach Boys considered a terrorist themed verse to “Kokomo”. Even those organizations that eschew violence are frequently aggressive enough to make any reasonable human being cringe. For those of us on the outside looking in it’s difficult to see the routinely disgusting antics of the Westboro Baptist Church as anything other than a cautionary tale of the dangers of coitus amongst the already related. Beyond that, there are certainly any number organizations of faith that seem driven by puritanical compulsion to importune some branch of government to promote or restrict the behavior of said organization’s non-members by legislation if not fiat. It’s not unusual to find, for instance, a Christian pro-life group that forgets their manners and drifts from civil protest into harassing activity. There are myriad Moslem clerics who are adamant in their advocacy for the installation of Sharia law and see the only appropriate scope of that theocracy as the whole world. Still, more often than not the people I’ve encountered in my life who have a profound belief in a higher being have not left me with a sense of dread or even worry. When I went to school in my thirties to learn my current profession (ultra-sound) my best friend in class was a born again Christian. At no point during our year together did I ever feel that she was sizing me up for a beheading. I’ve never crossed the street to avoid a Seventh Day Adventist. Lubavitcher and Satmar Jews are really only dangerous to each other’s facial hair. Living a life of deep religious conviction in a secular world is not infrequently accompanied by a notable level of insularity. Rabbis are required by Jewish law to actively discourage conversion. The Amish are famous for removing themselves from the wider world in many ways. For every lunatic that takes proselytization to an aggressive place there are as many or more of the devout who seem to adhere strictly to the old testament admonishment to “come out from among them and be ye separate.” Even in most of the more evangelical groups the focus is on persuasion of the soul as opposed to more earthly issues. These people might want me to join the team but are content to simply pity my Godless ways and move on. The faith they have is self contained and generates a confidence which precludes the necessity for coercion. If only their intellectual counterparts could function in that way.

At the risk of alienating no small portion of the world around me, I can honestly say that the secularly religious are a remarkably irritating group. I guess I should make an effort to adequately define my terms here. I’m not referring to those of us who have strongly held opinions. Remaining in the milieu of faith, I’d have to say that taking the time to educate oneself and reaching a solid conclusion as a result is a virtue, not a sin. What I’m really talking about is a tendency for an unfortunately large number of people who are uncomfortable with their need for religion to mask it in rational terms, without bothering to adopt the discipline of thought needed to avoid eventually sounding like an underinformed blowhard. This kind of thing is present in virtually every category of discourse. It’s easy to see the appeal of this mindset. Believing that they are operating from a place of reason, the congregants of the church of rational faith are able to see themselves as free from traditional religious dogma while remaining unshakeable in their beliefs. That would be troubling enough by itself. Enhancing the cost to society is the pronounced tendency for those of this ilk to feel that because they’re coming from a place of knowledge they are likely to have special insight into whatever it is that they are focused on, and so are morally obligated to share all that wonderfulness with the rest of us poor, benighted slobs who are clearly already well on the way to destroying this world and all that is good in it. Although the traditionally religious have, in my experience, an annoying tendency to sermonize, their belief in a higher authority does open up the possibility of developing real humility as well. In the absence of that sort of social grace they can at least take the opportunity to satiate their need to manage my life with the thought that I ignore them at my own peril, as I will be subject to God’s judgment. People who believe they have a superior understanding of the world around them often seem to think that their soaring intellect entitles them to directly intervene in the way others live, and to skip over the niceties of persuasive speech, instead enlisting the full weight of the government at every turn. I suppose that having lived in New York (Brooklyn) when Michael Bloomberg became mayor has made me more sensitive to this sort of bullshit than I should be but I’ve barely survived the mother I was born to, and certainly don’t need anyone else attempting to fill the role. As bad as all that is, it is at the level of simple communication where things become most persistently unpleasant. If your perspective doesn’t fall into lockstep with the party line as voiced by one of these nudniks you are immediately branded a “denier” of some sort. I’m not just referring to holding a diametrically opposed viewpoint. Even partial divergence from the accepted scripture of the moment is enough to get one tagged with the sort of accusations usually reserved for Mel Gibson’s dad. I have at one time or another been accused of being a gun nut (there is no constitutionally acceptable reason to ask me why I want to purchase a weapon) and a fascist gun grabber (I can still be legitimately asked to demonstrate the capacity for responsible ownership of a weapon); an enemy of the family (I’m pro marriage equity) and a poorly closeted homophobe (I’m only interested in marriage equity in the civil arena). It’s nice to know that no matter how carefully I try to consider an issue I will always be able to mortally offend someone, and that they will be happy to make me aware of it, regardless of whether or not their opinion was solicited.

As frustrating as the above described interactions can be, the most enraging part of it for me is the absolute refusal on the part of one of these pains in the ass to admit to having made an error, regardless of whatever mountain of evidence might be piled up in front of them. We’ve all run into an asshole like this at least a few times in our lives but my personal favorite example of this sort of jerk is Paul Ehrlich. In 1968 Ehrlich published a book entitled, “The Population Bomb”. As you might surmise, Dr. Ehrlich’s view of the future was not a rosy one. He envisioned a, then, near future which combined the global amity of “Doctor Strangelove” with the culinary outlook of “Soylent Green”. Displaying a joie de vivre usually seen only in the works of Hugo Selby Jr., Ehrlich predicted a starvation related death toll in nine figures before the end of the twentieth century. The cherry on this nihilistic sundae was another 1.2 billion dead as a result of disease and countless more in the coming ice age. I hate to be the turd in the punchbowl here, but, well, it didn’t happen. Any of it. Fortunately Dr. Ehrlich didn’t let that slow him down. Other men would have been cowed into silence by that of public humiliation. He simply revised his doomsday forecasts every now and again. Throw in some obsessive doorbell ringing and you’ve got one hell of a Jehovah’s Witness. Except the Witnesses will eventually move on to the next unsuspecting schmuck if you don’t open the door. This pompous shithead had no intention of doing so. He advocated cash rewards for men who underwent voluntary vasectomies. Punitive luxury taxes on a wide range of baby related items such as diapers, cribs, etc, were suggested as was forced sterilization in densely populated India. Laugh-a-minute Paul believed the federal government should determine an optimal population for the United States and take all necessary steps to enforce it. As deranged as most of this sounds the real problem wasn’t his defective crystal ball. The danger was, and is, in his undamaged credibility. As best as I can tell he is still a biology professor at Stanford University. You know, the Ivy of the West coast. Ehrlich has argued that although many of his predictions have turned out to be incorrect he has still brought many important issues to light, and that’s what matters. And he couldn’t be more wrong. Not because the larger issues involving climate and health aren’t important. Of course they are. He’s wrong because at some point in time he came to believe that his academic credentials absolved him of the obligation of being accountable for what came out of his mouth. His belief in his intellectual infallibility was so complete that he came to see it as a right if not obligation to impose his vision on the world around him, even when he got things wrong over and over again. If he’d been less apocalyptic in his projections he would have been more likely to eat a much smaller portion of crow, and at the end of the day his work would be more universally held in higher esteem. As it is, his refusal to admit to his colossal inaccuracies made it easy to see his work as the manifesto of some sort of secular cult rather a generally well founded plea to do a better job of taking care of the environment and helping the more destitute inhabitants of the globe to escape lives of misery. But hey, at least he’s tenured.

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