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Let’s Not Go There: Religion and the Left

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There is a large movement in the Democratic Party to put on a religious sack cloth in order to fight the religious right. It is wrong, misguided and will yield the wrong result even if successful. More significantly, some, namely Rabbi Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis and others are walking around telling us why we need them and why we should surrender our skepticism of religion as a way to create a social movement. Our current problems have more causes in religion than solutions. They have more to do with whether we can restrain our greed, fear and superstitions and proceed rationally to educate our children and ourselves in time to keep from destroying ourselves and most of the life on the planet, things that most religions insist on clinging to.

First of all in the interest of full disclosure, let me clarify my own beliefs, so that the religious people out there will know exactly my personal bias. I believe in some higher consciousness, basically because if I have consciousness with less energy than it takes to light a 15 watt light bulb, a universe made of pure energy probably has some kind of consciousness. Quantum physics basically supports that idea that we may create our own reality, string theory suggests 21 dimensions, and relativity that time and space are but illusions. But while that still leaves me room to believe in a higher consciousness I also believe that if there is a universal consciousness, it probably thinks about mankind and my fate about as much as I think about individual atoms and subatomic parts in my own body.

I believe that we do not fully understand our universe, (a scientific position) and that as we continue to learn more, than we will revise our understanding of ourselves and our universe as we go. I also believe that moral certainty is more a cause than a cure for conflict. To the contrary, the biggest problem for mankind is the inability to integrate new objective information that conflicts with long held religious, political and financial structures already in place into the public decision making process. With the environment, birth control, economic policy being prime examples of the lack of organized religion's efforts to able to be a leader in the changes necessary for the survival of the human race.

Now, the "Progressive Spiritual Left", as the like to call themselves, has embarked on a mission to convince us that we need to be more open to them and embrace their message as the path to winning back the country. Whether this is an attempt to make themselves more relevant, boost aging congregations or become more responsible is immaterial. They are not the leaders here. They hold no moral ground which to the rest of left should or need to concede.

Why do many on the left not embrace the teachings of progressive Christians and partner with the progressive churches? Is it arrogance, is it generalized rejection of authority, or is it as Lerner recently posits in a Nation article, "Bringing God Into It", an investment in what he calls scientism. Lerner says that right and wrong, love, ethics, beauty or why my life is important "are dismissed by the scientistic world view as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless." He attempts to separate science from those who rely on empirical thought as having a "belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system." In other words all theories are equally valid. This is not only misleading and incorrect it is the same argument advanced by the creationists.

Research in the areas of evolution, psychology, anthropology, biology have added hugely to our understanding of what creates feelings of love, beauty, and other things he views as unknowable. Much of this information is well known but not well distributed and accepted because of the conflicts it has with traditional belief systems, not fertile ground for politicians or capitalists to promote. Ethics, right and wrong are well understood constructs of balancing individual and group needs that have evolved to serve the survival needs of group coherency and stability, a whole body of information that is readily avoided in public discussion by mainstream media. As a result accepted practice has fallen behind technological change and discussions of what needs to take place now are drowned out instead by defenses of the deeply embedded irrelevant norms of yesterday.

One could make the case that religion split with science as it began to lose more and more ground to science or to avoid acceptance of inconvenient and uncomfortable scientific findings that lacked the anthropocentrisms of religion. Somewhat like a vestigial tail on humans that is of no use but we still carry around. The difference is that our vestigial tail does not fight to prevent its own eventual disappearance.

Science eventually took its own path, trade and war became the purview of the state, superstition the domain of religion with all three still fighting for control of social norms. Much of today's cultural battlefield is between reason on one side and fear and superstition on the other. An unwillingness to examine the fears and superstitions central to the maintenance of organized religion by those institutions does not bode well for a long term relationship.

Most of us "secularists" personally reject things the "progressive spiritual left" think we should be comfortable with in politics including public prayer, acknowledgement of a god or at least an anthropomorphic god, the divinity of Jesus and various public religious rituals. The bible is a mix of mythology, history, poetry, parables, social message, and altered state delusional ramblings. Some is helpful advice, some interesting reading and some downright crazy ranting. The evolution of the Christian church in most cases reflects this schizophrenic divergence. Let's face it while most churches claim an uplifting mission they are anthropomorphic, hierarchical, paternalistic, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, and repressive psychologically, socially and culturally. The problem is that many of us do not want to offer our tacit approval of such things through any kind of participation in its public display. We don't care if you do it, just don't impose it on the rest of us. Call it a values thing.

While I believe in the historical Jesus, objective historical study does not support Jesus as son of god, god incarnate, born of a virgin, resurrected, miracle doer, or as a matter of fact almost any literal interpretation of the bible. What I don't understand is why Jesus isn't a more compelling moral figure as a man. As a perceptive individual who advanced no theology, hierarchal church, dogma or orthodoxy but had a clear social and economic agenda that is well documented in at least the Sermon on the Mount and many of the parables which there is great agreement about their origin. To me the human Jesus, puts us all on the hook, as does Gandhi to have the moral courage to stand up for what is right. Beliefs he was willing to die for and the recognition that those beliefs could survive death. And guess what, many other people have come to what is right for them and their own, through reason without the assistance of a church, in fact many times in spite of it.

Heaven and hell are other concepts that there is no support for which have been invented by churches as a means of control over the human mind and to get people to accept misery here on earth while the church sold them out to economic and political forces to preserve their own institutional interests. The end days prophecies of current popularity, primarily invented by a couple of nut cases in the 1800's cause many people to assume that they are inevitable and are not caused and or solvable by man kind, a disastrous self-fulfilling prophecy. Where are the religious voices that loudly decry these dangerous superstitions in the "Spiritual Left".

While Lerner and others love to point to Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi (not particularly religious), and Tutu as examples of religious leadership, they fail to mention that often, the organized hierarchies of their own denominations were against their actions. Far more often religious institutions have been the problem when they held power and when power moved to political-economic entities, organized religions were more than willing to compromise their values and ignore abuses of the people in order to maintain their institutional survival.
While the crusades, the inquisition, the excommunication of Galileo are supposedly things of the past, the vast desertion and in many cases outright opposition to progressive solutions by religious institutions on issues such overpopulation, AIDS, catastrophic environmental policies, war, poverty, exploitation and injustice speaks loudly to their lack of relevance to progress.

Churches were once the center of communities both in rural areas and in ethnically driven urban neighborhoods, but they have been become unmoored from broad representation of community interests by technology and mobility like other community institutions. Instead they now represent narrow ranges of political, economic, social, world views and superstitions that only welcome those that agree with them. It is market compartmentalization which is in direct conflict with the kind of pluralism and inclusiveness the left must have to succeed. The attraction of most churches today is the social atmosphere and sense of identifiable community they provide, which if done on a neighborhood/community basis would create more diverse interests that would be able to expand collective political and economic power much more efficiently.

Lerner's use of Stalinism to demonize the left's anti-theism is no more credible than the right's use of Stalinism to discredit socialism. The Orthodox Church's collaboration with the repressive policies of Czarist Russia were the cause of religious rejection there, and any student of the left can tell you socialism died in Russia the day Lenin dissolved the direct democratic control of the soviets and gave power to the Bolshevik central committee. This was not new behavior, there probably is no greater example of ethical sell out in history than the Machiavellian beginnings of the formal Christian church which combined spiritual belief and secular power by Constantine's adoption of Christianity, the deification of Christ and the following slaughter of all those who disagreed. Throughout most of history organized religion fought on the side of the rich elites and powerful politics against populists movements because they were seen as a threat to their power base. Even today we see it with the present pope, who declares liberation theology, a heresy.

He further shows his lack of understanding of many religious rejectionists by stating "The idea that people are only motivated by material self-interest became the basis for a significant part of what we now call the political left, or labor movement, and the Democratic Party." This shows a surprising lack of knowledge of leftist history. The history of the left from the Peoples Party, the Wobblies, the suffragettes, birth control advocates, Socialists, and labor unions have always promoted human dignity, inclusion, social interaction, community cooperation, education, healthcare, and the good of the whole without requirement to believe in any superstition.

The leftist movements of the last two hundred years have always fought to bring back the community and home centered focus of cooperative living. The kind of direct democracy and discussion that probably existed in our ancient past before the evolution of transferable individual owned capital that has splintered our social bonds into a false sense of independent individuality unbalanced by a loyalty to a common good. The substitute is the dogma and legalities of church and state. Religion evolved as a combination of pre literate customs (much of it early practical science about agricultural, astronomy, meteorology, social structure) and superstitions about what they did not understand.

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John Kelley is the Managing Editor of a monthly progressive newsmagazine, "We the People News", in Corpus Christi, Texas
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