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5 March 2002 (Tuesday): god and npr

Wonder if I'll get any mail about this post.

I was riveted by the second hour of KQED's Forum yesterday morning. Richard Holloway, former bishop of Edinburgh and a very controversial figure in the Anglican Church, offered the following thesis: religions can evolve (and always have evolved) alongside history, and should above all else be measured by their translation into human behavior. In other words, declaring Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior is just dangerous bullshit if it makes people hateful and violent toward one another. Education is creating an unprecedented population of thinking people, he argued, and they don't want their beliefs spoon-fed to them anymore. So why not acknowledge that the Bible, even if it does have divine inspiration behind it, is still ultimately a human document, with its share of political agendas, contradictions and antiquated notions? Why not welcome debate and questioning of the truth of the Word? Why not accept the Bible as a collection of metaphors and allegories, rather than something to take literally? If that approach eventually makes for a more charitable, ethical, forgiving, loving world...isn't that what Christianity is all about?

Holloway even went a step further and asked whether there could be such a thing as a Christian who doesn't believe in God -- just in living by the principles set forth in the teachings of Christ. Michael Krasny (the host of Forum) pointed out that it's pretty much just secular humanism then, and Holloway acknowledged that the answer to his own question was probably no. But I think his main point is that many religious institutions are alienating people with their insistence on upholding the letter of religious doctrine, often at the expense of honoring the spirit of that doctrine. And that it can't go on, or else organized religion risks becoming entirely irrelevant in a modern world. The only way it can survive is by serving a truly constructive purpose in people's lives.

The whole discussion resonated deeply with me. What struck me most about Holloway was how practical his attitude about Christianity seemed to be; I wasn't expecting a clergyman to measure organized religion by the same utilitarian yardstick as I do. It's not so much about truth as about usefulness, I've always thought, because in the end no human being really knows the truth; believing something unprovable is only worthwhile so long as it does some good. And that was exactly his approach to the whole thing. Krasny did mention that Holloway is mostly popular with non-religious and ex-religious folk, and he generally infuriates the devout believers. So I guess my sympathizing with his views isn't very surprising.

I've never been religious, but I've tried mightily to understand people who are, mostly without success. I can understand the sublime comfort one can find in ritual, the power in a daily affirmation of faith, the value in striving to be constantly aware of what life is about. That's all marvelous stuff; sometimes I wish I'd be raised to practice these things. But I could never get past taking ancient documents for absolute truth, or as a set of rules to follow literally regardless of social or historical context. The absolute truth part doesn't work, because so much of religious doctrine has been thoroughly disproven by science, and the set-of-rules part reeks suspiciously of surrogate parenting. If God is just someone who can tell me what to do so I don't have to think about it myself, someone I can beg for help and whose skirts I can hide behind, just a big strong guy to have on my team so I can beat the other team, then I think it's nobler to try and live without God. Still, I know many people much more intelligent and courageous than I who have chosen faith over this kind of cold logic, so there must be something to it that I'm not getting.

At one point Holloway (or it might have been Alan Jones, the dean of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, who was on the show with him) shared two quotes, both from a clergyman who lived during the early twentieth century, whose name unfortunately escapes me. They're beautiful pieces of insight, in my humble opinion. The first was "Down with religion; up with God!" The second was "The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty."

I'll have to get a transcript of that show.

posted by enjelani @ 02:24 AM PST

Replies: 1 comment

I tend to describe myself to others as an "Agnostic with atheist tendencies", so I definately don't quite "get" religion the same way one who actually practices it does. But, that doesn't at all mean I don't think religion can be a great thing, at least in an abstract theoretical sense.

People who yearn to derive strength and perserverance, love and support, and non-judgmental acceptance, are ambitions I can definately admire. I just have a problem with the real-world results, as I see them.

I think most organized religions have done far more worse than good over the course of history, even to this day. They're slow to change, quick to dismiss, and even quicker to judge outright. Pair that with any sort of power, and you've got a very very dangerous equation.

But is that the nature of religion? I don't believe it needs to be. If the goal and measuring stick of religion was to enrich the lives of its participants, I would be much more likely to support it. As I see it now, much of it is as corrupt as our political system. Indeed, I think they are mirrors of each other in many ways.

Both good in theory, both often destructive in practice.

Of course I don't have a better solution myself, other than to try and view everyone else as more or less your equal... But i'm quick to throw stones aren't I? ;)

Fortunately, my statements can be debated. Many people believe religion's cannot.

posted by syndromes @ 07 07 2002 12:57 AM PST