Monthly Archives: November 2012

Religions and Religion Like Things

(This is the second in a series of three posts, the first is here)

Over the last five years I’ve looked at a lot of different religions, from the big ‘world religions’ to small new religious movements. They are very different, spanning a huge range of ideas about God and about the human condition; and with a huge diversity of spiritual practices and rituals.

But there is also a unity among them as well. But its not quite Karen Armstrong‘s unity, nor the kind of unity that lends itself to a definition. in fact I’m not even going to attempt to define what a religion is, because as I said in part one, that’s a fool’s errand.

It is a unity of texture: they all seem to work in a similar way. They stress belonging, dividing people into us and them; they provide processes to engender feelings of profundity; they tell a story of the cosmos and show how you fit right in it; they rehearse their own importance and supernormal potency; they answer unanswerable questions; and they empower those who pull the strings. Notice I’ve not said anything here about God. God is very important to some faiths, but the character and identity of ‘God’ is not significant in many other religions. What unifies religions is what they do for the people involved with them.

Other things have these features too. Things we’d not normally describe as a religion. The book “The Culting of Brands” (Atkins 2005), looks at the co-opting of religious zealotry for consumer brands such as Harley Davidson and Apple. They are religion-like, I think, but it may not be very helpful to talk of them in that way, because they are also “Brands”, and that word is more expressive of their character.

Another religion-like-thing I’ve come across, which seems to me more usefully seen as such, are self-help organizations.

Let me give one example (not to pick it out as being special, just to be concrete). Landmark Education Trust puts on a whole series of personal and business development courses. Its initial offering is called “The Forum”. In the Forum, participants are hothoused in a series of very emotionally intense lectures and interactions, where they are encouraged to look at their own behaviour critically. Participants are encouraged to see themselves in archetypal terms, to make breakthroughs by abandoning unhelpful stories about themselves (called “rackets” in the Landmark jargon), and to put right their relationships with others (known as “integrity”). As evidence of a participant’s transition to a no-nonsense, can-do, person, they are encouraged to bring others to future Landmark events. The inbuilt evangelism and the emotional intensity of early sessions, lead to it being labelled a Secte or cult and having to close in France, Belgium and Sweden.

As I said, I don’t want to pick on Landmark, it is not a religion (much less a dangerous cult, in my opinion). But I would call it a Quasi-Religious Movement (QRM, or ‘quirm’ for short). It stresses community; it pities those still trapped in their rackets; it tells stories of its supernormal potency (look at the website for examples); it tells a story of how humans function (not a cosmological story, in this case) and fits you right into it; it answers unanswerable questions; it gives processes that devotees can use to feel like they’ve made profound connections with others; it has an evangelical mandate and sees itself as an important transformative force in the world.

We can come up with some fancy rationale for labelling anything a QRM based on those criteria (as we can make an argument for why a table is really a chair, if we just use the ‘criteria’ of what makes a chair). I am not trying to do that, I am instead stating that parts of it work and feel like a religion. Something picked up by the French and Belgians (even if they do have a hair trigger). It is misleading to call Landmark a religion, I think, but I seeing it as a QRM helps us be honest about its religion-like aspects.

There are other things that I’d want to label QRMs: some conspiracy theories, some alternative medicine modalities. And — as I’ll discuss in the final part of this post (with various qualifications) — Atheism and Skepticism.

Atkins, Douglas. The Culting Of Brands. Portfolio, 2005.


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A Victory for Marriage

So, okay Obama got back in, and as per my previous post, that was the result I preferred. Again, with the proviso that I don’t even live in the US any more, so my opinions should be taken with tincture of Natrum Muriaticum.

But more exciting to me were the results on the marriage equality ballots. Before yesterday, every time a question about marriage equality had gone to the popular vote, it had lost. Opponents of same-sex marriage had always used this to say that pro-gay lobbyists were trying to push through measures against democratic will. Supporters countered with the rather less sound bite-friendly retort that the constitution should prevent the rights of minorities being alienated by the will of the majority.

Yesterday, questions went to the voters in four states. And though none have been officially confirmed as I write this, it looks very much like all four have gone for marriage equality. So in one night, gone from 0% of ballot measures going our way, to all four. That is huge news. Perhaps huge enough for this election to be an important part of the narrative of social justice in years to come. The point where the moral balance of the nation tipped towards justice.

So congrats to the voters in Maine, Minnesota, Washington State and Maryland. And congrats to my LGBTQXYZ friends in the US. I hope the day is coming where my ex-pat UK friends will have their marriage recognized in the US.

The struggle continues, of course. And I think more needs to be done to focus outreach efforts towards the older white men who still form the bulk of the intransigence. There is a sense in the movement that time is on our side. These guys will die out eventually, just like the older white men who opposed civil rights largely died out in the 70s and 80s. But unless these folks are reached out to, the potential for a backlash is still high.

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I’d Be Voting Obama

So, I’m sure a proportion of you are rather glad I’m not entitled to vote.

I have a few issues which are non-negotiable: social justice for women, LGBTQ folk, and ethnic or religious minorities, access to education, healthcare and the law.

I have a few issues which are preferences: deregulation of small businesses, encouragement of small scale entrepreneurship, lower and more progressive taxation, diminished military spending, higher welfare support for a smaller number of recipients, secularism, easier economic immigration.

These, as you can tell, split across US (and UK) party lines. But my red lines tend to fall with the democrats on the US spectrum (it is a little more tricky here where even the most conservative politician supports universal healthcare). So that’s where I’d vote. Though from my remote and news-media filtered perspective, I can’t say Obama’s first term has fired me up.

People seem more passionate about getting rid of him than they are about re-electing him (more comments like “yeah, the first term wasn’t great, but he’s better than the other guy.”). On the other hand there’s always a bump for the incumbent, the devil you know. It’ll be interesting 24 hours, I think.

If you feel like confessing your vote and why, that would be interesting. Regardless, if you are entitled to vote, go to it!


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Fundamentalist Hermeutic

Sabio in this comment, points out that it is easy to be sloppy about hermeneutics (the method or criteria one uses to interpret the bible). I disagreed a little with his categorization, so this post is intended to clarify a little bit.

Here are the three[1] hermeneutics in question:

1. Authorial intent – the original authors were inspired by God, and therefore the meaning they were intending to communicate is the correct meaning of the text.

2. Plain sense – God intended the bible to be understandable for all time, without a history or theology degree, and so truths are not hidden behind historical nuance, or obscure symbolism. If the bible seems to say something clearly, then it does.

3. Literal – The text of the bible is not symbolic, or metaphoric in any sense. When it makes declarative statements, those statements are true. (This is where Sabio puts most fundies).

So a quick observation: these overlap hugely (particularly 2 and 3). In perhaps 99% of cases the latter two should give the same interpretation of a passage. So if we want to figure out whether someone is using a literal or a plain-sense hermeneutic, we need to look at the 1%.

Fundies are often accused of treating the bible literally, and often claim to be doing so themselves. But the fundamentalist hermeneutic is not really literal, but plain-sense.

The use of ‘literal’ in The Fundamentals (a key early statement of fundamentalism) was merely in regard to historic claims, not in general. When fundies talk about the bible being ‘literally true’, they are referring to the idea that historical claims should not be taken as symbolic. Fundamentalist theology does acknowledge that there are parts of the bible that are symbolic. Jesus’s parables, for example, should not be seen as Jesus telling us about real people (The bible says: ‘Jesus said “A certain man was travelling…”‘, therefore if there was no such man, Jesus was a liar!).

Fundamentalist theology holds that one can arrive at a correct understanding of God through an unsophisticated reading of his word without requiring any specialized knowledge or fancy degrees.

So if we want ‘literal’ to really mean literal, then I’d suggest fundamentalism as a movement, does not have a literal hermeneutic. But maybe you think that kind of literal hermeneutic is contrived: pushing the word too far. I’d agree, I don’t think it is very useful, and I’d suggest that categories 2 and 3 be merged.

These hermeneutics get confused because they often point to the same interpretation. Genesis is historical under all three criteria, I’d suggest (I don’t buy the idea that the authors of Genesis were not writing what they thought of as history [not in the modern sense of history, of course, but in the quotidian sense of something that happened in the past]). So it can be a bit tricky to avoid assuming things about one’s discussion partner if one doesn’t clarify.

[1] There are tens of named hermeneutics that aren’t in the slightest bit exclusive. You may approach the bible with a “First Mention” hermeneutic (where the first mention in the bible of a topic should be seen as containing its most fundamental truth), at the same time as a “Continental” hermeneutic (where one frames God’s interaction with humanity in terms of the most recent covenant or contract God has made). So this list is merely one particular set of ideas, it isn’t intended to suggest everything fits in these boxes.


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Atheists, Fundamentalists and Missers of the Point

A post at unreasonable faith deals with the accusation that [many of the most vocal] atheists have the same view of the bible as fundamentalists. A view that is just as naive and worthy of derision.

The post attempts to define this approach in two parts.

1. The acceptance that the bible is authoritative. The foundational, or fundamental authority, perhaps.

2. That the bible should be read according to its most obvious meaning (not its literal meaning, always, but its common sense reading).

Vorjack (the author) states that these atheists are not treating the bible the same ways a fundamentalists because, while they agree on point 2, they obviously disagree with point 1. The atheist does not believe the bible is authoritative.

This is an interesting point, but one that misses the point. Hard.

The point of the comparison (a comparison I’ve made before), is that the atheists in question do believe in 1: they do believe that the bible should be authoritative. Not over their own beliefs, of course, but over the beliefs of Christians. They claim, loudly and frequently, that this is the right way for a Christian to approach the bible, and that not approaching the bible this way is be using it wrong, or doing Christianity wrong. And that is why the comparison matters.


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