Just a preface by way of explanation. I’m sorry to be so unproductive over the last few days. It is Spring here, and I have my usual spring-time allergies, but this year they are affecting me particularly seriously. When that happens, stringing words together to make a sentence, let alone a post, is a struggle. This post took longer to write than almost any other, not because of its complexity or length, but because of what might be called thought-block. Bear with me. This Spring too will pass.
Maureen Dowd has an interesting piece in the New York Times for Saturday (19th May 2012). Entitled Here Comes Nobody it is an attack on the Roman Catholic Church’s growing tendency to control its message, and to marginalise those who differ. It also expresses concern over the increasingly popular political idea that public policy should be governed by the religious beliefs of elected officials and members of legislatures, a growing tendency which is going to land us in serious political trouble if we are not careful. The telltale signs are increasing. Muslims, pretending that their religion is not political, are practically everywhere insisting that Islamic principles should govern everything from finances to women’s dress, and a host of things in between, all designed to normalise Islamic oppression in democratic contexts. The Roman Catholic Church is playing exactly the same game, by condemning liberal democratic establishments as radically secular and anti-Catholic, going so far as to tell women religious in the United States where the emphasis of their ministry must lie — not in the direction of social justice, but in an emphasis on the “pro-life” agenda of the Vatican, something that is governed by rigorously orthodox teaching. The sign of weakness lies in the increasingly narrow focus of religious practice. When religions are strong they are diversified, expansive, and encompass societies. When they are weak, they become narrow, intolerant and self-centred; brand loyalty becomes a central concern, and emphasis is placed on things which arouse deep emotions. During the 18th century Enlightenment this was known, in Britain at least, as “enthusiasm,” and was shunned by people who considered themselves intellectually sophisticated, and who had felt the winds of change blowing.
Religions tend to be static, because they depend upon the loyalty of ordinary people whose lives are marked by a fair degree of stasis, and for whom change is threatening. When religions go through a period when they feel themselves at risk, they tend to shorten their defence perimeter, choosing easily identifiable features of their internal landscape to defend. This also has the virtue of making their enemies and opponents more easily identifiable. In Dowd’s essay this tendency is clearly identified. Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, was invited to give the commencement address at Georgetown University, which, because of her role in the insurance kerfuffle that the USCCB has made such a circus of, made her an easy target. As Dowd says:
The silver-haired former Kansas governor is a practicing Catholic with a husband and son who graduated from Georgetown. But because she fought to get a federal mandate for health insurance coverage of contraceptives and morning-after pills, including at Catholic schools and hospitals, Sebelius is on the hit list of a conservative Catholic group in Virginia, the Cardinal Newman Society, which militates to bar speakers at Catholic schools who support gay rights or abortion rights.
The Society for Truth and Justice, a fringe Christian anti-abortion group, compared Sebelius to Himmler, and protesters showed up on campus to yell at her for being, as one screamed, “a murderer.”
“Remember, Georgetown has no neo-Nazi clubs or skinhead clubs on campus, nor should they,” Bill Donohue, the Catholic League president, said on Fox News. “But they have two — two! — pro-abortion clubs at Georgetown University. Now they’re bringing in Kathleen Sebelius. They wouldn’t bring in an anti-Semite, nor should they. They wouldn’t bring in a racist, nor should they. But they’re bringing in a pro-abortion champion, and they shouldn’t.”
Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl called the invitation “shocking” and upbraided the Georgetown president, John DeGioia. But DeGioia, who so elegantly defended the Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke against Rush Limbaugh’s nasty epithets, stood fast against dogmatic censorship.
That’s a long quotation for choiceindying.com, but it shows clearly how conservative retrenchment and doctrinal focus serves the purpose of creating a hair-trigger of reaction, enlisting emotion, but not thought, fostering group-think instead of thoughtfulness. Religions run best on emotion.
Thinking of my own religious biography, I was most “devout” when I was involved in factionalism and devotion to the cause of orthodoxy. I became an Anglican Anglo-Catholic largely because I found Protestantism too “wishy-washy,” its beliefs either too simplistic (in the fundamentalist direction), or too unfocused, and my life as an Anglican priest was characterised at first by loyalty to the tribe, opposed to change in either liturgy or doctrine, finding an ideal in an imagined past of faithfulness and devotion, an ideal that was threatened in a time of increasingly rapid change. Like many of the Anglicans who are now in the process of “poping” (making the switch to Rome), I fought everything that even hinted at compromise. At one point I even made an approach to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, and received a response from then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.* One of the things that must be said for that period of my life is that it was characterised by an enormous energy. I threw myself wholeheartedly, like a latter-day Canute, into holding back the tides of time, writing papers and pamphlets, organising conferences, even participating in the launching of a journal to further our conservative Anglican cause.
*Here is a scan of that letter.
The point that I am trying to make here is that religions run on emotion, and they do so, I think, when they are most aware of their own weakness. Was if faith that sent that letter to Rome? No, I don’t think so. It was an awareness of the weakness of faith that prompted me to write — a desperate attempt to hold onto a dream. And I saw the same effects as the Anglican Church passed through a period of adventure and readiness to change, perhaps even to acknowledge itself as a particular way of being flourishingly human. What supervened upon this increasing liberalism was a conservative retrenchment, signalled in particular, in the Anglican case, by the Alpha Course, a course for wavering Christians purporting to provide the answers to all of life’s most pressing questions. The logo of the Alpha Course is the cartoon of a little man burdened by a huge question mark:
You can see the same kind of thing in so many places today. The increasing narrowing of Roman Catholic doctrine to an almost exclusive emphasis on supposedly pro-life beliefs, the Anglican Covenant which proposes a limitation to change based on consensus, the shrillness of fundamentalist language which seeks to see its tunnel vision instantiated in law, and an increasingly frenzied unthinking response to growing disbelief around the world: all these things point to the weakness of religious belief, as well as to its ability to change its protective coating like a virus.
Religious dynamism is based largely on opposition. Religion is most active and most uncompromising when it is threatened. Its mind narrows, its focus shifts towards conditions which it deems necessary for survival. Like any organism, it seeks to replicate itself, and when it senses that replication is threatened and survival is at risk, it takes extraordinary risks in order to achieve its ends. Today, the religious response to the weakness of religion is increasingly towards an insistence on controlling the culture. This it can only do if it has political clout, and so it is that clout that the religions are seeking most assiduously. Religions know that they can disappear, and like all living forms they will either adapt to the environment (liberalism), or adapt the environment to themselves (dominionism, conservatism). In the latter form they pose a special danger to the peace and good order of states. Religions, of course, think of themselves as sacred and full of good will. But this is a mask, part of an elaborate memeplex, if I may be allowed that word, which, like the genome of any living organism, will change in ways that it must in order to protect and perpetuate itself. (The teleological language, even in the case of social institutions like churches, is only metaphorical.) It will even turn the hands of the clock back a few centuries to a time of religious strife and cruelty, if that is what it takes. All these tendencies are built in to the behavioural, intellectual genome of the relgion, and they are continually sending out feelers to see which ones will enable survival. As AC Grayling has said, religion may be going through its death-throes, but we should beware: dying religions may go through a characteristically bloodly fling.