The mainline congregations may be gone as significant factors in the nation’s public life, but their collapse released a religious logic and set of spiritual anxieties that are still with us—still demanding that we see our nation and ourselves in the patterns cast by their old theological lights.
When I lived in Christian places like Kansas and Texas, every so often I’d get a Christian trying to convert me. Now, though, I only get atheists trying to do the same thing.
I regularly receive emails from atheists who need to bring me to the truth and the light, and the most recent one came two weeks ago. “I feel sorry for you,” he wrote, which is always a good opener. “I feel sorry for anyone who continues on fantasies of Santa Claus or god past the age of 4.”
He wanted to save me through conversation and conversion. The thing is, I had just the week before written this, in my essay on polytheism for the Los Angeles Review of Books, now up on their site:
What a tremendous weapon pity is! If you can frame someone as “pathetic,” then it’s okay to take their land, destroy their language and heritage, steal their children and place them in “decent” homes, and kill off their gods and heroes. It’s for their own good, after all.
In duBois’s book, the language monotheist believers use to talk about the heathens is essentially the same as the language New Atheists use to talk about all believers: “pathetic,” “superstitious,” “irrational,” “a stupendous system of error.” (That last one was said by Scottish missionary Alexander Duff about Hinduism.) Those who believe in something else are not simply different: they are misguided and need correction. This has been the justification for any number of wars or cultural erasings. Religion and dogma as colonialism.
And I wanted to write back, thank you for the concrete example of what I had just been writing about in the abstract! That’s amazing! But his email continued:
“I’ve seen your picture, and I think maybe we could have some fun. :) If you would like to meet up to discuss further, I’d love to buy you a drink.”
Women! Do not fuck your colonialist oppressors! Starve them out until they see the error of their ways or at least die without corrupting any others!
I did not write him back.
Image: get it, St. Hildegard
I figured I should read this eventually. I mean look at this thing. It cuts off the miraculous bookends of Jesus’ life and focuses on the Enlightenment-friendly moralizing. There was nothing in here I hadn’t heard before, but reading it in all in one go made me remember how many common phrases come out of the Bible. A quick run-through, just from the Sermon on the Mount:
- blessed are the…
- salt of the earth
- light of the world
- town upon a hill
- turn the other cheek
- left hand knowing what the right hand is doing
- serving two masters
- can’t serve God and mammon
- lilies of the field
- ye of little faith
- tomorrow will worry about itself
- just not, lest you be judged
- cast pearls before swine
- seek and you will find
- do to others what you would have them do to you
- wolf in sheep’s clothing
- by their fruit you will recognize them
- bearing bad fruit
And that section is only, what, 2500 words? That’s some influential shit.
The incredibly great thing about Quaker meetings is that everyone just sits there. Silently. And they talk only if the spirit moves them to talk. They only open their mouths if it improves on the silence. I’m gonna repeat that phrase because I love it so fucking much: “if it improves on the silence.”
When we were staying over at grandma’s house, when me and my brother and sister were getting annoying, we knew fun time was over when Grandma would say firmly, “Okay. Let’s play Quaker.” The three of us then groan and sigh and collapse on the floor, mortally wounded, sulky, resentful. Quiet time had begun. I hated that “game” so much. Mike Monteiro’s idea sounds good, though.
A man who drops his old good-time buddies when he finds God is sanctimonious; a man who drops them when he joins AA is just doing what it takes to stay sober.
This interview is such a gold mine.
I differ from the most diseased part of myself, and I think that an irony of spiritual practice is that when you get out of yourself you kind of more become yourself. When I was a little kid I was bouncy and I made a lot noise and I broke shit. I ran around, I was very enthusiastic. In all the pictures of me I’m smiling. Now, I’m pretty happy. I laugh a lot. I have joy on a given day. I’m not a blithering idiot, and I suffer when it’s hot out or it’s raining and I can’t get a cab. I worry about my kid or my friend getting chemo or whatever. I suffer. But I’m pretty happy. And it’s almost like, I remember my mother saying when I was getting sober, “you’re going to come back to that [childhood happiness].” And I said, “Mother, I don’t even fucking remember that.” I just don’t remember feeling that way. But I really think that voice—not the one that says, fuck you, you stupid bitch, you’re a whore, but the one that says, you can do better than this, honey—that voice is God. And that’s actually who you really are. The other stuff that’s telling you what an asshole you are all the time is fucking noise, your ego or your head or whatever. The Buddhists would call it your ego. Pentecostals would call it Satan. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s my fucking head talking.
This is a casual prejudice that is not like the visceral hatred that plagued the early decades of Mormonism, […] but a symptom of a thoughtless incuriousness.
The reason I have an a cappella group is because it gives me every Tuesday evening the chance to do some surrendering. Which is, by the way, the reason people go to church, I think, as well. And to art galleries. What you want from those experiences is to be reminded of what it’s like to be taken along by something. To be taken. To be lifted up, to be whatever the other words for transcendence are. And I think we find those experiences in at least four areas. Religion, sex, art, and drugs. […] Essentially they’re all experiments with ourselves in trying to remind ourselves that the controlling talent that we have must be balanced by the surrendering talent that we also have. And so my idea about art as gardening.
A crusade in reverse, we marched forth to lose what religion we had and be conquered.
More and more, a psychiatrist is approached today by patients who confront him with human problems rather than neurotic symptoms. Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days.
Oh universe which is the all of being–reverence to you–your rule be known–and acceded to in darkness as in light. Feed us by the truth of our need. Let us not be deluded that we may transgress or be transgressed upon. Deliver us from the violence of the false. Amen.
Almighty God forgive me for my agnosticism; For I shall try to keep it gentle, not
cynical, nor a bad influence. And O! if Thou art truly in the heavens, accept my gratitude for all Thy gifts and I shall try to fight the good fight. Amen.
On September 24th, Gijs Van Vaerenbergh will reveal a construction in the rural landscape, by a cycle route, that’s based on the design of the local church. This ‘church’ consists of 30 tons of steel and 2000 columns, and is built on a fundament of armed concrete. Through the use of horizontal plates, the concept of the traditional church is transformed into a transparent object of art.