The Dehumanizing Religion of “Progress”

Can a political ideology be a religion? I suggested in my post entry that people who are willing to countenance the murder of their political adversaries in pursuit of a glorious cause are in fact not engaged in politics at all: they are members of a religious cult. But how can a belief system be styled “religious” if acknowledges no deliberate agency in cosmic affairs other than the human? If it recognizes no spiritual reality but only the material version, if it accepts no afterlife other than the bequest of technical learning that allows one’s grandchildren to live longer and better… then where is the religion?

Let me try to state this “faith” as fair-mindedly as I can. Jules Romains, a French novelist whose most successful works were penned almost a century ago and about whom I’ve written quite a lot, authored a manifesto early in his career for a movement he called “unanism”. I can bring its general terms to mind without too much effort–and it’s about as eloquent an expression of the progressivist vision as I have ever seen.

The unanimist (or exponent of “one spirit uniting us all”) sees the human race as fulfilling a kind of destiny into which it has stumbled, but which is now its grand and inescapable calling. We might have continued living in trees and caves… but we didn’t; and once we evolved the ability to manipulate our environment and to organize our societies, we became permanently endowed with the power to perfect ourselves. Diseases could be conquered; violent weather events could be mitigated; hunger could be minimized through agricultural innovation and social discipline; crime could be bred out of us slowly through education; even the inevitable degeneration of our planetary home as the solar system entropically wears out could be averted if only we might reverse certain forces, travel to a new solar system, or create one ex nihilo out of our genius.

In a sense, we would live forever; and individuals might quite literally live for thousands of years with the help of nano-technology and cybernetics. Yet that failing, our species–our human collective–would bear our vision and our values undyingly into the future. And in that certainty within each of us that our efforts had laid one more brick onto the great ascending wall, we would partake of a kind of eternity, even though our personal consciousness would have been terminated somewhere along the way.

If this is not a religion rivaling others on earth today–if it is not, indeed, the dominant religion of the Western political and economic elite and of our educational institutions–then I can’t think why it should not be so. Its faithful may protest, “But the system you have outlined has nothing of the irrational about it! Religion clings to belief in invisible spirits flitting about behind the scenes: this is all science and reason!” No, actually: it’s not. The most basic assumption that we have some high duty or other to continue evolving has no empirical basis whatever. Where would this duty come from? If it was always in our genetic material, then some mysterious Creator must have put it there; but if we just happened to beat dolphins and crows out in the battle to survive, then our “mission” would be to continue surviving and thriving at the expense of anything in our way. We might build spaceships in the future–but we would do so to keep from getting fried when the Sun explodes–not “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (splitting infinitives and dropping sexist referents along the way).

Finally, the whole “grand’ enterprise would end up an exercise in futility–an instance of what the deconstructionists liked to call “postponement”. No matter how many solar systems we might create or colonize, all suns all throughout the cosmos must eventually burn out; or if the universe’s matter collapses upon itself and re-ignites, then we and everything belonging to us or stemming from us must all likewise be melted down utterly. So where is the omega in this quest for perfection if not in a fantasy to which no materialist has a right?

Yet the votaries of progress are willing to kill people who get in their way right here, right now–or at least to crack jokes about such murders and shrug. “Small loss… no big deal.” About the only thing that can make people forget their common humanity to this degree and morph into the glassy-eyed nightmare-robots of a sci-fi flick is cultic fanaticism. Naturally, the fanatic resents his faith being labeled a faith, a belief system, because… because it’s true, damn you!

 

Postscript: Questions About Catholicism

I don’t need to say that I have had many Catholic friends, and I won’t say that I’ve had more (of the few good friends I’ve ever known) than a random sampling of the American public could possibly account for. I also understand that, while my Catholic friends share many of my own reservations about “the Church”, they don’t necessarily like to hear me review them item by item. That’s human nature. As a Texan by birth and a Southerner by lineage, I’m painfully aware of the foibles and limitations of both groups… but I can get a little irked when I have to listen to an outsider mock a drawl or reduce the Civil War’s causes to racism.

Just let me add this, then, to my previous comments. A professor of physics at Tulane named Frank Tipler wrote a book titled The Physics of Christianity that I lately read… well, kind of read. The degree of physics in the early going seemed rather ostentatious to me and was way over my head; but the point where I actually couldn’t make myself continue (for pride kept me trudging through the formulas that I pretended to half-understand) was somewhere later, where suggestions about the Christian faith—these from a devout man who’s obviously more intelligent than I’ll ever dream of being—began to depress me deeply.

Professor Tipler, you can’t seriously believe that God’s plan for the salvation of the soul is being accomplished by digital technology—that our minds and personalities will be overwritten to chips that can be transferred to an indefinite series of corporeal residences—no, you don’t truly believe that such is the eternity promised in the Gospels, do you? Is that really… it? No higher revelation of the ends of goodness? No reunion with spirits from centuries ago whose creations have awakened us? No admission to such beauty and order as even the Milky Way can only imply in the dullest manner?

I had heard before that parthenogenesis can naturally occur and, apparently, does in an almost infinitesimal number of cases. If the Holy Spirit’s fertilizing a human egg turns out to be a metaphor for a freakish but entirely explicable reproductive anomaly, then… then there’s really no role for the supernatural to play, is there?

And indeed, Professor Tipler, you argue repeatedly that miracles are merely rare occurrences rather than physically impossible ones. But the universe’s very birth from nothing is a physical impossibility, from the standpoint of human reason (I didn’t understand your case to the contrary). If our faith cannot assert that ultimate reality contains events and powers inconceivable to our temporal intelligence, then for what do we need faith?

To me personally, this one is especially obnoxious: that Jesus retained his purity because, thanks to biological parthenogenesis, he was born as sterile as a mule. Do you not grasp, Professor—you whose mind encloses so many mathematical truths that leave me at the starting gate—that a eunuch can incur no moral credit for having mastered sexual impulses? If a sage or spiritual guru never feels anger because he has undergone a lobotomy or never knows fear because he has destroyed his sight and hearing, then he’s no teacher at all and has mastered nothing.

In a Catholic context, I’ve noticed that certain behaviors tend to receive more attention than the state of mind in which they are performed. Frank Tipler, a very devout Catholic, represents some of my greatest apprehensions on this score. He has explained (at least to his own satisfaction) a universe whose physical laws permit the fulfillment of every biblical promise in terms we can understand (or might understand if we were gifted physicists). In his zeal to defend God’s realm, the Professor seems to me to have exiled God from that realm and redefined its parameters to suit the human hand and footstep.

Just as excusing the utopian crusade to create permanent peace all over the earth could well lead to a dystopian, Orwellian hell, so the project of envisioning the life of the soul through computer chips and the abstemious discipline of moral guide through hormonal privation is… well, horribly depressing. It’s cultic. It makes me want to weep for so much intelligence so abused.

Why I Cannot Be Catholic (In a Nutshell)

I had another topic on my mind… but, after hearing a remark made on Greg Gutfeld’s show last night, I lost my original train of thought. This is more important to me.

Gutfeld had assembled three representatives of major world faiths on his cozy stage: a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and an Islamic imam. The segment was more shtick than discussion—more SNL than Firing Line. (Actually, I recall now that my original intent was to explain why I just can’t adapt myself to “tweeting”—the electronic trail of splattered bodily fluids left after careless collisions. The Gutfeld Show is to William F. Buckley what Twitter is to The Critique of Pure Reason.) In a dangerously close approach to seriousness, Gutfeld dared to inquire of the priest if Pope Francis were… um, maybe just a shade… um, naïve. The prelate (whose name I cannot recover from the Internet, for some odd reason) responded, “Well, what’s so bad about that? What’s wrong with being a little naïve? Would you rather he be bitter and cynical? Isn’t it a good thing to have a world spiritual leader who believes in the possibility of peace?”

I paraphrase, but the response was of this nature. I wanted to tear my hair out.

No, Father! It’s not a good thing! Naiveté is not productive or benign! It’s unbecoming in an older man of any station in life; but in an international leader—and especially a spiritual leader—it is grotesque and potentially lethal on a massive scale. Gandhi was with some justice faulted in certain quarters for staging “peaceful” demonstrations in places and at moments when he ought to have known that a match would ignite the whole ammunition dump. Fools who naively “believe in peace” have a pronounced tendency to draw us into war. They underestimate the duplicity of the Machiavellian tyrants with whom they negotiate. They exhort their followers to overlook alarming signs of imminent hostility in deference to “keeping the faith”. They may even end up offering themselves (and a host of others) to the slaughterhouse in a conviction that their martyrdom will blaze future trails to conflict resolution.

At some point, such reckless gambling with innocent lives and insouciance to the dark side of human nature becomes a squalid ego trip. “Sure, you have your martyrdom, Holy Father. Great. I wish I had my two sons back that were killed in the invasion you declined to notice as it massed on our borders.” I can imagine many a believing Catholic having some such thought at key moments throughout history.

I almost became a Catholic myself in my youth. I worked at two different Catholic schools (one Jesuit and one Benedictine). I was disturbed at how the bad actors on campus were always able to shift into confessional mode and convince a priest that they were just little lost lambs… but I was naïve myself at the time, and I would psychically smack the back of my hand for having bad thoughts.

What really bothers me about the Gutfeld interview is not the Pope’s personal naiveté, but its public and energetic defense by a prominent member of his clergy. The Catholic equation of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses with spiritual elevation is a potential life-ruiner. How does it differ, may I ask, from lighting up a joint or having a lobotomy? Or permitting a chip to be inserted into one’s brain with CorrectThink Update 3.4? For that matter, as we approach a world where lasting peace might really come to pass—because we will all be computer hybrids, and our programming will preclude violent behavior (as defined by the programmer)—how will the Catholic braintrust resist that Nirvana? For doesn’t it offer everything that the rose-tinted glasses foresaw?

The first words out of the mouth of Sophocles’ Teiresias when he appears on stage are, “What a frightful thing is thinking, when thoughts are of no profit!” And Oedipus does indeed pay a fearful price for his pursuit of truth… but Sophocles eventually celebrates him as a hero, I believe, precisely because he chooses the anguishing misery of full truth over the flattering delusions of ignorance. Doesn’t God demand such dedication to truth of us?

Final word: yes, I know that the Protestant denominations have mucked up their glasses and decided to call the color “rose” in much the same way as has Catholicism. There’s nothing much to separate them any more. The name of the only real church is in your heart, not in your checkbook.

Open Letter to the National Christian College Athletic Association

Dear NCCAA:

My wife and I lately attended a baseball tournament hosted in McPherson, Kansas, specifically witnessing three games on May 11 and 12 in which our son’s school participated. We were pretty shocked. Speaking for myself, as a Christian, an educator, and a human being raised in civilized circumstances, I came away feeling that the tenor of this competition was far too often disgraceful and disgusting.

Full disclosure requires me to admit that our team did not fare well, nor was my son’s single stint as a relief pitcher a success. On the other hand, CCU has under-achieved all season; and as for my son’s performance, he was actually victimized (as usual) not by poor execution on his part, but by the weak defenders behind him. In these regards, nothing made May 11-12 any different from what I’ve observed all season long.

I will further admit that the irritation caused to me and all the parents near me (not to mention, most likely, some sitting on the other side) during our first game with Ecclesia College was entirely owing to a single boisterous mother, whose bellowing surpassed anything I recall even from the earliest days of Little League. It’s a real jolt to observe such behavior in college grandstands… but only one such stentorian orifice is needed to spread a dark auditory cloud over the whole field of play.

Things became more concerning on Friday. We actually began the day by handing Dallas Christian College their second of two crushing defeats, and they handled their misfortunes with dignity and humor. The problem started when the Ecclesia squad collected in the grandstands to follow the game’s outcome and know of their own fate in the tournament. I myself didn’t witness the heavy tobacco chewing and spitting that went on among that group, because I was determined to keep a distance between myself and Foghorn Mama; but my wife and several other parents remarked that finding a clean place to pass on the sidewalk was growing difficult.

Tobacco-chewing is a squalid and unhealthy habit which is unbecoming of a well-groomed and self-controlled person, let alone a Christian gentleman. Bobby Richardson didn’t do it, and neither did Dale Murphy. By the way, it’s also against NCAA rules and the codes now enforced in most minor leagues.

Yet it happens, especially in our neck of the woods. Several levels worse, in my opinion, is the consumption of caffeinated substances before a game in such quantities that one’s “enthusiasm” cannot be reined in. This was the state into which I suspect Southwestern Christian University’s players had medicated themselves for our final game. I know enough about amphetamine use in the MLB (Hank Aaron once wrote that “greenies” were always overflowing a bowl in the clubhouse like candy) and various caffeine/alcohol/nicotine-laced cocktails (such as Ron Darling described in accounting for the 1986 Mets’ success) to understand that the game has long been riddled with such stuff. I do not know what the NCAA rules are in this regard; but again, though certain spiritual leaders tell us these days that Christians never judge another person, I’m pretty sure that deliberately impairing your self-control in order to reach Dionysiac energy and ecstasy isn’t something Christ would have approved.

For this team was out of control. Their manager, early on, protested a relatively routine and uncontroversial call by shouting and gesticulating angrily on the field. Everyone on the bench was howling, screeching, mocking, jeering, and chanting from the first pitch to the last. Naturally, the game has a long and not very respectable tradition of deriding opponents from the dugout; but such remarks are always sniper fire, not constant artillery barrages. I could scarcely sit back and take in any of the plays—which, I suppose, was probably the purpose of the display. If SCU’s members and boosters wanted the rest of us just to long for early and maximum physical distance from the ballpark, they were indeed a huge success. Never have I sat through such an annoying and repellent two hours at a baseball field.

It was in this atmosphere, of course, that I had to watch my son throw the last pitches he would ever make in a uniform. I would be less than honest if I denied feeling almost furious about that. But the less subjective, more important issue is that human beings can’t normally behave this way except under the influence of some kind of stimulant. If a drug test had been administered before the game, the SCU squad would have produced some very interesting results.

As we returned to our car afterward, my wife and I overheard one coach say to a player, “I’m so hoarse I can hardly talk. But we came out on top—that’s all that matters.”

NCCAA will forever remain tarnished in my memory. I suppose anyone who wants is free to participate in its events… but in my opinion, one of the “c’s” needs to be dropped. I can tell you as a teacher with almost forty years experience that the one factor most discrediting to Christianity in the eyes of young non-Christians is hypocrisy. The faithless perceive us as all-for-show, “do as I say, not as I do” phonies. It’s precisely because of occasions like the McPherson tournament that they come away with such an impression… and who can blame them? In its own small way, that tournament gave a black eye to our faith; and, as many such displays throughout our culture add their individual punches and kicks—all under an ostentatious Cross—we crucify our savior all over again.

Really, really sad.

True Forgiveness Isn’t Always for the Asking

I’m not going to look up the names, because they’re irrelevant to my intent, and I also don’t want to leave the impression that I am judging harshly any particular individual. I can’t slip myself into the soul of the daughter whose aged father was gunned down last week by the so-called Facebook killer. Within a day or so of the incident, she appeared on CNN and announced to the world that she forgave the murderer and would indeed give him a hug if he were captured. Somehow or other, maybe this was what she needed to say for her own inner peace—and when CNN comes bearing down on you with a mike and squinty, manipulative questions, you might very well want to say certain things just to tie the reporters’ tongues into pretzels. I sure would.

What really disturbed me, rather, was the second line of talking heads—those who jabber about other media jabberers—eager to purvey this blanket forgiveness as a splendid testimony for the Christian faith. Glenn Beck’s channel, The Blaze, was ablaze with such interpretation. With all due respect to the grieving daughter… no, I wouldn’t call her words a beautiful testimony at all. God places us on earth, we must believe, to find our way toward Him as well as we can during our allotted span. Anyone who interrupts another’s journey, deliberately and wantonly, is playing God with the most hideous arrogance. It’s a wicked act, that peremptory cutting of the cord called murder; and ultimate forgiveness for it can and must come only from God himself. For such creatures as we are, striking a beatific smile and warbling, “It’s okay, it’s okay! I forgive you!” is not an option. The benediction sounds a bit as though we have decided to play God in one of His other famous roles.

We must take the murderer at his word if he claims that he has indeed sought God’s pardon, and we must wish him well in that endeavor while also holding him accountable to the laws of men. We are not to enact cruel vengeance, which would corrupt our souls as the criminal has corrupted his; but we must take all legal steps to deny him chances at committing similar outrages in the future. To shrug off the deed of someone who has presumed to declare life meaningless and short-circuit whatever meaning or understanding might have been emerging for another is to participate in belittling the divine plan. I don’t like the smell of that.

If a narcissistic lunatic like the callous Facebook murderer had cut down someone dear to me, I think I would have said this: “You’ll be caught, and I hope you are safely in a cage before you interrupt someone else’s life. I hope you stay in that cage until you can do no harm to anyone, or else—if it’s the will of society—that you be legally executed so that your sad end may intimidate other self-obsessed lunatics. I don’t wish agony upon you: may your end be swift. If you want to see me, explain yourself, and beg forgiveness, then I will consider myself bound to hear you out… but I’m afraid I haven’t the power to absolve you of anything. Beg forgiveness of him whose life you took, and of Him who gave no man the right to end another’s life for amusement. As for me, I have nothing to forgive. We’re all mortal, and we all leave this world in one way or another. I pray that the soul of the one I’ve lost has found peace. If you want peace for yours, then ask it of Him who can give it. That’s in your power.

“I will warn you, last of all, that I’m inclined to regard your contacting me as another bit of grandstanding—and I’m not in the least interested in being one of your spellbound spectators. You’ve already committed murder to put yourself in people’s eyes. If I detect that this plea for forgiveness is Act II of the same sick drama, then I get up and walk out when I get the first hint.”

Evil exists. You can’t fight it by forgiving it—and what portion of a troubled man’s soul it may occupy is not for us to determine.

Not A Christian?

Voltaire wrote a short novel titled L’Ingénu about a stoical Huron who had been transported to Paris and proceeded to make one disturbingly sensible criticism after another of Europe’s most “advanced” culture. Imagine such an ingenuous, naïve reasoner engaged in a conversation with an exponent of rigid Christian orthodoxy. I shall dub the latter the Catechist: that is, one who corrects gullible young people endowed only with common sense about what they must believe to qualify as faithful.

Huron: I understand that Christ is the perfect man, such as none other of our kind ever was or ever will be. He is without sin, and his example is one that we can only approach but never reach. What I do not understand is your insistence that his blood was required to cleanse the rest of us of our sins.

Catechist: That is because of your heathen presumptions. Just as none of us could ever lead a life wholly without sin, so we could never break the cycle of sin and find redemption before God without the intercession of Christ.

Huron: Why? Why is God so vengeful that He demands a slaughter before He will forgive us for being as He made us?

Catechist: Hold thy tongue! God asked but one thing of us when He created Adam and Eve: to abstain from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It was a modest stricture, yet we broke it.

Huron: Adam and Eve broke it—for I will not hold my tongue, an it please thee or please thee not. Nay, I will ask further, what just man punisheth a great-grandchild for his distant ancestor’s trespass? Is that not true heathenry, such as is practiced by the tribe I left behind?

Catechist: I see thou art a retrograde subject. Know, then, that all of us are Adam and Eve. As they two did, so we all most certainly would have done in their place.

Huron: I accept that—and I go farther. Theirs was an act of defiance, yet true sin lies in the mere thought, the intent. One of us who should crave and long to know the forbidden yet refrains from pulling back the veil in a coward’s fear of reprisal is just as guilty as Adam but without Adam’s courage.

Catechist: There is a perverse kind of truth in what you say. So do you accept, then, that we were all under sentence of death before Christ took our punishment upon his head?

Huron: I do, yet I do not. What I cannot accept is that an all-just God would condemn to death any man, much less all men, for drawing veils, when it is our self-destructive nature to probe beyond what we can understand. Even an ordinary, fallen man is likely to have enough goodness in his heart that he would not inflict the ultimate penalty on another for so pitiable a failure,

Catechist: But God does not think as you and I do, fool!

Huron: No—He is infinitely more understanding and compassionate! From Him do we draw whatever inklings of enlightenment and mercy we possess. Yet you ask—you demand—that I picture Him as requiring our life’s blood for a stumble.

Catechist: You forget that Christ is God, or you have not paid enough attention to learn so earlier. God is no bloodthirsty Moloch demanding that His altars run red. No; He is a father who sent His beloved son to be the needed sacrifice.

Huron: But a son who is also his father is not like a mortal son of a mortal father, so the words “son” and “father” are more hindrance than help to speak this truth. And a father who would sacrifice his son rather than himself—and that to his own wrath, not to some alien threat—is inconceivable and insane to me.

Catechist: I cannot abide your blasphemy any longer. You are stiff-necked and irredeemable. You seem to believe that our corrupt nature is but a child’s blunder that makes his parent smile, not an abomination that only supernatural grace can reconcile to God’s goodness.

Huron: And you, teacher, refuse to see that I agree with you so much about God’s goodness that I cannot embrace the notion of an abominable reconcilement. Why do you insist that our human blood-rites will set us straight with God for our human blood-letting—for we are, truly, a sanguinary tribe, and our overreach for knowledge always ends up closing its fingers around the handle of a knife. Our errancy is no minor lapse, and I erred when I made it seem so. We kill God in our world when we make ourselves the gods of our world. But all the more reason to ask: why must you put blood on God’s hands?

Catechist: True faith is a gift… and thou hast it not, thou damnèd wretch!

Many of the “people of faith” I have known would be horrified to see that I had penned such a dialogue as the one above… but then, few of them spent more time talking to me than was needed to confirm that I am a nobody in this life. You can’t desist from speaking to someone whom you haven’t spoken to in years.

Life Isn’t Managed by a Diagnosis and Some Pills

I just read a student paper that discusses bipolar disorder at some length. We used to call it manic-depression. To my untrained mind, the latter sounds more like moodiness and the former more like some sort of cerebral malformation. Of course, that’s exactly the impression that the medical community desired to promote. You should be depending on your doctor, not yourself. It’s caveman logic to think that, if you’re having mood swings, maybe you should do some soul-searching. Delving into spirituality, taking pride in developing a tougher character, fighting your darker half, learning how to be your life’s hero… scary, primitive stuff, that.

For none of it sounds very “medical”, does it? Let’s call the dark place a disease, instead, and let’s prescribe lots of expensive drugs for it (with unpleasant, perhaps fatal side-effects: but to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs). The public, having long been primed to take the easy way out of every predicament—to believe, even, that the Constitution (whatever that is) guarantees a right to a corrective pill for every complaint—readily delivers itself into the hands of white-coated technicians. Add to that the glory and mystique of belonging to some class of “sufferer” (any will do—and the more, the better)… and you find Americans lining up to receive their “bipolar diagnosis” and its special batch of talismans and magic potions.

My student has confided to me that she, having herself received the diagnosis, bravely chose to fight her war through therapy rather than drugs; yet she has noticed that the medical establishment expresses ever less interest in tolerating this approach. Too much money to be made peddling the drugs… and, I suspect (since I’ve long concluded that the will to power is the strongest of all corrupt human motives), there’s too much joy in Medico-ville associated with know-it-all diagnoses and consequent prescription-writing. Why would a doctor seek to empower you when he can easily sweep up that portion of control and add it to his own plate?

I’ve probably fought depression all my life. I don’t really need a term for it, other than “the human condition”. I’ve never seen a doctor about it and never taken a pill for it (or booze, or a joint). I had two pretty close passes with suicide when I was young, and I feel that the ordeals made me far stronger and reordered my vision of reality.

When I made a very casual and fleeting joke about absenteeism in a class last fall, however, in which suicide played a part, I was hooted at by several students as some kind of insensitive brute. “Sufferers” must be cuddled in a warm blankie like little lost puppies retrieved from a hailstorm: they must be smothered in sympathy and nursed on carefully filtered optimism. My experience at the receiving-end of this spontaneous outrage played no minor part in my decision to retire this coming year. The feelings of that day will forever remain with me… and they will forever disgust me.

I am outraged at the outrage. Life is tough, and I have found it sometimes miserably so. But I don’t need a diagnosis and a fat bottle of pills, any more than I need big hugs and Teletubby-colored glasses… or a fifth of Jack Daniels, or a Sunday School sing-along. Jesus was crucified, and he promised us about the same fate if we walked in his footsteps. Mulling seriously over that has been the ultimate therapy for me.