What Would the Hulk Do?

What the world needs now is anger: pure, unbridled rage at the countless injustices that occur each day. Without this bitter yet necessary tonic, the horrors that disfigure God’s creation will only grow worse. Good, old-fashioned anger – of the righteous variety – is a quality that’s in desperately short supply these days.

But, in order to accomplish its purpose, anger must be tempered with the wisdom and the courage to see where the evil truly lies. Otherwise it will destroy the innocent along with the guilty, leaving nothing in its wake but a barren, wretched wasteland

Buddhism for Dummies: or, How I Took Refuge in the Dharma Without Leaving the Church

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Human beings can’t resist wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side.  This, IMO, explains why Mac fanatics sometimes peck at Windows PCs, Americans fantasize about living abroad, and even the most devoted Coke drinker probably sips a Pepsi every now and then.  It also explains why I’ve been trying to understand Buddhism for over a decade, even though I have no desire to leave the Christian faith.

One thing I’ve found is that both the Buddha and Jesus have the same problem: their disciples aren’t always the best at explaining their teachings.  Now, so far as I know there is no Buddhist equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church (thank God!).  However, there have been endless attempts to condense the Buddha’s message into quick, easy-to-digest sound bites.  This has led to countless books and articles that sum the Enlightened One’s message up as follows:

  • All is suffering
  • The cause of suffering is desire
  • If we end all desire, then we end our suffering
  • We can extinguish our desires by following the Noble Eight-Fold Path, a prescription for life that involves rigid moral strictures that eschew all pleasure

For years I have pondered these four precepts, trying to make sense of them.  The problem I kept running into is that none of them are true.  Here’s what I mean:

  •  Life isn’t all suffering; rather, it’s a mélange of all sorts of experiences.  Some of them are absolutely delightful, a few are intensely painful, and the vast majority are somewhere in between. 
  • Desire is hardly the cause of all suffering.  In fact, many times desire ends suffering.  For example, let’s say that I have an agonizing toothache.  I desire to be free of it, and this desire leads me to go to the dentist, who promptly ends my suffering.
  • If desire is what I’m trying to get rid of, then what about my desire to be free of desire?

 The Noble Eight-Fold Path made the most sense of all four of the Noble Truths to me.  It was getting through the first three that flummoxed me to no end.  Usually after struggling with something for so long I would simply conclude the whole affair was nonsense.  I was tempted to do this many times regarding Buddhism: declare it rubbish, toss it in my mental trash can, and think about something else.

But that didn’t quite seem right to me.  How could a man so totally wrong about life inspire such devotion?  So I pushed on, seeking to engage Buddhism on a deeper, more existential level.  As a result of these efforts, this is how I now understand the Buddha’s basic teachings:

  •  The world is deeply flawed, with pain and sadness linked inextricably to joy and pleasure.  Because of this, even our happiest moments don’t last forever.  This is a fact about the world that we cannot change, no matter how loud we yell at God.
  • Because the world is so messed up, it’s foolish to think we can either change it in a fundamental way or derive lasting satisfaction from it.  Those who try to do either of these things ultimately shoot themselves in the foot.  That’s why stoners end up sick and homeless and idealistic social workers turn into cynical jerks.  It’s also why ministerial students, myself included, burn out.
  • When we accept the world the way it is, we realize that our desires to either change it (in a fundamental way) or derive happiness from it are doomed to failure. 
  • At that point, we can find joy and peace of mind by looking “behind” the world.  This is what the Buddha was talking about when he discussed Nirvana.  It’s an experience of utter bliss, utter compassion, and utter freedom from the things that torment us. 
  • The essence of this transformation cannot be expressed in words.  We can call it Nirvana, the beatific vision (as St. Augustine referred to it), Cosmic Oneness, or whatever.  All of these terms are both a help and a hindrance to understanding the experience.  Let’s stick with “Nirvana” as the term of choice. 
  • Nirvana can be obtained through practicing a number of mental and spiritual disciplines.  These include:
  1. Wishing the best for all people (even the ones we despise)
  2. Learning to appreciate quiet, both inside and outside our minds.
  3. Not obsessing over material possessions.
  4. Using our critical faculties to separate truth from nonsense.
  5.  Living a balanced life.
  6. Being honest about our own shortcomings instead of rationalizing them.
  7. Taking the long view.
  8. Calming our emotions so that they don’t make us do stupid things.
  9. Repeating the Serenity Prayer often.  It goes like this: “Lord, give me the courage to change the things I can, the willingness to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  That will both minimize the world’s effect on us and enable to do what good we can while we’re in it.

I hate to say it this way, but what I have written above is “Buddhism for me.”  It makes eminent sense and in no way contradicts anything Jesus said.  It fact, it overlaps with much of Christ’s teachings and illuminates them.

The takeaway for those of us in the Christian church includes the following nuggets of wisdom:

  • Spiritual ideas have innately subjective elements that cannot be removed without destroying their ability to affect human lives.  In this sense, it’s perfectly fine to say that a particular teaching is “true for us.”
  • It’s impossible to turn religion into anything remotely resembling a branch of science.  It’s ultimately a subjective encounter with a reality that is Wholly Other.
  • Language can never convey all that is true.
  • Anyone who thinks that the Buddha, Confucius, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, etc., are in hell for not being Christians is just plain wrong.

 BTW, before I studied Buddhism, I wouldn’t have said that they are “just plain wrong.”  I would have called them assholes.  But what good would that do?

Oh, one more thing: for those who are interested in this topic I recommend a book entitled “Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian.”  The link to its Amazon page is posted below.

http://www.amazon.com/Without-Buddha-Could-not-Christian-ebook/dp/B00AC41O22/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384662016&sr=8-1&keywords=without+buddha+i+could+not+be+a+christian

If the wages of sin is death, then who’s the paymaster?

wages of sinOne of the most contentious issues in Christianity is the nature of Christ’s atonement. Virtually everyone who self-identifies as a Christian believes that Jesus died to redeem humanity. It’s when the question, “exactly how does that work?” comes up that the consensus falls apart.

This topic has become a point of contention in recent years, as thinking people begin to question the stories they learned in Sunday school. Here’s a summary of what most Protestant churches teach about the reason for Jesus’ crucifixion:

God is conflicted in his feelings about humanity. He loves us, yet his just nature demands that he punish us for our finite number of sins by torturing us for an infinite amount of time.

To reconcile this internal conflict, he sent His Son to take the punishment for our sins by dying on the cross. God let his perfect Child get beaten and murdered for all the bad stuff the rest of us have done. Then he looked down from heaven and said, “well, that evens the score!”

When we believe that Jesus’ bloody, torturous death placated God’s yearning to torment us, then we receive forgiveness and eternal life. If, on the other hand, we reject this story (for whatever reason) then God tosses us into a giant pit of flame, where we will suffer forever.

A million years from now, those who believed this crazy yarn will be partying in heaven. On the other hand, the rest of us will be screaming in agony at the top of our lungs, for whatever we did wrong hundreds of thousands of years before.

Were you a glutton? It’s fire and brimstone for you, fatso. Did you lust after swimsuit models? Burn in Hell, you dirty perv. Did you stick with the religion of your ancestors after hearing the missionaries preach? Bad choice, chump; Buddha’s not gonna pull your sorry, Christ-rejecting ass out of those flames.

And if you dare to fall in love with someone who has genitals like yours – oohhh bboyyy, are you gonna get it, you dirty faggot!

Is it any surprise that intelligent people have trouble accepting this “good news?” The real mystery is why this nonsense has gone unchallenged for so long. Let’s look at just a few of the numerous plot holes in this horror story.

• How can a God obsessed with justice punish someone infinitely for a finite amount of evil?
• How does the fact that an innocent person got beaten and murdered for someone else’s crimes equal “justice?” Isn’t that just the opposite of justice? For example, let’s say I have two kids. One sets fire to an orphanage while the other is volunteering at a soup kitchen. So, to make things right, I beat the living crap out of the innocent one and declare the scales balanced. Does that sound like the action of a wise, loving father or the despicable crime of a lunatic?
• Why does God need someone to suffer and die in order to cut his children some slack? After all, each of us was born screwed up, according to traditional Christian teaching. We couldn’t have made the grade if we tried. Doesn’t that merit some leniency, since we had no choice but to blow it?

God forces us to be born as slaves to sin, then holds us accountable even though we had no say in the matter. But we get a free pass if we call Jesus’ crucifixion the ultimate act of love. That’s the “good news” proclaimed from millions of pulpits across the globe every Sunday.

If anything ever deserved to have BS called on it, then it’s this perversion of every good and decent moral principle ever affirmed by God or humanity. I’m going to explore this issue in depth in the coming weeks, including some alternative views of the meaning of Christ’s death. In this post I simply wanted to lay out the issue. As always, your comments are welcome.

PS Please forgive my angry tone. I normally try to be more gracious in my presentation, but I have my limits.

Why I am not a Christian

mother-teresa1It’s no secret that the worst people in history have always cloaked themselves in righteousness-sounding words. Hitler was, according to himself, a “savior of humanity.” Slave owners claimed they were “benevolent benefactors” to their human property. Then there was Robespierre, leader of the French Revolution, who stood for “human dignity and equality” even as he butchered innocent people by the thousands. I mention him because I’ve been watching History Channel documentaries all day.

I have only scratched the surface of human hypocrisy by citing these examples, but you get the idea. There’s something in human nature that fiercely rejects Jesus’ call to honest self-examination, even among those who call themselves his followers. Thus, raging homophobes are “defending family values,” gossips and backbiters are “expressing their godly concerns,” and wealthy exploiters are “fighting Socialism.”

In all fairness, those on the Religious Left are just as guilty of this sort of false piety. One example is a liberal pastor I know, who spreads hateful nonsense about Evangelicals in the name of “promoting tolerance.” It seems odd that so many people, all devoted to such high ideals, are so eager to destroy each other – for the glory of God and the betterment of humanity, of course.

It’s because of these people that the word “Christian” has such a negative connotation in modern American society. The secular world has watched for centuries as “Christians” have been on the wrong side of history time after time. Let’s look at the score card:
• Democracy vs. monarchy
• Slavery
• Women’s suffrage
• Minimum wage laws
• Environmental protections
• Universal healthcare
With each of these issues, many or most of those who call themselves Christians have fought for the oppressors, and against the common people whom Jesus loved so much.

There have been many exceptions to this rule, of course. MLK and the church-people who supported him are perhaps the best known examples. Nonetheless, in the past 40 years or so the word “Christian” has been hijacked by the Religious Right, so that it has come to mean something very ugly in the minds of millions.

That’s a shame, because the word has a beautiful meaning. It refers to a person who actively seeks to follow the example of Jesus, a man who took the side of the poor and oppressed, who preferred peace to war, and who never, ever said a single word about homosexuals one way or the other.

He did, however, have some rather unkind things to say about the wealthy, a class which most Americans, myself included, fall into, though we don’t always realize it.  Just ask an Ethiopian if we “middle-class” folks are actually rich.

Because of how the word has been perverted in recent decades, I will not say that I am a Christian.

But there’s another, more fundamental reason why I refuse to apply the term to myself: I simply don’t have that much gall. To say “I am a Christian” would be to put myself in the same league as people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Friedrich Bonhoeffer, Saint Francis, and others who lived up to the word’s true meaning.

I’m not like those people.  I don’t live up to the meaning of the word, at least not consistently enough to be worthy of it.

I go to church, I take communion, I read Scripture, I pray, I believe in God, and I confess my sins. But none of that makes me a Christian. Instead, it makes me someone who has checked into a spiritual clinic, in the hopes of getting better one day. That’s what the church is supposed to be, you know: a hospital for sick people who need to get better.

Maybe one day I will be healthy enough, spiritually and morally speaking, to call myself a Christian. In the meantime, I will keep taking my medicine and following my Doctor’s orders. After all, that’s what sick people are supposed to do.

The real way to stop abortions

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I always chuckle when someone accuses me of being a “liberal.” Such unfounded proclamations about my beliefs reveal only the ever-present human desire to put people in neat little categories. In reality, my political and religious convictions range from moderate-conservative to middle of the road left, depending on the issue. In fact, I’ve lost more than one “fan” because I refused to toe a straight progressive line.

One issue that I still lean toward the right on is abortion. Except in cases of rape or incest, I simply cannot condone the termination of a pregnancy without urgent medical need. I believe it’s the taking of an innocent human life.

Despite this fact, I have no use for the Religious Right, for the following reasons:
1. I believe its leaders have formed a dangerous alliance with people whose hearts are ruled by greed and the desire to dominate others. Whether they realize it or not, Christian conservatives are the stooges of moneyed interests who have no concern for anything but turning the United States into a plutocracy. The goal of these people is to create a society ruled by the ultra-rich in which the poor are barely able to survive.
2. I also believe that, despite their claims to the contrary, the leadership of the Republican Party doesn’t give a damn about the unborn. They give lip service to the issue because it’s useful for rallying Evangelicals to their side. But, when one looks at the GOP’s actual track record, it’s clear that they have done virtually nothing to stem the tide of abortions. In fact, it can be persuasively argued that their economic policies have caused thousands of women to have abortions who might otherwise have carried their children to term.
3. I believe that, underneath the patriotic slogans and pious speeches, the true motivation of the Religious Right’s leaders is simply to amass as much money, power, and influence in worldly circles as possible. Having done so, I believe that they will follow in the footsteps of despots throughout history and start to reshape society in their own image. Their victims will be anyone they deem as America’s enemies, including homosexuals, liberals, pacifists, intellectuals, and anyone who believes Darwin was right. The results will be yet another attempt to create heaven on earth by using the tactics of Hell, at the expense of millions of innocent lives.

This leaves me, and the millions who hold similar views, in a quandary when it comes to political activism. The Democratic Party is overwhelmingly pro-choice, yet in many other ways I find myself in sympathy with its views and objectives.

Is there any way to reconcile this dilemma, both for me and for all pro-life persons who believe in progressive values?

Yes, there is. It was championed by President Bill Clinton during his terms in office and was summarized nicely when he said that he believed abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” What does this mean? To me, simply the following:
1. Anti-abortion legislation is a dead end that will not stop the practice. This is indisputably true, as no law has ever prevented people who are determined to break it. Whether it’s in back alley abortion mills, overseas clinics, or with a coat hanger, women will still seek abortions. In many cases they will be pressured by men who want the child, and their obligations to it, to simply go away.
2. No woman chooses an unwanted pregnancy. When a child is conceived without being planned, the cause is either a selfish, manipulative male, choices based in the heat of the moment, or idealistic images of motherhood that clash with reality. As with so many of life’s ills, the best cure for the condition is prevention. While this solution will include using birth control, it must also be accompanied by a renewal of time-honored moral precepts. Put plainly, sexual love that is expressed within the context of a loving, monogamous marriage is best for individuals, society, and children.
3. Women should abandon the notion that acting like shallow, sex-obsessed men is somehow empowering; it’s not. Millions of young ladies believe that their self-worth depends on whether or not a guy wants them. This idea comes from many sources, including influences from pop culture, and it should be challenged on all fronts.
4. When an unintended pregnancy occurs, the church has a magnificent opportunity for ministry, by surrounding couples and mothers-to-be with loving support. This will include finding loving adoptive parents for many babies whose parents are either unwilling or unable to provide a suitable home environment.

This approach offers a chance for consensus among progressive-leaning people who differ on the issue of abortion. It can serve as the foundation for efforts that actually reduce the number of pregnancies that are terminated each year.  Best of all, it avoids the endless rancor over legislative efforts that divides people who might otherwise be able to work together.

All that’s needed to implement it is courage and open-mindedness from those on both sides of the debate.  Admittedly, those qualities are in short supply in these ultra-polarized days. But I for one still believe in miracles.

Is Gandhi in Hell?

It appears that the gates of Hell are under assault once again. This time the charge is led by a 40 year old Evangelical minister named Rob Bell. His new book Love Wins has brittle fundamentalists all in knots.

I’ve read it and, as I expected, was left scratching my head, wondering what all the fuss is about. Despite the shrill allegations of his detractors, Bell never says that Hell doesn’t exist. Nor does he use the dreaded “U” word – Universalism.

For those of you not familiar with this term, it basically means that, when all is said and done, every human being who has ever lived will end up in God’s kingdom. It comes in a few different varieties. For example, pluralistic notions of Universalism teach that all, or nearly all, religions lead to salvation (abusive cults such as Jim Jones’s are usually considered to not be “true faiths). But even those who are openly irreligious will ultimately find their way to Heaven in this scheme.

A variant on this position is Christian Universalism. It maintains that Jesus is unique among the world’s spiritual leaders in that he is the means by which all people will be redeemed. It differs from mainstream Evangelicalism, however, in teaching that all persons who ever lived will ultimately come to faith in Christ, if not in this life then in the next one.

For those who want to know more about this position, here’s a link to an excellent article about it:

Article on Universalism

Love Wins never says that Bell is a Universalist. In fact, it doesn’t spell out what he believes on the matter at all. But it does ask some questions that many people don’t want to deal with. That’s one of the reasons that it has been viciously attacked and misrepresented by Evangelical power brokers such as the staunch Calvinist John Piper.

What are some of the questions Love Wins raises? Here’s a list:

  • What becomes of people who live virtuous, compassionate lives, yet don’t become Christians? What happens to them after death? Bell uses the specific example of Gandhi when he brings up this issue.
  • What about those who would have heard the Gospel, but circumstances prevented it? As Bell puts it, “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”
  • Why would a loving God choose to keep anyone in a conscious state of horrific torment for endless eons of time? Even major league bad guys like Hitler and Saddam Hussein committed finite amounts of evil during their lives. How does that rate infinite punishment?
  • Is it possible that Hell is meant to be a purgative and corrective experience, rather than purely retributive? If it is, does that mean that the people in it may one day be released, their characters reformed, their souls ready to experience union with God?

As I said before, Bell doesn’t give us answers to these concerns. He offers them as points to consider when pondering whether the traditional ideas about Hell and who goes there should be reevaluated. For this modest and reasoned effort on he has been called a heretic and false prophet. The editor of Christianity Today even tried to hang that most offensive of terms, “liberal,” around Bell’s neck.

For my two cents, I am firmly in Bells’ camp, though my personal views tend more towards Annihilationism. Below is a link to a page that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know and more about it.

Link to article

The notion that everyone who doesn’t profess faith in Jesus during this life is doomed to an eternity of torment is absurd and repulsive. It makes a mockery of God’s fairness, compassion and love. And, despite what its defenders claim, it in no way is a logical consequence of God’s holiness or desire for justice. Quite the opposite is true.

Perhaps the soundest rejection of common notions about Hell comes from Jesus himself. In the entire Bible there is only one passage that offers a prolonged description of Hell. It’s in the Gospel of Luke I’m posting it below. The text is from the English Standard Version, Luke 16:19-31.

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.

The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’

And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’

But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

A careful reading of these verses brings out several key points:

  1. Jesus goes out of his way to show that the rich guy was a really bad dude. He let poor Lazarus lay in the dirt outside his front door and starve while he stuffed his face. He was no Gandhi. Muhammad, Confucius, the Buddha and countless other moral and spiritual leaders would have found him loathsome.
  2. The rich guy keeps his superior attitude even in the fires of Hell. When he looks up and watches Lazarus being comforted by Abraham, does he say, “Oh my God, forgive me! I see the error of my ways!”? Hardly. Instead he sees a chance to enslave the man who he let suffer such degradation. “Hey, Abraham, send that loser out to get me some water! It’s hot as Hell down here!” This is one cold-hearted piece of crap.
  3. He knew full well that what he did was wrong, even when he was alive and could have changed his ways. Note that he’s aware of the Old Testament; i.e. “Moses and the prophets.” Their writings are filled with exhortations to practice social justice and to care for the poor. The rich man lived his life in direct violation of God’s position on these matters.

The point of the story is obvious. Jesus is saying that divine punishment awaits those who refuse to help others in need, who know full well that they should do so, and whose hearts are so hard that even after death they maintain their self-centeredness.

These details make it clear that he wasn’t speaking of people like Gandhi, a man who devoted his life to helping the poor and oppressed. He wasn’t raising the specter of Hell over the men and women of good will that are found in all faiths. There is no basis in the passage whatsoever for the claim that non-Christians suffer eternal torment after death.

“But Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ supporters of the old view may counter. “Doesn’t that mean that those who die without knowing Him are doomed?” No. It doesn’t.

Let’s assume for now that Christian claims of Jesus’ uniqueness are correct. Let’s agree that no man comes to God the Father except through him, for the moment at least. Even if we allow that, it does not mean that Christianity is the only way to Christ.

CS Lewis dealt with this issue in a beautiful way in his Chronicles of Narnia series. The character Emeth worshipped a false god throughout the series, yet in its culmination Aslan, who was an allegorical representation of Jesus, welcomed into heaven. Emeth, in following truth to the best of his understanding, was in reality giving service to God, although his conception of the Divine was incorrect.

Commenting on this later, Lewis wrote:

I think that every prayer which is sincerely made, even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God, and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ. (Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2007)

The fundamentalist view of Hell is wholly unnecessary to a high view
of Jesus. It also lacks support from the Bible. Why, then, do so many fight tooth and nail to maintain it? Some say that Hell is essential to the church’s mission. “Why would Jesus command us to spread the Gospel to the world,” they ask, “if most or all will ultimately be saved anyway?”

This argument rests on a faulty premise, though. It assumes that the primary purpose of Christianity is to serve as an escape tunnel from this world to the next one. But this is an impoverished view that minimizes the power of Jesus to work in human hearts.

His words have given comfort and hope to marginalized people across the globe. They have inspired civil rights leaders, labor unions, and other movements for social justice. Christ has provided spiritual renewal and moral guidance to millions.

If these things aren’t enough to inspire his followers to carry on his mission, then threats of eternal damnation won’t do so either. In fact the traditional doctrine of Hell has served the church’s enemies well throughout the centuries, and continues to do so. Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins delight in waving it in the faces of those who profess faith in a God of love.

No, Gandhi isn’t in Hell. Nor are the vast majority of people who have lived. Their souls are cradled in the arms of a merciful Parent, who graciously invites we the living to partner with Jesus in making the world a better place. We’re joined in that mission by people of good will from all religions.

This is a far more powerful vision than the one held by the poor, deluded ones, who cling to the tired old ideas about Hell. It respects and exalts the God and Father of Jesus, who, as the Scripture says, desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Knowing that is His will gives us glad reason to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

It’s Time to Raid the Game

In the state of Tennessee there’s a debate currently raging over a law recently passed by the state legislature. It mandates that, in cases of “controversial” topics like evolution, global warming, etc., multiple views on the subject are to be presented in the classroom.

Surely this is something that no supporter of open-mindedness and the scientific enterprise would oppose, right? After all, the ability to listen to and judge the worth of various viewpoints is one of the chief qualities that we strive to develop in our children. Without it, a representative form of government like ours has little hope of succeeding. And so it naturally follows that efforts to expose students to a variety of positions should be supported by persons of all ideological stripes.

Well, at least that’s what I’ve always thought. But then I took the time to read comments about the law posted by self-proclaimed champions of science and free thought. To a person they condemned the TN statute as being “anti-science” and a throwback to medieval superstition. They painted nightmare scenarios of children being taught religion and pseudo-science. They declined to identify the Tennessee teachers who would be engaging in these indoctrination efforts, however. Apparently being a public educator in a southern state is all it takes to be branded a dangerous fanatic.

The comments posted by these “free thinkers” included many examples of common propaganda techniques, such as painting the issue in black and white terms, accusing the “other side” of sinister motives, and distorting the views of those who question evolution, global warming, etc. They used similar methods to defend their version of scientific orthodoxy, proclaiming that “the science community as a whole does not question” unguided evolution, human-caused global climate change, etc.

Statements like these rely on a fallacious form of reasoning known as the “bandwagon argument.” Basically it uses the popularity of a position to claim that it must be correct. “How could so many experts be wrong?” is the essence of this approach.

This ignores the fact that many of our most enlightening scientific discoveries were made by thinkers who dared to question the prevailing opinions of their time. Einstein is a splendid example. As an unknown patent clerk he challenged long-accepted and overwhelmingly verified Newtonian physics, going against beliefs held in inestimable esteem by the scientific community. Of course we know how the story turned out: the obscure Einstein was right, and the consensus of the physics community was wrong.

That wasn’t the only time something like this has occurred. Ideas such as black holes and continental drift were dismissed as crazy fringe notions when they were first proposed. In the 1970s scientists “knew” that the universe was composed of atomic matter. Anyone who disputed that was considered a wacko. Now, of course, we know that atoms and the sub-atomic particles that make them up compose only a tiny percent of the overall mass of the cosmos

Yet none of this occurs to the critics of the TN law. Their concern isn’t for the health of the scientific enterprise. It’s for the interests of their particular tribe, a coalition of militant atheists, political leftists, and cultural xenophobes who, like their simian ancestors, respond to any perceived threat with chest-thumping. In fact, their irrational, chimpanzee-like behavior constitutes some of the most potent evidence I’ve ever seen for humanity’s descent from primal ancestors.

Their reaction is matched in its vitriol only by their equally irrational opponents on the Right, who spout nonsense about the threat allegedly posed to America by gays and liberals. To them, anyone who supports raising taxes is a Socialist, even when this claim is thoroughly debunked by real, self-proclaimed Socialists. Did you know that Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank are war-mongering capitalists? I didn’t either, until I spoke with some members of the Democratic Socialist Alliance.

What is really going on here? Simply this: the vast majority of Americans, be they liberals or conservatives, believers or atheists, rarely think for themselves. Instead they allow their views to be prescribed by the leaders of their particular tribe, who are engaged in a prolonged, high-stakes game with heads of other tribes for power, prestige and wealth.

Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think. – Thomas Edison

The last few decades have seen the rise of many prominent tribal leaders, including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Pat Robertson. Here are a few more: Richard Dawkins, Michael Moore, Sam Harris, and a variety of persons well known in Hollywood.

Look past the opposing opinions each tribal chieftain espouses and you’ll see some striking similarities in their tactics. They take a handful of valid observations, heap on generous amounts of sweeping generalizations and divisive rhetoric, and either ignore or grossly distort their opponent’s arguments. They tell their followers that they are the good guys, and all of the world’s problems are caused by those evil bastards in the opposing tribe.

These methods are used as often in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion as in Jerry Falwell’s Listen, America, which puts the world’s most famous atheist in the same company as one of the founders of the Religious Right. They’re as common in Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men as in Glenn Beck’s Arguing with Idiots. Apparently both sides of the ideological spectrum are now using Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals as their playbook.

For Limbaugh and his ilk, the United States has been nearly destroyed by an unholy coalition of libtards, feminazis, and Socialists. For Moore it’s those right-wing plutocratic fascists who are the true villains. Dawkins says the planet’s ills can be traced to people who believe in God, while Robertson says it’s the Oxford infidel and his disciples that are the real threat to civilization.

Ridiculous opinions have gained a frightening degree of acceptance in our society. Militant atheists rail against the Crusades, while dismissing the fact that faith-based groups have done much good. Conservatives label Obama as “anti-gun,” despite the fact that firearms are just as easy to obtain now as they were prior to 2008. Liberals mock the second President Bush’s stupidity, while proclaiming him the mastermind behind 9/11. For all of these tribalists, their payoff comes in feeling superior to those they condemn. This makes them active co-conspirators with their leaders, whom they reward with fame, power, and riches.

This whole scenario would be laughable, were it not an accurate portrayal of the current state of public discourse. What these intellectual adolescents fail to notice is that, while they are engaged in their endless pissing contests, the edifice that shelters them all is burning down around them. And they’re the ones who are fanning its flames. A democratic nation cannot long exist if it’s composed of ideological extremists to whom compromise is anathema.

These things aren’t simply a passing trend. They’re warning signs of a long, slow decline that might prove Lincoln wrong. Government by and for the people may soon perish from the earth, a victim not of outward assaults but internal suicide.

If self-destruction is to be avoided, than it will require a significant number of Americans taking some rather painful steps. These include:

• Doing a brutally honest self-assessment of the things they believe and why they believe them
• Being willing to test those beliefs against objective standards, and to abandon or modify any that fail to meet muster
• Acknowledging that those in the opposing tribe are, like them, flawed human beings, whose beliefs are a mixture of fact and fantasy
• Becoming open to dialogue with those persons, accepting that along the way they will likely abandon much of their own worldview, replacing it with positions held by their former enemies
• Looking beyond personal ambition, and being willing to sacrifice individual power and prestige for the sake of the common good
• Being humble enough to accept that some things cannot be known for sure, and that, in those cases, the best any of us can do is take whatever leap of faith seems right to us, while allowing others the same option

Making these things happen will require courage, humility, far-sightedness, and wisdom. It will mean enduring the painful transition from loyal tribe member to free-thinking individual. It will force us to critically evaluate any argument, no matter how right it sounds to us on its surface. It will mean facing the wrath of tribal leaders who will accuse us of selling out. It will mean denying our primitive urges to divide ourselves into tribes and go to war. In short, it will mean becoming fully human, and forever leaving behind the ape that is in us all.

Doing these things will not be easy. But they are infinitely preferable to the apocalypse that awaits us if we continue on our present course. The path we take will determine whether our belief in self-government rests on the truth about our natures or on the shifting sands of illusory hopes.