04/10/2007 04:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Reply to the Pope's Easter Message

The last time I wrote about religion, I got put on an enemies list by
someone whose name I don't know. I was the 87th greatest enemy to
America! My mother and uncle were worried that I was going to be shot,
but my own view was that if I was America's 87th worst enemy, then
America had nothing at all to worry about. The thesis of my offending
article was that the mental effort of reconciling all of the
contradictory events and statements of Scripture is so confusing to
those who believe in the literal truth of the Bible that eventually
they simply have to give up trying and let ignorance prevail. This
seems logical to me, not incendiary, but incendiary is, of course, in
the eye of the beholder. I did not refer to the fact that any
translation of the Bible is an interpretation, and in fact, the Bible
in English cannot possibly be literally true, since it wasn't
originally written in English, but this brings me to my present

As I read various articles defending or attacking religion (they have
them all the time in the Guardian), one thing I've noticed is that no
distinction is made between faith and religion, when in fact they are
not the same thing at all. Faith is a subjective experience of a
relationship and a state of mind, while religion is a set of
institutionalized forms and doctrines, and religious organizations are
often in the business of making money, owning property, and making
social policy. Religions depend upon individual professions of faith,
but faith remains a private matter, akin to love or any other state of

With these distinctions in mind, I think it is possible to understand
how secularists such as myself can find religion off-putting and even
dangerous. Over at Salon this week, there is an article about Elaine
and the newly translated Gospel of Judas. Professor Pagels has
written very clearly about the formation of the Catholic Church as we
know it (and Christianity, too, in some sense) through the inclusion
and exclusion of various accounts of Christ during the Councils of
Nicaea and other Christian assemblies of the Fourth century AD. At
that time, certain beliefs were codified and others excluded. This was
an argument that had real world consequences--when the doctrines
became codified and taught, the Church was on its way to becoming a
force in the world. When, 1100 years later, the Reformation took
place, in many places in Europe, the wealth and power of the Catholic
Church was as significant as, or more significant than, notions of
faith. Henry VIII of England, for example, took over the English
monasteries almost immediately after he broke with Rome, and once he
had distributed their wealth to his allies, there was no going back,
whatever the beliefs of his subjects. Humans, whatever their faith,
use religion to accumulate power. Ironically, many holy figures,
including Buddha, including Jesus, and including Francis of Assisi,
begin their ministries by arguing against such an accumulation of
wealth and power in God's name, and reasserting the claims of faith
over those of religion. But religions always supersede faiths--there
is too much lucre at stake for vows of poverty to endure. In some
societies, the governing elite simply annexes the religious elite, or
vice versa, and complete power is established over the people of that
society. In the case of fallen empires, such as ancient Egypt or the
Inca Empire, we don't question why this is so, or even that it is so.
It does seem to be the case though, that the natural human arc of
religion is toward empire, and therefore toward temptation,
corruption, and the enslavement of some groups for the benefit of
other groups. When I am asked by various religious organizations to
"respect" them, I always wonder why I should respect them any more or
less than any other wealthy and powerful institution. Be wary? Yes.
Watch my step so that I don't incur some sort of punishment? Yes. Stay
out of the neighborhood so that I might not make some foolish mistake
that would lead to me getting hurt? By all means. By the same token,
were I to voluntarily engage with this institution, of course I would
observe their accepted forms of human courtesy. I would attempt to
ascertain them and then abide by them. When I was a child learning the
Nicene Creed (thinking it was a poem, not a promise or a declaration)
I wore a piece of lace on my head inside the Church because not to do
so would be to flout the norms of the group and the place. But I don't
understand what the word "respect" means in this context. If the
institution does not act in an honorable fashion, if it has a history
of cruelty and inhumanity, it may arouse my fear, but not my respect.
Most of the religious institutions of our day DO have histories of
cruelty and inhumanity, and, in some cases, crime, but they ask me to
respect them anyway, because of faith.

Faith is an entirely subjective experience. If I don't feel faith
toward a particular doctrine or figure, then there is no way that I
can be made to feel that faith. The strongest demonstration of this
reality was the Protestant Reformation. Luther, Calvin, John Knox,
John Wesley, and the others showed by all their activities that they
could not be made to share the subjective experience of Catholic faith
as described by the Church. When I am asked to respect other people's
faith, I actually cannot do that, because I can have no idea of what
they are talking about--it is their experience, not mine. The closest
I can come to respecting their faith is to respect whatever they say
or demonstrate that their faith is, as well as respectng their right
to have that subjective experience. Nevertheless, faith, like love or
obsession, is a very powerful feeling that sometimes impels people who
are having it to attempt to impose it on others by, for example,
"witnessing" or "testifying". To witness or testify is to enter into a
social interaction. In most cases, both parties to a social
interaction, such as a conversation, agree to it. With social
interactions based on faith, though, there can be an element of
coercion. Someone who constantly witnesses to his or her subjective
experience of faith is like a stalker in that he or she is imposing
his or her emotions on others. This is why I am so suspicious of
Evangelicals--first, they want you to share (supposedly for your
benefit) their subjective state of mind (an impossibility), and then
they want you to give them money--to enter into the religion part of
the faith/religion duo.

The most interesting thing about this, to me, is the fact that my
subjective experience of faith or no faith is considered threatening
by many of those who profess faith. This effect is certainly
understandable when religious leaders are protecting their worldly
assets, but it is not morally defensible--it's just human. When the US
was founded, there was a reason that the framers of the Constitution
declared that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". They were not
talking about faith--they had, however, seen what religious wars did
to Europe, and they also knew that they themselves held a variety of
faiths.To wed the government to a particular religion was, I suspect,
simply too dangerous and unwise given the passion of faith and the
power of churches.

In our own time, we see the arc of the power dynamic in the
Evangelical churches. Once more or less peripheral in relation to the
established churches, they have, in the last fifty years, become very
wealthy and very powerful, and not by accident. Now they want to
dominate because they suspect that they might be able to. When the
established churches had more money and more adherents, the
Evangelical churches didn't make the claims on the government that
they now do, and their doctrines have changed, too--they have embraced
the worldly goods they once disdained.

It seems obvious to me that globalization and religion are on a
collision course. The world we live in is the thirteen colonies writ
large, but our leaders don't have the good sense that the founders
had. Fundamentalists of all religions keep announcing to the rest of
us that they want to attain more and more earthly power--the Pope
wants to re-Christianize Europe; Islamic clerics want to Islamicize
Europe; American Evangelical missionaries were busy immediately after
the the first phase of the Iraq war attempting to convert Muslims,
Anglican prelates in Africa think they can get rid of more liberal
American Episcopalians. None of these efforts demonstrates the
"respect" toward others that all of these religions demand for
themselves. But their common enemy is us secularists. Our attempts to
get the faithful and their religious superstructures to simply back
off and leave some blank public space where daily life can proceed
without coercive "faith" or greedy "religion" are seen as the ultimate
insult. But the Founders were prescient. They saw that forcing a
diverse (and well-armed) citizenry into a single religious mold would
be an impossible task. How much more impossible today, with six
billion even better-armed world citizens! If there is a "salvation",
then the secular world is it. But maybe there is no salvation; maybe
what our era will prove is that monotheism must fail as a human
experiment, given the inability of individuals to see past their
passions, and the inability of institutions to inhibit their own
expansion. I am sure whatever religious group or faithful follower it
is who explodes that big bomb and kills all those innocent people will
have some excuse, some reason why in spite of all appearances, that
individual or group is innocent or holy or pure. God will have told
them to do it. Oh, I mean, the ego-mania they call "God" will have
told them to do it.

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Lowe calls "Our Atlas of the Novel". Thanks!