Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On Evil and Religion

I've been travelling a bit in the service of the arts and the art of living and so not writing or posting much but I did manange a long comment, a while back, at First Draft, where one of the smart bloggers did a little ruminating on evangelists and their place on the moral ladder. The fact that Oral Roberts will soon have a grave to piss on reminded me of my ruminations, then, and maye serve to explain why I may make a beery pilgrimage to OR's resting place.

It seems I caught the blogger in question being a little too charitable to the Crusaders, the people who, in a sort of wilful or lazy throwback to the Bronze Age, still believe in magic, monsters, miracles and messiahs, and who, moreover, want to make the rest of us conform to their putative beliefs. Now, in the spirit of Xmas, let me just say I think all of us except psychopaths have a religious impulse (even if the best of us express it in a skeptic's Shakerish work-is-prayer mode), and I have no problem with any dogma insofar as it makes people more humane, ethical and tolerant -- as the faithful are fond of claiming it does. But insofar as religion doesn't do these things or subverts them, I'm all for strangling the last king with the entrails of the last priest. So, anyway I sez to the blogger:

I don’t understand why you (and so many Americans) are so quick to exonerate evangelicals, unless it’s the product of our general sentimental fondness for ‘old time religion’ – for others.

You write:

“You can argue about how fucked up that vision is, but you can't say that the people who believe in it are cynical exploiters; they really do think that they have the ultimate answer, and that the world would be better off if their vision prevailed…. Wrong, sure. Evil, no.”

But I think this is flat wrong, and its error is based in a common misunderstanding of evil. Evil is not some conscious Hannibal Lecteresque delectation of malice, not cynical or demoniac machinations. Evil is much more universal and banal than that, more a matter of criminal negligence, of failure in due moral diligence, and eschewal of the examined life, and especially the cumulative, collective, synergistic effect of these among masses of people.

Sure, many fundamentalists of all stripe are sincere. But Hitler was sincere. Many of his followers sincerely thought the world would be better without Jews. And many today think the world would be best rid of blacks, Tutsis, Moslems, queers, abortionists what have you. But their sincerity does not exonerate the evil of their views or their actions, just as it doesn’t exonerate the Nazis or slaver owners or Inquisitionists, none of whom, in point of hard fact, were monsters. They were just plain old, tacky, home-made evil. They couldn’t be bothered to reflect on the moral dimensions of their acts.

Most evangelicals and/or fundamentalists are similarly (if not so dramatically) evil it seems, too bone-ignorant to realize that their program has been tried often in the past and invariably has led to atrocity, or so flawed as to be almost incapable of questioning their own premises or motives, and, in either case, in denial about how the absolute power they crave – the power to make others “do right” in their most private lives – fundamentally corrupts those who even seek it.

All of us make leaps of faith (even if it is faith in empiricism and logic) and mine is this: I think that real moral progress can be made, and in fact was made, when the world’s first explicitly secular nation was declared in America. To the degree that we regress into religiosity we undo that progress and turn away from the project of freedom.

People who worship a king in Heaven will be invariably eager to see his authoritarian proxy here on Earth. Do not underestimate the evil that this does, and do not shrug off hatred just because it’s sincere. Recall Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Read Harper’s Jeff Sharlet on the topic of evangelicals in the government, military, and Blackwater. And then think about whether evil is afoot here.


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