Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, luminary of Quawwali singing, a form of worship from Sufi Mystic Islam, where they repeat lines praising God until they reach a nearly ecstatic state. If you give it a chance, it's actually quite amazing. Our man Nusrat has an amazing voice; Quawwali singing is a tradition that's been passed down through his family for six hundred years! Even Jeff Buckley paid his respects to him.
To read this essay in the context of the other parts, go to the previous essay, or the table of contents.
There's a babble of voices these days, see, where so much information is coming at us from every direction that it becomes difficult to even look at most of it, much less investigate, inquire, and discern spirits. While wading through such an overload of input, the difference between a voice I attend and a voice I ignore can be razor thin. When competing with so many other voices for people's attention (to say nothing of trust), the voice of faith and spirituality needs every bit of help it can get, and can barely afford any clutter before it starts losing credibility.
There are different ways a voice can gain influence: the threat of violence, the potential for profit, the sheer power or extremity of the rhetoric, the sheer number (or wealth, or might) of the group speaking (a billion Catholics can't be wrong, can they? What if a billion and three Muslims say they are?), the potential to help one/many/the world toward some goal (world peace, environmental sustainability, personal profit, peace of mind), the qualifications and history of the speaker (when the Dalai Lama speaks on human rights, more people listen than when Kim Jong-il does). All these things can increase the volume of one's voice in the babble. Some of them increase the volume at the cost of credibility (like people who use violence to demonstrate their beliefs), while others increase their volume through credibility.
With so many voices out there, the voice for faith must actually be what it claims to be: this is the first step toward legitimate moral authority. Every time religion gets mixed up in politics, or money, every time any religion attacks something it doesn't understand (science and art come to mind) instead of engaging, it loses credibility: we appear stubborn and disingenuous, angling our spiritual claims into political or financial power, to protect our interests, or to suppress ideas that make us uncomfortable. I would never trust a church which had a tithing chart on the wall to shame members into giving the full 10% (as one of my students' mothers' church does): how could I know whether the pastor gave me godly counsel, or just flattered me to maintain his meal ticket? When Korea's new President names Somang Church deacons to important positions in his government, or George Bush says stuff like this, it makes religion look like a way to get ahead, a card to play for political points, rather than a worthy pursuit of holiness, or an example of the kingdom of heaven on earth. It's at the point, here in Korea, that when church leaders start talking, a lot of people automatically start looking for the angle. In a country with so many Christians, having a church that often seems more interested in political influence, publicity, money, outperforming other churches, and inflated membership numbers, over community, integrity, and help for the helpless is an outright tragedy!
Faith gets dragged through the mud when people tack religion onto their agendas in a play for a little extra legitimacy. Religion's credibility and moral authority is in tatters, when it should be the very engine of our claim to legitimacy, and the longer we let all this agenda-poisoned, disingenuous angling pass for religion, the less religion will be able to compete with other influential voices, that are what they say they are.
It's no wonder Dawkins wants to picture religion as a disease in human society, of which humanity is slowly curing itself. Imagining that the aforementioned duplicity will eventually end is a hopeful, cheerful wish for the future indeed! Baby nothing, this bathwater is emitting mustard gas!
So what's to be done, eh?
Well, here's the ten point list for restoring our credibility. Yes, I'm gonna be prescriptive.
1. Head for the front-lines: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the sick, visit the prisoner, fight for social justice everywhere. Don't wait for video cameras to show up: just do it. While I don't know enough to speak for the other major religions, the most respected Christians of the last century were Mother Theresa, who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, helped the sick, and visited the prisoner, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for social justice. Pope John-Paul II and Billy Graham might come next, and both of them may have faced criticism for this and that, but they also both were exactly who they said they were.
2. If we don't understand it, don't talk about it. There are very smart religious people in every field of knowledge, who have well-informed and worthwhile views on everything from Harry Potter to Creation to the moral questions raised by medical technology that can keep a person alive long after they would have died back in the days when religious positions on euthanasia were originally formed. Let's listen to them, and support them, instead of wading in over our heads! If I meet another Christian who says "I haven't read them, but I'm sure the Harry Potter books are all about the occult, so you shouldn’t read them, either," I'm gonna scream. (Also: respect other fields of knowledge for what they do. If I meet another Christian who flatly says, "I'd never see a counselor: I'm a believer!" I'll scream, too.)
3. Stop being satisfied with "well, that's what I believe." Nobody else is satisfied with that answer, so if we want to get beyond, "I guess we'll have to agree to disagree," we'll need to dig up something a little more convincing.
4. Recognize that fundamentalism is not only off-putting, but too inflexible to respond to a quickly-changing world. (See here if you disagree) -- fundamentalism turns faith into a foxhole where we hide, when a framework of belief ought to be a hill on which we stand to get a better view of things. Once faith began repudiating society, rather than working in and with it, we started the long march toward irrelevance.
5. Find a positive definition for who we are and what we believe, instead of a negative one. Instead of focusing on how the others are wrong, or bad, let's create and maintain a positive community, where the communal and spiritual benefits of membership are so obvious that recruiting is unnecessary. Instead of writing hate letters to Richard Dawkins, let's get our butts into the community and help so many people, in such tangible ways, that non-religious people stop nodding their heads in assent with Dawkins, and start exclaiming, "Who is this clown? Has he ever actually met a Christian? Why doesn't he attack groups that deserve to be taken down a notch?"
6. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the sick, visit the prisoner, fight for social justice everywhere.
7. Get mad, real mad, and loud, when people use religion and religious language for personal, political, social, or financial gain.
(by the way, if religion must get political, we need to pick our battles better: it is an outrage that the Christian lobby in America is fighting against gay marriage and supporting the war in Iraq, rather than lobbying with every ounce for universal health care in America, help for the poor, and social freedoms everywhere. So what if Christians were called "bleeding heart liberals" when they opposed slavery -- it's better than getting tied in with Bush's oil crusade.)
8. Get mad, real mad, and loud, when people preach hate, murder or fear, while waving religious flags. The world needs to know that we are just as offended as they are by Fred Phelps, and his ilk, and that they are a lunatic fringe, in no way representative of the majority of religious people, who are decent, moral, and helpful, and loving: these people are the straw man I mentioned in part three. Instead, we need to get behind people like the writer of this letter, and represent. If we don't hold the wackos accountable in-house, we'll be grouped with them.
9. Get on the right side in the LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgender/Transsexual) debate. Every other time a group was oppressed, disenfranchised, or in need, Christians were on their side offering compassion, love and support, until this one, and it’s hurting us. As my friend Mel said in an e-mail once, "We're on the wrong side on this one." Doesn't "I cried for hours when I heard about that gay teenager who got beaten to death" sound a little closer to the Godly compassion we're told to have than "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." (Jerry Falwell) or "[Homosexuals] want to come into churches and disrupt church services and throw blood all around and try to give people AIDS and spit in the face of ministers." (Pat Robertson) Who are these guys and what have they done with my faith?
10. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the sick, visit the prisoner, fight for social justice everywhere.
Soundtrack: hit play on Huun Huur Tu, the Tuvan Throat Singers who are like nothing you've EVER heard before.
On Modern Religion's To Do List for finding a way spirituality can jive with the Global Village and the Information Age: Here's where things get harder. We have to do something about these dilemmas; if we bend too far, then we don't really stand for anything, but if we're unwilling to bend, we're irrelevant, because we can't contribute anything to a dialogue if we aren't also listening.
Engage with: art, other religions, humanities and science in a way that doesn't condemn, condescend to, inherently repudiate, or attempt to establish primacy over any of them, and that is more meaningful than simply "agree to disagree." Religion is no longer the core value of society, and the faster we adjust to this, the better off we'll be.
Recognize that the polemical passages in the holy books were written at times when religious groups needed to band together in the face of persecution, or to create a good strong "in-group" feeling that helped them fight off the raiders from the hills, and do not fit in a global village with quickly dissolving borders. It's a new world, where "us" meets "them" every day, such Amish-style segregation or cloistered fear of the "other" no longer washes. Think really carefully about such passages, and how they ARE used vs. how they SHOULD be used, if at all (we've stopped following other parts of the bible; I'm sure it's the same for the Quran). The world will allow us to keep repeating the same "we're right, they're wrong" points. . . but our audience will shrink with each repetition, until religion as we know it will remain only in quaint little pockets, neatly segregated like the Pennsylvanian Amish now, and ignored except as a novelty.
Recognize that the world is very different than it was when the holy books were written and when the organized religions' infrastructures were designed. We must adapt or fade away: an overly rigid top-down model is too cumbersome for the quick shifts of the information age. We need to recognize and empower grass roots movements, and make information freely available. In the age of transparency, being authoritarian and mysterious breeds mistrust instead of a sense of sacred awe.
Think very carefully about the arrogance inherent in any claim to be the "one, true religion," and how often one's religion mostly depends on one's birthplace and family. Think long and hard about what kind of creator would send all Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Jews, Christians, Atheists (basically, all Notmygroupians), to hell, basically because they had the misfortune of being born in Saudi Arabia, Thailand, India, China, Israel, America, or France, instead of in Myculturesville. Think long and hard about how the claim God would send every Muslim to hell for the sin of being born in the Middle East or North Africa, makes God look a little arbitrary and capricious, and also kind of reeks of 19th century colonial arrogance. Think about the possibility (and the hope) that God is subtle enough to see beyond a checklist of signifiers ("Baptized? Check. Communion? Check. Sinner’s prayer? Check. Went to church every Sunday? Check. OK, You’re in." "You? Sorry. My name's God, not Allah. You wanted to serve me, but you were reading the wrong book. Tough nuts for you!") and actually read the heart. Think about the parable of the blind men and the elephant.
(a sidenote tangentially related to the previous point:
One final thought about Richard Dawkins and his book:
I must say that I respect Dawkins' integrity in qualifying even the chapter that "has contained the central argument of [his] book" (187), by titling it "Why there Almost Certainly Is No God" (my emphasis) rather than "Why There Is Definitely No God" -- to qualify even the statement he most passionately believes to be true shows an impressive accountability to the other side, to the possibility that he might yet be wrong. One of the things I respect about the scientific method is that scientists always know exactly what it would take to change their mind about a topic: compelling evidence. If faced with that evidence, any self-respecting scientist WOULD change sides.
This might sound like a petty swipe, but I sincerely wish I saw such "I don't think I am, but I still might be wrong" intellectual integrity and humility in more religious debates and inter-faith dialogues; things might go a little more smoothly if we did.
Create a framework that is integrated and useful. By integrated I mean NOT saying "Here's the sphere of religion; here's the sphere of art; here's the sphere of science, and never the twain shall meet," but one that acknowledges all aspects of being a human, alive and learning, in the modern world, and finds useful ways that each aspect can enhance and inform the others.
See, I think organized religion can be really good. It can offer people a chance at connection and community; it offers a hope for the future that'll get you through the deep valley, when applied properly and compassionately. It provides a concrete moral compass as well as a community that can be around, ready to help when the things get confusing, or when the feces hit the fan. It can connect people with opportunities to make a difference in others' lives, to help others in concrete ways, and it can inspire them to get involved. These are all good things, and I (unlike Mr. Dawkins) am convinced that despite having been abused, and despite some hiccups of intolerance and ugliness, the world IS better because of religion's influence through history.
Yeah, things look bad right now, and it's time for a splash of cold water and an honest look in the mirror for pastors, priests, imams, rabbis, monks and everyone else who is responsible for saying of religion, "This is what we are." It's time for a calling to account of those who are manipulating religion and the religious for their own ends. It's not too late.
You know, the only time in the Bible that we see Jesus fly into a full-blown rage is when he was cleaning the money-changers and crooks out of the temple: the people who used the name of God for their own personal business made Christ himself see red! When religion has become a lever for financial or political gain to many, let's ask again, "What would Jesus do"? He would have stormed into those bastards' offices and started flipping tables!
To survive this atheist attack, faithful readers, it's time our religious institutions did the same.
Update: My friend tamie is a beautiful human being, in all the important senses of the word, and she writes beautifully about why religion, why going to a church (or a temple, or a mosque) IS a good thing. Don't take it from me; Here's why faith can still be relevant.
To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents.