A Separation

“Religion even at its meekest has to admit that what it is proposing is a “total” solution, in which faith must be to some extent blind, and in which all aspects of the private and public life must be submitted to a permanent higher supervision.  This constant surveillance and continual subjection, usually reinforced by fear in the shape of infinite vengeance, does not invariably bring out the best mammalian characteristics.  It is certainly true that emancipation from religion does not always produce the best mammal either…Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize.  But it can apologize for them, and also correct them, in its own terms and without having to shake or challenge the basis of any unalterable system of belief.”  — Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

Admittedly, I have a large place in my heart reserved for Christopher Hitchens.  In constant conflict with religious and atheist people alike, he managed to maintain a calm, rational, and logical argument for a moral system utterly independent of any religious influence.  It is no easy task and one that I cannot say I have been able to maintain in my ongoing quest to make clear the irrationality – no, impossibility – of religious belief and its canon of contradiction.  In fact, I am often so terrible at remaining calm when discussing the “values” of religion that I prefer to leave my opinions unsaid and let my acquaintances believe what they believe (as long as said beliefs are not imposed on me in any way).  Lately, though, it’s been tough to ignore the cries of the faithful rallying around their leader of choice, be it Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, or Benjamin Netanyahu.

It is far too simple to address the problems inherent in individual belief systems.  I could elaborate on Romney’s LDS church’s allowance of members to baptize around 300,000 Holocaust victims and Nazis in the 1990s or its ban on black men (women being entirely out of the question) from holding the priesthood until 1978(! What a coincidence that the heads of the church happened to receive a “revelation” that allowed them to change this rule).  In a recent interview in the National Catholic Reporter, Rick Santorum commented: “All of us have heard people say, ‘I privately am against abortion, homosexual marriage, stem cell research, cloning. But who am I to decide that it’s not right for somebody else?’ It sounds good,” he said. “But it is the corruption of freedom of conscience.”  This is a man who believes that he is morally obligated to force his own (Catholic) beliefs on everyone else.  He also believes he should have the right to do this as President of the United States.  If they were not obligated to despise each other because of each others’ religions’ desire to be sole and total, Santorum and Ayatolla Kahmenei would get along quite well.  Both support totalitarian causes that only succeed, by the explanation of their founding texts, when all else is subjugated and carefully monitored.  And it is even more interesting that while opposing the restrictions that Sharia law have placed on minorities and women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States and about half of its population continue to support Israel, a state formed on a mandate from god (another god who is supposedly universal while only supporting his own belief system) and ruled in part by the super-religious.  A Jewish woman seeking divorce in Israel must go through rabbinical courts in which the divorce is only final if the man gives his consent.  If he does not do so, the woman is “chained” and can no longer remarry or give birth to “legitimate” children.  But all these issues are impossible to argue over – many people far more brilliant than me – Hitchens, Bertrand Russell – have tried and have been met with excuse after excuse from religious people the world over.  What must be picked at over and over is religion itself – the basis, the backbone of all of these totalitarian systems.

This brings me to the speech by John F. Kennedy that Santorum so elegantly claimed to have thrown up after reading.  Here is the entire speech: 9/12/1960.  Kennedy begins on a positive note (religiously speaking) and reaches a high right about where Santorum felt so bilious:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

This is wonderful and precisely how it should be.  Unfortunately, many disagree.  But Kennedy, despite his remarks, was a Catholic, and there lies the problem – that religion at all has entered in his discourse.  Further on, he says:

“Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot

This is nice, isn’t it?  And we’ve heard it from all sides.  Here at Amherst, we are participating in Barack Obama’s Campus Challenge Initiative to promote interfaith relations – but the term “interfaith relations” is an utter paradox.  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, and so on – each contains at least one claim by a supposed superior being who states that he is the only superior being and no other superior beings must be worshipped or even considered.  “Interfaith relations” exist as a happy fantasy of the religious and the frightened atheist but unfortunately we are trying to solve a Gordian Knot of a problem: peacefully coordinating multiple totalitarian systems with each other so that their leaders and members may coexist happily.  We’d do better to take an example from Alexander the Great and simply cut the Knot in two, “solving” the problem by getting rid of it entirely.  Unfortunately, and I will quote Hitchens again, “This…has been about the oldest argument in human history, but…[as] I was engaged in writing it, I was forced to break off and take part in the argument as it was actually continuing.”

He says:

“Religion has run out of justifications.  Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.  Where it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard…the measurable advances that we have made.  Above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man, and woman.  However, only the most naive utopian can believe that this new human civilization will develop, like some dream of “progress”, in a straight line.  We first have to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection.  ‘Know yourself,’ said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy.  To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and prepare to fight it.”