Friday, September 24, 2021

Toxic Religion

Is there such a thing as "toxic religion"? What does this mean? What about the Catholic Faith?

This article at Religion Dispatches caught my eye.And it's tempting to dismiss it, given that there are so many assumptions the author treats as self-evident that are anything but. The most obvious one, it seems to me, is this: if you want to maintain that truth can't be known certainly, then how do you avoid the conclusion that what is truly right and wrong is likewise uncertain? And once you concede that, how do you take any kind of righteous stance against "wrong" or "evil"? Aren't you really conceding that a statement like, "X is wrong" or, "X is evil" means nothing more than, "____ is wrong/evil for me"? It's nothing more than a preference, and why should your preference be imposed? 

If you are someone who can't concede that, at some point, there must be absolute moral norms, then you won't get much from this post. I'm interested in other questions beyond that.

So back to this idea of "toxic" religion. What might that be?

People who talk that way have four things in mind I think:

1) Specific teachings that are "hateful" or "hurtful" toward individuals, because of "who they are" or what they, themselves want or seek.

Most of the time, this is about sex. If you say that some sexual behaviors are immoral, and that being oriented toward those behaviors is unnatural, that's deemed hateful and "toxic." Similarly, if you insist that ones sexual identity is rooted in a fixed reality of biology -- i.e., male and female -- that too is deemed "toxic." 

2) Hostility to free inquiry and thought; being open to what science might tell us about evolution, climate change or vaccines, to cite three common points of dispute.

3) Groups or religions or religious leaders that are too "controlling" -- either in what questions you ask, what beliefs you hold, or what choices you make. 

4) Too much emphasis on guilt.

So let's take these in reverse order.


This is true! 

Christianity certainly talks about sin and, therefore, guilt. We need Jesus because we can't find eternal happiness without him: that's the basic point. Jesus himself said it, and so did the Apostles; the Gospels all say it; and this is what "orthodox" Christianity teaches to this moment, whether big-O Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant.  Some Christians find this a bit much, so you have a more recent idea of near- or total universalism: we'll all end up OK in eternity, so relax.

Meanwhile, there is a legitimately "toxic" tendency -- certainly among Catholics -- to overemphasize sin and guilt. You can see this in many movements through the ages, and any priest hearing confessions can explain scrupulosity to you, and what struggles he faces in trying to dispel it.

Most priests, I think, wrestle with how they frame their homilies and teaching, so as to avoid feeding either extreme. When I stand up in the pulpit, I know some portion of my listeners are "don't worry, be happy" sorts who could use a little bit of fire-and-brimstone; but also listening are fretful folks who fear God will be angry if they stay home from Sunday Mass because, yes, they were sick, but they weren't that sick. Many times I've wanted to give two homilies; and I don't want the first group to hear what I say to the second, and vice-versa.

Meanwhile, there are priests, and particular groups in the Catholic Church, who seem heedless of these issues. Plenty seem to be in the "don't worry" camp; how can they miss all the warnings Jesus gives in the Gospels? Still others write articles and produce videos and booklets that make me wonder: have they never spent time with a scrupulous person? Their exceedingly detailed examinations of conscience are absolute torture for such folks, and end up being training in scrupulosity.

That said, let's admit some core of this complaint is really arising from bad conscience. 

Who enjoys being reminded of ones favorite sins? We're told the Church is "homophobic" and "transphobic" and is "obsessed with pelvic issues." As far as I know, the Seventh Commandment ("Thou shalt not steal") is still a consensus teaching among all varieties of Christians.  While I haven't done that many homilies talking about stealing as such; I also haven't seen many Catholics demanding we "rethink" this doctrine and "bring it up to date." Nevertheless, the Seventh Commandment gets quite a lot of attention from bishops and priests, as regards just wages, questions of "fair" taxation, distribution of benefits to the poor and powerless, issues of "environmental justice," ethical business practices, and so forth.

Yet I am not aware of us being labeled "kleptophobic" or of many saying we're "obsessed" with the issue.  


Again, this is a fair observation. Throughout history some religious movements and charismatic leaders have exerted too much control over the lives of their adherents. 

A very high-profile, recent example would be the Legion of Christ, with it's clearly toxic founder, Marciel Maciel, who used his order to conceal horrendous abuses, including sexual abuse, but also manipulation of his members, who were bound to a vow not to voice criticism. (This is not to demean the many upright people who sought out the Legion in pursuit of holiness, and who sought vocations in the order for good intentions.) 

Is this a particular feature of the Catholic Church, or Christianity in general? It's an old attack on Catholics, that we're all under the control of the pope -- or the Jesuits! -- or our parish priest. I've joked from the pulpit many times that I wish I had anything like the "power" over people -- or weather! -- that people imagine! 

But, seriously, a fair minded observer would notice no pope in almost 200 years has operated without lots of public disagreement; it has been a long time since most bishops "thundered" or "threatened" about anything, and even when they do, few tremble. Has Speaker Nancy Pelosi been the least bit intimidated by her bishop's warnings? 

To be frank, this problem is a pitfall of splitting off from the main body of the Church; and that splitting off can happen precisely when bishops, or the pope himself, has tried to address that unhealthy level of control. When people can set themselves up, independent of any hierarchy or denomination, there's not much control left.

A little tour of recent history -- especially regarding political movements -- will amply demonstrate this is human problem, not particular to religion.

Hostility to inquiry, i.e., science

Again, there is some truth here, to this extent: there are certainly Christians, including Catholics, who buy into the idea that "Science" is contrary to faith, and they are dismissive of scientific ideas that they don't prefer. This includes those who reject evolutionary theory out of hand, and endorse a "young Earth" form of Creationism; also those who are skeptical of climate change, and lately, of vaccines. 

Why this is so is an interesting question, but I want to stay on this main path. 

Nevertheless, I absolutely dispute the idea that any of this is a product of Christianity. "But what about Galileo, hmm?" 

Well, let's set this straight. Without defending how he was treated, the issue with Galileo was not -- it was never -- about studying and learning, or even drawing conclusions. Rather, it was very specifically about drawing theological conclusions. That last thing is what it seemed, to church officials at the time, Galileo was doing. Notice his punishment wasn't death, or to stop learning, but to be silent. Again, not defending it, but let's be clear about that.

And, for that matter, let's also notice that the punishment of Galileo wasn't an exercise of papal teaching authority; it wasn't an infallible declaration. And the proof that it was an abberation is seen in there being pretty few examples to cite apart from Galileo. 

And that was 500 years ago. So all you prove by that example is how terrible it was . . . 500 years ago.


Meanwhile, you have to wear some massive blinders if you look at the sweep of history since the first proclamation of the Gospel to the world on that first Pentecost Sunday, almost precisely 2,000 years ago, and say that as Christianity spread, it brought darkness and superstition and hostility to free thought. 

Is the truth ever "hateful"?

Allowing for all the terrible things that arise from human sinfulness (which is a Christian teaching; if Christianity is wrong about the pervasiveness of sin, how then do we explain the last few thousands years of world history, including but also beyond Christianity?), there remains the BIG QUESTION: is there truth? And if so, WHAT IS IT?

Until you answer that, how can you say any particular conclusion reached by Christianity, about human nature or human destiny -- and the choices that may determine that destiny -- are "hurtful" or "hateful"?

We're told a lot lately that it's "hateful" to say that sex apart from that between a man and woman -- and which is open to the transmission of life -- is wrong. Sinful. Harmful, perhaps in this life, and certainly regarding eternity with God.

Is it hateful...if it's true?

If it IS true, wouldn't it be hateful to say otherwise; or to say nothing?

Let me cite a famous atheist, Penn Jillette. In the video below, at about the 3:30 mark, he asks, "How much to have to hate someone to believe that everlasting life is possible, and not tell [other people] that?"

This is as good a place to concede the obvious: there are some genuinely hateful people, cloaking their hate in religion. Fred Phelps and his merry band of funeral-crashers come to mind, as do the Taliban. 

God help me, I'll never defend either of these groups -- and I can think of others, as can you, to add to this list -- but you know, this only emphasizes the importance of my main point: what, actually, is the truth?

Do you really think it's a workable strategy to tell Phelps, or the Taliban, or the Iranian mullahs, etc., that there simply is no absolute truth? There is no God? There is no hell to warn people against or to save them from? Really? Explain to me why you think that's going to work. How do you propose to convince the Taliban of this?

All you really can prove is that it's all a matter of what provisional, operational "truth" each of us prefers. Mr. Taliban very much prefers his, thank you very much, Infidel! Why shouldn't he?

"Because it's mean." And what is that -- other than your preference?

No, I really think these examples only make it the more important, instead, to say, yes, there is absolute truth, from which we derive certain absolutes of right and wrong, and here's how your actions, Mr. Phelps, Mr. Taliban, measure up.

Mr. Phelps says he's thinking about eternity. So am I. And if you want to counter Mr. Phelps, you better do so as well. 

Back to sex

To large numbers of people, it seems absurd to say that God cares much about human sex lives. But once you start thinking about it, no one could say he doesn't care at all. At least some sexual choices must be wrong, right? So how do you know? Where do you draw the line?

Does it really work to draw it at "consent" -- when, first, this seems to be rather tricky to establish? Not to get gross, but some sexual activities like to play around on the fringes of consent; and how many of the accusations of sexual predation hinge on consent being withdrawn? If you actually read some of the cases arising from college campuses, this is the issue: one party says, in effect, "I stopped consenting" and other party responds, "but that's not what you said at the time."

And, really, are you actually content to say that it's only about consent? People consent to all manner of destructive behaviors with diet and smoking and so forth. Is telling people to eat right, exercise and to stop smoking and taking other drugs "hateful" -- because, after all, they chose these things, right?

What this is all about are the basic assumptions we hold -- which, if we are honest, we may never have challenged, and may not want to. One of those assumptions is that, regardless of whatever bad choices we make in life, it'll all wash out fine in the end. God only sends a few really awful people to hell, if there is even a hell. For the rest of us -- if not all of us -- we end up just fine. So by that measure, who cares what you get up to with sex or drugs or anything else?

Or we operate from the assumption of extreme modesty about what we can know. That is, we say, well, who really knows, so who really can say? Except is that what you do when it comes to caring for the environment? People who are militantly agnostic about sexual choices pivot 180 degrees at the speed of light when the subject is addressing climate change. And I'm not against battling climate change; I'm just asking, which is it? We can't really know, or, yes we can?

So, yeah, there can be toxic religion. That's bad. But there can be a more fundamental toxicity: the closing of oneself off from even the possibility of truth. Either it's out there -- and there actually is a "there" out there...

Or else you are all alone. Nothing at all is certain. Nothing. At. All.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

“The world,” John Paul II said, is the theater of an endless battle that replays the apocalyptic conflict of death against life..” Can it be that “conscience is losing the ability to tell right from wrong? Truth is not a figment of the individual imagination.”