BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Religion and Civilization

Delivered by Gary Bennett, May 8, 2005

Imagine this:  you are surrounded by loved ones, without inflated egos or scrambling for rank, wealth and power.  Private property is limited to the decorative or personal.  There is no “marrying or being given into marriage,” not in our economic sense.  There is plenty to do, but it is meaningful labor.  You toil until the task is done; then everybody rests or celebrates.  You feel a good kind of tired, because it is work your body was designed to do, neither grinding you down nor dehumanizing you.  Fruits and nuts are there to be picked from the trees and bushes; game is plentiful.  The land flows with milk and honey in Earth’s Great Garden.  Best of all is the sharing with friends of poems, stories, gossip, jokes; discreet flirtations and wild romances; mountaintop experiences of shared religious ecstasy or the serenity that comes of deep understanding.

This may not be your vision of Paradise, but it has commonly been so for peoples throughout the ages.  Some, like the Jews and Greeks, had it as the Golden Age at the beginning of the world; others, like Christians, Moslems and Marxists, made it the outcome at the end of History.  The Greeks might argue Eternity is for abstract souls; and some might fill up Heaven with the kinds of things that bore us silly on Earth.  But there is a part of us that deeply craves a proper existence, one we never seem to get in this life, of intimacy, acceptance and meaning.

This Heaven also resembles real hunter/gatherer life for millions of years of our ancestors, at least “on a good day;” there were ups and downs, times when the game was scarce, the berries poisoned, the milk soured and the honey got you stung.  The Serpent in the Garden was agriculture, which began to encroach about 10,000 years ago.  It did not win because it was attractive to the nomads:  the ancient Hebrews, originally a nomadic tribe, called it the “curse of Adam;” and farming cultures have often lived in fear of having their own children “go native.”  Agriculture won out simply because it could support far larger populations.

Human nature was shaped in a fiery caldron.  Without a strongly cohesive band of adults watching over the young and passing on skills and lore, humans were the most helpless of animal species; with such bonds in place, humans were so successful that they could think about other things.  Our normal behavior does not make sense in a usual Darwinian model – why do we spend time gossiping with neighbors instead of foraging for dinner? – unless we understand that it is the result of ages of strong selective pressure for socialization.  There were several different genetic adaptations toward this end, including a retooling of sexual behavior and a hard-wiring of language abilities.  Religion was also part of this extreme makeover of humanity.

Part of our religious hard-wiring provides additional positive reinforcement for group bonding.  Being intensely involved with the group makes us feel good.  Have you ever wondered why you wonder?  All of us crave to understand our place in the scheme of things.  Why am I here?  What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?  How was the world created?  How will it end?  Why do evils like drought, scarce food, disease and dangerous animals exist?  What are thunder and lightning?  Tell me about death and what comes after.  The fact that we consider these questions important is itself odd.  No other animals ponder such questions, because doing so does not enhance survival.  Yes, all animals attempt to avoid danger and death, but mostly by instinct.  Thinking about death, fearing it, obsessing over it, does not make humans more likely to survive; brooding about death may in some cases even decrease survival chances.  But our questions cry for answers, and to get them we need other people, if only to agree with us – so bonding gives us something we need.  The road to serenity is found in The Mysteries, rituals that promote secret and sure understanding.  We may claim to value scientific knowledge, but science is always tentative, and it does not satisfy the soul.  You could make a religion out of science, but the content keeps changing, new explanations replace the old, and this lack of absolute certainty leads to anxiety. The Mysteries may even be physically addictive.  We lose ourselves in them; the sights, sounds, even the smells are designed to please the senses.  Sex and mind-altering drugs may also have a part.  In America we have had Jim Jones, David Koresh, Philadelphia’s MOVE and the Comet Cult; each exercised psychic power over adherents to the point of mass suicide.  But for many serenity itself is the sweetest gift, the “peace that passeth understanding.”  And none of this makes any sense whatsoever in conventional Darwinian terms; knowledge of the real world should always beat delusion and thus lead to higher survival rates.

Let’s look at the underlying problem.  Selfish behavior will always produce more progeny than unselfish behavior; so it should always be selected for, in social species as in any other kind.  Cheaters should out-breed cooperators; those who live to fight another day should inherit the earth, tearing it from the cold dead hands of the brave and self-sacrificing.  Sociability should be steadily undermined, until the species goes extinct.  Bees and ants found one workaround:  cooperation, hard work, altruism and self-sacrifice on the part of workers do not result in fewer progeny, because workers are always infertile; those traits are of value to the queen; so the queen which passes on the most altruistic genes to her workers will have an edge.

Our human ancestors took another path.  The original mechanism was clumsy:  if your tribe got too anti-social, it would drop out of the gene pool, and leave a niche for tribes that hadn’t.  Religion is a more elegant response.  We are wired to carry within ourselves an image of what society and pro-social behavior should be, idealized images from our childhood – unselfish cooperation and affection among members of the group. Some of us may be more tolerant and flexible than others, but all are wired to defer to “elders” who feel and express the “conservative images” most strongly.  Reactions are triggered by extremely selfish or antisocial behavior; the group takes action against the deviant, through ostracism, exile or even death, but the end result is always exclusion from the gene pool.  Extraordinary courage and sacrifice are also reinforced :  “none but the brave deserve the fair,” we say.  In hunter/gatherer society, these mechanisms kept human sociability, cooperation and altruism stable over vast ages.

In the change to herding and farming, there were many dramatic changes, but the fundamentals of relationships changed little:  it took a village instead of a tribe to raise a child; there was still a rough equality of wealth and status; religion continued to be a shared monitoring for selfish behavior. But by 3300 BC, cities had begun to appear in Mesopotamia, piling village next to village, complicated by individuals who belonged nowhere, all in a chaotic mess that could not be controlled by tradition.  The first rulers, known as priest-kings, arose out of the bureaucracy which handled religious rites and duties.  Mechanisms of religious monitoring were co-opted for maintaining political control.  Orthodoxy in religious belief and practice was the same as political loyalty to the state; religion was used to guarantee that most citizens would be passively obedient.  Reciprocity of rights and responsibilities, an integral part of human society from its origins, was gone.  Some people became tools to be used by others; and the earliest human governments were among the most despotic that have ever existed.

Thus began “status quo religion,” the use of human religious instincts for the benefit of an elite.  Thousands of years later Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, hoping the piety of the Christians would shore up a decaying civil society.  I could not begin to list all the times religion has been used or abused this way, but one is of local interest:  in England of the Enlightenment a scientist, political reformer and Unitarian minister named Joseph Priestly was burned out of his home and almost lynched by a priest-led “Church and Crown” mob; he came to America for the safety of our wilderness; we lucked out that he shared his ideas and beliefs as well.  Before our Civil War, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches split nationally, with their Southern branches remaining loyal to slavery and the planter class.  Strange but true: an instinct evolved to protect intimacy, self-sacrifice and sociability in human society has in historic times mostly been used to protect the interests of power elites.

And then there is the modern Religious Right.  Fundamentalism among evangelical Protestants dates to the early part of the past century as a reaction against Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  William Jennings Bryan was a political liberal; but as the most respected Biblical literalist of his day, he was dragged reluctantly into being spokesman for that cause and so became branded forever, not as one of great heroes of liberalism, but as the foolish villain of Inherit the Wind.  For all that,  Fundamentalism was still a fringe movement in my own youth.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s Nixon initiated the first “wedge issue” campaign, his “Silent Majority.”  Fundamentalist Protestants and Catholic Hierarchy, whose predecessors have spent the last 500 years trying to exterminate each other, were forged into political alliance by Radical Right operatives:  mailing lists were assembled; evangelical ministers courted and tempted with power; moderately conservative denominations like Southern Baptists were hijacked – vulnerable because they used the same democratic process as Unitarian Universalists.  So began the modern campaign to use status quo religion to forge an American Fascist Movement.

Where the religious instinct originally was used to monitor the behavior of individuals, wedge issue politics today use modern methods of persuasion, mass media and coordinated attacks, to arouse anxieties and feed off them by generating an endless succession of issues, each painted as a reaction to some incredible attack on traditional values.  News and entertainment media have long been used to this end, though not for political purposes; they make grisly crime stories their meat; much of the public can be entertained indefinitely in anticipating an equally grisly vengeance.  But modern propaganda techniques have also managed to elevate to the highest levels of public importance such things as never ending wars on drugs, wardrobe malfunctions, celebrity peccadilloes, steroids in sports, teaching science in science class, teaching sex in health education class, and in fact almost anything which might suggest that sex continues to exist and motivate human beings, yea even unto the current generation.

The Terry Schiavo case is wedge issue politics at its most obscene.  Her higher brain cells were long dead, and she had been in the limbo of a persistent vegetative state for 15 years.  An army of doctors supported this diagnosis; an endless array of judges supported her husband’s right to terminate medical intervention.  But what was the message delivered by television news  coverage?  Endless video footage that was known to be falsified, an endless stream of libelous attacks on her husband’s character, all trying to persuade us that this was a vibrant young woman on the verge of waking up who was being subjected to a slow tortured death by inhuman secular liberals.  Attacks on the Constitution, death threats against judges, laws riding roughshod over separation of  powers and Federal/state divisions, laws aimed at specific individuals – the Constitutionally forbidden letters of marque; most frightening of all, the total disappearance of any principled opposition in Congress left judicial integrity as the only barrier to government gangsterism.  The roles played by news media and government officials would once have been unthinkable; now they are routine, expected.  Some believe the Right overplayed its hand because polls say three-quarters of the American public disapproved; but the experience of recent decades says that the frenzied faithful have long memories and turn out in elections, whereas much of the three-quarters will have forgotten the whole business in a month.

In what was once the world’s premier democracy, these become the stuff of the news and of public discussion, replacing health care, job creation and disappearance, deficits in government budgets and in the balance of trade, Social Security prospects, war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, population growth and the depletion of the world’s resources.  The point of wedge issue politics is not to solve problems, for a problem solved is an issue lost; it is to keep the passions constantly at a fever pitch and overwhelm the democratic process.  Rational discussion, even on areas of profound disagreement, has always been the lifeblood of democracy, but it is also poison to status quo religious manipulation.  Your opponents must be painted as deviants and perverts, not even fully human really; their very existence must fuel your outrage.

If status quo religion were all that remained of our instinct, we might conclude that religion had become a dangerous atavism, that we would be better off in a totally secular world.  Many liberals in fact seem to have reached such a position, equating secular vs. religious with enlightened vs. troglodyte or even good vs. evil.  That’s pretty much what the fashionable blue state/red state thing is all about – people on both sides of the political fence who believe that wedge issue exploitation is the only way that religion can be part of politics.

But status quo religion is a perversion, not the impulse itself.  The standard by which hunter/gatherer humans judged each other was not just the idealized world of their own childhoods, a relativistic norm that would vary from culture to culture:  it was an ideal world of tribal cooperation, unselfishness and intimacy.  History is filled with prophets who judged their societies not by the needs of rulers, but against the ideal vision of life we carry within us.  When the power of their voice matches the strength of their convictions, the world trembles, and sometimes it changes.  The prophets of ancient Israel attacked their societies in times of social and economic injustice.  “Woe unto those who are at ease in Zion,” said one; of others, it was said that they comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.  Judaism itself gained a commitment to social action it has never lost.  Jesus argued for a life built on love and compassion, sought out the company of losers, pariahs, and announced that it were easier “for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Early Christians often lived in other-worldly hippie communes.  Much the same happened with early Islam; and social justice has been a central part of that religion ever since.

In America, the power of prophetic religion has produced major positive changes at least three times.  In the years before the Civil War, most Bible-thumpers who considered the issue at all were against slavery:  many courageously faced death in delivering their message.  To get a sense of what inspired them, read the original words of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, reprinted in your bulletin.  Mrs. Howe as a Unitarian was not usually so bloodthirsty.  She worked for the cause of peace through most of her life; and it is worth noting on this Mother’s Day that the original idea for this holiday was hers – a Mother’s Day for Peace, in which the women of the world exerted their gentle influence to stop the waging of war.  Yet slavery was such an evil it was worth fighting a war over as God’s chosen avengers.

Two generations later, in a time disturbingly like our own, with both political parties owned by corporate money, with corruption, cynicism and despair everywhere, a young William Jennings Bryan – yes, he of the Scopes Trial – electrified the Democratic Convention of 1896 with a politically grounded, religiously impassioned keynote speech in which he pleaded that his countrymen not let Mankind be “crucified on a Cross of Gold.”  He and his followers made common cause with reformers of a more secular bent, forged the Democrats into a party of reform, arcing from New Freedom through New Deal to Great Society before finally losing their way in the last generation, as they stopped speaking to the needs of the whole nation and started seeing only voting blocs, electoral coalitions and a comfortable status quo.

The third example was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, when Martin Luther King and others were able to share a vision with America of a great crusade for justice and equality, not merely group interest politics.  The Segregationist Deep South never got that support from its own ministers, and so its cause was lost; even white Southerners understood at the deepest levels that their cause was wrong this time, and so the battle was already half over.

Would we then be better off without the religious impulse at all?  We have seen that it  can be positive as well as negative in political impact. When it is a negative force, as in recent American politics, some other group is probably manipulating religious feelings for its own purposes.  But an equally important question:  is there an alternative?  What does it mean to be secular?  Is this a uniformly good or bad force in the world?  The secular has probably been around from the beginning, making up our underlying personality traits, with religious behaviors superimposed.  All of us, even the various kinds of saints, probably live in the mundane world most of the time; the difference is that for saints, the context of daily life is shaped by their great religious life choices.  And religion has always been more important to ordinary people than to their rulers – which led Karl Marx to his cynical comment about religion being the “opiate of the masses.”

What is new in the world is whole cities, states, civilizations where the pious have become exceptional and religious arguments taken less than seriously.  Perhaps America’s great cities have reached this condition – the mountains of hagiographic prose about popes in the last few weeks might suggest otherwise – but we should be able to see the differences, as the BuxMont building straddles a fault line between the blue world of Philly and the red world of small town Pennsylvania.  Nobody questions that Europe has become secular:  actually Europeans and Americans seemed to be on a similar path toward secularism after 1870, but have diverged sharply since World War II. What leaps out from the data is that low and falling birth rates seem to correlate strongly with more secular societies.  Fertility was in slow decline in both regions from early in the 19th century, though always higher in America, through the 1920s and ‘30s; but where Europe continued in the same pattern, the United States had a major baby boom from the ‘40s to the ‘60s, with aftershocks ever since.  Internally, American fertility rates vary enormously:  Mormon Utah and the Hispanic Southwest have very high birthrates, New England and the great cities of East and West Coasts, very low rates.  Fertility and devoutness correlate closely, but politics is trickier: higher birth rates among African Americans and Latinos, for example, do not correspond to more conservative political views except on social issues.

Why would birth rates matter?  Religious instincts developed in the first place to ensure stability in the group that protected and educated the young; without the presence of children, perhaps some of the triggers for religious behavior do not function normally.  We do observe that many young adults return to church life after becoming parents.  If this is so, the predicted dropping birth rates worldwide over the next few generations may create for the first time a secularized world.  Would this be good or bad?  Secular cultures do not necessarily make better or worse moral choices than religious ones do.  To me, many European nations have consistently since 1945 made better political and economic choices than the United States; most Quality of Life indices rank these countries above us and the gap widens each decade.  These choices apparently come from completely secular moral systems.  Yet it was also an increasingly secularized Europe after 1871 that was a seed bed for materialism, racism, Social Darwinism, militarism, fascism and communism – of all these only fascism has a strong religious component – and ended in slaughters running to the tens of millions in World War I, World War II, the Holocaust and Stalinist Russia.

While I am definitely a blue in the present culture wars,  I am uncomfortable at how much racist and Social Darwinist ideas from a dreadful past have slipped back into vogue among liberals, many of whom believe that the greater Kerry vote in blue states occurred because people in those states are intellectually superior; some have even quantified this – with charts that show the average Massachusetts resident having 30 points more IQ than the average Mississippian.  If any real test showed such divergence, it would indicate a defective test – societies do not vary this way.  If you are unconvinced:  the New York Times broke down the demographics shortly after the election:  increasing levels of income and of education (through bachelor’s degree) correlated closely to voting Republican – as they have in every other election where data have been collected.  The total effect of wedge politics was to reduce the blue margin among the poorest and least educated and to increase the red margin among the richest and most educated.

So let’s conclude that neither religion nor a secular outlook automatically leads to doing the right thing.  If you are concerned about wedge issue politics, as I am, then work to control big money spending, money that buys politicians in both parties, that buys enormous amounts of lying and manipulative advertising, that undermines independent journalism while creating phony news organizations and phony reporters – these corrupt political practices have much more to do with the decline of American politics than the passions of evangelicals do; and the people who spend the money are religious only in front of an audience.  And if money is so out of control that the integrity of American politics cannot be restored in any conventional way – then perhaps we should all pray for a return of prophetic religion – the only vision which cannot be bought or corrupted, cannot be lied to or manipulated, which cuts through all pretenses, all humbug.  But our chances of reawakening the prophetic religious vision in America would be considerably enhanced if we actually learned to speak the language of religion ourselves.

Originally I had in mind that this service would be my credo, my personal Summa Theologica.  I ended up revisiting basic questions of the causes and effects of religion in human behavior.  But now that we have reinvented wheels right and left, front and back, maybe we can get a proper theological train of thought going.

I don’t know if there is a God, but I have staked my life on three bedrock beliefs that are unpopular in American views of religion:  first, God cannot be a deceiver – if we have been given the ability to unravel the universe, it cannot be merely a trick to confound the wise and elevate the irrational and ignorant; secondly, God cannot be a cosmic sadist, condemning most human beings to eternal damnation; thirdly, God does not depend on our groveling adulation.  These are some of the worst of all character traits in human beings; they are unimaginable in what God must be.  The patient and humble methods of science are a surer guide to truth than are sacred texts of primitive peoples or arrogant men who claim they are chummy with the Almighty.  The universe is billions of years old, developing according to comprehensible laws; humans got the way they are over long ages of evolution by natural selection.  Neither of these facts is incompatible with Intelligent Design, if your concept of God is sufficiently vast – and I find the question unresolvable; but it’s pretty thin stuff to base a science curriculum on.

If God doesn’t need our worship to be fulfilled and doesn’t punish non-believers, then His  or Her existence may not be the most important question for us.  If finding the right answer were crucial, we should have been born with the tools to find it; and we would not have had as many dogmas as there are people to dream them up.   What we do need to know is hard-wired:  we are here to need one another, accept one another, embrace one another; there is no better way to love and honor God, Whom we have not seen, than to love and honor other people, whom we have. Many theologians have said this, including Jesus:  “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”

I personally do not wish to go back to the Garden of our hunter/gatherer origins.  Western Civilization in the last 500 years has enriched human experience immeasurably by its discovery of the Individual – and we would be diminished to be forced back into the pressure for conformity in the tribe. Also competitive capitalist economies have unleashed great wealth and innovation, to which we have become rather addicted.  But if the end result of the path we are on is to turn the whole world into nothing but a vast competitive arena, a war of all against all, with only buying and selling left as a bond between one person and another, then we are on a path to catastrophe, because we are warring against all that made us human in the first place.  We shall see an endless succession of rebellions, fundamentalisms, random violence by the alienated, senseless rage everywhere.  What our religious sense never stops telling us, the poet W.H. Auden said best:  “we must learn to love one another or die.”

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