God And Country

“My own mind is my own church”
— Thomas Paine, (1737-1809) The Age Of Reason

“God is in His heaven, and all is right with the world”

“If God is everywhere, why do I have to go to church?” The inability of adult authority to give a six year old boy an unequivocal answer planted a freethinking seed that flowered into liberation.

To criticize religion is unkind, like ridiculing a child’s thumbsucking and security blanket. Then why discuss it, since for many discussion is equivalent to critique? Because concepts of God are at the root of attitudes about community, security and power, and these in turn affect our shared external reality — country. Church and State, God and Country, they are never far apart. The ideal would be to keep our Gods contained within ourselves so they do not destroy what we enjoy together. Reality is otherwise.

Belief and Religion

Religion is organized belief in response to psychological need.

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.”
— Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), (1)

There are two aspects to consider, a personal one of belief or unbelief in the existence of God, and the social one of communities of organized belief or unbelief: religions or societies of freethinkers, secularists and humanists. How do the beliefs within these communities affect the politics between them?

First, let us consider belief.

The Age Of Reason

In January 1794 in Paris, Tom Paine began his last important work, The Age Of Reason, of which he completed Part 1 six hours before his arrest by the Jacobins. Paine escaped the guillotine by accident, but nearly died of illness during his ten month incarceration. This patriot of the American Revolution, who had been elected an honorary French citizen and returned to the Convention (in Paris) by three different constituencies in 1792, had seen the promise of the French Revolution debased by the concentration of power, the self-aggrandizement of “leaders,” and a loss of vision and human connectedness by many others. A Robespierre who could believe “I am of the people because I feel all their wants, their hurts, their pains, their sufferings,” was a man elevating himself to godlike heights — with glacial empathy. (2)

Paine’s response was to write about religion because:

“The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of the priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest, in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.” (3)

The Age Of Reason shocked Paine’s contemporaries, even many who agreed with his politics. The nature of his belief was shared by Jefferson, Washington and Adams, but they were careful to avoid any public expression of unorthodoxy. (4)

Paine wrote:

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.” (3)

The incendiary phrase is “and no more.” Paine spelled out the “no more” at length, generally a criticism of the Old Testament from a moral point of view, (4) and a dismissal of the Jewish, Roman, Greek, Turkish and Protestant orthodoxies. (3) Though Paine’s belief is now commonplace, these three words still keep it beyond the permissible limits of many today.

For Paine, belief was personal — not organized — and it informed personal acts, in his case an unwavering opposition to slavery (in America), oligarchy (in England) and unnecessary bloodshed (in France). He was a democrat opposed to cruelty in any form.

The Undiscovered Self

A more recent voice speaking eloquently about personal belief was that of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). He was separated from Paine’s lifespan by 66 years, and from today (2004) by 43 years. Jung had no need of faith, he was an empiricist who observed that natural processes of growth and decay included a natural process of psychological integration, which he called individuation. For him, that this happened of its own was God, and being aware of the process within oneself was knowing. And no more.

“The fact is that what happens to a person is characteristic of him. He represents a pattern and all the pieces fit. One by one, as his life proceeds, they fall into place according to some predestined design.

“All that I have learned has led me step by step to an unshakable conviction of the existence of God. I only believe in what I know. And that eliminates believing. Therefore I do not take His existence on belief — I know that He exists.” (5)

One can hear an echo of Herakleitos (c. 500 BC) in Jung, “Character is fate.” (6) Jung recommends that you dive in, that you know for yourself, and in particular that you “beware of childishness.” And what could be more childish than unquestioning obedience?

“Discovering yourself provides you with all you are, were meant to be, and all you are living from and for. The whole of yourself is certainly an irrational entity, but this is just precisely yourself, which is meant to live as a unique and unrepeatable experience. Thus, whatever you find in your given disposition is a factor of life which must be taken into careful consideration.

“If you should find, for instance, an ineradicable tendency to believe in God or immortality, do not allow yourself to be disturbed by the blather of so-called freethinkers. And if you find an equally resistant tendency to deny all religious ideas do not hesitate: deny them and see how that influences your general welfare and your state of mental or spiritual nutrition. But beware of childishness: whether you call the ultimate unknown “God” or “Matter” is equally futile, since we know neither the one nor the other, though we doubtless have experiences of both. But we know nothing beyond them, and we cannot produce either the one or the other.” (7)

Who was Jung’s God?

“The collective unconscious, it’s not for you, or me, it’s the invisible world, it’s the great spirit. It makes little difference what I call it: God, Tao, the Great Voice, the Great Spirit. But for people of our time God is the most comprehensible name with which to designate the Power beyond us.” (8)

And

“Without knowing it man is always concerned with God. What some people call instinct or intuition is nothing other than God. God is that voice inside us which tells us what to do and what not to do. In other words, our conscience.

“In this dark atomic age of ours, with its lurking fear, man is seeking guidance. Consciously or unconsciously he is once more grasping for God. I make my patients understand that all the things which happen to them against their will are a superior force. They can call it God or devil, and that doesn’t matter to me, as long as they realize that it is a superior force. God is nothing more than that superior force in our life. You can experience God every day.” (5)

The Sound Of One Hand Clapping

What makes Gods godly is their remoteness from human scale. This remoteness is one of power, emotion and concern. The ancient Greeks understood this about the Gods, they could be magnanimous or unearthly cruel, and they could equally well be completely oblivious about our individual fortunes or misfortunes. Jung’s great insight about God was this evenhandedness between the right hand of sweetness and light, and the left hand of darkness and cruelty; the mandala, the yin-yang of the Tao. Jung presented this in his work Answer To Job (1952), which of his writings most disturbs his religiously orthodox critics.

Does the image we have of God or Not-God inspire humility and satisfaction in “doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy?” Or, does the image we have of God or Not-God support a feeling of power and exclusivity, something that sets us above the unanointed with a superior sense to “feel all their wants, their hurts, their pains, their sufferings?” The first attitude as a social norm is essential to civic health, and to this end it does not matter whether any individual’s image is of God or Not-God. The second attitude as a social norm would be the left hand of God playing the religion card.

It is not what you believe that determines the worthiness of your religion (or non-religion) and the merit of your practice, but what you do, how you act, what you support.

If I call the unimaginably vast and ancient, powerful and impersonal universe the superior force in my life — God — and I view my own existence as an insignificance of such scant proportion that mere random chance can easily explain it, do I hold a belief in God that inspires humility and appreciation, even exultation in being alive, or have I crossed over into unbelief? Is there any difference?

The opposition of God and Not-God may be a false dichotomy if the practical outcome for the adherents of each is Paine socialism. If the social outcome is a Robespierrean absolutism, then the belief or atheism of the perpetrators is irrelevant, despotism is despotism. Where under Paine socialism the widest variety of personal conviction and religious practice would be tolerated, despotism would eliminate all competing thought in favor of one compulsory system of belief — a theocracy even if atheistic.

Only those religions or non-religions intent on achieving a Robespierrean absolutism (saving the country, saving the world) will be concerned that their particular form of the God or Not-God image dominates popular attention. If they have a mission, they are a threat to society, a mental health epidemic. Orthodoxy is the enemy of the people.

In April 1961, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934-1968) became the first human to orbit the Earth. During his 89 minute orbit he radioed “I don’t see any God up here.” This led to many apocryphal stories and jokes, like the following. Yuri Gagarin is interviewed by Western journalists after his historic flight. An American journalist asks “Did you see God when you were in space?” Gagarin answers, “Yes, she’s black.” I heard this from Brother Kieran, OSF in my high school biology class of 1966. This was a Franciscan Brother, and it was the 1960s. Another entertaining story is told in (9). Gagarin’s documented quote is included in compilations of interesting quotes about atheism, (10) religion, science, skepticism and nonbelief. (11)

Now, let us consider nonbelief.

Why I Am Not A Christian

“The objections to religion are of two sorts — intellectual and moral. The intellectual objection is that there is no reason to suppose any religion true; the moral objection is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are now and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow.”
— Bertrand Russell, (12)

In 1925 Bertrand Russell published a booklet called What I Believe, “to say what I think of man’s place in the universe, and of his possibilities in the way of achieving the good life.” This booklet, and other writings, were presented as evidence in court that Russell was unfit to teach philosophy at the College of the City of New York. The court agreed and Russell was barred from accepting his professorship in 1941. The successful campaign against Russell was carried on by “ecclesiastical journals, the Hearst press, and just about every Democratic politician joined [in a] chorus of defamation.” Of the sad result John Dewey said “As Americans, we can only blush with shame for this scar on our repute for fair play.” (13)

In What I Believe, Russell said this on the existence of God:

“God and immortality, the central dogmas of the Christian religion, find no support in science. It cannot be said that either doctrine is essential to religion, since neither is found in Buddhism… But we in the West have come to think of them as the irreducible minimum of theology. No doubt people will continue to entertain these beliefs, because they are pleasant, just as it is pleasant to think ourselves virtuous and our enemies wicked. But for my part I cannot see any ground for either. I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian God may exist; so may the Gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them.” (14)

In Why I Am Not A Christian, Russell succinctly demolishes five major arguments advanced to prove the existence of God. A summary might be as follows (C = Christian, R = Russell, J = Jungian Christian):

First Cause Argument
C: Everything in the world has a cause, and the root of this causal cascade — the First Cause — is called God.
R: “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God.”

Natural Law Argument
C: Processes in nature, like the planets orbiting the sun, follow natural laws, pointing to a divine lawgiver.
R: “Human laws are behests commanding you to behave in a certain way…but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave, and being mere description[s]…you cannot argue that there must be somebody who told them to do that, because even supposing there were, you are then faced with the question ‘Why did God issue just those natural laws and no others?'”
C: God did so for his own good pleasure, without reason.
R: Then there is something which is not subject to law, and your train of natural law is interrupted.
C: In fact, God does have a reason for each law, to create the best universe.
R: “You would never think it to look at it,” but if there were such reasons “then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary.”

Argument From Design
C: Everything in the world is designed just so that we can manage to live in it, pointing to a supreme designer, for if the world were ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it.
R: Since Darwin we know that creatures evolve to adapt to their environments, not that environments are created just so for existing creatures — there is no evidence of design. “When you look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world…should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think, that if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?”

Moral Argument
C: There would be no right or wrong unless God existed.
R: “[If] there is a difference between right and wrong…is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer significant…to say that God is good. If you are going to say…that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning that is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them.” If so, “it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but they are in their essence logically anterior to God.”
J: God can be bad.
R: A Gnostic hypothesis — “which I often thought was a very plausible one” — is that “this world that we know was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking. There is a good deal to be said for that, and I am not concerned to refute it.”

Argument For Remedying Injustice
C: The existence of God is required to bring justice into the world.
R: “In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying.”
C: To have justice in the universe as a whole there is a future life, with heaven and hell, to redress the balance of life here on earth.
R: The simplest logic is to assume that this world is a fair sample of the rest of the universe unknown to us, “and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also. Supposing you got a crate of oranges…and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue ‘The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance.’ You would say, ‘probably the whole lot is bad,'” and a similar argument would apply to the universe. “Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice, and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in this world,” which in turn forms “a moral argument against deity.”

But belief in God is not a matter of logic, it is a matter of imprinting and emotion. We humans are very similar to geese (read Konrad Lorenz), we imprint many images and associations very early in life, often our most indelible images and compelling associations. “Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it,” as Russell observes right after concluding his five counterproofs of deity, just described. The emotion is “the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you.”

Russell summed up his own guiding principle this way, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” (15)

Why I Am A Pagan

Lin Yutang (1895-1976) like C. G. Jung was the son of a Christian preacher and seriously considered a life in the ministry, until his college years. The many doubts easily accessible to keen young Christian intellects — who use their minds as intended (if they were intentionally designed) — reached a head for Lin Yutang when he was a college instructor, one day in conversation with a Confucian colleague:

“Why,” I reasoned with a colleague, “if there were no God, people would not do good and the world would go topsy-turvy.”

“Why?” replied my Confucian colleague. “We should lead a decent human life simply because we are decent human beings,” he said.

“This appeal to the dignity of human life cut off my last tie to Christianity, and from then on I was a pagan.”

“It is all so clear to me now. The world of pagan belief is a simpler belief. It postulates nothing, and is obliged to postulate nothing. It seems to make the good life more immediately appealing by appealing to the good life alone. It better justifies doing good by making it unnecessary for doing good to justify itself. It does not encourage men to do, for instance, a simple act of charity by dragging in a series of hypothetical postulates — sin, redemption, the cross, laying up treasure in heaven, mutual obligation among men on account of a third-party relationship in heaven — all so unnecessarily complicated and roundabout, and none capable of direct proof. If one accepts the statement that doing good is its own justification, one cannot help regarding all theological baits to right living as redundant and tending to cloud the luster of a moral truth. Love among men should be a final, absolute fact. We should be able just to look at each other and love each other without being reminded of a third party in heaven. Christianity seems to me to make morality appear unnecessarily difficult and complicated and sin appear tempting, natural, and desirable. Paganism, on the other hand, seems alone to be able to rescue religion from theology and restore it to its beautiful simplicity of belief and dignity of feeling.” (16)

Lin Yutang went on to become a prolific writer, whose works include classics of philosophical commentary like The Wisdom Of Laotse, and of pedagogy like The Lin Yutang Chinese-English Dictionary Of Modern Usage. Lin Yutang’s 1937 bestseller, The Importance Of Living, is a work in the style of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays imbued with wu-wei, the Taoist concept of no-action.

Thinking Is Freedom

Is Russell’s freethinking unbelief of less value than morality compelled by orthodoxy? Russell makes an excellent case for the opposite. Is it possible that what Paine, Jung, Russell and Lin Yutang share is that their ideas of God or Not-God are motivated from their morality and not vice versa? Is it possible that both belief and unbelief are distractions, illusions, maya obscuring the living reality that has any value, which is adherence to the morality of “doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy,” of being “inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” of “leading decent human lives simply because we are decent human beings,” of “discovering yourself” with Jungian diligence, echoing the inscription at Delphi to “Know Thyself,” and Buddha’s dying words to “work out your salvation with diligence.”

Orthodoxy is the death of intellect, and in that there is no God, as Paine and Jung intuit, Russell proves and Lin Yutang eloquently confirms.

Church, Incorporated

Why have orthodoxy and churches?

Church is community, it is what people seek beyond family — or instead of it — to find belonging. At its best, such community can be very warm and accepting, and of great psychological and financial help in times of personal crisis. Many people find great comfort by association with others who mirror their concerns, and with whom they can form cooperatives for educating children and performing good works in their communities.

The church is the physical plant of a religion, which is an organized system of belief, which in turn is maintained by a priesthood or professional ministry who set about creating and interpreting theology to justify their existence, and creating community to maintain the attraction of their churches to ensure the continuing operation of this earthly enterprise. In the United States, religion is defined by the Internal Revenue Service, and religions are tax-exempt corporations. The original quid pro quo of this arrangement was that Churches would stay out of politics, and the State would stay out of the Church treasuries (“separation of church and state”). However, like all corporations Churches have preferences as to government policies, which can affect existing operations, income and the prospects for growth. So, churches engage in politics as the 1940 case of Bertrand Russell, and much else before and since has demonstrated. The role of the Catholic Church as a barrier to social and political reform is historic — read Bertrand Russell. In a recent (2004) article, Gary Leupp describes how the Catholic Church in France thwarted the aims of the Revolution of 1848. (17)

When the Catholic Church became a progressive force with “a preferential option for the poor” in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, it found itself opposed to oligarchy instead of allied with it as had been traditional, for example with Franco in Spain. Then, instead of having national armies protecting the Church, they attacked, murdering its priests and nuns, and even Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Since these Central American oligarchies are extensions of US imperialism, what occurred was a war by the US government through proxies against the Catholic Church. What was true in Rome in 250 during the reign of Emperor Decius was true in America in 1980 during the reign of Ronald Reagan, Christianity seen as a threat to the State was persecuted. The subsequent retreat of the Church is evident in its shift from the liberation introduced by Pope John XXIII and Vatican II in 1962, to the renewed fundamentalism of Pope John Paul II. From the perspective of empire the spread of “liberation theology” among the masses is socialism and not to be tolerated, and from the perspective of the Churches fundamentalism that reinforces oligarchy and the status quo is the surest guarantee of its physical safety and financial security.

Religious orthodoxy is an element of social control and thus of political power.

If we taxed the Churches and allowed them to engage in politics in the same manner as any other corporation, there would be much less confusion all around about both the politics and the religions.

There is a great deal of hate and prejudice that aspires to suffocating political control, and appropriates the language of Christianity to elevate its self-image to god-like stature. Such so-called American Christianity is hate masquerading as religion to operate as tax-exempt corporation, giving an illusion of power to the ignorant, and a vent of cruelty to the fearful.

Orthodoxy opposed to intellect is religion addiction, and of this the United States has a mental health problem of epidemic proportions. We are not the only country so affected. Our “War On Drugs” does not now include the “opiate of the masses” because the present mass addiction serves the interests of the ruling elites.

The Levers of Control

The four major levers of control by any government are: guns (and armaments), money (the supply and use of, including gambling), drugs (including mass psychosis and religion) and women (libido, fecundity). Religions at the service of the State will facilitate its use of these levers.

We can see that people whose God/Not-God image springs from Paine socialist convictions will be most likely to oppose government oppression and oligarchy. They are also the people least likely to contribute to the support of Church, Incorporated, though a good number may be very socially, civically and charitably engaged. These people can be troublemakers because they are inquisitive, outspoken, uncowed, principled, responsible, disobedient, uncontrolling, witty and irreverent.

Being in control is an illusion, but one that obsesses many.

People who are intimidated by the prospect of thinking, who are fearful and seek security, willingly surrender funds, the free range of their intellect and their freedom of action to a higher authority in exchange for protection, also transferring with a sense of relief their personal responsibility for the social consequences of Church actions and policies. Recall Jung’s comment about childishness. They do their duty, follow the obligatory strictures, perhaps complain now and then about “having to go to mass,” or “having to keep kosher at grandma’s house,” but generally coast along without the burden of thinking with its frightening possibility of erupting doubts that would undermine the well-oiled routines of their daily lives and their personal concerns to make money, push their children to success, amplify the comfort of their homes, gain social status and all the usual preoccupations. Their existential problem has been put on autopilot, and many will fly to their graves without once looking back on the settings. For some, “the left hand of God” may pull them up short — a fateful accident, a tragedy — and force them to reevaluate, and out of such crisis to break through the religion spell and discover themselves.

If misery loves company then so does doubt and so does resentment over obligatory religion — if this is salvation, even immortality, where is the joy? Joy is what attracts the charismatics, they find group acceptance to act stupidly, babbling, whooping, writhing and feeling physically excited like children. Perhaps all we need are some playgrounds for adults, some shedding of public inhibitions, and police trained to understand the difference between a natural psychological outlet and an actual public disturbance.

Joy comes with the freedom of using your mind, of “being your own church.” Then you are part of the world, which is both good and bad, but most importantly you are not trying to push it away or control and suffocate it to end its threat to your ignorance — your fear. The politics of religious orthodoxy is an apartheid politics, it projects its fears externally then seeks to contain and punish these projections — sinners and people attributed with lower value — in a delusion that this is an escape to safety, an elevation to prosperity and righteousness.

Jesus had it right when he said “By their works shall ye know them.” Don’t you think he would get along well with Tom Paine, Carl Jung, Bert Russell and Lin Yutang? Wouldn’t that be a fun party to attend? God is the ultimate reality, which we create for ourselves by our own actions. And no more.

Summary:
Concepts of God or Not-God that come from humane morality will characterize just societies.

References

[1] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” lecture of 6 March 1927, printed in Why I Am Not A Christian, And Other Essays On Religion And Related Subjects, edited by Paul Edwards, 1957 (George Allen & Unwin Ltd.), NY: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster, Inc.), ISBN 0-671-20323-1

[2] Howard Fast, Citizen Tom Paine, 1943, NY: Grove Press, ISBN 0-8021-3064-X

[3] Thomas Paine, The Age Of Reason, 1794, see also [2].

[4] Bertrand Russell, “The Fate Of Thomas Paine,” 1934, see [1]

[5] C. G. Jung, “Men, Women, And God,” 1955, in C. G. Jung Speaking, Interviews And Encounters, edited by William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull, Bollingen Series XCVII, Princeton University Press, 1977, ISBN 0-691-09894-8

[6] Guy Davenport, Herakleitos And Diogenes, San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1994, ISBN 0-912516-36-4, see page 9 on Fragment 69.

[7] C. G. Jung, “The Art Of Living,” Gordon Young, Sunday Times (London)17 July 1960, see [5].

[8] C. G. Jung, “On The Frontiers Of Knowledge,” 1959, see [5]

[9] S. Wesley Ariarajah, “Many Voices, One God: Remodeling Christianity for a Pluralistic World”
http://www.tcpc.org/resources/articles/many_voices_ariarajah.htm [active 25 November 2004]

[10] Cliff Walker, Positive Atheism’s Big List of Quotations
http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/quote-g.htm
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (1934-1968) Soviet cosmonaut who, in 1961, became the first person to orbit the earth. He rode Vostok 1 around the Earth (24,800 miles) and experienced weightlessness for 89 minutes. “I don’t see any god up here.” — Yuri Gagarin, speaking from orbit in 1961.
[an extensive site, active 25 November 2004]

[11] Quotations on Philosophy and Religion
http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/quotes_freethght.html [active 25 November 2004]

[12] Bertrand Russell, “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions To Civilization?,” 1930, see [1]

[13] Paul Edwards, “How Bertrand Russell Was Prevented From Teaching At The College Of The City Of New York,” 1957, see [1]

[14] Bertrand Russell, “What I Believe,” 1925, see [1]

[15] Bertrand Russell, “What I Believe,” 1925, see [1]

[16] Lin Yutang, The Importance Of Living, 1937 (William Morrow & Company), NY: Quill, 1998, ISBN 0-688-16352-1

[17] Gary Leupp, “The Wrong Side Wins, Democratic Elections in Historical Perspective,” CounterPunch, 2 November 2004
http://www.counterpunch.org/2004/11/02/democratic-elections-in-historical-perspective/ [active 25 November 2004]

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Originally published as:

God and Country
17 January 2005
http://www.swans.com/library/art11/mgarci29.html

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For Darwin’s views on belief versus nonbelief in God, see:

Darwin’s Living Legacy
13 February 2017
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2017/02/13/darwins-living-legacy/

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15 February 2017:

All religions are expressions of the fear of death.

The greater the ignorance of nature, the greater the likelihood of being a fearful person who believes in a god: a hoped for supernatural protector against the fearful uncertainties of life.

Some people will combat their fears by challenging their ignorance, through reading and study, to learn more about reality. Expanded knowledge gradually diminishes irrational terrors and irrational beliefs, and strengthens the confidence to conduct your life. Such people value gaining insights more than avoiding the discomforts of making personal changes.

Other people prefer to defend their ignorant irrationality — their prejudices and their religions — against the potential enlightenment offered by rational thought and scientific knowledge. They value their comfort in remaining unchanged more than the gaining of insight about reality.

Palestine’s Gift of Christmas

(22 December 2009, slightly edited here)

I am no longer religious, however, the season and the way the people I live among express it prompt these reflections.

A few days ago, I attended a Christmas music choral concert in which my young daughter performed. I think a sense of peace would easily be transmitted by the song “Silent Night” even if all intelligible words were stripped from it so it was a pure vocalise devoid of religious ideas. Music has that power, and that magic. Despite the many shortcomings of Christianity, to it’s credit it has spurred the writing of much good music. Listening to Mozart’s “Jubilate Deo,” I realized it might be better to hear all the familiar Christmas songs in Latin, because then our English (or French, German, or Spanish) language minds would, in most cases, be freed of textual and ideological distraction. For example

Personent Hodie – Andrea & Ella
25 December 2014
https://youtu.be/9QuX4GHgWdc

The concert (not the video above) was hosted by the Mormon Church at its large facility in Oakland, California. The extensive grounds have tall palm trees, an artificial river, and large buildings all festooned with colored lights in a flamboyant display of Christmas decoration that widens the eyes of 10-year-olds; it looks like Oz. My daughter’s group, the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus, had been invited to perform that night as part of a week-long series of free concerts intended to draw in prospective members, as well as to delight the current ones. A very enthusiastic church woman presented me with a brochure describing the concert series and crisply snapped it open while promoting the quality of the week’s line-up. Looking into the blue eyes shining from the weathered face of this energetic, lean and perfectly turned-out woman, I thought of the many Mormons I’d met during my career as a nuclear weapons physicist.

Since Mormons are unlikely to have rambunctious personal histories, are conscientious about pursuing prosperity, and often have good training in administrative and technical fields, they can frequently pass the filters to obtaining high-security US government jobs. I think theirs is the quintessential Yankee religion; a faith of imaginative child-like Wagnerian grandeur, with its creamy, velvety N. C. Wyeth style iconography of a golden-haired blue-eyed Jesus, to inspire its sober, industrious, well-scrubbed, pale-faced people, the inheritors of the Conquest in the North.

I always find it necessary to be patient with enthusiastic Christians, because I know how it is when one has awakened to greater insights and wishes to share, by “saving” others. Christmas tends to be a time of year when such patience needs to be exercised.

Here in the Yankee homeland, where God and the Almighty Dollar are so conflated, a religion is most precisely defined by the Tax Code. Each religion is some mix between feelings of spirituality and a tax-dodge scheme. It is this latter element that motivates churches to fish out new members from among the more “respectable” and “responsible” segments of the population, that is to say people with money. I find it tiresome to be hit-up by the always cheery, always smiling, always “sincere” people on missions, whether implicitly as at the choral concert, or explicitly under the fire of a Jehovah’s Witnesses direct-marketing assault: they knock on doors in targeted zip codes. Overall, I would prefer people to keep their religions private, “zipped up” like their pants as it were.

I realize some will take offense at my criticisms of their religions, but this is of no consequence since I do not advocate legislating discriminatory measures against groups targeted on the basis of personal attributes. I can think and say whatever I like about your religion, or lack of it, and you of mine, so long as we all adhere to the principle of equality under the law, which is enshrined in the Constitution. The purpose of my opinions on other people’s religions is entirely to guide my own life, not to provide excuses for persecuting others. Naturally, I grant everyone else the same privileges of thought, but I also see no allowance for the discrimination against one group because of the religious convictions of another.

This point was contested in California (and other states) this last year, where the more sexually repressed populations of numerous religions righteously exercised that delightful sensation of persecuting people feared as shadows, and seen as opposites and even “unclean,” by the populist political action of banning marriage between homosexuals. Marriage has nothing to do with religion, it is entirely a legal construct that defines the property relationships between the state and: two contracted individuals, their families, and between parents and their children. It happens that homosexual couples (male or female), are just as likely to wish to raise children, to ensure the inheritance and health benefit rights of their loved ones, and to take advantage of the tax deduction for “marriage,” that is to say of paying their income taxes jointly. Why should this matter to heterosexuals, except as a resentment (against “giving away” a financial benefit) brought on by prejudice, envy and greed?

2,500 years ago, Heraclitus wrote that “bigotry is the disease of the religious,” because he must have found enough examples of cruelty and prejudice being justified by religious convictions. It may be more true today. Any honest religious sense would express itself in a charitable and compassionate attitude toward other people, that is to say other “types” of people; and during the month of December in cultures infused with Christianity this is called “Christmas spirit.” Imagine if a real “Christmas spirit” was brought to popular consciousness in North America and Europe, and then focussed onto it’s land of origin, Palestine.

In his history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (1776), Edward Gibbon wrote: “Phoenicia and Palestine will for ever live in the memory of mankind; since America, as well as Europe, has received letters from the one, and religion from the other.” Today, Palestine suffers under an Israeli assault that is in every way like the “Indian Wars” carried out across the United States in the 19th century, to “clear the land” for “progress.” Apologists for this land-theft and population displacement will issue very heated and very convoluted arguments to justify the continuing expansion of Israel, really the continuing invasion and colonization of Palestine by the Israeli Zionists. But we can dismiss all of that, the verbiage of decades, with the clear understanding that what is happening in Palestine is the simple and cruel consequence of an overwhelming force of arms. The Palestinians find themselves in the same situation as the Arawaks and Tainos of 500 years ago: a more powerful and technically advanced European-origined people covet their land. It is ironic that the Christian West that supports this “Indian War” against the Palestinians derives so much of its mythology from a religion born in Palestine.

The Palestinians are historically unlucky for four reasons: 1) theirs is a small, weak, poor and disorganized nation, 2) the Christian mythology of the powerful Western military powers works to obscure the reality of the Palestinian situation, and dull sympathy to it, in too many Western minds, 3) the history of crimes by fascists against European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s is skillfully exploited by Israeli public relations organizations, to badger Western public opinion and sow it with guilt, so as to extract money and acquiescence to Israeli aggression and land-theft, and finally 4) the natural disinclination of any individual or nation to sacrifice his and its comfort to protest, let alone fight against, the exploitation of a foreign people; the reality that most people not directly affected are willing to ignore the elimination of another “tribe.” They will say “how sad” or “how unfair” but they will allow the “Indians” to die out, without acting.

During the Christmas Season, we in the West tell many stories about Jesus Christ, and sing many songs about peace, salvation, giving, “a child is born” and “Christmas spirit,” to brighten the depth of winter and add some emotional warmth to a chilly world. But, this seems to have little practical effect when it comes to countering the Israeli aggression in Palestine. Here in the West, we have our Christmas parties, our Santa Claus for the delight of the children (and of course our commercial ambitions), a seasonal excuse to hear music or go to the ballet, our family get-togethers and dinner feasts, winter sports and church assemblies. Putting Christian charity into practice is an entirely different story, the whole point of our attitude is to give a seasonal nod of thanks for our blessings, and let somebody else get crucified for them. It’s easier if you don’t look and they’re “heathens.”

A few days ago, I finished reading W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Painted Veil,” about an unfaithful British colonial wife, a superficial young woman who unexpectedly finds herself in the midst of a cholera epidemic in southern China in the 1920s. Her husband, a bacteriologist and M.D., is leading the public health effort, and she is instructed and awakened by observing the responses of the different types of human character caught up in this awful reality with her, and by how the existing racist and class social constructs casts each of them. In going out for walks it becomes necessary to learn to ignore the cadavers of natives, which sometimes collect outside against the wall of the colonial residential compound. Doesn’t this sound like the attitude of many of us in the Imperial heartlands, when watching the TV evening news broadcasts where a mention of “Gaza” or “peace process” might occur?

To discuss Palestine at Christmastime, here in the U.S. or in Europe, is to highlight the hypocrisy of so much “statecraft.” Israel was bombing Palestine and Lebanon during the last Christmas season, remember?

I have a personal Christmas story involving Palestinians. About seven years ago on New Year’s Day, I was driving my family to visit my parents, who lived almost two hours away; this was to be our “Christmas” get-together. Suddenly, the car gave out a metallic bang, then immediately the entire drive-train felt and sounded like a rapidly spinning barrel of bolts. I veered off the highway at an exit that was fortunately nearby, and coasted downhill along the exit lane, onto a street, and within a few hundred meters into a service station.

Being a holiday, I had little expectation of much help. I met the owner inside the small office, and asked for a quick evaluation of the car’s mechanical state, and recommendations. With me were my wife, my two older children and my young daughter who was about 3 years old; we were halfway between home and my parents’ house. It was quickly evident that the transmission had broken, and this could not be repaired soon. I commented that I felt like Joseph trying to take his family to Bethlehem, that my donkey had given out, and I might now have to find a manger for the night. The owner quickly perked up and asked: “Have you been to Bethlehem?” No I had not. He had, he was Palestinian and his relatives worked as the mechanics. He thought I might also have been Palestinian because I have a “swarthy Mediterranean appearance” (as one upscale paleface in New York put it years ago).

The owner was very nice, he understood my problem because he, too, was a family man. So, within an hour we had concluded a contract to have my car repaired at his shop (it would take weeks since a rebuilt transmission had to be acquired and shipped) and we were on our way. We arrived at my parents house a little late but in style, in a Mercedes Benz 280 SEL 4.5 sedan. This car was loaned to me, not rented, at the Palestinian’s insistence (“You don’t have to rent a car, I have a car for you. It’s my wife’s old car, she has a new one”).

The repair job would be expensive enough (and it’s held up since). During our stay at the service station (while the mechanics were investigating), my family walked next door to a little convenience store and bought snacks, and the older children played with the baby, to keep her occupied. The Palestinian and I chatted about — what else? — our families, our origins. He was very pleasant and low key, he knew he would make money on the repair job, and yet he was completely conscious of the human dimensions of my situation, and of our similarities: we were both “Josephs,” trying to move our families in safety.

He had a lot of cars on his lot, and he picked out one of the very best for us. I enjoyed the use of that Mercedes for a month, it had style, comfort, room and pep, but that big V8 engine sure gulped gasoline. I could see why he had retired it. Still, I wish I had one again. A month later I picked up our car, returned his, paid our bill, and didn’t see the Palestinian again. Last year, I stopped in to see the station, but it was gone, a new business development occupied the site; nobody knew about any previous gas station. I always think of that Palestinian around Christmas and New Year’s, and whenever I hear the word “Bethlehem.”

One cannot draw any grand international political conclusions out of isolated personal interactions. However, one can be reminded by such interactions that labels, like “Palestinian” or “Iranian” (another story for another time) are not just abstract elements of larger political concepts; they are first and foremost people, most of them good, ordinary, everyday people just like most of “us.” Remembering THAT is the absolute first step to any plan, any action to stop the bombings, the aggression, the land-theft, and the killings in the lands of “Phoenicia and Palestine,” which “will for ever live in the memory of mankind.”

So, in response to any inquiries about my religion, as well as to the Christian sentiments of the season, let me quote myself (from a 2004 essay) to challenge others to try this for religion:

God, let me experience life without thought of profit, preference or death.

Let me know justice, by allowing me to experience the consequences of my acts as others experience them.

Let me know You for what You are: the life in all, the knower, the known and the unknown.

Let me be curious without fear of thought.

Let me be expressive without thought of fear.

Let me be forgiving, an instrument of compassion.

Let me be alert, an instrument of knowledge.

Let me be humane, an instrument of peace.

Let me know truth.

Let me be grateful.

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“Palestine’s Gift of Christmas” was originally published at Counter Punch on 22 December 2009.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/12/22/palestine-s-gift-of-christmas/