Anyone who is following American politics these days knows that the American President and his acolytes have little respect for what the rest of us consider to be the truth—or at least the best approximation of the truth that we can discern. Last week, while discussing the “lie” of white supremacy that approximately 40% of the American public has bought hook, line, and sinker, I had occasion to reflect again on the relation between traditional religious beliefs and rejection of reason and common sense. As is also well-known the President and his supporters have no respect for factual truth.
In response to a question about how to reach the women who believe whatever the President says, I responded:
I would also say that fundamentalist religion is a big problem because it teaches people to accept things that science and common sense show are not true on the authority of God (who is portrayed as a white male). This teaches people to distrust their own common sense and reasonably reliable facts. I remember growing up with liberal Protestantism and Vatican II Catholicism. In both contexts I was encouraged to think for myself and not to accept everything on the authority of scripture or tradition. Of course when the churches and synagogues encouraged us to think for ourselves, they also opened the door that enabled us to leave. Because we did, liberal and progressive denominations are in decline relative to their more fundamental and authoritarian counterparts.
With these thoughts swirling around in my head, I keep returning to a Ted Talk I came upon a few weeks ago titled “Letting Go of God” by comedian and philosopher Julia Sweeney. In part of her monologue Sweeney describes the visit of two Mormon missionaries to her home. After answering “yes” to the question of whether she believes God loves her, Sweeney listens to the founding story of the Mormons:
Joseph Smith is given golden plates that he translated from “reformed” Egyptian with the help of a magic stone. The plates (which became The Book of Mormon) tell the tale of Lehi and his family leaving Jerusalem about 600 BCE and traveling by ship to the United States. The descendants of Lehi who become the Mormons believed in Christ before he was born. America is uniquely chosen by God. The American Indians are justly punished for rejecting Christ.
With eye rolls and pregnant pauses, Sweeney recounts her questioning of the young men about this fantastic, unbelievable, and to her, morally repellant story. Those who watch her talk would probably agree that she demolishes their beliefs. But this is not the end of her story.
After the missionaries leave, Sweeney reflects on the Catholic doctrines that support her belief or feeling that God loves her. Is it any more reasonable, she asks, to believe that God impregnated a young woman who absolutely had to be a virgin and that she bore the Savior? Or is it, she says, only that we are so familiar with this story that we accept it—despite its being no more reasonable nor morally defensible than the story told by the Mormon missionaries. This, she tells us, was the day she “let go” of the God she had believed in since childhood.
As I recounted above, I was encouraged to question my beliefs in both liberal Protestantism and Vatican II Catholicism. Moreover, no one in my churches believed that God created the world in seven days or miraculously parted the waters of the Red Sea. In my religious communities nothing was accepted simply because it was handed down from the Bible or tradition. On the other hand, in more authoritarian, hierarchical, and fundamental religious churches, people are told that they must believe all kinds of strange and fantastical things or face the wrath of God and eternal suffering in hell.
The reason people come to accept the truth of things that make no sense is because they are told that God is omnipotent and thus he can do anything he wants, including things that are wrong and things that are contrary to otherwise reliable principles and facts. Recently Feminism and Religion contributor Ivy Helman reflected upon the contradictions between the Ten Commandments and God’s later command to exterminate the people of the lands they conquered. Mormon leader Joseph Smith said this about that:
God said, ‘Thou shalt not murder’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God commands is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. — Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 256–257. (quoted from Wikepedia, “Mormonism,” accessed August 18, 2019)
“Whatever God commands is right, no matter what it is” is the moral bottom line of authoritarian religion. “Whatever God does is possible and right” is the fact/reason bottom line of authoritarian religion.
Is it any surprise that being told to believe in a God who violates the norms of common decency and ordinary morality and as well as reason and common sense, is to be be trained, programmed, and groomed to allow his representatives on earth to do the same?
Let us beware of any religion that tells us that God can and does violate the norms of common decency and common sense. This is how authoritarian followers are created and their numbers are legion!
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator currently living in Pachia Ammos, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.