Saturday, January 1, 2011

Religion: The Good, The Bad and the (Living) Dead

Happy 2011, everyone and, according to my recap, I’ve done 60 blog posts since I started in February of last year. Someone should check against this, since I’ve never been good at counting. So in a little under two months, I’ll be getting to my first year anniversary. I imagine I’m the most excited in this realization. Not even sure anything special will come of that date yet.

Following up on my post a few weeks ago on religion’s connection to a person’s happiness, two professors of religion, David Campbell from Notre Dame and Robert Putnam from Princeton, released a book in October called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us and the conclusions on religion’s relation to society are intriguing. I’ve reflected on religion’s positive points even with the differences my own family has in Christian denominations, from Baptist to Presbyterian and anything else that exists in Tennessee. I was raised in a relatively diverse church environment, though my general exposure to Christian diversity was pretty small, only about 4-6 different flavors of Christian thought, including Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, Cumberland Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Christ. But from what the study suggests, the deep religious commitments of my extended family might enforce some civility and consideration of others having even more radically differing beliefs.

There were three points they observed in studying years of surveys. The first was that America is by far the most religious country in the world, even with an observed rise in people that say they have no religion, many of which are still well studied on religion; myself included as one who would probably conclusively say I have no single religious community I associate with. The second point is that more Americans are likely to have changed their religion at some point in their life; and we’re not talking denominational gaps, we’re talking radical paradigm shifts from Christianity to Islam or Judaism or in my case, Christianity to Deism to Buddhism. Considering this, people are more likely to have friends and family members of different faiths. I’m probably the only self identified Buddhist (?) in my family, I have three Wiccan friends, as well as a self identified Deist and a Laveyan Satanist. The result over time is that Americans are less and less likely to outright condemn any faith, merely agreeing to disagree. My family members may be concerned with my apathy towards the existence and nonexistence of God, but will understand that I still share many of their ethical tendencies, such as caring for the poor and loving your neighbor and your enemies (Like Jesus said, right?). The last point, which astonishes me the most, is that people are less likely to think that those family members of different faiths are “going to hell”; which makes potential family conversations about faith easier if they even somewhat reflect it.

I don’t think I’m the best example of the “Aunt Susan” archetype they propose: someone who’s kind and generous, charitable and a general paragon of virtue. The “Aunt Susan” type is believed to be so good natured and emulating divine virtues that there’s no way they could go to hell. This might explain why the interfaith dialogue that naturally exists in America is less prone to explosive frustrations, which grants us a civility many other countries lack almost entirely or have devolved from. The only difficulty that exists in a religiously diverse country such as America is the presence of fundamentalism, insisting that people adhere to a strict form of religiosity, almost legalistic in a sense. This strikes me as ironic with many fundamentalists being very critical of what they call “Churchianity”, a Christianity that says that as long as you are a good person and follow particular rules, you’ll go to heaven. But these same people that criticize a Christianity that emphasizes ethics over belief are guilty of an inversion of what they find objectionable; emphasizing correct belief over correct behavior. This orthodoxy/orthopraxy division is probably the biggest wedge in the dialogue of faiths in America.

A decision in Fort Worth, Texas brings the legal difficulties of religious advertisement in America to light. Their transit system has enacted a new policy that bans all ads with religious material. This was in response to a slew of negative response (in Texas, a large Christian center of America, not too distant from the Bible Belt) to an ad not unlike the one I blogged on about the celebration of reason in relation to the Christmas myth. A bus ad saying “Millions of Americans are good without God” required a great deal of time directed to confronting people’s bad reactions. The basic message the department is trying to send is that they are not being hostile to any nonreligious group because of the ad funded by the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason; nor are they being antagonistic to religion and the importance it has to society. It’s a decision of prudence regarding the publically funded organization’s goal of aiding people in transportation needs instead of having anything to do with religious issues, even through privately funded advertisements. This might seem extreme to many people that are used to seeing religious symbols and messages on the road, such as in my native Tennessee, where I always remember seeing crosses on the roadside as well as billboards from churches reminding me of an almost unspoken rule of thumb in the Bible Belt: non Christians can be tolerated, but only if they keep their faith to themselves and don’t try to practice it publicly.

This decision strikes me as objectionable on the level of the country as a whole being what some have termed a “free market of religions”; that is, the management of faiths and the government are distinct and separate so that there isn’t any feeling of pressure towards choosing one religion that is sponsored by the state over others. In this way, religion in America has grown more and more diverse and, more importantly, liberated from excessive control over its practice. With this policy in place, it seems like a large leap from a basic censorship that naturally exists between church and state within American secularism to a prohibition against the use of any ads with any religious content. This might wound the sense of freedom of religious practice and speech that is granted on some level to a church to fund their own ads, and instead, completely silences them from using the medium of transportation to even temporarily advertise something regarding such an important area of life as religion and faith, along with irreligious groups. Texas just keeps making bad decisions it seems, though luckily not on anything of a monthly basis, but it’s been at least twice a year. Let’s hope 2011 is Texas story free for once.

The final story is more bizarre, concerning a recent rise in television and movies of the zombie film genre popularized as early as the original Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The general consensus among philosophy and religion scholars is that zombies are at their core, a representation of our deepest fears including death, decay and desecration as the article puts it. Zombies are, in a shorthand definition, corpses that are reanimated with a simple instinct in mind, eat human flesh, or more particularly, human brains. Perhaps it extends to any other living thing’s flesh/brains, but for simplicity’s sake, zombies are only interested in humans. There have been other similar popular features alongside zombies, the vampire coming to mind. On an interesting side note, a webcomic I follow called Last Blood actually connects these two undead creatures in an unexpected fashion; zombies in this comic are blood starved vampires. The two are, therefore, interconnected and yet startlingly different in that vampires possess something in common with humans, judgment and reason. Zombies, for the most part, excluding the First Zombie, a schaemiac (whatever that is) which has consciousness and judgment even when passing on the zombie virus, are mindless puppets.

Over time in films there has been a division of types of zombies by fans. There is the slow walking form, what I might call sloth zombies, and there are those that are almost like berserkers, not reacting to any damage to them except serious trauma to the head, commonly called rage zombies. In both cases, we have the manifestation of the dangerous tendencies of humans, either becoming little more than hollow shells following animal instincts or losing our humanity by a similar “sin” of wrath and becoming maniacal engines that will not stop unless they are torn limb from limb. With this in mind, “zombie theology” and such has a dark side in our considering our worst fears and imperfections, but also considers that there are times when we must make difficult decisions, though shooting a rotting corpse might be a bit different than shooting someone who has simply gone into a rage. Either way, I suppose the religious aspect is something to consider, since with vampires, as a parallel to zombies, there was hysteria surrounding them in the Middle Ages that led to many superstitions and folklore that still persist today such as the use of crucifixes and other apotropaics (vampire wards), derived from a religious culture of Christianity in Europe.

The relevance of all these religious aspects, from the social and communal aspects; to jurisprudence and law; and even more fantastical and psychological considerations of the life of faith and its connections to the “profane” world we live in, cannot be denied or completely shut out of life. But we should take these topics in a spirit of moderation, neither seeking to completely eliminate them or make them the sole force in our lives. Religion has its place, but it’s neither at the bottom or the top of the proverbial pyramid and we shouldn’t treat it as either. Until next time, Namaste, aloha and Happy Gregorian New Year.

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