Religion in America is a topic that’s been done to death in books like “American Grace” by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, but a new work has been put out by a Roman Catholic, Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist. He criticizes various forms of Christianity as it has modernized, such as prosperity gospel as well as the God within philosophy popularized by people such as Oprah Winfrey. I find it ironic that a Catholic is criticizing people for distancing themselves from institutionalized religion and taking on more of a “spiritual” angle in their beliefs and philosophy when the Catholic Church is probably responsible in great part for people not having any real love for organized religion, especially as of recently with the child abuse cover up scandals. Protestant churches can be bad too, in their own ways, but the appeal of the more piety based Christian sect is that it’s not about what you do so much as what you believe, which can create a sense of unjustified entitlement in the wake of having a “born again” experience, which is where people start becoming non denominational, because even the evangelical title is too embarrassing. There are a number of reasons that could be speculated on, but I think it’s relevant to find agreement with the author first before continuing on my tirade as to how he’s actually making the problem worse in a sense and not really solving it by some call to traditional religion.
I agree that there are big problems with the types of “heretical” religion he rails against, though calling them heretical is a bit esoteric. I suppose they would be heretical in the sense of breaking off from orthodox teachings, assuming the Catholic Church is orthodox. But the reasons these are damaging to society is more explicit than, say, traditional Catholicism, which I would argue has its own issues to confront. Prosperity gospel, at its core, believes that Jesus will bless you with financial gain, because it is his will. Of course, it isn’t just given to you without some responsibility on your part. You need a combination of faith and donations to encourage this windfall upon you. The reason it poses such an explicit danger is that is appeals to one of the lowest common denominators amongst humanity, our desire for material wealth and gain. If you tell people that God wants to make you rich, then people can get on board with it much easier than if you just tell them that you’ll be rich if you get involved with a pyramid scheme or the like. God is supernatural, so people can make more “sense” out of the creator of the universe wanting people to be prosperous than being taken in by common snake oil salesmen. But if you are motivated to be religious simply because you think your piety will give you money from heaven, then it’s definitely less sincere than if you want to actually help people out of the goodness of your heart and conscience. Not to mention that this ridiculous theology suckers money out of otherwise reasonable people, who are drawn in by desperation and feelings of devotion to some God they felt estranged from. This sort of abuse of power is a problem that exists in any religion, but especially so with such an explicitly profit centered message.
The “God within” theology, popularized by many New Age sorts of thinkers, has its own issues, notwithstanding the conflicts with general classical Christianity and monotheism. When you give a person the idea that they are God in a nominal sense or can find God within themselves, it makes them feel a bit more entitled than they need to. It’s one thing to improve self esteem by saying you’re created by God, but to go so far as saying you have God within you in a more grandiose sense borders on a megalomania and egotism usually only possessed by dictators of the ilk of Hitler and Stalin. I’m not saying believers in this are going to commit mass genocide or the like, but it creates the dilemma of where you stop in terms of trying to improve people’s perception of themselves and encourage self confidence. I’m all for this sort of thing, but all good things require restraint and self control along with pride and ambition. It’s one thing to believe you are special in that God has a plan for you, such as with prosperity gospel or even just a notion that “things happen for a reason”, but it takes religious belief a bit too far in the notion that you are God incarnate, albeit not perfectly. The idea seems to be that you must find God by some sort of purification or meditation. A lot of this seems to resemble Hindu ideas, albeit the notion of people having God within for Hindus is more akin to reconnecting to ultimate reality, though there are likely multiple schools of this theology propagated by celebrities and theologians alike. Any sort of Western interpretation of Eastern ideas, such as the Hindu belief of a connection between one’s atman, your soul in a sense, and the Brahman, the world soul, has potential to miss the point entirely or at least place the theistic and transcendent tendencies of the Abrahamic religions onto what are nontheist and immanent traits of Hinduism and the like, though not always. Hinduism is notorious for being one of the most, if not the most, diverse religious systems in the world. You can be Hindu and be atheist, polytheist, monotheist or henotheist, amongst other possibilities. That reflects on how diverse the religious sensibilities of believers in these ideas can be. Not so much with prosperity gospel, but God within can be vaguer in how you interpret it.
This doesn’t mean that I’m supporting Douthat’s claim that we should return to traditional religion, though. It’s just as damaging, though in a much more subtle sense. The damage organized religion in particular does, along with religious thought, permeates culture more deeply than the recent and modern developments that try to draw people in with more palpable and desirable traits, like wealth and self esteem. The authority of a faith tradition that stands through time for one reason or another is stronger and thus more difficult to pull away from. You feel the pull of a community that gives you a sense of purpose even if that purpose is from outside yourself instead of within. There is a need for answers to your questions of where you come from, why you’re here and where you’re going and the church supposedly gives you some sense of satisfaction. It’s not even the hypocrisy of believers that is the largest issue, as that occurs with any set of beliefs one might have, naturalist or supernaturalist. Traditional religion uses rhetoric instead of logic first and foremost. They speak to a commonsensical, yet often misguided, set of ideas we take to be true because they’ve been held as true for a long time and have benefitted people in many ways. This sort of charisma and gravitas pulls people in and even draws them back in after they leave for the simple fact that they give some form of a structured answer to our deepest philosophical questions and psychological needs. But in doing so, there is cognitive dissonance, psychological turmoil and general inconsistency that could be prevented if we didn’t take dogma and faith as our prime authority in life. I’m not saying you can’t be religious or spiritual in some sense and also be rational, but many times we favor the former over the latter in our daily lives, acting on impulse and intuition rather than any sort of deliberation or debate.
There are other issues I could bring up, such as the over saturation of political topics with religious undertones, but it suffices to focus on what traditional and modern religion share in common in order to discredit them both. I don’t have a problem with you holding these beliefs, but if you try to argue that they have a rational basis at their foundation instead of faith and obedience to transcendent authorities you believe in only based on that belief, then I can’t take you seriously. There aren’t philosophical arguments to show the validity of a system that at its core does not use arguments to turn people, but conjecture and fallacies that we are commonly unaware of because of how easily misunderstood philosophy and logic are in the context of theology. If you’re going to make polemics against New Age religion as it has become interwoven with Christian theology in one sense or another, it behooves you to make sufficient arguments as to why classical Christianity based in tradition and teachings that hold up within the sacred texts is better than what is obvious to a fair segment of the population as fabrications and misdirection. Outsiders can’t take the religion seriously if there is nothing competitive about it in relation to their own, or for those who were raised in secular philosophies, the religion isn’t compelling by habits that made them skeptical to religion early on. Bottom line, religion doesn’t get more credibility or authority by how long it has survived, since any good idea is subject to alterations to appease people who aren’t satisfied, or vague retorts that keep the masses quiet and questioning without breaking away from the flock. Even the allegedly 2000+ year old faith of Christianity doesn’t get a stamp of approval because of the influence it has undoubtedly had on philosophy, history and various other disciplines. It has to stand on merits apart from its faith claims, which means it stands on vague Deism that the founding fathers of America respected as natural theology. But as far as classical Christianity goes, it has beliefs that are becoming more and more outdated and struggling to adjust, which explains why we get money grubbing televangelists and inspiring gurus that tell you to look inside for God. Religion poisons everything, but to quote Paracelsus, the poison is in the dose. Even something normally good can become damaging in excess and even things not immediately toxic can wreak damage over long exposure in small doses. Until next time, Namaste and aloha