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Politics and Religion: Final Thoughts (for now)

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As alluded to in recent posts on this topic, religion remains a potent force in U.S. politics. In the middle east also. But in Europe, Canada and much of Asia, not so much.

Even in this country, voters who are religious (as opposed to religious voters) are growing less monolithic in their voting patterns, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

The GOP held on to voters who attend religious services more than once a week, 60% of whom voted Republican compared with 61% in 2002. A majority (53%) of those who attend church at least once a week also supported Republicans. But less frequent churchgoers were much more supportive of Democrats than they were four years ago. Among those who attend church a few times a year, for instance, 60% voted Democratic, compared with 50% in 2002. And among those who never go to church, 67% voted Democratic; four years ago, only 55% did so. As a result, the gap in Democratic support between those who attend church more than once a week and those who never attend church has grown from 18 percentage points in 2002 to 29 points today.


The GOP held on to voters who attend religious services more than once a week, 60% of whom voted Republican compared with 61% in 2002. A majority (53%) of those who attend church at least once a week also supported Republicans. But less frequent churchgoers were much more supportive of Democrats than they were four years ago. Among those who attend church a few times a year, for instance, 60% voted Democratic, compared with 50% in 2002. And among those who never go to church, 67% voted Democratic; four years ago, only 55% did so. As a result, the gap in Democratic support between those who attend church more than once a week and those who never attend church has grown from 18 percentage points in 2002 to 29 points today.

Congressional Vote (House) by Worship Attendance, 2002-2006
(Share of 2006 Electorate in Parentheses)
Sources: 2006, 2004 and 2002 exit polls

The American right is more and more dependent on Christian voters who are more religious (as measured by frequency of church attendance ) than their neighbours – their wicked, wicked neighbours – who only attend worship services a couple of time a monthor maybe even less. Of course the godless sodomites (per Colbert) are all Democrats. The Greens probably have more than their share of Wiccans but I’ve seen no research.
The demographic problem in for the right includes the fact that immigrants who bring their religion with them to the U.S. are not likely to vote Republican. Meanwhile the growing ranks of the non worshipers grows larger and more Democratic every cycle.

The bottom line is that religion as an institution has lost much of the political influence it once had in Western civilization. I blame the following events, individuals and groups:

  • Copernicus
  • Galileo
  • The Enlightenment and French Revolution
  • The U.S. Founding Fathers
  • Darwin
  • Einstein
  • Marx
  • Adam Smith
  • European colonial empires
  • Scientists
  • Philosophers
  • Artists
  • The Pill
  • And of course, comic books, rap music and Hollywood

Poor old religion. Whipped and hobbled by science and devoured by its own success. I seem to recall many occasions on which Christianity’s apologists have argued that their religion has been the basis of the triumph of Western Civilization. Now, the West leads the world in prosperity, and it is prosperity that has given us the means and leisure both to seek unprecedented degrees of pleasure and ask fundamental questions. Neither of these pursuits are encouraged by organized religion, but for hundreds of years, religion’s hold has been weakening on the minds and morals of humans.

My formal break with religion came in adolescence. Under various intellectual influences, i declared my atheism and refused to accompany my family to church. My understanding of religion I hope has grown more sophisticated in the thousands of days since that time. I sympathize now with many believers, those who inherited the social gospel for example, and those like MLK whose struggle for equality was driven by their faith.

But no matter how much good one sees in the moral teachings – the outcomes – of Christianity and other religions, I am always troubled by the authority that blesses those teachings. God may speak to prophets and saints, but if he does, he sometimes tells them very silly things.

I understand there is a conservative response to Wikipedia where truth seekers can learn how modern day kangaroos are descended from passengers on Noah’s ark. I leave it to science to test that assertion and wait in suspense for the result.

Many Christians, of course, have accepted the validity of the scientific method as a way to search for knowledge. But to do so is to reject a still significant part of all the organized religions I can think of. Name a religion that does not teach something that can easily be demonstrated as not only not true, but impossible. The Bible and Koran are chock full of occasions upon which the laws of nature
are ignored or suspended.

And if religion is wrong about physics and astronomy, why should we think it speaks the truth about psychology
or ethics or politics?

Which is why the fundamentalists on every continent are still dangerous. They are desperate and afraid.

Written by slothropia

March 22nd, 2007 at 8:20 pm

Politics and Religion – Trinity

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In our last episode, I noted that what we think of as religion began with the invention of cities and civilization. I should add that what we think of as religion in the civilized sense is organized religion, religion that is with a professional priesthood, sacred texts, temples and other adornments. Religion existed in a less organized form long before the first cities were built. This is only speculation, but it would seem that religion was one of the first topics when humans first discovered they could talk – and sing, dance and draw pictures.

What function, what need of society did religion fill, both before the invention of civilization and since. has been religion’s function civilization? Let’s consider the question hierarchically.

Long ago, shamans and other holy persons told stories to their people to explain the origin of the world and of the tribe. They delivered answers to the ultimate questions, however darkened by superstition they may seem now, and in doing so imposed order on a chaotic universe. The clergy of all religions try to provide this service today, but as we shall see later, there is competition now from science. More on that point anon.

Down a level, religion has a political function. Again, citadels are found in the first cities, indicating an alliance, between martial classes and the priesthood. The king and his generals needed the temple to confirm their authority. This is not an issue that concerns hunter gatherers, and is therefore exclusive to civilized societies.
Finally, somebody has to define morality and it might as well be the priests. This too is less important to tribal societies than it is to city dwellers.

Let’s review. Religion serves at least three functions in a civilization. Religion:

  1. Provides a way of talking about the big questions about the nature of existence, of human nature and many many other topics
  2. Provides authority and credibility to the temporal powers
  3. Is the arbiter of ethical conduct and defining authority of moral values

But we need to change tenses at this point in the discussion,  because religion no longer plays its traditional role perfectly in all societies. Certainly not in Europe, which has at last put the Hundred Years War  behind itself.  Nor in Japan, where there are three religions: Shintoism, Buddhism and electronics (the last one is a joke; ha ha). China is Communist but grudgingly tolerates a variety of religious beliefs and practices. Africa is too diverse to make a generalization about, animism, Christianity and Islam each claiming some territory its own there. In Latin America, the Catholic Church retains influence, but has found itself too often on the wrong side of cultural and political change.
In most of the world, then, no one religion can claim to dominate sufficiently to be the glue that holds a society together. Those days are gone. OTOH, Some Islamic countries take their religion very seriously, as we have seen very vividly in recent years.

And what of the United States? Unlike Canada and much of Europe,  there is a constitutional proscription against an established, state supported religion in the U.S. Yet religion here still carries a powerful political punch. But even here, things are not as they were in this regard.

A major cause of religion’s decline here and around the world is the intellectual revolution that began hundreds of years ago in Europe and continues today and into the foreseeable future. Science and philosophy have stripped religion of most of its authority. The religious impulse is still felt widely, but people are learning to honour that impulse outside of organized religion. In turn, this has caused the remaining American loyalists of religion to become frantic and to respond hysterically to any perceived further assault on religion’s place in society. One result has been that American politicians have to pay more lip service to religion than do their counterparts in other countries (that are not Muslim).

Again, Marcotte and McEwan wrote things on their blogs that are not controversial to many Americans  – and Canadians, French men and women and others. But organized religion is fighting for its very existence, and no insult is too small to ignore. This is the reality that the Edwards campaign forgot to include in its calculations before hiring the two bloggers.

Written by slothropia

February 20th, 2007 at 9:50 pm

Posted in Religion

Religion and Politics, Part Deus

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To conclude what i was saying about l’affaire Marcotte/McEwan/Edwards, let me respond to commenter Catus Magnus, who wrote:

Ms. Marcotte got done in by her own statements – nothing more to it than that. Her problem: Edwards needs to appeal to more than just the left-wing, anti-church/anti-clerical atheist wing of the Democratic party. He needs them to get nominated, but not to get elected.

You see, I didn’t know there was an anti-church/anti-clerical atheist wing of the Democratic Party. Left wing, sure. And I am prepared to stipulate that the Democratic Party contains proportionally more non or anti religious people than does the GOP. The Democratic Party also boasts more Catholics (though a pretty close call, IIRC) and Jews than does the Republic Party. And more Muslims, and for all I know more Buddhists and new agers. One of the Republics biggest problems is their shrinking, monochromatic base.

The Democratic Party may have more than its share of nonbelievers, but they seem quite content to render unto Caesar only that which is Caesar’s. There is a political reason for the party not to tolerate the existence of an organized atheist/agnostic wing. It wouldn’t play in Peoria. And believe me, I know. I work in Peoria (IL).

Even in a huge, amorphous coalition party like the Democratic one, there is room for only so many agendas. It is hard enough for the party to stay on message without having to sell the abolition of religion. Even a proposal to require churches to pay taxes would be smothered in its cradle.

So, while the previous writings of Marcotte and McEwan are easily defended intellectually, politicians are playing with fire when they seem to countenance criticism of religion – and let’s be honest, in the U.S. it is only Christianity that is so exalted.

OTOH, Edwards had a chance to show leadership by embracing a wider ranging discussion of all sorts of ideas. But the compromise he felt he had to make (I don’t believe the official story that they resigned voluntarily) was to sacrifice these two on the altar of a vengeful god.
Only in America could this happen. Well, the United States is one of the few Western countries where provocative ideas about religion would be an issue. Now, that is, in the 21st century, long after Galileo, the Hundred Years War and Darwin.
Post Enlightenment, the status and stature of religion has diminished in Western civilization, but religion was in on the ground floor.

Years ago, while reading Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, I learned that the word civilization means literally the life that is lived in cities, and that the first cities included a Citadel, indicationg an aristocratic/priestly ruling class and more generally a social hierarchy.

Gee, thanks, civilization.

So, if we accept Mumford’s interpretation of the evidence available to him, organized religion is built into the fabric of early civilization as a source of power and authority. Thus what we think of as religion began with the invention of cities and civilization. The question is, what has been religion’s function civilization? Also, how has religion become diminished in the last two centuries, ands will this process continue? How will religion’s fate impact political theory and practice in the U.S. and other parts of the world?

All to be revealed in the next post.

Written by slothropia

February 16th, 2007 at 11:45 pm

Posted in Religion

Politics and Religion

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Don’t try to get yourself elected
If you do you’ll have to cut your hair

David Crosby

John Edwards just shaved his friggin’ head, man.

You see, I have always interpreted the lyric quoted above as meaning that it is impossible to maintain one’s pure integrity and run for office. That compromise is built into electoral politics. You can’t say what you really think and get elected.

Example 1: Candidate X calls for the legalization of some currently proscribed herb or other. Boom! Political suicide.

Example 2: Candidate Y utters mild criticism of the Catholic Church, or the Southern Baptists, or Orthodox Judaism. Repeat Boom! Political suicide.

Nowadays, a candidate doesn’t even have to say something controversial to suffer political damage. Just putting someone with provocative and radical opinions on your staff will do the trick.

There is something called National Review Online (no link for you Righty) and someone who writes for that site named Kathryn Jean Lopez. Lopez has been offended over the years by various opinions expressed by the blogger Amanda Marcotte at her site Pandagon. Here is something Marcotte wrote that uset poor Lopez:

Q: What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?
A: You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.

What she is saying , I would contend, is that the Catholic church is misogynistic and that it uses the Virgin Mary and the myth of the immaculate conception to reinforce and perpetuate that misogyny.

And? No doubt I could Google this topic and find dozens of respectable articles and books that make the same point, though in a more conventionally academic manner. But Marcotte is writing satire and satire is not always appreciated by those who perceive themselves to be its target.

Personally, I think there might be a funnier way to make the same point, but I agree with it and don’t really see how it is overly provocative. Humour or lack of it is not the issue here. Professional political attack dogs look for excuses to damage their political opponents by using the sort of guilt by association the right has just used on Edwards.

Lopez, of course is not the leader of this month’s get Edwards project. Catholic apologist by the name of William Donohoe is the one in charge. From the Washington Post, here are further examples of Marcotte’s thought crimes as judged by the likes of Lopez, Donohoe et al:

Among other things, Marcotte had written: “The Catholic church is not about to let something like compassion for girls get in the way of using the state as an instrument to force women to bear more tithing Catholics.” She also questioned, in explicit language, what would have happened if the Virgin Mary had taken the emergency contraceptive called Plan B.

Last month, Marcotte wrote of the Duke University rape case: “Can’t a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it? So unfair.”

If Marcotte had asked my advice, i would have suggested that she be very circumspect when commenting on a criminal case before a verdict is reached. But the point she makes in this last comment is worth considering. Was the white and conservative outrage about the Duke rape case strictly about prosecutorial misconduct? This is a question that makes me go”Hmmm.”

Melissa McEwan, another blogger who has written for Shakespeare’s Sister, has also come under attack for saying bad things on the internets. She has been charged with thinking and writng the following:

McEwan, whose status with the Edwards campaign is apparently unchanged (old news), has referred to President Bush’s conservative Christian supporters as his “wingnut Christofascist base.”

So, does anyone not think that at the very least, the Bush base may include a few wingnut Christofascists? If there are, I would like to bring to their attention the film Jesus Camp, a documentary.

In the preceding paragraphs, I have defended the truth and validity of selected quotes from Marcotte and McEwan, not just their right to an opinion. I am very disappointed that they were forced from the Edwards campaign, because the result is a less tolerant and open political and cultural environment.

Edwards is the big loser here. He gave the right what it wanted and like insatiable zombies, they still want more and more and more. And now it seems as though he does not know how to deal with a crisis or think strategically. He just lost a lot of Democratic primary voters to Obama.

In the next post I will further discuss religion and politics and why I think the the reaction to Marcotte and McEwan was so vicious.
I am afraid I have lost a significant degree of respect and sympathy for Edwards. He

Written by slothropia

February 15th, 2007 at 12:36 am

Posted in Religion

It All Seems So Clear Now…

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Hoory for Pharyngula. This is the absolute best description of religion I have ever seen:

My central argument is that religion and science are incompatible ways of knowing: that important decisions should be made on the basis of reason and evidence, and religion fosters the abandonment of those principles. You might wonder what I propose to do about it, because religion seems to be a fixed element of our culture, one that will be impossible to eradicate, and in a progressive society that encourages independent thought, it would not even be desirable to stamp it out.

My answer is to compare it to another unstoppable universal that is tightly keyed in to human nature.

Top Ten Reasons Religion is Like Pornography

  1. It has been practiced for all of human history, in all cultures
  2. It exploits perfectly natural, even commendable, impulses
  3. Its virtues are debatable, its proponents fanatical
  4. People love it, but can’t give a rational reason for it
  5. Objectifies and degrades women even when it worships them
  6. You want to wash up after shaking hands with any of its leaders
  7. The costumes are outrageous, the performances silly, the plots unbelievable
  8. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying it, but it’s nothing to be proud of, either
  9. It is not a sound basis for public policy, government, or international relations
  10. Its stars are totally fake

Remember, it Pharyngula talking, not me.

Written by slothropia

October 4th, 2006 at 1:17 am

Posted in Religion