Blasphemy for the Day: Religion and Political Belief

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

A study by  Stanford University has found that liberal and conservative Christians have different views of the figure of  Jesus. Not altogether surprising. This Observer article has the results, followed by a discussion below the line. I’m less interested in the actual data, and more in why that’s the case.

The basic idea that religions cherry pick bits of their holy books is well understood. Without this mechanism, Christianity could not have migrated out of Palestine. Saul of Tarsus (“Saint Paul”) rebranded Christianity and marketed it for gentiles.

Now they’re stuck with specific texts that are inevitably self-contradictory, scientific nonsense, and contain much that’s vile to modern sensibilities. Unfortunately, they’re untouchable because they’re sacred. So the institutional relationship of religions to secular power must be tempered by overemphasis on some aspects and underemphasis (or resort to metaphorical alibis) on others. But even the vile bits get an airing because they appeal to so many on the Right, while compassion is downplayed as not being a vote-winner.

Here’s an example of just how liberal Christianity can get. Forget the Church of England as a milquetoast defender of religious values, Unitarian Universalism takes tolerance to positively divine heights. I was a neopagan for a short time when I lived in the US, and attended some rituals under the auspices of the Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Pagans. In a UU church building. As long as you believe someone’s out there, you’re welcome.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, there are many churches where Republican values are at least as important as the Christian beliefs on which they purport to be founded. Wealth is fine and compassion is contingent on budgetary constraints. Almost Calvinist in the suggestion that wealth is a sign of God’s grace. One example is the eponymous (I’m not making this up) Creflo Dollar Ministries, part of World Changers Church. His middle name is Augustus, so properly speaking he is Creflo A. Dollar, an evocative phrase that suggests creflo as a verb, meaning to con the gullible. Coincidentally, Augustus is the first name of the best religious hypocrite in fiction, Augustus Carp.

While the liberal end of the Christian spectrum is driven by a desire for fairness, social inclusion, and tolerance, and the conservative end by greed, they share the same sacred text, the Bible, as the source of these diverse interpretations.

I think that religions reflect the societies in which they’re embedded, and create gods in their own collective images. But societies change much more quickly than religions, and that means there’s always going to be cultural friction between religious values and emerging secular values.

So it’s really important to establish robust secular societies, where religion is an absolute right, but has no special legal, constitutional or institutional privileges. Here endeth the lesson.

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