Myths about other people’s religions

Myths about other people’s religions February 11, 2013

Last week, at my Unitarian discussion group, I got a humility check. That’s a big part of the reason I attend the Unitarian church. The people I attend with often challenge my assumptions. I sometimes end up feeling like an ass, but better for it in the long run.

On this particular occasion, I had made a comment about people who believe in an afterlife. We had been talking about the belief in heaven and hell, and I made a comment to the effect that believing that the slain children from Sandy Hook were in heaven diminished the tragedy of it and allowed us to escape responsibility for making political and social changes here and now. Someone else took up my comment and ran with it, repeating a common refrain of my own that a focus on an afterlife distracts from this life. But then a friend of mine called us on it and pointed out all the good that is done in this life by religions with a belief in the afterlife. That’s not to say that there aren’t negative aspects about a belief in an afterlife — just that the issue is more complex than my comments had suggested.

This got me thinking, and I realized I have quite a few myths about other people’s religion. (I’m using “myth” here in the pejorative sense.) I realized that many of these myths about other people’s religion are really not about others’ religion, but about my own.  I sat down and made a preliminary list of myths that I have about other people’s religions. I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones I have come to recognize as myths:

Myth #1: People who believe in an afterlife don’t care about this life.

This is simply not true as a general statement. It was true in my case. My belief that a belief in the afterlife distracts from this life is really not about other peoples’ beliefs at all, but about my own prior belief in an afterlife when I was Christian. When I said that people who believe in an afterlife are not thinking about this one, I’m really only talking about myself and how this was previously true of me.

When I was Christian, my belief in an afterlife did distract me from living the present one. But it certainly cannot be said to be true other people generally. The truth is that religions with a belief in the afterlife do a great deal of practical and material good in the present world. Mother Theresa is not a exception, but rather an exceptional example of what is true of many, if not most, Christians. Many Christians do a lot more than I do, or ever have done, to make this world a better place. Far from being an excuse to ignore the suffering in the world, the belief in an afterlife is a motivation for many to make this world better. And the truth is that Pagans can be just as or even more “other-worldly” than Christians.

Myth #2: Christianity’s inherent dualism is anti-ecological.

This myth is related to the first one (above), and it is a favorite of many Pagans. It’s one that I latched on to when I discovered Paganism. The thesis is that the radical separation of spirit and matter is fundamental to Christianity, which valorizes the former at the expense of the latter, leading to ecological disaster. This thesis dates back, at least, to Lynn White’s 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, which examined the effect of Christianity on humankind’s relationship with nature, and Arnold Toynbee’s 1972 essay, “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis”. And it is almost an article of faith for many Pagans. There is a certain logical appeal to the notion that the doctrine of the Fall (or “depravity”) combined with the Biblical injunction to “dominate” the earth would lead to an anti-ecological attitude.

However, in reality, Christianity does not necessarily equal a disrespect for nature. The domination model of relating to the earth was as much a product of a dualistic Cartesian science as it was a product of Christian dogma. And in the last few decades, we have seen a model of “stewardship” replacing the the model of domination for many Christians, both individually and communally. Matthew Fox’s “Creation Spirituality” is an excellent example of how Christianity need not be founded on a doctrine of the fallenness of nature.

Like Myth #1 above, my embrace of Myth #2 really said more about me than it did about Christianity generally. The fact is that, when I was Christian, I had felt myself divided between the poles of matter and spirit. But I am coming to realize that it isn’t fair to blame that on my Christian upbringing. The faith I was raised in (Mormon) actually has a pretty healthy attitude about the material world. Mormons, after all, believe that God has a physical body and that the earth will be the location of the future heaven. And they have a relatively healthy attitude about sex. My wife was raised in the same religion, and was even more steeped in the Mormon culture, and yet she developed little of the ambivalence that I had for physicality. So, the truth is, when I talk about Christianity’s inherent dualism, I am really talking more than anything else about my own personal history.

Myth #3: Polytheists are more tolerant than monotheists.

This is another favorite of many Pagans, and one that I held briefly. Like Myth #2 above, there is a certain logical seductiveness to the notion that polytheism would be more pluralistic, but the fact is that this is not necessarily true. Dogmatism can take both monotheistic and polytheistic forms. I know I will probably take some slack for this from some polytheists for whom this is an article of faith, but the fact is that polytheistic cultures are no more or less violent or imperialistic than monotheistic cultures. While imperialistic cultures may draw on monotheistic religion to justify their actions, monotheism does not in and of itself yield imperialism.

Once again, Myth #3 is more about me than anything else. When I was Christian I was about as dogmatic and intolerant of other belief systems as anyone. I believed I had privileged access to the capital-T “Truth” and hoped against hope that this personal gnosis would save me. There are, of course, aspects about Christianity that a person of a certain temperament (like me) can latch on to which would yield religious intolerance. But, once again, my wife proved to me that being dogmatic was not a necessary condition of being Christian. And I have spoken with enough dogmatic polytheists to know that intolerance is not the exclusive domain of monotheists.

Myth #4: Evangelicals and charismatics are irrational.

This is a favorite among some humanists and naturalists, and I have been especially prone to this fallacy. It does sometimes seem to me that many charismatics of both the Christian and the Pagan varieties tend to overlook the interpretive step in translating experience into belief. Polytheists, for example, tend to emphasize the experiential nature of their belief to the point of even denying that they have “beliefs”. In Christianity, this often takes the form of denying that Christianity is a “religion”. But even if a god (or God) appears to you in person and speaks to you, there is an interpretive step in getting to the point of saying that the gods (or God) are real. Admittedly, some polytheists are more tentative than others about what conclusions can be drawn from this experience, but others are more strident. In any case, I am coming to believe that all of our beliefs are more motivated by non-rational influences than by reason anyway — and this applies equally to theists and non-theists.

In addition, while many polytheists and evangelical Christians alike overlook this interpretive step, I have realized that it is not because these individuals are not intelligent or irrational. And I apologize if it is offensive to some that I think this needs to be said, but there it is. In my interactions with both groups over the years, I have come realize that many of these individuals have had very powerful experiences, and the power of these extraordinary experiences tends to overshadow epistemological questions. You will often hear polytheists tell non-theists, “You don’t know, because you haven’t had this experience.” And I think there is a validity to that statement which needs to be acknowledged by non-theists, even while I also acknowledge the validity of the humanist response, “You don’t know just because you have had that experience.”

Much of polytheistic rhetoric is, I believe, a justifiable reaction to a concern about psychologizing or other reductionist accounts of their experience. Humanists like myself may want to discuss polytheistic experience in a critical fashion, but we need to always keep in the forefront of our minds the fact that the experiences that we are dissecting are among the most personal and intimate in other people’s lives.  If we are to carry the sharp knife of reason, we should nevertheless tread softly.

And, as a humanist and non-theist, I believe we also need to be ready to ask ourselves the hard question whether our own commitment to critical discourse is standing in the way of our having an important spiritual experience.  I haven’t answered this question for myself yet, but I believe the question needs to be discussed more by the humanist community.  In my own case, I wonder if my intellectual dismissiveness of polytheistic experience is in fact a way of shielding myself from a frightening and potentially transformative experience. So again, my belief in Myth #4 is more about me than about any one else.

This is a work in progress, since I know I have more myths to uncover.

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