December 3, 2004

Somebody get that Mencken guy a blog


James Wolcott digs up a great quote (is there any other kind) from H.L. Mencken on the deference owed to religion in the public sphere. "There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get."

This is similar to a point Randy Cohen often makes, and one well worth making. But I think there are a few distinctions that should be addressed.

Wolcott starts off this portion of his post with the words, "I'm really getting fed up with all the pious hogwash we're supposed to accept now about faith and belief and the need for God in our lives." Cohen's argument is that one should not excuse bigoted or otherwise stupid statements or actions merely because they stem from religious convictions. To some extent I think that's what Wolcott and Mencken are saying too. And I'm in agreement. But Wolcott is casting his net wider, and goes off the rails a bit (ugh! terrible mixed metaphor). After all, faith, belief, and need for God are really religious feelings that have very little to do with religious opinion in the way I would use that word.

In the way Wolcott and Mencken seem to be using the word, there actually IS something different about religious opinions than others: they're statements of emotion rather than of rationality. Most people's beliefs about God, not to mention the more nebulous religious sentiments that people hold, are not the kind of opinion with which you can argue just as you would argue about whether to raise or lower taxes. While I'm willing (though hardly eager at this stage my life) to engage in rational discussions about the existence of God (I'm taking the con position, fyi), I think most statements of faith are, as I said, akin to emotion, and debating them is churlish at best.

If someone says, God created everything and I can prove it, that's one thing. But if someone says God is the wellspring of life and my source of strength, there's no more reason (or way) to dispute that than there would be to argue with my assertion (per the great secular theologian Carl Sagan) that my wife and children love me. It's the difference between the irrational and the non-rational. Many of my own spiritual beliefs are certainly the latter -- they don't contradict rationality but they're not based on it either, and if anyone tries to use rational arguments to talk me out of them, they're the shmuck, not me. Why shouldn't Wolcott accept someone's feelings about their faith, their belief, and their need for God in their lives as long as they're not trying to push it on him or on society?

Wolcott goes on to say that "Most people use religion to justify what they were inclined to do anyway, picking and choosing the Biblical passages that best feather their proud modesty." That's straight out of the curmudgeon handbook and I almost gave it a pass, but while I'm here, I'll just throw in my two cents that this is often true, but probably not as much as Wolcott thinks. People who are serious about religion, who are raised in it and live in it on a daily basis, generally have it so ingrained that unless they are actively trying to find a way to reach a certain prespecified outcome, they can't help but be guided by the teachings of that religion (as they see them). This of course does not make them automatically right either in their interpretations or their belief system in the first place, but if religious belief held no sway over decision-making, religion wouldn't have lasted so long.

Then Wolcott writes, "We're cautioned now that snickering over Bush's choice of Jesus as his favorite philosopher only reveals how snobby and elitist we are," and argues that in fact Jesus was not a great philosopher. This is missing the point. I happen to think JW underrates JC as a philosopher (even if he cribbed his best material) -- any good post-colonialist knows to be suspicious when someone throws around the word "primitive." But the reason (or at least my reason) to snicker over Bush's statement is not because Jesus was a poor philosopher, but because Bush's statement made it clear that doesn't really care about Jesus as a philosopher at all. Flashback

Bush said Christ was his choice, "because he changed my heart." When asked to elaborate on the implications of this, Bush chose not to. In fact, he confessed that he could not say much more. "It's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me." 

That's sound Evangelicism, but if the central importance of Jesus is not what he taught but that he died for our sins, then it's a stupid answer to give when asked to name a "philosopher-thinker." Bush's answer seemed to say that because Jesus saved him, he doesn't need ANY philosophy in his life -- certainly not something all evangelicals would claim. That was revelatory, and it's why I don't accept that criticizing him for it amounts to making fun of his religion.

Finally, Wolcott dismisses a recent David Brooks column about John Stott with another Mencken quote, beginning, "The average theologian...disseminates his blather..." But Brooks' point was that Stott is a superior theologian, not an average one. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that Wolcott is cheating himself if he's going to automatically dismiss any theologian because the average ones are no better than politicians.

I've gone on too long already, but I'll wrap up by pointing to a way cool Christian site I discovered recently (and linked in an earlier post), Adult Christianity and its affiliated shopping site, Miss Poppy -- an excellent source for all your Kitschmas needs. The attitude here is familiar to Jews but sadly less prominent among American Christians. I think even Wolcott would approve. (I should note that some Christians without a sense of humor are sure the site is a hoax run by atheists; I see no reason to believe that. I think it would be pretty hard to keep this site going without a genuine, if irreverent, love of Christian culture).

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I've always resented that anybody is closer to god than someone elese. If god is all-knowing, then those who pray are just making pests of themselves. God only knows if this is a belief in itself, or just a rationalization. I don't care one way or the other, just as long as I get to be immortal.

I think the distinction between feeling and opinion is worthy, although I'm also skeptical of the content of religious "feeling" sometimes.

Yet, I do love the panty, and might purchase it for my girlfriend.

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