Religious Fervor Without the Religion

We usually avoid discussing religion here (in our newspaper column). I consider religion a personal matter, and there are many who are much more qualified to address it.

When it comes to Faith, however, we will speak. Faith is a golden thread that runs through all religious and spiritual beliefs. It is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Our lives are often defined by its presence, or its absence. It is odd that many will shy away from anything that references Faith, but be quite content with any number of opinions. We should know that Faith and Opinion are siblings.

I have a friend who considers himself an atheist and a secular humanist. He has faith that the inherent goodness of human beings will inevitably move us onward and upward. We debate from time to time our opinions about what is true and what is not.

Our discussions about what is true sometimes do not end well, but our conversation is usually more amicable when we discuss what is useful. My friend finds no usefulness at all in religion, and through the filters of his own experience he focuses on the bloodshed that throughout the ages has accompanied religion like a shadow. That bloodshed continues to this day.

My usual retort to his universal condemnation of religion is to point to the uncountable examples of individual sacrifice and devotion which have also accompanied religion and shined light into the shadows.

A particularly animated discussion we have results from my assertion that humankind needs Faith, and falling short of that still benefits from religion. My point being that we need a code of some kind as a framework for our decision-making process. We need values. We need a sense that there is something larger and more important than our individual appetites.

Even Science is still arguing whether such civilizing influences are innate or inborn or whether they must be taught. My friend thinks that they are innate and require only nurturing. His opinion is at odds with billions of people gathered under the banners of Christianity and Islam and all of their many divisions, who believe that we are born to a legacy of “Original Sin.”

You would hope that two religions which share so much of the same history and so many of the same beliefs would find it easier to locate their common interests, but history has shown this to be difficult, though we suspect that politics has had more to do with the animosity between the two belief systems than anything else.

By the same token, you would think that liberals and conservatives who share a nation, a history and a culture would also be able to get along better, but this is proving to be increasingly difficult. Again, we suspect politics, or more precisely, the power struggles that are being played out behind the political facade, but that is a discussion for another time.

My friend and I do agree on one thing, and that is how belief that is mutated by politics can result in behavior that is almost indistinguishable from religious fervor. And now, as my grandfather used to say, I’m going to “quit preaching and go to meddling.”

We will begin with the behavior of some of our conservative friends. For many years the right has condemned the lifestyles and personal choices of people who do not conform to their beliefs about what is true. Some have judged based on their own research or reading of Scripture, but if we are honest we will admit that most simply echo other people’s opinions, most often those delivered from such perceived positions of authority as a pulpit.

We become what we think and we think what we hear, and our thinking becomes a kind of faith often informed more by interpretation than by fact. The left has had legitimate grievances against those on the right who have set aside Christian principles of universal love and non-judgment in favor of dogmatic discrimination.

On the left, we have a gathering of people less informed by religious belief. This is certainly not true of everyone who gathers there, but few would argue against the observation that the left is more secular (and the right more religious), and statistics support that observation. But while the left often rejects a framework of values informed by religion (Christianity ), it can be hard to describe what, if anything, has replaced that framework.

Herein lies the problem as I see it. A kind of relativism has moved into the vacuum formed by the departure of religion, where “right and wrong” are at best a thing of cultural context and at worst a variable based upon personal appetites.

Humans don’t seem to find much success as independent agents responsible, and accountable, for our own actions. We have always sought after structure and guiding principle, and where none exist, we eventually invent them. What seems to guide many on the left right now is a mutant form of “tolerance.” On the surface, the values they champion are very similar to the core principles of Christianity: universal love and respect for individual rights.

Gathered under the banner are advocates of women’s rights, sexual freedom, racial justice – at a glance just about every group which has at one time or another felt the judgment of the religious right. But while the ideals of the left are sound (and not all that different than those of the right), there is a growing element of militancy in the thinking of some of the left’s more passionate devotees.

This militancy frames what should be simple differences of opinion that could be solved by our still functioning political process into a “fight’ against “injustice, racism, bigotry, misogyny.” There is a laundry list of grievances that must be “fought,” in the language of these devotees. And the extreme manifestation of this “fight” can be found in the numerous stories of conservative speakers violently attacked simply because they are conservative, and in the widespread use of violent language to describe those on the right.

It is a cruel irony that the left now hosts devotees who are ready to “fight” with an almost religious fervor, or a hatred that mimics tragic examples of national zeal. They view anyone guided by conservative or Christian principles – or anyone who disagrees with the left – as possessed by as many flaws as were attributed to any racial or ethnic slur ever made.

Such embers are always smoldering at the roots of every civilization. We will continue to discuss those who are intent on fanning those embers into flame.


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