The Story of Religion

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Foreign Policy in Focus

The Story of Religion

by
Joe Volk

A former member of Congress and I were talking a few years ago. We were wondering how advocates of so-called national missile defense systems manage to win appropriations each year. He said, "We opponents win on the facts of the matter. We win on policy analysis. We win on policy recommendation. But then we lose floor votes in the House and the Senate. Why?" Then he answered his own question: because advocates of the national missile defense system have the best story. People - and law makers -- go with the story rather than with the facts and the analysis.

This "best story" is a narrative about threats and fear. The narrative tells people about their world and their place in it. The national-defense story - like the war-on-terror story -- is a narrative of cosmological proportion. The definition of the problem runs like this: good people and bad people inhabit the world, we are the good people, and the bad people are trying to kill us. The resolution to this problem is: if we want to survive, we will have to stop the bad people from attacking us by killing them first. The story defines the problem, and the problem definition leads to the "solution."

Narratives give meaning to people's everyday lives. Whether in politics or in houses of worship, narratives function as scripture and nurture what is essentially a religious worldview. The narrative orients individuals and groups to power, both temporal and eternal.

Today, we face another narrative about us and them. This time the categories are not communist versus anti-communist. Our world today presents the appearance of a new East-West conflict along a religious axis: a renewed conflict between Christians and Muslims. But this narrative, like the Cold War story, ignores that conflicts actually emerge from competition for resources, such as land, water, and oil. An overarching civil religion in the United States connects these two narratives and challenges us all to come up with a compelling alternative.

Under the Umbrella

The people of the United States are thought to be religious. On a recent trip to Iran, one of the Ayatollahs said to me, "Iran and the United States shouldn't be fighting. We should be partners. Both our peoples are religious."

Yet, many in our society would claim to "have no religion" and to "not believe in God." "I'm not religious," they say - a simple self-description that is simply accepted. Many others will claim to be religious. "I'm a Jew." "I'm a Christian." "I'm a Muslim." "I'm Buddhist." "I'm a Sikh." "I practice a traditional Native American religion." And so on. Again, we hear a simple self-description that is simply accepted.

We have no reason to doubt these self-descriptions of "not religious" and "religious." On the other hand, these descriptions may prevent us from seeing that, across the spectrum of "not religious" and "religious" people, all members of our society participate in a common religious practice that subordinates all other practices of faith in our society.

While we are practicing Jews, Christians, Muslims, Agnostics, Atheist, and so on, we also practice a shared religious life - one that we don't recognize as such. In a sense, we gather together under an "umbrella religion."

What is this umbrella religion and how does one become a member of it? First I need to address a few other points: the subordination of religion in America, everyone is religious, 21st- century human sacrifice, a Martian view of Earthlings, and the paradox of a secular society.

Subordination of Religion

In 21st-century thinking here in the United States, the idea of "the religious" has been diminished to the description of a variety of liturgical or meditation practices. We say "she's religious" or "he's a devout (insert name of faith here)," meaning that they regularly go to church, synagogue, temple, mosque, meeting house, or some other place of worship and engage in some common practice for an hour or so with others of like mind.

Religion has literally been put in its place inside the larger society, contained within the boundaries of a "house of worship" and maintained within the boundaries of "styles of worship." We are thus safe to go to religion "when we need it" and able to get away from it when it is not convenient to us. For most of us, freedom of religion has become a consumer activity in which we choose which "brand" of religious experience we want. Many of us "shop around" for the religion that will give us what we're looking for, and, in a market-place society, that's not considered bad.

Perhaps paradoxically, secular society is a society that nurtures religion by making religion a matter of individual choice, rather than heritage. In a secular society, individuals may have real freedom of religion. The commonly accepted idea that freedom of religion also means that we may make a choice to be free from any particular religion or religious doctrine is a liberating insight, and one that we should hold dear. Religious people should not fear secular society but, rather, celebrate it as what makes safe their free exercise of religion. Non-religious people should celebrate secular society for safeguarding their freedom not to be religious.

Everyone is Religious

The 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich asserted that virtually everyone is religious, because the religious experience in its essence involveshaving an ultimate concern and orienting oneself to it. This ultimate concern - whether money, family, nation, professional achievement, or something else - has the power to answer our hunger for meaning and our most profound needs.

Another theologian Harvey Cox has made the case that, notwithstanding all the memberships in different religions and denominations, most of us are religious because we participate in an American civil religion that we practice every day, whether we are aware of it or not. This civil religion is our democracy. Even the most irreligious -- or especially the irreligious -- among us engage in faith-based conduct. They just have faith in something other than those who identify themselves as religious. If you orient yourself to a source of power and commit to an ultimate concern, then you are religious. Being religious then has little or nothing to do with accepting scriptural doctrines or believing in a traditional god or gods.

Being religious comes with being human. We human beings subordinate our selves to different sources of power, and we find meaning and purpose for our lives in relationship to a power source. The variety of religious experiences ranges from belief in a divine source of power and meaning to a rejection of any such notion.

Now in the 21st century (or whatever century your religious or non-religious calendar puts us in today), we might consider whether, despite the great variety of religious experiences in the United States, we all participate in the worship of an ultimate concern and orient ourselves to a source of power that promises to deliver on that ultimate concern.

Human Sacrifice

We're fascinated and repelled by stories of the bad old days when pagans sacrificed specially selected human beings (most often very young women) to make the gods happy, so that they'd leave the humans safe, secure, and wealthy. They even lay representations of their wealth - grains, garments, jewelry - on altars as gifts in exchange for the favor of their gods.

We thank Progress for delivering us a civilization that has liberated us from such superstitious violence. Human sacrifice has been put well behind us. Then, smugly comfy in our advanced stage of civilization, we lay on our altar $42 of every $100 of our federal taxes to satisfy our gods of war. Why? We do it so that we can be safe, secure, and prosperous.

As a society, apparently, we really believe that killing people -- the right people and enough of them - will answer our ultimate concern for safety, security, and prosperity. The Iraq war, the "war on terror," and the pending war on Iran all come with the promise to make you safe, to secure the world, and to assure American prosperity. Our leaders tell us that the sacrifices are necessary.

How far we have come since those pagan days of human sacrifice!

In those pre-historical and early days of history, villages killed a chosen few, and the gods were satisfied. Later, the gods became satisfied with just dumb animals, and most human beings were spared. As a rule, even in wars the fighting tended to be symbolic with the wounding of only a few, maybe a death or two. Exceptions to this rule did, of course, occur with much bloodshed, but, even then, the dead were all or mostly combatants who went to the battlefield.

Today, 80-90% of the dead in wars and other violent conflicts are civilian non-combatants. Our militaries, which once ostensibly sought to protect civilians, now target them in the pursuit of "force protection." Our gods of safety, security, and prosperity will not settle for the sacrifice of a selected few human beings. Offerings now are on a mass scale, thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands -- and sometimes in only a year's time.

The proverbial visitor from Mars would easily connect the human sacrifices of yore with the mass slaughter of today. The Martian observes human beings in different regions of the Earth gathering young males, running them through some kind of exercises and courses, and then shipping them away. Then the Martian watches as these groups of men from different regions of the planet meet in certain fields. Inexplicably, many and sometimes all the young men in one or in both groups fall down or simply disappear in puffs of smoke and dust. In moments, it becomes clear that they have died. This goes on for a year, two years, four, or maybe five years, and, then, it stops as quickly as it began. To our Martian, this conduct is not rational but, rather, belief-based. Opposing sides of humans appear to believe that, if they sacrifice enough human life, then their cosmos will be put right again.

Today this faith-based belief moves our country to spend half of the world's total military expenditures. Our country sacrifices precious blood and treasure for the promise that military power will answer our society's ultimate concern for safety, security, and prosperity. That superior military power will answer our "prayers" is not a scientific or provable proposition; it is a faith-based belief. No matter how many times the promise has failed, no matter the cost in treasure or in lives, nothing shakes us from that belief. We were even prepared to literally blow up the planet during the so-called Cold War. This shared religious belief in the military as the source of safety, security, and prosperity informs the annual spending choices of Congress.

The Cold War Narrative

Most people in the United States think - believe - that the United States won the Cold War and defeated the Soviet Union militarily. With that story line - narrative - our people make an understandable assumption: if hard power won the Cold War, then hard power can deliver us from an ever more threatening world, a world in which terrorism, peak oil, and global warming loom over us. Therefore, if we give the military our ultimate commitment, it will save us. This is, at base, a religious narrative, a story that we tell ourselves, but it doesn't get us toward the truth.

Another narrative is just as plausible if not more so. One might imagine that the United States did not win the Cold War. On the contrary, the Soviet Union lost it because it relied on hard power, a command economy, and a secret, top down political structure. The Soviet system collapsed of its own flaws. The United States simply was left standing.

One might construct another narrative about the United States coming out of the Cold War a winner because it did not rely so much on hard power as it did on soft power. To the degree that the United States survived the Cold War, it did so not due to its military muscle but rather to its reliance on respect for human dignity, for labor rights, for human rights, for the rule of law, for institutions of international cooperation, and for individual freedoms. To the degree that the United States relied on hard power and disregard for human dignity - which it did a lot - it weakened its own position. Witness, for example, the utter failure of U.S. policy in Iran or Vietnam.

But the generally shared narrative that explains the world to most U.S. citizens today focuses on the efficacy and the promise of hard power, of military muscle. Our people are enslaved to this story and its demands. In this post-911 era, we see our house of democracy falling down due to a general disregard for the value of civil order, of rule of law, of diplomacy, of literacy, and of scientific truth. We see the ascendancy of military order, of command structures, of secrecy, of a disregard for truth, individual dignity, and freedom.

We have journeyed into a captivity of our own making, one in which the chains of fear encumber our better selves.

Many point a finger at George Bush and his administration, saying that they are responsible for this decline in America's house of democracy. Plenty of truth resides in that claim, but George Bush and his administration - wily as they may be - do not have the capability of subordinating America all by themselves. They needed others to either cooperate or to accede to their program of action: full spectrum domination and preventive war. Why and how did they get that cooperation? By and large, liberals, centrists, and conservatives all took shelter under the umbrella religion of military muscle, an unshakable belief in the power of the barrel of a gun over the power of civil society.

The good news is that virtually all religions decry the worship of false gods. Sometimes a very big problem, like this one of militarism pervading in our society, can be solved with seemingly small measures. Simply naming the problem, exposing the narrative, and offering another way can liberate the captives from an illusion. A coalition of conscience may yet educate our people that war is not the answer and that peace may be achieved through peaceful means. Though a fearful society may rely on the barrel of a gun, a fearless civil society has the power to create and to build.

Humans as Holy Places

Congressman John Lewis and I shared a supper meal recently when Friends Committee on National Legislation presented him with a peacemakers award. I asked him about our society's current captivity to military power in these fearful times and what he saw as an alternative. He went back to his days in the civil rights movement, to the time when our country still practiced petty apartheid. As I heard him, he offered another narrative about our cosmos. He spoke about us not as good people who face bad people but rather as brothers and sisters learning to live together. We brothers and sisters are all children of God. He said that this view of our human community liberated him from hate and revenge and allowed him to forgive even those who beat him senseless for reasons of racism on the bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. We all need to live together on this spaceship Earth or we will all die, he said.

For eons we human beings have fought over holy places. But if we hear John Lewis's narrative and take it to heart, we would have to shift our idea of what is a holy place. We might consider the meaning of each of us being a child of God. That might mean that every human being is a holy place. Therefore, when we kill other human beings in the name of God or for "good" and "just" reasons, we destroy what we claim to protect, the human community. But when we take the risk of answering to others as brothers and sisters, we gather an ever larger human family into a sustainable and civil world order -- as did the heroes of our civil rights movement here in the United States.

The American civil rights movement leaders might have tried using power from the barrel of a gun, but they chose instead to exercise the power of love and to use the force of truth. In doing so, they transformed, rather than destroyed, our society. Their courageous experiment in religion and politics offers a new narrative that has global implications, if only we can summon the courage to see it.

Joe Volk is the executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

© 2007 Institute for Policy Studies

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