Saturday, May 27, 2006

A Very Rough Beast

Last week I read a book by Dan Wakefield entitled The Hijacking of Jesus, about the fight of liberal Christians and Evangelists to take back Christianity from the Christian right. I am not certain that it can be saved, but I doubt even more that religion can be abolished. There are simply too many in-born cognitive and emotional habits which support it. Furthermore, I suspect that any broadly accepted source of authority and respectablity will be hijacked by the politically ambitious, be it religion, science, philosophy, or any honoured tradition. True, science has peer reviews, but with enough money and public relations, more responsible voices can be drowned out, as we know all too well. Anything sufficiently mysterious to the broad public can be faked--we are all at the mercy of specialization, experts in the field, and no one can judged who is an expert and who is not but another expert. For the rest of us, the mere posture of certainty is often enough to convince. A wily confidence man convinces even himself.

Wakefield goes into some depth to describe how Christianity was corrupted by political ambition, and bent to serve a narrow political agenda. But his story starts in the mid sixties, even as liberal Christianity was in its hey day. One element that he iluminates are the scattered forces of literalists shattered and ridiculed in the Scopes trial. This explains much of the Intelligent Design faction: an attempt by the scientifically illiterate to impose their views by political force, rather than sound argument. The right catered to these to tap into an ignored faction--yet they are still only a small fraction of the population. There is another thread with Wakefield does not follow, and this is the fallout of the war on communism, which was eventually turned to a war on liberalism. The Conservative hacks have done such a good job of demonizing anything remotely connected with liberalism that even the old school conservatives, like William F. Buckley Jr., are disgusted by the beast they've helped create. Public discussion has become so warped that they can no longer sustain the level of intellectual discourse that they hoped conservative ideology would foster.

They are, of course, largely responsible for this. In their fight against communism, conservatives forgot, or never bothered to discover, that the ethics which communists claimed to champion were themselves lifted from Christianity, by Marx via Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity. Marx's slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" is almost a direct paraphrase of the way early Christians lived in Acts 2:44: "The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed." The enemy was never communism, which has never existed and may never exist except as a pipe dream, but the totalitarian regimes founded on the empty promise to bring it about. The conservatives of the National Review began by denouncing the loss of religion in academia, and in their zeal against communism, did something far worse: they cut the ethical soul from Christianity. But for a few holdouts, mostly amongst those old veterans who marched with Martin Luther King, Christianity is gutted, dead, and dessicated, fly-blown and rotten. Christ is just another brand-name, like Tommy Hilfiger, an assortment of ideological accoutrements to be bought at your local mega-church, to be worn by the up-and-coming demagogue. It has no bearing upon character: Bush is still a spoiled rich frat-boy, partying at other people's expense--a dry drunk, prone to self-mythologization--and there's even a rumour that he's drinking again. I believe W. B. Yeats described the situation best in The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all around it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That rough beast is the walking corpse of dead religions, thoughtless, merciless, souless. Its champions spout scripture selectively, often without comprehension of the very words that come out of their mouths. Filled with passionate intensity, speaking and even thinking in sound bites, nattering incessantly, even in their own heads, lest some unscripted thought appear that challenges the myth they live in, in which they are the Hero. This is faith as pure memetic reproduction, the very animal which Richard Dawkins so precisely describes and abhors. This aberrant form of religion survives, not through any criteria of ethical fitness or by enhancing the fitness of its host, but as a parasite well adapted for contagion and resistance to competing ideas. In short, it is a reason resistant meme, which impairs the cognitive function of its host, sometimes to the extent of threatening its very survival. I would like to think that Jesus would be horrified, but if political Christians are any measure, perhaps I'm giving him too much credit for honesty and integrity.