“We forgot.”

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”
~ Kurt Andersen

The 18th century captures the American imagination, for reasons that are obvious and less so. It was a pivotal point and many were aware of it at the time. Over the preceding centuries, Feudalism slowly declined for numerous reasons. The most obvious force of change was the enclosure movement that evicted peasants from their land, their homes, and their communities.

This created a teeming population of landless peasants who were homeless, unemployed, and often starving. This sent waves of refugees heading for the cities and later the colonies. It was a direct attack on the rights of commoners (what the American colonists referred to as the rights of Englishmen). With the loss of Feudalism, there was the loss the Church’s traditional role and intimate participation in the daily lives of communities (see Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich). There also was the compounding impact of the Renaissance, Peasants’ Revolt, Reformation, English Civil War, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and expanding colonial imperialism.

Yet, even as the early revolutionary era came to a close, much of the ancient world or the immediate sense of its loss was still fresh in living memory, at least for the older generations. Post-Reformation religious war went hand in hand with political and economic radicalism with early signs of class war, populism, and communism showing up as Feudalism waned, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War. Immediately preceding the American Revolution, there was the First Great Awakening which kept alive the earlier radicalism while pushing it to further extremes, this being the initial motivation for the separation of church and state since the religious dissenters were being excluded and oppressed by Anglican state power.

Yet most Americans at the time weren’t formally religious. There were few ministers in the colonies, especially in rural areas. Americans had low rates of church attendance, with rates not increasing until the 19th century (see The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark). It was precisely this lack of formal religion that fed into a new rabid free-for-all where anyone’s religiosity was as good as another’s, where anyone could become a preacher and start their own sect or turn to whatever ideology they preferred, religious or anti-religious. This is how the influences of Reformation and Enlightenment melded together, creating a force greater than either alone.

Even so, the First Great Awakening didn’t directly impact many Americans. Those who heard the fiery preachers of the time were a small part of the population, although in certain cities it led to great tumult. The effect was uneven, some places unaware a change was happening. It was a slow build up of unrest as the American colonies moved toward revolution. It wasn’t so much religion itself but broader cultural shifts. The radical religious were getting louder but so were the radical irreligious. Both hereticism and secularism became virulent, sometimes flowing together as a single force, but not always.

Also, none of it fit into clear class lines. The upper class were filled with unitarians, universalists, deists, and secularists — this was seen in the founding generation but began to take hold earlier such as with Thomas Morton and Roger Williams. But some of the most heretical anti-Christians emerged from the working class, the most famous being Thomas Paine but included several other influential figures. The growing rift was not even so much between Christianity and atheism, rather more between establishment power and the challenges of dissent. On either side of the divide, many voices found themselves formed into a new alignment, voices that otherwise would have been antagonistic.

As with our present moment, the era preceding revolution was a struggle between the contented and the restless, with the former becoming more authoritarian and the latter more radicalized. That schism is a wound that has never healed. The American soul remains fractured. The caricature of culture war spectacle won’t save us. It’s not about religion. The American Founders didn’t forget about God. It wasn’t the issue that mattered then nor that matters now. Religiosity and heresy, even when they take center stage, are always expressions of or proxies for something else.

* * *

Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire:
A 500-Year History

by Kurt Andersen
pp. 56-59

Chapter 8
Meanwhile, in the Eighteenth-Century Reality-Based Community

THE TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD PHENOM GEORGE WHITEFIELD arrived in America for the first time just before All Saints’ Day, Halloween 1739. The first major stop on his all-colonies tour was Philadelphia. Crowds equal to half the inhabitants of the city gathered to see each performance. Among them was the not-so-religious young printer and publisher Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was astonished by how Whitefield could “bring men to tears by pronouncing Mesopotamia, ” and “how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common Abuse of them, by assuring them they were naturally half Beasts and half Devils.” The publisher introduced himself on the spot and signed up to print a four-volume set of Whitefield’s journals and sermons, which became an enormous bestseller. But Franklin’s only awakening during the Great Awakening was to the profits available by pandering to American religionists. Over the next three years, he published an evangelical book almost monthly. With Whitefield himself, Franklin wrote, he formed “no religious Connection.”

Franklin and his fellow Founders’ conceptions of God tended toward the vague and impersonal, a Creator who created and then got out of the way. The “enthusiasts” of the era—channelers of the Holy Spirit, elaborate decoders of the divine plan, proselytizers—were not their people. John Adams fretted in a letter to Jefferson that his son John Quincy might “retire…to study prophecies to the end of his life.” Adams wrote to a Dutch friend that the Bible consists of “millions of fables, tales, legends,” and that Christianity had “prostituted” all the arts “to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud.” George Washington “is an unbeliever,” Jefferson once reckoned, and only “has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances.” Jefferson himself kept up appearances by attending church but instructed his seventeen-year-old nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” He considered religions “all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies,” including “our particular superstition,” Christianity. One winter in the White House, President Jefferson performed an extraordinary act of revisionism: he cut up two copies of the New Testament, removing all references to miracles, including Christ’s resurrection, and called the reassembled result The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth . “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” Franklin wrote just before he died, “I have…some doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”

Yet ordinary American people were apparently still much more religious than the English. In 1775 Edmund Burke warned his fellow members of Parliament that the X factor driving the incipient colonial rebellion was exactly that, the uppity Americans’ peculiar ultra-Protestant zeal. For them, Burke said, religion “is in no way worn out or impaired.”

Thus none of the Founders called himself an atheist. Yet by the standards of devout American Christians, then and certainly now, most were blasphemers. In other words, they were men of the Enlightenment, good-humored seculars who mainly chose reason and science to try to understand the nature of existence, the purposes of life, the shape of truth. Jefferson said Bacon, Locke, and Newton were “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” Franklin, close friends with the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire, * was called “the modern Prometheus” by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion.” America’s political founders had far more in common with their European peers than with the superstar theologians barnstorming America to encourage superstitious delusion. “The motto of enlightenment,” Kant wrote the year after America won its war of independence, “is… Sapere aude! ” or Dare to know. “Have courage to use your own understanding!”

For three centuries, the Protestant Reformation and the emerging Enlightenment were strange bedfellows, symbiotically driving the radical idea of freedom of thought, each paving the way for the success of the other. Protestants decided they could reject the Vatican and start their own religion, and they continued rejecting the authority and doctrines of each new set of Protestant bosses and started their own new religions again and again. Enlightenment thinkers took freedom of thought a step further, deciding that people were also free to put supernatural belief and religious doctrine on the back burner or reject them altogether.

But the Enlightenment part of this shift in thinking was a double-edged sword. The Enlightenment liberated people to believe anything whatsoever about every aspect of existence—true, false, good, bad, sane, insane, plausible, implausible, brilliant, stupid, impossible. Its optimistic creators and enthusiasts ever since have assumed that in the long run, thanks to an efficient marketplace of ideas, reason would win. The Age of Reason had led to the Enlightenment, smart rationalists and empiricists were behind both, so…right?

No. “The familiar and often unquestioned claim that the Enlightenment was a movement concerned exclusively with enthralling reason over the passions and all other forms of human feeling or attachment, is…simply false,” writes the UCLA historian Anthony Pagden in The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters . “The Enlightenment was as much about rejecting the claims of reason and of rational choice as it was about upholding them.” The Enlightenment gave license to the freedom of all thought, in and outside religion, the absurd and untrue as well as the sensible and true. Especially in America. At the end of the 1700s, with the Enlightenment triumphant, science ascendant, and tolerance required, craziness was newly free to show itself. “Alchemy, astrology…occult Freemasonry, magnetic healing, prophetic visions, the conjuring of spirits, usually thought sidelined by natural scientists a hundred years earlier,” all revived, the Oxford historian Keith Thomas explains, their promoters and followers “implicitly following Kant’s injunction to think for themselves. It was only in an atmosphere of enlightened tolerance that such unorthodox cults could have been openly practiced.”

Kant himself saw the conundrum the Enlightenment faced. “Human reason,” he wrote in The Critique of Pure Reason, “has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge”—the spiritual, the existential, the meaning of life—“it is burdened by questions which…it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also not able to answer.” Americans had the peculiar fate of believing they could and must answer those religious questions the same way mathematicians and historians and natural philosophers answered theirs.

* “As long as there are fools and rascals,” Voltaire wrote in 1767, “there will be religions. [And Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd…religion

Dogmatism’s Not Dead

I watched God’s Not Dead with my parents. It was the quite the experience. I had almost no expectations. I just went because my parents wanted to go. I’ll watch almost anything, when in the right mood.

God’s Not Dead is a Christian movie and my parents are Christians. I was raised Christian, but not the Christianity found in the movie. God’s Not Dead is full-on fundamentalism. My mom grew up in that kind of religion and my dad in a more mild variety. I, however, was raised mostly in the Unity Chruch, which is uber-hippy, pansy-liberal New Thought Christianity.

No preacher ever threatened or even implied I might go to hell. No Unity minister would likely even mention hell, except to dismiss it. God loves you! Period. Full stop.

I have nothing but happy memories of my childhood religion. I’m a heathen these days, but I still don’t think of myself as an atheist. I largely don’t care one whit about arguments for and against God. On the other hand, while tripping on mushrooms once I saw the entire world breathe in unison, as if it were all a single being. Dude! The world is a crazy complex place, beyond the meager capacity of my human comprehension. Who am I to say much of anything about the mysteries of the universe? If someone wants to call this sense of mystery ‘God’, they are free to do so and I won’t complain.

Anyway, if God or gods or Star Trek Qs exist, I doubt they care about my belief in them or lack thereof. Do I care if tiny organisms believes in me? Not really. I choose not to step on ants and worms, but I don’t ask if they believe in me first. I won’t claim to be their savior if they accept me into their hearts and I won’t promise them heaven nor threaten them with damnation. I’m certainly not going to attempt to inspire ant and worm prophets to write holy scriptures about my greatness. I’m just a big galoot traipsing through their tiny world. That is all.

That may sound dismissive. I actually have little desire to be dismissive. Faith is a personal thing. The personal part is what matters. I can’t speak about someone else’s personal experience. I’m fine with other people’s religion, as long as they don’t seek to impose it on me or proselytize it to me.

Even a fundamentalist movie like God’s Not Dead doesn’t overly bother me. It seemed disconnected from reality, but that is to be expected. It’s not like anyone forced me to watch the movie. That said, fundamentalists are more than happy to force their beliefs onto others. If hardcore fundamentalists thought they could legally get away with it, they’d likely make watching this movie obligatory for every child in school.

Many of them are no more interested in genuine dialogue than is the radical left-wing activist I dealt with the other day (see my post: There Are No Allies Without Alliances). But most isn’t all. I wouldn’t want to broadbrush all rightward-leaning Christians. Most fundamentalists are like most people. They just want to be left alone to live their lives how they see fit. But the average fundamentalist isn’t the one I’m worried about. What worries me are the fundamentalist activists, lobbyists, and politicians.

The one thing that stood out to me about that radical left-wing activist had to do with his worldview. There were specified roles one could play, but one wasn’t free to be an individual. There is no place for someone like me in that worldview. Likewise, in watching God’s Not Dead, I realized there is no place for me there either.

The movie is full of caricatures and stereotypes. Everyone was an extreme. Either you are hard right-wing believer or else you are some secular bogeyman, the three main options being a clueless professor, a sociopathic businessman, and a Godless communist. In this worldview, there exists no such thing as a liberal Christian, a moderate Muslim, a moral pagan, an ethical humanist, a mild-mannered atheist, or a curious-minded agnostic; certainly, there is no such thing as an intelligent, fair-minded professor. It turns out the professor secretly believes in God, but just hates him, what every fundamentalist suspects about atheists.

A freethinking individual is not welcome in either of these worldviews from the left and right.

Fundies vs Atheists, Agnostics, and Mythicists

I had an interesting discussion about the messianic concept in Judaism and Christianity.  It was interesting partly because I was talking to a Jew who was fairly knowledgeable about Judaism.  I gained some new understandings or maybe just some new info.

The problem was that he was a convert from Christianity and converts are often a bit on the zealous side (btw this can include converts to atheism as well).  He seemed fairly open-minded, but there was this aspect of him that was as annoying as a Christian Fundamentalist… defensive and righteous, a very bad combination especially when you throw in a slight victim complex.  He quite likely used to be a Christian Fundamentalist and seems to have this distorted view of what all Christianity is.  I’m sorry he had such a bad experience with Christianity, but I have no desire to help him work through his issues. 

This guy seems to think of himself as a representative of Judaism… which, I must say, is unfortunate for Judaism.  The Jews should be more careful about who they convert.

The discussion mostly went well, but after a while it felt like walking across a minefield as he was so touchy about so many things.  He had a lot of emotional baggage.  The issue for me isn’t the emotional baggage.  Rather, the issue is that a person like him who is always projecting their problems onto others.  I have a lot of psychological problems of my own, but I try my best and (hopefully) am somewhat succesful at separating my problems from my interactions. 

Anyways, that discussion put the nail in the coffin for that particular forum.  I give up on trying to have intelligent discussions with people in online forums.  Why are there so many mentally disturbed people online?  I’ll save that question for another day.

Well… water under the bridge.  All of that isn’t what I wanted to talk about, not exactly at least.  The topic of this blog post is religion.  I’m attracted to religion and I enjoy discussing it, but religion can be such a depressing subject.  When I study some aspects of religious history, I start thinking that religion itself can even be the problem.  Religion can inspire people to do great and wonderful things, but it also can justify the psychotic (if not homicidal) delusions of various kinds of nutjobs.  The history of Christianity can particularly depress me.  The first thousand years of Christianity was almost and endless spree of destruction.

And then there are people who leave Christianity because of its history of bigotry and hatred only to join another religion that isn’t any better.  To pick a random example (wink wink), Judaism is in some ways worse than Christianity.  At least, Christians were going against their own scripture when persecuting and killing various peoples.  The Jewish history as recorded in their scriptures is utterly horrific.  The Jewish God even commands the Jews to commit genocide, rape, and enslavement. 

Talk about depressing.  And this whole Judeo-Christian tradition is the foundation of Western civilization.  It about makes me want to kill myself to consider that this is my cultural heritage.

This is a major issue that religious people never consider seriously.  Some religious people would respond that athiests commit horrible things as well.  Yes, this is true to an extent.  Humans in general have great capacity for cruelty.  However, the point of religion is supposed to be to help humanity strive towards higher ideals.  The evidence, unfortunately, is to the contrary.

I’m not dismissing religion.  As I see it, religion is something like the scientific knowledge of the atom.  Scientists can make atomic energy and scientists can make an atomic bomb.  Now consider what happens if some religious nut gets hold of an atomic bomb.  Forget about 9/11.  The real fun has yet to start.

I should point out that that Fundamentalism as we know it is actually a modern invention.  Fundamentalism is a response to modernity.  For instance, the extreme forms of literalism came into existence in response to modern understanding of objective reality.  In the past, people had less sense of distinction between subjective and objective realities, between myth and history.  It wasn’t even that imporant for ancient people to make such distinctions.  Literalism is the attempt of religion to retain its authority in the face of science and the secular academia in general.

So, Fundamentalism isn’t fundamental, ie., isn’t original to religion.  However, the awareness of literalism as opposed to allegorical thinking did start to develop thousands of years ago.  This was a distinction that Greek philosophers were starting to consider.  Even though literalism didn’t clearly and fully manifest until modernity, its been there from the beginning of religions such as Christianity and Islam. 

For example, some early Christians were aware of and even open to the allegorical interpretation of scripture.  Christianity, in fact, developed out of the milieu that included a growing trend of allegorical thinking.  But this was still a very new way of thinking for the human species.  The new mentality arose all of  a sudden during the Axial Age; and then, within the centuries after Christianity began, the new mentality was disappearing again.  The former Roman Empire was lost in the Dark Ages. 

It took Europe another thousand years or so to remember these ancient ideas.  The re-introduction of Greek thought (strangely enough, from Islamic culture) helped to jumpstart the Renaissance, but to balance out the Renaissance was the Reformation.  The Reformation set the groundwork for modern Fundamentalism.

Okay, all of that is basic enough.  Here we all are in the wake of modernity.  The Fundamentalists are on the defense and they become ever more dangerous as they become cornered into their own dogmatic righteousness.  In the US, we shouldn’t worry about the Islamic Fundamentalists from the Middle East.  We should be worrying about our homegrown Christian Fundamentalists.  Right now, our Fundamentalists are fat and contented by American wealth and power.  But throw in enough dissatisfaction (such as if this economic downturn lasts long enough), and we’ll start to see a new breed of American Fundamentalists.

The Fundamentalists, in the past, at least had control of the Biblical studies in academia.  However, they’re losing their grip and their apologetics is becoming obvious for what it is.  A battle is going on right now even though many people are unaware of it and of it’s greater significance.  The battle is occurring on multiple fronts.  The Fundamentalists have three mortal enemies. 

Christian theologians/apologists essentially created the Atheist movement (by creating the term) as a way of containing secularism.  They defined the terms of battle and many Atheists have been happy to play their pre-designed part.  This battle gets a lot of public attention, but its just a front for a more complex battle.

Agnostics are even more dangerous to the Fundamentalists.  Agnostics refuse to play by the rules that the apologists are familiar with.  Many Agnostics are even Christian.  Fundamentalists simply don’t understand this opponent even if they happen to notice him.  Agnosticism is more like a cancer than an enemy that can be fought.  The Agnostics are the Aikido masters.  And, to mix in another metaphor, they fly below the radar… which is to say they don’t get much publicity.  Being an Agnostic just isn’t sexy.  To think of it another way, Agnostics are like Martin Luther King Jr during the race riots.  King once said that the only reason white people listened to him was because there was an angry young black man behind him with a molotov cocktail.  In this manner, the Agnostic slips in and seems quite moderate in comparison to the raving Atheists.

Related to the Agnostics, is a new faction of Christians.  The Agnostics have been an agitating force within Christianity.  Many believers have felt a need to resolve this unsettling sense that something isn’t quite right within Christianity.  The seeds of doubt have were planted and a call of a renewal of faith has been sent out: Spong, Harpur, etc.  Christianity is not only being forced to take academia seriously, but also other religions as well.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to live in isolation from the larger world.

So, the first two groups (Atheists and Agnostics) are the one-two punch, and the latter group (the new Christians) are the knock out.  Christianity won’t be left behind in the cultural transformation going on… even though that is what many Atheists would like.  What is happening is that Christianity (along with all the other religions) is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

This is what I’m actually interested in.  There is change in the air, but its hard to know what exactly it is or where it’s heading.  Starting with the Theosophists, there has been a lineage of proponents of allegorical thinking: Theosophists to Jung to Campbell to the present Mythicists (G.A. Wells, D.M. Murdock, Tom Harpur, Freke and Gandy).  What recently brought this to the greater public attention is the movie Zeitgeist (the first part to be specific).  Many great thinkers had pointed out these mythical parallels to Christianity long before, but nobody was listening.  Zeitgeist had the advantage of being able to bypass the media censors and went straight to the internet where it went, as they say, viral.

The Fundamnetalists thought they had forced the mythicist movement permanently underground back in the 1800s.  The Apologists gained control of Biblical studies (especially in the US) and held that control for the last hundred years or so.  The internet has turned out to be the Apologists undoing despite their heavy use of it in their proseletyzing.  The Tektonics website is no match for the Mythicists.

Part of the reason is that mythology is now cool.  Movies such as Star Wars and the Matrix have given a foothold for comparative mythology to break into mainstream culture.  The imagination of Western Culture has been awoken.  Even Apologists have been forced to use these movies to reach a younger generation, but in doing so they’ve created  a foothold for comparative mythology to enter Christianity.  They can’t win for losing because they chose the wrong battle in the first place.

Movies have had this power because special effects have improved vastly in recent decades (and, of course, technology will continue to improve).  As a culture, we can create (in fiction) anything we can imagine.  This is more profound than many people realize.  And the internet has brought to the masses this ability to imaginatively create.  The collective imagination has been democratized.  Our society isn’t prepared for what will be the results of this.  A generation is being raised with all of this and they’re going to utterly transform society.  The generation growing up right now is bigger than the Baby Boomers.  The Boomers are retiring, and (because Gen X is a small generation) the Millennials will flood the job market.

I have no idea what this will mean, but it’s going to big.  To put it into the terms of Strauss and Howe, we are in the Fourth Turning.