Tuesday, January 5, 2010

the skewers of religion

[also posted at The Exponent]

"If you could take the skewers of religion, those that riddle your frame, make you aware every time you move- if you could withdraw the scimitars of religion from your mental and moral systems- could you even stand?"
-Elphaba, The Witch of the West
Wicked. pg 387

"And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness,
preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things—stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction."
Enos 1:23

As I sit here writing this I am sipping a cup of green tea. Clear in my mind is the very first time I went to the store to buy a box of green tea. I was an adult; a wife and a mother. Standing in the grocery aisle, appraising the vast selection of teas, I literally was shaking in my boots. Every time someone walked by the aisle I jumped guiltily (caught in the act!!) As I put my box of tea on the belt at the check-out line I half way expected the cashier to card me (with a disapproving look upon her face no less) and when I finally got home and made that first cup of tea, fight or flight neurons where firing off in my brain. Big time.


Yes, I just revealed just how sheltered and naive (and goody goody?) I was. But that memory is a vivid one for me and it was simply one of many terrifying steps that was the process of asking questions I had never let myself ask before.

That terror is what I want to talk about. Doesn't that seem just wrong to anyone else??

I just found out about these Hell Houses that certain fundamentalist christian church's use to scare 12 yr olds into obeying God. Now, LDS versions are much more benign (and a lot less theatrical) but I do remember YM/YW activities where rooms in the church were set up to show the various Degrees of Glory and we were shown after-life scenarios based on hypothetical life-styles choices ("Here's what the Telestial Kingdom looks and feels like... The Celestial... The Terrestial... Outer Darkness..." etc.)

On the one hand, there is the pull between denominations as to exactly WHAT will bring salvation/damnation: (ie; my cup of green tea keeps me out of LDS heaven and my temple endowments keep me out of fundy christian heaven) and fear is used by many faiths to both control and grow the membership (anyone else get sappy scare-stories about friends in the here-after who are angry/sad that the gospel was not shared with them?). On a more general scale, the idea is put forth (ad nauseum) that without religion (and it's punishment/reward system) we'd all be running around killing each other (or some similar variant on that theme).

I'm fuzzy on the details, but I know there are belief systems that are NOT based on principles of divine reward and retribution with long lists of do-s and don't-s. And their participants seem to be pretty peaceful fulfilled individuals in spite of the lack.

Hypothetically, what do you think The Church would lose if it lost it's rhetoric of fear? What would it gain?

(Also, because it's sort of related and very funny: a Sugar Beet article about the Man Who Finished Repenting 13 months Ahead of Schedule. Awesome!)


[kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] said...

I also posted this comment on the Exponent blog.

I think the church would lose one of the main way it retains members. Many people stay because of the fear of the outside world the church instils in its members. That fear, coupled with the fear of hell/non celestial glory (and all its supposed consequences) are, I think, two of the church's most powerful weapons for control/keeping people active.

But what the church would gain by doing away with the fear (and guilt) would be greater legitimacy as a real Christian religion, where the focus could actually be on acceptance and love rather than obedience and conformity (and of course the fear).

Living out of fear or out of guilt is terribly unhealthy and just pointless. It is disappointing that the good potential of Mormonism/Christianity is mostly shoved aside and ignored in favour of expectations of blind obedience, emotional manipulations, judgementalism, bigotry, and discrimination.

All religions pick and choose what to believe, decide what parts of its scriptures to follow and which to ignore/discount (though most pretend they don't do this). It is sad that the church leadership has over the past years chosen to focus so much on stringent rules, the fear and guilt, and on discrimination, rather than on the more positive and less exclusionary ideas found in the religion.

The Numismatist said...

I always chuckle when comments are made that equate athiesm/godlessnes with wickedness and immorality. For me it is the exact opposite. Once I lost the fear of heaven, hell and the wrath of God it was easy to concentrate on here and now. The concept of living in the present and appreciating all of the good things that I enjoy makes my days much more meaningful.

My own personal feelings are that religion by it's very nature breeds fear. The LDS Church is a perfect example but probably not much worse than any other church.

Today I am spending the day making a baptism outfit for a Catholic baby. The way I understand it is that the sprinkling of water on the four month old child is to erase the Original Sin. Oh, the things that are done in the name of religion.

I loved reading about your first tea purchase. My first act of rebellion was to not wear my garments. I was sure that everyone could see through my clothes and feel the wickedness coming from my g-less shoulders. Wicked, indeed!

G said...

craig, thank you (and I just went and edited the post to add "what would [the church] gain?" to my query, since you answered that so well.)

numi~ ha! yah, taking off my garments was yet another terrifying step for me; scary both on the level of "can my family tell??" and also just from pure fear of the disapproval of God. (and can I tell you how much I respect and admire your ability to navigate through religious sticking points with your friends and family. good luck with the baptism outfit!)

adamf said...

I think fear is probably the lowest and most damaging form of motivation. That being said, I also think that even without religion at all most of us would still be highly driven/motivated by anxiety. It is indeed unfortunate that any religion, the LDS faith included, operates by using fear, but I think some measure of anxiety is natural and healthy, as long as we regulate it in healthy ways. I guess my point is I agree that the Church could lose some of its "rhetoric of fear" but there will still be plenty of issues regardless of one's faith.

adamf said...

Ug, I don't know if my comment made sense... perhaps I need to think more before I type. :D

[kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] said...

Yeah, life is full of anxiety/fear. The problem with religion is that it invents unnecessary ones. None of the ways Mormonism utilises fear end up being in any way provable or accurate. Whether it's fear-mongering about alcohol, coffee or tea, sex, or making claims about the afterlife - all of Mormonism's truth claims are either non-verifiable or are completely falsifiable.

We've evolved with a strong flight/fight response, and the fear-mongering of the church artificially triggers our flight response by making us falsely believe that something is actually endangering our lives, or in Mormon parlance, soul/spirit.

Really, the whole thing just disgusts me.

The Numismatist said...

adamf, just a few days ago as I was reflecting on the past year and the recent holidays I realized that although it had been a very tough year in many ways, for some reason we were able to get through it without any major meltdowns. I wholeheartedly believe that it is due to striving to appreciate what I am experiencing right at this moment rather than obsess about the past or future. Some people refer to this as mindfulness.

I have no fear of death. Or hell. Or worry about the three degrees of heaven. My "spirit" will live on for one or two generations in the memories that my children, grandchildren and hopefully great-grandchildren have of me. And believe me, I try to make the most of every single minute of it. This gives me comfort.

Some people need the fear of religion. A very dear friend attends Mass faithfully every week. Her stated reason: she is afraid not to.

G, thanks for your posts. They always make me think.

Ad said...

Thanks for the replies. I agree, religion does invent unnecessary fear, although I've worked hard to make sure that what I believe about the religion is also what I believe in regardless of the existence of a deity, e.g, caffeine (not to mention all kinds of other things) is harmful, sex activates the attachment behavioral system and I believe we "naturally" are meant to be monogamous and have sexual relationships in commtted & safe relationships, obviously I could go on. :). My point being, most (NOT all) of what the church teaches regarding behavior is in line with what I personally believe.

Numismatist - I love mindfulness. I have been using it with clients in therapy as well... I admit, when I was a teen I had some fear about the next life after reading Alma 5, so I can relate to having that fear and to letting go of it.

adamf said...

Whoops, that last comment was mine. Hard to type on the iPhone. :)

[kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] said...

"I believe we "naturally" are meant to be monogamous and have sexual relationships in commtted & safe relationships"

What do you base that belief on?

It's rather at odds with evolutionary biology and sociology. Women perhaps are more likely to be monogamous, but men are not. Men are evolved to desire and have sex as often as they can with as many people as possible.

Of course we can choose to not be slaves to our biology, such is the advantage of being intelligent and self-aware, but what is "natural" isn't committed monogamy.

To be quite honest, I find it hard to completely believe that your belief system is the same as the church's independant of the church's reasoning. I'm not going to argue that caffeine isn't an addictive drug, but from what you've said about how you view sex, your views aren't supportable by secular science/reality.

adamf said...

Not so fast there with the gender differences...

"Women perhaps are more likely to be monogamous, but men are not. Men are evolved to desire and have sex as often as they can with as many people as possible."

This (the sociobiological theory, perhaps most famously by touted by Helen Fisher) is turning out to be a long-held myth, actually. Women are now having affairs at an equal rate as men. Women spread it around (no pun intended) equally just like men do.

Also, I would argue that men (and women) having sex with as many people as possible is due to a hyperactive sexual behavior system, and such behavior will, imho, cause problems for other areas of life. People aren't monogamous not due to nature, but when nature has problems.

"your views aren't supportable by secular science/reality"

That is more than debatable. If you look at reasons why people have affairs, and the consequences of them, they are rife with problems. My point being, what is "healthy" and the result of secure attachments IS monogamy. "Healthy" IS natural if everything is working decently. I realize this view is not necessarily the popular one though, although what is widely held is not always right. The affair statistics say a lot about this gender myth, imho.

I've actually thought about doing my dissertation on non-monogamous relationships, but I don't know if I could get any swingers or polygamists to let me study them. I am curious about their attachment style. I'll bet they have some major issues. But that's speculation as I'm not yet aware of the data, although I admittedly have not done the lit review yet.

"I find it hard to completely believe that your belief system is the same as the church's independant of the church's reasoning."

Fair enough. As I said, not ALL my beliefs are in line with what you or I would perhaps consider to be "the church's reasoning," and I will totally admit that I have been shaped by my culture (just like everyone else) so I agree, it would be impossible NOT to be influenced by it. But perhaps I'm not quite getting what you mean, idk.

adamf said...

Some of my views are NOT in line with the church's reasoning (e.g. gay marriage for one, but there are probably more)... I guess all of this is coming from my effort during the past few years (especially after conversing with people like G and others) is to make sure my values are MINE, and that I'm not just doing things because the church or anyone else told me so. But I also think no matter HOW hard we try, we can't fully escape the influence of our culture, whether we are reacting to it, embracing it, running away from it, etc. That is a given, but I have to believe we have SOME control, all things being equal, over what we decide to believe in.

adamf said...

One more thing, I suppose we would also have to come to an agreement on what "natural" means. Many people seem to define it as "whatever one's impulses are signaling at the moment." I'm not sure what you define it as, but I think that is a distortion or off-balanced state of "natural."

Craig said...

Thanks for the reply.

What I meant by "Women perhaps are more likely to be monogamous, but men are not" is simply that there is some evidence that suggests things like constant breeding all year-round as well as some behaviours evolved in women to keep men around longer as that was beneficial for the survival of the child/successful procreation. I don't hold to the idea that women are inherently/biologically more likely to be monogamous. I think socialisation has far more (if not all) impact on gender roles than biology does.

Life-long monogamy isn't natural for either men or women - in that it's not how we evolved to behave - our society has decided that to be the norm, based on complex reasons, many of them religious, and therefore non-real reasons.

What I mean by "natural" is that which is normal, biological behaviour. We evolved to walk upright, therefore that is natural behaviour. We did not evolve to be in life-long monogamous pairings. Therefore, such is not "natural". It might be socially normal, and whether it is good or not is another discussion all-together.

I don't think that we can label monogamy as what is "healthy" because of 1) affair and divorce statistics show how unrealistic life-long monogamy is 2) how many healthy non-monogamous relationships there are. I think monogamy can be healthy, but it depends on the situation and people involved. Serial monogamy is also healthy, as is polyamoury, polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, and any other thing you can think of. Whether a relationship is healthy or not depends not on what category it fits into nor how many partners or what genders are involved, but on whether there is mutual respect, communication, tolerance, and love.

Basically what I was saying is that your Mormon culture has influenced your beliefs more than it seems you were saying they do in that particular comment. I for one was completely blind to how much my beliefs were influenced by Mormonism and Mormon culture until I completely renounced and exited Mormonism and had to re-evaluate every single one of my beliefs, which I am still in the process of doing. And of course it's not just Mormonism which influences you/us, but all of western culture, which is pretty abysmal at encouraging healthy relationships.

Oh, and I don't think affairs are at all healthy, but that isn't an argument for the healthiness of monogamy. It's an argument against lying, cheating, deceiving.

Craig said...

Furthermore, what is natural has nothing to do with what is good or bad. Some things which are natural are bad (killing/murder) some are good (love) and most are neutral (being gay for example).

adamf said...

Great comment, thanks.

I am interested in these non-monogamous yet healthy relationships you speak of. Do you have anything that is beyond the anecdotal? I also think that divorce and affair stats speak to what is going wrong, not to what is natural. I.e. affairs don't mean we aren't meant to be monagamous, they mean people have issues.

Based on how you defined natural then, I would argue that humans are not meant to be either monogamous OR non-monogamous. As far as the research goes, we actually do not have an answer to why couples stay together after the kids are raised---all other things being equal.

Also, while MOST animals are not monagamous, many are, including the vole. :).

Also, another reason why I think non-monagmous relationships are unhealthy is due in part to the bond via oxytocin that is created when one has an orgasm with another. I found it interesting that when reseachers blocked the oxytocin in the prairie voles, they all turned into little James Bonds, giving up their monogamous lifestyle. No amount of trust and communication etc. can deal with extra-dyadic sexual relationships. That is not religion, that is biology, imho.

Thanks for the challenging conversation. I need to focus my points more on this, as the issue of swingers and etc. usually comes up in couples therapy conferences I've been to... everyone wants to know how to work with these clients but so far the little evidence there is suggests it is not a good idea--even biologically speaking.

Chandelle said...

Taking off my garments, definitely one of my first acts of "rebellion", was one of the scariest, most exhilarating experiences in my life. I worried that something would happen to me and I wouldn't be protected - knowing rationally that this was a ridiculous way of thinking, I still carried that superstition despite myself. I thought I wouldn't be able to sleep at night, that I would be uncomfortable, feel naked, feel exposed. I did, but...not in the way I expected. I've wondered since then what unspoken duties garments are intended to carry out, especially for women.

I do think most religions' success require that their doctrine be predicated on black & white thinking, good & bad judgment, reward & punishment systems. When I think about my time in the Church, no way would I have forced myself to submit to church services, the temple, tithing, reading the scriptures with any regularity, carrying out the duties of my calling, praying when I received no answer, and cultural or doctrinal rules regarding sex, gender roles, marriage, early parenting, coffee, or a myriad of issues that drove me batshit as a member - unless I believed that I'd be rewarded or punished accordingly.

Oh sure, I gave lip service to the idea that we should be good for the sake of being good, and I condescended to people who made the outright argument that we should be good to avoid punishment - but did I really believe that submitting myself to conventional gender roles, or fumbling through explanations of why the Church might oppose gay relationships, was "being good"? Hell no! I did it because I was told to do it, threatened to do it, lest I be cast off from my family and God's presence as a result of my disobedience.

I think the Church would lose its most essential aspects without a system of reward and punishment. What would it gain? A happier cafeteria Mormon membership, I guess. I can't think of much else.