Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Problem Is Not With Religion...

It's the most vocal advocates for a religion that become the problem.

I was reading Ted Byfield's columns for June in the Calgary Sun this morning, and I realized that the reason that "religion" becomes problematic is not the religion itself, but rather those who believe that they have some "perfect" understanding what 'it all means'(tm).

In today's column, we find Ted bemoaning the sorry state of things in Canada:

Our governments, businesses and people all "punch below their weight." Comparing us with other developed nations, it noted "too often we trail the pack." We are "unwilling to take risks."
...
In the bad old days, we boasted, Atlantic fishermen, for example, had to toil three or four months at sea, then work desperately for the remaining eight or nine to eke out a living from such land as they possessed. Now they do what fishing they can and bask serenely for the rest of the year on E.I. Such things, we were taught to regard as an astonishing advance in the national character.

Well, maybe what's advancing is our decrepitude and it's by no means confined to Atlantic Canada.
...
Where "unwanted pregnancies" were a fact of life visited upon most couples, we now have easy birth control, and if it fails we have abortion.

Where marriage was once something we had to make work whether we enjoyed it or not, it is now something that can be set aside and tried again with a new partner, often a series of new partners.

Sex, once inhibited by a host of taboos, some of them enforced by the Criminal Code, is now acceptable in almost any variety whatever, and any questioning or criticizing some of the varieties shall be branded "hate," and punished with jail, "intolerance" being the only sin left in our moral code.

...

Where we used to get paid for working, we now expect pay for existing, and where we used to believe in God, we now believe in Tylenol.


Ah - the usual pattern of Byfield's arguments emerges. After all, if we only remained in the god-fearing era that he idealizes (and never actually existed), all in our world would be perfect.

The blind rigidity of this ideal is reflected in one of Ted's earlier columns in the month:

Meanwhile, Calgary Catholics are no doubt becoming aware their own bishop, Fred Henry, was first in Canada to make media waves by calling the attention of his flock to what the church in fact teaches. When he ruled that ex-Prime Minister Joe Clark, who calls himself a Catholic though he favours abortion rights and gay marriage, would no longer be welcome to speak in Calgary's Catholic schools, Bishop Henry was branded as backward, as "living in the past."

It now appears he was actually, if anything, on the leading edge -- living, so to speak, in the future.

Not that Bishop Fred has ever let his decisions be governed by whether they'll be considered behind the times or ahead of them.

He knows God doesn't change, and neither do the essential principles of morality. And in times of alarming impermanence, it is this "eternal changelessness" that attracts people, young and old, to the Christian faith.


Saying the Christianity is "eternal" and "changeless" is possibly among the most ridiculous statement that anyone could ever make. Over the centuries, the face of Christianity has shifted and changed dramatically. From a nascent faith that adopted and absorbed "pagan" rituals as it encountered them, it became the faith which brought us the astoundingly irrational Malleus Maleficarum used to guide the "inquisition" that hunted practitioners of "witchcraft", and in more recent years has become a deeply fractured faith, split by fundamentalists and a plethora of different sects which all interpret scripture differently.

But, when you believe you have achieved perfection, there is little reason to look beyond what you have and know, is there? When someone proposes that perhaps Scripture is more mythological in form than factual, it's easy to reject the proposal, giving us sorry attempts to debunk science with pseudo-science. It becomes easier to reject and ignore new information that contradicts what is now comfortable and familiar.

Intellectual calcification that comes from blind obedience to any one faith gives room for groups like this to arise, out of fear that change will bring about the inevitable collapse of all that is "good" in the world. Of course, it never does - catastrophic collapse of a civilization is rare - even Rome didn't "collapse", so much as it crumbled gradually, and new things arose in its place. The British Empire didn't collapse, it likewise fell apart over a period of time, creating new opportunities and new realities in its place. Such is the nature of change.

Religion has long fought the notion of science, or more particularly, rationalism. Why? Because in its purest form, rationalism is anathema to faith. Rationalists tend to ask "why?" or "why not?" a lot, and religion - at least the Ted Byfield variety of it - doesn't respond well to such questions. Byfield and his ilk seek absolutes, and are all too happy to say "because" as a response to fundamental "why" kind of questions - an answer that makes those who are engaged by, and interested in, the world around them uncomfortable - leading them to go seeking answers elsewhere.

The last couple of centuries have rocked faith at its core. Social prohibitions described in scripture centuries ago have slowly dissolved because they are no longer necessary, or because new understandings have emerged that make those rules irrelevant. People like Ted Byfield live in fear - not fear of the unknown, but fear of the loss of all that they think they know. The unknown becomes the bogeyman - something awful that nobody has every quite seen, and yet change will inevitably result in. Sad, really.

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