Sunday, February 28, 2010
Relgion's Confusion of Fantasy and Reality
Indeed, what I request of my students very much resembles what many religions ask of individual congregation members. In regular worship and study, the believer or practitioner must imagine a scenario where God exists to receive human praise and petitions. The worshiper participates in a communally-charged dramatization of the world as it could be, the world governed by their god and punctuated by his interventions into history. The scene of religion is a literary scene.
However, we can easily point out the differences between the approaches of religion and literature. I do not, for instance, tell my students that the literary scenes they create in reading our selected poems are the true state of affairs in the historical/physical universe. Yet, religion asserts that its literary scene is real. The religious story is that "this is what actually happened."
The problem with religion is that "this is not what actually happened." God did not speak to the nation of the Hebrew slaves from atop Mt. Sinai. Jesus did not die a physical death and then return to physical life. Mohammed did not fly on a literal winged-horse of fire. And so on....
The problem goes even further. In my classes, I do not tell my students they must accept my version of the literary scene for the poems we read. Neither do I tell them that they will suffer consequences for non-acceptance. Religion, however, demands individual adherence to an orthodox version of its literary scene. Religion articulates consequences, such as social rejection and eternal damnation, and supports implementing them in the real world. The odious Pat Robertson's comments on Haiti are an example of this practice.
I do not tell my students that their experience in literature can guide them to be better human beings or help them decide how to vote on important issues in an election. Religion, however, advertises itself as an authoritative arbiter of morality. Religion often pre-packages political and social opinions for people.
There is no contradiction between an appreciation of religion as literary phenomenon or set of literary phenomena and a criticism of religion as a force in real social, political, cultural, an intellectual life. As literature, all religions open up whole worlds of knowledge and experience. As literature, all religions deserve to be acknowledged. That is, we should recognize that religions are an important part of human history. They tell us about humanity and about the human experience. This is a good thing.
However, as an authority in matters of public policy and everyday life, religion today assumes a position that is both counter-productive and dangerous. I say counter-productive because religious ideologies obstruct substantial dialogue and progress in the U.S. in such important issues as health care, climate change, abortion, stem cell research, and so on. I say dangerous because this obstructionism affects people's lives and liberties.
Religions today--and especially fighting between religions--increasingly put the entire planet in jeopardy. Perhaps somewhere ages and ages hence, people will marvel at how the literatures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam underwrote the main conflicts of our present time.