Religious Outrage and Manufactured Crises
There are a lot of things about religion I get, but still the brunt of it is a mystery to me. I had a Catholic upbringing in my early childhood, and later went to an expensive Episcopalian prep school. Religion to me, then, was more of an intellectual and historical exercise.
I respected the clergy because they could put sentences together and would graciously field my odd questions. One of the defining moments of my life was when I told a Catholic priest that I didn’t believe in God’s existence.
His response? “Neither do I.”
He proceeded to explain to me that being a good Christian had little to do with whether one believes in magical beings or not, but rather rests on living a life of kindness, charity and forgiveness. Priests were so influential to me, that I toyed with the idea of becoming one later, despite the fact that I don’t believe in Santa Claus.
As I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s Evangelical Christianity was rapidly infecting American politics. The Catholics and episcopalians (around me at least) had discussions of improving educational opportunities for every one, expansion of health care for poor people, and the protections of the rights of minorities of all kinds.
Evangelicals were worried about whether kids were forced to pray in school or not, the evils of pornography, whether it was acceptable for kids to listen to Black Sabbath or not, and whether the local theater should be legally allowed to show “Life of Brian.”
In other words, where the representatives of truly organized religion were calling for solutions to real problems which affected most Mississippians, the actors of disorganized, DIY religion were calling for solutions to problems that existed exclusively in their own minds.
It is a mistake, however, to assume that the focus on these manufactured problems are without political intent. Mississippi cornered the market on maintaining a system which controlled the populace and preserved economic opportunity through fear. Politicians capitalized upon these manufactured crises to create a culture of fear to selfishly preserve power.
It is disturbing then, to see the events unfolding in Libya, Egypt and more recently, Yemen. What we see are not calls to solve problems which average citizens face. It is doubtful that poorly made videos by brainless religious groups in the U.S. have anything to do with access to education, health care and economic opportunities in mid east countries.
Im at a loss for what my conclusion of this rant should be, but I am struck by a photo in the times today of the recent storming of the US embassy in Yemen.
The crowd is almost entirely very young men dressed that are indistinguishable from there counterparts in the States. Everyone is wearing fashionable clothes, and cell phones are everywhere. The problem, then, is not a protest against American culture, which they clearly embrace. Most of these guys, if given a choice, would probably prefer video games to daily prayers.
About Pete LarsonResearcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.
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Surely a large part of it is good old-fashion tribalism. The most rabid fans of rival football teams in the US also dress alike and use the same cell phone technology, and yet occasionally foster completely irrational dislike for fans of the rival team.
Religious tribalism is, in my estimation, only slightly less crudely delimited than the form of tribalism commonly referred to as racism. “My imaginary father-of-everything is better than yours,” as opposed to “my skin color is better than yours.” Fear also seems to be an important motivating factor, perhaps fundamental to tribalism of any kind.
Oh, also — it probably doesn’t help that we’ve been occupying and bombing the crap out of several countries in the middle east for the past few years. I think people are often unaware of even their own true motivations.